Towards a Threshold of
Understanding - I
Pope John Paul
II's recent book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope is a collection of reflections
primarily on issues of Christian faith; but the book also features the Pope's
assessment of other religions, including a short chapter on Buddhism. The
Pontiff s words in this chapter are far from appreciative. The release of the
book in Sri Lanka on the eve of the Pope's visit to this country this past Janu.
ary stirred up waves of indignation in the Buddhist community that spread as
far as the Vatican. The Buddhist prelates announced that they would not attend
an inter-religious meeting requested by the Pope unless he formally retracted
his unfavourable remarks about Buddhism. Although on arrival the Pope tried to
appease the feelings of Buddhist leaders by declaring his esteem for their
religion, even quoting the Dhammapada, he fell short of proffering a full
apology, and this did not satisfy the Sangha elders.
The following essay
is intended as a short corrective to the Pope's demeaning characterization of
Buddhism. It addresses the issues solely at the level of ideas, without delving
into the question whether ulterior motives lay behind the Pope's pronouncements.
The essay is based on an article written for a Polish publisher, Source
(Katowice), which is presently compiling a book on the Buddhist response to the
The Pope states that
"the Buddhist tradition and the methods deriving from it have an almost
exclusively negative soteriology (doctrine of salvation)." Such a view of
the Buddhist teachings was widespread among Christian missionaries in Asia
during the 19th century, serving to justify their evangelical incursions into
the heartlands of Buddhism. Serious scholars of comparative religion have long
recognized this view to be a misrepresentation, rooted, in the case of the
early missionaries, partly in misunderstanding, partly in deliberate
distortion. It is therefore puzzling that the present head of the Catholic
Church, otherwise so well informed, should repeat these worn-out lines,
particularly at a time when greater mutual understanding is expected from the
leaders of different religions.
The Pope does not
explain exactly why he regards Buddhist soteriology as negative. Most likely,
he takes this view because the Buddhist path of deliverance does not recognize
a personal God as the agent and end of salvation. Like beauty, however, what is
negative and what is positive lies in the eye of the beholder, and what is
negative for one may turn out to be another's supreme ideal. If one seeks an
everlasting union between one's eternal soul and a creator God, then a doctrine
that denies the existence of an eternal soul and a Divine Creator will
inevitably appear negative. If one regards everything conditioned as
impermanent and devoid of self, and seeks deliverance in Nibbana, the Deathless
Element, then a doctrine of everlasting union between God and the soul will
seem-not negative perhaps—but founded upon wishful thinking and unacceptable
articles of faith. For the ordinary reader, however, the word "negative,"
when applied to Buddhism, will suggest something far different from a
philosophically acute way of approaching the Ultimate, conjuring up pictures of
a bleak doctrine of escapism aimed at personal annihilation. Behind the Pope's
words we can detect echoes of the ancient texts: "There are, monks, some
recluses and brahmins who charge me with being an annihilationist, saying that
the recluse Gotama teaches the annihilation of an existent being. That is false
misrepresentation. What I teach, in the past as also now, is suffering and the
cessation of suffering" (MN 22).
Even more worrisome
than the Pope's characterization of the Buddhist doctrine of salvation as
negative is his contention that "the Buddhist doctrine of salvation
constitutes the central point, or rather the only point, of this system."
The conclusion implied by this pronouncement, left hanging silently behind the
lines, is that Buddhism is incapable of offering meaningful guidance to people
immersed in the problems of everyday life; it is an otherworldly religion of
escape suited only for those of an ascetic bent.
scholars in the past have focused upon the Buddhist doctrine of salvation as
their main point of interest, the living traditions of Buddhism as practised
by its adherents reveal that this attitude, being one-sided to begin with,
must yield one-sided results. The Buddhist texts themselves show that Buddhism
addresses as wide a range of concerns as any other of humanity's great
religions. Nibbana remains the ultimate goal of Buddhism, and is certainly
"the central point" of the Dhamma, but it is by no means "the
only point" for which the Buddha proclaimed his Teaching.
