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Rectifying Buddhism I

The inherent corruption of organized religions is found in the East and West. An old Japanese proverb runs, "It is generally the wickedest man who knows the quickest path to the shrine." Another goes, "Not to know [Buddhism] is to be a Buddha." Actually, Buddhism in the East and West is a perfect example of how dogma knows no boundaries.

Many believe that Buddhism was ousted from India due to the efforts of Adi Sankara to revive Hinduism. That is not quite the way it happened. The assumption that the Buddha was anti-Vedic is also erroneous. In the generations preceding the Buddha, there was a gradual deviation from the way of life taught in the Upanishads with ceremonialism and externals being emphasized instead of the spirit of internal practices. The Dark Ages had begun.

The Buddha, a yogi and student of Samkhya philosophy, attempted to restore the original purity of the Vedas but would not speculate on the existence of God or on the existence of the Buddhas upon the attainment of nirvana. A highly practical teacher, such theology was not worthy of any consideration - and he left such argument to the priests.

As to be expected though, his followers soon made the mistakes that his predecessors made. By the time of Sankara, the original teachings of the Buddha were muddled and degenerate. As Martin Buber put it, "His [the Buddha's] succession among the peoples, however, that "great vehicle" [Mahayana Buddhism], has contradicted him magnificently."

Enter Adi Sankara, who certainly attacks the philosophies of decadent Buddhism; but he never speaks of the Buddha himself derogatorily. In fact, he refers to the Buddha with the highest reverence calling him "Yoginam chakravarti," or the greatest among yogis. Adi Sankara, by admitting to the beauty of the Buddha's original teachings while disproving the distortions wrought by later Buddhists, brought Buddhists back into the fold of Vedanta where they belonged.

The Buddha, as a matter of course, had about as little to do with the development of Buddhism as Jesus has to do with the advent of Christianity and Catholicism, which is to say no involvement. Both their lives became the stuff of fables and mythology, and Jesus's might have always been only that. Like the New Testament, the Buddhacarita ("Life {Acts} of the Buddha) is a work of hagiographical fiction that has little to do with any real consideration of history. Both of these works have their didactic and inspirational purposes, but by in large the Buddha's biography stands, in its entirety, in conflict with the original teachings of the ascetic whose life it portrays. Today, Buddhism in East Asia is no more yogic than mainstream Judaism or Catholicism.

Shakespeare (1564-1646) wrote, "Words without thoughts never to heaven go," meaning that prayers without an earnest heartfelt sentiment are of no value. However, this simple truth eludes scores of modern day Buddhists; the prayer wheel now competes with the Buddha himself in omnipresence! For those of you unfamiliar with such a device, it is a cylinder, often metallic, stuffed with sutras and fitted with a handle for easy and quick rotation. Spinning the wheel counts for a prayer in your favor. Prayer wheels can be very large to afford hundreds of prayers in a short span of time, especially if the wheel is attached to a windmill or a water wheel (not sure if electric motors disqualify a prayer). Quantity, not quality, is the goal. Prayers can even be placed on flags or stone markers near roads so just driving by bestows a prayer (assuming good wind conditions where flags are involved). I suppose a bank robber would use a getaway route that had the most prayer slabs since he would need all the prayers he could get! In short, wheel-toting Buddhists wouldn't recognize the Buddha were he to bump right into them.

Like Catholicism, Buddhism developed its own cosmological theory that has very little connection to anything real but rather is an outgrowth of a blind and fear-ridden Dark Age theology. It too has its cult of mythological saints, called Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, that believers can pray to and venerate in order to receive certain merit. Buddhism developed liturgy, or external rituals, prayer books, and became perhaps the largest religion in the world through strenuous missionary efforts. As Bynner wrote, "Even the popes and lamas wear / Terror beneath a breast-bone bare, / Bell-wethering the flocks they lead / With a nostalgia for stampede."

Because it seems different and exotic to the average Christian Westerner, many in our countries believe that by becoming Buddhist they are somehow perforce entering the realm of mysticism or spirituality. They forget, or perhaps they never knew, that spirituality suffers with a narrow identity, Buddhist or otherwise, and simply requires the daily practice of directing the concentrated mind inward through sense-introversion and asceticism - just what one mystic, later named "the Buddha" (as if there is only one of those like there is only Son of God), did.

