Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Gandhara Scrolls - déjà vu all over again, Or the Oldest known copies of Buddhist Texts.

       In 1994 the British Library, whatever that may be, since we in America have a lot of libraries ourselves, purchased or otherwise acquired what has been alternatively known as the  Gandhara scrolls or sometimes the birch bark scrolls. The information available on the Internet states that the scrolls were found in clay jars buried under what was most likely the floor of the Buddhist monastery in what was once the country and is now the province of Gandhara.  As might be expected from something that is sometimes referred to as the birch bark scrolls these are scrolls written on birch bark. In this particular instance the scrolls are copies of Buddhist writings and materials. They are written in the Gandhari language and the scrolls themselves have been carbon dated to about the year one CE, what we used to call the year one AD before it became politically incorrect to do so.

     The dating of the scrolls to the year one CE makes the birch bark upon which they are written the oldest known copies of Buddhist religious material. I should be very clear since very few other people have been that this does not mean that they are in anyway the first and original and conclusively and positively the oldest versions of the documents they contain.  Birch bark has been used for writing things down on for centuries there are even birch bark letters written by the victims of the Soviet repressions who had been sent to the Siberian gulags and settlements by Stalin.

            Apparently the British Library realized that they had obtained something very special when they obtain the scrolls. It is my understanding that the first person they contacted about this was a linguist by the name of Dr. Richard Salomon. I would like to note upfront that Dr. Richard Salomon is neither a practicing Buddhist nor an expert on Buddhism or Buddhist history. He it is as far as I can determine a linguist who was one of the few on the planet who could translate the scrolls.  Sometime after this Dr. Salomon gave an interview which I read in which he stated that these documents would not suffer the same fate of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

            In 1946 some people in Israel discovered what has become known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. All of these documents were eventually moved and locked up in one Israeli institution, which had a complete monopoly on them between the years of 1946 in 1991.  The Dead Sea Scrolls were shown to only a very small and select group of linguist historians and scholars and their contents were more or less Completely secret until 1991.  In 1991 an American University announced that they had obtained a complete photographic reproduction of all the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The institution which had held a monopoly on them in Israel for decades immediately went ballistic stating that these were stolen documents and should not be released. Of course the fact that the content of the Dead Sea Scrolls was absolutely secret for so long lead to numerous conspiracy theories. Now I will return you to Dr. Salomon and the Kandahar scrolls.

            Sometime after he was brought in to translate the scrolls it was decided to create what became known as the Gandhara scroll project. A select group of linguist and historians, absolutely none of which as far as I can determine are actually Buddhist, was picked by the library to have the sole access to the scrolls. That was 22 years ago.  In those 22 years one would have expected that at some point given the great Dr. Richard Salmon’s profession that the scrolls would not suffer the same fate as the Dead Sea Scrolls, a public and complete index and translation of the Gandhara scrolls should have been made public. But as far as I can determine that has never been done.

            This is not to say that some translations of some of the content of the scrolls has not been printed. The scholars involved in the project have over the decades certainly published excerpts from the scrolls and scholarly journals around the world. But as far as I can tell they have not even gone so far as to release an index of the full content of the scrolls.  I thought perhaps this would change when the good Dr. Salomon published a nice big fat paperback book entitled the Gandhara scrolls.  You can purchase a copy of this book I believe there’s one left on for $50 and shipping. But if you expected to find a complete translation of the contents of the scrolls in this big expensive book you’re going to be very disappointed. If you’re interested in the bark they were written on or the ink that was used to write them you’re going to be a happy camper.  If you wish to read at length a discussion of the handwriting of the scribes that wrote the scrolls then this book is for you.  But if you’re a Buddhist wanting to find out what they say exactly, you’re still more or less out of luck.

            I don’t mean to be too cynical here but it appears to me and I would like to emphasize this is just an opinion that the scholars involved in the project have used the content of the scrolls simply for the sole purpose of advancing their own careers.  There is an old saying in the halls of the greatly educated that a tenured professor must publish or perish and so over the decades some things have been published and I’m sure the members of this small group of select scholars have benefited greatly from these publications. 

