Man, if I had a dollar for every time somebody’s said to me that “you have to be an intellectual to get Buddhism,” I’d have enough for a case of beer. I laugh in their face and point to myself — do I look like an intellectual to you? I used to be a farm hand, and broke my back doing 60-pound pours of corrosive resistant plastic at 550 degrees when I was a United Steelworker. The work was so hard and dangerous I joined the Marines to get away from it.
Fact is, it’s intellectualism that makes American institutional Buddhism the joke that it is. Overshadowed as it is with expensive Vajrayana temples situated in suburbs, “The Great White Sangha” is put to shame for its lack of social engagement by even the most podunk Baptist church. The Tibetans espouse pacifism, charge membership fees to belong to their temples, and pray to deities. None of that crap is Buddhism. If you like religious processions and guys parading around in funny hats, you can get that at the Episcopal cathedral, and you don’t have to sit on the floor.
Studying Theravada at the feet of the masters, literally the feet of the masters, in Sri Lanka, I would not have even had to know how to read to gain the appreciation of dhamma that now drives my life. I’ve known my share of rice farmers and household servants and elephants mahouts who were lay masters themselves.
Even though I am a working writer, when I read almost any book about Buddhism I feel like a functional illiterate. Maybe I am. I probably own 25 different books about Buddhism, but the only two I’ve finished reading have been Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught and Karen Armstrong’s Buddha: A Biography. All the others have bookmarks in them. The closer the bookmark is to the front cover, the more stultifying I found the book. B-O-R-I-N-G.
You don’t learn Buddhism from reading about it. You learn Buddhism by living it.
Fact is, Mahayana Buddhism is based on a lie. Those who ascribe the Sutras to documents the Buddha himself dictated late in life to more “intelligent” (that is, Chinese) people, because the primitives who made up the early (Indian) Sangha weren’t sophisticated enough, i.e., too stupid, to appreciate them, believe in a lie. Buddha didn’t establish Mahayana Buddhism, but tyranny did.
Fuck you. Call me a Hinayana and I’ll grab your nipple and twist it real hard.
When the Buddhist missionaries spread the dhamma to much of the rest of Asia, they weren’t selling Buddhism to the masses, it was pitched to the nobility and bureaucrats. Many of the Sutras were written (and mythologized) to support the elites against the masses. Otherwise, where would “Pure Land” Buddhism have come from, a “heaven” promised to the suffering peasants much like the same malarky sold to European peasantry by the Church in the Middle Ages? Sutras supporting vegetarianism were written so elites could hoard animal protein.
The Sutras is the territory of the Buddhist intelligensia. By comparison the Pali suttas are easy to understand. The Buddha spoke in nouns and verbs, causes and effects. Sutra-fying seems to have reached its apotheosis in certain forms of Japanese Buddhism. The Sokka Gakai say that all you need to do is to repeat the chant “nam-myoho-renge-kyo” a bazillion times and good things will happen to you, like job promotions and finding true love. Sokka Gakai is based on the “Lotus” Sutra, in which the Buddha supposedly denied everything he’d been teaching for 40 years so some Tokyo housewife’s husband will pay more attention to her.
Why obfuscate simple truths? So you can make a congregation dependent upon the clergy to interpret it. Modern Buddhism doesn’t need monks or gurus. Keep it simple, stupid. You start with studying the Eightfold Path. Google and read. If it doesn’t make sense, then it’s bad intel. Start with Buddhism for Dudes: A Jarhead’s Field Guide to Mindfulness. If you can’t understand that book, you’re hopeless.
You know what drives these points home to me: the “After-Buddhists.” Two writers in this arena are Stephen Batchelor, one of the biggest names in Buddhist publishing, and Canada’s Stephen Schettini. Both of them went to India for years and years to become Tibetan monks and hang out in Dharmasala, where the Dalai Lama lives. During their tenures, they took vacations to Sri Lanka and sat with the Theravada monks. They then quit Dharmasala and took much more secular paths, and of course are atheists now. Like Buddhists are supposed to be.
And of course there are the various schools of Zen Buddhism, something I studied for four years with a Vietnamese monk. Zennies are cool, generally not nearly so institutional as the Dalai Lama set. Useful in bar fights, since a lot of them are also martial arts people.
I get along fine with Zennies, but I don’t read that stuff, either. They make their literature confusing on purpose.
We’re facing a tough century, and it seems that the forces of chaos, delusion, consumerism, capitalism, violence and demagoguery are the things we will all have to contend with. Buddhism, in its purest form, has the answers to the world’s problems, but the forces of ignorance and hate are momentous. America’s Buddhists could become a force for good, but hardly so when the richest and most powerful of them would rather pay homage to monks dead 700 years than hold a goddamn bake sale, organize a mission trip, or man a picket line.
Without social engagement, Buddhism is just so much mumbo-jumbo – authentic mumbo-jumbo, if you try to keep up with Tibetan chants. If you are a Buddhist, then you have duties you share with other Buddhists toward the alleviation of suffering in the world. People who take this seriously (especially if they meditate on the good they do), are more contented with their lives than people who are ignorant of this wellspring of happiness. This is a universal truth found in all religious doctrines and codes of ethics.
Do something that the world will benefit from, the people, or the environment. Planting a tree kills two birds with one stone. You’re not called upon to eradicate malaria, just checking on the old woman who lives in 34B is plenty. If you are a care-giver, and so many of us are, the child you picked up bleeding out of the mud on the soccer field, or the widowed parent you’ve brought into your home, bring merit to your life because you’re doing the right thing.
If you’re using Buddhism as an excuse to hang out with the Geshe and hide from the world, to avoid conflict because you’re “pacifist,” then you’re not fulfilling your obligations as a Buddhist. Then you’re a bad Buddhist. Or a coward.
If you hate people, go volunteer at the animal shelter.