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Buddhadharma : Summer 2009
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 20 0 9 64 about sexuality and what western Buddhists believe about the subject. I realized that much of the background and many of the ideas I was taking for granted were either unknown to my audience or were summarily rejected as “un-Buddhist.” As I began to interact with Buddhist communities in the west, I found three problems that needed to be addressed: pervasive misinformation about what the traditional texts said; a tendency to dismiss the textual tradition; and, when not dismissed, accepting the tradition literally without feeling any need to engage in critical reflection. At the center of these issues is a more fundamental problem that confronts all religions: the issue of authority. How much credence should we give to the ancient teachings of the tradi- tion? what hold should these doctrines and tenets have on our lives? Before continuing with the topic of sexual ethics, here is what I believe to be one way—my way, but I believe also a Buddhist way—of dealing with the issue of authority. my method is simple to state, but often difficult to put into practice. It can be outlined in three basic points. First, as Buddhists, we commit ourselves to learning about dharma, about doctrine. while our teachers are, for the most part, the purveyors of this information, we should not simply stop at what our teachers tell us, but rather, as the great saint Atisha said, we must always be willing “to seek more learn- ing.” The classical texts of India and Tibet form the basis for this learning. To turn our back on this great textual tradition—either by refusing to study it or by simply dismissing what we have learned—is to turn our back on the jewel of the doctrine, the true source of refuge. Just as important, it creates an irrecon- cilable rift between western forms of Buddhism and those of Buddhist Asia, most of which use the texts as an important source of guidance. Hiding our heads in the sand and refusing to confront the textual tradition—as difficult as this is in some cases—is not an option in my view. Nor is it an option to study the texts and then to sweep under the rug all those aspects of the textual tradition that make us uncomfortable. when we take refuge as Buddhists, we are in a sense marrying the tradition. we are committing to this tradition as a whole, with all its imperfec- tions, the way we commit to a partner as a whole person in a relationship. This does not mean that we become blind to the imperfections of the tradition, or that we might not work for its betterment—just the contrary—but it does mean at some level accepting the tradition as a whole, for better and for worse. Second, once we find out what the tradition has to say, we must reflect critically on this. This is chiefly the responsibil- ity of Buddhist intellectuals—or we might say of Buddhist “theologians.” But Buddhist believers/practitioners who aren’t scholars should not be content to be spoon-fed the truth by those who say they are representing and interpreting the tra- dition—like baby birds being nourished with the regurgitated food from the gullets of their mothers. rather, they should subject the theological interventions of specialists to analysis, keeping theologians honest, and making them accountable both to the tradition and to reason. This is not to downplay the importance of faith, but as the great Indian sage Haribhadhra, commenting on maitreya’s Ornament of Realization, reminds us, there are different types of faith. The type of faith that immediately accepts whatever one hears—even when it comes from an authoritative source, like one’s master—is considered a lesser type of faith. The higher type of faith, by contrast, is one that begins not with immediate belief but with skepticism. It is a faith that begins in doubt and then uses the power of reason to overcome that doubt and to ascertain the truth. This higher type of faith, unlike the former, is considered unshakeable. Nothing can destroy it. And once we have come to this unwavering kind of faith about a certain point of doctrine, then of course we must internalize the truth of the doctrine through the practice of meditation, so that our lives become seamless expressions of this truth. Third, the process of critical reflection, as traditionally understood, is relatively narrow. Critical reflection—what in Sanskrit is called cintā—is a process of analysis that tests doctrines by determining whether they are consistent with our perceptions of the world, and whether they are rational—that is, whether good reasons can be given for accepting them. I would argue that today we have at our disposal other tools, such as historical analysis and other concepts not found to any great extent in classical Buddhism—the concepts of Hiding our heads in the sand and refusing to confront the textual tradition is not an option. Nor is it an option to study the texts and then to sweep under the rug those aspects that make us uncomfortable. ImAGESCOURTESYOFThEARTISTANDBOSEPACIAGALLERY,NY