A few weeks passed by after my conversation with Doug. Then I received a call from him. Doug was hoping that we could get together again. We found that once again we had a Saturday free; though this time it was later in the afternoon. We agreed to meet at a desert place that also serves excellent coffee and tea.
Saturday came. I arrived before Doug, as is my tendency. I ordered a pumpkin cookie and some Dragon Well Green Tea. This place didn’t have waiters, one just placed one’s order at the counter and waited. So I took my cookie to a table and waited for the tea to brew. The Dragon Well was particularly fine. I sipped my tea in appreciation of its aroma and taste.
Doug was about 20 minutes late, as is his tendency. He placed an order for carrot cake and espresso at the counter. After receiving his order he joined me at the table.
Doug sipped his espresso. He looked both eager and apprehensive. I was eager to continue our conversation. After savoring his espresso, and a few bites on the carrot cake, Doug proceeded. “I’ve been thinking a lot about our last conversation. The truth is, I’ve been thinking about nothing else. I found it helpful, even though I don’t completely agree with your view or conclusions.
“There are several things, though, that I am uneasy about. One is that it seems to me that the ultimate/provisional distinction can lead to a diminution of the Dharma.” I was about to object, but Doug signaled with a hand motion that he wanted to continue, so I held back. “Hear me out. I understand the usefulness of the distinction. It does clarify certain teachings one finds in the Discourses. However, I think it can also lead to the idea of dispensing with the provisional teachings altogether. After all, who wants to spend time on the provisional; why not cut to the chase and directly access the ultimate?”
“I agree with you; that is a danger embedded in the ultimate/provisional distinction.” I could see that Doug was surprised at my agreement. I suspect that he expected a more defensive posture from me. “I think there are many who interpret the idea of a provisional teaching as meaning something which can be tossed out, put aside, or touched on only lightly. But I think this is a misunderstanding of the distinction.
“Provisional does not mean discardable, or trivial. The term ‘provisional’ means something that is a condition for awakening to the ultimate, but is not the ultimate itself. The provisional teachings are conditions which lead to awakening; as such they are to be highly valued. On the other hand, they should not be mistaken for the ultimate itself.
“Let me give an example of what I mean. The Buddha taught an ethical system, centered on the Five Precepts, that all Buddhists are expected to adopt. But these ethical teachings are not themselves the deathless and unborn. But they are conditions which make it possible for someone to awaken to the deathless and unborn. How so? Because if the mind is agitated and distracted, it is almost impossible for such an awakening to take place. If the mind is constantly strategizing about lying, about stealing, etc., then it is simply not possible for the mind to settle down enough to become aware of the subtle presence of the deathless. Hence there is a cause and effect relationship between living an ethical life and awakening.”
Doug responded, “That’s a good example. I see what you are saying. Still, it seems to me that many people upon hearing about the ultimate/provisional distinction do, in fact, dismiss the provisional teachings as being unnecessary. Some explicitly say this. How would you respond to them?”
“I would suggest that they look at the life of Shakyamuni Buddha.” I was seeing that Doug and I were in basic agreement, which was satisfying. “After Shakyamuni Buddha awakened he continued to live his life as a monastic, perfectly adhering to the precepts. He did not put them aside, discard them, or abandon them. Similarly, after Shakyamuni Buddha awakened he did not cease meditating; on the contrary he continued to meditate on a daily basis.
“Why did he do so? Here’s an analogy. Suppose someone wants to plant a garden. After a number of years the garden has taken the shape that they wanted. But that doesn’t mean that they now cease to water the garden, or that they cease to prune, trim, and fertilize. Similarly with the fields of the mind and heart. It may take many years for the awakening of the mind and heart to happen. But after it does happen, that does not mean that one should cease from tending the fields of the mind and heart. One continues to tend to them so that they will continue to yield their wisdom and insight.
“In other words, the provisional teachings make it possible for ultimate realization and if one abandons the provisional teachings the ultimate realization begins to fade; just as when one ceases to water a garden it begins to wither.”
Doug paused. “I like your approach and understanding. It fits with my own observation that it is really necessary to continue with the basic practices of the Dharma, the practices of such things as ethics. But why do you think that so many people want to dispense with these basic practices, want to put them aside?”
“I think it is because they get lost in the ultimate.”
