The Algebra of Rebirth: Skeptical Buddhist Inquiry

Questioning why I believe what I do…keeping myself honest?

02: One to one correspondence in a one to many causation

In the first anecdote that kicks off this blog, the lama posited that a given action would result in a given condition or circumstance. This type of rhetoric is heard pretty frequently in Tibetan Buddhism and to a lesser degree, in the other schools, as well.

I’ve heard varying teachers say different things relating to this one one correspondence of karmic arrays. There seem to be two predominant approaches, at least from the teachers I’ve known. The first approach is that it acts as a pedagogical goad to get students to consider more deeply the ramifications of their actions. The second is often folded into or follows on the first one; of course the contributing factors that come together to create a future rebirth are myriad and only a buddha could know those in their entirety. However, I rarely hear this said aloud to larger gatherings and to be sure, I’m less concerned about this aspect of karma and rebirth than fellow sangha mates who seem genuinely scared that destined for the hell realms.

What is lacking are a number of discussions about the epistemology that lies beneath the assumption of karma and rebirth and how cause and effect work in the context of Buddhist psychology and cosmology. These will be enumerated and dealt with accordingly, in due course, but one observation needs to be made at the outset as it will be repeated later.

Buddhism is often touted as being scientific and frankly, I don’t think it is. It is empirical, but this is considerably different in a fundamental respect. Science and scientific method rest on hypotheses and experiment. When an experiment yields objective, verifiable results repeatedly in a controlled environment that support any given hypothesis, the experiment is considered successful. Buddhism doesn’t traffic in the objective, nor should it, nor does it have to; but it is open to fair criticism when its practitioners make claims that it is, in fact, scientific.

That meditators of all stripes have taken part in neurological experiments and that these are yielding fascinating and I think, meaningful results, is wonderful. That a number of Buddhists, from His Holiness the Dalai Lama to S. N. Goenka, have shown interest in and appreciation of breakthroughs in quantum physics is wonderful. But the issue that sometimes goes unstated is that the similarities between results derived from studies in quantum physics and the pronouncements of traditional Buddhist cosmologies are correlative. The one does not necessarily follow from or influence the other.

I stress this because there is at the heart of many discussions of karma, rebirth, cause and effect in Buddhist philosophy, the assumption – taken as a given – that one’s internal psychological state, or content, determines the physical result of where and under what circumstance that person will find themselves reborn. This isn’t born out by experimentation under laboratory conditions. Again, nor can it be, nor should it be. However, as long as Buddhists tout the “Buddhism is scientific” position, they are losing a sense of the marvelous that resides in the dharma, diminishing the depth and very real contributions made to humanity by this vast and varied corpus. Additionally, by emphasizing the “scientific” aspects of Buddhist praxis, they are diverting themselves with a kind of advertising in an effort to make dharma more appealing to the materialist.

I recognize that very real strides are being made in the twin inquiries of meditation and neuroscience that are both fascinating in themselves and beneficial for others, but nothing done in this area has supported the claim of karma and rebirth, and this is where practitioners need to be aware that when they venture to discuss these two parts as actual, verifiable processes, they need to be extremely careful of what they’re touting.

There is a logic to the theories, certainly nested in the pratitya-samudpada, but this is a metaphysical leap. The literature that has grown up in the Abhidarma is replete with descriptions of the process for rebirth and the hows and whys of how this or that change transpires, but this is not the result of scientific investigation. That said, what about the claim of Buddhism being a science of mind? We run into a different set of circumstances here, slightly; but it’s one that may actually help the claim that Buddhism is scientific in a conventional sense.

04: The Parking Lot (Part Two): maybe full, maybe empty

“In order to free ourselves,” Geshe-la explains in his slow, careful diction, “we need to overcome our emphasis on this life, and then overcome our emphasis on next lives.”

– Dinty W. Moore, The Accidental Buddhist

The emphasis on future existence varies from school to school. Tibetan Buddhism tends to make the most of it. Theravada and Zen less so and I’m assuming that some amount is out on rebirth in the Pure Land School derivations. Likewise, the concept of shunyata or “emptiness” is of greater import in Tibetan Mahayana than the other schools and it is these two elements that taken together can lead to some intense mental gymnastics.

