A Guide to the Perplexed

IMG_5021 - Version 2 The irreconcilable differences that exist, like yawning chasms, between the various historical and cultural strands of Buddhism sometimes threaten to overwhelm their important commonalities. Mahayana concepts such as emptiness and non-duality seem out-of-keeping with (and appear nowhere in — at least in their post-Nagarjuna sense) the Theravada literature, while Theravada’s no-self seems incompatible with Mahayana’s inherent Buddha-nature or with Vajrayana beliefs concerning reincarnation. Theravada’s Brentano-like assertion that consciousness is always a “consciousness-of-something” conflicts with Mahayana’s belief in pure objectless consciousness. These unbridgeable disputes create perplexity in the minds of thoughtful beginners who are bound to wonder “who is right and who is wrong?” The truth is that all of these propositions — and others like them — reside outside the realm of the provable or falsifiable. What objective interpersonally verifiable test could possibly determine whether we have no-self or a Buddha-nature, or whether consciousness must always, without fail, have an object? There is never any way to resolve these perennial debates except through a leap of faith or a resort to one’s possibly erroneous or self-deluded interpretation of one’s own private — and therefore interpersonally unverifiable — experience. It’s more useful to think of these ideas as pedagogical strategies rather than as ontological statements, that is, as potentially skillful means to promote and facilitate practice/progress on the path. They each may be more or less useful in this regard, and the extent to which they facilitate practice/progress is — at least in principal, empirically verifiable. I suspect — and this is pure fantasy on my part, but please indulge me — that if some future experimental Buddhologist were to test the pedagogical mettle of these ideas that 1) they would show equal degrees of efficacy, or 2) different strategies would be differentially useful to persons with differing sets of cultural beliefs and expectations, or with differing personality traits and issues. The Thai Forest monk, Ajahn Chah, once remarked when accused of self-contradiction in the instructions he gave to different practitioners:

“It is as though I see people walking down a road I know well. To them the way may be unclear. I look up and see someone about to fall into a ditch on the right-hand side of the road, so I call out to him, ‘Go left, go left.’ Similarly, if I see another person about to fall into a ditch on the left, I call out, ‘Go right, go right!’ That is the extent of my teaching. Whatever extreme you get caught in, whatever you get attached to, I say, ‘Let go of that too.’ Let go on the left, let go on the right. Come back to the center, and you will arrive at the true Dharma. ” (A Still Forest Pool, p. 115)

In other words, different strokes for different folks.

Each of these contradictory Buddhist teachings probably have some value, either by virtue of the way they point out important aspects of experience, or by the way they encourage greater devotion to practice. For example, the notion of no-self may help reduce attachment to conceptions of the self or clinging to various self-aspects, whether some image of oneself, one’s sense of superiority due to some skill or talent, one’s vanity over one’s appearance, or a delusional belief in unchanging health and youth. The idea of a Buddha-nature, on the other hand, can encourage a belief that progress on the path is possible for anyone, that calm and compassionate observation is always possible in even the most turbulent emotional waters, and that everyone is deserving of kindness and care regardless of how different or appalling their appearance or behavior. Similarly, the idea of “emptiness” encourages us to discover our interconnectedness with others and the world.

In each and every case, the important thing is not the concept itself, which is never more than a metaphor, but the aware, embodied practice that, like the finger pointing to the moon, it directs us toward. Does a teaching facilitate awareness, openness, and kindness, and decrease grasping, hatred, self-centeredness and self-involvement? While dogma can be muddy and complex, practice itself is always clear and simple: pay attention, open up, let go, be truthful, be kind.

Everything else is just gravy — or interference.

There are some who will object to the notion that these ideas are only skillful means. They will insist that their idea of ultimate reality is the objective truth of how things really are, and who knows, they might even be right. The point is that you and I, dear reader, will almost certainly never know whether they are or not, and — more importantly — it doesn’t really matter. Most of us are on the Buddhist path, not because we want to know the objective truth of reality — most of us nowadays turn to scientists for that — but because we want to be more present, more aware, more open-hearted, more connected, more alive, more centered, less egotistic, more responsible for our actions, and less interpersonally toxic. We want our lives to be existentially meaningful and contribute to the welfare of others. We want to love more, better, and wiser.

The answer to the question of whether or not we actually have a Buddha-nature is always mu.

On the other hand, the answer to the question of how to increase our awareness and open-heartedness, just like the answer to the question of how to improve any quality or skill, or how to get to Carnegie Hall for that matter, is always “practice, practice, practice.”