Doug looked startled. “I understand what you mean when you say some people, like those disciples in the Middle Length Discourses and the Lotus Sutra who didn’t like the Buddha’s teaching, are lost in the provisional. But what in the world do you mean by ‘lost in the ultimate’? How could one get lost in the ultimate? Isn’t the whole point of the teaching the ultimate?” Doug sounded exasperated.
“I know it sounds strange, even paradoxical.” I responded evenly. “But I believe that embedded in the idea that one can dispense with provisional teachings is a subtle dualism. I mean by this that if one thinks one can dispense with the provisional it implies that the ultimate negates the provisional, that the ultimate lies somewhere else than where the provisional is present. My understanding of ultimate nature, of the deathless and unborn, is that there is no place it does not exist and no activity in which it is not present. If this understanding is accurate, then ultimate nature is also present when and where one lives by the precepts, when and where one engages in meditation, etc. This is why Shakyamuni Buddha could continue to live the life he lived even after his full awakening. To act as if ultimate realization leads to the abandonment of the provisional is to act as if the ultimate was confined to certain realms, certain activities, and not others. That is getting lost in the ultimate.
“There are two good reasons to maintain the provisional teachings. First, they establish the conditions for awakening and for continued deepening of one’s own awakening. Second, the provisional teachings show others who have not awakened, or who need to deepen their awakening, that these are the ways that one can follow in order to accomplish that task. In other words, one maintains the provisional teachings in order to deepen one’s own awakening, broaden it, and to assist others on the path to awakening. Maintaining the provisional teachings is, therefore, an essential part of the Bodhisattva Vow to assist sentient beings to fully awaken. If one discards the provisional teachings, one discards the Bodhisattva Vow.”
Doug looked thoughtful. “So in a sense the Dharma is a seamless whole.” Doug took another sip on his espresso. “I need to contemplate these ideas. Your perspective is quite different from what I have previously encountered.”
It was my turn, now, to be thoughtful. “Take your time. I am not claiming any originality here. Also, if you find flaws in my approach, please let me know. That is the only way I can grow in my own understanding.”
“Well, as long as you asked, I do have some observations. We’ve been friends a long time. It is only recently that you have centered your understanding so singlemindedly on the Lotus Sutra. I sense a danger in this kind of approach. It seems to me to be a kind of fundamentalism and introduces a certain rigidity in your approach. I am not saying that you are a fundamentalist; but that by relying on a single text, a single Discourse, you are leaning in that direction.” Doug was calm, but I could see that he felt he was taking a risk and I appreciated that he was willing to do that.
“I agree with you. There is that danger.” I responded without defensiveness.
Doug looked surprised. “I didn’t expect you to agree with me.”
I laughed. “You were ready for a fight?”
Now Doug laughed, “I guess so. I must say I’m relieved that you at least see the danger of a kind of drift into rigidity.”
Now it was my turn to laugh. “I rely on my good Dharma friends, people like you, to point out to me when I might be drifting into this kind of danger.”
Doug smiled. “That’s one of the beauties of sangha.”
I had run out of tea. So I picked up my teapot and went to the counter for a refill. When I returned I let it brew for a few minutes, then poured some of the second infusion into my teacup. The second infusion was even better than the first.
I now returned to our discussion. “Where were we? Oh, yea. Fundamentalism, rigidity, things like that. I think fundamentalism is a human danger, it is a tendency of the human mind. I don’t think it depends on regarding a particular text, like the Lotus Sutra, as being definitive. For example, it strikes me that many Zen, Dzog Chen, and other practitioners are rigid about rejecting texts as sources of wisdom. I would say many are dogmatic about it.”
Doug eagerly responded, “I know what you mean. It’s the kind of person who, the moment you start talking about a Sutta or Sutra, roles their eyes, sighs, and shakes their head at how deluded you are for even talking about the Dharma. I have found myself frequently frustrated by this approach.”
“Ah, so you’ve met this kind of practitioner?” I knew the answer, of course, who hasn’t run into this?
“Sure. They are everywhere, they are like a plague.” Doug’s frustration showed.
“So you can see that fundamentalism doesn’t have to rely on a text. What we are talking about is a fixed mind, what my teacher used to call ‘rocks mind’.”
