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Observation on Contemporary Buddhism - Part I

Bhikkhu Bodhi was born in 1944, in New York, and obtained a PhD in philosophy, and received full ordination in Sri Lanka. In 1984, he was appointed as the second president of the Buddhist Publication Society, with a distinguished reputation in writing, translating, and editing.

His Renowned publications included The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha -- A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya 《中部尼柯耶英譯》, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha -- A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya 《相應部尼柯耶英譯》, and Numerical Discourses of the Buddha --A Complete Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya 《增支部尼柯耶英譯》.

Through his commentaries on Pali Sutra and Treatises, he is becoming a key figure, propagating Pali Canon of the Theravada school to the West.

Since the initial Buddhism learning from his Vietnamese teacher, Bhikkhu Bodhi continued his studies with Thich Minh Chau until his ordination in Sri Lanka. Here, he was in frequent contact with various Buddhist schools, including a Chinese Buddhist school, and was considered an authority in Ven. Yin Shun’s thinking. He has been very attentive and sensitively insightful on the development of Buddhism in the West, over the past decades.

During the interview, Bhikkhu Bodhi dissected the context of Buddhism development and its current status in the West, providing a broad perspective and in-depth thinking on the issues of Buddhist propagation worldwide.

Dispel the blind spots on Buddhism teachings

Currently, there are “Buddhist practitioners” in the US who want to dereligionize Buddhist practice, such as by promoting “mindfulness-based stress reduction”, and deculturalize Buddhism, adopting the methods of practice from various Buddhist traditions while abandoning their related cultural elements. What is your take on this?

Bhikkhu Bodhi:
There are several factors mentioned in your question that have to be distinguished: Buddhism as a religion, Buddhism as a cultural tradition, and Buddhism as a practice leading to enlightenment and liberation. In traditional Asian Buddhism these are intricately interwoven to such an extent that if any aspect is filtered out, including the cultural aspect, one might feel that Buddhism itself is being diluted or compromised. But I would place Buddhism as a path to enlightenment and liberation at the center and regard the cultural and religious elements as secondary, as accretions determined by national tradition and temperament. Thus it is natural and normal that as Buddhism takes root in the West, it would acquire new cultural and religious expressions different from those it has in Asian traditions.

However, in the West, something else has been occurring alongside this natural cultural adaptation, and the two should not be confused. Along with cultural adaptation, there has been taking place an attempt to extract certain practices from classical Buddhism, particularly mindfulness and other meditation techniques, and present them as an autonomous methodology, one that does not require any framework of Buddhist philosophical doctrine or religious beliefs. The proponents of this approach even claim that these practices are the core of the Dharma, that this is the heart of what the Buddha taught, and that all the rest is superfluous. On the basis of such arguments, they are ready to discard the entire body of Buddhist doctrine and belief structures.

Personally I do not have any objections to the extension of mindfulness into areas outside a religious context when it can help people deal with challenges they face in the course of their daily lives. For instance, I can fully applaud the use of mindfulness to help people afflicted with chronic illness bravely face their painful conditions, or to help patients in psychotherapy better understand their own minds. I can also approve the use of mindfulness in schools to help children become more peaceful and concentrate better in the classroom, or to help peace workers in resolving conflicts between old enemies.

The problem begins, however, when those who draw upon mindfulness for these extended applications then claim that the Buddha Dharma is really a “technique of living” to help us live peacefully and mindfully in the here and now, and then assert that for Buddhism to thrive in the modern world we must drop all the doctrinal and religious elements as mere Asian cultural baggage no longer relevant to our situation today. I would call this a drastic revisionism which, if pursued rigorously enough, can inflict serious damage on attempts to transplant Buddhism to the West. The doctrines of classical Buddhism provide the framework for practice, and when these are dropped or re-interpreted to fit into a secular world view, we lose the perspective that makes the pursuit of genuine enlightenment and liberation possible.

The doctrines that have particularly come up for criticism are rebirth and karma, along with the associated notions of human existence as part of samsara, a beginningless series of rebirths, and nirvana as a state of world-transcending liberation. The new “secular Buddhists” say that we can drop these ideas as ancient “metaphysics” and instead retain only such “directly visible” teachings as the four noble truths, the three dharma seals (impermanence, suffering, and non-self), dependent origination, and the practice of mindful awareness.

I have no argument with people who can’t accept karma and rebirth and want to practice only for the benefits they can obtain in this present life. If this is what suits their purpose, that is fine with me. But they should not claim that this diluted version of the Dharma is the genuine original teaching of the Buddha, and they should not dismiss the teachings that they cannot accept as mere cultural additions to Buddhism. In my opinion, without the teachings of karma and rebirth, the Buddhist path no longer makes sense, whether it be the path to liberation of Early Buddhism or the bodhisattva path of Mahayana Buddhism. Both visions of the path depend on a cosmic background in which sentient beings migrate from life to life in dependence on their karma until they eventually attain release, either as arahants, pratyekabuddhas, or fully enlightened Buddhas. Without these teachings, Buddhism becomes just a sophisticated ancient system of Asian psychology: it will certainly be able to bring psychological benefits, but can it lead to genuine enlightenment and liberation as intended by the Buddha? I do not think so. Whether it be the four noble truths, the three marks of existence, dependent origination, or the four foundations of mindfulness—all these teachings stand together with the doctrines of karma and rebirth, all as one organic whole.

Texts: Interview with Bhikkhu Bodhi, by Dharma Drum Monthly <法鼓雜誌>
Photos: Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies(中華佛學研究所), Lee, Fan (李東陽)

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