American Buddhist Apocrypha

There’s an important book in the academic Buddhist Studies world called Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha – I’ve mentioned pieces of it in previous posts (here and here).  What was important about the book, if I understand correctly, was that it was part of a turn in the field towards really taking seriously the self-proclaimed “Indian Sutras” that were clearly written in China.  Though some people read “apocrypha” as some kind of put down, the point of the book was to revalue and appreciate the texts that had until then tended to dismissed as merely “fraudulent” or “forged” or “invented” in China.  Scholars started looking more closely at them not because they revealed what the “Buddha really taught,” or what “real Buddhism is,” but because they spoke so precisely to the religious needs and insights of the Chinese Buddhists who composed them.

Even though we don’t so much claim to discover sutras anymore, and I think we’d have a different kind of moral perspective (Gary Snyder aside) than the medieval Chinese did on outright forging one, the term “apocrypha” has been bouncing around in my mind recently as a way to think about American Buddhism.

The point of a good forgery is that it’s not acknowledged as such.  “Of course this is not a forgery, it’s just we discovered this sutra that happens to be about China!”  And it’s this non-acknowledgement of our forgeries that I’m interested in, or bugged by.

I suppose there is something beautiful, and even profoundly true, about passing off our American forgeries as the real thing  – “the Buddha really said to take care of your heart and express yourself completely” – but it’s also the thing that gets most under my skin.

With Zen in particular, since the idea is that the living teacher is the real teacher, and that their Dharma is the Buddha’s Dharma, admitting “forgery” gets admittedly quite complicated.  Still, though, I’d like to hear more of it.  I think we owe it to ourselves and to each other to be as transparent as we can about what we’re inheriting and what we’re making up.  To do so is to make this whole transition of Buddhism more conscious, more clear:  “Here’s what we’re taking; here’s what we’re leaving.”

Part of what got me thinking about this was a really interesting lecture I heard recently from the Institute of Buddhist Studies podcast treasure trove:  Dale Wright on the teaching of karma, and how the doctrine should be re-interpreted to make it relevant for the modern or postmodern West.

His argument, very roughly, is this:  the Buddhist teaching of karma can be of great use for our time (grounding moral action in a world no longer watched over by God), but in order for us to make use of it, we need to sever it from the hopelessly foreign concept of rebirth.

I don’t know you three readers of No Zen in the West well enough to know if you’ll pile on at this point already, and anyway I plan to say more about the details of Wright’s argument in a future post.  The thing I’m getting to about his talk this time isn’t this actually pretty standard American Buddhist point about karma so much as it is how much I appreciate his consciousness about his reworking of the tradition.

He knows enough about the tradition – and I think respects it enough – to not twist the teachings of rebirth into something other than rebirth.  He doesn’t write an apocryphal sutra about it:  “Thus have I heard, at Vulture Peak the Buddha declared that the true meaning of rebirth is simply that this single lifetime is inextricable from the timeless network of being.”

And he doesn’t say (at least as far as I recall): “The essence of the teaching of karma is that it has nothing to do with rebirth.”

He says, instead, Here’s what the tradition really says about karma (that it’s mostly about rebirth), but for the teaching to be relevant to our world today, I propose that we take it in this other way.

That is, I propose that we leave X behind and keep Y intact.

My furious ambivalence at this “leaving X behind and keeping Y intact” in general is of course the engine of most of my posts on this blog.  But in thinking about Wright, and about American Buddhist apocrypha, I realize that the piece I’m most bugged by may just be the unconsciousness or casualness of our transformations of the Dharma.

So the way Wright did it just sounded really right to me:  aware that we’re making it up, and aware of the good reasons for making it up, we bow to what the tradition actually says and then write our own sutra.

It was very refreshing that he didn’t skip any of those steps.

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41 Responses to American Buddhist Apocrypha

  1. Justin says:

    The problem with his logic, from what I understand, is that the Buddhas liberation was two-fold.
    Sure, good karma is great, and that’s all fine and dandy for those kids who drive around SF in their old VW, but if I’m correct, the only point to Buddhism is ending the production of karma altogether, exhausting the last of your stores, and ending rebirth. So it seems, to me, that taking rebirth from Buddhism leaves us with a really watered down, Daoist version of what WAS Buddhism at one time. If we have “just” karma, Buddhism is reduced to nothing more than a worldly system of morality. The concept of rebirth being foreign to westerners is because we have had the church filtered into almost every aspect of life, which teaches we are beings with substance which will outlive the body and will never die, which is another reason why westerners are uncomfortable with Buddhism; the Not-self strategy we use. People are scared of a not-self.