I want to approach this gingerly, for the moment. As I’ve said, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, but the discussion on sequential lifetimes bears scrutiny and attention. The questions are myriad: are there, in fact, post mortem continuations of the individual being that has died? What comprises the individual that has lived, and now lies dead? Or more succinctly, who or what is it that is born? Who or what is it that dies? What part does “emptiness” have in this and does the positing of the doctrine not render Buddhism more ontologically oriented than some would believe?

The problem surrounding the discourse regarding rebirth/reincarnation (and here I am using the terms interchangeably) is that it feeds into metaphysical assertions, unsupportable ones at that, and most disturbingly, a kind of buttressing of authoritarianism that serves no one very well. It is in this entry that I want to address why we believe some of the things we do, however aware we may be of cognitive dissonance in ourselves.

Metaphysical assertions or you exist enough to be reborn except when you don’t

The biggest problematic is that there is no inherently existing soul or ontological unit to survive the demise of the physical corpus. Yet, we are told that the individual can attain enlightenment in the bardo (if we hold to the Tibetan approach) or at the very least, the individual reincarnated anew in another realm or as a human being to continue evolving toward liberation in many of the other schools.

Much has been written from the Madhyamaka Prasangika school that seems to point up and underscore that the individual mind stream that continues is itself empty of inherent existence, but the question remains as to how this mind stream continues coursing along the waves of karma and cycling through innumerable lives and permutations. Who is this mind stream? What is it? How long does it last? It is subject to change, we assume, but is it permanent? Or does it, too, dissolve into emptiness?

My teachers have alluded to this mind stream as being an ongoing mental phenomenon that survives the death process and depending on one’s behavior is born again into circumstances appropriate to whatever causes and conditions have obtained during this and perhaps, earlier existences. Believe it or not, I don’t have a problem with this, but don’t present it as something demonstrable or as a fact. It’s conjecture, at best; dogma, at worst. I do begin to have a problem with it, though, when it is presented as a perfectly logical extension of Buddhist philosophy.

Buddhism, in all its myriad iterations, is primarily an ethical and epistemological investigation into how we should live our lives, with meditation at the heart of its praxis. True, as an outgrowth of Indian culture circa sixth century BCE, reincarnation seems to be part of the cultural landscape, but is it a necessity to believe in rebirth to be a Buddhist? I grow increasingly convinced that the seer is decidedly no.

From a philosophical perspective, I find it an amusing notion, but on a practical base, it strikes me as a useless distraction. I could be wrong, though; but I won’t know for sure until I die. I’ll address the claims made by mostly Tibetans about reincarnate lamas and teachers momentarily, but the most honest thing anyone can say about the post-mortem state is that they don’t know.

In terms of Buddhist ethics, rebirth is unnecessary. It is. You don’t need God to be good, you don’t need the threat of being born in the hell realms to make you behave virtuously (and hypocritically or at least, self-centeredly because you are just being nice to save your own skin); I find it detestable that so many people think so little of their fellow humans that the religious minded among us feel that the only way humans are to act kind is if they’re scared shitless into behaving so. Needless to say, that hasn’t worked if we view the countless wars and hideous tortures small and large inflicted on each other on a moment by moment basis. If people genuinely feared a hell or hells, they’d refrain from the selfish cruelties they visit upon others, be it a landlord raising rent to force someone out or impoverishing them in the process or passing a policy where a president can assassinate his own citizens should he so decide.

The genius of Buddhism as an ethic is in recognizing the pervasive suffering in the world and making the determination to end it here and now by seeing suffering’s origin in our base ignorance and the erroneous lives we structure out of that ignorance. But you don’t need the threat of hellish rebirths to grow that motivation.

Some have argued that Buddha himself may not have actually believed in rebirth. I think there are enough passages in the received teachings that he apparently did. And there’s nothing wrong with this; he was a man of a specific time and place with a cultural milieu that had rebirth/reincarnation as part of its social structure. What’s becomes an issue here is that I don’t recall where he ever said you better believe in rebirth or else you are not a follower of mine. This leads us to the next part.

