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More Buddhism

One thing I've believed for years is that just about any philosophy will evolve to have a branch directly contradicting its roots. E.g. some 'feminists' who decry math and logic as patriarchal inventions and call for separate education to nurture feminine ways of thinking, or some liberals who check free speech in the interest of preventing hate speech, or the conservative progression from monarchists to small government types back to "executive privilege".

Buddhism seems another example. Inspired by a comment on the previous post, I did some more reading today. I caution that this was mostly Wikipedia, so this is a summary of a summary. Even so:

There is a common core. "Four noble truths" and "eightfold path", the importance of suffering, of reducing suffering, of achieving enlightenment and nirvana. And common scriptures: not a single book or set of books, but content shared among the Theravada Tipitaka or Pali Canon, and the Mahayana argunas.

But then it branches. Theravada seems closest to the original, and last survivor of the early schools; based in Sri Lanka and spread throughout SE Asia. Non-existence of soul or Self, individual responsibility for enlightenment, monasticism as main vehicle for enlightenment, with laypeople helping out and accumulating merit for another lifetime. There is only one form of enlightenment, and the Buddha is revered as a gifted person who achieved it on his own.

Mahayana extends those scriptures with its own sutras emerging 500 years later, allegedly passed in secret, or even hidden with dragons until smarter people emerged who'd be ready to handle the real truth. Such as the Buddha being eternal and omnipresent, and everyone having an Eternal Self of Buddha-nature, which the not-really-real self of your ego prevents you from perceiving. More emphasis on scriptural reverence, perhaps as a defense mechanism against appearing about as heretical as the Book of Mormon. A key theme of universal salvation, and bodhisattvas working for all -- present in the core, but emphasized much more here, with early Buddhism denigrated as the lesser vehicle aimed at individuals. (Also, lesser as in a lot fewer sutras.) Nirvana is an incomplete form of enlightenment, vs. bodhi or true Buddhahood, connecting with and perceiving the universal and eternal Buddha-nature. And you get the common -- dominant -- Pure Land form, where simple sincere invocation of the name of Amida Buddha will get you rebirth in the Western Pure Land paradise, in ideal conditions to then work toward nirvana.

So, you still don't have a Creator-god, but there's certainly a strong resemblance to Christianity, with salvation by faith, and an eternal Buddha who manifests occasionally to preach salvation.

But also part of Mahayana is Ch'an or Zen Buddhism, which still is about connecting with Buddha-nature, but reacting against the scripturalism and devotionalism of Pure Land and other branches, to emphasize meditation, re-tracing the Buddha's path to enlightenment, aided by direct transmission from a teacher. So Mahayana reverses some key ideas about non-self, then Zen reverses scriptural and supernatural ideas to get something more resembling Theravada monastic practice, but for all.

And I think Western ideas about Buddhism tend to be Zen and the core teachings, so it seems austere to us, with little attention paid to the Pure Land majority. The love of contradiction we see in Zen seems common to Mahayana, perhaps because of the "we do have an Eternal Self, really, even though Buddha said we didn't."

Then there's Tibetan or Vajrayana, extending Mahayana Buddhism with practices said to accelerate enlightenment, so more people can achieve it in one lifetime. Tantra and yoga and other esoteric things, esoteric meaning "passed on person" vs. "learned from books".

Of interest to me, since I used to hang out on a Jewish group, where unique credit for things like the Sabbath, week, and Commandments was claimed, are the Buddhist sabbath and Five Precepts. There's a more ascetic version of the latter, with no dancing or music. And speaking of Buddhism and Christianity, Buddha's mother is of interest.


Damien Sullivan

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