What Would the Buddha Do?

sri-lanka-soldiers.jpg

Life in the predominantly Buddhist country of Sri Lanka….

While the three Abrahamic religions are famous for violence in the name of their God, we are often led to believe that Buddhists are universally pacifistic, in alignment with the Buddha’s teachings on nonviolence and goodwill toward all beings.

History, as Michael Parenti points out, does not quite conform with this view:

A glance at history reveals that Buddhist organizations have not been free of the violent pursuits so characteristic of religious groups. In Tibet, from the early seventeenth century well into the eighteenth, competing Buddhist sects engaged in armed hostilities and summary executions. In the twentieth century, in Thailand, Burma, Korea, Japan, and elsewhere, Buddhists clashed with each other and with nonBuddhists. In Sri Lanka, armed battles in the name of Buddhism are part of Sinhalese history.

Just a few years ago in South Korea, thousands of monks of the Chogye Buddhist order fought each other with fists, rocks, fire-bombs, and clubs, in pitched battles that went on for weeks. They were vying for control of the order, the largest in South Korea, with its annual budget of $9.2 million, its additional millions of dollars in property, and the privilege of appointing 1,700 monks to various duties. The brawls partly destroyed the main Buddhist sanctuaries and left dozens of monks injured, some seriously. The Korean public appeared to disdain both factions, feeling that no matter what side took control, “it would use worshippers’ donations for luxurious houses and expensive cars.”

But what of the Dalai Lama and the Tibet he presided over before the Chinese crackdown in 1959? It is widely held by many devout Buddhists that Old Tibet was a spiritually oriented kingdom free from the egotistical lifestyles, empty materialism, and corrupting vices that beset modern industrialized society. Western news media, travel books, novels, and Hollywood films have portrayed the Tibetan theocracy as a veritable Shangri-La.

The Dalai Lama himself stated that “the pervasive influence of Buddhism” in Tibet, “amid the wide open spaces of an unspoiled environment resulted in a society dedicated to peace and harmony. We enjoyed freedom and contentment.” A reading of Tibet’s history suggests a different picture. In the thirteenth century, Emperor Kublai Khan created the first Grand Lama, who was to preside over all the other lamas as might a pope over his bishops. Several centuries later, the Emperor of China sent an army into Tibet to support the Grand Lama, an ambitious 25-year-old man, who then gave himself the title of Dalai (Ocean) Lama, ruler of all Tibet. Here is quite a historical irony: the first Dalai Lama was installed by a Chinese army.

To elevate his authority beyond worldly challenge, the first Dalai Lama seized monasteries that did not belong to his sect, and is believed to have destroyed Buddhist writings that conflicted with his claim to divinity. The Dalai Lama who succeeded him pursued a sybaritic life, enjoying many mistresses, partying with friends, and acting in other ways deemed unfitting for an incarnate deity. For this he was done in by his priests. Within 170 years, despite their recognized status as gods, five Dalai Lamas were murdered by their high priests or other courtiers.

And it goes on from there.

I’m posting this as a reminder that, despite the profound teachings set forth by the Buddha some 2,300 years ago, all has not gone according to plan since then. We all want to believe the myths referred to in Parenti’s article, but we must acknowledge that humans are humans, and Buddhist humans are no less susceptible to unskillful living than are the rest of us.

I do think that the Buddha’s model for enlightened living is valid, and I continue to meditate according to his detailed instructions; if the world is going to change for the better, it will be due to individual practitioners bringing peaceful vibes into the collective energetic soup, and not because some Savior comes down from the heavens to impose His/Her Will upon all us sinners.

In the meantime, we’re better served not to blindly give our power away to a Buddhist institutional matrix that has, in many cases, become little more than an entrenched priesthood seeking self-proliferation at the expense of its founder’s actual teachings. We don’t need the priesthood in order to realize what the Buddha pointed toward — and, in fact, we’re probably much better off doing an end-around the priesthood.

[Cross-Posted at Spontaneous Arising….]

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9 thoughts on “What Would the Buddha Do?

  1. Gregor says:

    Mike,

    Yes, Buddhism as well as all other religions has dark incidents in it history.

    Yes, certain elements of the “priesthood”/monastic community have turned out to be less than the ideal.

    However, I have to say that we do need a monastic community and that we should not seek to find fault where it does not belong.

    Without a monastic sangha we would not be able to benefit from the dhamma. It is the monastic community which has been responsible for the carrying down the Buddha’s teachings throughout history.

    Overall the monastic community is an example and a teacher to us.

    I appreciate you warnings, but I urge you not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

  2. adreampuppet says:

    Thanks for the comment, Gregor.

    I do invite you to immerse yourself in the Buddhist monastic community, and to avail yourself of the Dhamma as it has been passed down over the years.

