When you find a spiritual tradition that you really connect with and that changes your life, you revere it. Especially when you’re told that it’s worthy of reverence and that it was started (or rediscovered) by a dude who was not only a teacher of humans but also a teacher of gods.
We have suttas (Theravada), sutras (Mahayana) and tantras (Vajrayana) that are considered truly sacred by members of those traditions. They are the word of the Buddha. You wouldn’t rest your cup of tea on them or leave them on the floor. Just copying out one of those texts is considered to have massive positive karmic consequences.
We bow to statues too. We chant mantras in the belief that there is magic in them and just by chanting them we are benefiting both ourselves and others.
It’s easy to forget that all this stuff was created by humans. Only humans.
OK maybe they were clever humans, wise humans, compassionate humans. But humans are imperfect and its OK to question this stuff.
One of the 10 fetters that bind us to cyclic existence (ie keep us getting reborn) in the early Buddhist tradition is “Adherence to rights and rituals as ends in themselves.”
You could even translate this as “Believing that just doing the religious type stuff is enough to get you enlightened.”
We need to go beyond this kind of thinking if we want to get somewhere with Buddhist practice.
Marketing in Buddhism
I’m writing about this now because I’ve spoken to a few people recently who have a ‘map’ of Buddhism that puts their take on it at the top of the pile. They’ve been taught this and apparently haven’t questioned it.
One of the things you hear is that Theravadin (early) Buddhism is ‘a good preparation for Mahayana practice’.
The idea, from the Mahayana side, is that the Theravada teachings are the basic teachings. No one really says it out loud anymore, but the Theravada is considered ‘Hinayana’ Buddhism – the ‘lesser vehicle’ – by Mahayanists. ‘Mahayana’ means ‘Greater vehicle’.
This is nonsense. Theravada Buddhism can take you all the way. It is a full path.
The staunch Theravadins regard Mahayana Buddhism as a degradation of the Buddha’s teaching and part of the inevitable decline that will eventually lead to it being impossible for us to get enlightened without the arrival of the next Buddha.
I don’t buy that either. Wisdom can be communicated in any number of ways. The historical Buddha doesn’t hold the copyright on the Dhamma.
And the Hindu take on it is that the Buddha is an incarnation of Vishnu. (By positioning it in this way, Buddhism is no longer a challenge to the Hindu religion but is consumed by it. A neat trick.)
Whereas the Buddhist take on it is that Vishnu is an unenlightened god that sits below the Buddha in the hierarchy of evolved beings. (Another neat trick.)
In short, all of this is marketing. If you want to establish your market share in the spiritual free market you need an angle. You have to be the biggest, the newest, the oldest or the highest. It must take you farthest or get you there quickest.
Don’t let it bring you down
Just because humans wrote Buddhism doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. It just means you have to stay awake when you’re hearing messages about it, and when you’re studying it.
You don’t believe everything the car salesperson is telling you. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a great car.
At the end of the day, you are responsible for your own practice. Whatever words you read, whatever teachings you receive, whatever initiations you undergo, in the end it’s down to you.
I’ve met several big cheeses in the spiritual world. People who some consider to be Buddhas, or gods, or Zen masters.
I always came away from these interactions with a strong sense that it was down to me to walk the path. No one can push you along it in their shopping trolley. How could it be otherwise?
The teaching, the truth and the path are all around you, in every moment. Reality is everywhere. You just have to open your eyes.
Test out the practices for yourself. Find what works for you at this stage in your life.
Whatever you’re taught you’ll interpret based on your own present understanding and experience. So really it’s you teaching yourself anyway. It could never be anything else.
In the words of Daevid Allen of Gong (a psychedelic jazz-rock band) “I am my own guru. I set my gurus free.”
Of course he’s just a human too.