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kamma and dependent origination: seeing things as they are versus divergence of views

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  • kamma and dependent origination: seeing things as they are versus divergence of views

    Dear Ajahn Brahmali,

    First of all I would like to express my appreciation for your talks and classes which have considerably improved my understanding of Buddhism. I have discovered Theravada Buddhism only a few months ago through the writings of Ajahn Brahm. This has been an amazing event in my life and I am in the process of changing many aspects of it in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings. At the same time, my enquiring mind often raises questions, probably partly due to my job conditioning (I am a scientist so I am used to questioning everything). I think (I hope) that I do this in a truth-finding spirit rather than in a fault-finding one. Many times I find the answer to these questions myself, and indeed this helps me improve my understanding of Buddhism. There are some things however for which I have not been able to find a wholly satisfactory answer, so I thought that I might write to ask you. First of all I would like to briefly sketch my understanding of the basic teachings, so that you can tell me if these premises are correct, and then, starting from these premises, ask a couple of questions on things that puzzle me a bit.

    My understanding is that on becoming a Buddhist we are not supposed to accept the Buddha’s words completely on faith but that we are ‘to find out their truth for ourselves’ (as the advice he gave to the Kalamas shows). However, although we can verify in everyday life the wholesomeness of some of these teachings, some things have initially to be taken on faith, since one of the basic tenets of Buddhism is that the mind is clouded by the hindrances and, until those are at least temporarily eliminated, we have wrong views leading to wrong perceptions and thoughts: ie we cannot see things as they truly are. I thus understand from the Cula-hatthipadopama Sutta that unless you are a stream-winner you cannot know for yourself that all the teachings of the Buddha are true. For example, accepting the teaching of kamma requires initially what Gombrich calls 'a leap of faith' (and Paul Williams, after his conversion to Christianity, described the idea of kamma as ‘astonishing and implausible’. Cf his interview on http://paulojuarez.com/wordpress/?p=533 where he adds: ‘If the cosmos really is morally structured then natural moral structuring seems to me much less plausible than the idea of it resulting from the intentional actions of a Creator.).

    Personally, when I look at the idea of kamma intellectually, I can see a logic behind it : ie our cravings provide the fuel for a future existence, which will be on a level determined by the wholesomeness of these cravings. However, I understand that it is only for the stream-winners (or those beyond) that this teaching becomes evident since one then ‘sees’ directly the truth of the related teaching of Dependent Origination.

    Please tell me if up to here I have got a reasonably correct picture. If so, one corollary would seem to be that free-will and choice (which in the West are considered important human values since they confer dignity to man) are not really important for Buddhists, since one’s perceptions and evaluations (and thus choices) can easily be wrong before stream-winning, (and after becoming a stream-winner things are bound to happen by themselves by the law of causality, without choice). Besides, one experiences in deep meditation, when the will disappears, that all willing and choosing were really the major cause of our suffering in the first place. Then, what seems to be most important from the beginning, would be to put oneself in the hands of an enlightened teacher who will help us interpret the teachings of the Buddha and point us the way. But at this point some problems have arisen in my mind. The idea that it is possible to get to see things as they really are, independently of all cultural conditionings, would imply that all Aryas have the same views on fundamental matters such as dependent origination, kamma, not to mention the description of jhanas or their necessity for gaining deep insights etc. Thus a general agreement on these basic matters amongst the Sangha would provide as it were indirect evidence for those new to Buddhism like myself that there exists one way of seeing things as they truly are, independently of all perspectivism or relativism. There is no Sangha where I live, so I have no direct experience of this - my own experience of Buddhism having been wholly confined to meditation (following Ajahn Brahms instructions) and individual study of the Dhamma. However, a number of things that I have read would suggest that such agreement amongst even very senior members of Sanghas does not exist in practice.

