Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Born Aware? Or Just Bad to the Bone?

The distinction between Mahayana and Theravada, the two major branches of Buddhism, is quite important on this side of the Pacific. The Theravada tradition is the oldest school (the name means "Teaching of the Elders"), and it moved from India to Sri Lanka and from there to Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Mahayana (the name means "Great Vehicle") developed perhaps five hundred years later in India as a reform movement and moved north to China, Vietnam, Japan and Korea. Vajrayana ("Diamond Vehicle") was influenced by Mahayana and evolved its own character in Tibet. While each claims to follow the Buddha's teaching, they study and venerate different religious texts. And although enlightenment is the common goal for Buddhists, practitioners of the different schools often disagree on how one gets there. In order to understand the Buddhism of my adopted home, I have tried to sort out the differences with some difficulty. I need more years than I have left. It's the story of the blind man and the elephant, mostly a matter of perspective.

I've seen grown men almost come to blows here over the use of the term Hinayana ("Lesser Vehicle") when comparing Theravada with Mahayana. The primary distinction came up again on Sunday when I attended the monthly forum in English held by the World Buddhist University at their headquarters in Benjasiri Park on Sukhumvit Road. Dr. Tavivat Puntarigvivat, a Buddhist academic schooled in Western philosophy, spoke on the different theories of human nature developed by each school of Buddhism and argued that they were essentially the same. The structure of his argument was simple: In the encounter with Taoism and Confucianism in China, Mahayana Buddhist developed the idea that humans are born with "Buddha nature." This is the idea that everyone is born with "natural awareness," or what I might call "sentience." In the Theravada tradition, however, all are born "ignorant." Enlightenment for the Theravadin is the reduction of ignorance, while, for the Mahayanan, it is an increase in and deepening of awareness.

"Same Same" as the expression goes here (a popular tee shirt slogan). But is it? Is ignorance simple unawareness? Is awareness a diminution of ignorance? Are we born good and only need to get better, or are we born bad and must either be saved or succeed by our own efforts? Perhaps this is the nature vs. nurture debate in a different format. I recall the distinction made by early Jewish and Christian theologians and mystics. One side believes human beings are infected by original sin and something must be done to purify this fragile vessel in which we abide. The other side focuses on God's "original blessing" (in the phrase coined by Matthew Fox), and sees human beings as inherently good, possessed of the sparks of God or the Holy Spirit. For this group, if the glass windows in our house are cleansed,then the light of the divine will shine brightly within. The doctrine that humans are born bad or good has consequences.

I asked Dr. Tavivat what consequences the different theories of human nature would have for the practices of Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. But the professor, who chairs the department of comparative religion at Mahidol University, seemed more interested in harmony than further discord between the schools. Mahayana Buddhists tend to be more socially active, probably because of their belief in Bodhisattvas who forgo enlightenment until all beings are fully aware. Theravada Buddhists are more concerned with their own individual rebirth and enlightenment. Can this be the result of their different views of human nature? What is it that makes some Catholics as well as Buddhists more concerned about the suffering of others than their own fate? If we think human nature is irredeemably flawed in actually existing people, then we might be more concerned about saving their souls and our own for a future heaven, or working towards a satisfactory rebirth. We will be less interested in improving life for all here and now. But if we believe humans and their bodies are good and holy, and damaged only by cruel and unjust social structures, then we will engage with the issues of our time to improve the life of all. So one's theory of human nature DOES make a difference, and conflicting theories cannot easily be harmonized.

