Posted in Grad School

Teaching in the Oral Tradition

My Buddhist Traditions professor assigned us to answer the following questions in up to 150 words: If you wanted to carefully pass on the content of a long talk without being able to tape it or write anything down, how might you go about doing so by purely oral methods? What difficulties might you face?

The central difficulty of exclusively oral transmission is that human beings only retain about 15% of what they hear!  As a college professor, I have found three ways to improve that percentage.  First, I have students repeat aloud short, key definitions and lists.  I do this periodically over a long lecture, and throughout the course.  Second, I use mnemonics.  A common mnemonic technique is to arrange a list so that the first letter of each item spells out a word.  For example, the terms of a contract must contain Q-TIPS: Quantity, Time of performance, Identity of the parties, Price, and Subject matter.  Third, I use examples, as I just demonstrated.

All this notwithstanding, my lectures will vary based on my audience.  The core concepts remain the same, but the amount of repetition and the examples used vary widely depending on my students’ educational and cultural backgrounds.

Posted in Grad School

Do Buddhists Relate to Their Scriptures as Christians do to the Bible?

Most Christians in my experience view the Bible as the “inerrant word of God.”  The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, written at an international conference of evangelical Christian leaders in 1978, states, “Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches…”  (Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics.)

In contrast, “…Buddhism, as a whole, does not possess a ‘canon’ of scriptures in the manner of…the Old and New Testaments of Christianity.”  (Rupert Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism, p. 41.)  Buddhists are very comfortable with the fact that theirs was an exclusively oral tradition for centuries.  Writing in the context of early Buddhist literature, L.S. Cousins observes, “Above all, there is no permanent and unchanging soul or ground of being in man or the universe.” (L.S. Cousins, “Buddhism” from The New Penguin Handbook of Living Religions, p. 381.)  This core Buddhist doctrine of impermanence applies to any “scripture” as well.  “Indeed, according to Buddhists themselves, the Buddha’s ‘True Dharma’ was subject to the same laws of impermanence and change as anything else.”  (John S. Strong, The Experience of Buddhism, p. 89.)

Since there is no creator god in Buddhism, there is no supreme deity to insure the accuracy of the dharma.  Buddhists more readily accept their scriptures as guidelines.  The Buddha’s teachings are simply the Buddha’s teachings.  They are not sacred as the “word of God” is in Christianity.

Posted in Grad School

Where do I Fit?

My closest affiliation is with Zen.  There’s a simplicity and lack of distraction that I find useful.  I used to think of Tibetan – vajrayana – Buddhism as too complicated.  I’m the sort of person who wants to know everything about a given subject, and I realized that would be impossible with Tibetan Buddhism.  While there’s a lot one can study “about” Zen, there doesn’t seem to be as much to “understand.”  Once I began to study Tibetan Buddhism, however, I realized it’s the same way!  Many paths to the same point – or many rafts to the other shore.

Posted in Grad School

The Relationship of Buddhism to Belief

I think of Buddhism as existing, and being able to be followed, without beliefs.  The Eightfold Path can be followed even if one believes in a creator god who will save him after death.  Buddhism can help one now, and it certainly can’t hurt after death. Even if a person didn’t believe in an afterlife at all, being a better person by practicing the Eightfold Path won’t cause any additional suffering, and at best, can lead to a happier life now.  Perhaps the only belief necessary is that the Eightfold Path can lead to the end of suffering.  But even that isn’t absolutely necessary, because the Buddha himself taught to try the Dharma for oneself.  Don’t accept what anyone else taught or wrote – even him.  Try reproducing the Buddha’s path and see if you can replicate his results.  Viewing Buddhism as a grand experiment, then, no belief is required.

Posted in Grad School

What is Buddhism?

Buddhism is the study and practice of the teachings of the Buddha.  One could just as easily be said to be studying the Dharma as to be studying Buddhism.  It is practicing what the Buddha taught, hoping it will accomplish in one’s own life what it did in his.  I see it as a process rather than a belief system.  It certainly doesn’t fit the Judeo-Islamic-Christian definition of a religion!  It’s more akin to a medical diagnosis: here is the problem, here is the cause, there is a cure, here is how to heal yourself.

Posted in Grad School

The Non-Uniform Nature of Buddhism

I see two advantages to the non-uniform nature of Buddhism. First, it allows Buddhism – or any other religion – to mutate more readily when its environment changes.  Second, in this information age, it allows people to pick the branch of Buddhism that suits them best. No longer are we fated to belong to the only religion we’ve ever heard of.  Now we can “shop.”  We can choose “statues and incense” Buddhism (to borrow a phrase from Sandy Boucher) or a simple meditation practice.  And no one can say that one is more “Buddhist” than the other.

Posted in Grad School

The Phenomenological Approach to the Study of Religion

“Metaphysical neutrality” is necessary to an understanding of another’s religion.  It doesn’t matter whether what the person believes is true, only that they believe it.  This is the United States’ legal standard for allowing people to practice Freedom of Religion: not whether the believer’s god would be honored by her not working on the Sabbath – or even whether that god exists at all – but that the individual believes that to honor her god she should not work on the Sabbath. Accepting that someone else believes does not mean that we also believe.  Holding this sort of “methodological agnosticism” helps us to refrain from judging while we seek to understand.

Posted in Grad School

Thoughts on Emptiness

“I” am the person “I” am today because of all of the circumstances in which “I” have found “myself” along the way.  Everything that has ever happened to “me” has influenced how “I” think, how “I” feel, and how “I” behave.  Everything about “me” is shaped by “my” environment.  Every time “I” have ever made a decision in “my” life has been a step on the path to where “I” am right now.

If even one tiny thing were changed in some subtle way, “I” would not be who “I” am.  “I” would be different, and therefore someone else.

Therefore, “I” do not exist.

Posted in Grad School

Finding Nirvana, in Pali

Pali is the language spoken by the Buddha.  I’ve been doing some research into the language, and tonight a concept became clear to me.

The Pali word for Nirvana (Nibbana) is “extinction” or “quenching,”  as in the extinction of a fire.  It is alternatively interpreted as “blowing out.”

The Pali word for grasping (upadana), which is one of the causes of suffering in the world, is “fuel.”

So, when the fire runs out of fuel, it is extinguished.  When we stop grasping, there is Nirvana.