Do you care what the Buddha taught?

Well, first let me tell you what I think, then you can take the poll below and/or leave a comment about how you disagree (or agree).

However, before I elaborate my thoughts, here is the summary of my answers to the question.

“Yes” Reasons

  • I find several teachings useful
  • I agree with much of the philosophical as well as the practical teachings
  • I find the literature inspiring
  • I enjoy the academic romping

“No” Reasons

  • Much is nonsense
  • All religion comes with a sanctity aura which I dislike
  • I don’t revere the Buddha (or anyone, for that matter). I don’t care who said a teaching,  I only care if it works.

The "Teaching" hand posture ("mudra") in Buddhist Iconography

Yes, sure, I care what the Buddha taught if it is valuable.  I know that anti-religion Atheists may not care what any religionist says or said — including the Buddha.  But that is potentially their loss.  And if you are a Buddhist, you may have much more faith in the Buddha than I do.

How do we know what the Buddha said? That is a tough question.  I am not sure about all the textual criticism studies in Buddhism and hope to be pointed to them in the future by readers because of my academic curiosity.  But for right now, I suspect much of the Pali canon contains much of his teachings.  I suspect that much of the Mahayana canons (Chinese and Tibetan) contain the writings of later teachers (though I am aware of the controversies).

Since we have so much material on the Buddha’s forty years of teachings in the Pali Canon, I think we can agree on the Buddha’s basic teachings and themes.  However, many Buddhists radically disagree because they say some teaching supplant others.  This happens in Christianity too — with Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and others.  But to tell you the truth, it does not really matter to me what the Buddha taught.  Instead, I care about the various mental training in all contemplative traditions.  I am curious about the methods offered in Buddhist literature (Theravadin and Mahayana) and I don’t mind thinking through and working through the ones I feel are valuable to me whether the Buddha wrote them or not.  It just so happens that from my various exposures, I am most sympathetic with the teachings reported to be those of the Buddha.

But if a teaching in Buddhist literature were actually that of a later teacher instead of the Buddha’s, I don’t care.  If a later teacher contradicted the Buddha or changed his words, but I think that teacher is right, I will go with the later teacher.  So you see — I don’t have any faith in the Buddha (one of the Triple Gems in Buddhism– see my diagram).   I feel no need to have faith in any particular person at all.  I do understand the comfort of having someone you can imagine your can totally trust, but I lost that feeling a long time ago.

But with all that said, I am impressed by the weight of Buddhist scripture and thus feel that Siddhartha taught some pretty valuable material and in that way I have a measure of trust/faith in the Buddha’s teachings.  Much of those writings , art and myths inspire me.  However, I think much of Buddhist literature is horseshit, of course — but I am OK with that tension.

As a final note, as far as Christianity is concerned, the only “Yes” reasons I have remaining are the academic reasons plus the ability to work with Christianity’s influence in my society.  Oh yeah, and it is part of my past.  Any wisdom in the New Testament is shared in many traditions and not unique to Christianity.  After all, Jesus came to do (redemption), not teach, right?  Anyway, as you can otherwise, the brunt of my evaluations are in the “No” column.

So let me poll my present readers. You can easily see I am not a qualitative research designer, but try to choose the answer closest to your feelings: Thank you. 🙂


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

27 responses to “Do you care what the Buddha taught?

  1. I voted “Completely,” because I have my good Mahayanist hat on today. That’s the one that has “If it’s true, the Buddha said it” stitched on in big golden letters. How could I not care about something that’s true?

    The Pali canon has many layers too, and a lot of it—certainly in the Sutta Pitaka—contains a lot of mythologization. What the historical Siddhattha Gotama did and said is an interesting question, but it’s a historical question, not something to ‘care about’ in the sense you mean. It wouldn’t make much difference to me if someone unequivocally demonstrated that there never even was a historical Siddhattha Gotama, or that he was actually a Jain, or something. Somebody—or lots of somebodies—came up with the stuff I do care about; who he, she, or they was or were is of entirely secondary importance.

    That stuff is Buddhist thought and practice. I obviously don’t care about all of it, because much of it is contradictory. For example, the peculiarities of Nichiren or Pure Land don’t make much sense to me. OTOH the more I learn about the Abhidhamma and related texts, the better I like it, and I especially care about the ‘not-philosophy’ of Zen.

    Oh, and, ‘the Buddha’ of the Three Jewels doesn’t necessarily refer to a person, Siddhattha Gotama, although some traditions certainly interpret it that way. Most Buddhists I’ve met don’t, though. I think of ‘the Buddha’ of the Three Jewels as referring to awakening, and all of those who have awoken and kept passing on the Dharma to the Sangha. That’s what I take refuge in, not some long-dead Indian who may not even have existed.

