To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Exploring Theravāda's connections to other paths. What can we learn from other traditions, religions and philosophies?
nowheat
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To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Postby nowheat » Wed Nov 25, 2009 5:15 am

You've heard the arguments from both sides, heard them named: Traditional view vs. Modern view. Buddhism Lite vs. Buddhism Baroque. Rebirth vs. Viewless.

It's been (very vaguely, probably jokingly) implied that without 16 years of study as a monk, it is presumptuous of me to give my interpretation of a sutta (see "Sutta Readers: Shoot Me Down" thread). And that's true, it is. It presumes I have done some studying on my own, and that I have a brain capable of independent thought: big assumptions, there, especially if you don't know me at all. The implication is that one can only truly understand the dhamma if you've spent at least half a young lifetime studying it. But it seems to me that this is not what the Buddha taught: he did not say I should refrain from applying my brain to his teachings; he did not say that it could only be understood if you'd studied for a very long span of years. Quite the opposite. I have even heard (though I haven't come across it yet in my sutta readings) that he gave us a set of tests we could apply to what is offered as his teachings, so that we can determine which are authentic, which not. Which (it seems to me) implies that he had every expectation this would be needed -- the man did not come up with rules arbitrarily, "just in case" -- he was a man who responded to need -- and he must have seen in his own lifetime, that his teachings were already being corrupted, and knew such a test would be even more valuable as time went on.

To paraphrase Richard Gombrich in "What the Buddha Thought", it would be unparalleled in human history for such a huge volumes of a canon to be a precise record of what the originator said. Setting aside that our canon is not in the Buddha's original language -- it is extremely unlikely to be a 100% accurate transmission of what he *meant* never mind what he said. And yet the canon seems to me as though it is treated as gospel, and worse than that, that we must pretend to understand every single word, and be able to justify every turn of phrase, making every bit out to be totally consistent with whatever we understand is being taught; and if we can't do that -- if anyone dares admit that they don't know how a given bit got in there -- they are scoffed at.

I would ask those who see seamless coherence all throughout the suttas to do a little reality check about human perfection vs human fallibility and maybe be a little more open-minded about the possibility that what we have before us is text that just may have been modified somewhat along the way.

So to my mind, it's not just my right but my duty to question: because I don't believe the canon can possibly be perfect transmission; and I do believe that the Buddha, brilliant as he was, would have been able to see this trouble coming, and would prefer reasoned dialog and open-minded debate to keep his dhamma alive.

:namaste:

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tiltbillings
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Re: To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Postby tiltbillings » Wed Nov 25, 2009 5:31 am


nowheat
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Re: To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Postby nowheat » Wed Nov 25, 2009 5:51 am


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tiltbillings
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Re: To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Postby tiltbillings » Wed Nov 25, 2009 5:59 am


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Ben
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Re: To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Postby Ben » Wed Nov 25, 2009 6:05 am

Hi nowheat
You may wish to read the following: http://books.google.com.au/books?id=aIO ... q=&f=false
particularly the third chapter: Metaphor, Allegory, Satire

Love him or hate him, but RF Gombrich has some very interesting things to say.
kind regards

Ben
“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.”
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.
- Sutta Nipata 3.725

(Buddhist aid in Myanmar) • •

e: [email protected]..

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Dan74
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Re: To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Postby Dan74 » Wed Nov 25, 2009 6:52 am

My understanding is that Theravada has often throughout its history identified itself as the tradition that preserves the Dhamma. So with that in mind it is easy to see how attitudes that you describe could develop. They are a bit of an overkill, a misplaced emphasis. But this is only human and of course only a fraction of Theravada practitioners would share these attitudes I imagine.

If you go to other traditions which are less text-dependent, like Zen, for instance, you sometimes find the other extreme - an embarrassing lack of awareness of basic Buddhist teachings or views that run counter to the scriptures.

:shrug:

_/|\_
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pink_trike
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Re: To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Postby pink_trike » Wed Nov 25, 2009 8:28 am

There's been lots of research done within Fortune 100 corporations regarding how critical information gets naturally corrupted just within the chain of command leading from CEO to middle and lower management, and these corporations control information flow with military precision - yet despite having the best information strategies that tons of money can buy and teams of information scientists and psychologists constantly refining information management systems over decades - information is corrupted "frequently" during short periods of time (one day to one month) and "significantly" in longer periods of time ranging from one year to 10 years. (I'm drawing this from memory - I don't have resources for these studies but I'm sure the Google God prolly does). Original meaning deteriorates over time even under the most rigidly controlled circumstances.

Now imagine a block of information making this journey to the present:

- a couple or more translations through some very difficult, effectively dead languages, at least one of which often had 5 distinct meanings or more for words just depending on a variety of throat sounds used when the word was spoken, each use depending on the varied context and circumstances in which the words were being used and who was being addressed.

