Whole Religion

Essence of religion! Now available in chewable pill form!

In a not-so-recent post I mentioned a friend’s view of “Whole Religion” – an approach to religion that includes not just the easily digestible “essence,” the Dharma extract, but that calls for some chewing. Religion that has crunchy parts and tastes like something other than sugar or white flour. Religion that we hit up against, struggle with. Religion that provides some resistance and invokes our resistance. Religion that makes us work, that turns us, that challenges us, rather than religion that is just some kind of tepid confirmation of what we already think we know.

This has been again on my mind as I’ve dived into the teachings of Huayan Buddhism: the vibrant and radiant Dharma of the Avatamsaka Sutra and the 7-9th century Chinese Flower Ornament School based on it. The study is challenging me, and I want to share now and perhaps in the coming weeks some of my process around this material. I’m nearing the end of a six week class series I’m teaching here at Green Gulch on it – an initial public talk on it is at sfzc.org, and I hope to put up some additional class recordings on shoresofzen soon.

For now, though, I’m reflecting along these “Whole Tradition” lines on the approach that the early and medieval Chinese Buddhists had to the “wholeness” of the Buddhist tradition. The Buddhadharma was imported to China rather haphazardly and rather suddenly – as it has arrived in the West today – and doctrines and practices that had developed gradually over centuries in India and Central Asia came as one package more or less at once. The Chinese set to work organizing the teachings with “an absolute faith in the cohesiveness of the Buddha’s word” (as Donner & Stevenson say of Zhiyi).

This faith that Buddhism was a singular, all true whole led to schemes of doctrine classification that found ways to integrate and affirm all the sometimes discordant elements of the vast Buddhist canon. Sure, each classifier put their own school at the top of the list – as the culmination of the Dharma – but generally the feeling was that all of these streams had to be accounted for. Some beautiful creative leaps took place in this “Whole Religion” attempt to harmonize the internal discord of the tradition.

We in “the West”/postmodernity, on the other hand, possess an absolute faith in nothing at all and take internal discord as simply the state of things. We have nothing like the same motivation to make sense of the inconsistencies and incoherence of Buddhism. We “know” that Buddhism doesn’t hold together as any kind of whole, that it represents an array of localized evolutions contingent on political power and preexisting local frameworks, and we don’t need it to make sense to us or to be understood as useful to us. If we’re into Vipassana, we can just dismiss Tibetan Buddhism. If we’re into Soto Zen, then we feel free to see Pure Land as just a different thing, based on a different history. We don’t need to attend to it, to consider how it is that the Buddha taught “self power” and “other power” both.  We don’t need to struggle there, because we don’t have the faith that they are coming from a singular tradition, the single mouth of one Buddha. The Buddha didn’t write those sutras anyway, and even if he had it would just have been his opinion. It’s for us to sort out true from false. We are the ultimate arbiters of truth.

Surely this is not the exclusive habit of “the West” – there is plenty of dismissing of rival schools throughout the Buddhist tradition, plenty of insults hurled – but I am moved by the inspiration of these synthesizing Chinese ancestors to think of the Buddhadharma as something worth pulling together, worth integrating, really worth making sense of as a whole.

Doing so means tasting the thing, chewing the unpleasant textures along with the sugary pops. It means sitting down at a table much larger and richer than the little corners we grow so content in.


9 thoughts on “Whole Religion

  1. There is no Buddhism. What The Buddha taught is simple, and can be verified by anyone willing to sit down and take a look. The Buddha gave each of us authority to decide how we live his teachings and how to examine teachings since his time. An attempt to reconcile the streams into one ocean of Buddhism seems somehow . . . a sidetrack from ones efforts along The Path.

  2. I love the Flower Garland and would have been there for the class if I didn’t live 2,000 miles away. I listened to your talk from March this AM and enjoyed very much, especially the piece on causality. Good to know that you are wrestling with the whole cloth.



  3. J, this relates to me on a personal note along the lines of choosing one path and sticking to it… Using the irritations and joys along the one path to wake up, giving whole attention to each flower or thorn or barren expanse instead of diverting from the brambles every time they appear, or skipping off toward the smell of jasmine every time it dances its lovely self up my nostrils… Trungpa and others I’m sure discuss this as well… Its another way of saying “live your life fully and completely” without leaving out what is displeasurable or striving in vain to include what is not there…
    Buddhism, religion of no religion? It’s certainly a tricky dichotomy… Buddha nature, awakened nature, Christ nature, Jung’s “the undiscovered self”, the mind of the whirling dervish… Different expressions of similar phenomenoal experience… And the experience is of course colored by the myth, the perception of the myth colored in turn by the experience… Picking one myth to work with might possibly teach us more about ourselves than we could ever learn from grabbing at scattered cloths, but one of the primary sentimets I glean from Alan Watts statement “Buddhism, Religion of No Religion…” is that we should never discount the worth of the cloths of others if they should come our way, never claim ours as the principle or most laudable method…
    Anyway, there’s my two off topic cents!
    I think one thing I’m trying to say is something like “the Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao”

  4. I’m with you on this one. “Buddhism” is an awfully big umbrella that shelters many, many ideas, beings and things. I may not “get” all of them, but it is important to realize they’re part of the mix. Heck, I may even be nudged to greater insight along the way!

    The alternative? We each get our little Buddhist brockabrella (google it, if you don’t know what it is) – barely enough to shelter even my own little “I’ll do as I please and I get to decide by myself” ego.

  5. It sounds like an interesting hobby. However when you get up in the morning and make breakfast will it make any difference. Maybe the streams will fit together and maybe not. Either way, does it matter?

  6. Here’s the thing, the brain is complex. If you want to be happy quickly you must use all of the resources at your disposal to become happy. Now obviously drugs are not sustainable and relationships are good albeit fickle. The conclusion is that we need mind training. Mind training is in part brain training which I just said was complex. Thus mind training is complex. Zen made the critical error of omitting loving-kindness meditation and thereby created imbalanced practitioners. If you had just metta and mindfulness you would be o.k. but I feel like the more you seek for novelty in addition to your foundation the more likely you are to grow as a person. So now I have returned to my Jewish roots and find strength in people who have been persecuted for thousands of years. Religion that is earnest and curious and open while remaining grounded in the four noble truths is much more satisfying and fruitful. May all beings be happy and free from suffering.

  7. I think it’s okay to stick to a somewhat narrow path in your practice as long as your wisdom and compassion keep growing. When it’s time to take the next step (or giant leap), your inner guidance will tell you (with possibly the guidance of an experienced and competent spiritual teacher). Some of us feel compelled to understand the big picture of religion and spirituality, including other religions like Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, etc.–trying to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. This is especially true when you’re raised in one tradition, reject it as worthless, and then go on to study other teachings and religions. After a while, you see the value in each and may even want to go back and explore the religion of your childhood, which you realize wasn’t so worthless after all.

  8. I’ve only just recently come across your blog and find what your writings on ‘Whole Tradition’ very interesting. I’m a long time Zen practioner, I started sitting in the mid 80’s but I’m finding it harder now to be content with the Zen tradition as a ‘whole’. Meaning that I feel fundemental parts of Buddhism have been overlooked, left out as Zen has weaved it’s way through the many cultures.

    Over the last ten years I’ve branched out and started experimenting with other forms of Mahayana Buddhism, mainly Pure Land and Vajrayana. What I discovered is that once you step out of the bubble of your own tradition you start to see it’s limitations. For me the main limitation in Zen is the lack of variety in meditaiton techniques e.g. visualizations, deity yoga. I’ve now become a Zen rebel and spend most of my time reading sutras and I am happy!

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