  2. Domyo Burk says:

    Thanks, Jiryu. Cool. Perhaps sometimes we’re afraid people won’t hear the Dharma unless we present it with the “authority” of it being proper “Buddhism.” But when I’ve told students that I am completely agnostic about rebirth and I don’t think it’s necessary to believe in it to practice Buddhism, they just seem so relieved! I can see a light spark in their eyes when they think, “We’re REALLY supposed to be a lamp unto ourselves?” nice blog!

  3. Justin says:

    Domyo; I love what you said about “presenting it with the ‘authority’ of it being proper ‘Buddhism.”
    But I do have one question. Where do we draw the line in simplifying the Dharma? For example; The Freemasons are a group of inter-religious people who come together because they share a common morality even among their different religions backgrounds, they finance charity and believe in believe in being the change, in being a lamp unto themselves, a proper fraternity. However, taking away what very well may be part of the essence of the dharma would leave us no better off, nor any different from them, a fraternity of sorts. If we cannot all share a belief in what our teacher taught, how can we call ourselves disciples of the Buddha? I’m not sure anyone has heard his talks, but Koji (who was at Green Gulch) gave 2 really good talks about using “Buddhist methods” and really practicing Buddhism. Buddhist methods leading to nothing more than a happier life within samsara, the latter leading to the liberation indicated in the Suttas. So, where do we draw the line, and on what side do we stand on? We could even go further to question if we even have ground to stand on once we remove rebirth from Buddhism.

    • Jiryu Mark says:

      I appreciate your points, Justin – and one question for you: mindful of all the damage that fundamentalist approaches to religion have done to our world, I wonder what’s to keep this kind of “belief in what our teacher taught” from veering that way too?

      • Justin says:

        That seems like a loaded question, I cant quite find the words necessary to answer it without incriminating what I believe as well as what you believe. Well, first we must consider the ideals and beliefs of those fundamentalists; i.e. Christians (Knights Templar, Westboro, the Christian backed KNU in Burma, etc.) who use their religious beliefs in justifying violence against others as history has clearly shown. The same has happened with the Muslims, the National Socialist Party (that was influenced by Christian mysticism) Nearly every group save Buddhism. However, the issue here is merely with what the Dhamma-Vinaya teaches (Karma influencing rebirth, actions influencing karma, Karma influencing rebirth…) simply because it is what the Buddha taught, and anything else we cannot label as “Buddhism” or “Buddhist”. The words of the Buddha is what a Buddhist lives by and believes in, if it is not what he taught, we cannot call it his teaching which prevents it from being “Buddhist/Buddhism”.

        Now this is of course assuming, on my part, that by fundamentalism you are referring to both violent means by justification on behalf of a religious practitioner, as well as fixed views religious practitioners grasp to.

    • koji says:

      i no longer agree with anything i said in those talks about buddhist methods vs. complete buddhist practice. it was a dichotomy i kind of made up, a little phase i went through. oh and i strongly recommend that a practitioner never have beliefs, those things are poison. it’s fun to talk about where we draw the line and where we stand and what’s right, but all that shit’s a con, it just makes us feel like we are strong and self-existent . there has never been line to be drawn, nowhere to stand, and nothing to believe…just behold mind. and for gods sake don’t defend the dharma, it’s indestructible.

      • Jiryu & Hondo says:

        Thanks for sharing your new beliefs, Koji! They are good ones, and traditional ones, and I think serve us all well.

