Traditional Buddhism and innovation

Posted by on Sep 17, 2012 in Buddhism | No Comments

When I first got interested in Buddhism, I was keen to know what was ‘traditional’ Buddhism. I’d been to a beginners meditation course, then to an introduction to Buddhism course. It all seemed fairly reasonable stuff. But was it real Buddhism?

Within a year I was in Dharmsala (or Mcleod Ganj) where the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-exile is based. I attended lectures at the library delivered by a geshe. I went to the temple and watched them doing 10-day pujas (devotional rituals) where they make a beautiful mandala out of sand. It’s painstaking work. At the end of the 10 days, they wipe it, to remind themselves of the impermanent nature of all phenomena and the futility of getting attached to material things.

I learned more and more, eventually doing an MA to try to get to the heart of what ‘real’ Buddhism is.

I learned that there are lots of people out there teaching ‘Buddhism’ that aren’t really teaching Buddhism. They’re teaching their own limited, and often warped, knowledge of Buddhism. Usually, they don’t even realise they’re doing it.

I also learned that ‘real’ Buddhism doesn’t really exist. Buddhism is fundamentally a progressive religion/philosophy. The shift from the Buddhism of the Theravada and other early schools to the schools of the Mahayana was a significant shift. It involved the finding of ‘Termas’ – hidden sutras which were supposedly hidden by the historical Buddha, to be found when people were ready. Sometimes they were hidden with the nagas – underwater dragon-like creatures – for safe keeping.

The disciples of the early schools don’t see these scriptures as the word of the Buddha. They quite clearly aren’t. But perhaps a more interesting question is ‘Are they the product of an awakened mind?’. An even more interesting question might be ‘Are they of benefit?’

Zen Buddhism is significantly influenced by Taoism. Does that mean its not real Buddhism? Is new Zen less traditional than old Zen? What counts as old?

Tibetan Buddhism is strongly influenced by the Bonn religion that existed in Tibet before Buddhism arrived. And the Bonn religion is now significantly influenced by hundreds of years of interaction with Buddhism.

Is Tibetan Buddhism in the west more authentic if it is taught by a lama? What if that lama left the Tibetan community in Nepal or India because he found it too restrictive and wanted the freedom to be wilder and more radical in his teachings?

Is a 1920s gramophone better than an ipod?

For me, it was really helpful to go into some detail with Buddhism. To study it academically, to look at the history and development, and to understand some of the different political factors at play. This was helpful because it helped me to get a better feeling for the Dharma – the path and the truth and the teaching that the various Buddhisms are trying to communicate.

It has also helped me to see the Dharma in many other teachings and teachers who aren’t Buddhist. I take it where I find it. If it can help me live and thrive, I’ll happily incorporate it into my practice and my outlook. The Dalai Lama has the same approach, so perhaps I’m being traditional.

Over the years I’ve integrated-slash-cobbled-together a wide range of perspectives – from the earliest of the Buddhist teachings to the most up-to-date developments in Western psychology and psychotherapy.

I’ll make use of all of that in what I communicate here. I’ll try to quote sources and highlight where something is or isn’t traditional Buddhism, so that you can find your own way with it. I should point out, though, that I usually write this stuff fairly quickly, while I’m away from my home, usually from memory. Also, many of my sources are currently sitting on a bookshelf in another country. But I’ll do my best.

If I’ve found it to useful, I’ll share it. For me it’s the Dharma. For you it might not be. That’s true of traditional stuff as well as non-traditional stuff. The Buddha wasn’t interested in founding a religion, he was interested in getting the dust out of people’s eyes so they could see clearly and live according to how things are. So even if it’s traditional, if it doesn’t ring true for you, put it to one side. Maybe it will benefit you in the future, maybe not.

As the famous Zen phrase goes – if you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.

But perhaps you shouldn’t listen to Zen. Compared with the Theravada, it’s the new kid on the block.


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