Who says there’s rebirth and who says you’re not a Buddhist if you don’t buy it?

Certainly, just about every Buddhist says there is reincarnation/rebirth, but the Tibetans have taken this and run with it farther than anyone else. A lot of rinpoches say there’s rebirth. A lot of followers of rinpoches say you are not a Buddhist if you don’t believe in rebirth. A lot of rinpoches say that the Buddha only assumed the life of Shakyamuni to show that even a normal human could achieve enlightenment (but of course he had had many past live prior to this one! How else could he become Buddha?!); that this is a matter of skillful means. But I find this to be misleading on several levels.

One is that it sells short the human possibility for attaining enlightenment through one’s own efforts. Old Gautama never said this originated with him, but he was fearless in staring down the orthodoxy of the times and what he proposed was pretty bare bones; meditation, reflection and work on oneself. He also recognized the interdependence of phenomena but this was not some supernatural insight. It’s a pointed realization of how the phenomenal world works. I had this realization when I was much, much younger. Didn’t know what to do with it, but it didn’t come about because I had lived innumerable past lives, it came about because I was silent and watching. Or did it?

What if I find interesting is how shrill opposition is to anyone who says they don’t support or believe in the idea of rebirth. Alan Wallace’s rebuttal rebuffing Stephen Batchelor’s Confession of a Buddhist Atheist is an example of this(1). For the record, I have huge admiration for Wallace, but his reaction to Batchelor’s book verged on the hysteric. Similarly, Robert Thurman’s conversation with the same troublemaker points up I high relief the disparate nature of the believer in rebirth and the non-believer (or in Batchelor’s case, in 1997 anyway, the agnostic) (2).

The larger issue that I find disturbing is that there does seem to be a cadre of sorts who would like to be the one s to determine who is or is not a Buddhist. Alexander Berzin has a list of characteristics that comprises “Dharma Lite” and in this article tackles the Dharma Lite approach to rebirth: But I find the characterization somewhat insulting. There’s no room for anyone in his or Wallace’s buddhism to question the validity or necessity of rebirth. The fall-back is usually that rebirth was just “taken for granted” in India and Indian culture at the time. But just because a thing is taken for granted doesn’t make it true. And this is a doubt others are not allowed to entertain. Berzin points out that we in the west don’t come to Buddhism with a cultural history that accepts rebirth. But neither did the Chinese, or East Asian civilizations, either. Indeed, the overlay of the Indic concept of rebirth seems awkward to me when I consider the Confucian and Taoist pragmatism that originally infused those cultures. It’s not uncommon to hear Chinese Buddhiats talke about how they must have done this or that in a past life to come to this point, but I haven’t encountered much in the way of just how deep or not the concept of rebirth in Indian terms has made it into the East Asian mind set.

What is apparent is that there are those who would like to position themselves as the keepers of the orthodoxy, but orthodox according to whom? To the Tibetan preceptors? To the Chinese, Japanese or Korean schools? To the Theravadins? I truly believe that Buddhism in the west is too laden with westerners trying to be Asian. It’s as if skeptical inquiry has come to be seen as incommensurate with Buddhist practice. I know this has been repeated endlessly, but in the Kalama Sutta, Shakyamuni laid it out not to accept anything as truth because of tradition, hearsay, or even because he himself said it. But what happens when you express doubt about rebirth or any other anomaly in the teachings is that you are more than not met with indifference or ridiculed as not ally being a Buddhist or you’re seen as a threat, sowing doubt in the minds of the faithful. Or so it seems. There is a fairly vocal group of skeptical Buddhists around. Glen Wallis comes to mind, Batchelor, of course, and others, but the general run of karma fearing faithful don’t seem to want to extend too much compassion their way.

What’s a skeptical Buddhist to do? Am I cognitively dissonant?

Personally, I tend to fall in more with Batchelor in his conversation with Thurman. I’ll be frank; if rebirth does happen, I don’t necessarily believe it happens to everyone. I think of Gurdjieff’s admonishment to Ouspensky that only someone who has developed an essence will have some form of post-mortem existence. But he was mum on what form that takes. The Taoists spoke of developing a second body through meditation and other practices, and I tend to feel that these make more sense to me.