            If you go on the Internet you can certainly access the Wikipedia article on the subject. The article will tell you that the scrolls contained versions of the Dhammapada, the Rhinoceros Sutra, and  text  from the Avadanas, and  Abhidharma. They’ll even tell you what sect somebody or other believes that the scrolls were transcribed by and what language and dialect they were written in. But it will not direct you to a full translation of the documents.  If you go to the website of the British Museum you will find a webpage on the scrolls and on that webpage at the very bottom there will be a header that says “what do the Gandhara scrolls say?”  And beneath that header you will find a paragraph of scholarly gibberish that basically says in plain English a bunch of Buddhist stuff.

            So apparently if you have a year or so to track down the various articles in which the members of the group have published excerpts from the scrolls and to travel to various universities to attend lectures by various scholars you might get some idea of the content of the scrolls and you might not. Apparently a wonderful lady by the name of Linda Heuman did just that.  And she wrote an article on the scrolls for tricycle magazine. The article was basically paraphrasing a lecture she attended by the good Dr. Richard Salomon. And she of course is totally willing to accept his translation and his interpretation of the scrolls since he’s certainly not going to actually release pictures of the scrolls or an exact and total translation of the scrolls.  He has however come up with a wonderful theory which he claims to have revolutionized the understanding of Buddhist history in which he is certainly not an expert.

            Basing my opinion solely upon what Linda Heuman states in her article in tricycle magazine, charts included, the good doctor has discovered that Buddhist in Afghanistan and Gandhara some 500 years after the death of Buddha and maybe 300 years after King Ashoka made Buddhism the state religion of the entire Indian subcontinent and ordered that all known Buddhist text be collected and written down in his version of Sanskrit,  had written the scrolls based upon various translations of those same documents that we already have copies of. The good doctor has given assurances that there is no fifth noble truth or any other shocking revelations in these documents, sort of.

           It is my understanding that this project is being run out of the University of Washington in the United States.  And although I have never found the document stating precisely who’s in charge of this project it would appear that at least too a great extent Dr. Salomon is.  Considering that there are millions of practicing Buddhist in the world who would probably very much like to read an accurate translation of these documents and judge for themselves the variations and differences in them they to are simply out of luck. To say that this not only disappoints me what makes me somewhat angry would be I suppose an understatement. Of course one man’s religious text is very clearly another man’s path to tenure.

           The traditional story of how the words of Buddha were originally recorded in written form comes to us from  what is called the Pali Cannon.  It goes something more or less like this. About a year after the Buddha died a king Ajasattu, who was King of the Haryanka dynasty of the kingdom of Magadha in North India, sponsored what has become known as the first Buddhist Council. According to the documents we have this council was chaired by the great Buddhist monk Mahakassapa,  who many believe was the direct successor to Buddha in the teaching and the running of the Buddhist monastic movement.  Then of course we are told that Buddha,s cousin Ananda who just happen to have a photographic memory recited and had transcribed for the councils approval all the teachings of the Buddha.

            I have always had a problem with this because India at the time was a very literate country. The two upper caste of the different countries and kingdoms of Nepal and India had had a written language and a profound literature for probably 1000 years the day Buddha was born.  His first followers were almost certainly of the upper caste as was Ananda and Mahakassapa. In Fact Mahakassapa was known to have been an extremely well educated Hindu scholar before he converted to become a follower of the Buddha.  So it has always been very hard for me to believe that these men,  dozens maybe even hundreds of them,  followed Buddha around for 60 years or more and never wrote down a single word that he had uttered. Let us just say that while I believe the event probably occurred, I just don’t believe that none of the monks had ever written anything Buddha said down until that meeting, of course I don’t believe Buddha could fly either.

