Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Witnessing to Buddhists

I have just discovered a great resource--a concise list of a half-dozen of the biggest misconceptions about Buddhism in the West, especially by conservative evangelical Christians. How did this come about?

You may have noticed that I spiffed up the site a little recently, and I have been trying to at least be cognizant of what exactly is going on with internet technology, information sharing, blogging, etc. So some blogs I visit have started having links to things (which I have yet to really pay attention to) like Flickr,, etc. One that seemed interesting was Technorati, so I thought I would see how it worked. I suppose once something is properly tagged by a category on a blog it is then collected into an aggregate of other posts with the same tag, and the tag is searchable (i.e. search for 'Buddhism' or 'politics'). Interesting.

Well, one of the recent entries last night when I was learning about all of this (by searching 'Buddhism' was an entry from a page at (something else I am not really 'up to speed' on) titled 'How to witness to Buddhists'. It is apparently a reprint from something written by one Daniel R. Heimbach, listed as an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. It was basically a nice summary of six of the most persistent misunderstanding about Buddhism in the West.

Now to be fair, Buddhism is not practiced the same way everywhere. Moreover, certain types of superstitious/supernatural thinking, systems of bargaining/bartering with 'fate' or 'destiny', etc. crop up in every sacred tradition. There may be some people who consider themselves to be practicing Buddhists whose views resemble the following descriptions in some way. That's just human nature, and the nature of cultural change/assimilation. So I don't presume to speak for all Buddhists. With those caveats in place, let's briefly review the minsconceptions, cited briefly here as fair use quotes. Please note that this is REALLY long because it includes some materials I have previously published):

Buddhists are deeply concerned with overcoming suffering but must deny that suffering is real.

Buddhism teaches that suffering is based on delusion. No one is denying that people experience suffering. Buddhism also teaches that the causes of suffering are empty, which means they lack intrinsic existence. That is, they do not exist in isolation, nor are they unchanging. They come and go. Neither of these teaching denies that people suffer, but that they often suffer needlessly by not perceiving "reality as it is" and instead seeing "reality as colored by their ego and conditioning".

Buddhists must work to convince themselves they have no personal signifi-cance, even though they live daily as though they do.

I have previously written:

'Emptiness refers to the fact that things do not possess their form because of some essential quality or spirit inherent in that form or which gives rise to that form. Together with the teaching of impermanence they make a lesson about depedent origination, which in contemporary terms is best captured by the idea of cause and effect. To clarify my usage of these concepts consider the following: If everything is an interaction, an ongoing set of processes, then technically nothing exists inherently, only as a part of constant ever-shifting relationships. Objects are created and sustained by their relationships, and relationships are created and sustained by objects. To explore the substance of one is to reveal the other. These are the principles commonly known as emptiness and impermanence as explained by dependent origination. I have been considering some common thinking that appears from my reading to be present in the more visible aspects of Buddhism in the English speaking world. It seems that there is a lot of emphasis on the idea that emptiness of form, which in turn has been used in some cases to suggest detachment from caring about people or things rather than non-attachment to them. Letting go of an attachment doesn't diminish an experience, it enhances it.

'By not grasping or clinging to unrealistic or unhealthy ideas about our relationships to other people and things we should be able to more fully appreciate other people or things, rather than strip them of any value just because they, like all things, are composed of the same basic essence and their form is temporary. That brings me to the Heart Sutra. Here is a relevant execert: O, Sariputra, form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form; form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form, the same is true of feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness.

'If form and emptiness are the same then the only reason for the saying "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form" is to give voice to the error itself, that of splitting the two and considering them separately ("If I want to understand form I better try to comprehend empitness" or "If I want to understand emptiness I better learn about form"). It occurs to me that that's part of the significance of the phrase, rather than simply saying "Form and empitness are the same thing--they are both just concepts to be transcended." In one incorrect view, you come to see "form" as "something" or "the answer", in the other you come to see "empitness" as "something" or "the answer".

'When you begin to forget that form is emptiness, you run the risk of being lured in by some belief in eternalism. That is, you believe that there is some component inside you that makes you who you are, a basic essence which is commonly referred to as a soul. Belief that this soul is an actual transferable object which can only be created or destroyed by God, and which is fundamentally distinct from all other forms of matter and energy, is the basis for "eternal life" in many religions.