  2. I largely agree with Petteri here. I do believe that there was a historical Buddha, and that he awakend to something, and then he taught for 40+ years. There is much debate about what he actually did teach, and whether or not those teaching that are attributed to him are his or not (there are some academics that believe both dependant origination and karma are two things he didn’t teach).

    But to me, they are all fingers pointing at the moon. Therevada, Mahayana, whatever. There are some teachings that are better suited for some than others, but the proof is in the pudding. We know that countless thousands have “achieved” enlightenment using a myriad of teachings.

    As for faith in the Buddha, I think any Buddhist that is practicing has some level of faith. The results from practicing these teachings don’t manifest themselves immediately, nor are they mere concepts to be grasped or made sense of. In that sense, we all have faith that they will work, or at least lead us on a path of discovery to find out they don’t.

  3. @ Petteri:
    Sounds like you essentially agree with my little summary table. (correct?) But it sounds like you voted differently than me simply out of emotional exuberance — motivational exuberance, perhaps. Is that fair?
    And concerning the Buddha in the Triple Gem — thanx, yes, I am aware of those differences in interpretation.

    @ Adam:
    Seems Peter is a little less concerned about historicity, though we all probably would be a little surprised if Siddartha was made up — more surprise, perhaps than if we discovered that Jesus was contrived (the position of Mythicists).

    I agree with your last paragraph about “faith” to a large degree == here, the best translation of faith is probably “hopeful trust”.

    Would you say you basically agreed with my little table even if my way of expressing in the paragraphs below it was not your style?

  4. i have a question about “I don’t revere the Buddha (or anyone, for that matter). I don’t care who said a teaching, I only care if it works.”

    how are we defining reverence? i’m confused here. i am assuming that it’s not a calloused stance against anyone not yourself, i think i know you too well. but i dunno how to take that.

    also, how are we defining work? like a physics formula? utilitarian style? i don’t want to get into too much semantics, just trying to truly understand what you’re saying here.

  5. @Sabio, @Adam – Re historicity of Siddhattha Gotama and related questions, there’s caring and caring. I think it’s an interesting question, and I care about it in the same sense that I care about disentangling Plato from Socrates. But it doesn’t make any difference to my practice.


    (1) Yeah, I sort of agree with your little table—it’s just that I think it’s a bit too small to really encapsulate anything particularly meaningful about the question.

    (2) No, I didn’t vote “Completely” out of exuberance. I voted that way because I think it’s an entirely valid point of view, and a more interesting/fruitful one in this context.

    There’s the historical Siddhattha Gotama (or not, as the case may be), and whatever he taught, which we’ll never be certain about, and which may or may not have some kind of relationship to what passes for Buddhism nowadays. Then there’s Prince Siddhartha of Kapilavastu who became the Shakyamuni Buddha, the one from the sutras and the commentaries and the stories, whom every strand of Buddhist tradition portrays a little bit differently.

    If you asked about Siddhattha Gotama I would answer “not a whole lot,” but if you asked about the Shakyamuni Buddha, I would answer “completely,” because in this context, the Shakyamuni Buddha is far more interesting than Siddhattha Gotama. ‘Tis all in the mind!

  6. I chose “some” partially because I have not read all he taught and partially because of what I have read I have not agreed with it all.

  7. @ Petteri
    I am a little confused. I don’t know the distinction between Siddhartha Gautama & Prince Siddhartha of Kapilavastu (Shakyamuni Buddha). Could you elaborate?

    @ Mike
    Could you name just a few things that you did “not agree at all with”? Just curious. Don’t worry, I don’t envision me as a fundie Buddhist who will jump down your throat to correct your lack of understanding of the holy scriptures !🙂

  8. @Sabio, it’s the same distinction as between Yeshua bar-Yusef and the Messiah Jesus Christ. One is a historical individual that we don’t know all that much about (and aren’t 100% certain even existed); the other is a mythical character with enormous significance to a large number of people and a huge amount of stuff attributed to him. In many cases, I’m much more interested in the mythical character than the historical individual.

  9. @ Petteri
    Wow, I was not aware of people who take your position. A few liberal Christians may be fine holding on to a Mythical Jesus and doing all sorts of theological gymnastics to talk about him like he is sort of actually the real Yeshua — all so they can keep their Christianity as their most familiar form of spirituality — I get that, sort of — though it is not my temperament at all.

    But doing the same for Buddha, I don’t get that. It would be could if you could a post entitled something like:
    — My Faith in a Mythical Buddha
    — Even if he ain’t real, we can still learn from him
    — Mythical Prince Siddartha and other make-believe heros who inform my life

    Are any of those close to what you are saying? Seriously, I don’t get it.