Like a lot of people, it’s just plain impossible to imagine not existing. This doesn’t mean it’s not a possibility, but i can’t figure out what the experience would be like. Or lack thereof, I should say. I have my doubts, as I’ve said earlier, that karma works in a one to one manner. The problem I have with rebirth and the six realms is that they lack imagination. This world is not all bad or all good. All depends on our perspective and if there is a future existence in which an “I” forms – out of what, I don’t know – then I doubt seriously it’s anything as banal as any of the six realms. Frankly, here’s where I am in Berzin’s Dharma Lite shopping aisle: I do see the six realms as simulacra of psychological states. My sense of it is that I’m not alone in that and I’ve heard that Trungpa Rinpoche, Tharthang Tulku and others have felt similarly, so I’m not in bad company. That said, however, a hell realm as a psychological state would still be hellish and I don’t wish that for anyone, but as cautionary elements in pedagogy, I avoid these.

I’m also aware that I’m not as hardcore as some of the more skeptical of the skeptical Buddhists and as such, I am willing to leave the door open to some extraordinary phenomena, some I’ve witnessed and accounts I’ve heard from people I trust that fall outside the norm of quotidian rationality (and to be sure, I find slavish devotion to rationality irrational).

On that parenthetical note, then, how is it that I consider this blog the work of a skeptic? Shouldn’t skeptics be ├╝ber-rationalists? Why do I still take refuge in faith? On what do I base my reasons for sensing that the substance of life is the ineffable? Does this use of the word make me a substantialist? Well, not in the sense that Buddhists mean it. Maybe I should have said the nature of life, but in any event, what reason do I have to posit existence after the physical has ceased to breathe and move? Reason would be hunch. More problematic is what evidence is there of such a thing and there is none. And that’s where faith comes in and this is where my skepticism hits a wall.

I’m going to crib from one of the best definitions or better yet, descriptions of faith I’ve ever come across. This is from the guitarist Robert Fripp:

Faith is not superstition, not investment in dogma; rather, an experiential participation and engagement in a creative process informed by Love: an action founded in a discipline, way or practice. Belief is personal, what we hold. Faith is impersonal, and embraces us.


Back in the car, closing thoughts

The salient point out of all this is that it’s taken as a given that all the schools recognize reincarnation as a fact. There is good reason for this, since the cultural matrix in which Buddhism arose conceived it as such and it was just assumed that there is reincarnation.

I find that if there is to be a true western Buddhism, it will have to be informed by some degree of skepticism. And it’s not going to be monolithic. In fact, I suspect western Buddhism is going to be more pluralistic than Buddhism is right now. The west may well be driving more cars onto the lot.

Of course, it may be that there will always be strident critiques and critics, but that leads me to one of my rhetorical questions to religionists of all stripes, if your god or God or gods and saints and prophets and Buddhas and bodhisattvas are so omnipotent, omniscient, then why are you so threatened by dissent? In the meantime, I’ll continue to sit and cultivate what I can in terms of patience, understanding and maybe even, love.


1. This link should take you to the Google search page that has links to the review itself and the various retorts and reviews of the exchange.

2. Actually, Thurman’s conversation with Batchelor is pretty measured and lively. Robert Thurman is by no means a dour fellow.


Further reading

In addition to the citations above, The Secular Buddhist is a great source of pod casts and postings:

This is the site of a terrific writer, who I understand won’t be posting anymore or as much:

I mentioned Glen Wallis above:

This is or should be galvanizing to me, but I know I fall into the x-Buddhist category; I’m nowhere near as skeptical as perhaps I should be, but this is worth returning to again and again:

Lastly, this may seem tangential, but again, it’s worthwhile for as food for thought.

03: The Parking Lot (Part One): only two cars, but pretty full

Before diving too deeply into the nuts and bolts of Buddhist doctrine, it might be worthwhile to keep a sense of context or contexts in mind. The broadest context is the historical milieu out of which Gautama’s biography arose and from which his teachings formed to blossom into the various lineages and strata of “Buddhism”.

