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.