This month’s Insight Journal includes both an article by Ajaan Thanissaro, “The Essence of the Dhamma,” and a brief interview with him about the article. The article challenges us to re-examine the way we look at the Dhamma through eyes conditioned by the 18th century Enlightenment, along with the modern and post-modern attitudes it has spawned. We have been brought up in a bifurcated culture. On the one hand, modernism assumes that knowing the world through science will make you happy. On the other, post-modernism has come to see that science can be used as a tool by all the institutions in our culture–governments, corporations or others–using the ideal of scientific truth to claim some special “truth” for themselves. Thus all forms of “objective truth” are suspect and so should be deconstructed in order to gain freedom from them. However, as many post-modern thinkers have noticed, this leads to a paradox: perhaps our ideas of freedom come from assumptions that, unbeknownst to us, are actually keeping us from discovering the truth for ourselves. This leaves us in a bind.
Ajaan Thanissaro proposes that the way out of this bind is to view the Buddha’s teachings not through modern or post-modern eyes, but to take him at his word: that he knew timeless truths about how to put an end to suffering. This approach requires questioning the many modern and post-modern ways in which we have come to interpret ancient Buddhist texts. To some ears it may sound like a form of fundamentalism that completely rejects modern and post-modern developments in human thought. But Ajaan challenges us: Perhaps not all forms of fundamentalism are retrograde, and perhaps modern and post-modern views don’t have the final word. After the article below, you will find some questions and answers in which Insight Journal inquires further into the implications of what the article has to say.
Here is the article; our interview with Than Geoff follows it.
The Essence of the Dhamma
By Thanissaro Bhikkhu
One of the most striking features of the Buddha’s teaching is the way he calls into question the substantiality of things, and in particular things that people at large regard as having substance. The primary example is our sense of self. Most people have a sense that there’s something substantial inside them that constitutes their true self. But this sense, the Buddha shows, is nothing more than a fabrication. It’s the result of clinging to physical objects, such as the body, or to mental activities–feelings, perceptions, thought-fabrications, and consciousness–none of which have any substance or essence.
In a famous passage (SN 22:95), he compares physical phenomena to globs of foam floating down a river; feelings to bubbles caused by rain falling on water; perceptions to a mirage; thought-fabrications to the trunk of a banana tree, devoid of heartwood; and consciousness to a magic show. He notes that all of these things–which are called aggregates–are empty, void, and without substance or essence. The purpose of this sort of contemplation is to induce a sense of disenchantment and dispassion for these things–and, by extension, for any sense of self built around them–so that the mind can let go of them and find release.
The Buddha recommends a similar approach to our sense of the world. This, too, he says, is best regarded as a fabrication, based on contact at the six senses–counting the mind as the sixth–along with the feelings that arise based on that contact, all of which are constantly disintegrating (SN 35:82). They’re empty of self or anything pertaining to self (SN 35:85). Again, the purpose of this contemplation is to induce a sense of disenchantment and dispassion for any sense of the world. This, too, can lead to release.
Over the centuries, people have been struck by the radical nature of these contemplations, and many have come to the conclusion that the Buddha was a thoroughgoing anti-substantialist or anti-essentialist: someone who denies that there’s any substance or essence to anything at all. From this conclusion comes a further conclusion: that the Buddha’s Dhamma, or teaching, is also devoid of essence. Aside from the core principle that nothing has any essence, this view holds, there is no unchanging substance or essence to define what’s Dhamma and what’s not.
Ever since this view was advanced, it has been used to justify changes in the Dhamma with the passage of time. Especially now that people in the West have taken an interest in the Dhamma, many of them have claimed that this view is not just a view. It’s an established truth that supports the creative changes they feel the Dhamma requires. After all, they say, the Dhamma embraces change, and so the only authentic way to express the Dhamma is to foster what we see as positive changes in it.
Because this view has had an enormous impact on how Dhamma is taught and understood in the modern world, it’s worth looking carefully at the arguments used to support it, to see if they actually are in line with the Dhamma. Otherwise, if the Dhamma really does have an essence, we risk losing something of essential value when we change it.