    I hope you will allow me, however, to retain my own opinion of the state of the Sangha, which, in my opinion, has been compromised since the second generation after the Buddha’s passing. The one thing that I do appreciate about the monastic community is that the Pali Canon — specifically, the Sutta Pitaka, as opposed to the Abhidhamma and the Vinaya, which were composed well after the Buddha left this Earth — remains available for us to study. The more I study it, and the more amazed I am at the Buddha’s perfect explication of skillful meditation, and by extension, of skillful living.

    I was originally enthralled with a romantic perception of the Sangha, Gregor, and I do not wish to dissuade you from your enjoyment of it. All I can say is, the Buddhist monastic community is made up of human beings who are no more spiritual or enlightened than any other religious or spiritual community. Yes, there are individuals within the Sangha who are deserving of great praise, just as there are exemplary individuals within other communities. But I am definitely open to information that challenges the conception of an infallible following that purports to be the sole expositor of the Buddha’s teachings — especially when that following has gone to such great lengths to demonize the Buddha’s deepest and most profound teachings around meditative absorption.

    Take a look here and here for what I’m talking about.

    Sorry to have ruffled your feathers, my friend.

  3. Hawk Sr. says:

    We would all be in deep caca were it not for ruffled feathers!

  4. Gregor says:

    Mike,

    I totally respect with your opinion and agree with certain aspects of it.

    My contention is that the picture is not totally bleak, and that the monastic community is an important and vital part of Buddhism.

    Having said this I do understand the need for us practitioners to be cautious about who we choose as our teachers.

    I have no intention to stifle your voice in this matter. I have no delusions about the infallibility of humans. You make a very valid and important point.

    No ruffled feathers, I only seek to engage in constructive and helpful conversation.

  5. adreampuppet says:

    Thanks, Gregor, for your kind and generous response.

    I am used to being attacked for my perspective on the Sangha (i.e., “The Sangha is dead… long live the Sangha!”), and while I’m not invested in what other people think of me, I do consider you to be a friend for whom I feel a great deal of respect and affection.

    I hope you understand that my intention with this post, while hoping to provoke, was not to condemn Buddhism or Buddhists. It is an essential part of my own awakening process to disavow myself of all romantic assumptions about whatever spiritual tradition I happen to be studying, or even practicing. Buddhism holds itself up as a totally nonviolent philosophy, which is great, except that history tells a much different story. The monastic tradition, while doing some wonderful work in keeping the Dhamma alive all these years, has also fallen into precisely the same trap as spiritual authority in every other major religious institution — i.e., to jealously guard the Teaching from the unwashed masses, thereby preserving the Sangha’s place of pre-emminence within the social order. Perhaps this was not a conscious act, but it did evolve that way, and only in the last hundred years or so (when Buddhism came to the West, with all its wonderful translation of the ancient texts) has the Sangha itself re-immersed itself in the original teachings. This process is barely beginning in most cases, and it is difficult to find a monk who even approaches the ideal put forth by the Buddha for his followers. Most monks have not read the entire Sutta Pitaka, usually having only have been exposed to a few key suttas, if any. They are simply following a tradition that has been handed down to them, unquestioningly. Those who question the whole deal are cast aside for “bringing discord to the Sangha,” when in truth (or, at least, the way I see it), the Sangha has been but a shadow of itself for 2000 years. The Buddha himself, in sections toward the end of the Samyuta Nikaya, forsaw this happening, and was very despondent over it.

    All is not lost, however, since the Sangha did its job in preserving the Suttas long enough for dedicated and skillful contemplatives to get a look at it. We are finding that the Dhamma as originally set out truly is a marvel to behold, and I for one am happy to say that it forms the spine of my meditation and mindfulness practice, as well as ethical framework for my daily existence. I just hope that enough good monks within the monastic community are turned on by what they study, and are brave enough to call their bretheren on the wayward drift from the Buddha’s original intent, to revive the Sangha before it dies out altogether.

    I think it’s happening, and this is wonderful to behold.

    You’re a good egg, my friend.

  6. adreampuppet says:

    [Notice the time stamp on my previous comment… 11:11…!]

  7. Gregor says:

    Mike,

    The feelings of affection and respect are truly mutual.

    I want to thank you for sharing this information. It is truly disturbing to see Buddhist institutions so perverted . . .but it does come down to a matter of human nature, doesn’t it?

    No religion has been immune, Buddhism has a pretty good track record in comparison to the others but is far from perfect.

    I think your message is an important one. We seek to follow the Dhamma of the Buddha, the Sangha is supposed to be a resource, guide, and refuge in this. I believe that in many communities this is the case. But, in others this is not.

    As spiritual seekers we have not only a right but a duty to speak up and try to change corrupt institutions.

    I think the Buddha would be very pleased with the commentary you are making.

    I

  8. adreampuppet says:

    Thanks once again, Gregor, for the kind and unconditional words of inspiration. I really do appreciate it, as I appreciate your ongoing friendship.

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