Buddhism In Two Voices

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

It has become resoundingly clear for me as my Buddhist study deepens and my attention to contemporary scientific understanding broadens that Buddhist thought can be very modern in how it gives emphasis to the core principles, especially in those themes of what it means to be human. At the same time, however, there are aspects to Buddhist doctrine that remain in ancient-language-of-understanding as it comes down to us in our 21st century. Mutual causality, impermanence and the lessons from the Four Noble Truths that substantiate modern notions of human psychology has the contemporary voice. Karma (rebirth and mystical planes of existence too) is spoken of in an ancient voice because it has no counterpart in Western languages to convey beyond basic terminology. So karma, for example, is still spoken of in a language that comes from past centuries. This does not necessity ignoring karma if we want to present Buddhism as being relevant for the modern age. But it does require a very serious interrogation of how it has been interwoven throughout Buddhist philosophy. Karma requires creative re-description for us. In this way we can begin to find answers to the question, “How is understanding the laws of karma a help to us today in the world of science?”

When we study the Buddhist canon, we quickly learn from the various sutras that the community of monks (known as Sangha then) was supported by the generosity of the lay members. This was the tradition in ancient India. The merit of this lay support (dana) for the individual was the hope that they could be reborn as a Bodhisattva so they could have a chance to gain enlightenment. This earning merit was considered an aspect of karma. Karma in this case being “attached” to the individual. I call this Velcro karma.
When viewed this way, karma was a kind of product that could be purchased by one’s efforts. The understanding of karma, and its value, was of great importance in ancient Hindu society.

One’s status in this ancient society determined quality-of-life realities. The laws of karma were used to rationalize what in our modern era would be call social injustice. To these ancient people, however, social justice situations were built into the moral fabric of the society as their life played out on the various social levels as universal fate. In a big way this understanding of how the universe functioned helped to maintain order, and life struggles were viewed as helping propel one to a better place after the present life ended.

Siddhartha, the Buddha, worked to transform this notion of the universe and through understanding mutual causality taught a very different interpretation of karma. He came to realize that accepting fate as a universal reality was the engine that continued human suffering. One of the pillars of the Four Noble Truths supports the wisdom of this philosophical sea-change. The intent of an individual’s actions is karma. Karma has no value, however, until it is given value. Our actions, and the effect of those actions, is multidirectional. That is to say that it effects both subject and object. Yet it is not something we “have”, or own. However, this does not mean that we are not responsible for our actions either. Considering that the only reality we can directly experience is what we can experience in the moment, our actions come from a sense of self and the choices we make. By intentionally choosing to make changes in how we are, we change the very nature of the person we continually transform into.

As we work to understand the kind of person we are, we are confronted with how we can change, not only our character, the community around us, and our various relationships, but in ways unknown to us. We awaken to the reality that we are agents-for-change acting in the capability of the social-self. As we gain this wisdom in our practice we come to awaken to the fact that karma drives (or influences) what we have done and how we change as a result of both the intent of our actions and their consequences. If we want to be a different kind of person, we must gain insight in the world around us with a new kind of vision. Karma is not a fatalistic doctrine, but one that empowers us to find the good in our selves, and in others. In this way, karma brings a rebirth to us moment to moment as our actions bring change before are very eyes.

The challenge for a modern Buddhist practice today is to continue to find a contemporary language that speaks to these ancient principles that have not always been successfully transformed from their original cultural language. This adds to the confusion we teachers encounter from our students when they begin to take a deeper interest in the Buddhist path, yet have gotten their initial understanding from works that are stuck in the past. Because of this, Buddhism often speaks with two voices, contemporary and ancient. Yet, if we keep the teachings simple, straightforward, and rich in modern understanding, we will move forward with confidence that we will find a common language from which Buddhist thought will ride on the stream of karmic change through the next century. The lessons the Buddha spoke of often seems so simple, yet so difficult to glimpse until we awaken to how things are beyond just words.

For example:

Take “Buddhist math” in the simple expression of 2 – 1 = 1, where 2 – 1 represents the individual and = 1 represents unity. Now remove the math symbols of – and =. We have an expression of 2 1 1. Now we can rationalize that the first 1 is the individual expression and the second 1 represents the unity of 2 – 1.  By the way, the math symbols can be viewed as metaphors for how we learn to see the world around us.  They are like filters that either make our world clear or distorted.

Now I ask you, are the two 1’s different or the same?

When you can answer that, you will clearly come to the wise understanding of what “form and emptiness” is expressing as we often read those words in many of the legacy teachings from the past.

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