- ...passing through and adapting to a couple of cultures that existed in a time and place anywhere between 2,500 to 3,500 years ago that viewed the world entirely and extremely different than we do in our modern culture today which can't even understand how people saw the world 50 years ago.

- preservation of this information was dependent entirely on memory and word of mouth for anywhere from a couple hundred to a thousands years before it was put into any written form. Consider that just within the language of English, only trained scholars can easily read written English from 500 years ago - and even being able to read it doesn't insure that it will be understood. Even English from a couple hundred years ago can be difficult.

- this information passed through any number of power struggles between sects which each likely had their own unique memory and meaning that they were attached to. The information was tweaked formally any number of times in politically-charged councils over centuries, and informally the count is way beyond our knowing.

- and along the way various philosophers and scientists are quietly tucking vitally important information for the human race to remember into allegorical discrete keyword/phrase folders for those trained to spot and unpack them far into the future.

- and then, 2,500 to 3,500 years later the information is filtered through a culture that for the first couple hundred years of exposure to this information viewed the entire world through the unconscious mental framework of "religion" and through the filters of one particularly peculiar so-called religion that scholars are still trying to peel away from entrenched views about Buddhism.

And this doesn't even begin to look at that other uncomfortable issue (at least for those who seek a literal interpretation or a canonical transmission) that the essential path that is buried in this soup is found in the so called "myths" of advanced ancient cultures all around the world that far predate even the oldest estimates for the beginning of Buddhism.

Even the idea of a canonical transmission runs contrary to some of the basic common sense found in Buddhism's explanations of The Dharma.

Its the practices.





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Last edited by pink_trike on Wed Nov 25, 2009 8:41 am, edited 3 times in total.
Vision is Mind
Mind is Empty
Emptiness is Clear Light
Clear Light is Union
Union is Great Bliss

- Dawa Gyaltsen

---

Disclaimer: I'm a non-religious practitioner of Theravada, Mahayana/Vajrayana, and Tibetan Bon Dzogchen mind-training.

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tiltbillings
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Re: To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Postby tiltbillings » Wed Nov 25, 2009 8:33 am


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pink_trike
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Re: To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Postby pink_trike » Wed Nov 25, 2009 8:35 am

Vision is Mind
Mind is Empty
Emptiness is Clear Light
Clear Light is Union
Union is Great Bliss

- Dawa Gyaltsen

---

Disclaimer: I'm a non-religious practitioner of Theravada, Mahayana/Vajrayana, and Tibetan Bon Dzogchen mind-training.

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cooran
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Re: To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Postby cooran » Wed Nov 25, 2009 8:39 am

Hello NoWheat, all,

I wrote this in the Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravada Buddhism thread - but it bears repeating here.

In the Buddha's day, writing was just for things like government and commerce. and there was widespread illiteracy. For really important things, where it was critical that no alteration occur ( as can happen so very easily, deliberately or accidentally when writing is used) - the Oral Tradition was used. The Buddha instituted in his lifetime the Chanting Together by large groups of specially designated Bhikkhus - the Bhanakas (Hearers). The Bhanakas had portions of the Teachings allocated to each group, and so there were The Digha Bhanakas, The Majjhima Bhanakas etc.

It was only hundreds of years later in Sri Lanka, in a time of famine and warfare, with many bhikkhus dying, and with Buddhism all but wiped out in India, that the MahaSangha decided the Buddhist Canon and its commentaries needed to be written down.
They were engraved on Ola Leaves. Many of us have been to Sri Lanka and have had the inestimable good fortune to have seen demonstrations of this being done at the ancient rock temple of Aluvihara Temple (where the Tipitaka was originally written down) in the Matale district 26 km from Kandy.

The Suttas are rather like the memory prompts - the dot points of the most important information to be transmitted - similar to those a public speaker carries on a little card in his hand. Anything that is repeated is to be seen as something important which was highlighted by the repetition.

As I understand it, the Pali Suttas are teaching vehicles whose meanings are densely packed layer on layer. They are not to be read as an ordinary page of print, but require 'unpacking' by someone learned in the Dhamma. This condensed form was necessary in order that the Teachings would not be lost in the years before they were finally put into writing. It allowed them to be memorised by the large groups of bhikkhus (bhanakas) assigned to each portion of the Tipitaka. They are not verbatim reports of chats and conversations. This memorisation is said to have commenced before the parinibbana of the Buddha.