There are three principal arguments for an essence-free Dhamma. The first, which originated in ancient India, is derived from the Buddha’s teaching on dependent co-arising–his map showing the causes of suffering and how they can be brought to an end. From this teaching, the argument concludes that all things exist in dependence on conditions. Because their existence is dependent on other conditions that are constantly changing, that existence isn’t inherent. Because all things lack inherent existence, the theory goes, they have no inherent nature or substance. So, given that the Buddha’s Dhamma came into existence dependent on conditions, it too is devoid of substance.
The second sort of argument comes from Western postmodern academic philosophy. It’s based on the premise that no words in any language can point to anything outside of the language, for each word’s meaning is totally determined by its relationship to other words and the rules of grammar in that language. As a result, no word can point to any unchanging essence, for the relationships among words is always changing. Because the Buddha’s Dhamma is composed of words, it can point only to other words, and not to any substance or essence. It has to change every time a different person describes it.
The third sort of argument, like the second, also derives from current academic views, and in particular from the scholarly study of Buddhism as a force in human history. One of the underlying premises of this field of study is that social forces are always taking on new identities and forms in response to changing conditions in their environment. To give a fair and unbiased treatment of these forces, one has to accept all their manifestations as equally valid. Any attempt to find an underlying essence in any social force is to fall into what is called the “essentialist fallacy,” for that would favor one expression of that force in history over others. (Think, for example, of how pointless it would be to describe the past 150 years of American history by defining any particular political position as “essentially Republican” or “essentially Democratic.”) Because Buddhism is a social force, it has no underlying essence. Dhamma is whatever a self-proclaimed Buddhist says that it is. No single way of defining or expressing the Dhamma is more valid than any other.
Even though these latter two sorts of arguments take their premises from current academic views outside of the Buddhist tradition, they derive some of their force within the Buddhist community from their affinity with arguments of the first sort, which came from within the tradition itself. To say that language and social forces are without essence is simply to extend the principle that all conditioned things are without essence. For this reason, we are told, Buddhists should accept–as part of their acceptance of the Dhamma–the principle that the Dhamma is without essence as well. There are virtually no limits to how far it can change and still be Dhamma.
It’s worth noting, though, that at least one voice from within the Buddhist tradition wouldn’t agree with this view: the Buddha’s own, as recorded in the Pali discourses, our oldest extant record of his teachings. By his own account, the Buddha was not a thoroughgoing anti-essentialist. An important aspect of wisdom, he noted, was recognizing that some things have essence and others don’t, and clearly understanding which is which.
Those who regard
non-essence as essence and see essence as non-,
don’t get to the essence,
ranging about in wrong resolves.
But those who know essence as essence,
and non-essence as non-,
get to the essence,
ranging about in right resolves. — Dhp 11-12
The whole point of his teachings was to help people get to the essence, so he had to teach them how to distinguish what was essence from what was not. Now, the Pali word for essence–sāra–also means heartwood: the part of the tree that’s most useful and valuable because it’s also the most lasting and impervious to change. So when the Buddha identified something as essence, he meant not only that it is impervious to change, but also that it had high and lasting value. To say that the Dhamma had no essence, in his eyes, would be to suggest that it had no lasting value at all. And although he did recognize that his teaching of the Dhamma wouldn’t last forever (SN 20:7), he maintained that, as long as the teaching did last, it would lead those who followed it to something of essence. That something is release.
A discourse in the Canon, AN 4:245, identifies this release as the release touched with the right ending of dukkha: suffering or stress. Two other discourses, AN 8:83 and AN 10:58, state that all dhammas have release as their essence. A fourth discourse, AN 9:14, says the same of all thoughts and resolves: They have release as their essence. In other words, the extent to which any phenomenon or mental event has an essence depends on the extent to which it can lead to release.
The most extensive discussion of release as the essence of the Dhamma comes in MN 29 and 30, two discourses that explore the imagery of heartwood and essence by comparing different aspects of a monk’s life to different parts of a tree. Material gain, honor, and fame are like the twigs and branches; consummation in virtue is like the outer bark; consummation in concentration, the inner bark; while knowledge and vision–the various powers that come with concentration–are like the sapwood.