'When you forget empitness is form, you are in danger of adopting a nihilistic point of view. Even if you don't have the error of thinking that "emptiness=nothing" or oblivion, you can still focus overly much on the notion of emptiness and arrive at conclusions about the nature and worth of things which can rightly be called a form of nihilism. This can result, the same as eternalism, from attachment to the ego. However, instead of believing that the ego last forever (eternalism), you believe that if you aren't "special" then nothing is, and so if you are no longer "essentially you/set apart", then you don't matter and therefore nothing matters. That is where I found the second half of the teaching to be useful.

'It is precisely because each person is ephemeral and because there will never be another person like you, or me, that their life should be valued. For the Buddhist, though, it goes deeper than this. Each form is a distinct manifestation of our common root of being to be valued as a unique treasure. Obviously sentient beings are especially important because they have the capacity to suffer, and Buddhism is about using clarity to remove suffering, but each tree is also unique. Each sunset. Each star. Each dung beetle. This is how and why Buddhism can be so blunt about emptiness and impermanence, the birth of form and the death of form, and yet pronounce a view which generates boundless compassion and appreciation for all forms, whether they are deemed to be grand or common, fair or foul. And this can be captured in such a simple and elegant phrase: Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.'

So indeed Buddhism teaches us that we all have a great deal of significance--it is inherent to our very existence! :o)

The hope of nirvana is no hope at all - only death and extinction.

There is a passage from the Platform Sutra that reads "affliction is Bodhi and the cycle of birth and death is Nirvana." It helps to clarify and reinforce an appreciation of the constancy of rebirth as the manifestation of emptiness, that through the teachings of no-self and nirvana Buddhism is not espousing some abysmal fatalistic escapism ("life is so bad let’s hope we don’t get reincarnated any more and simply cease to exist because being nothing is better than being alive"), and also that perspective is crucial. In my reflections it occured to me that the passage "affliction is Bodhi and the cycle of birth and death is Nirvana" is actually saying the same exact thing as "form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form."

As I’ve written before:

‘After all, if the present moment is the perpetual manifestation of the eternal, and if Bodhi and Nirvana can be “attained” (I prefer “realized” since they are ever-present and not somehow “achieved”), where else would they be? In the future? In some other place? Of couse not. So it makes sense that the everpresent birth and death of each moment must also contain the experience of Nirvana, and amidst our confusion and suffering must be lurking Bodhi. Hence escaping Samsara isn't about some future far far away but escaping the cycle of delusion that repeats itself constantly every day, the 12 steps of dependent origination of our false self that always begins with ignorance. The idea that Affliction is Bodhi (translated by the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom as "One's passions are enlightenment") also made sense as my effort to understand the riddle of mind came to a minor fruition. Just as a lotus blooms in the mud, Bodhi blooms in afflication. Bodhi isn't the absence of pain or emotion, as some seem to believe. It might be better to think of it not as *avoiding* the ups and downs of life or hiding away but how we understand and deal with them. It is seeing opportunity in crisis, a chance to learn in failure, a chance to heal and comfort in pain.

‘If being mindful, open and cheerful to each new moment, is really the substance of enlightenment, then what is it to seek enlightenment? There is a passage from Zen-Shin Talks by Sensei Ogui where he relayed a story in which someone asked him "What is enlightenment?", and he at first thought "What a great answer!" (paraphrasing). Hence I thought to myself, "What is enlightenment?" is practically a question which is also its own answer. If truth is not static but ever unfolding then so is its realization. This theme of course also resonated with me in the above quotes, where they write "here is no enlightenment or truth apart from the common ordinary person and the everyday task". This echos the words of Layman P'ang (quote found on the Cloudwater Zendo website):

There is nothing special about my daily affairs,
I am simply in spontaneous harmony with them.
Clinging to nothing and also rejecting nothing,
I encounter no resistance and am always free.
What do I care for the pomp of purple robes?
The pure summit was never sullied by so much as a fleck of dust.
The wondrous action of magical forces
I find in cutting wood and carrying water.’

Because karma, the Buddhist law of moral cause and effect, is completely rigid and impersonal, life for a Buddhist is very oppressive. Under karma, there can be no appeal, no mercy, and no escape except through unceasing effort at self- refection.

If I drop a fresh egg while standing on Earth it will fall, and if it happens to land on a hard surface, it will break. If I drop it while orbiting the Earth in a shuttle, it will float. If I drop it on Earth and it lands on in a sufficiently soft material, it will not break. Is this ‘oppressive’? Really? It’s just cause and effect. Pure and simple. If you are looking for escapism or to ‘appeal’ the circumstances of your life to some Higher Power rather than transforming them, then Buddhism is not for you. If you are looking to appreciate the eternal wonder and beauty that pervades existence, then not only Buddhism but even certain forms of Abrahamic religion (often referred to as mystical, liberal, etc) might be of interest.