    What prompted me to write this email is the latest Dhamma talk given by bhikkhuni Hasapanna, in which she said that monks in Thailand (even very senior ones) commonly believe that being born as a woman is the result of bad kamma. To a westerner, this inequality of the sexes sounds absurd (indeed outrageous). However, I don’t know how kamma really works, but since the Aryas do, they should have been in complete agreement on this fundamental question and on the related question of the ordination of bhikkhunis. I know that there has been a conflict instead over the latter, leading to the excommunication of Ajahn Brahm (though I know very little of the details of this story since at that time I had not even heard of Theravada Buddhism). Also, if the truth is (like we think in the west) that women are equal to men, then why have the Aryas of the past in Thailand not resolved this very important issue for many centuries?

    A second case concerns the interpretation of other aspects of the Dhamma. For example, I learnt from one of Ajahn Sujato’s books that the tradition of Burma deformed the presentation of the Dhamma by putting excessive stress (partly, apparently, voluntarily) on the Satipatthana Sutta and thus on the practice of vipassana. Also, within the Thai tradition, the interpretation by Buddhadasa of Dependent Origination, for example, is very different to that of Ajahn Brahm, as far as I have been able to understand. On the question of jhanas, Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation of vitaka and vicara as : is 'accompanied by thought and examination' would appear incompatible with the idea that thought has long been abandoned when we reach those states.

    In these and other examples it would seem difficult to reconcile a quite fundamental divergence of views with the idea that one eventually sees things as they are
    with complete clarity and freedom from doubt when the mind is sufficiently still. It also raises the question of how to choose one’s teacher, since, (please forgive me for putting it very bluntly), if different teachers have different views on such basic matters, it would seem to follow that some of them must be wrong. Instinctively, I feel enormously attracted to the teachings of Ajahn Brahm: thanks to him I experienced some meditative states that I never could have imagined they existed. But I imagine, again on the basis of the Buddha's own teachings eg in the Cula-hatthipadopama Sutta, that one could never be totally sure that a given path is the right path till it is validated if one becomes eventually a stream-winner by following it.

    So, I was hoping to have your thoughts on these points. I suppose that one of the reasons why I ask these questions is that I see in my job as an academic how much many discussions are driven by power (ie by the desire of being right for the sake of being right) rather than by a simple desire for truth, and one of the things which attracts me to Buddhism is precisely the ideal of a life devoted to truth and free from useless conflicts. But then is it always really so in practice?

    I thank you in advance for your kind attention. I hope that you did not feel that these questions came out of disrespect for Buddhism or the Sangha. On the contrary, it is precisely because Buddhism has become so important to me that I try to investigate to the best of my ability all of its aspects. I do spend as much time as possible meditating or thinking of the many positive and beautiful teachings of the Dhamma, but I would also like to gain as much clarity as possible on these difficult questions.

    Thank you again.

    With kindest regards,
    Stefano

  • #2
    Dear Stefano,

    Please tell me if up to here I have got a reasonably correct picture.
    Yes, I would say this is reasonably correct, but perhaps I can nuance the picture a bit. Faith (or “confidence”, which I prefer) is a quality that obviously varies enormously from person to person. Some people – but they are very rare – will have strong confidence from the very beginning, whereas others will have lingering serious doubts. Many people will increase in confidence as they come to know and practice the Buddhist teachings, whereas a few will decline. Neither is right or wrong; they are just part of a natural response to things we cannot be certain of. The right thing to do, as you imply, is to continue one’s study and practice and see where it leads. Most people will find out relatively quickly whether they are Buddhists or not. The one thing one should not do is force oneself to have faith when in fact it is not based on real conviction and confidence.

    And you’re quite right, full confidence in the Buddha’s teachings only happens at stream-entry (but of course you need confidence to believe in this!), because at this point you see what the Buddha saw. I think it is good to be clear about this distinction between confidence (or faith) and knowledge (unshakable faith).

    I am not sure if the idea of kamma requires such a pure leap of faith. We all know about conscience and the happiness that can arise from doing something good. This is really the first level of kamma. From this we can infer that kamma also has long-term consequences, that is, in connection with rebirth. Further, it seems to be a fairly common experience that people who come close to death experience a life review. It does not seem unreasonable to think that we thus judge ourselves and thereby become responsible for our own rebirth. We literally think we deserve the kind of rebirth we are getting. Personally I don’t have too much trouble accepting the idea of kamma, but the idea of a creator god is to me incompatible with the world we live in.

