Bits and pieces of practice


There’s sitting on the cushion, and there’s everything else. Are these really two different things? We are taught that every time we make two — every time we make a distinction between this and that — we are separating ourselves, and therefore, creating or reaffirming “self,” that problematic entity.

It’s hard to live moment-to-moment off the cushion. Well, heck, it’s hard to stay focused when I’m on the cushion!

The other day someone asked me if my practice or my “faith” had been changed at all by what I learned in a university course about Buddhism. The course covered the whole history of Buddhism, from the years just after the Buddha’s death (or parinirvana, if you prefer) to the “discovery” of Buddhism by Europeans. Although we studied the doctrine of several schools, the focus was more on history than on philosophy.

The answer is no, my practice and its foundations have not been altered by my experience of learning much, much more about the transformations (and transportation) of this tradition. I was not ignorant about the life of the Buddha and the teachings when I started the class. I can now fit these into a 2,500-year history in the Western format of historical interpretation. The five precepts remain the same. The Four Noble Truths, the same. The reason I practice — to save all sentient beings — the same.

Maybe some folks become jaded about their religious practices when they see a bigger picture, but why? There have always been corrupt priests and monks, religious orders that served the emperor or the king, religious leaders who called for blood to be spilled. Monasteries become rich, monks have girlfriends and even wives and children, and texts are written by humans, of course. Does this mean the Dharma is flawed?

Writing and interpretation are always flawed. But are they the Dharma?



3 responses

  1. I’m a little “jealous” of the opportunity you’ve had to study Buddhism in this way. Of course, it’s just history. But, in my limited experience, history has its own energy and power.

    And, as you say, the essence of Buddha’s teaching never changes. That’s ’cause we humans don’t easily give up our attachments to name and form. But, when we stop “making two” (and making “one” for that matter), then we no longer need Buddha’s good words.

    Thanks for your post!

  2. I wouldn’t say it’s “just” history. One way to view history is as a record of cause and effect. Why is Buddhism different in China, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan? Because of dependent origination. Everything comes from something else.

    As a result of taking this class, I have a much better appreciation of ritual practices I have seen in temples in Asia. I have greater understanding of how Taoism and Confucianism and Buddhism interacted, how Chan (Zen) came into being, how Japan’s culture and politics shaped the structure of monasteries and schools of thought.

    Thank you for reading and commenting, Barry.