Does Buddhism Need A Dhamma Police?

This is a reposted blog article by Sensei Keisho Ananda of Hongaku Jodo. It is well worth the read. Please check him out.

When I took refuge years ago I took refuge in The Buddha, The Dhamma (Dharma) and The Sangha.  The Dhamma is considered to be the body of the teachings of the Buddha . . . but where are the teachings, how do we know which dhamma, which teachings, are The Dhamma?  Do we need a Dhamma Police to make sure that Buddhists follow the “true dhamma”?  I think not and I hope not, and I’ll tell you why.

First let’s take a look at where the teachings or the dhamma might be found.  Buddhism, like all traditions that are really, really old, started out as an oral tradition. Three months after the Death of the Buddha 500 pre-eminent Arahants concerned with  preserving the purity of the dhamma held a convocation at  Rajagaha to rehearse the teachings.   My guess is that some people had memorized different parts of different teachings over time because we all seem to remember best that which is most salient to us.  Oral tradition again.  The Venerable Ananda Thera and the Venerable  Upali Thera were chosen to answer questions about the Dhamma (Doctrine) and the Vinaya (Discipline) respectively because they had been with The Buddha and heard his teachings from the beginning.

This First Council compiled and arranged the Pali Tipitaka, all be it in an oral form, into its present form.  This compilation was considered to represented the entire body of the Buddha’s Teachings.  Two other Councils of Arahants were held 100 and 236 years later to again rehearse the Word of the Buddha (still an oral tradition) because it appeared that some of the teachings were being altered.

About 83 BCE, during the reign of the Simhala King Vatta Gamani Abhaya, a Council of Arahants was held at Aluvihara in Ceylon, and the Tipitaka  was, for the first time in the history of Buddhism, committed to  writing.  Given that The Buddha died in 484 BCE a long time had passed between His death and the time His teachings were first captured in written form.  How well could we today, preserve a completely oral tradition that had been given to us in 1615 without making any changes or experiencing memory lapses?

So Dhamma Police, could you assert with certainty that the Pali Canon is the complete, inerrant teaching of The Buddha?  I sort of doubt it.

This formalized canon serves as the doctrinal foundation for both the Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist schools.  However, the Mahayana school has added quite a few, some count over 2,000, additional sutra.  Another question for the would-be Dhamma Police . . . what about the Mahayana sutras?  Are they part of The Dhamma?  If not all, then which ones and how do you decide?

Now let’s jump forward a bit.  I read from the Shinran Shonin’s works every day and find them inspiriting and uplifting and personally consider them to be part of The Dhamma of the Mahayana/Jodo School.  Poor Shinran, if the age of a document is the tool that we use for including or excluding a work from The Dhamma then his writings would probably be left out, they are old to me because he lived from 1173 to 1263 CE.  That may not be old enough for The Dhamma Police.  What about more modern writers like the modern Zen master Shunryu Suzuki who wrote the book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (which by the way is a great read)?  or two of my other favorites, Thich Nhat Hanh or Pema Chodron? They teach the dhamma so should we include their writings in The Dhamma?  Is an interpretation or teaching  of the dhamma part of The Dhamma?

I have a simple solution.  Part of being a Buddhist, of following the Buddhist path, is to practice non-attachment.  When we become attached to anything, including The Dhamma, when we start to cling to it, we experience Dukkha and we also fall into the duality trap of this-not-that.  To paraphrase The Buddha, he taught us to try on His pair of shoes, walk in them for a while, see how well they fit, see if we can walk and run better when we wear His shoes.  If not, then take them off and try on a different pair.  He never taught the one-way, my-way approach of way too many religious traditions.  Any wana-be members of the Dhamma Police who assert that they know the one way, the only way, are teaching an approach that is counter to what The Buddha himself taught.

Maybe that’s why so many Koans and teachings include the statement, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.” (Linji) or “Kill the Buddha if the Buddha exists somewhere else.  Kill the Buddha, because you should resume your own Buddha nature.”  If we think about The Buddha as a separate entity or deity then we are deluded, not awakened.  We must erase the thinking that leads us to see the Buddha as separate and external to awaken to our own internal, eternal Buddha nature.

If great teachers like Linji and Shunryu Suzuki tell us to “kill the Buddha” then maybe we need to burn The Dhamma as well.  If we see The Dhamma as something external, written, and canonized that we follow and apply like cannon law then we too have failed to awaken to it and internalize it.  Ultimately we must find The Buddha within all of us, the seed is there, awaken to it.  We must also discover that the teachings, The Dhamma, are also within us.  Read The Dhamma in the Pali Tipitaka, feast on the goodness of the Mahayana sutras, revel and delight in the writings of contemporary Buddhist authors (and there are so many to choose from) but ultimately find The Dhamma in your own heart, become the living dhamma.

May you find peace my friends,
Keisho Ananda

About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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