Sunday, 7 December 2008

Boiling Down Buddhism

As a philosopher and teacher of Buddhism I find myself often trying to "boil down" Buddhism in response to the question of "what is Buddhism?"

And it has occurred to me that how we answer that simple question can set the direction for a person's whole understanding of Buddhism. In the case of Buddhist Ethics (where I work) this can be easily shown with some examples:

What is Buddhism?
Damien Keown: "... Buddhism is a response to what is fundamentally an ethical problem - the perennial problem of the best kind of life for man to live." (The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, p.1)
While this seems to leave the terrain of the conversation rather open, when we look closely we see that he has not mentioned awakening, delusion, suffering, craving, or any other centrally Buddhist term. While these do come later, there also is a focus on the "best kind of life" throughout the book that lead him to see Buddhism as akin to virtue ethics.
Mark Siderits: "The Buddhist Enlightenment project is aimed at helping us overcome existential suffering, by dissolving the false assumption that there is an "I" whose life can have meaning and significance.": in this video, (5:22)
Here Buddhism is a bit different. It is a "project" focusing on 1) existential suffering and 2) the "conceit I-am" (Pali: asmi-mana) that the Buddha posited as the central cause of suffering. Siderits takes the focusing on non-self and suffering toward a very utilitarian reading of Buddhist Ethics.
Alan Sponberg: "Just let go." (from a talk given at the local - Missoula, MT - FWBO seven or eight years ago)
It's not difficult to see the appeal, nor the historical accuracy, of such a boiling-down of Buddhism. Dr. Sponberg's Dharma name happens to be Saramati, meaning roughly "he who gets to the pith of things." Interestingly, Sponberg is the only of the three that has managed to retire from teaching to live a life dedicated to his practice.

Through this meandering post comes a question: how would you boil down Buddhism? What aspect(s) of the Dharma are most pressing in your life and practice? What do you think your boiled down version of Buddhism says about you and the Buddhism you practice?


  1. I think Keown's response, specifically in the way it pre-supposes a problem for which Buddhism is the answer, is a mis-step when it comes to sharing the Dharma, boiled-down or otherwise. Our biggest problem is often enough that we don't know or otherwise ignore that there is a problem. If one starts with the First Noble Truth, they don't have a solution, but a problem they might not even really recognize.

    Keown's "what is the best way to live life" kind of summary of the Dharma doesn't make sense, because it assumes we are all aware that the way we're living our lives now isn't already the best. It assumes that we are already on the path. By and large to new people, this is not true; for many people, they're so thoroughly deluded that life hurts and they can't even clearly see that.

    I think "boiling down" the Dharma has a bad tendency to pre-suppose such things. The most important starting place for an introduction to the Dharma is one's own experience. Just what's going on there, and why might it be worth looking into? Dukkha, while being a technical term applied to a variety of phenomena, is not where we start. Saying that "life is suffering" is easy, because we automatically exclude our lives from this statement. So, a more fundamental issue that isn't found in the teachings, which is all I can imagine one "boiling down," must be covered before progress can be made.

  2. but i think the difference there is; what is... vs. why did you get into...

    and i understand the conundrum. my thirteen year old nephew asked me about it recently, and how do you go on to explain it. keown response (for me) illicits a kind of superiority by using the word 'best', and i know i may be speaking to a semantical point here, but i can't help but think of it.

    but how do you explain buddhism to a thirteen year old boy? do you speak of dharma? suffering?

    what is the perception that someone gets if i explain 'life is suffering' to them? that buddhist are very nietzschian (spelling?) in thought. that we are dark and depressed people? yet, we know that this is the wrong way to go. the wrong perception to provide.

    so i think the best way to answer this question would you explain it to a child? because in our ignorance...we are children.


  3. Children are, despite the romantic pretensions we may have about them being uncorrupted, very frustrated little beings---just like the most peaceful being losing heaven (in this case. the security of infancy). There is very little that needs to be explained here in the way of formal teachings and terms and doctrines. A child (or an adult, for that matter) will hear none of that anyway until they have had an honest glimpse of their own suffering.