I was interested in meeting Dr. Tavivat because his bio mentioned that he'd studied economics in Thailand, philosophy in Hawaii, and at Temple University in Philadelphia he wrote a Ph.d. dissertation on "Bhikku Buddhadasa's Dhammic Socialism in Dialogue with Latin American Liberation Theology." That got my attention. Buddhadasa, who died at 86 in 1993, was an influential and prolific Thai monk who argued for the reform of many aspects of Theravada Buddhism. He included laypeople in the definition of the Sangha (formerly reserved for ordained males alone) and incorporated aspects of Mahayana thought in his understanding of the Buddha's teaching. Unfortunately, he is more accepted here by educated Thais than the rural poor whose practice is restricted to rituals and tamboon (making merit) to insure a good rebirth. One of Buddhadasa's students is Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai spiritual gadfly who, along with Thich Nhat Hahn, helped to develop the practice of engaged Buddhism. I had always looked upon liberation theology, the teaching spread by activist European priests in Latin America in the 1960s, as a kind of engaged Christianity. Even though condemned by the Vatican (in particular, by the current Pope), the work of Catholics for social justice in Nicaragua, Brazil and Peru, made it possible for me to convert to that faith twenty years ago. Unfortunately, this side of Catholicism is rapidly disappearing. So now I look for an explicit practice of compassion and justice in Buddhism and find it in Buddhadasa's teaching. I'm hopeful that Dr. Tavivat will let me read a copy of his 1994 dissertation, as well as an article scheduled to be published in a forthcoming collection, Liberation Theology in the World's Living Religions.

Last week I read in the Bangkok Post that the Buddhadasa Archives will open in a new facility here next year. Two web pages were mentioned in the story and I tried both, only to find them in Thai with no translation. So I sent an email off to the secretary of the archives foundation and offered my services. Given a rough translation from Thai, I could turn it into readable English. I received an immediate reply, and then another, from two different officers of the archives. They suggested a meeting and I hope it will take place soon. The archives will be located in north Bangkok near Jatujak Park where the mammoth weekend market is held. It's easily reachable on the Skytrain which ends at Mot Chit next to the park. When I retired from teaching over five years ago, my intention was to continue to study the relevance of religion to economics and ecology. Maybe that goal can be fulfilled.

On the way home from Dr. Tavivat's lecture, I stopped at Central World to see an outdoor exhibit of photography of the sea and its creatures. Planet Ocean: a Voyage to the Heart of the Marine Realm opened last Friday and is co-sponsored by Zen, the large department store in Central World, and the French Embassy which is putting on its annual cultural festival, "La Fête." (Also this month the Italians are having their own cultural festival which includes the showing of films at the Emporium cinema.) The incredible photographs were taken by marine biologist and professional diver Laurent Ballesta and show a variety of strange undersea denizens as well as garbage and other noxious effects of pollution which endanger the world's oceans. Ballesta's book, Planète Mers (Planet Ocean) was published by National Geographic and 88 of his photographs have been enlarged for the show which is on display until August 12. Captions on marine biodiversity and the conservation of the marine environment were written by co-author Pierre Descamp.

This just in:

Apparently that lunatic preacher Pat Robertson said on his TV show, The 700 Club, that if proposed hate crimes legislation was passed, then perverts who like to have sex with ducks (or children) could be protected under that law.

A couple of women activists for gay marriage, Riki "Garfunkel" Lindhome and Kate "Oates" Micucci, took him seriously and created this fantastic video.


hobby said...

Very interesting analysis.
I always simplistically thought the difference was merely that Mahayana's were the evangelists, whereas the Theravadan's were happy to leave each person to 'work on themselves'.

You've added another layer by taking it back to different views of human nature, although I still come down on the Theravadan side of that debate (must be the misanthrope in me:)

Anonymous said...

Hi Will,

Of course the other great difference (though it boils down to the same thing!) is that the Mahayana has the emptiness teachings.

By seing that all is emptiness, the Therevadan view is trancended entirely. Thus there is much less empahasis (as another questioner mentioned) on the 4NTs and the 8NP.

As the Heart Sutra puts it:

"Nor is there pain or cause of pain or cease in pain or noble path to lead from pain, not even wisdom to attain, attainment too is emptiness."

Which leads to the idea of emlightenment here and now, in this very life, accessible to all. Very different to the Therevadan view.

(Of course, emptiness = Buddha-nature).

All the best Will,