MN 29 and 30 don’t make the point explicitly, but if we compare their image of the tree with the statements about essence in AN 8:83 and 10:58, we can conclude that material gain, virtue, concentration, and knowledge and vision, when taken as ends in and of themselves, have no essence, just as twigs, etc., when taken from the tree, lose all connection with the heartwood. If, however, they stay with the tree and foster the heartwood, then to that extent they are connected with the essence of the Dhamma.
As for the actual heartwood of the Dhamma, MN 29 and 30 define it in two ways: as “non-occasional release” and “unprovoked awareness-release.”
These two ways of describing release basically make the same point: that the release that counts as the essence of Dhamma isn’t subject to change. The first description emphasizes that this release, once attained, is independent of specific occasions. It stands outside of time, so none of the changes of time can reach it.
The second description draws on a theory used in the Buddha’s time to explain changes in nature: both in the physical world and within the mind. The theory is that physical and mental events occur when an underlying property (dhātu) is “provoked.” Fires happen, for instance, when the fire property is provoked; wind storms, when the wind property is provoked. Within the mind, sensual desires flare up when the mental property of sensuality is provoked. In every case, an event caused by provocation ends when the provocation stops. This means that anything caused by provocation is destined, at some point, to cease. To say, however, that the release that comes with awakening is unprovoked means that it’s not caused by provocation at all. It’s not subject to conditions. Standing outside of time, it stands outside the possibility of ever ending.
This is why the way to release from suffering and stress is called, not the cause of release, but the path to release. The path is not a condition underlying the existence of release, but it does lead there. The Buddha himself made this point implicitly when he compared the path to an overgrown road through the jungle, and release to an ancient, abandoned city at the end of the road (SN 12:65). The road doesn’t cause the city to be, but when cleared it enables people to enter and repopulate the city.
An important step in following the road to release is abandoning attachment to your sense of self and the world. This is why the Buddha focused so much of his teaching strategy on showing how our constructed sense of self and the world is without essence. To borrow the words of Dhp 11-12, he pointed out to people what non-essence is, so that they would abandon it and arrive at the essence.
But did this strategy entangle him in self-contradiction? By calling into question the essence of the self and the world, did he also inadvertently call into question the possibility that the Dhamma could have any essence? The Pali discourses contain no record of the Buddha’s having been asked a question like this, but they do contain enough information on how he described release to show that the three sorts of anti-essentialist arguments carry no force against his assertion that release is the essence of the Dhamma.
With regard to the first sort of argument, we can see that release is not caused by dependent co-arising; it’s experienced only when dependent co-arising ceases (SN 12:2). When attained, release is known independently of the aggregates and sense media that provide the raw material of our sense of self and of the world. Although it is experienced as a form of consciousness (DN 11), this consciousness–unlike ordinary sensory consciousness–is not known through the six sense media (MN 49). Because it’s outside of space and time, this consciousness doesn’t come under the aggregate of consciousness, which applies only to the conditioned consciousness experienced in terms of space and time: near or far; past, present, or future (SN 22:59). Release is also experienced as the highest bliss, but this bliss is not classed as a feeling (SN 36:19).
Because release is outside of the aggregates and sense media, it’s not subject to the Buddha’s description of the aggregates and sense media as being without essence. This means that the first sort of argument fails the test provided by Dhp 11-12, in that it doesn’t recognize what is essence and what’s not.
Similarly, the Buddha would not have agreed with the premises underlying the second sort of argument, that the Dhamma is nothing more than language, and that language can point to nothing more than itself. As he maintains, the realm of all that can be described goes no further than the six senses (SN 35:23). However, it is possible to experience the dimension where the experience of the six senses ceases (SN 35:117). Because of the limitations of language, we can’t say that anything remains or doesn’t remain (or both or neither) in this dimension (AN 4:173). But the dimension itself does exist–you can say that much about it to indicate that it’s not an impossibility.
There is that dimension, monks, where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished, unevolving, without support [mental object]. This, just this, is the end of stress. – Ud 8:1
In fact, if this dimension didn’t exist, the ending of suffering wouldn’t be possible (Ud 8:3), and the Dhamma as a whole would be pointless. But one of the realizations on attaining this dimension is that it otherwise lies beyond the limits of what language can adequately describe (DN 15).
