Traditional versus Secular Buddhism? Do we need secular Buddhism and what does that mean? We have to make a decision on what “Buddhism” means. It’s a shame that the word Buddhism was not copyrighted because now everyone can put the label of Buddhism on anything they do. But that doesn’t make it Buddhism. Until we decide as a global culture and as Buddhists what the we are referring to we will continually get the hodgepodge of classical Buddhism and something sort of like but not altogether identical to Buddhism which has been branded “Secular” or “New Age” Buddhism which seems very unlike the teaching of the Buddha. We call that Mārayāna. How do we even know if we are Buddhists or not?
It depends on what we focus on. It is remarkable that amongst all the Buddhists in the world we find so much in common. We have Theravada Buddhists, the Mahayana Movement, Vajrayana, the Western “Tradition — whatever that is — and we do have a lot in common. What we have in common, and this is extremely important, is the focus on the Buddha. That seems like a “no-brainer” doesn’t it? You would think that everyone in the Buddhist world should be interested in the word of the Buddha. Yet, we find when we look at or hear teachings from many Buddhists the focus on the Buddha is very rare. This goes across the lines of all traditions. The vast majority of Buddhists, however, in the name of Buddhism focus on everything else except the teaching of the Buddha. Buddha’s Dhamma or Dharma, tends to take a back seat to other concerns, even if the Dhamma is considered at all.
Let’s look at at Theravada Buddhism, the most classical and earliest still existing form of the teaching. What do they focus on? They focus on the commentaries, the Visuddhimagga, the Abhidhamma, all these others texts that were written a long time after the death of the Buddha and the formulation of the Dhamma. They will then, interpret the word of the Buddha and Buddhism through the lens of those texts instead of looking at the discourses, the actual teachings, themselves.
The same thing is true of the Mahayana movement, especially the Vajrayana branch of it. It is also true of most modern Buddhists. Who are they listening too? They listen to modern teachers, right? I’m a modern teacher so you can listen to me. That’s absolutely normal, but we have to consider who are these teachers listening to? Are they going back to the Buddha understand what he said or are they passing on word of mouth gossip they heard from another teacher? I have had some very unBuddhist teachers in past. Some who claimed that in the Pali there really is stated a big mind, spelled Citta, and a small mind, spelled, citta. She never realized that neither Pali nor Sanskrit utilized capital letters. She never fact checked the teaching. Had she done so she might have dumped that nonsense, but she didn’t do either and blithely transmitted the erroneous this teaching, among others, to her students who passed them on to theirs. The pattern continued with her not understanding that there is a connection between Zen (zenna) and jhana. Her understanding was Zen descended from dhyana — and dhyana is different that jhana. In her mind, because she was taught this way, and never fact checked it, Dhyana practice is simply choiceless awareness.
Unfortunately, she was not alone. Thousands of teachers of her tradition peddling the same moonshine. Why? Because they were taught the same doctrinal gibberish themselves and had been for perhaps hundreds of years.
Once a bad teaching starts it evolves and grows because if we do not go back to the original teaching we believe the erroneous teachings just on the face of it. We need to take the teachings we receive and filter them through the suttas. This is called the path of the Suttavāda. One who follows that path is called a Suttavādin, a male would, I suppose be called a Suttvātaka and a female a Suttavātika — just for the sake of technical accuracy.
The Buddha is the fountainhead, the root of the whole tradition. Once you agree that the Buddha is very important because if the Buddha got it wrong then the whole tradition is meaningless. We have to assume that he had some profound insights and was correct about what he taught. That means we have to look into what the Buddha actually taught.
This doesn’t mean you can’t listen to other people. It doesn’t mean that you cannot study the commentaries and the Abhidhamma. What it means is that the original teaching of the Buddha are at the core of Buddhism. It is universally agreed by people who are paid to study these things, that the Pali texts, perhaps not every last one of them, but the vast majority of them, and the parallel texts transcribed in other languages, are the meat of the Buddha’s teaching. This brings us down to a very small percentage of the Buddhist world.
How we approach the Canon is also vitally important. We know that they are there. We know where we can go to read them. We also know that there must have been some distortions after they were committed to writing. It is hard to imagine that they are in the same pristine condition they were 2,500 years ago. So we need to do some textual criticism. We need to read the suttas and compare them to one another. This means we have to do comparative studies. This the modern tool of textual literary criticism will help us determine what is likely to be the word of the Buddha and what is not.
So what do we disagree about? Why is there a gulf between traditional and secular Buddhism? Even if we do go through the process I outlined there is still room for interpretation. Interpretation is based on kamma, conditioning of the mind, and our motivation — a function of ego. How do we interpret the suttas and cull the meaning of the Buddha? Mindfully, of course.
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