Buddhists constantly struggle to earn merit by doing good deeds, hoping to collect enough to break free from the life of suffering. They also believe saints can transfer surplus merit to the undeserving.

Again, I’ve covered this before:

‘This is interesting to me because of the concept of “merit”, which in some circles (both within and outside of Buddhism) it is seen as a version of cosmic brownie points or some unit of spiritual wealth. My own view of merit (as defined in my glossary) is a little different: “Merit…The virtue produced by enlightened action, it is the opposite of karma, or actions based on ignorance and their effects. Merit can effectively purify or neutralize the suffering caused by ignorance. While some talk about transferring merit, the shared benefit of activities producing merit is both automatic and instantaneous.”

‘If Buddhanature is unified and non-discriminatory, then the sharing of merit would be both automatic and instantaneous. If there isn’t “this Buddhanature” and “that Buddhanature” and “those Buddhanatures”, then all merit works for the benefit of all sentient beings. Accumulating merit, then, is not a private or selfish act, with each of us building up our own personal spiritual bank accounts--it is a unifying and edifying activity for everyone.’

Merit is not a currency, it is a reflection of the benefit of compassion and wisdom.

Buddhists live a contradiction - they seek to overcome suffering by rooting out desire, but at the same time they cultivate desire for self- control, meritorious life, and nirvana.

This is just a semantic red herring. And yet again, I’ve covered this before:

‘Greed, hatred, and ignorance come from the idea of division and separateness. If you truly see everything as interconnected, how you 'possess' some 'thing'? How do you fail to have compassion toward some 'one'? Seeing things as they are (interdependent and co-arising from emptiness) dispels ignorance. Ignorance, greed, and hatred are the children of delusion. We have the false view that we are not whole and therefore we crave that which we think will complete us. It is this craving that is the root of what is often termed ‘attachment’. We give them (ignorance, greed, and hatred) their power by continuing our delusions, and we can take it away by dispelling them...

‘Desire in and of itself is not a bad thing, nor is promoting change. Passion is not ‘bad’ either. It really all gets down to perspective and motivation. As mentioned, if we think we 'need' something to be whole or complete, then we will crave that thing (these cravings are often simply referred to as ‘desires’ which can be confusing). There are two primary problems to address...

‘First, it gets back to the delusion and seeing things as distinct and separate objects to be ‘possessed’ or ‘hated’. If we truly accept interdependence/co-arising and emptiness, then one could almost imagine that we possess and are possessed of all things, but then who is the actor here? That is, who or what is possessing whom? We can extend that as well to “Who is hating whom?” It is a false dichotomy. We (collectively) simply are. So, then, when we are motivated by and craving and guided by delusion, then we run the risk of being trapped again by greed, anger, and ignorance even if we believe we are trying to do the right thing (i.e. self-righteousness, or in Buddhist lingo, being ‘Bodhier than thou’)

‘Second, a major hurdle is the idea of “I am trying to”. Obviously on a relative level we can distinguish sets of matter and energy with unique histories that we refer to as individuals, but because we tend to see them as separate and non-interrelated objects, talking about “I will” this and that often sets us up with the wrong perspective. It tends to support the aforementioned delusions regarding emptiness and interrelatedness, and leads us back to the three poisons again. So, it helps to try it just with the collective, non-pronoun form. Not “I am transforming greed, anger, and ignorance”, just “Transforming greed, anger, and ignorance” or “The three poisons will be transformed.” This is why Buddhist teaching emphasize “no-self”, i.e. no intrinsic, non-interrelated, enduring and non-changing self.

‘So then ‘greed’ isn’t about wanting things to be different. It is about doing things from a selfish motivation fueled by the delusion that things are truly separate and can be possessed or attained and that this will fill some hole we think we perceive in ourselves. Wanting to feed a starving child because you empathize with her and see your fundamental relationship is not greedy. Doing it to feel boost your self-esteem is. Hatred is definitely related to not liking yourself, but the kind of transformation being discussed involves acceptance, not rejection. You don’t try to embrace or deny the ego, you simply see it for what it is. As for transforming ignorance, it is a shrewd person who realizes what she/he doesn’t know. Admitting our ignorance is the first step to wisdom.’

That’s it I swear. ;o)


  1. Wow, this is absolutely fascinating. Thanks for writing.

  2. Interesting article, added his blog to Favorites


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