Doug laughed again. “Rocks mind. That’s a good description. Yes, I can see your point. Even so, though, doesn’t elevating the Lotus Sutra to a definitive status incline one who has that view towards a certain rigidity of mind?”
I responded somewhat defensively, “I can only respond that I don’t think that danger is any greater with a tradition based on a text versus a tradition not based on a text. It’s just a danger of the human condition; it can arise in politics, economics, even in the arts. So it is not a problem that is peculiar to religion.”
Doug was not so easily mollified. “But look here; some will argue that it is this Sutra, some will argue that it is that Sutra, and of course, some Christians will argue that it is the New Testament, and some Vajrayanists will argue for the supremacy of a Tantra, etc. Thump, thump, thump!” Doug pounded the table with his fist for emphasis.
I paused to let the heat that was building up dissipate. “I think that in order to discuss this we need to discuss discussing religion. I mean, can people discuss religion?”
“I’m not sure what you are getting at?” Doug seemed a little suspicious. Maybe he thought I was trying to dodge the issue.
“It seems to me that religion in the west, and probably elsewhere as well, has gotten itself into a position such that having a conversation about it has become very difficult.” I was attempting to put the issue in a larger, sociological, context “Look, many people have different views on diet; some people argue for high protein diets, others argue for a fruit centered diet, while still others argue for a grain centered diet, etc. There are many such claims. In the context of diet it is not considered irrational, or fundamentalist, to advocate a particular diet. Nor is it considered wrong to question a particular diet. For example, if someone advocates a high protein diet, and I have objections to that diet, it isn’t considered bad form or impolite to ask questions about the high protein diet.
“But religion at this time is different. If someone holds the view that a particular religion is better, or that a particular religion’s view is highest, that claim is automatically regarded as suspicious simply because of the nature of the claim. In addition, it is considered bad form, or rude, or impolite, to question someone’s religious views. This is a really unfortunate situation. What I am saying is that I should be able to say that I think a particular religious view is better than another without being accused of being a fundamentalist, or rigid, simply for having such a view. Just as someone can advocate for a particular diet without that necessarily meaning that the person who argues for that diet is being somehow irrationally stubborn.”
I could see that Doug didn’t buy it. “What you say is an interesting observation, but I think the comparison doesn’t really hold water. Diet doesn’t hold the same psychological position in people’s minds and hearts that religion does. So it isn’t a fair comparison.”
“That’s a good point,” I responded. “I was deliberately trying to compare religion to something mundane in order to clarify my point. What I’m trying to get at is that religious views should not be exempt from the kind of public discourse that other fields of human action are subject to. Religion should not be exempt from, or held above, the kinds of discussions that are common in all other fields of human endeavor.
“But I see your point about comparing diet and religion. So let’s look at other areas. Mathematicians often disagree with each other. They hold public conferences to discuss their disagreements, write and publish papers about their proofs and whether or not they are adequate. In other words, it is considered normal for this kind of discussion to happen in this context. The same can be said about philosophy, economics, and other areas of human life. Only in religion does the idea appear that it is somehow beyond this kind of interaction. I believe this is a great loss for religion.
“You know, this wasn’t always the case. Traditionally in Buddhism, Dharma debate was frequent. Great Buddhist Sages would engage in public debates about their various positions. And these debates were often well attended by large audiences who were interested in these issues. This was true in India, China, Japan, and many other Buddhist countries. And this atmosphere of discussion, dialectic, and debate honed the Dharma, deepened the insights of the tradition, and kept Dharma discourse alive and well.
“But today, in recent history, religion tries to exempt itself from these kinds of discussions. It is considered off limits. Or it is considered a private matter that other people do not have a right to question or even make an inquiry about. The result is a withering of religious discourse. I believe that this situation is one of the conditions which has given rise to fundamentalism. In an atmosphere where people felt free to inquire and question religious beliefs and views, fundamentalism could not endure. If someone said a particular diet was correct, and then insisted that no one in the world had the right to inquire why, or ask for evidence in support of their position, the advocate of that diet would have a very small following; perhaps no following at all. But we as a culture have allowed exactly that to happen in the arena of religion. And the result is a plethora of bizarre and even dangerous views which are never held up to scrutiny and are allowed to sow the seeds of their destructive intentions far and wide.”
Doug smiled. “You are passionate about this. I understand what you are saying, but isn’t the solution to religious differences the acknowledgement that they are all saying basically the same thing?”