This defining practice is not the property of any religion. In fact, most organized religions disavow such a practice because a church, church funds, priests, and age-old ignorance-based rituals are superfluous and even burdensome to the mystic.

Some critics of organized religion feel that Christian churches are particularly dogmatic, and they certainly can be. However, it would be a mistake to assume dogma is confined to the West when it can be found in every religious sect that is in anyway organized. Western converts to Buddhism are merely replacing one dogma for another while they, in ignorant bliss, feel the elation of freedom from the stifling dogmas of the religion of their childhood and parents. Though the promise of heaven and threat of hell comprise the height of insult to reason, the doctrine of reincarnation becomes no less dogmatic, self-serving, and power centralizing where blind belief is concerned, else the human race would not continue to be burdened with a Dalai Lama or a Pope.

Fortunately, the flimsy stilts of priestly assurances easily collapse when a few penetrating questions are posed to the followers of dogma. Exposing themselves to such questions is another matter. Ashrams and retreat centers are largely built to keep those kinds of questions out.

In whichever hemisphere it is found, ecclesiastical attempts at dominating the human mind with the hubris of its priests, baseless super-terrestrial claims, and hocus pocus rituals are nefarious and subversive to human progress. Westerners who graft onto religious identities imported from cultures that have not even passed through the Enlightenment, let alone the fact that they are provided for by leaders utterly lacking in enlightenment, continually amazes me. We'd be stuck with book burning and inquisitions were it not for the likes of Voltaire, and yet we're fine with a culture that had no Voltaires of its own to question the nonsense! We credit not the Western religion that values mere statements of belief and faith; but we credit the Eastern variety as if it has a perfect credit score and a no limit credit account. And when we are emotionally and psychologically bankrupt after years of investment in East Asian stupidity, we revert to our Western religious upbringing and blame ourselves.

East or West, people look for the same things. Ultimately the religiously organized are not asking you to believe in certain tenets, but rather to believe in them, apparently because they can’t believe in themselves on their own. It also appears that the more ridiculous one's convictions the more they require bolstering by the conversion and convincing of others. Misery isn't the only thing that loves company.

The difficulty in unraveling Buddhist thought from the vantage point of the theory of self is that the two appear to be similar to those who have a cursory understanding of both. After all, the Buddha and Buddhist philosophers played a role in the transmission of the theory of self. Bringing someone to an awareness of the discrepancies and then revealing the limitations in Buddhist thinking that developed during the Dark Ages is not an easy task. It becomes doubly difficult if the reader has already bought into Buddhist indoctrination and grafted onto Buddhist identity. But with the right questions, the simplicity of Samkhya and Vedanta, which is expressed in the simplicity of the Buddha's original message, eventually shines forth and overpowers the degenerations that crept in during the Dark Ages in India, Tibet, China, and Japan.

Today, Buddhists are taught that the world is currently in a Dark Age because China borrowed faulty astronomical calculations from Dark Age India. Hindus, of course, are also taught this. China's act of borrowing this cosmological model leads us to the first point, namely that Buddhism was primarily an Indian phenomenon, the Buddha was an Indian yogi, the Buddha taught Indian philosophy, the Buddha did not stray from Vedanta and Samkhya, his realizations or samadhis were not new or exceptional in the lexicon of Indian yoga, and the entire Indian spiritual revival that centered around the Buddha was exported from India to China during the Dark Ages as a result of the reverence of the Chinese for the Indian mind. Even as the Greeks borrowed from the Egyptians, and the Romans borrowed from the Greeks, so too did the Chinese borrow from the Indian and the Japanese borrow from the Chinese. The Chinese often expressed a bit of confusion and even distrust of the higher age Indian mind as did the degenerate Romans express their distrust of the Greeks.