There are a number of givens that are often uncritically accepted by Buddhists of all stripes. Among these are the “facts” of the personage of Gautama Siddhartha/Shakyamuni (his upbringing as a prince sequestered from the adventitious aspects of life until the gods forced the issue by exposing him to the traumas of sickness, old age and death; his years of extreme ascetic practices; his awakening under the bodhi tree; the forty or so years of teaching; his parinirvana), the development of the sangha or community and its diversification into various schools (beginning with the split of the earlier schools of which the Theravada is the only survivor), the division of mahayana and hinayana vehicles, and the eventual claims of different schools and lineages tracing their origins back to the founder himself.

The problem is that none of these givens is undisputed, including the historicity of the Buddha himself. Yes, there was a Shakya clan; yes, there developed a sangha based on the teachings attributed to the Buddha; and yes, we have seen a vast proliferation of schools that come under the rubric of “Buddhist”. However, things are not as clear-cut as people would like them to be, with the result that there is an equal proliferation of texts and schools vying for their own primacy over all others. Unfortunately, as with Jesus the Christ or even Moses or Laozi, there is no hard archaeological proof or contemporaneous textual support for the good prince’s existence. This does not mean that there is no inferential support, but this is not the same thing as proof and as with the other luminaries just mentioned, this does not abrogate the importance, sense or truth of the different teachings attributed to them, but it does or perhaps should, provoke reflection on the part of practitioners to examine the historical claims proffered by each of these traditions.

The principle reason for raising this point here is to begin with a demonstration of why it’s of dubious value for Buddhist teachers to emphasize how “scientific” Buddhism is, but more importantly, how a more hermeneutical approach is required for interpreting Buddhist doctrine and how this approach can aid the practitioner (1).This is apparent even at this stage of discussion and dealing with the context of what is often presented in fairly simplistic terms as the schism of the Greater and Lesser schools and which bedevils a certain amount of Buddhist explanation, particularly in the Tibetan families (2).

The common trope is that the Pali canon is the original teachings of the Buddha written down some two hundreds years after his parinirvana, depending on which dating is used. Later, the Mahayana Sutras evolved out of, or at least were coterminous with, the rise of the madhyamaka school of thought as presented by the great logician Nagarjuna and thereafter, the split between Mahayana and Hinayana was to remain definitive with the Mahayana schools predominant throughout central Asia (and northern India before vanishing from the sub-continent with the invasion of the Moguls) a d the Hinayana prevalent throughout southeast Asia.

Problems abound with this reading. Leaving aside the previously hinted at issues with Shakyamuni’s historicity, it has been a matter of debate that the Pali canon are the original words of the Buddha. There have been arguments that much was borrowed from other sources and that Buddhism, even at this early a stage, was more syncretic than its adherents know or would care to admit. That aside, it doesn’t take long to see that the Pali Suttas we have at our disposal were among the texts collected that establish the teachings and provide the framework for Buddhist discourse for the ensuing 2500 years. Moreover, it’s all here: the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination and discussion on what is typically thought of as the provenance of the Mahayana: sunnata/shunyata or the doctrine of the emptiness of the inherent existence of phenomena. Additionally, the seeds of the Middle Way philosophy and reasoning are here and all this points leads to a further critique of the simplicity of such readings regarding this so-called schism particularly, but of interpreting superficially and with no regard for nuance, other historical development, Buddhist or otherwise.

What we find is that over a period of centuries, a number of schools evolved that were the heirs of that first sangha, of which the Theravada is the sole remaining. Not only that, but there were multiplicities of versions of different teachings; for example, that there were two Patimokkhas (Sanskrit: Pratimoksha). There were divergences or at least alternate traditions (3) early on and we can offer the conjecture that the development of the Mahayana is not as surprising or as jarring as one might think. Indeed, it becomes apparent that what is most surprising is the development of the term Hinayana being applied at all, particularly by Buddhists against other Buddhists.

While the term has been in use since very early on, it has been mostly pejorative and used mostly propagandistically much later. There are several ways in which the term was used, but it’s earliest usage seems to have been applied less to schools than to individuals whose practice was of a kind of individualistic or self-centered scope. This is, I think, the way it is mostly employed today but I sense that this interpretation of modern usage has more to do with a kind of political correctness than a genuine sense of ecumenicism. More on that later, but at some point, the word Hinayana was, in fact, employed to other schools including the Theravada, regardless of how inaccurate it is.

