Sunday, November 30, 2008

Another one bites the dust

How many times have you heard that the Chinese character for crisis consists of the combination of the characters for danger and opportunity? Well, I came across this link recently. It effectively blows apart this particular folk etymology.
Folk etymologies play a significant role in Buddhism, particularly in the Tibetan tradition. The written Tibetan language was essentially created in 8th century for the purpose of translating Sanskrit texts into Tibetan. Written Tibetan is a direct import of an 8th century Bengalese alphabet, as you can see from the display of alphabets over the centuries in one of the Calcutta museums. 
More significantly, Tibetan Buddhist vocabulary was based on the folk etymologies of Buddhist technical terms in Sanskrit. This development endowed Tibetan with a power to express Buddhist ideas comparable to the power of a high-level programming language to express complex computer commands in succinct form. At the same time, Tibetan technical terms were completely divorced from the true etymological roots of the Sanskrit terms.
A good example is the word bhagavan, usually translated as lord. The original Sanskrit is derived from the root bhaga, which is also the root of the word vagina. The root means source, womb, matrix, etc. However, in Tibetan, the three syllables are given the symbolic meanings of conquer, possess, and transcend, conquering the reactive emotions, possessing the qualities of awakening, and transcending ordinary experience. No doubt this was the how the word was explained to the compilers of the first Tibetan dictionaries.
Of course, this development creates wonderful complications for present-day translators: do you rely on the original Sanskrit meaning(s) or the Tibetan symbolic meanings?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Success in practice?

But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.
— Plenty Coups, Crow Chief

Meaning in life is contingent upon the context in which we live our lives. A meaningful act in one context may not have any meaning in another. This was the dilemma the Crow faced when they had to give up their nomadic life and move to reservations. The actions that defined a warrior — horse-stealing, war, planting a coup stick, making an opposing tribe recognize the boundary of one’s range — no longer had meaning. It was not that one had failed at these actions. These actions had lost any sense of significance.

Such a shift is hard for most of us to imagine, yet, in both social and spiritual matters, we have definite notions of success and failure, of what gives meaning to life.

Socially, we usually define success in terms of happiness, prosperity, reputation, and respect.

What does it mean to “be successful” in one’s spiritual practice? Some might say it means to be awake, to be present. Others might say it means to have passed on faithfully the teachings, practices, understanding, experience, and rituals one received. Others might say it means to have developed a body of teaching and transmitted to a group of students who will transmit it in turn. Still others might say that it means to have lived one’s life without regret.

Is success the same in Zen, Theravadan, or Tibetan Buddhism, or are there differences? What about Buddhism as it is practiced in the West?

Spiritual practice, on the other hand, is concerned with the life we actually experience, the life that consists only of thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and the awareness in which these arise. In this life, what constitutes success or failure.

This is the parallel with Plenty Coups summation of what happened to the Crow. There is an important difference. The Crow did not seek the end of their life as they knew it. It was imposed upon them by the invasion of their territory by a materially more powerful people who had a different view and understanding of life. In spiritual practice, however, we intentionally seek to uncover the knowing in which our life as we know it comes to an end.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Rational Choice Theory and Teaching

Rational Choice Theory is the basis of much of economic and sociological theory. The theory is highly suspect in most choice situations. 

Much of Buddhism is presented and taught on the basis of RTC. Just look at the expositions in Jewel Ornament of Liberation, for instance.

If RTC is bunk, what do you do when teaching?

My sense is we need to move the emphasis to learning and away from teaching.

In other words, the primary task of the teacher is to create situations and environments in which people learn and build:
1. the possibilities and viability (addresses willingness) of venturing into the mystery
2. skills they need to do so
3. capacities they need to do so

What they do, then, is not up to the "teacher". The teacher has done his or her job.

What the teacher should not do is explain or try to convince the student that this is a good idea!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Buddhism and Science

The so-called debate between science and religion is better viewed as a conflict between modern and traditional cultures, the former looking to individual exploration and agency as guides, the latter relying on examples of past perfection as guides. 

Buddhism, it can be argued, was (is) the first modern religion. While in its institutional forms, it echoes the values and processes of traditional cultures, at its core, it's about individual exploration. As Buddha Shakyamuni said just before he died, "I've shown you a way. Work out your own freedom."

Recently, David Brooks, a columnist for the NY Times, wrote:
First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

Here, in a nutshell, is the core of the tension. Traditional cultures hold their own religions and institutions special and sacred while modern cultures see these religions and institutions as particular expressions of universal principles. Traditional cultures object to the undermining of their specialness. Modern cultures object to the privileged status of a particular formulation in a pluralistic world.

You can read the whole of Brook's piece here.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

three roots and teacher roles

Teachers perform a number of functions. For now, I'll focus on three. 

One is to provide transmission, a source of energy for the student. For this, one doesn't need regular contact or interaction. It can be a one-time meeting. The energy may come through inspiration, through resonance, through interaction, or through devotion. In the last, the teacher is a symbol of being awake, on which the student draws. All this helps build capacity.

A second role is training in specific techniques and perspectives. For this, regular interaction is highly desirable, and quite necessary for some forms of training. In order to guide the student, the teacher needs to see and hear what the student is doing and how the skills are developing. This has to do with skill-development, know-how.

The third role is to bring to the student an awareness of the internal material that is getting in the way of the student. The degree of interaction needed here depends on the student capabilities. This often involves addressing willingness in the student.