Yet language doesn’t simply describe things. It can also be used to induce action. This is how the Buddha primarily used language with regard to release: to induce people to act in a way that will lead them to experience release directly for themselves. This is why he talked about release so often. Still, in doing so, he made heavy use of metaphor, paradox, and negation–focusing on what release is not–to show that it can’t properly be captured in words.
What this means is that the Buddha claimed a range of experience lying outside the horizons of postmodern theories of language, which are based on the assumption that experience outside of space and time is impossible. However, postmodern theories can offer no proof that this assumption is true, which is why their claims have no force against the Buddha’s. He might not be able to convince them when he claims that the word release refers to something outside of their range of experience, but their arguments against him can’t invalidate his claim. The issue has to be settled by other means.
A similar point holds for the third sort of argument. When academics are talking about Buddhism and the Buddha is talking about Dhamma, they are talking about two very different things. Buddhism, for the majority of scholars, is a phenomenon of social history; Dhamma, for the Buddha, is release and the path to release.
The Buddha readily admitted that even though release isn’t touched by time, his teachings on the path to release would, over time, be neglected and replaced by others. But he didn’t regard that fact as a happy one. He compared changes to the teaching to changes in a drum whose wooden body is repaired by pegs every time it splits, to the point where the body is gone, and nothing but pegs remain (SN 20:7). Just as a drum of pegs would be useless for summoning people from far away, in the same way, “replacement Dhamma” (saddhamma-pātirupa) would be ineffective in leading to release.
Again, these are important claims, and they raise important questions: Did the Buddha actually reach release? Do his teachings actually lead there? Is he right in saying that other paths don’t? The historical method, even though it has taught us many other useful things about Buddhism, is incapable of answering these questions, which–when you come right down to it–are the most essential ones that anyone concerned about the end of suffering should ask about the Dhamma. To adopt the image of the tree, academics describing the history of Buddhism are, at best, reaching the twigs and branches. Just as it’s impossible to tell from a tree’s branches whether the trunk contains heartwood, it’s impossible–using the historical method–to know whether the Buddha was right: that the Dhamma does have an essence, and that his teachings share in that essence to the extent that they really do lead to release. So, like the linguistic philosophers who are in no position to tell whether the word release, in the Buddha’s mouth, points beyond language, historians are in no position to tell whether the Buddha actually attained release. The rules of the historical method have no force against his claim that he did.
When linguists and historians don’t recognize the limitations of their methods and claim that the Dhamma has no essence, they are actually doing harm–discouraging themselves and others from testing the Dhamma in practice to see if the Buddha’s claims about its essence is true.
So when we examine the three sorts of arguments maintaining that the Dhamma has no essence, we find that they have no affinity with the Buddha’s original teachings, and actually get in the way of the practice. From the Buddha’s point of view, thoughts and phenomena within the world of conditions can have essence to the extent that they point to the dimension outside. This is why his third noble truth–the total ending of suffering–is a truth; and why holding to this truth as an essential part of the practice. If, in line with the anti-essentialist arguments, you deny that the noble truths can have this sort of essence, then you close off the possibility of ever attaining release.
Of course, the mere fact that the Pali discourses make these claims about the Buddha and his teachings doesn’t mean that they’re true. But they do pose a challenge: Can you prove that they’re not? If, in the Buddha’s words, you’re not looking for heartwood, and would rather see the discourses simply as old texts circumscribed by the horizons of your views of language and history, you’re free to ignore their challenge.
But if you are looking for heartwood, for something of essence, then you’d be wise to respond to the challenge posed by the Buddha in the only way appropriate: by putting the Dhamma to the test in your own life. This means opening yourself to the possibility that essentialism is not always a fallacy, and that the Dhamma just might have an essence transcending your sense of self and the world. Only by widening your horizons will you have any chance of seeing whether there’s more to that essence than mere words.
Interview with Ajaan Thanissaro
Insight Journal: You choose the word “essence” for your title. The word you’re translating is sāra, which we more frequently see translated as “heartwood.”
Than Geoff: Yes, although you also have passages in the Dhammapada and the Majjhima where “heartwood” is used symbolically as the essence, the substance, the real point of value in the practice. In this sense it has the implications, one, of having real value and, two, being unchanging.