I frowned. “I hope that they aren’t all saying the same thing. That would be boring.”
Doug laughed. “That was unexpected.”
I continued. “What I mean is that I’m glad we have more than one kind of flower. I’m glad that we have more than one kind of music; not all pieces of music are string quartets. And I am glad that we have more than one form of spirituality.
“More importantly, the idea that all religions are saying the same thing is a kind of academic exercise. It’s not based on experience. No one I know who holds this view has actually practiced in all the different traditions, so there is no basis for making this assertion. I find it kind of arrogant.”
Doug laughed again. “O.K. then. Let’s return to the Lotus Sutra.”
I laughed with Doug. “Agreed. What I am asserting is that it is possible to put forth a claim about religion without that claim implying a fundamentalist stance. The key here is a willingness to be open regarding that claim. For example, if someone argues in favor of a particular diet and is unwilling to examine and discuss the pros and cons of that diet, I would say they have fallen into a fundamentalism regarding diet. If someone is unwilling to discuss or consider the pros and cons of their political position I would say they are a political fundamentalist. Similarly, in the arena of religion, in order to not be a fundamentalist one needs to be willing to be open to genuine discussion regarding the views one holds. Otherwise one has fallen into fundamentalism.”
Doug looked thoughtful. “So what you are saying is that the arena of religion should be treated the same way as other arenas of human endeavor and experience. That those who hold to a religious view, or a view on spirituality, do not have, or should not have, the option of dodging thoughtful questions and inquiry into their view.”
“Yes, that’s what I am saying.”
Doug’s brow narrowed. “But what about the role of faith? Isn’t that central to religion and doesn’t that negate the idea of open discussion and inquiry?”
“I think that is a misunderstanding of the meaning faith.” I paused to consider how to proceed. “It is true that many religious people use faith in the way you described. To be honest with you, I think this is a technique for valorizing ignorance. To understand this consider what would happen in mathematics if someone offered a proof for a theorem. Then another mathematician comes along and questions the validity of the proof. The first mathematician then responds by saying, ‘Well, I have faith in my demonstration. And you can’t question my faith.’ Such an approach, if accepted, would lead to the death throes of mathematics. I think that one of the reasons why many people are suspicious of religion in general is because of this attitude regarding faith; it is understood to be a way of dodging responsibility for one’s commitments.
“Faith does have a role in religion; but this role is not unique to religion. Basically, I understand faith to mean trust. To enter into any religious tradition or view one has to have a basic trust in what is being offered. The aspect of faith here is that at the beginning one does not know that what is being offered will bear fruit. One has to have a sense of trust and faith that if I follow what is being suggested, then it will bear fruit.
“But this isn’t any different from other fields of human experience. For example, if I want to learn a foreign language, say German, I have to have a sense of trust about the subject or I simply will not take the first step in learning German. I have to believe that studying German is worthwhile, I have to believe that I am capable of learning German, and I have to believe that the teacher I go to has knowledge of German and is able to pass on to others that knowledge. If any of these are missing I simply won’t take even the first step on the path to learning German.
“So when religions say that faith is necessary, that all religious understanding rests on faith, I completely agree with this. But it is important to realize that this faith is not a unique or special demand that is peculiar to religion. It is a necessary condition that must be present at the beginning of any path of understanding, both worldly and transcendental. And, in both cases, over time faith is transformed into understanding. As my studies of German proceed, faith is transformed into the ability to actually speak the language. In the case of the Dharma, faith in the Dharma blossoms forth into an awareness of the deathless and unborn.”
Doug considered what I was saying for. “I like what you are saying about faith. But you must realize that most people today, when they use the term faith, mean something like believing in something even though there is no evidence in support of it, or even though there is evidence that directly contradicts it. Hence faith is considered to be hostile to reason and science.”
