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I Am Not My Favorite Book: How Buddhist Education Really Works

I’ve known Arunlikhati for a number of years now, and he carries with him an ability common to old friends: he knows what things really twist my ears. And so I receive from my old friend this article from About.com’s Buddhism page, where the guide Barbara O’Brien wrote:

Schools that emerged in China and spread to Korea and Japan — e.g., Zen, Pure Land, Tendai — each have their own canon of Mahayana sutras and pretty much ignore the Pali Canon.

In the interest of full disclosure: I have an axe to grind. I am a member of a Chinese Buddhist temple and the Pali Canon means a great deal to me. So we exist. But behind the About.com article I see a great deal of misunderstanding regarding how Buddhists have educated generations of disciples, and what it means to value a text.

At the center of this misunderstanding is an erroneous one-to-one conflation of Buddhist texts and Buddhist teachings. It is true: very few Chinese Buddhists read the Pali Canon. They read the Chinese Agamas, a series of Chinese translations of a collection of sutras roughly analogous to the Pali Canon.

The Chinese Agamas have received special attention lately, as they have been emphasized by many of the leading Chinese monastics of the twenty-first century. Master Yin Shun, the most distinguished Chinese Scholar monk of our time, wrote extensively of the centrality of the Agamas to understanding Buddhism. Master Sheng Yen, founder of Dharma Drum Mountain, dedicated his textual study to reading the entirety of the Agamas during his years of solitary retreat. They are a read, cherished, and honored part of the Chinese Buddhist tradition.

But even if they were not, the troubling part of the claim that East Asian Mahayana Buddhism “ignores the Pali Canon” suggests that it ignores the teachings contained with the texts of the Pali Canon: the eightfold path, the four brahmaviharas, dependent origination, the five aggregates, and other core Buddhist teachings. Even if the Agamas were not widely read and studied, this would not be an alarm bell signaling that the core Buddhist teachings had been abandoned, because the majority of Buddhist teachings are not taught through reading sutras.

The sutras are of great importance, but they are not the sole locus of Buddhist education. Talks, classes, tracts, and media are much more common. Though a given Dharma talk may refer to the ideas expressed in the sutras, it is spoken in today’s language, with today’s concerns, to teach and inspire today’s audience. Even when transmitted in writing, more have read What the Buddha Taught or the Heart of the Buddha’s teachings than have cracked the Digha Nikaya.

This has been true for hundreds of years. Before printing was economical, portable knowledge in the form of handwritten manuscripts was labor-intensive and expensive. Comparably wealthy city monasteries in Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and East Asia could maintain vast sutra collections, but the village monastery had to be judicious in their choices. And regardless of the country the same pattern can be seen over and over when examining the historical catalogs of such temples: the texts on the ground were vernacular texts, mostly not sutras, written as training guides to educate the monastics and teach them how to preach to the laity. Sutras, when present, were usually key texts of sectarian importance.

The sutras that a certain school elevates to great importance assuredly says something about the school, but it does not tell the whole story of the teachings of that school. For example, the Heart Sutra may be elevated above the Agamas in terms of textual importance in most forms of Mahayana Buddhism, but the teachings on emptiness contained within are completely incomprehensible without an understanding of core Buddhist teachings like the five aggregates and the functions of the six senses.

Even when some Buddhist schools declare a strict textual allegiance in their established dogmas, the truth is often very different on the ground. The Pure Land School may exhibit extreme dedication to the Sukhavati sutras, and the Chan School may declare its various koan collections as the most profound Dharma. But if one was to visit such temples around the world one would hear the vast variety of Buddhist teachings being taught in their shrine rooms and lecture halls, right along with down-to-earth advice on how to have a happy family and be more giving. This is because, people are suffering, Buddhism will respond.

What Buddhists know, what they hold dear, and what they impart to future generations is more vast than what can be contained in any set of texts frozen in time, for such things make up the content of our lives. It is how we take the teachings of the Buddha, preserved in the sutras and delivered to us by the sangha and make them new, vital, and imbued with the gravity they were granted when they were spoken by the Buddha.

  • http://gravatar.com/g2-66324f7523efe8c154df7eb86b4ba0e0 djbuddha

    I really don’t understand why people keep reading Ms. O’Brien’s blog.

    • John

      I don’t know why anyone would or would not read Ms. O’Brien’s blog (I don’t read it), but I do think the assertion she made is not one unique to her.

      I can speak about it specifically because I am familiar with it, but I think that the incredible diversity of Chinese Buddhism across time and among different groups of practitioners is usually grossly over-simplified–sometimes by outside groups to make a point about themselves, or even by some Chinese Buddhist groups to position themselves as the very definition of a nationalized Buddhism.

      I guess the point I was trying to make in the above is that East Asian Buddhists do indeed know a thing or two about Buddhism.

  • http://trashbird1240.wordpress.com trashbird1240

    You make some really good points, especially considering how Buddhism was transmitted into China, i.e. not straight over the Himalayas, but from Central Asia. Does anybody think people travelling on the Silk Road carried the Pali Canon with them? Does it matter? As you pointed out, they certainly could have carried the Buddha’s teachings along with their minds much more easily. “Oral Transmission, comes complete with its own carrying case!”

    Perhaps the comments you saw also reflect a misunderstanding of how the Pali Canon itself was transmitted: monks weren’t transcribing as the Buddha spoke. Perhaps the writing of the Pali Canon itself was an act of “academism” by later Sri Lankan monks.

    • John

      Thanks for the comment, trashbird1240!

      I think it is very true that most of Buddhist learning and education exists outside of texts; the problem of course is that textual evidence is something that travels really well through history, while oral knowledge does not.

      There are a few ways to get a sense of what texts or ideas were popularly circulating at any given time–I’m working on a post right now looking into Chinese breviaries / liturgies (like 諸經日誦) over time and what sutras and dharanis were included. I still need to do a bit more research, but there is some seriously interesting stuff.

      • http://trashbird1240.wordpress.com trashbird1240

        Alan Watts has said that the sutras/scriptures are not the teachings of Buddha, but are just a conversation starter. The actual teachings of the Buddha are what a teacher passes directly to his students.

  • Albert

    I sort of understand Barbara’s statement regarding how the Pali Canon is ignored in “East Asian” Buddhist traditions because in the city that I live in (Vancouver), I do come across a lot of Buddhists who are unfamiliar with the Pali Canon/Agamas or don’t really care too much about it. In fact, in one of the Chinese Pure land temples, the Venerable dismissed the Pali Canon and was essentially saying that it was not important compared to the other sutras (!)

    But like you mentioned, Masters such as Yin Shun and Sheng Yen have done a great job at revitalizing interest in the Pali Canon/Agamas. I find Bodhi monastery in New Jersey to be an excellent case of both Thervada and Mahayana working together in the case of Bhikkhu Bodhi (Theravada) helping to teach the disciples (Mahayana) the Pali Canon.

    Still, there are too many cases where I do encounter many Mahayana individuals who put very little emphasis on the Pali Canon…..more work needs to be done!…we are “One Dharma”…right?