IJ: Well, that gets right to the issue. Being of real value, that’s clearly there, as in English “the essence of my argument is this…”, the vital part, the part without which it wouldn’t have any meaning. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s unchanging or floating out in space.
TG: Well, the sāra of the Dhamma-nibbāna, release–is not floating out in space. It’s outside of space and time entirely, something called viññānam anidassanam, consciousness without surface. Some people have argued that such a consciousness cannot possibly exist, given that all consciousness is in the five aggregates, and all the aggregates are inconstant, stressful, and not self. But when you look in the Pāli Canon where the aggregates are defined, they cover only things that are in space and in time–near and far; past, present and future, which are categories of space and time. Whereas the consciousness of nibbāna is something outside space and time. To say that it resists change or is eternal is not quite right, because it’s not in a dimension where time or change happens. So it wouldn’t be subject to change. That’s hard for people to get their minds around: that there is a dimension outside all the dimensions in which we ordinarily live.
IJ: One of the other key teachings, of course, is not-self, or anattā, essentially saying there is no essence to me, I’m a changing process…
TG: That’s not what the not-self teaching is saying at all. It’s saying that all the things that you could possibly identify with are not worth identifying with. When you look at the series of questions posed by the Buddha in his very first talk on the topic of not-self, you see that in every case he comes to the conclusion not that there is no self, but that form, feelings, perceptions, fabrications, consciousness are not worthy of being called “me, myself, or I.” The result of that analysis is to let go of the perception and attachment of “self” around those aggregates. In the letting go of those attachments, there’s release. “Not-self” is a strategy for attaining that release.
There’s a famous passage where Vacchagotta asked the Buddha point blank: Is there a self or is there no self? And the Buddha refused to answer. A lot has been written about why he refused to answer. Some people have said, well, the wrong person asked him; if the right person asked him, he would have said there’s no self. But then the Buddha doesn’t turn around and say that to Ānanda, who was sitting nearby and later quizzed him about why he didn’t answer Vacchagotta. Other people say the Buddha refused to answer because he was afraid that Vacchagotta would have assumed that the Buddha would be siding with the eternalists if he had said there was a self, and with the annihilationists if he had said there was no self. But the Buddha’s own explanation is not that it was a matter of what Vacchagotta would have understood. The Buddha himself says that to assert that there is a self tends toward eternalism, and to assert there is no self tends toward annilhilationism. So regardless of who had asked him the question, he would have refused to answer.
To define what the self is or to define what exactly the world out there is: these are two areas where the Buddha saw that you can easily go astray. In some cases it’s simply a waste of time, in other cases he said that by pursuing these issues you actually make it impossible to get to the end of suffering.
So the Buddha was not interested in telling you whether or not you have an essential self. He’s more interested in showing you the processes by which you create your various senses of self, how they can lead to suffering, and how you can gain release by letting go of your attachment to them.
Then, of course, there’s the Mahāyāna teaching on the not-selfness of all phenomena, that nothing has any essence. I don’t think the Buddha was concerned about whether things do or don’t have an essential essence. The categories of their existing or not existing are categories that he puts aside. For him, the issue is, if you look at things as processes, it’s easier to let go of them. So his teaching is strategic there, for the purpose of experiencing something that really does have true essence, true value, something unchanging. Release for Ajaan Mun is going to be the same as release for the Buddha. It doesn’t change for culture, and it doesn’t change over time.
IJ: I always think it’s interesting to go back to the original word, without getting too fixated on one meaning…
TG: The reason I brought up the word “essence” in the article is that people often interpret the not-self teachings as meaning that nothing has an essence, and from there they go on to say that Buddhism itself must have no essence, we can change it any way we want to, and it’s perfectly OK.
The fact that things have changed–or have been changed–doesn’t mean that all the changes were good changes. When you’re studying Buddhism as an academic subject, you have to say that anyone who calls him or herself Buddhist has to be accepted as part of the subject, and you have to accept all their Buddhisms as valid. That’s an academic presupposition for defining the field. But for someone who’s actually trying to put an end to suffering, academic presuppositions are beside the point. The big question is, does the Buddha’s teaching actually lead to the end of suffering? There’s no academic means of study that can verify whether the teachings actually do get there or not. So something that, from an academic point of view, might be a valid expression of Buddhism is not necessarily Dhamma. This is why we as practitioners need certain standards for what does count as Dhamma and what doesn’t. Then we can recognize that changes have been made, but that not all changes are helping the Dhamma. A lot of them have gotten, and are getting, in the way.