I sighed, “Yes, I know. I’m painfully aware of this. And if religious people continue to hold to this view of faith I predict that religion will become a backwater for the ignorant and vicious. It used to be the case that the best minds would be attracted to religion. Think of people like Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, Buddhaghosha, Chih I T’ien T’ai, Saicho, Chinul, Tsong Khapa, Miphan, and countless other Buddhist Sages. And this used to be true of other religions as well. Think of the Dionysius the Areopagite, Thomas Aquinas, Maximus the Confessor, Moses Maimonides, in the monotheistic tradition; think of great Sages like Chu Hsi in the Confucian tradition, etc. Today, however, the best minds bypass religion and head instead for science, philosophy, and technology. Why is this the case? I think to a large extent it is because in science, philosophy, and technology one finds a willingness to engage in the pros and cons of views that are presented. A scientist who presented a view and backed it up by saying that this view was based on blind faith, and they simply would not discuss it further would, eventually, be dismissed by colleagues. The same holds for philosophy and psychology. But in the field of religion anyone can offer any kind of outrageous view, views that are hateful, narrow, utterly devoid of any basis or evidence, and say that is their faith, and then act as if that settles the matter. It does not settle the matter. As I said previously, such an attitude is the death of the spirit.”
Again, Doug pondered the discussion. “Well, let’s return to the Lotus Sutra. Are you really saying that the highest teaching of the Buddha is embodied in a text, a particular text?”
I hesitated, but then decided to go ahead. “Yes, that is what I am saying.”
“But isn’t that just a form of reification. And doesn’t such an approach lead to a rigidity of mind and heart?”
“What do you mean by reification?” I asked.
Doug was ready, “I mean that you are equating a text with ultimate nature. Now, ultimate nature is the transcendental. And ultimate nature is constant. A text is not the constant. It appeared and will one day disappear. So how can the Lotus Sutra be the ultimate?”
“So you think I am turning the Lotus Sutra into a kind of idol?” I suggested.
“Yes, I guess that is what I mean in a raw kind of way. It is a kind of idolatry. By idolatry I mean a misplacement of the transcendental.” Doug clarified.
I pondered how to respond. “First, I think you are pointing out a real danger. In fact, I suspect that some people treat the Lotus Sutra in the way that you suggest. But that is also true of many other works and things in all traditions. It is even true in many secular contexts; for example, many people reify the state and turn their country into an idol. In this day and age that is quite common. Of course, that doesn’t let me off the hook. If I am turning the Lotus Sutra into an idol, that is a serious mistake.
“I have several responses to this. First, simply saying that the Louts Sutra is the highest, or most complete, presentation of the Dharma in and of itself does not constitute reification. To draw analogies; if I say that a particular presentation of logic, or baking, or gardening, is the best I have come across that does not mean that I am reifying, or idolizing, those presentations. It means that I find those presentations efficacious. Similarly, I think the Lotus Sutra is the most efficacious presentation of the Dharma. It is the clearest, the most direct. That is my claim; and not just my claim. It is the claim of a long line of Buddhist Sages from various traditions.
“But I would also like to respond to the idea that a text cannot embody the ultimate teaching of the Buddha, which was implied in your suggestion regarding texts and reification. This is the standard ‘finger and the moon’ criticism. The idea here is that a text can only be a finger pointing at the moon; meaning that the text is, at best, a pointer to that which is ultimate. And this in turn rests on the idea that ultimate nature is non-conceptual.”
Doug nodded, “Yes, that is what I am suggesting and a part of my criticism of your approach.”
“I would like to suggest for your consideration that the idea that a text cannot embody ultimate nature is a subtle form of dualism,” I responded cautiously; my experience has been that this can be a contentious issue.
“What do you mean?” Doug responded evenly.
“Consider this: The Heart Sutra says that ‘all things are marked by emptiness.’ The Lotus Sutra says that ‘all things are forever without substance.’ Now, this ‘all things’ is the key to understanding how, and why, a text can embody, can instantiate, ultimate nature. If it is really true that ‘all things’ have this nature, then words and concepts also have this ultimate nature. Because words and concepts are things; they are not non-things. If you are saying that words are only a finger pointing to the moon of ultimate nature, then you are saying that all things except for words, concepts, texts, have ultimate nature. Hence, I suggest that such an approach is a subtle form of dualism.”
Doug was silent for a few moments. “I’m having difficulty accepting what you are saying. Look, if what you are saying is true, then does it not follow that any text embodies ultimate nature? A political broadside, a recipe, a catalog; all of these would equally be candidates for embodying ultimate nature. So why elevate the Lotus Sutra over the latest catalog?”