According to the
Buddhist texts, the Dhamma is intended to promote three types of good, each by
way of different but overlapping sets of principles. These three goals, though
integrated into the framework of a single internally consistent teaching,
enable the Dhamma to address individuals at different stages of spiritual
development, with varying capacities for comprehension. The three goods are:
(i) the good
pertaining to the present life (ditthadhammattha), i.e. the achievement of happiness
and well-being here and now, through ethical living and harmonious
relationships based on kindness and compassion;
(ii) the good
pertaining to the future life (samparayikattha), i.e. a favourable rebirth
within the round of existence, by practising generosity, observing the
precepts, and cultivating the mind in meditation; and
(iii) the ultimate
good (paransattha), i.e. the attainment of Nibbana, by following the complete
training defined by the Noble Eightfold Path.
For most Buddhists in
their day-to-day lives, the pursuit of Nibbana is a distant rather than an
immediate goal, to be approached gradually during the long course of rebirths.
Until they are ready for a direct assault on the final good, they expect to
walk the path for many lives within samsara, pursuing their mundane welfare
while aspiring for the Ultimate. To assist them in this endeavour, the Buddha
has taught numerous guidelines that pertain to ethically upright living within
the confines of the world. In the Sigalovada Sutta, for example, he enumerates
the reciprocal duties of parents and children, husband and wife, friends and
friends, employers and employees, teachers and students, religious and laity.
He made right livelihood an integral part of the Noble Eightfold Path, and explained
what it implies in the life of a busy lay person. During his long ministry he
gave advice to merchants on the prudent conduct of business, to young wives on
how to behave towards their husbands, to rulers on how to administer their
state. All such guidance, issuing from the Buddha's great compassion, is
designed to promote the welfare and happiness of the world while at the same
time steering his followers towards a pleasant rebirth and gradual progress
towards final liberation.
Yet, while the Buddha
offers a graduated teaching adjusted to the varying life situations of his
disciples, he does not allow any illusion to linger about the ultimate aim of
his Doctrine. That aim is Nibbana, which is not a consoling reconciliation with
the world but irreversible deliverance from the world. Such deliverance cannot
be gained merely by piety and good works performed in a spirit of social
sympathy. It can be won only by renunciation, by "the relinquishment of
all acquisitions" (sabb'upadhipatinissagga), including among such
"acquisitions" the bodily and mental processes that we identify as
our self. The achievement of this end is necessarily individual. It must be
arrived at through personal purification and personal insight, as the fruit of
sustained effort in fulfilling the entire course of training. Hence the Buddha
did not set out to found a church capable of embracing all humanity within the
fold of a single creed. He lays down a path—a path perfect in its ideal
formulation—to be trodden by imperfect human beings under the imperfect
conditions that life within the world affords. While the quest for the highest
goal culminates in deliverance from the world, this same ideal "bends
back" towards the world and spells out standards of conduct and a scale of
values to guide the unenlightened manyfolk in their daily struggles against the
streams of greed, hatred, and delusion. Nibbana remains the "chief
point" and the omega point of the Dhamma. But as this goal is to be
experienced as the extinction of greed, hatred, and delusion, it defines the
condition for its realization as a life devoted to overcoming greed through
generosity, to overcoming hatred through patience and loving kindness, and to
overcoming delusion through wisdom and understanding.
Part II of this
essay will appear in the next BPS newsletter.
Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya.
Original translation by Bhikkhu Nanamoli; revised and edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi.
This book offers a complete translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, a collection of
152 "middle length" discourses of the Buddha, many among the most
profound and inspiring in the Pali Canon. Produced as a high-quality hardback,
3 volumes in one, with notes, glossary, indexes. For sale in Asia only.
(Outside Asia available through Wisdom Publications, Boston.)
135 mm x 214 mm
$50.00; SL Rs. 2,400
Farewell Tribute. Edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi. A commemoration volume in honour of
our late Founding-President, Ven. Nyanaponika Mahathera. Includes a
biographical sketch, bibliography, appreciations, excerpts from his writings,
documents, and photographs.
Softback: 80 pages
140 mm x 214 mm
U.S. $2.50; SL Rs. 100
Order No. BP 611S Back
The Path of
Freedom: The Vimuttimagga. Translated from the Chinese by N.R.M. Ehara, Soma
Thera, Kheminda Thera. Written in Pali in Sri Lanka during the first century
A.C., the Vimuttinutggn survived only in a Chinese translation, from which the
present rendering has been made. Ascribed to the Arahant Upatissa, the work is
a meditation manual similar in structure to the Visuddhimagga, but less
analytical and more practical in its treatment of meditation.
