Hokai Sobol and John Peacock continue their discussion about how the Buddha and Buddhism are described in the earliest Buddhist writings. By getting more accurate with translations of the earliest writings, Peacock believes modern Buddhism can free itself of the trappings of Religion, Humanism, and the need for consolation in the face of reality. They discuss the role and importance of critical inquiry in Buddhism’s future, and how all of this is leading to a secularization of Buddhism.
This is part 2 of a 2 part series. Listen to part 1, Will the Real Buddha Please Stand Up?
Hokai: Now Buddhism if anything has become known in the modern era as a huge, not just a system of philosophy, but also as a huge collection of methods to work with our minds and hearts to train attention, to deepen and expand awareness and so forth. Now what would you say if we look at the early teachings, if we look at the work of the historical Buddha himself? What is at the core of his training? What is the principle few features of his method that he basically recommends and encourages his students to work with?
John: Again it’s not an easy a picture as saying as one thing. I think again it’s an amalgam of things. I mean the heart of it is living together in community which is obviously what the early sangha was doing. And the heart of that message is ethics. So if you look through the discipline even [inaudible] discipline what you find is ethical ways of being with each other. That’s very much emphasized. Meditation is another important aspect but meditation is training. It’s not an end in itself. And as you know the early text really center around two dimensions of meditational practice which is really primarily the Satipaṭṭhāna methods that’s associated with what is now called mindfulness practice. Mindfulness of body, mindfulness of feelings, mindfulness of mind and mindfulness of this obscure word called [inaudible] which really is almost untranslatable which is really just phenomena.
Hokai: Or experience, right?
John: It’s the phenomena of experience. That’s right. And is actually investigation in some dimensions also of the teaching because it’s the four truths too. So this is another key component and the other aspect of virtue is concentration. And concentration is wedded somehow within the practice and over the history of Buddhism there’s much much discussion about how much concentration is needed. And the Buddha seems to vacillate often between that because he’s seen his own personal life experience as a condemnation for example of formless absorption practice. He moves away from teachers who teach that. But on the other hand he seems to condone it to a certain extent because it leads to a degree of insight.
John: So that’s another key area of really the Buddha’s teaching in this early dimension. And of course the third dimension which is almost doing it a traditionally you’ll see this in [inaudible] panna. Panna of course is the insight that’s generated. But insight I think we have to move away from an intellectualist approach. Cause all too often, and particularly by the time you get into the Indian schools sort of anywhere from about the second century onwards, they’re starting to look at insight panna or prajna in Sanskrit from very much an intellectualist point of view, almost like you can think your way to reality. It’s clear that the Buddha is not saying that at all, meditation is the key component as I say of the training because it helps to familiarize yourself with literally what is going on in your own mind. And the insight which he’s really talking about is an embodied way of living, if you like, impermanence. An embodied way of living the not self and an embodied way of living, if we’re gonna complete the circle here, an embodied way of living dukkha, of living the fact that things are unsatisfactory.
Hokai: So it’s like knowing by being what you’re trying to know.
John: Exactly. It’s not knowing, without making a distinction, it’s not knowing that, there are these things, it’s knowing how.
Hokai: Yes. Yes.
John: And that’s quite an important distinction because again it comes back to this practical aspect. We can so easily go off. And this is again another trap of the human mind, intellectualist constructions. Whereas the Buddha is saying it’s the stuff of actual experience that we should be with, actually being there. Actually embodying our understanding and that’s probably a good translation actually of panna as opposed to wisdom. It makes it sound so far off that none of us can really get there. But it’s how do you live your understanding.
Hokai: Yes. So it’s again very much about being practical.
John: Yes, very much so, very much so. And there’s so much, unfortunately, in this translation of terms that almost coming down to slightly to, which you keep getting almost parroted. One I’ve been very keen to try and move away from just began to gloss this for a second is to move away from metta as being translated as loving kindness, which is a standard thing and that sounds almost like an impossibility and that’s to love everybody. It’s almost very Christian and I can see why it’s become popular. What metta and the root it derives from in Pali and Sanskrit is a sense of friendliness.
Hokai: Oh yes.
John: It’s actually best translated as something like boundless friendliness which is again putting it into the realms of what people can actually do that’s achievable.
Hokai: Now you mentioned something which is my personal concern also which is translation.
Hokai: Now at the beginnings of West meets Buddhism process there was a strong emphasis on trying to fit certain meanings into a very arcane as you said Christian theological framework.
John: That’s right.
Hokai: And then gently and slowly many translators began to move away from that model into a more contemporary vocabulary. Now it seems that we are about to need another refreshment in the vocabulary to make it more, shall I say, psychologically practical and perhaps less idealistic?
John: I think this is very true. I think we’re into possibly another wave of translation now particularly people who may be looking at translating from more of a secular point of view, moving away from religious terminology all together. As I said early on we’re inheritors in a sense of the terminology of the early translators, those early translator and they can’t be faulted. They didn’t know anything else. They were operating from a Christian framework.