“It is true that all things have this ultimate nature and therefore all texts have this ultimate nature; just as all things have it, including rocks and clouds and streets and stars and poems and advertisements. However, not all things speak of ultimate nature. That is the difference and it is a difference that I find crucial.” I eagerly responded.
“What do you mean when you say that ‘not all things speak of ultimate nature’?” Doug was still skeptical.
“It is a matter of self-referential consistency. What I mean is that rocks and clouds do not tell me about that aspect of their existence which is ultimate; they do not tap me on the shoulder and say that I can perceive ultimate nature, the presence of eternity, as something which they display. In contrast, a work like the Lotus Sutra does exactly that. To take just one example, Chapter 16 speaks lyrical about ultimate nature, about eternity, and the eternal life of the Tathagata. In this case the aspect of words which also displays the eternal, is also speaking about the eternal. This is the beauty of the words of the Buddha, that they simultaneously display and speak of ultimate nature.”
Doug looked somewhat puzzled. “What you say is interesting, but I’m not quite convinced. Wouldn’t what you are saying apply to any words that speak of the ultimate meaning of the Dharma?”
I nodded, “Yes, of course. However, I would argue that the Lotus Sutra is the most complete presentation of the ultimate meaning of the Dharma. It is the clearest presentation. It is the most explicit presentation.”
Doug frowned. “So you are saying that other Discourses which talk about ultimate nature are somehow lesser?”
I chuckled, “Well, yes, that is what I am saying. But before you brush this aside; consider this. There are many Discourses of the Buddha which speak of ultimate matters. Many of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras do so, and there are scattered throughout the Buddhist Canon, in all its versions, beautiful Discourses on the ultimate. For example, Sutta 36 from the Middle Length Discourses is one of my favorites.
“Nevertheless, I would still argue that the Lotus Sutra is more complete. Though I admit that this is an arguable point I believe I am not alone in this assessment. Buddhist practitioners widely spaced in time and tradition have also viewed the Lotus Sutra in this way. They range from such ancient worthies as Chih I to living masters such as Thich Nhat Hanh. I’m not trying to win you over by citing a long list of Sages that have this view. I’m just pointing out that it is not an eccentric view or one that I have created out of thin air.”
Doug fell into one of his thoughtful silences. We both sipped tea. “What about the Lotus Sutra, specifically, not just your feeling, but what specifically about the Lotus Sutra leads you to view it as more complete than other presentations?”
“If I were to sum it up into a single point it would be this,” I put down my cup of tea. “Ultimate nature, the eternal, the always present, is not just a principle that one can deduce. Ultimate nature is a compassionate and responsive presence, and it is this aspect of ultimate nature as a compassionate and responsive presence that the Lotus Sutra reveals which places it above the other Discourses that speak of ultimate nature.
“This is why I think Nichiren is correct when he says that Chapter 16 of the Lotus Sutra is the heart of the Dharma. All the Discourses of the Buddha lead to the Lotus Sutra, like rivers flowing into an ocean. And the heart of the Lotus Sutra is Chapter 16 which reveals that the eternal life of the Tathagata is not just a principle, like emptiness, or even Buddha Nature, but the eternally compassionate presence which ceaselessly assists sentient beings to overcome all sorrow and awaken to the deathless and unborn. Without this teaching there is a certain dryness to the Buddhadharma; as if someone can deduce the basic principle of the Dharma and that will be sufficient. With the Lotus Sutra the Buddhadharma regains its heart and becomes a living tradition. The Lotus Sutra is the life blood of the Dharma which endows the Dharma with its vibrant presence. It is the Lotus Sutra which gives nourishment to all the rest of the Dharma, all the other Discourses and Practices; it is like the Lotus Sutra is the lifegiving energy, the Chi, if you will, coursing through all the branches of the Dharma, sustaining them, enriching them, and ensuring that they are a living and vital presence in the world.”
Doug appeared thoughtful. “I just don’t think I can go with you on this one. For me, Nirvana is about cessation. The Buddha taught the cessation of sorrow, the end of suffering. This idea of an eternal Buddha, it just seems too much like God to me. It seems to me you are imposing on the Dharma a theistic interpretation.”
I think we both realized we had reached a kind of impasse. But if a difference in understanding is going to be bridged, the first step is to clearly state what the difference is. So I decided to proceed. “So for you, the ultimate teaching of the Buddha is a negation; the absence of suffering?”