      • Justin says:

        Quoting Sutras is great and I agree that it’s not a great idea to hold beliefs. This does not justify shitting on the Dhamma. Marriages? Rites of Passage? Animalism? This is NOT the Dhamma. Ceremonies are not the Doctrine nor the Discipline. I feel comfortable stating from the point of view of the Vinaya that this is wrong and unarguable. What I fail to understand Koji/Jiryu/Hondo, is that this is not my opinion, this is the Buddhas Doctrine. So how does one come to terms with “claiming” authentic practice and actually doing what Gotama Buddha said? How can we make excuses while we twist or butcher his instructions to us? In Japan they oversee marriages, in Thailand they have an animalistic festival where tattoos are given and animal “spirits” inhabit the bodies of recipients. In Tibet they believe purifying Kamma is the only way to Buddhahood, while the Buddha gives no sermon on such topics. How can we say we are even Buddhist? Was it a Dichotomy Koji, or is the current view taken to overly liberal to the point of watering down what the Tathagata had said?
        Buddhist Monastic Code Vol. 1 by Thanissaro Bhikkhu; http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/bmc1/bmc1.intro.html
        Buddhist Monastic Code Vol. 2 (The Khandakas) by Thanissaro Bhikkhu;
        http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/bmc2/bmc2.intro.html

      • koji says:

        Justin, that feeling of righteousness you felt when typed out “NOT” in all caps (as in “this is NOT the Dhamma”), that’s the true culprit of the whole samsaric works. Acquaint yourself with that emotion, that’s what Dogen called “carrying the self forward” in the Genjokoan. It’s to be seen and relinquished, that’s the yoga of our family. Cheers.

      • Justin says:

        So we’ll just not address the issue then.

      • koji. says:

        the issue for me is my mind, the issue for you is your mind.

  4. Elliot says:

    Imagine if we were to teach a course on Plato and then go over the texts of Aristotle. This would be odd. I must admit that I know very little of Buddhism, but this much seems plain; taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha means trusting the original teachings of the Buddha as the most efficient means to enlightenment. Perhaps Master Gotama would disagree with me and my fundamental(ist) views but there is a ray of hope for my declaration. From my reading of the Pali Canon the Buddha was extremely confident about the truth and efficacy of his teachings. I believe, and I could be wrong, that he believed his methods to be timeless, complete, and stainless. I’m a beginner but the more I read his words the more I agree. So formally, if you take refuge in Buddha then you take refuge in his authentic teachings. If you don’t believe in the vast majority of his teachings, you’re not a Buddhist.
    I truly mean no ill-will with my previous sentence. I just believe a Buddhist is simply a Buddha-ist. Not believing in the Vinaya or Rebirth is comparable to a Christian not believing that Christ died for their sins. Now, it doesn’t follow that Zen is bad or foolish. Zen is great and I bow to all Zen practitioners.
    On a different subject I have a reflection on the Vinaya. It seems that one interpretation of the Vinaya is not so much a code that is essential to enlightenment, but rather a series of safety measures. For example, while talking to a woman without another male present might be safe for a monk, it might not. Eating past noon might be fine but it might not. Believing that whatever we do in this lifetime won’t harm or benefit us in future lives might be fine but it might not. The monk out of fear and enthusiastic effort refrains from all potentially unsafe practices. One of the reasons why the Bhikku is so cautious is because he doesn’t want to roast in hell for eons.

  5. Jim Barber says:

    Thank you, Jiryu, for this thought inducing post.

    Generally speaking, people do not like thieves. But, there is an entire genre of movies about stealing (think Oceans 11) that we find entertaining. We do not admire stealing yet we admire the way in which it is done.

    When we steal rebirth or any other basic tenant of Buddhism away from the dharma, doing so in a thorough and rigorous manner does not make the thievery acceptable. Buddhism without rebirth is not Buddhism and teaching it as such is slothful pandering to the American student.

    For better or for worse we in America are witnessing a melting pot of religions and philosophies which, if left to simmer unchallenged for a long period of time, can only result in a mash in which one is indistinguishable from another. Yes, all religions share some basic foundations in love and compassion. While they all may be equal to that extent, an important commonality indeed, to make the leap to “all religion is the same” is to leap into untruth. Let us not go down that path.

    Buddhism has dharma protectors. Things do not exist without cause. Let us hold true to what we believe are true teachings and not spend any time admiring clever rascals.