At this point, it bears reflecting that there are other points to be disputed as normative in the rote recitations we encounter regarding the development of modern Buddhism. For example, that the Mahayana Sutras are/are not the words of the historical Buddha. As mentioned above, the major points of what would become earmarks of Mahayana doctrine are to be found in the Pali texts. It is immaterial that the Mahayana Sutras were not contemporary with the historical Buddha in one way; in another way, this is hugely important for the purpose of questioning why we believe what we do and how we move to support these beliefs. This comes into play even more with discussions relating Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism.

One could argue that it’s immaterial whether Buddha historically taught the Mahayana Sutras because, frankly and crudely, it’s far too late to do anything about it. What’s done is done. However, it’s highly important because, frankly, so many arguments have been built up on a number of religio-political fronts that beg to be examined more acutely. By accepting the idea that Shakyamuni did, in fact, preach the sutric teachings to vast gatherings of beings – lay and ordained, bodhisattva, shravaka, worldly and supramundane – the stage is set for a Mahayana exceptionalism that, by its very existence, would silence or at least, win out over the earlier school or schools still extant. By accepting the argument that Shakyamuni did teach the sutras, the Mahayana supporter comes to reinforce the narrative that Buddha was not merely a normal human man who achieved enlightenment but was a superman who after countless lifetimes had come to this world fully enlightened but performed his life as a form of teaching that others could follow. The earlier narrative then becomes superseded by a more soteriologically oriented one. Along with this come metaphysical assertions that seem to enlarge on that earlier narrative. The value here is that the Mahayana in its rise, emphasized points of doctrine that were nascent in the earlier strata of teachings, but at the cost of the veracity of historical fact.

Does this abrogate the significance of the later teachings? No, but it reframes the degree of importance subsequent generations of practitioners will place on history and context. The degree of import that we place on historical events determines how much we understand what happens in the world. Historical analysis helps place us in a continuum of events that define us as cultures and societies and even as individuals. However, the mystic would argue that historical interpretation is not the only interpretation and that there are deeper, truer levels of Being that are either ahistorical or better, parahistorical, perhaps. It is here that we begin the gist of the reason for this blog’s existence.

Does the understanding that a received narrative not necessarily reflect what is historical reality diminish or enhance the substance of any given philosophical or religious doctrine? I would argue that what we run into here is the difference of uses of history. What is considered by those of us raised in the European/Western scholastic tradition as history is somewhat and somewhat considerably different from what those raised in other cultural contexts mean by history. A Tibetan’s interpretation of history is going to be very different from mine (4), for example. To the degree that I understand that, I can accept divergent interpretation; however, we run afoul when there is a lack of understanding on either of our parts such that the result is a lack of clarity or advancement of further understanding.

This degree of divergence becomes more pronounced as we move further afield when looking at the different forms of so-called “Esoteric Buddhism”, be it Tibetan Vajrayana, Chinese Tiandai or Japanese Shingon. Each has its own structure, but all claim that Shakyamuni brought these supramundane teachings into this world or that he taught them to only a select secret set of disciples. Thus we run into the argument that just because there is no physical evidence, this doesn’t mean this didn’t happen. And this, in turn, leads us to accepting metaphysical propositions that are not present in earlier forms of the teachings. Another question arises: does this diminish or enhance the effectiveness of Buddhist doctrine or practice (similar but not just the same as the previous question)? And another: does this diminish or enhance the earlier teachings?

To the first question, it depends on who you ask. To the second question, it depends on who you ask. Simply put, a Tibetan practitioner (either native born or convert) is likely to aver that of course, Shakyamuni taught tantra; a more factually oriented person is likely to scoff and a third, such as myself, is likely to say, context is everything. If the question is meant to emphasize practice, the historical recedes in immediate importance while remaining a challenge of how to think about the historical as I understand it in the context of the Vajrayana worldview. Regarding the latter question, a Tibetan practitioner’s usual response is that without the earlier teachings, the deeper/greater teachings can’t be understood or practiced effectively. That factually oriented person is likely to respond by saying that the content of the Vajrayana teachings is irrelevant to the existence of the earlier teachings (and neither diminishes nor enhances them). Me? I’m inclined to not say too much right now, except that I don’t draw a huge distinction between the teachings as teachings, and in practice, much depends on what is most effective for the individual. I’ll approach this last later and in greater detail in this blog.