How and why did Samkhya degenerate through the Indian and East Asian developments in Buddhism? Because this devolution in many ways parallels the degeneracy that determined the course of Western civilization with the advent of the Catholic Church during the Dark Ages, Western Christian apostates will find, if they look, the same issues with Buddhism that sickened them with Christianity. Some general examples are:

1) Neither Buddhism nor Christianity were founded by the Buddha or Jesus, but both religions claim otherwise;
2) Both Buddhism and Christianity emerged from broader (at least at the time) religious traditions, namely what are now referred to as Hinduism and the Hebrew tradition, respectively;
3) Both Buddhism and Christianity became two of the largest religions in the world through strenuous proselytizing;
4) Both Buddhism and Christianity became theological opponents of the religious traditions from which they emerged;
5) The original ethical and spiritual messages of the Buddha and Jesus, as best as we can determine them, are very similar, though both figures are largely mythic;
6) Both Buddhism and Christianity developed a cosmology of angels and cult worship - Buddhas/Mary, Bodhisattvas/Saints and Angles, and Pure Lands/Heaven;
7) Both the Buddha and Jesus, as myths, taught the people of their own faith and culture, but their messages were transplanted into, a people (Chinese and Roman) of different cultural mindset and religious traditions;
8) The mystical teachings inherent in both Buddhism and early Christianity became muddled by the materialism of China (and India) and Rome, respectively;
9) Both the Buddha and Christ taught directly from their respective traditions (Vedanta and Hebraic Prophetic traditions, respectively) without deviation from those traditions, but both are nevertheless credited with saying new things and starting new religions;
10) Both the Buddha and Jesus became an object of worship;
11) Both Buddhists and Christians used interpolations and hagiographical writings, putting fabricated words into the mouths of their founders, to reconcile the contradictions in what they taught;
12) Both the Buddha and Jesus were later claimed to have been born from virgins;
13) The births of both the Buddha and Christ were later considered the fulfillment of earlier prophecies - the coming of an avatara of Visnu and the Moshiach (Messiah), respectively.

The Buddha's teachings began as an ascetic tradition, though its influence extended into the privileged class. The discourses in the Pali canon where the Buddha is addressing monks reflects the ideal of the spiritual seeker as one who renounces the world, dedicating everything to the spiritual quest. The priests, who controlled religious life for the masses, constituted an opposition to the Buddha's teachings, which made it difficult for this message to reach the commoner. This parallels the mythic conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities, and indeed a recurring theme of mystical traditions and organized religion standing in often-severe opposition to one another.

Early followers of the Buddha, who were ascetic yogis, had no interest in proselytizing the teachings or in missionary work. It was not until Emperor Asoka, a sort of St. Paul or Constantine for Buddhism, came into the picture that Buddhism began to widely spread. Even as Paul is characterized for his lack of concern for Jesus's teachings, neither did Asoka bother over the Buddha's teachings in attaining nonfinite self-knolwedge. He wanted to spread the elementary ideals of Buddhism to everyone and normalize them. These ideals revolved more around the moral implications of the Buddha's teachings than the esoteric or mystical aspect.

The stricter segment of the Buddha's following, which was in the minority, did not appreciate this watering down of their master's teachings. They wanted to keep to the teachings pure, even if it meant that Buddhism would not spread, while the more liberal segment advocated flexibility, a relaxing of discipline, a moving away from the historical yogi Gautama, and the stressing of a more faith-oriented view of the Buddha. Again, we find this very same trend in the history of the Catholic Church during the Dark Ages, where only faith - in a larger Christ figure than in a historical man named Jesus - became necessary for salvation.

Of course, where faith is at issue, the larger Mahayana segment that formed saw no reason to limit their faith to the worship of only one Buddha. As Christian theology developed a heavenly host of saints and angels, so too did the Buddhist heaven become populated with Buddha's and Bodhisattvas of the past and future. It short time, Mahayana became an all-accommodating faith, willing to allow adherents to keep their own indigenous faith and further willing to absorb into its doctrines other belief systems as it moved through East Asia. It therefore took on magic, superstition, demonology, and animistic characteristics.

