Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fork in the Dharma

"If you come to a fork in the road, take it!" --Yogi Berra
Lately I've been reading Geshe Tsering Tashe's The Foundation of Buddhist Thought Series, six books that cover everything from the Four Noble Truths all the way to Emptiness and Tantra. I highly recommend them. But as I've been reading, I can' help but be struck by how different these Tibetan teachings are from Zen.

Zen stresses non-duality, the ultimate interconnectedness of the universe. To a Zen master, any sense of a separate self is simply conventional. What I commonly regard as "me" is simply a case of mistaken identity--I am so much more than this limited, individual "me"; I am the entire universe. To quote Charlotte Joko Beck, the ego is a syndrome. It's like mistaking your fingernail for your entire body. In Zen, this is the common explanation for why we suffer--because we think that we are separate from everything and everyone else in the universe.

Tibetan Buddhism, or at least Geshe Tsering's Gelug school, sees things differently. From a Madhyamika Prasangika perspective, we suffer because we falsely imbue objects (including ourselves and others) with a false sense of independent, inherent existence. In other words, we think that objects and people have essences. There is some overlap between the two different schools, but the Tibetan emphasis is clearly on Emptiness while Zen leans towards non-duality.

Are Emptiness and non-duality the same thing, two sides of the same coin? Or maybe two different perspectives on the same principle?

If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I would have said yes. But I'm not so sure anymore.

When I first began studying Buddhism I was shocked to learn that not all Buddhists believe the same things. Imagine that! (How naive I was to think that people of different cultures would resoundingly agree on complex spiritual matters, simply because they all considered themselves "Buddhist.") I'm often amused when writers of a particular school try to pass off their tradition's interpretation as the definitive Buddhism. Enlightenment is..."seeing self and other as the same." "...seeing the emptiness of all phenomena, especially the self." "...the abandonment of clinging." And so on.

And just for the record. I don't even think that these writers do it intentionally. It's probably just a residual force of habit from studying in their school for so long.

Give this a try: Read four of five books of a given tradition, and you'll find that they all keep saying the same thing--"this is what Buddhism is." Then read five books from another tradition and I guarantee you'll find the authors making the same exact claim, except they won't agree with the first school!

So who's right? Maybe "right" is a lousy word, but come on...if they disagree, they can't both be right, can they?

Take Dogen, for instance. His most influential teaching (I feel) is that practice itself is Enlightenment. When you sit zazen, sit zazen. Don't try to attain anything; that's just adding another head on top of the one you already have. You are a Buddha when you practice wholeheartedly.

You would think that since Dogen was awakened, every other Buddhist master would agree with him, right? Far from it.

The whole "Sitting zazen is Buddha" is unique to Zen, and Soto Zen at that. A Tibetan lama would look at you like you're crazy if you said that you were a Buddha while you sat zazen.

"Are you nuts?" he'd say. "You're just as deluded as you were before you sat on the cushion! You haven't eliminated the tree poisons (greed, hatred, and ignorance)., let alone penetrated Emptiness."

And these are not minor philosophical differences; they're major enough to influence every aspect of practice, which explains why Vajrayana looks very different from Japanese or Chinese Buddhism.

Some people may chalk this up to upaya, or skillful means. "Maybe Dogen was simply trying to get us to forget about reaching Enlightenment," they'd say, "and just practice with all our hearts. Striving to 'attain' Awakening like just some other goal objectifies practice." It's possible. But sometimes I think that Buddhists use upaya as a kind of blanket statement to cover up the fact that not all Buddhist traditions believe the same thing.

"So what if koans are radically different from shikantaza. Not to mention Tantra or Mindfulness practice. They're all upaya."

I don't want to turn this into a "What's the real Buddhism?" conversation, but at some point each of us needs to make a decision as to which form of practice best addresses our individual needs. Personally, Zen works well for me, but I am also very interested in the philosophical end of Buddhism, an area of practice that Zen tends to neglect (or at the very least, under emphasize). So I'm supplementing. Is Madhyamika philosophy compatible with Zen practice? I'll soon find out.

One of the most difficult aspects of Zen practice (at least for me) is accepting uncertainty, and that's where I find myself every time I consider this topic. If we're looking for a definitive answer to this dilemma, then we're going to be disappointed--different schools of Buddhism have different doctrines, determined by culture, geography, and politics (to name just a few influences). I haven't found the "real" Dharma, and doubt whether such a thing exists at all.
Part of the problem, I think, may be the need to search for it in the first place. Certainly all of the schools of Buddhism agree on more than they disagree, and finding common ground is more productive than concentrating on philosophical differences.

But I would be lying if I said that the disagreements in Buddhist doctrine don't tie my stomach in a knot and send my head reeling.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: tonystl.

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