To return to the Mahayana/Hinayana disjuncture, I’m increasingly of the mind that the term Hinayana needs to be retired. It is certainly not accurate – actually, it’s downright wrong – when applied to Theravada. It is pejorative and its definition is far more degrading than merely meaning “little” or “small” (5). In modern discourse, it is tragic that the denigration of the “Hinayana arhat” finds itself in use still (6), although this would no doubt be defended by those who support said view.

I would like to examine the idea the dichotomy of Buddhism into two vehicles was not merely a matter of disjuncture, nor a matter of motivational scope, but a politically motivated terminology that resulted in the marginalization of any given school that might challenge another’s ascendency. Along with this, I will go into a deeper look at how this relates to what we believe and how we come to stick by our beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary. This will be saved for the next entry.


1. A great source for texts focusing on the application of hermeneutical methods to different schools of Buddhist teachings is Buddhist Hermeneutics, edited by Donald Lopez.

2. Paul Williams seminal study Mahayana Buddhism: the Doctrinal Foundations
and Jan Nattier’s A Few Good Men: The Bodhisattva Path According to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugrapariprccha) have been hugely helpful for framing the contexts of how the later developments arose while providing salient information about early Buddhism. Also extremely worthwhile is “Ancient Buddhist Monasticism” by Alex Wayman in his book Buddhist Insight.

3. See Wayman, pp. 38 – 42 for a succinct overview of the development of the early Buddhist sects.

4. A case in point was a discussion I had with a Tibetan teacher regarding the Jowo Shakyamuni statue in the Jokhang in Lhasa. I had said that it was both part of the Chinese princess’s dowry as well as a spoil of war meant to appease the king of Tibet whose forces had invaded and conquered the capital of Chang-an. My friend referred to a Tibetan text that this simply wasn’t so; that, in fact, the princess was happy to be of use in bringing such a highly venerated object of the dharma to the Tibetans who so desperately needed it. I didn’t object that the Chinese felt considerably differently as recorded in the Book of the Tang; at the point we were having this discussion, I thought it prudent to leave well enough alone until a later time when we could discuss historical dialog in greater detail and nuance. I was getting a little hot under the collar and realized I probably wouldn’t be speaking in as composed a manner as I should!

5. The Wikipedia entry on “Hinayana” is pretty thorough on this matter and a good place to start.

6. From Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s translation of the Sutra of the Three Heaps, perhaps an interpolation from the commentary attributed to Nagarjuna (Brian Beresford translates the passage as “the “unsurpassable” which is the fully awakened state of being that is superior to the Hearer’s attainment”). This is the kind of sectarian triumphalism that I find distasteful, and this will be a theme that I return to throughout this blog. Of course, it goes without saying that a Mahayanist would be right from his or her side in adapting this phraseology. But here we also have a questionable text; the commentary is ascribed to Nagarjuna and is not one of the vetted canonical works. The issue of the historical Nagarjuna is worth pursuing and a good place to begin is Ian Mabbett’s article reprinted here.


Dhargyey et al, Geshe Ngawang. The Confession of Downfalls. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. Dharamsala. 2003.

Lopez, Jr., Donald S. (editor). Buddhist Hermeneutics. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. Delhi. (1993)

Nattier, Jan. A Few Good Men: The Bodhisattva Path According to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugrapariprccha). University of Hawaii Press (March 2003).

Wikipedia. “Hinayana“.