"Thus you should train yourselves: 'We will listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata -- deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness -- are being recited. We will lend ear, will set our hearts on knowing them, will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.' That's how you should train yourselves." (Ari sutta).
Venerable Mahá Kassapa, the elected head of the First Council. Cúlavagga Xl,1,1 (ii,284) reiterated:
"Come, friends: let us recite the Teaching and the Discipline before what is not the Teaching shines forth and the Teaching is put aside, before what is not the Discipline shines forth and the Discipline is put aside, before those who speak what is not the Teaching become strong and those who speak what is the Teaching become weak, before those who speak what is not the Discipline become strong and those who speak what is the Discipline become weak."

metta
Chris
---The trouble is that you think you have time---
---Worry is the Interest, paid in advance, on a debt you may never owe---
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Re: To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Postby tiltbillings » Wed Nov 25, 2009 8:42 am


Sanghamitta
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Re: To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Postby Sanghamitta » Wed Nov 25, 2009 8:50 am

The going for refuge is the door of entrance to the teachings of the Buddha.

Bhikku Bodhi.

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Re: To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Postby Paññāsikhara » Wed Nov 25, 2009 8:55 am

PT - you make some good points. However, since our material for this period is not just in one form, and we often have a range of material which comes from different transmitted traditions of it, in multiple languages, which often split apart and probably did not really meet again from a point not long after the Buddha's parinibbana, we can compare these various traditions. On comparison, we can often identify errors in one or other tradition, and thus identify something which is probably what was being transmitted at the point of the split. Moreover, there are still some cultures which largely follow these traditions, and have not really been influenced by various western religions or scientific ideas to the degree that those of us sitting here typing on PCs have most likely been.

So, with the willingness to investigate these various traditions, I don't think that it is quite as obscure or "corrupted" as you seem to imply.
My recently moved Blog, containing some of my writings on the Buddha Dhamma, as well as a number of translations from classical Buddhist texts and modern authors, liturgy, etc.: .

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Re: To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Postby pink_trike » Wed Nov 25, 2009 9:00 am

Vision is Mind
Mind is Empty
Emptiness is Clear Light
Clear Light is Union
Union is Great Bliss

- Dawa Gyaltsen

---

Disclaimer: I'm a non-religious practitioner of Theravada, Mahayana/Vajrayana, and Tibetan Bon Dzogchen mind-training.

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Ben
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Re: To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Postby Ben » Wed Nov 25, 2009 9:39 am

“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.”
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.
- Sutta Nipata 3.725

(Buddhist aid in Myanmar) • •

e: [email protected]..

Sanghamitta
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Re: To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Postby Sanghamitta » Wed Nov 25, 2009 9:50 am

Last edited by Sanghamitta on Wed Nov 25, 2009 3:03 pm, edited 1 time in total.
The going for refuge is the door of entrance to the teachings of the Buddha.

Bhikku Bodhi.

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Cittasanto
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Re: To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Postby Cittasanto » Wed Nov 25, 2009 10:13 am

both the suttas about what is uthentic teaching I have posted in the last couple of days I will get link to the suttas andthreads and pase them here


He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them.
But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion …
...
He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them … he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.

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Cittasanto
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Re: To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Postby Cittasanto » Wed Nov 25, 2009 10:20 am



He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them.
But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion …
...
He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them … he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.

chownah
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Re: To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Postby chownah » Wed Nov 25, 2009 2:27 pm

Nowheat,
It seems that your main concern is whether we should question the Canon because it might not be perfectly transmitted. I think that putting aside the transmission issue one should still question the Canon since the Buddha taught that one should not accept what the Buddha teaches just because the Buddha teaches it.....he taught that one should find out for oneself if his teachings work or not....and for some this process of finding out involves alot of questioning.

Also, it doesn't matter if the Canon is perfectly transmitted or not if it works....and in my experience it does work....even if you don't accept some of it but merely withold judgement on the parts which seem unlikely in your view.

chownah

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Re: To Question or Not To Question, That is the Question

Postby enkidu » Wed Nov 25, 2009 2:54 pm

Pardon my Gelug perspective, but am I correct to assume that the concept of teacher-to-student transmission lineage is de-emphasized or non-existent in the Theravada? Perhaps this accounts for individual boldness in seeking creative/non-canonical reinterpretations, without regard for the prior work of or advice from authority (those gone before who have attained realizations)?

I find it remarkable that any may possess such confidence as to reject the advice of realized masters. My reasoning is as follows: if the Buddha's teachings function as is claimed, then many realized masters have been produced during the time of the Buddha's discourses. These masters taught their students from their experience and so on, preserving the lineages. The lineages have preserved the teachings of the Buddha, along with commentaries for their students, bridging the gaps across generations of cultural changes. The lineages continue to produce masters, who teach and write commentaries, and so on.

So, to reject the collected commentaries of the lineages is to deny that the authors are realized masters, which is to deny that the Buddha's teachings produce realized masters, which is to reject the Buddhadhamma as a true path of realization, which is to make one's own practice meaningless.

It is a special kind of confidence that one must possess to trust oneself over the lineages to glean truer meaning in 2500-year old retranslated words intended for those living 2500 years ago.

In my opinion.


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