Friday March 6, 2009
In a comment on my posting some months ago on Sharon Stone, Jayarava noted that the Buddhist tradition is not monolithic. This is something that I think cannot be stressed enough: the various Buddhist traditions are neither mono – that is, they are not single – nor are they lithic – that is, they are not particularly stone-like. Like everything else, these traditions are multiple and fluid and subject to constant change. It is because of this fluidity that I prefer to talk about Buddhist traditions in the plural, rather than claiming that there is such a thing as a single Buddhist tradition. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if one gathered together all of the great named Buddhists of the past from the various different traditions and put them together in a single room; and when I wonder this, I can’t help thinking that the end result might be rather more unseemly than we are often willing to admit: more Wild West saloon than sanctuary of peace. Fisticuffs, alas, cannot be entirely ruled out.
For some, of course, this clamorousness seems something of a problem: What is the real Buddhism? Which are the authentic teachings? Which is the true word of the Buddha? But these are, I think, the wrong questions. It is possible to see life (or Buddhism, or philosophy…) as a search for the golden key that might unlock some treasure-chest of ultimate mysteries, or that might open a door to some inner chamber of final meanings; and if this is the perspective that we have, then it is clear that (unless we are good at picking locks!) only one key will do. There are certainly plenty of folks out there who claim to have just such a key. But if life isn’t like this, if it is not a matter of unlocking mysteries (either because they are not there in the way that we think they are, or because they are not held under lock and key in the first place), but is instead a matter of finding a way, of navigating through the seas of existence, then the question of authenticity becomes less urgent. Instead we can afford to be more pragmatic. Not what is the real Buddhism? or What is the one right path to take? (is there ever such a thing, outside the thought experiments of the philosophers, as a single right path); but instead, Is this helpful?
This pragmatic question has three salutary effects. Firstly, it demands a return to a kind of empiricism: to know whether something is helpful or not requires that we pay attention. Secondly, it places a responsibility upon us, so that we are no longer surrendering our faculty of thought to the idea of higher authority, but instead patiently thinking through the implications of what we think and do. And thirdly, it leads to a kind of fluidity, unanchoring us from the heavy and monolithic forms of dogmatism, and allowing us to move more freely again.
There is a beautiful simile in the Lekha Sutta that alludes to this fluidity of movement. There are three kinds of people, the text reads. Firstly, there are those who are like inscriptions on stone: what is written (and here the specific context is that of a discussion of anger, but the image is far too good to waste!) remains written forever. Secondly, there are those who are like inscriptions on soil: what is written remains for a while, but is then effaced. And thirdly there are those who are like inscriptions on water: what is written passes as soon as it is written, leaving behind nothing more than swirls and eddies and currents.
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