Saturday, September 21, 2013

Buddhas, what an eclectic bunch

There are so many contemplative paths out there, each expressing its own perspective on truth, that it's almost impossible not to get bewildered by the inevitable question, Which one of them is right? Whether you're studying Vedanta, Zen, Vajrayana, Sufism, it's easy to either get didactic--My homies have the (only) real teachings; everyone else is just fooling themselves--or confused. For how can all of these apparently disparate teachings be correct? Self or no self, soul or no soul, God(s) or no God(s)? The fact that few agree on some pretty central points can be very frustrating.

That is, if you attach to the words.

As a Zen Buddhist, I frequently look to the source of the word "Buddhism" as a reminder not to get attached to words. Buddhism, by definition (or according to my definition, at least), is the teachings and path of an Awakened One, not just the historical Buddha. I view my Zen ancestors--Chinul, Mazu, Zongmi, Seung Sahn--as Buddhas. Therefore, I see no reason to devalue the teachings of an Enlightened teacher, like say Sri Ramana Maharshi, just because his teachings don't jive with Shakyamuni Buddha's. After all, there are plenty of "Buddhist" teachers who don't agree with one another, or who advance some unorthodox teachings.

Buddhism, under this rubric, is the teaching and path of any Awakened being. Granted, I'm being very liberal in my use of the term, but I think that this perspective allows us to be nourished by any and all of the great contemplative traditions. Not in some smorgasbord kind of way where we feel obligated to acknowledge every Tom-Dick-and-Harry under the sun who claims to be Enlightened. But in a broad-minded way that looks beyond the words of the teachings to the heart of the Enlightened mind itself.

There is, according to all of these traditions--regardless of whether they actually agree on how to interpret it--one Truth. Since it obviously and unanimously transcends words, it serves to reason that it also transcends any attempt at systematization.

So I don't but much stock in words or concepts, at least in their ability to communicate or distill the Absolute. This in no way prohibits our using of them, as I am right now; it simply reminds us that the relative world, including language and how we organize information, is culture-bound.

The Absolute isn't.

This means that even though these great teachers don't agree on how to interpret the Absolute (soul, no-soul; God, no God), their experience of it can still be fundamentally the same. So there's no need to dismiss or reject the profound teachings from other traditions simply because their paradigm doesn't fit ours. That's like biting off our nose to spite our face.

Personally, I love Papaji's teaching, and fully view him as a spiritual ancestor in the same way as I do Nagarjuna or Bodhidharma. An heir of Sri Ramana Maharshi, Papaji was a magnificent teacher with an amazingly warm presence that you can literally feel when you read him. I find his satsangs (public teachings) enormously inspiring and nourishing. Personally, I could care less that he is technically considered an Advaita Vedanta teacher, or that uses the words "Self" or "God."

That's completely besides the point. His teachings not only speak to me as a student, but have greatly influenced how I teach Zen. Because in the end, as I suggested earlier, I am a student of all Buddhas, not just the orthodox, canonized one(s).


  1. Well said! Names and forms can often represent challenging impediments. It is common for spiritual aspirants to fix on them, despite the sages' cautions about clinging. They amount to a landing place, whereas in truth, there is no place to land, no position that can be claimed, which is why the truth is so free -- there is nothing about it that can be grasped, that can serve the ego-mind as a vehicle through which it can confirm its existence.

  2. I agree with you wholeheartedly on this. Us Buddhists unfortunately don't hold the patent or copyright on enlightenment. Sri Ramana Maharshi was most definitely an enlightened man during his lifetime and millions of people around the world have recognized him as such and his teachings and presence on this earth still have an impact today. One important thing I have realized with enlightened persons is that they don't go out and publicize the fact that they are enlightened - because they don't need to. People simply come to them by virtue of their enlightenment really, and the message gets out by word of mouth that they are enlightened. They are the living presence of the Bodhisattva of compassion whilst the walk the earth among us.

    Matthew from Morwell, Victoria, Australia