  6. doshoport says:

    Nicely done! I’m ruminating about the same issues here (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wildfoxzen/2013/01/remembering-the-old-buddha-the-buddha-who-entered-our-world-to-destroy-it.html) having just finished Lopez’s “The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life.”
    Warm regards,
    Dosho

    • Jiryu Mark says:

      Thanks Dosho, for the link – and sincerely for the <> of our “education” project over here at No Zen! Keep me honest, please? I also had a lot of thoughts on Lopez’s book and glad you brought it up. The STRESS INDUCTION NOT STRESS REDUCTION point is one of the best and sharpest ways of critiquing Western Buddhism that I think I’ve come across.

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  9. matthias says:

    I am not sure Karma without rebirth makes much sense at all. In any case, it does become an entirely impotent concept. If the chain of cause and effect, and ones experience of it, will terminate soon enough, why would one be concerned about the results of ones actions? One can always hope to be dead before karma catches up with oneself. Thats Nihilism, not Buddhism. It is also why this world we live in is so destructive and short-term-oriented. But if the effects of ones actions will follow oneself for ever, and ever, and ever – there is reason to pay attention!

    • Jiryu Mark says:

      I want to do justice to Wright’s argument – maybe in the a next post. But karma in a rebirth-less way as he sees it has an important aspect of reverberating in our community – the effects of our actions are felt by others, and for a bodhisattva shouldn’t that be even more impetus not to do evil than the bad effects we feel ourselves?

      • matthias says:

        I understand Wrights argument, and his motivation for it, and it is a nice idea. But what he does is not Buddhism anymore, in some way its the the opposite of what the Buddha taught: Wright is proposing to make the burning house into a nicer place to live (Nothing wrong with that of course, it just is not the teaching of the Buddha). The Buddha taught instead to understand why that house is burning and to get out as quickly as possible, while Mahayana taught to stay in that burning house to save others too, but there is no teaching to fix the house.

        “and for a bodhisattva shouldn’t that be even more impetus not to do evil than the bad effects we feel ourselves?” Well, yes, it possibly should, but if one looks honestly at what is, its only a small minority of human beings that truly operate like this. If we are deeply honest, we all have selfish motivations inside us. Some of us act them all out, and some of us work to avoid this. I still maintain that a teaching that teaches individual consequences to ones actions (which the Buddha did teach, even if the individual is a dreamlike illusion…) is far more powerful and motivating, because it works with what is and not with what we wish should be.

        “But karma in a rebirth-less way as he sees it has an important aspect of reverberating in our community – the effects of our actions are felt by others” But doesn’t this reduce Karma to just a triviality that we all know anyway? The way you put it, it is the teaching of ecology, or system theory, or even chaos theory – but not the Buddhist teaching of Karma, which was an extremely specific thing with much deeper implications.

      • matthias says:

        Also, this is what the Buddha himself said: “I am the owner of my karma. I inherit my karma. I am born of my karma. I am related to my karma. I live supported by my karma. Whatever karma I create, whether good or evil, that I shall inherit.” [Upajjhatthana Sutta (AN 5.57)] With all that talk of “being born of” and “inherit” it gets really hard to argue that there can be any interpration of Karma excluding rebirth that still follows the teaching of the Buddha (i.e. can be called Buddhism).

      • Justin says:

        Wright’s argument in context seems influenced by Daoism. The Buddha did say that our negative actions would reverberate within the community, as do our positive ones, but regardless of that his primary message regarding cause and effect seems to be the leaning toward ending karma and ending rebirth, he was quoted as saying “I teach only Suffering, its Origin, and its Cessation, nothing else.” That can be taken in many ways, but very clearly (to me at least) is referring to the problem with the state in which we live within Samsara, that it is unsatisfactory, and that the only release from suffering is to end rebirth, done by ending ones production of ALL karma, positive negative and neutral.

  10. matthias says:

    The other thing that I find interesting: Everyone seems to agree that the the Dharma is a “moral” or “ethical” teaching. I always find that all the precept and vinaya rules are purely utilitarian, and not in the sense that a worldly ethic would be utilitarian, but in that he separates actions into ones that bring one closer to awakening and in ones that take one further away from that. For instance, the popular admonition that if one amasses bad Karma, one can be born as an animal or in the lower realms: there is no teaching that this is to be avoided because it would be unpleasant, but because one cannot attain awakening as an animal. Therefore wholesome actions are needed in such a situation so that in the future one can attain a platform which does make practice and awakening possible.