            I also find Dr. Salomon’s statements that Buddhist scholars have up until his revelations believed that there was somewhere out there this document X from which all other Buddhist text were derived as rather sophomoric. This might have been true of none Buddhist in the west in the 19th century, but not since then. Please believe me when I say  I’m very aware of sectarianism in Buddhism.  Virtually every school of Buddhism claims to have the real form of Buddhism and know exactly what Buddha did say and what he didn’t.
        Mr. Stephen Bachelor is at this very moment making a very good living claiming that he can read the thousands of Buddhist text and through some mental acuity known only to him determine what the real Buddhist teachings are and what they are not. There is no word in the English language that summarizes the phrase just tell people what they want to hear;  no one term that describes this however it is a successful model for getting your books published in modern day America.
        Mr. Bachelor observed that modern Buddhist have a real problem with the idea of rebirth and karma so naturally using a special power of observation he has authoritatively   made the observation that despite 2000 years of traditional Buddhist teaching the Buddha never really believed in either of those two things and they were simply cultural artifacts left over from his original religion Hinduism.  Now don’t you feel better that you don’t have to believe in nasty old karma or rebirth to be a Buddhist.
        Mr. Bachelor wrote a now famous book concerning his revelation that there is no God I think it was called something like confessions of a Buddhist atheist. Mr. Bachelor of course knows that the majority of his audience will not be familiar with Akkineni Nagarjuna’s essay on the subject of God and his quite logical argument as to why no such creature could exist.  Since most of his audience are Western people who follow Zen and are probably the most poorly informed and concerning Buddhist teachings and history the most ignorant of the western Buddhist community I am sure he feels safe in claiming he discovered this idea of the Atheist Buddhist.

            In the same vein Dr. Richard Salomon is apparently willing to say that he’s the first person or scholar to realize that the monks that went down the silk Road were probably carrying with them Buddhist documents written in numerous different languages from the original Sanskrit to Chinese. His observation that determining which exact Buddhist text may have actually flowed from the mouth of the Buddha was virtually impossible is about as original as a pancake.

            A Japanese monk born on 19 January in the year 1200 AD,( oops sorry CE) in Kyoto Japan made this observation when he was about , oh I don’t know 30 years old.  In fact he was so dissatisfied with his form of Buddhism and this very issue  that he left Japan and went to China in order to do what he later called "settle the great matter".  He came back to Japan and if I have read his various writings correctly he determined that the only thing that anyone could be absolutely certain of was that Buddha taught sitting meditation.
              Interestingly enough he wrote thousands of words on Buddhism and was perhaps one of the greatest Buddhist scholars to ever live, while at the same time during his life condemning Buddhist scholarship. Well that’s Zen for you.   The great Tibetan scholar Tsongkapa and his predecessors certainly address this exact same problem themselves.

            I find it interesting that the modern Buddhist scholars  and for that matter the thousands of Buddhist students that followed these two great Buddhist scholars seem to have been completely incapable of adhering to their solution to the problem.  While Dogan was alive there arose in Japan a controversy over a certain Sutra and its authenticity. It seems there were two versions of the Sutra one with a few more verses than the other one.  Since most people knew even in his lifetime that Dogan was in fact a great Buddhist scholar they came to him and ask him which of the two versions of the Sutra were the authentic Sutra.  Dogan replied to them that if the Buddhist teacher could teach you Buddhism with a stick he picked up off the ground it was the authentic stick. Once again that’s Zen for you.
       Tsongkapa’s solution was a little more complex. In his writings he observed that the first turning of the wheel of the Dharma, that is to say Buddha's first teaching of  the four noble truths and the eight fold path was actually presented in the form that a doctor’s diagnosis and prescription much as would have been done by a doctor in Buddha’s lifetime. He saw Buddhism as a medicine and observed that the variations in the teachings of the Buddha the contradictions of the teachings and the different schools of the teachings were simply the result of each person and each society having different problems that needed to be dealt with by different  medicine,  that is to say the different  schools and texts of the Dharma.  He advised that none of these teachings these  be discarded or ignored rather that they be kept in your pharmacy for use when the need arose. Of course neither the gulag school nor the Soto Zen sect in Japan followed their founder’s advice. They are just as sectarian as anybody else in Buddhism or religion. When the 14th Dalai Lama tried to follow the founder of his schools advice on this issue fanatics in his own  school murdered 8 of his close advisers. After all those advisors were from other Tibetan schools so why not butcher them, if you don't believe this happened look it up.
              It would be a great joy to me personally if the Gandahar documents were to be released so that anybody who wanted too could translate them; and if  a  complete English translation of all the documents in both the British Museum and elsewhere were either made available on the Internet to anyone who wanted to read them or at least published in an affordable book where Buddhist would have easy access to them. But I’m not get a hold my breath.




Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Sins of the Zen Masters and other reasons not to Quit Zen

              In the United States and in the West in general there is a grand illusion  concerning Buddhism: And once that grand illusion dissolves the curtain swings open and many people in Buddhist communities look at Buddhism and its teachings with new eyes.  Buddhism has done well in the West and it would seem like there are new Buddhist centers of every school opening all over the United States everyday. As I noted when I first started this blog many if not all of the people that are coming to Buddhism are coming from other religions from which they have fled in disillusionment. They come to Buddhism expecting a spiritualism that they didn’t find in their native religion.  Unfortunately they also come caring dreams of perfection concerning the teachers of Buddhism and unfortunately most of them do not take the time to study and truly understand the teachings or the foundations of those teachings.

            Most of the people that come to Buddhism seem to be fairly well-educated many of them have college degrees and many of them have graduate degrees. But having a Western education isn’t the same as understanding the teachings and foundation of Buddhism and sometimes when the two conflict rather than digging deeper new students of Buddhism simply walk away. 

            One of the great misunderstandings is Buddhism’s relationship to science.  This misunderstanding has been propagated by a lot of Buddhist teachers including the Dalai Lama. They have given a lot of people in the West the idea that modern scientific knowledge and Buddhist teachings run parallel to each other.  The simple fact is many of the early Buddhist teachings do in fact reinforce scientific research as it is known today but that doesn’t mean it’s identical or that your view of Buddhism should be based on your view of science.  I’ve always felt that science was simply another religion that had been born in the enlightenment and grown across the world just like any other religion and into the 21st century.  If science is your religion you probably have no place to put a second religion if it begins to conflict with your belief system that was formed by the modern scientific mold. Buddhism predicted the multi-verse, much of what Buddhist realized through meditation has been proven out through modern scientific research. Quantum physics and Buddhism get along quite well, but you can not expect them to be constantly in sync with each other.  Buddhism often treads in areas science can never truly walk. We sometimes call this the spiritual world but at it's simplest it is a super mundane aspect of reality as we experience it. As I have often noted modern physics now asks us to believe 75 to 85 per cent of the universe is made of dark matter and dark energy which is totally invisible, They expect us to simply accept this,  so at least for now I see this conflict as a draw.  

            The next issue that always comes up is the issue of karma. It seems that no matter how many times Buddhist teachers tell their Western students the nature of karma they simply seem unable to absorb it. Buddhist teachers will tell you over and over again that karma is not a set of rules like the 10 Commandments set out by God to direct the faithful and set punishment for the sinful. It really seems odd that they can accept the fact that when they’re studying science that the universe has natural laws and specific rules that are followed by the material contents of that universe and at the same time seemed totally unable to comprehend the idea that there might be similar natural laws that affect things that are not material but whose effects are part of the mundane world around us. The law of cause and effect has been accepted by people in the West for centuries and karma is nothing more than an extension of this law a subset that applies to nonmaterial things. These nonmaterial things may be considered spiritual or they  can be considered to be composed of forces and materials and energies yet on detected by science and remain unobserved by science, like dark matter and dark energy. In any case to believe in karma is not to believe in a God hidden away somewhere in the teachings of Buddhism. If gravity needs no god, why should karma?
            I have previously spoken on my opinions concerning reincarnation or rebirth in Buddhism. I have also pointed out that science has developed the laws of the conservation of matter, conservation of  energy and more recently the conservation of information. I think the real problem often is people who are educated in the west have only a rudimentary understanding of modern science and an even more rudimentary understanding of the foundations of Buddhism. I myself have never found any great conflict between the two,  however many people do. 
             I note here that many modern Buddhist simply ignore both rebirth and Karma, and despite their being major under laying concepts in Buddhism, these folks seem to toddle along being Buddhist just fine without them.. So it would appear they are optional in modern Buddhism and certainly no reason to leave. One thing you will seldom find in modern Buddhism is a Dogma to which you will be required to adhere to against your will or contrary to your common sense.