    Then, what seems to be most important from the beginning, would be to put oneself in the hands of an enlightened teacher who will help us interpret the teachings of the Buddha and point us the way.
    Yes, this is basically right. In the suttas, the gradual training always starts with a Buddha arising in the world, that is, right view arising. Once one person has seen “the truth”, it can be imparted to others. So the more you follow the teachings of the ariyas, the faster will be your progress. But, of course, confidence in the ariyas cannot be faked; it has to come from the heart. So in a very real sense it depends on the individual whether they are able to practice correctly – in other words, one cannot just “put oneself in the hands of an enlightened teacher” and everything then happens by magic.

    The idea that it is possible to get to see things as they really are, independently of all cultural conditionings, would imply that all Aryas have the same views on fundamental matters such as dependent origination, kamma, not to mention the description of jhanas or their necessity for gaining deep insights etc.
    The ariyas are not fully free of cultural conditioning. It is true that they see things as they actually are, but this seeing is limited to understanding the non-self nature of the five khandhas (and thus also their impermanence and suffering). In many areas of life the ariyas will be subject to the same conditioning as the rest of us. What this means is that an apparent disagreement between ariyas may in fact not have any real substance. More on this below.

    Also, if the truth is (like we think in the west) that women are equal to men, then why have the Aryas of the past in Thailand not resolved this very important issue for many centuries?
    In Thailand it was accepted that the bhikkhuni lineage had died out and that it could not be revived. I cannot see any reason why the ariyas would not have agreed with this. Today, by contrast, we have a very different view of these matters, since out understanding of Buddhist history is much broader. This new perspective allows us to look at the question of bhikkhuni ordination afresh. Slowly this new perspective is becoming accepted around the world.

    A second case concerns the interpretation of other aspects of the Dhamma.
    You are right, there are lots of diverging views among people all of whom are highly respected. There are a number of sources for these diverging views. Let me give you a few examples. The reason Ven. Bodhi translates vitakka and vicāra as he does is because he wants to be consistent. Outside of the jhāna formula, vitakka and vicāra usually mean thought, and thus his chosen translation. So it is not necessarily the case that he disagrees with the idea there is no thought in jhāna. In fact I know through personal communication that he is aware of the limitations of translating these words as he does.

    Regarding Ajahn Buddhadasa, the disagreement seems to have more substance, but even in this case everything may not be as it seems. Buddhadasa was famous for his reforming zeal, and one of his major bugbears was the emphasis in Thailand on making merit to get a good rebirth. He wanted to downplay the whole rebirth idea and focus on the Dhamma in our present existence. He never actually outrightly denied that there is rebirth, as far as I know. When it comes to dependent origination, it may be the case that a similar agenda made him emphasize a particular interpretation, but that he did not exclude dependent origination being understood in terms of rebirth. This is just a possibility. It could also be that there are real differences on this particular subject.

    As for the emphasis on satipatthāna by the Burmese vipassanā teachers, this also needs to be understood in context. There seems to be clear historical reasons why this movement became so strong. (Bhante Sujato has given some good talks on this topic.) Moreover, within the vipassanā movement there is great variety, and it is only when the significance of samādhi is downplayed that it all becomes dangerous.

    It also raises the question of how to choose one’s teacher, since, (please forgive me for putting it very bluntly), if different teachers have different views on such basic matters, it would seem to follow that some of them must be wrong.
    Precisely. This is why the suttas are so important. The suttas give a point of stability in a world of different, and often contradictory, views. The suttas are the reference point against which everything else must be measured. Everything in Buddhism is dependent on the awakening of the Buddha: if he didn’t get it right, everything else falls apart. As one scholar put it, the history of Buddhism can be understood as trying to work out the implications of the early suttas. So any teacher worthy of faith should not contradict the core message of the suttas. Then one day you will hopefully see things for yourself, and that will be the end of all arguments.