Doug responded, “Yes, that’s right. That’s what the Buddha taught. He said this on numerous occasions, that he teaches the end of suffering. Particularly, when people asked him metaphysical questions, or asked him if the Tathagata survives in some way after he dies, he said that such questions were not fruitful because they are not conducive to the end of suffering. From what I am hearing you are imposing precisely the kind of metaphysical and theological view on the Dharma that the Buddha said was not fruitful. I don’t mean to be harsh, but it just seems to me to be running counter to what the Buddha offered.”
“But there are passages in the Theravada Canon which seem to me to indicate a positive awakening, that the Buddha awakened to something.” I responded in a lowkey manner, but there was also a certain intensity coming from me, as I consider this to be a crucial point. “For example, the Buddha describes his awakening by saying, ‘Light arose within me.’ And there are those passages where the Buddha says, ‘There is that which is deathless, unborn, uncreated and unconditioned. If there were not the deathless, unborn, uncreated and unconditioned, liberation would not be possible.’ It is my contention that the Buddha awakened to something, however difficult that something is to define. Another way of putting it is this: To bring about the complete cessation of suffering one must awaken to the deathless and unborn.”
Doug tapped the table with his fingers. “But if what you are saying is true, then what is the difference between what the Buddha taught and what the monotheistic tradition teaches? Is there any difference? And if there isn’t any difference, why should we westerners bother?”
I laughed. Not a big guffaw, just a chuckle. “I think there are differences in the two traditions’ understanding of the meaning of the deathless. If I were to pick a single one to focus on it would be the non-separate nature of the deathless. I mean by this that in the monotheistic tradition ultimately God exists separately and self-sufficiently. That is to say, because God is viewed as the creator of all that exists, he exists independently of that creation. In Buddhism no such independent existence exists. The deathless, therefore, is not something outside of existence.
“This may seem like a minor point, or a point of obscure theological interest, of value only to those who have a lot of time to devote to the finer points of philosophical analysis. I think it would be a mistake to view it that way. This difference permeates the two traditions and manifests in myriad ways. For example, in mystical Christianity, the approach to ultimacy is accomplished through the systematic negation of appearances. First, sensory appearances are negated, then mental appearances are negated. When one is left in utter darkness, the ultimacy that precedes all appearances reveals itself in that darkness. In the meditative programs developed in the Buddhadharma there is no such equivalent. Meditative programs in the Dharma are designed not to negate appearances, but to comprehend appearances in their full actuality. Thus concentration forms of meditation in Buddhism do not negate appearances, but seek to reveal the actual manner in which appearances exist; which is to say that they are not solid, that they are changing, that they are dependent upon causes for their existence. Appearances are examined minutely, including mental appearances, because doing so reveals the actual manner of how existence functions. This is understood to be liberative, and is considered to be the overcoming of ignorance.”
Doug interrupted, “But what has that got to do with the deathless?”
I responded, “The Buddhist tradition comprehends the deathless as not remote, but hidden from our understanding due to ignorance and preoccupation with transient appearances. So what is needed is a shift of attention away from transient appearances to that which is constant, the deathless. When this shift takes place the deathless and unborn manifest.”
“There is another difference in the two traditions which I think is important.” I continued. “And that is that in the monotheistic tradition no ordinary being can become God because God is unique and transcendent. But it is precisely the promise of the Buddhist tradition, and specifically the Lotus Sutra, that one can become a Buddha, which means that one can become a fully enlightened one; someone in whom all ignorance and suffering has vanished.”
Doug smiled. “Yes, that is the promise of the Dharma. At least on that point we are in complete agreement. And it is why I continue to practice, in the hope of Nibbana, as the Theravadans say.”
“Yes, in the hope of Nibbana.” I felt a strong heart connection to Doug at this point. “It is that faith, that trust, that the Lotus of the Dharma will blossom in our hearts and minds which keeps us on the path. Life after life.”
Doug smiled again. “Yes, life after life.”
There was a long pause. I sipped some tea. Doug finished off his espresso. Then we meandered into some light talk about mutual friends; where they were, what they were doing, etc. It was clear that our Dharma discussion had come to a mutually satisfying conclusion. Not that we had come to an agreement on all points. But I felt that both of us had taken steps towards deepening our own understandings. That’s what Dharma friends are for.