    My personal experience corroborates that: every selfish or harmful action clouds our mind subtly – it makes the illusion stronger. Why is that so? In my experience it is because we ALWAYS KNOW what is to be done, but we will actively ignore it because we prefer pleasure first for ourselves. That act makes the illusion (of the separate individual) stronger.
    All the actions the Buddha prescribes will weaken that illusion: if we work for the welfare of others long enough, it will eventually dawn on us that their well-being and our own are never separate. At that point, morality is not needed anymore.

  11. abbywords says:

    Totally. I get really irritated when I think a teacher is presenting an opinion — scholarly or not — as THE definitive authority on Buddhist teachings. Let’s have a little more intellectual honesty here and welcome dissenting opinions. Professors in other disciplines have to answer questions from both peers and from students. This is the West, for cryin’ out loud.

  12. Lauren says:

    It is very interesting how certain most of the repliers sound about what is “truly” buddhist or the essence of buddhism or the Authentic teachings. As soon as we feel really sure about what something is we may want to step back and look again. I really appreciate this post for your willingness to allow for transparent change. If I find benefit in teachings or “sutras” that came from China or Japan or the west, I allow that these writings inevitably were seen through the lens of a social context that was not the Buddha’s, a lens that rang true for the author but may be different than originally received or will be in the future. For example, as a woman, what I am supposed to think about a teaching that says it is possibly karmically unsafe for a male monk to talk to me alone because I am a woman? Is there any teaching that says the reverse? Probably not. It is my personal responsibility to consider that all (?) Buddhist texts were written by men and therefore may not describe or address my experience. So then what I am left with? Because I cannot believe in the entire Vinaya I am not a Buddhist? I think it has to be continuously rewritten or we’ll end up like the Christians that believe the Bible ‘CLEARLY’ says homosexuality is wrong and dooms you to hell. So how do we really know what the original teaching is? What does it look like now?

    • Justin says:

      Yes, they most certainly do address your experience.

      • Lauren says:

        I am not sure you intended your reply to be as offensive as it is. I’m not sure you could be any more presumptuous. It is statements like this that remind me that the oppression of women and complete insensitivity to the experience of women in this world is still alive in the United States and the buddhist community. Wonderful blog posts and the inspired discussions are hindered by closed responses like this and it is really disappointing.

      • Justin says:

        Lauren, the Buddha made very clear how a Bhikkhuni was to behave, so it was very relevant to women and the Vinaya contains much wisdom. If two monastics of opposite sex are in a room together, they must have a companion of their sex with them as a witness that there was no offense. One must not let a person of the opposite sex handle ones robes, outside of family. One must not remain under the same roof as a householder for more than three consecutive nights, and not under the same roof as a member of the opposite sex (at all or limited to 1 night, I cant remember at the moment.)
        a Bhikkhi/uni must not make physical contact with a member of the opposite sex (there is a cloth monastics have for receiving offerings in such a case.) it goes on and on. To continue further, the Suttas clearly lay out the ideal Husband and Wife, how one should properly behave and how a couple may be reunited in future lives. This is the sacrifice Buddhism makes when it is assimilated by indulgent westerners with a political or universalist agenda.

      • Justin says:

        People deny the Wisdom of the Dhamma-Vinaya brushing it off as not addressing ones own situation, but if you believe the Buddha is who we believe him to be, you cannot write off what he said nor what he did. Buddhism, as old as it is, is surprisingly relative to current times, its the middle way. Can you argue against that which transcends the extremes?

  13. David Rynick says:

    Hi Jiryu – I’m not much of a blog reader, but came to this post and your blog via Dosho Port’s blog post on The Scientific Buddha. I appreciate your thoughtful passion about the importance of understanding as best we can what we are carrying forward, what we are leaving behind, and what we are adding. While I suspect we may be more self-consious in our efforts than our fore-bearers, I think we stand on centuries precedent of Buddhist practitioners who have done this. I don’t think there is any other possible way to carry forward a living tradition.
    And the dime dropped for me when I wandered elsewhere on the site and saw your full name. I am one of the guiding teachers at Boundless Way Zen here on the right coast and still sorely miss David and Devon’s presence with us.
    Nice to meet you and thanks for your writing.
    Blessings,
    David Dae An Rynick

  14. Justin says:

    There is the case where a bhikkhu says this: in the Blessed Ones presence have I heard this, in the Blessed Ones presence have I received this: this is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the teachers instruction. His statement is neither to be approved nor scorned. Without approval or scorn, take careful note of his words and make them stand against the Suttas and tally them against the Vinaya. If, on making them stand against the Suttas and tallying them against the Vibaya

    • Justin says:

      I apologize, I was on my phone and it cut me off and posted it anyway.

