c.a. davis

// filmmaker | editor | storyteller \\

A Critique on Buddhism

I am Buddhist. I love its concepts, its teachings, and the insight I have gained over the years of studying its philosophies. I love the modern day sages that have experienced life in ways that enable me to re-experience my own. I love the story of Siddhartha Gautama becoming the Buddha that we all already are, for the unconditional love of the Universe and all the beings within it.

That said, allow me to say this: there is a problem with the teaching of no-self and wholeness of the Universe.

In our heart is a lotus blossom
waiting to bloom.
If we are all already enlightened, if we are all not the “self” we are so used to thinking ourselves as, why then does morality matter? What’s to stop me from killing you, helpless animals, or myself? Why does anything matter at all?

The concept of anatman (no-self) has opened the floodgates for nihilists and perversions of the faith to abuse this philosophy for their own use. Case in point, social discrimination perpetuated by Soto Zen temples on various occasions in Japan.

I quote from the essay Zen and the Art of Religious Prejudice (authored by William Bodiford):

Liberation League spokesmen asserted that some Soto Zen temples in Japan kept necrologies  (kakocho 過去帳)in which the ancestors of outcaste members of their congregations were clearly identified, sometimes by derogatory Buddhist titles that imply meanings such as “beasts” or “less than human.” Indeed, Soto priests routinely allowed access to these memorial registers by private investigators, who perform background checks to insure that prospective marriage partners or company executives do not come from outcaste families. Liberation League members searched through the published writings of Soto Zen masters throughout history, pointing out discriminatory remarks directed against outcastes, women, the physically impaired, and foreigners. Secret ritual manuals published by the Soto Zen Headquarters as recently as 1973 were found to contain many expressions of caste prejudice, such as instructions on how Zen clerics can maintain ritual purity while dealing with outcastes. (Bodiford, 4)

Why would this occur? How could this occur? To many westerners, Buddhism promotes a doctrine that is anti-discriminatory and utterly compassionate. Furthermore, in the doctrine of no-self, how could one even commit the act of social discrimination? Why even care?

It’s a complicated matter, one that very few try to take head on. Nonetheless I will try, as best to my abilities and knowledge, to understand the reason for the skewed use of this religious doctrine.

First, let us examine the reason William Bodiford suggests in his essay:

…the legacy of governmental policies imposed on Soto temples from the outside are responsible for perpetuating the prejudice and abuses found inside Soto Zen today. This position is at least partially correct. From 1635 (when the  tera-uke 寺請 system began) until 1871 (the year that legal enforcement of outcaste segregation officially ended), nearly all Buddhist temples, not just Soto, were legally obligated to function essentially as part of the police arm of the government in supervising local populations. Buddhist temples operated as the first-line troops charged with enforcing the government’s absolute prohibition of Christianity and suppression of “heterodox” Buddhist sects. This system aligned the religious authority of Buddhist temples with many of the worst features of government oppression. (Bodiford, 7)

Bodiford goes on to say that the temples were in charge of necrologies (records of the dead) mainly because they were the ones who preformed the religious ceremonies after a death occurs. These necrologies were the main form of discrimination as those who died were eternally noted in the books as “outcast members of society”, noting their descendants as social impurities, thus perpetuating the discrimination. While this explains the social and systematic engineering behind the matter, it still doesn’t explain why monks thought this was right. One last quote should give light onto this thought:

Buddhist doctrines of karmic retribution, in particular, suggest that disadvantaged people deserve their miserable fates. Chapter 28 of the Lotus Sutra, for example, warns that whoever slanders the scripture will be stricken with leprosy, or will be reborn blind or with harelips, flat noses, deformed limbs, body odor, impurities, and so forth, for many lives (Taisho edition 9.62a). (Bodiford 14)

Death & Rebirth depends on Karma
Though Bodiford cites “karmic retribution” as the main perpetrator, I would suggest that it is not the original perpetrator in allowing social discrimination to occur within the Buddhist faith. Karma, as any Buddhist can tell you, is the direct effect of dependent arising—life exists, therefore awareness exists, therefore thoughts eventually exist, therefore suffering exists—in which no actual “self” exists.

For example, say you had a car sitting in front of you. Now, imagine that car being pulled apart, piece by piece, and each time a new piece was deconstructed, the mechanic would come up to you and ask, “Is this the car?”

