In Defense: Enlightened Teachers

When discussing the need to defend Buddhism against the impending tyranny of other religions, or even worse, the true Dharma against the backwards teachings of those other Buddhists, I have always taken the position that what is true does not need defending because, more often than not, when confronted with a teaching that leads to peace, to kindness, to contentment, to freedom – it doesn’t need any defending at all.

This thread also seems to run through the sutras themselves: that when one is confronted with an enlightened being or an enlightened teaching it is undeniable. Of course, from a position of literary criticism it is easy to see why this is: the authors of the texts wish to position the validity of their work as intrinsically true, and to parallel the reader’s encounter with the text within the text itself. Nonetheless, it is interesting how this ends up being done.

Many sutras describe encounters with the Buddha where the audience that receives him are enamored by his appearance [MN 26]. Others tell of encounters with the often silly thirty-two marks [MN 91].

I bring this up because I started reading the Platform Sutra for the first time the other day, and I was surprised how Huineng is made to signify his enlightenment: through composing a poem.

Continued analysis doesn’t prove writing a poem to be any stranger than having wheel-spoked heels or an excessively large tongue, but it presents the curious image where an enlightened being is expected to be able to show his attainment through external means, like teaching or writing.

This makes me uncomfortable because it seems to allow for charisma, for style and skillful expression to be the incitement of confidence rather than silent and steadfast conduct – but I do suppose that this is what motivates most
people anyway. A path that is not communicated loses the ability to influence the lives of others, and the way in which the public can become aware of a given teacher’s conduct is itself a kind of communication.

I suppose this is the discomfort that my friends have when they feel the need to protect Buddhism: that the noble qualities of the religion are not communicated, or that they have the wrong communicators.

I guess I reside in the confidence that even if the truth is not communicated, that it cans till be found, as it was so long ago.

2 Replies to “In Defense: Enlightened Teachers”

  1. Literary criticism comes from the same tired Western tradition of looking for faults in everything and trying to find out rational explanations for everything through science or increasingly abstract and complex reasoning. it just leads to doubt, that is why I just gave up on trying to get a university education. It seemed to lead to doubt and stress and more doubt while the Buddhas teachings point to freedom.

    This society is one in which a culture of radical doubt permeates everything. People hunger for someone or something to give them certainty and freedom from that doubt so a lot turn to the charisma of a Billy Graham type character or in extremes, a Hitler.

    I think you are right in that something that is true doesn’t need defending. Sometimes it seems like it needs to be defended or propped up, but most often it is our own defilements that feel the need to prop it up rather then the Dhamma itself. Remember that the Buddha never said he was a god or the son of a God but simply a human being that found out where true freedom lies and then taught it to others. Buddhism may be misinterpreted and maligned and may even disappear altogether but the Dhamma will always be there and there will always be someone, somewhere who will enter the stream and keep the Dhamma wheel rolling.

    Thuis culture and it’s values are screwed up in major ways and none of them are really conducive to the Dhamma, there are bound to be misunderstandings along the way but some people will “get it”, and when they do then as you say, the truth won’t need to be defended at all because it is right there for anyone who really wants to know it.

Comments are closed.