In the West, we don't care to worship other humans, like the kings and popes of old, and have benefited from the demystification of Enlightenment scientists and thinkers. And yet, we'll worship a guru or lama or rinpoche because that's different. If Spinoza-pa didn't bother to question worshipping humans as gods in Tibet, we tell ourselves there must be some good reason for that. There is a good reason. But the reason is not that those Eastern humans are worthy of worship but the Western ones weren't. The reason was the oppressiveness of Eastern tradition and thought, and that's a good reason to question their traditions and really bring some enlightenment to them.

In approximately 500 CE, the darkest portion of the Dark Ages, tantric Buddhism began to flourish. The Buddha's ascetic ideals made a one hundred and eighty degree turn and sexuality, which at one time was to be regulated, became the door to enlightenment. This decadent form of tantra still infects the lives of Buddhists and Western New Age enthusiasts. In the ideal of embracing the finite senses as incapable of covering the infinite, Dark Age tantric practices ignored the basic principles of electromagnetism that regulate the motion of energy in the human body and the expansion of consciousness.

Of all the places that it went, Buddhism arguably transformed most radically in Tibet, even by the already liberal and relaxed standards of Mahayana. While Buddhism entered China in around 60 CE, Buddhism entered Tibet around 750 CE and became Lamaism.

Tibetans were a very superstitious people. They considered the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, the Indian Padma Sambhava, to have been a kind of exorcist. Lamaism combines nationalistic tendencies, demonology, the deification of human beings, and a diverse pantheon of gods, bodhisattvas, and Buddhas. It has strong magical elements prompted by the desire to gain control over the host of terrifying demons that their over-active superstitious imaginations created. From this desire sprang the use of grotesque masks employed to scare off the demons. Magic, art, and ritualistic liturgy are harnessed to ward against a ubiquitous evil.

Tibetans had little to no interest in the asceticism of the Buddha. Even the little discipline and philosophical investigation that remained in Mahayana was in the most part rejected by them. At the same time, they had a tendency to deify visiting teachers, especially Indian sages and texts, and the leaders of Buddhists institutions were viewed as incarnated deities as well.

Svami Rama, a Himalayan yogi, tells the story of his visit to a monastery in Tibet in the 1940's where the residents believed that even touching one of their sacred Sanskrit works would mean sure death to the reader. Undeterred by such nonsensical superstition, Svami Rama waited till none was around, lifted the glass over the book and began to thumb through it only to find that it was a text that he recognized. He was caught reading the book, however, and they threatened to kill him. He decided to tell them a white lie in order to save his life. He said that he was sent to look over the book, and that his surviving the reading of the book is proof. They preferred to hold onto their self-mystification, took the ego-boosting bait, and let him go.

Buddhist scholar Edward Conze wrote, "Much of what has been handed down as 'Buddhism' is due not to the exercise of wisdom, but to the social conditions in which the Buddhist community existed, to the language employed, and to the science and mythology in vogue among the people who adopted it. One must throughout distinguish the exotic curiosities from the essentials of a holy life."

The methods to realize infinite self-knowledge (nirvana) that developed during Buddhism's travel across space and time reflected these indigenous trends. But Westerners are vibrant consumers of the exotic and rarely bother to discriminate as Conze advised. Few discover that Buddhism from the mouth of the Buddha (as best we can ascertain), stripped down to its most basic and fundamental principles, is no different than ancient yoga: the pragmatic, systematic effort to realize the infinite self-knowledge through asceticism and sense-introversion.

The interest in Buddhism in the West today is, of course, in large part due to a wider importation of Eastern products. But Americans and Europeans give themselves less credit than they deserve, for we are equally, if not surpassingly, exporting our ways of thinking into the East. Westerners largely believe that the West exports material trends while the East exports spiritual and philosophical trends. But the East is importing from us what the East desires and even needs in both material and philosophical outlooks. Marx was a Westerner, after all. Further, the West is importing those Eastern philosophies that help the West move beyond its own intellectual confines. We ignore our own pantheon of great Western philosophers and forget that Eastern thinkers have much need to read them.