IJ: So, when you’re saying that there’s something that’s outside, that can’t be captured by the academic method, if you will, that’s essentially the same thing that you’re talking about when you say “There is an essence…”
IJ: That leads back to the other word that I wanted to ask your further thoughts on, āyatana, which I think you translate as “domain,” from the Udāna.
TG: I translate it as “dimension”; sometimes you see it as “sphere.”
IJ: And we’re familiar with that translation because salāyatana are the sense spheres. When we’re talking about the sense spheres, we’re talking about one of the ways the Buddha describes the domain of human experience.
TG: The domain of ordinary sensory experience. But then there’s the question of what’s left after those six dimensions cease. The Canon insists that you shouldn’t try to objectify it, to subject it to papañca. When you ask what’s left after those six dimensions cease, you’re putting it in categories of space and time, you’re putting it into categories that relate to how you’ve been defining yourself vis-à-vis the world. But this further dimension lies outside those categories entirely. Still, it can be experienced. “This dimension should be experienced,” as one of the suttas keeps repeating over and over again.
The question is, can a human being know that kind of thing? The modernists and post-modernists say No, because it lies beyond their presuppositions concerning what a human being is and what the human mind can know. But do we really have to accept those presuppositions? The Buddha himself avoided defining what a human being is because, as he said, when you define yourself, you limit yourself. The modern and post-modern presuppositions of what human beings are and can do show that the Buddha was right. If you accept these presuppositions, then the idea of an unconditioned happiness is impossible. So for the purpose of finding an unconditioned happiness, you have to put those limitations aside.
IJ: I think the reason we get hung up is that, since the Western Enlightenment, we think of space and time themselves as having an objective reality. Newton thought that space and time were constants, but Einstein said there is space-time that is elastic and relative in some sense. Our experience of space and time is a set of perceptions, relative and transitory in the same sense that all our other perceptions are.
I think that’s what you’re trying to get at in saying that there’s this other way of experiencing, a dimension that’s outside of space and time.
TG: The post-modernists get at this in another way, saying that everything we know, we know through the filter of words. And, as we all know, every language has its way of distorting reality, emphasizing some things at the expense of others. From this they conclude that there is no ultimate reality, nothing that you can experience outside of the realm of words. But they’ve never tried the Buddha’s method of training the mind, so they haven’t had a chance to experience that other dimension. So from the Buddhist point of view, they’re making assumptions about things that they don’t know anything about. They’re placing limits on what a human being can know without really having tested those limits themselves.
Similarly, from the materialistic point of view, all you can know is through your six senses; beyond that, nothing can be known. But when you say this, you’re starting out with a metaphysical assumption, defining what a human being is. This is one of those issues that the Buddha himself would always stay away from. In his approach, you don’t start out by defining what you are. You start out by looking at how you shape your experience. You then see that there a way of shaping your experience so it will lead you to the threshold of something that’s not shaped. That’s his approach.
IJ: So he doesn’t begin as a metaphysician. He starts out with an epistemological interpretation of how we know what we know.
TG: Right. He starts out by saying that everything you experience is fabricated–that’s why fabrication comes before the six sense spheres in dependent co-arising–and that everything that’s fabricated is stressful. The question is, does that mean you’re totally doomed to stress and suffering forever? Or is it possible to use the processes of fabrication to create a path that then can lead you to something unfabricated? The image in the Milinda Pañha is of road to a mountain. The road doesn’t cause the mountain to be, but it takes you there. If you follow the road, you arrive there. So you can’t cause nibbāna, and you can’t fabricate nibbāna, but you can use fabricated things to get to the unfabricated dimension, which is what nibbāna is.