      There is the case where a bhikkhu says this: in the blessed ones presence have I heard this, in the blessed ones presence have i received this: this is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the teachers instruction. His statement is neither to be approved nor scorned. Without approval or scorn, take careful note of his words and make them stand against the suttas and tally them against the vinaya. If, on making them stand against the suttas and tally them against the vinaya, you find that they don’t stand with the suttas and tally with the vinaya, you may conclude: this is not the word of the Blessed One; this bhikkhu has misunderstood it-and you should reject it.
      -Mahaparanibbana sutta (Digha Nikaya 16)

  15. Elliot says:

    I would love to read a post detailing precisely why the dhamma needs to be adjusted to suit new cultures. It seems to me that in a lot of these posts this premise is taken as uncontroversial. I also think there’s some confusion regarding what makes people want to be Buddhists. I have been getting the sense, perhaps wrongly, that one of the main ways of attracting new Buddhists according to Jiryu is to give them a vocabulary regarding Buddhism that dovetails with their existing vocabulary. I believe that people will be attracted to Buddhism because of radiant monks.

    • Lauren says:

      If the dharma never adjusted to China and Japan do you think it would have ever made it to the West? I wonder if our human condition of ego-centrism make it really hard for the average person to relate, at least right away, to something that seems really foreign. Our brains seem wired to compartmentalize and try to assimilate, we have so much stimulus it is easy to just reject something because it is overwhelmingly unknown. Good- hearted people who genuinely start looking for answers to the dissatisfaction they experience in their lives don’t usually jump right into Dogen’s Extensive Record, maybe they start with Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind or Joko Beck or something a little more relatable and from there their curiosity may grow…

  16. Lauren says:

    I don’t think the point is to attract new Buddhists but to touch as many people as possible in ways that inspire curiosity, self-inquiry, and interruption of the conditioned response. As a bodhisattva I want to save all beings and like Avalokiteshvara I need as many tools as possible. We owe it to all beings to try and look at the teachings in as many new and creative ways as possible. People, language, culture, religion, etc. are not static. If we cling to the teachings as we understand them and out of fear of losing their essence do not allow for the possibility that there’s more they will get stale and die. The Genjo-koan says “When dharma does not fill your whole body and mind, you think it is already sufficient. When dharma fills your body and mind, you understand that something is missing”

    • Justin says:

      Universalism will be the end of Buddhism, that ideology will bring about what Dogen believed was Makpo, Dharma Decline. Buddhism will no longer be known. Buddhism is the tool, we should regulate our actions by what it contains. Wisdom is the cement and compassion the tool with which we spread it evenly, creating a strong foundation for the sangha. Take refuge in nothing less than Buddhahood.

      • Kogen says:

        What can be said here? If we smell the age of decline everywhere, we might just need to wash our faces. It never hurts to wash the face.

      • Justin says:

        I see decline and I see authenticity. The problem is, people love to take things at face value, they seem to see clearly the tip of the iceberg but are unable to fathom what is beneath the depths, nor its immensity.
        Buddhism is for all people, all places and in any time. However, you cannot change the Dhamma and call it Dhamma. We cannot say we are saved by the Grace of Amitabha Buddha because that isnt Dhamma, just because there is a Buddha at the center of it (no matter how jesus like) it does not qualify it as authentic. Buddhism does not work as a method, that is Dhamma Decline. That is what people mean when they say “Hinayana”, the lesser motivation/vehicle. Merely Buddhist methods to be happy when Buddhism is about liberation. This is not about being happy, happiness is a product of the 5 aggregates, it does not exist, you believe it does because you have been conditioned to believe so. There is no positive negative or neutral, there only is, anything else you add. This is transient, swiftly passing, people at zen centers pound wood blocks with a stanza about the transience of the world, so it shouldnt be news to anyone here. The Buddha did not want another lifetime.