    My position is that the various teachings seem to have some great nuggets of useful philosophy and mental trainings. You seem to want to make something larger and more coherent for some reason. I’d love to hear more.

  10. @Sabio I honestly can’t recall. I need to re-visit the world’s religions. I may start with Buddhism.

  11. @ Zero Ghost

    Let me take a stab at the definitions:

    “reverence” = holding someone in such awe that I do slow or stop myself from fundamentally doubting things they say/said/do/did.

    And for sure, I do not hold myself in reverence.

    “Work” — effectively has the outcome I expect. Or changes my expectations in a way I desire by showing me new results.

    I was surprised you question these. I kind of wrote them in what I thought was a normal sense and I imagine most my readers took them that way. But maybe I am mistaken. Like you, I don’t want to get into debates on words, or subtle philosophies/theologies — I am trying to be straight forward.

  12. @ Mike
    Ah, I know the feeling. You decide something is not for you many years ago but when asked, not much is remembered. I have done this with so much in my life. Funny necessity how the mind works, eh.

    But for Buddhism I could not recommend a book (not that you asked) — but only slow meditating with a little guidance — otherwise, “reading about it” I think will bring little understanding or usefulness. Maybe others feel different. I am not sure. Not that you asked!😀

  13. @Sabio Most of the books I own on Buddhism are mainly focusing on Zen. Have you seen The Buddha, the PBS documentary this year narrated by Richard Gere? I found it enjoyable.

  14. @Sabio: We humans tell each other stories to give the world coherence and make it understandable. Sometimes the stories are about ‘the external world.’ In that case, it’s very important that we do all we can to make sure they represent it as accurately as possible. For example, if the story is about World War II, or deep-sea oil extraction, it’s really, really important to include everything that’s relevant to the story, and not make up things. Otherwise really bad things could happen.

    However, other stories are about the internal world—what it is to be human, and how we should go about it. These stories are often told in terms of the external world; they include characters and places and events, but those characters and events are never really the point.

    Take the story of Prince Siddhartha who became the Shakyamuni Buddha and then taught for 40 years. It doesn’t really matter at all if it’s completely made up. It’s still an important story, and speaks to and of something fundamental about being human. The same is true for a lot of the stuff attributed to that character. And in order to get at what the stories mean, you have to think of them on their terms, not in terms of their historicity.

    Of course, there’s no problem whatsoever in researching their historicity—it’s just a different set of questions. Shakespeare’s plays wouldn’t be diminished if it turned out that they were written by Bacon, and trying to find out the truth about this is a worthwhile effort. It’s just a different effort than staging The Merchant of Venice.

    So, I could blog about your bullet points 2 and 3, although not really 1 – the Shakyamuni Buddha is not ‘someone I have faith in.’ The Buddha of the Three Jewels is more like something I have faith in, although it’s not exactly a thing, and it’s not exactly faith.

    (I think “MacGyver and other make-believe heroes who inform my life” would be a better title, though. I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks for the suggestion.)

    It’s strange that you’ve never encountered this view before. We’ve talked about this kind of stuff over tea after zazen, and many people there seem to feel more or less like this. Did you read Uku’s blog post “Being a bodhisattva is like being Batman?”

    PS. I have written something about my beliefs vis a vis Buddhism. It’s here. You might find the discussion that follows amusing as well…

  15. Sure, I agree with the little chart there. Though I might add “there is no way of knowing exactly what he taught” in the No column.

  16. @Sabio and @Mike – re reading about Buddhism vs. practicing Buddhism, I agree very strongly, and I’m speaking here as someone who read a quite a bit about it—and even understood something about it—long before I gave practice a try.

    Buddhism is like riding a bicycle. Forester’s Effective Cycling is a great book, and has lots of really good advice on how to improve your cycling. However, none of it will help you one bit unless you actually get on a bike and try to stay on it first, and then try to apply that advice to your riding.

  17. @ Petteri
    Thank you for elaborating. Your mythical interpretation of “Buddha” reminded me of the narrative hermeneutics used by some liberal Christians which I encountered earlier in my blogging. I elaborated in that in my post today which then is sort of a reply to you. Maybe we can continue our conversation there.
    I imagine I still misunderstand your position — but hopefully my post makes my confusion clear, or at least you will see my concerns/thoughts.

  18. johnl

    I have tuned in more to the ‘reverence’ thing late in my life. The Asian model has been a student whose reverence includes not only studying, but trying to emulate the teacher in every way. This can lead to extreme positions, which is why I rejected such things earlier on. But Shakyamuni was the guy–a human–who actually achieved it. His words can help us achieve it, but I think the student must be tuned in on more levels than just the verbal/logical. Reverence for a teacher helps some people do that.