    I suppose that one of the reasons why I ask these questions is that I see in my job as an academic how much many discussions are driven by power (ie by the desire of being right for the sake of being right) rather than by a simple desire for truth, and one of the things which attracts me to Buddhism is precisely the ideal of a life devoted to truth and free from useless conflicts. But then is it always really so in practice?
    There will always be some degree of conflict among unawakened people. This is just the nature of having a sense of self, or an ego if you like. Since the vast majority of monastic are unawakened, you will find conflict within the Sangha as well. However, in a good monastery there will be less conflict than elsewhere.

    I hope this helps. If there is anything else I can help with, please ask again.

    With metta.

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    • #3
      There is no Sangha where I live, so I have no direct experience of this

      Dear Stefano,

      as we are (almost) neighbours I can tell you that there is a very nice place near Aix en Provence named "Le Refuge" where the main tradition followed is Ajahn Chah's teachings. They are planning to have some Ajahns from England (for the most part) and on the 7th of June is scheduled a retreat with Ajahn Medino . Here is the link .
      Hope this will help you.

      With Metta
      Kad

      Comment


      • #4
        dear Ajahn Brahmali,
        thank you so much for this detailed answer. Yes, this helps a lot. In fact like I said I have felt enormous confidence in Ajahn Brahm's teachings from the moment I discovered them, it's just that later my rational mind raised a number of questions like those above, chiefly to play devil's (or, rather, Mara's) advocate.
        Actually, since writing this I realised that what I had written about free will and choice in my original message was a bit silly since of course the idea of no-self implies that there is noboby there doing the willing and thus no free-will either: the will is just a process in Buddhism. I also thought that since in the jhanas both the will and that portion of our consciousness which is conscious of the external world disappear, perhaps that means that they are deeply related? I mean, I used to interpret the disappearance of the five sense world by the fact that the external signals coming to the mind were constant and so after a while the brain was not registering them any longer; but maybe the deeper reason for the disapperance of the five sense consciousness is that the will stops and thus the consciousness of the external world too? This would be consistent with the fact that in my experience the times when I can meditate best and most easily are usually after seeing some of my favourite works of art, which makes me perfectly content. I have been been thinking of this and relating it to Schopenhauer's insight that in art contemplation the will temporariy stops. Thus perhaps one could say that in order tho have good samadhi one should, as it were, 'trick' the will into temporarily stopping? Would you say that the above makes sense?
        With metta,
        Stef

        Thank you Kad for this piece of information! That's great to know there is a place nearby. You are the first French Theravada Buddhist that I know now! I will definitely try to go to the retreat you mention (I am also going to Amaravati in July). With metta Stef

        Comment


        • #5
          Dear Stef,

          There are probably many ways of approaching this topic, and I will give you a couple of possibilities. The calming of the will is synonymous with the stilling of the mind. The stiller the mind is, the more beautiful and powerful the experience. Thus as the will disappears, a very attractive inner world starts to emerge. The more attractive this inner world is, the less interest there will be in the five senses. This is one way of connecting the will to the five-sense world.

          A similar thing is probably happening to you when you are "perfectly content". At this point you are beginning to experience a happy mind and thus external stimulation loses much of its pull. This is why your meditation is good. So the best way to "trick" the mind into samādhi is to develop the contentment and the inner beauty. Then it all happens by itself.

          You can also relate both the degree of willing and the strength of sensory intrusion to the hindrances. The hindrances are the opposite of contentment: both desire and anger take you out into the world; you've got business there. In this way they are a powerful source for the operation of the will, as well as being connected with an interest in the five senses. As the hindrances are slowly abandoned, you will see a corresponding decrease in the will and the hold of the five senses.

          With metta.

          Comment


          • #6
            Thank you again dear Ajahn Brahmali for your kind answer. Yes, I the 'internal relationship', as it were, between the different concepts used to describe meditation.
            With gratitude and metta,
            Stefano

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