           Modern psychology has had a tendency in the last few decades to plagiarize a lot of the teachings of Buddhism.  There have been a lot of claims made by psychologists and psychiatrists concerning the medical value of meditation that simply may not be true for everyone.  Everyone from Doctors to new age life coaches now want to teach you to meditate.  But of course few of them or even the modern students of Buddhism have bothered to read the Buddhist materials warning students of the dangers inherent in meditation.  Many of the oldest teachings on meditation contain  a lot of material concerning the need for a strong foundation and a very good teacher when  preceding with the practice of meditation. More often than not neither  the psychologists that have plagiarized the information nor the many modern new age teachers of meditation are actually qualified to teach it and guide their students around the hazards involved. Further these modern psychologist fail to recognize that the Buddhist science of the mind was developed with an entirely different goal than modern psychology was. Even their basic understanding of what a mind is are different from each other.  The ancient Buddhist meditation masters and the sutras give warnings of the dangers you may find within your mind during meditation. If your Buddhist teacher has not prepared you for these demons, find another teacher, but don't give up. 

            Now we come face-to-face with the men who brought Buddhism to America and their students. I believe it was December 2013 that Mark Oppenheimer wrote his exposé of Eido Shimano.  The subject of the book was sexual predation by a much revered and heavily financed Zen teacher who come to the United States I think in 1964 and rode the wave of that era into the 21st century.  The problem of Buddhist teachers, sexual misconduct and predation on their female students was by 2013 a very old story to any of us that had been practicing Zen for any length of time. In fact the idea of a much revered Zen teacher sexually abusing his students had by that time becoming so banal as to be prosaic.  Many don't even seem shocked by it anymore, or even ashamed of it.

       The list of offenders  starts out with the very beginning teachers  who came to America from Japan , such Zen Masters as Taizan Maezumi, Joshu Saaki and of course Eido Shimano. And I don’t think any of us were ignorant of Suzuki Roshi’s student Richard Baker and his sexual antics.  When my late wife attended the University of Tennessee obtaining her graduate degree in philosophy she told me that Alan Watts spent the summer there teaching a course in Buddhist philosophy and spent every spare minute  trying to get into every ladies skirt on the college campus, including hers.  The fact is Zen centers all over the country seem to have been plagued by teachers who couldn’t keep their pants zipped. I recently read an article claiming that at least 30 of the 40 major  Zen centers in the U.S.  have had  abbots or head teachers that have been involved in sexual misconduct.  This is becoming a very big issue and why many people leave because of it.
            Perhaps the most disturbing thing about all this to a Buddhist who has studied Buddhism and specifically Zen Buddhism is the issue of lineage holders and transmission.  Suzuki Roshi transmitted his lineage to Richard Baker. When asked about this  he made the usual kind of Zen paradoxical comment we’ve come to expect from Zen teachers, “transmission is nothing”  and “ there is nothing to transmit”. But the fact is when one Buddhist priest makes  another person a Buddhist priest of his lineage something is supposed to have been accomplished between the two. Traditionally the transmission of the lineage would only occur when the teacher had determined that the student had obtained the measure of enlightenment required to carry on the lineage. But what we’ve seen here in the West is a horde of transmitted teachers who are sexual abusers and alcoholics. Even in Japan American students have come home with stories of horrible physical abuse of student monks by their teachers in Japan. We also read the histories of famous Zen monks like, Omori Soyen and Hakuun Yasutani who were apparently involved in extreme right wing militarism in Japan and may have even been involved in murder and assassination.  All these awful things are being done by people who have received transmission and are Priests and teachers. 

            So far our experience in the United States with the so-called enlightenment of lineage holders would have to lead one to believe that in fact it is nothing but bull shit.  That Shunryn Suzuki wasn’t just being all Zen like when he said there was nothing to transmit and that transmission was nothing.  This failure not only to establish that the credentials of the individuals that have been made Priests are  qualified teachers, but in fact seems to totally fail to even warrant  that the person who holds the lineage is even a moral individual capable of understanding the difference between right and wrong.  This makes a sham of the total concept. We are supposed to believe that thousands of years of transmission are just a joke. That the Buddhist Patriarchs were just a bunch of scam artists.