Softback: 424 pages
l52 mm x 227 mm
U.S. $20; SL Rs. 450
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Discourse on Causation: The Mahanidana Suttanta & Its Commentaries.
Translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi. This is the Buddha's longest and
most detailed discourse on dependent arising, generally regarded as the key to his Teaching. With the
commentary, selections from the sub-commentary, and an illuminating
introduction, this book is an important aid to serious study of the Dhamma.
Softback: 160 pages
140 mm x 214 mm
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Contemplations of Insight. Ven. Matara Sri IVanarama Mahathera. This is a
profound examination of the "seven contemplations" of classical
Buddhism and of the actual way they are experienced in the course of
meditation. By one of Sri Lanka's foremost meditation masters of recent times.
Planned for late 1995 or early 1996.
of the Buddha. Ven. Nyanaponika Thera & Hellmuth Hecker. This volume will
combine all past issues of our Wheel titles in the "Lives of the
Disciples" series. Planned for late 1995.
Corrections to Abhidhamma
Students of A
Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma should note the following corrections,
discovered after the book was in print: p.101 (Table 2.3): Under Supramundane
and Sublime 4th and 5th jhanas: for `11-13' read: 10, 11, 13.
2.4): Under the cetasika wrong view, the boxes for greed-rtd. cittas nos. 7 and
8 should be clear. Under the cetasika conceit, the box for greed-rtd. citta no.
6 should be clear.
3.1): As the fourth vertical heading, in place of `Rtls. result' read:
p.131: Add to
the list of 46 cittas (following 2 eye-consciousnesses): 2 receiving
6.3): In blank space next to `Tangibility' read: (= 3 great essentials - earth,
fire, and air).
8.3): Under condition no. 24, in both columns, instead of `Same as 2' read:
Same as 21.
The Awakening of
the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture. Stephen Batchelor.
Berkeley, Calif.: Parallax Press; London: Aquarian, Harper Collins; 1994. 432
pp. U.S. $30 (hardback), $18 (softback).
Since the 1980s,
interest in Buddhism has escalated rapidly throughout Europe. A multitude of
groups and centres
representing almost all the Buddhist traditions have sprouted across the
Continent, while the media too have recently discovered in Buddhism an exotic
religious alternative to a slumbering Christianity. In The Awakening of the
West Stephen Batchelor, a leading non-denominational "Dharma teacher"
based in Britain, offers an admirable survey of the plurality of
Buddhist schools evident in
Europe today. His lucid study is not only a mine of information, but by reason of its
narrative style and novel treatment of its subject matter, makes fascinating and
entertaining reading as well.
Batchelor divides his
account into five main parts with 21 chapters. The five parts delineate the
historical course of the encounter of Buddhism with Western culture from the
Buddha's Parinirvana up to 1992, the year of the latest European Buddhist
Congress. These five parts are taken to reflect five different stances the West
has adopted towards Buddhism. These, in the author's words, are: "blind
indifference, self-righteous rejection, rational knowledge, romantic fantasy,
and existential engagement" (p.xi). While the first two prevailed up to
the 18th century, and romantic and rational interest characterized the 19th and
early 20th centuries, "existential engagement," i.e. the application
of Buddhist teachings to one's way of life, has been witnessed only since the
turn of the present century. Batchelor does not tell his story as a straight,
linear, historical thread. Instead he flashes back and forth in time, a
technique that keeps the reader's interest on edge and gives the narrative a
particular drive. He may begin a chapter with a present-day scene from a
Buddhist centre—for example, a meditation session in a British Theravada
monastery (chap. 4) or in a Soto Zen hall in Paris (chap. 9)—then he follows up
with an exploration of the context and background of the situation described.
Here the Buddhist concepts, principles, and practices of the tradition under
discussion are set in historical perspective and elucidated in fair detail.
Other chapters deal in a similar way with the Tibetan Nyingma, Kagyu, and
Gelek traditions, and with Japanese Nichiren and Rinzai Zen. But Batchelor's
focus is rightly placed on the contemporary manifestations of these schools and
traditions in Europe; owing to limitations of space, he does not deal with
Buddhism in North America. Informative historical chapters recount the
encounters of ancient East and West (1-3), Catholic missionary activities in
Tibet (7, 11), and the Western " `discovery' of Buddhism" in the 18th
and 19th centuries. The fourth part, on "Reason and Romance" (chaps.