  19. @ Johnl
    I agree that “reverence” can be useful. I also agree that it can lead to extreme positions. We all build webs of emotions that hopefully safeguard the negative ones.

    You said, “Shakyamuni…achieved it”. That requires a lot of faith. One, that there is an “it”. Two, that some guy thousands of years ago did it. Such certainty can also be double-edged just like “reverence”.

    PS: I removed your URL link — it was not valid. If you don’t have a website, you don’t have to type anything in there.

  20. @Sabio: Faith != certainty. On the contrary: if you’re certain of something, faith doesn’t even enter into it.

    I do agree, though, that if you don’t have faith that there is an “it,” calling what you’re practicing Buddhism becomes a quite a stretch.

    For the record, I do believe there is an “it.” I also think lots of people got “it.” I’ve met some peole I think got “it.” Therefore, I think it’s only logical that whoever came up with the description of the method to get “it” that we’re working with also did.

    Whether that person was named Siddhattha Gotama, and how much of that person is captured in the traditional biography of the Shakyamuni Buddha is neither here nor there.

  21. @ Petteri
    Yeah, it was a sound bite.
    “Hopeful Trust” (read: “faith”) is very helpful, if not inevitable in learning new skills. Exclusive trust can be problematic. unrealistic trust can be problematic. And we could think of more. It is all balance.

    Is there an “it” or many more “them”. Is it one global enlightenment or a growing set of skills. This debate, done in other terms, exists even within Buddhism, no? I started a post to address this “it” of yours about 2 weeks ago, but still have not gotten around to it — the kids demand too much love! (little buggers)

  22. I like the (Soto) Zen view of awakening as ‘the lotus with 10,000 petals.’ Something that unfolds bit by bit and keeps on unfolding forever.

    I also like the ur-Mahayanist view of awakening as “the revolution at the basis,” of seeing the truth of the ‘construction of that which was not.’

    I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive, either. Both are simply conceptual models of something that’s fundamentally and by definition beyond reach of such models.

  23. Personally, speaking as someone who’s generally interested in old stuff, I care about what the Buddha said because I find all old texts from the Dawn of history fascinating. Because they add to our understanding of how early human societies worked.

    But you mean, I guess, do you care about it from a philosophical standpoint. To that my answer is yes, in principle, but no in practice.

    Philosophical world views are all very useful, but only if they’re informed by modern understanding. To be sure, a historical perspective is essential, but there’s just far too much out there for me to do the research myself.

    So I rely on other people to do the research, digest it, add it into the mix with other ideas, and come to me with novel, syncretic interpretations.

    In other words, from a philosophical standpoint I don’t care about what the Buddha said – except insofar as aspects of what he said (or was attributed to him, it doesn’t matter), can shed useful light on modern world.

    I feel the same about Epicurus. It’s fascinating stuff, but mainly because of the context in which he said it. There are lessons for the modern world, to be sure, but most of those I knew before reading lucretius etc as ithad come down to me in digested form via modern scholars.

  24. @ Tom
    Thanks for visiting. Superbly said, as usual.

  25. Reading suggestion: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa

    To answer the question, I do have a keen interest in what the historical Buddha taught, but as a Zen student I don’t spend much time with the Pali texts. I see the Pali suttas as postulations to be resolved, or as a kind of framework left to us to fill in. But I don’t consider the Pali texts to be Holy Writ that cannot be questioned. I also assume it has been much “edited” over the years, and I assume that the standard story of the Buddha’s life is largely myth (in the Joseph Campbell sense). If we found out tomorrow that the “real” Buddha was an entirely different guy from the myth, or never existed at all, I don’t know that it would make a great deal of difference to me.

  26. @ Barbara
    Thanx, Already read it – years ago.
    I agree that the position of knowing the actual Gautama and his teachings accurately are difficult and documents have been heavily edited and mythologized much like the Christian documents.
    I agree that to many of the forms of Buddhism, the accuracy of their scriptures does not matter as it does to Christianity.
    Either the techniques of the various Buddhist practices work or they don’t. But the various practices offer widely various techniques and the outcomes of these would be important to study.

    I do not believe that the outcomes that are desirable can only be measured subjectively — I am more optimistic. Mind you, I value the subjective and I don’t believe that we need to have proof before acting. But for advancement, sometimes I hope that science advancements may help.

  27. Pingback: NPR: The Buddha Imagines The Unimaginable (And Gets It Right!) « Center for Innovation News Study

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