John: And that was a theistic framework. Even much of the language that we get is just inaccurate because it gives resonance which is really not there within the Pali or the Sanskrit later on, but certainly within the Pali, and [inaudible] from all of that. I think we have to look at translation as work in progress. And I see new translators coming through who definitely got an eye to really confronting some of these age old terminology which as I say something keeps getting repeated. I mean one of the worst for me still is the translation book about suffering. It just does not capture it. What we have here is a sense an umbrella word or a [inaudible] word which covers a multitude of experiences. And then to narrow it down to one particular translation is just to lose all the other resonances.
Hokai: Yeah. Yeah.
John: It just becomes part of our language.
Hokai: So it’s a work in progress.
John: It’s always a work in progress. Yes.
Hokai: When we talk about naturalizing and to a certain degree secularizing, the easiest objection is obviously “are we watering down something?” Which is a funny objection because things can be watered down in all sorts of ways.
John: That’s right.
Hokai: And things can also be stiffened and calcified in all sorts of ways. The purpose seems to be keeping the thing alive, right?
John: Yes, very much so.
Hokai: And when we talk about language one of the qualities very difficult to retain when we really attempt to naturalize a certain term or a certain way of talking about certain deep topics like dukkha is retain a sense of sacredness. What would you say about that? How much sacredness is there in the earliest stretch of the teachings?
John: There isn’t.
Hokai: And what kind of sacredness is there if there is?
John: It’s a difficult one. I mean I think the sacredness is in the religious. And you certainly get plenty of that by the time you get into the history of Buddhism. I don’t find it there in the early text particularly.
John: I think it’s very easy. I mean I’m trying to think out aloud here. It’s very easy to step into religious position where the word itself become somehow sacrosanct. Interestingly enough the Buddha himself, he’s critical so many times of his monks, his monastics. He says to them in a number of instances you only got to look at [inaudible] as what you’ve done is you adhere to the letter of the law not to its spirit. So there’s very much a critical engagement with things. And critical engagement and sacredness in that sense don’t go together because I think the Buddha is encouraging a critical engagement. He’s encouraging critical engagement with his teaching and with your own experience and seeing how the two come together.
Hokai: So it’s at best the sacredness of inquiry.
John: I think so. Yes. If you’re going to have sacredness anywhere put it there, I think the piety of the question.
Hokai: And an open-ended one, right?
John: And it’s an open-ended one because its investigation into experience. Even things which we consider to be almost rule driven are actually tools for inquiry. Precept for example. Precepts are not absolute rules. They are rules of training as the actual Pali says. They are rules of training to help you engage with ethical inquiry. And I think we lose that, we end up with your calcified model.
Hokai: Yes. Yes.
John: And what we got is something I think in the early text which is living and dynamic and obviously is very centered in it’s historical cultural condition, but I think that’s transferable. Because if we engage with our society in the same way in which the Buddha engage with his society I think it leads to better people and possibly better societies. Certainly I think we’re not just speaking from this historical perspective, what we’re talking about is something which is in a way very contemporary.
Hokai: Yes, very relevant.
John: And actually the learning takes place in what can we learn from this engagement with the society. And that I found very inspiring with the Buddha.
Hokai: As this process of uncovery and reinvestigation goes on, how do you think new discoveries and new understandings will sit with those who have much of their effort invested in traditional models of the Buddha’s teaching?
John: I think it’s going to be very difficult. I feel even just from my own personal experience, you encounter quite a lot of antipathy if you start challenging traditional ways of reading things. You know if you challenge say a Theravada model, challenge a Mahayana vision of the world or again I have this very personally in conducting this tour around cause often I was saying “actually that’s what happened in the history of Buddhism but it’s not necessarily what the Buddha said. And really it’s challenging people to go back and look at those original sources. Because I suppose one thing I think myself and others are really saying is not that we can actually really really get back to exactly what the Buddha said. But we can certainly get a reading of it which is more useful in the contemporary era than those traditionalist approaches. If you look for example at Theravada Buddhism one accusation about this contemporary way of reading this text is people cherry pick.
John: Well actually that’s exactly what Theravada Buddhism did.
Hokai: Yeah. Yeah.
John: I can give an equally plausible reading, as many other people are doing with this sort of work, I can give an equally plausible reading at Theravada Buddhism or any other form of Buddhism just by simply appealing to the same text. But the thing is it’s to help inquiry and engagement and something for me that encourages that is to get people to go back to the sources themselves and see for themselves. You know okay that might be through translation but the translations are improving. The teaching and conveying in some of these materials is improving. Again it’s a work in progress but I think it’s an exciting space to watch at the moment.
Hokai: Well in the end the proof will be whether the model works or not, right?
John: That’s absolutely right. Yeah. Is the model that’s coming up, if we want to call it a model at all, is it one which encourages people to engage and inquire or is it one that again becomes another dogmatism. And personally I’m not interested in that.
Hokai: Yes. Yes. Okay. Now this opens like a Pandora box you know.
Hokai: Thinking about it in different directions but let’s just stick with a more simple one. Transferring some of those basic features of the early teachings and the way Buddha himself approached as you say from a useful reading of what we know, what kind of a relationship to the world and to our own practice does emerge which is directly relevant to our situation today in very basic terms?