14-15), is especially rich in insights, for the developments described there
set the tone for the perception of Buddhism in the West in the modern era. Both
the Romantics, by glorifying everything Oriental, and the Rationalists, by
denying Buddhism its spiritual core, projected Eurocentric concerns, thereby
conceptualizing Buddhism as something "other." In order to surmount
such "otherness" Batchelor stresses the need to practise Buddhism,
"to make it one's own" (p.280). This process, which he hopes will
lead to a distinctive Western Buddhist identity not yet achieved, makes up what
he calls "the Awakening of the West" (chap. 16). Such an
"awakening," though already alluded to in earlier chapters, is
tentatively sketched in Part Five. He begins this division with the sad story
of Buddhism's fate in Russia during the present century, followed by an account
of the adventures of Alexandra David-Neel, the redoubtable Frenchwoman who became
a Tibetan scholar and lama. The concluding chapters portray three important
trends in contemporary Western Buddhism: Sangharakshita and the Friends of the
Western Buddhist Order; the Theravada meditation practice of "mindful
awareness"; and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh and his concept of
"engaged Buddhism." A glossary, notes, bibliography, index, and four
helpful maps round off the volume.
Owing to the vast
amount of material that had to be covered, Batchelor's account is necessarily
selective with regard to both emphasis and exclusion. The author himself is
keenly aware of this problem, freely admitting that his story of the encounter
could have been told differently, even more so as the story is still unfolding.
But in my estimation as a historian of religion, I would say that the multitude
of developments and mass of data have been masterly arranged and profoundly
analyzed. Finally, taking a historical viewpoint, one might question the
title's implication of a sleeping Western culture first awakened by Buddhism.
While the author's choice of title reflects his Buddhist point of view, others
with a different viewpoint might demur. In a few centuries, perhaps even after
several decades, Batchelor's presentation of "the awakening of the
West" might prove to be even more convincing. Nevertheless, the author has
composed a highly commendable and well-informed story of Buddhism's interaction
with Western culture.
Martin Baumann Dr.
Martin Baumann teaches at the University of Hannover. He is the author of
Deutsche Buddhisten: Geschichte und Gemeinschaften ("German Buddhists:
History and Communities"), published by Diagonal Verlag, 1993; 2nd ed.
Notes and News
Leaves. One of the tragic results of the economic materialism and general disruption
rampant in Burma today is that antiques, religious objects, and cultural
artifacts are pouring out of the country, mainly to markets in Thailand. Among
these are rare palm-leaf manuscripts containing ancient Pali literature and
original compositions by Burmese scholars. The "Fragile Palm Leaves"
Project was established to purchase traditional Burmese manuscripts from
markets in Thailand and to keep them together as a single collection, with the
aim of eventually returning this collection to Burma when conditions permit.
These manuscripts are a precious and irreplaceable part of Burma's religious
and literary heritage, in danger of being irrevocably lost. The Project has no
permanent funding and depends entirely upon donations. All funding goes to the
purchase of the manuscripts and necessary materials. Contributions, whether
from private sources or institutions, are urgently needed. The coordinators of
the Project are Peter Skilling (Canadian Pali scholar, former bhikkhu) in Asia
and H.K. Kuloy (Norwegian Buddhist scholar) in the West. For further
information write to: Peter Skilling, c/o The Siam Society, 131 Asoke Road,
Sukhumvit 21, Bangkok 10110, Thailand (fax: 662 / 980-0257); or H.K. Kuloy,
Pilestredet 88B, 0358 Oslo, Norway (fax: 47-22565766).
New Bank Account for Foreign Payments
We are pleased
to inform our overseas members, well-wishers, and customers that for their
convenience we have opened an account in the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank in
Kandy. We request all our foreign members and customers making payment to the
BPS to mark their cheques, etc. A/C Payee Only, Hongkong & Shanghai Banking
Corp. Ltd., Kandy. Those making direct payment should pay into our new account,
No. 002-017689-040. Please state clearly the purpose of the remittance. Until
further notice we will be maintaining our local account at the Commercial Bank
of Ceylon Ltd., Kandy.
Guidlines to Sutta Study
The next step of
the gradual training following the abandoning of the five hindrances, as taught
in the Kandaraka Sutta (MN 51), is the attainment of the four jhanas. The word
jhana'-derived from the verb jhayati,' to meditate—is used by the Buddha to
designate four stages of concentration in which the mind becomes so sharply
unified on its object that it altogether transcends the level of sensory
experience. While no English rendering corresponds exactly to the Pali term,
the makeshift compound "meditative absorption" perhaps best conveys
the intended meaning.