The East may have toyed with the ideas of relativity and absolutes for centuries, but so has the West, and it was the West in Einstein that put it to actual calculations. Further, while the West has been in the grip of religious blindness for centuries, so has the East. Each blindness creates more blindness in its homeland, but it is useful in foreign lands for uprooting the indigenous blindness. Still, it was the West in thinkers like the ancient Greek philosophers, Spinoza, Voltaire and Rousseau, Marx, the Existentialists, the New England Transcendentalists, Ingersoll, America's Founding Fathers, and a host of others that saw a world free from religious shackles long before the steeped-in-tradition East caught up with the idea.

While some Western scholars made reference to Eastern texts and were inspired by them, their inspiration was born in their own hearts, not in the East. Also, many Eastern teachers come to the West not to help "all those lost Western souls," but because they thought their message would be heard better in the West and because the West is richer. Why on earth would a Western thinker go to China to teach its poor and uneducated populace the fundamentals of psychology? Because they got the Buddha wrong and made a mess of communism? Still, we fly off to the East because it's "spiritual" there.

Today, all strains of Buddhism in the East are intimately intertwined with Eastern cultural values, and there is little worth in translating them into our ways of thinking since they have no direct bearing on the spiritual life. But that's exactly what we do. We mystify their mundane.

A reverse example of this is the way that the East understands and practices Christianity. Many Eastern scholars have pointed out that, try as it might, the West will never export Christianity as it understands and practices it into the East because that very understanding/practice is tied in with the West's cultural backdrop. There are millions of Asian Christians, likely more than there are Western Buddhists, but their Christianity is not the same as Southern Baptism.

Even in the West, expressions of the same religion change from one local cultural group to the next. This is not simply a matter of genetic differences either, for an Asian born in the West will effortlessly understand, and perhaps even share, a Western flavor of appreciation for its traditions because such an individual will have been raised in Western culture.

So try as they might, Western Buddhists will never be Buddhists in the same way that an Eastern Buddhist is Buddhist, unless the Western individual immerses him/herself in Eastern culture. Now that’s probably a good thing. Of course, the whole idea of life is hopefully not to become a Buddhist or Christian exactly in the same manner that another group exemplifies Buddhism or Christianity. Such an attempt only points to an individual's lack of personal self-confidence, self-esteem, and need to graft onto a well-established model.

Ideally, a life will not revolve around becoming even our idea of what it means to be a Buddhist or Christian. The idea of life, or at least one of them, is to seek truth as distinguished from cultural baggage. As truth is not subject to culture, we may understand Buddhism - its strengths and weaknesses - with perhaps even more clarity than an Asian since we can, with any amount of discrimination, automatically reject those tenets of Buddhism that are merely culturally informed. That is, so long as we don’t burden Buddhism with our own cultural baggage!

And this brings us to the whole purpose of the Buddha's disciplined yoga, namely to transcend the limitations of conditioned phenomenal existence; to go from finite to infinite, including the realization that the infinite includes the finite. And it is in this endeavor that Dark Age intellectual trends in Buddhism failed to grasp the brilliance of higher age realizations.

Most scholars of Buddhism, and especially Buddhist "insiders," will say that not only did later developments in Buddhism grasp the principles behind Vedanta and Samkhya, but after grasping them and seeing their limitations, they improved upon them! Ironically, this viewpoint was precisely the cause for development of the degeneracy in the first place; later Buddhists only thought they understood the higher age knowledge that the Buddha expounded, and so too do most scholars only think they understand yoga. But with the right questions, it will be shown again and again how later Buddhist scholars argued obvious points, thinking they diverged with the ancients, only to arrive at faulty conclusions.

The purpose of engaging penetrating questions is not to convert from one set of beliefs to another. Those who are sincerest in seeking the truth never define themselves for or against narrow religious or philosophical ideologies.

One of the tenets of Zen Buddhism is that the more human beings attempt to free themselves from suffering, the more they will suffer. While we will look at the limitations in how we may apply this concept, one clear application that the Buddha would certainly not have argued against is that superficially calling oneself a Buddhist amounts to no less than such an attempt. The challenge is to take what we can from all schools of thought, weigh ideas in our minds, experiment with practices in our lives, and never sit still in a comfort zone that imagines spiritual security in little more than wearing a name tag.