Of you course you say, “No, that’s a bolt.” Or whatever it is you see. The trick is this: once the car has been entirely dissected, where has the car gone? The answer is simple: it doesn’t exist in the first place. There is a car-ness that exists, yes, but only in our minds. When the pieces are constructed into a car—when they fit together to give rise to the engine, the axel, the wheels, and so on until the “car” exists again—then we see the “car”. But when the “car” is shred to pieces, it ceases to exist.

The same is true for a human being. If it weren’t we’d never experience death, or the cessation of the dependent arising that forms our vary awareness—heartbeats, blood flow, breathing, thinking.

As for karma, at least in religious doctrine, the same is true. One thing happens in the Universe, thus a reaction occurs. Makes sense—it is, after all, the principle of modern day physics; for every action there is a reaction, every push an opposing push. Therefore, karma is founded upon the emptiness of everything—nothing “exists”, but rather just the thoughts of their “existence” and the cataloguing that we do thereof—which is essentially “no-self”. We are empty of a self. In the case of social outcasts, they are impure because of their karmic weights; therefore they do not require any justice.

Here’s the problem: that’s wrong. If feels wrong. And you can’t deny that. At least, I can’t and neither can countless other human beings.

What then can we say about that feeling? How is it true that we have no separate self but still feel pain for other things? As far as I can tell, the only answer is compassion.

Now, I’m sure at this point your brain hurts and you’re thinking, “Wait a second… He just said that nothing exists. How can compassion exist?? What’s the point??”

One's dukkha (suffering) is another's dukkha.
The fact that we feel things attributes that those things are just as real as being empty of a self. In other words, emotions and pain and compassion are very much real things. To say that we are empty of a self is not to say that we are empty of a reality. Death exists. Pain exists. Horrible things people do to each other and themselves exist. The doctrine of no self isn’t meant to abolish the caring of these things but rather the fear that these things are permanent or ultimately threatening to you—after all, “you” do not exist.

But how is it possible to be utterly compassionate upon realizing the Truth of no separate self? I can’t say, because I am not enlightened. However, I can point to the doctrine of the Bodhisattva, which states that the pledge of a Bodhisattva (a Buddha-to-be) is to become a Buddha not to escape samsara for yourself but rather to learn the cessation of suffering and aide the Universe to learn the path as well. In other words, the pledge of the Bodhisattva is utter compassion. For everything. Why? Because things suffer, and if you are all things, then you’d want everything to be at peace. No?

Unfortunately, I cannot bridge the gap much better than that, mainly because I am still learning these things myself. I think, however, that the story of Siddhartha Gautama’s enlightenment can possibly illuminate the matter further:

"The Earth is my witness."
It is said that upon sitting down for his final meditation before realizing the truth of all things, Siddhartha was visited by the god Mara—the god of Earthly pleasures and pains. Mara did everything in his power to disturb Siddhartha’s meditation: he sent hordes of demons to attack him, only to discover their weapons turned into flowers before striking him; he sent his daughters to allure him, only to see that he was not interested in such Earthly delights. Finally, Mara demanded to know who was to witness that Siddhartha was to be a Buddha—an enlightened being. Siddhartha did not speak, but merely touch the ground upon which he sat, giving way to a shudder of a quake, which then frightened Mara and his demons. They ran, and Siddhartha was disturbed no more.

The point you should focus on here is the Earth Touch. Siddhartha’s witness for his awakening wasn’t a god, another individual person, but rather the entirety of the Earth. Siddhartha did not so much attain enlightenment for himself that day as he did for everyone and everything in existence. He became a Buddha because he succumbed to reality in the compassion for the Universe and all within it.

In all, though I cannot say exactly what bridges that gap between compassion and no-self, I can say that there is nothing wrong in doubting the very thing you study and love so much. Doubt is just scrutiny devised for the means of learning more. After all, the Buddha taught that self-experiential referencing was far more important to do than just following the teacher and the teachings blindly. And though there is much doubt to be had within this tradition—as there is in any tradition—I cannot help but imagine seeing a little Buddha, still a child, looking up at me, smiling and saying:

“I have taught you very, very well.”

Little Buddha, Big Heart