The jhanas belong to
the second division of the Noble Eightfold Path, the division of concentration
(samadhikkhandha), and to the second of the three trainings, the training in
the higher mind (adhicittasikkha). The jhanas themselves, as developed in the
course of practice, are not supramundane (lokuttara) and do not guarantee the
attainment of Nibbana. But as part of the concentration group, they do serve as
a powerful basis for the cultivation of wisdom and hence contribute to the
mind's liberation from bondage. The Suttas speak of various types of
concentration but recognize the jhanas as the most eminent. In fact, in the
analysis of the Eightfold Path (e.g. at DN 22/ii,313), the Buddha defines right
concentration (factor no. 8) by the stock formula for the four jhanas. We will
explore this formula in the next instalment of these Guidelines.
Since the attainment
of jhana demands a high degree of renunciation, both inward and outward, and
also generally requires sustained effort for long periods of time, the question
is often asked whether the jhanas are indispensable for enlightenment. The
answer to this question hinges, of course, on how one defines that elusive word
"enlightenment." If this word is taken to refer to the attainment of
stream-entry (sotapatti), the first of the four stages of liberation, the texts
seem to answer indirectly in the negative. In the Suttas we meet many noble
disciples who remained in lay life, still enjoying sense pleasures, yet who
attained to the first two fruits of the path, stream-entry and once-returning.
For example, in a discussion with the wanderer Vacchagotta, the Buddha states
that he has not merely a few disciples, nor merely even five hundred disciples,
but "many more than that enjoying sense pleasures who are yet fulfilling
my Teaching, who have crossed beyond doubt, and have become independent of
others in this Dispensation"—this being the stock description of
stream-enterers and once-returners (MN 73/i,491-93). Such disciples, we may
suppose, reached these lofty stages of enlightenment with the support of
concentration of a level lower than that of full jhanic absorption but
sufficient to allow for the arising of insight wisdom.
suggest that jhana becomes of vital importance in making the transition from
the stage of once-returner to that of nonreturner. Thus, for example, when the
Buddha explains the practice conducive to the abandonment of the five lower
fetters (panc' orambhagiyani sarriyojandni), he explains this practice by way
of insight contemplation based on each of the four jhanas and the lower three formless
attainments (see e.g. MN 64/i, 435-37). As the path of the non-returner has the
task of abandoning sensual lust and aversion, two fetters that bind beings to
the sense sphere, the attainment of jhana will lift the mind beyond the lure of
sensual desire and thereby facilitate the arising of the wisdom that can
eradicate the fetters inseparable from the sensuous realm. Hence the texts say
that the stream-enterer and once-returner have fulfilled virtue but not
concentration, while the non-returner has fulfilled virtue and concentration
but not wisdom, while only the Arahant has fulfilled all three: virtue,
concentration, and wisdom. The Commentaries even recognize a class of
"dry-visioned Arahants" who are liberated without the
"moistening" influence of jhana. In their case the lack of jhana
would be compensated for by a capacity for understanding sharp and powerful
enough to cut off all the fetters without the stabilizing base of jhana.
Nevertheless, in the
Suttas the Buddha always includes the jhanas in his complete exposition of the
gradual training, and this fact is sufficient to underscore their importance.
Since the maturation of wisdom depends on concentration, and the jhanas are the
most eminent type of mundane concentration, any progress in the development
of the jhanas will provide a much more steady and secure base of concentration
for wisdom to stand upon. But the instrumental value of the jhanas as aids to
wisdom is not the only reason the Buddha includes them in the gradual training.
Besides their instrumental role, the jhanas poss'ess an intrinsic sublimity
that warrants their incorporation into the path. Representing the mind's
potential for self-mastery and inward purification, the jhanas confer, on those
who attain them, an unworldly rapture and bliss. They heighten inward poise and
restraint, they radiate forth as peace, equanimity, and detachment. They are
the "foot tracks of the Tathagata," not identical with final
liberation, but indicative of the purity of mind to be achieved by final
liberation. For both reasons—because they are conducive to wisdom and because
they are intrinsically lofty and sublime—the Buddha repeatedly exhorts his
disciples to attain the jhanas and speaks praise of those who have mastered
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