      • Justin says:

        Now on that occasion the Blessed One was dwelling in Rajagaha, in the Bamboo Grove. Then thirty monks from Pava — all wilderness dwellers, all alms-goers, all triple-robe wearers, all still with fetters — went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side.

        Then the thought occurred to the Blessed One, “These thirty monks from Pava… are all still with fetters. What if I were to teach them the Dhamma in such a way that in this very sitting their minds, through lack of clinging, would be released from fermentations?”

        So he addressed the monks: “Monks.”

        “Yes, lord,” the monks responded.

        The Blessed One said, “From an inconceivable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. What do you think, monks? Which is greater, the blood you have shed from having your heads cut off while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time, or the water in the four great oceans?”

        “As we understand the Dhamma taught to us by the Blessed One, this is the greater: the blood we have shed from having our heads cut off while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time, not the water in the four great oceans.”

        “Excellent, monks. Excellent. It is excellent that you thus understand the Dhamma taught by me.

        “This is the greater: the blood you have shed from having your heads cut off while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time, not the water in the four great oceans.

        “The blood you have shed when, being cows, you had your cow-heads cut off: Long has this been greater than the water in the four great oceans.

        “The blood you have shed when, being water buffaloes, you had your water buffalo-heads cut off… when, being rams, you had your ram-heads cut off… when, being goats, you had your goat-heads cut off… when, being deer, you had your deer-heads cut off… when, being chickens, you had your chicken-heads cut off… when, being pigs, you had your pig-heads cut off: Long has this been greater than the water in the four great oceans.

        “The blood you have shed when, arrested as thieves plundering villages, you had your heads cut off… when, arrested as highway thieves, you had your heads cut off… when, arrested as adulterers, you had your heads cut off: Long has this been greater than the water in the four great oceans.

        “Why is that? From an inconceivable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. Long have you thus experienced stress, experienced pain, experienced loss, swelling the cemeteries — enough to become disenchanted with all fabrications, enough to become dispassionate, enough to be released.”

        That is what the Blessed One said. Gratified, the monks delighted in the Blessed One’s words. And while this explanation was being given, the minds of the thirty monks from Pava — through lack of clinging — were released from fermentations.
        -Timsa Sutta

        Clearly successive lives was not in his vision, however I do not reject on this ground the ideal of the Bodhisattva who, seeking Enlightenment, assists liberating others. On the contrary, such is noble. Let this not detract from the fact the Buddha was very real about what the end result was, maybe some people are just too fond of physical existence to be ready for what he taught. So they sparkle it up with pretty things and say “no you are fine the way you are” but that is not what Lord Shakyamuni said at all.

  17. Justin says:

    At Savatthi. There the Blessed One said: “From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. What do you think, monks: Which is greater, the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — or the water in the four great oceans?”

    “As we understand the Dhamma taught to us by the Blessed One, this is the greater: the tears we have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — not the water in the four great oceans.”

    “Excellent, monks. Excellent. It is excellent that you thus understand the Dhamma taught by me.

    “This is the greater: the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — not the water in the four great oceans.

    “Long have you (repeatedly) experienced the death of a mother. The tears you have shed over the death of a mother while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — are greater than the water in the four great oceans.

    “Long have you (repeatedly) experienced the death of a father… the death of a brother… the death of a sister… the death of a son… the death of a daughter… loss with regard to relatives… loss with regard to wealth… loss with regard to disease. The tears you have shed over loss with regard to disease while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — are greater than the water in the four great oceans.

    “Why is that? From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. Long have you thus experienced stress, experienced pain, experienced loss, swelling the cemeteries — enough to become disenchanted with all fabricated things, enough to become dispassionate, enough to be released.”
    -Assu Sutta

  18. Interesting discussion. I’m a bit surprised that no one brings up Anitya and Anatman. These both point to a different understanding of Karma and Rebirth. The principle of Anatman says there is no fundamental self, And Anitya says there is no fundamental reality. With that in mind Karma and rebirth can only be seen as mysterious and unknowable. Indeed, we can further say that the words of the Buddha are only that, words that point at the moon. To say that we understand what the Buddha understood, is that same as thinking that we know a dream when we have read the words that are used to tell of a dream. In the end the true meaning of the dream or of the Buddha is beyond words.

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