Western Buddhism as the reincarnation of a sect from 1200 years ago

Zen and the Brain made a pretty big impression on me when I read it, because my interest in both started around the same time. It’s a huge, thick book, and I learned a lot from it. An awful lot of meditation research has been done in the mean time, and it’s an an empirical fact that meditation is good for you and even seems to change brain structure. It can also produce religious feelings. Atheism or not, these are facts in need of explanation. They’re a relief, because meditation now has the Western epistemological seal of approval. Still, religious people invented the whole thing, so it seems like a good idea to read some of what they have to say about it.

One of the first place I heard about Buddhism was from a Jehovah’s Witness book, that called it “a search for Enlightenment without God.” That sounded great to me. The existence of Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist shows I’m not the only one. In addition to the meditation practices, the Buddhist value system and approach to suffering are pragmatically appealing. Westerners like this section of the Kalama Sutta:

Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.

I heard of Nagarjuna because I saw Madhyamaka compared to deconstruction. Madhyamaka is “anti-essentialist,” and that was appealing to me for other reasons. If I do the meditation and agree with most of the ethical and metaphysical philosophy, doesn’t that make me Buddhist? If only it weren’t for that stuff about karma and reincarnation…

Right at the beginning of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is the following reassuring passage:

After some years we will die. If we just think that it is the end of our life, this will be the wrong understanding. But, on the other hand, if we think that we do not die, this is also wrong. We die, and we do not die. This is the right understanding. Some people may say that our mind or soul exists forever, and it is only our physical body which dies. But this is not exactly right, because both mind and body have their end. But at the same time it is true that they exist eternally. And even though we say mind and body, they are actually two sides of one coin. This is the right understanding.

In The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character, Dale Wright plainly admits that the idea of rebirth is ethically problematic (justifies injustice, etc.), and that the universe doesn’t magically reward and punish people’s deeds. He proposes redefining karma along the lines of “each action we take shapes our character and has effects on other people,” and emphasizing the doctrine of no-self to encourage a more abstract view of karma. On these terms I’m Buddhist.

When I was learning to meditate at a Zen center near where I grew up, the bowing and the altars made me uncomfortable. Can we just stick to the meditation, please? There’s scriptural support for it, from Bodhidharma onward:

Many roads lead to the Path, but basically there are only two: reason and practice. To enter by reason means to realize the essence through instruction and to believe that all living things share the same true nature, which isn’t apparent because it’s shrouded by sensation and delusion. Those who turn from delusion back to reality, who meditate on walls, the absence of self and other, the oneness of mortal and sage, and who remain unmoved even by scriptures are in complete and unspoken agreement with reason. Without moving, without effort, they enter, we say, by reason.

To enter by practice refers to four all-inclusive practices: Suffering injustice, adapting to conditions, seeking nothing, and practicing the Dharma.

Huang Po:

This Mind is no mind of conceptual thought and it is completely detached from form. So Buddhas and sentient beings do not differ at all. If you can only rid yourselves of conceptual thought, you will have accomplished everything. But if you students of the Way do not rid yourselves of conceptual thought in a flash, even though you strive for aeon after aeon, you will never accomplish it…But whether they transcend conceptual thought by a longer or shorter way, the result is a state of BEING: there is no pious practising and no action of realizing. That there is nothing which can be attained is not idle talk; it is the truth.


Q1. You’ve certainly made the case that zazen has a great many advantages. But a stupid man might wonder on what basis you recommend zazen as the be-all and end-all, since there are many ways to approach the truth.

A1. I’d tell him on the basis that it’s the right way to approach it.

Q2. And why would zazen alone be the right approach?

A2. Because it is precisely the approach the historical Buddha passed down to us as the way to find truth. Because all enlightened ones did find, do now find, and will in the future find truth through zazen. Because the church fathers in India and China all found the truth though zazen. That’s why I present it as the right approach to men and angels alike.

Hakuin’s Song of Zazen:

All sentient beings are essentially Buddhas. As with water and ice,
there is no ice without water; apart from sentient beings, there are no
Buddhas. Not knowing how close the truth is we seek it far away – what a pity!
We are like one who in the midst of water cries out desperately in
thirst. We are like the son of a rich man who wandered away among the
The reason we transmigrate through the Six Realms is because
we are lost in the darkness of ignorance.
Going further and further astray in the darkness, how can we ever be
free from birth-and-death?
As for the Mahayana practice of zazen, there are no words to praise it fully. The Six Paramitas, such as giving, maintaining the precepts, and various other good deeds like
invoking the Buddha’s name, repentance, and spiritual training,
all finally return to the practice of zazen. Even those who have sat zazen
only once will see all karma erased. Nowhere will they find evil
paths, and the Pure Land will not be far away.
If we listen even once with open heart to this truth, then praise it
and gladly embrace it, how much more so then, if on reflecting within
ourselves we directly realize Self-nature, giving proof to the truth
that Self-nature is no nature. We will have gone far beyond idle
The gate of the oneness of cause and effect is thereby opened, and
not-two, not-three, straight ahead runs the Way.
Realizing the form of no-form as form, whether going or returning
we cannot be any place else.
Realizing the thought of no-thought as thought, whether
singing or dancing, we are the voice of the Dharma.
How vast and wide the unobstructed sky of samadhi!
How bright and clear the perfect moonlight of the Four-fold Wisdom!
At this moment what more need we seek?
As the eternal tranquility of Truth reveals itself to us, this very place is
the Land of Lotuses and this very body is the body of the Buddha.

On this understanding, Buddhism is about meditation and internal psychological disposition. Maybe it’s a set of exercises and adjustments to CBT. The problem is that most Buddhists don’t meditate, and the daily life of a monk is concerned with rituals and ceremonies. Meditation and the Buddhist literature have always been the concerns of monks more than lay people. Western converts to Buddhism have a very meditation-centric view of Buddhism that’s unique to Western converts. I learned zazen at a missionary outpost from Japan, and Buddhism changed each time it entered a new country. I’m not very concerned about authenticity issues or cultural appropriation in this case. I have a problem with the way people act impressed with Steve Jobs for being a Buddhist slave driver, consumption encourager, and environment destroyer. Nevermind that.

We shouldn’t be smug and Columbus this approach to Buddhism, though. This already happened 1200 years ago and it was called the Bao Dang school. It only really lasted for a generation or so, because taking the ideas to their logical conclusion means there’s no reason for people to donate to the monastery. The school produced a transmission text called the Lidai fabao ji, translated with an interesting introduction in this book.

This is a contemporary description of their practice, by Zongmi:

The difference lies in the fact that [Wuzhu’s school] practices none of the phenomenal marks of Buddhism. Having cut their hair and donned robes, they do not receive the precepts. When it comes to doing obeisance and confession, turning and reading [the scriptures], making paintings of Buddha figures, copying sutras, they revile all such things as delusions. In the cloister where they dwell they set up no Buddha artifacts. This is why [I say the Bao Tang idea is] “bound by neither teaching nor praxes.” As to “extinguishing consciousness,” this is the path that the Bao Tang practices. The meaning is: all samsaric wheel-turning is caused by the arising of mind. Arising of mind is unreal. They do not discuss good and bad; non-arising is the real…Therefore, in their dwellings they do not discuss food and clothing, but leave it to people to send offerings. If sent, then they have warm clothing and food enough to eat. If not sent, they they leave matters to hunger and cold. They do not seek to convert, nor do they beg for food. If someone enters their cloister, it does not matter whether he is highborn or lowly, in no case do they welcome him–they do not even stand up. As to singing hymns and praises, making offerings, reprimanding abuses, in all such things they leave it to the other. Indeed, because the purport of their thesis speaks of non-discrimination, their gate of practice has neither right nor wrong. They just value no-mind as the wondrous ultimate.

The Lidai fabao ji has an episode where some men are discouraged from leaving their families to become monks, which parallels the contemporary trend of “monk-like lay people.” There are also unusually egalitarian depictions of women:

The female figures validated in the Lidai fabao ji stories are telling: a young girl who refuses marriage (Wuxiang’s sister), a nun who surfaces inexplicably among the better-known male disciples of a famous master (Bodhidharma’s disciple Zongchi), and a powerful woman who secretly holds the true Dharma robe in trust (Empress Wu)…

One can imagine the special appeal that Wuzhu’s formless practice might have had for female Buddhist practitioners. Liaojianxing’s account is the only disciple story in the Lidai fabo ji that features self-tonsuring. Without benefit of ritual or clergy, she cuts her own hair, dons robes, and becomes a nun immediately. She is represented as a valued member of a demanding community. This was an application of directness that had no currency in the ideological battle for Chan legitimacy. It was, however, a logical and startling consequence of the sudden teaching: any woman could become a dazhangfu. The name Wu-Zhu gave to Liaojianxing, “Completely Seeing the Nature,” may reveal an additional facet of his commitment to “practice what he preached.” Buddha nature is traceless, neither male nor female, but there are very few traces in early Chan lore that validate an ordinary young woman’s ability to see this.