If you think of fabrication or causality in a linear way, this sounds impossible. But in the principles of non-linear causality, you find that when you follow the rules within a non-linear system in a certain way, they can lead you out of the system. The system breaks down. So it’s possible in a complex system to use the laws of the system itself to break down the system. That’s the principle that the Buddha is using, that you use fabrication in a skillful way to get beyond fabrication. All forms of fabrication–bodily fabrications, verbal fabrications, mental fabrications–come into play in the path. So you take things that you ordinarily carry around as a burden, and you fashion them into a path. The image I like to use is that you’re carrying a bag of bricks on your back, and you learn put them down and make a path of bricks that can lead you to where you want to go.
IJ: Here’s one more way of trying to get at this. There are unfortunately a lot of bad examples in the world today of, for lack of a better word, fundamentalism: people who are glued to a certain idea that is the starting point of everything for them. You can go no further until you simply accept this on faith, and if you don’t, you’re my mortal enemy; I must either convert everyone else in the world, or I must get rid of them, if you take it to the extreme. That comes in many flavors, as we know, pretty much across the spectrum of the world’s wisdom traditions.
TG: From the Buddhist point of view, there is a way to genuine, unconditioned happiness. That’s the fundamental principle of the teaching. The fact that you believe in some other way to happiness does not make you my mortal enemy. There’s no reason that I would try to get rid of you or feel threatened or offended by you. So it’s possible to be a Buddhist fundamentalist without feeling threatened by those who disagree with you.
IJ: I’m trying to draw a distinction between fundamentalism and the kind of relationship you’re trying to describe, to the core or the heart, the essence, of the Buddha’s teaching. How would you distinguish between those?
TG: If you define fundamentalism as the position that certain fundamental truths are true regardless of time or culture, then it’s fundamentalism. Simply that the fundamentals in the Buddha’s teaching don’t lead inevitably to intolerance of opposing viewpoints, the way some forms of fundamentalism do.
But if you define fundamentalism as the unquestioning belief that ancient texts have to be literally right all the time, then what I’m talking about is not a form of fundamentalism. Even the Pali Canon quotes the Buddha as saying that just because a tradition has been remembered and passed down through many generations doesn’t mean that it’s right. It’s possible for people to remember things wrong, even when the original teaching was right.
The tradition I trained in–the Thai wilderness tradition–constantly makes the point that you have to test the teachings in your own practice. As one ajaan said, try to prove the Buddha wrong. But you can’t prove him wrong unless you’ve developed the qualities of concentration and discernment necessary to make yourself a reliable judge of the practice. In other words, you have to do the practice, and that requires that you believe enough in the Dhamma to make the sacrifices that the practice requires. You can’t judge it from the comfort of your armchair. You’ve got to take the principles of the practice on as working hypotheses to know if they really work.
Remember, the Canon has never existed as an untended body of texts. It’s always been part of a community of practitioners, in which generation after generation has been trained in an apprenticeship.
We have a long tradition of people who took the path to awakening, followed the Buddha’s teaching, and attained release. Of course there are other people who claim to have attained awakening by following other teachings. So at this point, you have to decide for yourself: which kind of belief makes sense, which kind of belief embodies the most integrity. At the beginning of every path, your choice of path has to be a matter of belief. Even the belief that “the laws of physics have not changed, and therefore will never change” is a matter of belief. The real issue is not belief vs. fact. It’s a question of looking honestly at your beliefs and choosing those that you trust will be most productive in leading to true happiness. The Buddha says, though, that belief in his path, if you follow it, will eventually lead to a place where you don’t need belief anymore, for you’ve gained knowledge that it really works. You’ve reached the essence. In other words, it’s a belief that can be tested in this lifetime.
So the Buddha’s teachings are actually a challenge. You have to ask yourself if you’re up for his challenge. If you’d prefer to hide behind your modern or post-modern assumptions that an unconditioned happiness is impossible, that’s your call. But you can’t honestly claim that you’ve somehow proven him wrong.
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Note: All Ajaan’s references to texts (SN 22:95, Ud 8:1, for example) refer to the Pali Canon. You can read the texts themselves in many places, including his translations and others at accesstoinsight.org (enter the reference, e.g., SN 22:95, in the search box there).
All photos for this month’s edition taken by Ajaan Thanisarro. Please respect Ajaan’s desire to make his work freely available by only using them in Dhamma work that is also freely available.