  4. I practice Zen but my local group is actually primarily Theravada and I go along there from time to time. The second time I went, there was a visiting monk teaching there. During the Q & A session, someone turned to me and asked 'what's the difference between Zen and Theravada?'. That put me on the spot I was still something of a Zen newbie let alone Theravada and I really didn't want to offend or get into a sectarian debate with the venerable monk I had just met - I saw myself as a guest. I gave my cop-out answer: 'They are essentially the same' and then the Theravadan monk went onto explain that Zen was not as much of a corruption of the true teachings as Tibetan Buddhism was. Hmm.

    On another note, nearly a year ago my 11-year-old son decided he wanted to 'be a Buddhist' and he does zazen with me sometimes. Based on my teacher's suggestion I've started trying to teach him dharma. I've started going through the 4 Noble Truths.

  5. I'm comfortable with Keown's answer because it assumes that we must identify with Every Man and from there find a life that IS meaningful.

    Siderits's pithy description seems to target the value of ego killing, which I support, but I am uncomfortable with the idea of life necessarily not having meaning and significance. Meaning and significance can come from small acts that relieve others' suffering. But I would agree with the idea of exploding goals or notions of having meaning and significance in one's life for the purpose of ego killing, such that one can then find life's meaning and significance.

    Sponberg's answer targets becoming comfortable with the conditions of life.

    So, I guess I like all the boiled-down pithy answers.

  6. I like Saramati. If I could have a dharma name, that would be it.

  7. Buddhism, surely, is a way of life for finding freedom from the unsatisfactory nature of life.

  8. My 'boiled down' answer - Buddhism is a religion based on The Teachings of the Buddha, which is essentially about understanding Life and the Philosophy of Life.

  9. (from an email to me from Saramati)

    Hi Justin,

    A fellow member of our Order passed on the URL for your recent blog posting on Progressive Buddhism. Thanks for the favorable mention, although I must confess to a certain feeling of ambivalence about having my sense of the Dharma so radically reduced. Not that radical reduction isn't appropriate----just that I don't consider myself sufficiently good at it, not as good as I would like to be at least, and not good enough at it to be cited as any kind of authority I fear. (Too many years, no doubt, of standing behind a university lectern seeking to make things seem as complex and nuanced as possible!!)

    And with regard to this particular "Buddhism in a nutshell"
    summation, moreover, I certainly cannot make any claim authorship, much as I do like it and have frequently used it in talks and classes. I don't know the original source, nor how far back in the tradition it goes. All I can say is that I have heard it, on different occasions, from Theravada, Zen, and Mahamudra teachers, which does suggest a remarkable degree of inter-sangha unanimity.
    What I especially like about it is that it is simultaneously a provocative challenge and, implicitly, a very open-ended counter-question----the very antithesis of an overly pat answer. It enjoins us to do something radical, but then leaves us puzzled and asking, "Let go of what?". It is, I suspect, only with just such a challenge-cum-question that real Dharma practice begins in earnest.

    PS: I should add that I've also always had a personal fondness for this particular admonition because it is so similar to, and yet fundamentally different from, Nancy Reagan's well-intended if sadly
    wrong-headed slogan from the 1980's: "Just say no."! What a
    difference indeed, and at so many different levels simultaneously.

    Please do post this as a response to your blog.


  10. My thanks to Saramati for the response. (I always blush with embarrassment when I hear that someone I know has read something I've written - as if I live in a sort of bubble and my real life should be separate from my blogging - but that's another post altogether...)

    I do like the "just let go" reduction a great deal. It is simple enough to remember and carries an air of profundity that made me think about it a lot at the time. But it is also, as Saramati says, radical - and difficult. But best of all, I think, is that it is useful, both immediately and over periods of time.

    When I hit real snags in life (usually after trying every which way to 'fix' them) I often return to those three words, and just breathing, with amazing results.

  11. And my thanks to everyone else for thoughts on this. At some point I thought I would have my own boiled down answer, revealing my (nuanced) Kantian dispositions. Something like:

    Buddhism is a path which leads one, in many different ways, from the heteronomy of greed, aversion, and delusion to the autonomy of selfless spontaneity.

    In other words: just let go, lose that pesky "I", and voilà, you'll live the best life.

  12. Your "other words" are pithier than your "something like" words.

    SO, for ALL TIME, the meaning of Buddhism is ...

    "Just let go, lose that pesky "I", and voilà, you'll live the best life."

    I see a T-shirt deal in your future, Justin.