Williams, Paul. Mahayana Buddhism: the Doctrinal Foundations. Routledge. New York. (1989)

Wayman, Alex. Buddhist Insight: Essays by Alex Wayman. “Ancient Buddhist Monasticism”. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. Delhi. (2002)

01: Introduction: Healthy Skepticism as an Antidote to Dogmatism

Annie had finished her third prostration and as she began to stand up, she initiated the motion by pushing off from her closed fists. Lama, passing by, remarked casually, “hm, be careful not to do this or you be reborn as horse…”

The look on her face was abject incredulity, or was it terror?

The Rinpoche was taking questions when Petra asked about friends who had passed away, “where are they now?” A beat and then the reply: “they are in hell”.

The names have been changed, but these exchanges happened and the result is that both “Annie” and “Petra” were given pause (as opposed to hooves) and fairly shaken by what each teacher had said.

At issue here is what happens when westerners come face to face with traditional explanations and the conflict that ensues from the acceptance of the teacher as infallible (of particular emphasis in Tibetan Buddhism). For the record, both women continue to practice and quite diligently, but the questions remain what we are to make of claims made from traditional perspectives, what makes sense and what doesn’t, and by extension what to keep and what to discard. Among these components are how to interpret karma and rebirth, what to do about the various transworldly beings that populate the milieux of the various cultures in which Buddhadharma took root and how are westerners in the context of the twentieth century’s realities to utilize Buddhist hermeneutics?

The posts to come will be, to some people’s minds, controversial. They’re meant to be. Part of my practice is to consider those aspects of received teachings that frankly, don’t make sense. However, I’m not one to throw the baby out with the bath water, but I believe practitioners need to ask hard questions and come to terms with these issues which can be traumatic for some.

Personally, this has been an on-going project for much of my life, not merely because I don’t want to accept whatever I’m told dogmatically and blindly, but also because I need to question myself what I believe and why; it’s extremely important to me to engage in a kind of deconstruction of these teachings as texts, and outside the texts, as practices. And a step further beyond practice, as viable and vital methods for experiencing this enworldment. This means being able to be as open as possible in that realm of, to borrow from Heidegger, being-for-others, which I believe is the bedrock for all ethical behavior.

I often hear folks in the U.S. discussing what American Buddhism is going to become, usually refracted through the prism of whichever tradition they follow, without realizing that Buddhism isn’t monolithic and that as pluralistic as western society is, the question is often moot; it’s too soon to tell if there will be a singular “American Buddhism” or if there will be several, each of which would be lineal descendants of the various Asian traditions. This is another element that I’ll be touching on because I don’t think I’m unique in the questions I’ll be posing and I am less inclined to think of Buddhism as just one more philosophy among others garbed in the trappings of religion than as, quite simply, the truth of phenomenal existence.

I’ve been moved to write this because I recognize certain potential fissures in the way fellow students have had to either jump through logical loops that would do any lawyer proud or who, and this is no laughing matter, are shattered by some of the claims made from traditional teachers and the dynamic of the teacher-student relationship.

I’ll also state here, at the outset, that I’m not a hard liner for a kind of Buddhist agnosticism (though I find that a reasonable approach) but likewise, I’m very much of the mind that there are inconsistencies and logical fallacies in the various Buddhist textual traditions that require scrutiny and the wherewithal to address these vigorously, if only because it is the existence of these anamolies where practitioners come to grief, if not depression.

It is my hope that I can present these perspectives with both nuance and humor. What I’m addressing is serious, but it won’t do to be too solemn about it.

One word of warning up front (or several, actually). Despite my desire for nuance, I guarantee you that I will speak in hyperbole and exaggeration to drive points home and I may employ language that some may feel is a tad, um, salty.

Lastly, I don’t envision this blog lasting long. Because some of the points fold into others, I don’t want to keep flogging dead horses and I think I can draw this whole project to a close by the end of the year.

My hope is that this stirs reflection, debate and that out of dialog may come some relief for those practitners who find themselves confused or worse.

Lastly, where possible, I’ll try to provide bibliographical information and annotation where I feel it necessary. This is mostly in an effort to keep me honest, but also to give credit where credit is due.

I dedicate the merit of this project to the benefit of all beings and I fervently hope that it proves galvanizing enough to promote serious inquiry between practitioners. If anything, I hope that it assists in building stronger sanghas and acts as an aid to provide teachers and students both with additional tools to grow in the dharma.