John: Really what you’re asking is what is emerging out of this reconfiguration that we’re going through at the moment.
Hokai: Yes. Yes.
John: Well here’s a stab at it. I wouldn’t say this is a settled view but others have a stab at it this way. Which is I think what’s going to merge out of it is perhaps a more intense engagement. Again words I’ve used frequently through this interview so far, a more intense engagement with the teachings that don’t actually have to rely on consolations. I think the religious eye view is very attractive and very appealing for a lot of people because it offers a lot of consolations.
Hokai: Yes. Yes.
John: Even the consolation in a sense in this classic one which is in the sense rebirth. Even consolation that there is rebirth, even the consolation that there is, for example, a deathless, all of these and when they’re misread become religious. I think what we’re getting in this reconfiguration is something that challenges all that and brings us back to human-ness. Not trying to evade what is actually going on in our lives.
Hokai: So this basically directly encourages a psychological and existential maturity.
John: That’s right. That’s right.
Hokai: And then a willingness to be vulnerable, to be open.
John: To be vulnerable, to be open and to know that one is going to experience pain in this life and in a sense I think what we see again from this early reading of the text is the Buddha saying don’t try to evade it, embrace it.
Hokai: No way around the three characteristics right?
John: There’s no way around it. That’s absolutely right. Even in a recent interview I did, you know I said I kind of paraphrased the Buddha’s final word. He doesn’t give this huge dispensation at the end of life. He said absolutely everything that you get to encounter is impermanent, now get on with life. Yet in a way that’s the psychological challenge because in a way we’re almost driven to looking for certainties.
John: No matter how subtle they might be. Just something and I’m not even talking about anything big here, but something perhaps you can grasp to like it’s like well that’s not going to change.
John: Now the Buddha is saying absolutely nothing is like that. And that’s why I say it lacks that consolation. So I find in this more secularized reconfiguration what we’re getting is an actual grasping of humanity, of living, living without idealization. And I think what is so unique about this message that the Buddha gives, he gives us very practical ways of being able to do that. Not easy but very practical.
Hokai: So if there’s anything, in lack of a better word, ultimate to be found is to be found in the midst of all that.
John: That’s right. Yes. Yes. And it’s not to be found in, I don’t know, religious detachment from it. It’s an accident of our language I think, particularly European languages, English, and more particularly, that because we are almost moving with bipolarity with language. There’s a synonym or there’s an antonym of something. So when we say one of the Buddha’s messages is not to be attached. Then we move into a sense of detachment. But actually that’s not what the Buddha is saying at all. He’s actually saying the opposite of attachment is correct engagement.
Hokai: Beautiful. Beautiful.
John: So you move into life rather than in a sense retreat to its peripheries. And I think one of the practical tools, literally what I called heart of it, is skills like friendliness and the compassion that arises out of that friendliness.
John: So I think we can get a very different picture to what I call religionized Buddhism. I mean these days I don’t even, I have done through that and through this interview, but often I don’t even refer to the Buddha as the Buddha. I called him Mr. Gautama. [laughter]
Hokai: Mr. Gautama. [laughter]
John: Cause actually the word Buddha is used very rarely in the text.
Hokai: Well some of the younger Buddhist call him Sid.
John: Well even that Siddhartha actually you get that into his name about 500 years after his death. There’s a bit of political statement in that as well.
Hokai: It’s true. Yeah. Just to cap this, when we talk about this in this way I see there is a lot of overlap between these qualities of no consolation, deeper engagement, challenging, no evasion, etc. with some of the core values of humanism.
Hokai: That we are very much familiar with from the European tradition.
John: That’s right.
Hokai: Could you address that a little bit.
John: Yes, I think I’m personally really concerned to give that much more humanistic approach to Buddhism but without reducing it to humanism. Because I think there are elements within it, for example the meditative skills and techniques and psychological dimensions in Buddhist practice, which are not very humanism.
Hokai: They tend to go deeper.
John: This tends to go much much deeper. That’s right. For example when we’re talking about ethics, the ethics doesn’t just rise out of just a shared consensual set of moral propositions which might be agreed amongst humanist. It arises out of the deep understanding of psychology. But the ethics that we’re talking about is actually psychological ethics not a prescriptive ethics. And moralities, we start to look at those and we see those as products of society not necessarily even individual psychologies. And so I think it’s this emphasis on the psychological we really begin to understand processes that distinguishes it from what I call a very naïve humanist model. So we can build structure, but we might actually be building our humanistic structure on something which actually is not real, and I don’t mean in an ontological sense but it’s actually not deeply investigated enough. Whereas what the Buddhist tradition, what this early tradition does is really begin to understand psychology behind experience.
Hokai: Thank you. Thank you. Okay. Thank you very much, John. I enjoyed the interview immensely.
John: I enjoyed it immensely on my side as well.
Hokai: After we get some of the feedback from our audience maybe we can do another one.
John: Okay. That will be fine.
Hokai: Thank you. Thank you.
John: Thank you very much.