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.