in post

Evening discussion of some ideas of Buddhism

On those occasions at the end of dharma talks or lectures, when the teacher asks whether we have any questions, I can never think of anything to say. But we have four Buddhist monks staying with us and some questions did arise in discussion. Like I have never understood how Buddhism clings to the concept of reincarnation when it holds to the principle of the nonself (the anatman). What is there to reincarnate? We had a long talk with Phab Lai – a monk originally from Britain. He said that what drew him to Thich Nhat Hanh was this teacher's ability to cut through some of the most confusing aspects of Buddhist doctrine and present a simple message that everyone could understand, and sometimes to challenge fundamental tenets that have been held in many Buddhist schools, when he believed that they were nonsensical. As an example, he says, it has often been said in Buddhism that “ all is suffering.” (The statements here will be Phab Lai's – or my understanding of those statements.) Thich Nhat Hanh says that what the Buddha actually said was that “suffering exists”. While it might be a useful intellectual exercise or temporarily leap of faith to work from the idea that all is suffering, Thich Nhat Hanh does not accept that statement. Like, how can it be that a table or a chair are suffering, and why should they be? But it is readily understood, as a statement of the human condition, that “suffering exists”. And it isn't necessary to claim that all is suffering.

Another example he gave is that the universal reason given for suffering in Buddhism is desire. i.e., suffering exists because of desire. Phab Lai said that this is not what Thich Nhat Hanh teaches. He teaches instead that suffering exists on account of the klesas (sometimes translated as impediments) such as ignorance, desire/greed, anger. There are different accounts of the Klesas among different schools of Buddhism. But Phab Lai's understanding is that it isn't necessary to claim that all suffering is caused simply by desire. He says that he would also add to the traditional accounting of the Klesas the element of “fear” (which is nontraditional, as far as he knows).

What I like about all this, is the latitude given to understand a teaching from the inside, rather than cling to a doctrine, just because it is handed down.

To go back to the idea of reincarnation, Thich Nhat Hanh presents this also in a way that is more acceptable to people who haven't grown up with this concept. He says that our karma, made up of good or bad words and deeds, etc. has a continuation, in that it goes on having an influence in the time to come. Although we are not really born and do not really die (i.e., anatman), there is a dispersal of matter and energy, which reconstitutes themselves somehow. It is not necessary to believe that the same elements come together again in the same body.

I told Phab Lai about the traditional metaphor given for Karma in Vedanta of the bow and quiver of arrows . We receive (sanchita) karma from past lifetimes in the form of a quiver of arrows. We have an arrow in the bow that we are about to shoot (agami karma), and have already launched other arrows (prarabdha karma) towards their target. According to vedanta, we have complete responsibility, but the only thing over which we have current control is of the arrow currently in the bow. I asked Phab Lai, if it is possible to reconcile this concept of Karma with his understanding of Buddhism. For instance, where does the quiver of arrows, the sanchita karma, come from if we have not acquired these through the rebirth of the soul or jiva? He thought that it may be possible to explain the acquisition of karma in other ways, since, as a human being, we are influenced by the accumulation of elements that go into our makeup, such as what we acquire from our parents and the environment in which we grow up. He also said that it might sometimes be necessary to chase after the arrows we have already shot, which I liked.

The idea of taking responsibility for actions had come out also in the dharma discussion of the morning, where the Brahma Viharas were discussed. Karuna (compassion) was presented not just as a state of mind (like sympathy), but of something that required the taking of responsibility towards the objects of compassion, i.e. it is an active principle. It isn't enough to love or feel compassion another human being – this must also be expressed and borne out by one's actions. Thich Nhat Hanh is a proponent of “engaged Buddhism,” or Buddhism in action.