       People who claim to understand Zen but in fact don’t, may set back and pontificate  "there is no right and wrong"  but if that was so then there wouldn’t be any such thing as the Buddhist  precepts and no Vinaya.  Such a belief in practice makes you a nihilist not a Buddhist . You can’t have it both ways either the precepts exist or they’re just a bunch of pretty words that the Zen priest are using to cover up their illicit behavior. People expect a spiritual teacher to have better morals than an alley cat. No amount of pontification or Zen like BS concerning the lack of right and wrong is going to change the fact that the public is going to want spiritual teachers that are not perverts.  The evidence is that whatever gauge it is that our previous  Zen priests and their teachers  have been using to decide who they ordain apparently  dose not include character or morality, which would seem to preclude  any possible kind of enlightenment as the word is understood by most lay Buddhist. This simply must change!  The sins of the Zen masters have been an epidemic these last few years. But there are many, many fine Zen masters still remaining.  Students you have an obligation to the others in your Zen community to refuse to let yourself be abused or exploited.

           I will make no excuses for the Buddhist teachers that have abused their power and their students and the Dharma in the United States. The simple fact is there is no excuse for them.  But that is not an indictment of the teachings as much as it is an indictment of the failure of these men’s teachers to properly evaluate their students and look deep into the character of the people who come to them.  Zen teachers are just human beings like everyone else and they have the same faults as other people.  But whether you’re a Catholic priest or a Buddhist priest your religion has expectations of you and adherence to morality is high on that list of expectations.

            Zen priests in America have all the same faults of Christian priests and preachers.  Some of them have egos so big it’s mind-boggling while others pandered to the rich in order to establish their  power, fame and authority.  There is more than one way to abuse your female students, pandering to the delusions of elderly widows in order to milk their bank accounts is in my opinion just as bad as fondling the younger women and shows just as big of failure of character.             

            Another of the really interesting misconceptions of Westerners who come the Buddhism is that it is offering some kind of salvation.  They don’t bother to study Buddhism or even read the four noble truths.  Salvation is a Christian concept that simply isn’t found in Buddhism.  Buddha created a religion, some call it a philosophy, the purpose of which was to mitigate the suffering of the human condition.  Buddhism has been around for almost 2500 years if not longer and people and teachers have over the years added and subtracted from the teachings of the Buddha but nowhere did anyone ever say Buddha offered you salvation.  Some may say Amitabha Buddha offers salvation, perhaps he does, but I think they have misunderstood the teaching
           Some people make a big deal about the fact that the Buddha left his wife and child in search of spiritual awakening. They are  told his story and are both offended and amazed that he would do such a thing. They don't stay long enough to read the rest of his history where his wife,  his son and his mother all later joined him  in his community. In other words that he was a human not a god. Like all men you must look closely before you make a judgment of him.   They don’t read the story of how his other family members were slaughtered by an opposing King and the efforts he made to prevent their deaths. If you have come to Zen looking for a god to worship in the hope he will be your savior or even looking for perfection, you have come to the wrong door. .

                   Personally I think that everyone who comes to Buddhism no matter what the school must realize that it is not a philosophy or a teaching where someone’s going to offer you a free ride to Nirvana. It is not a school of magic and mystical powers like Hogwarts. If you come to Buddhism expecting to be spoon fed and thinking that someone is going to do all the work for you then you’re bound to be disillusioned in the end. Even pure land schools require much of their followers and don't offer a free ride to the pure land.             

            I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a way to tell whether or not a teacher is actually a predator or if the student is actually a predator looking for the tools to do their hunting. But I can only hope that with the almost endless amount of material available out there for us to study that the people in the West will pick up their obligation and do their part in solving this problem of the grand illusion.  It cannot all be blamed upon the sins of the Zen masters.
          But it is clear these issues must be addressed by the Buddhist community now and not later.  In my opinion every center must develop an education program on the foundations of Buddhism, and enforce the precepts as far as the teachers, priests and abbots are concerned.  If you read the old teachings on the student teacher relationship you will find that the student has just as much obligation as the teacher does in deciding if the character of the other person is suitable to the Dharma. The members of a Sangha have a duty to keep it's members safe from this exploitation.

     If you are considering leaving your Buddhist center for any of the reasons I have mentioned in this post, I would ask you to take the matter very seriously. There are many centers and many teachers out there now that can address all these problems and help you find your Zen. In the end the greatest strength of the Dharma is that it is true, and that's worth the struggle to find in a world full of lies and liars.