This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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9.4. Additional Insights into Buddhism

Branch within branch

If we can speak historically of two broad divisions within Buddhism, the Hinayana and the Mahayana, we see that within these division there are sub-divisions or ‘denominations’ that call for additional comment since what we have said above regarding Hinayana and Mahayana do not adequately encompass the unique character of specific adaptations. We will therefore add some additional explanation here dedicated to those schools and their distinctive characteristics.

As for Hinayana, we could say that although there were various ‘Hinayana schools’, there is now only the Theravada school, and while it is accurate to place Theravada within the broad category of Hinayana, the two are not synonymous, and Theravada has nuances that other Hinayana schools may or may not have displayed.

If Theravada is the predominant Hinayana school, the case is more complex with the Mahayana, which stands to reason considering its much wider scope for adaptation and the fact that it addresses itself to humanity at large. Within the Mahayana we find the well-known school of Zen (in Japan) or Ch’an (in China); we find Pure Land Buddhism, also called Amidism; and also that unique and powerful adaptation that is Tibetan Buddhism. Because these are the largest representative groups, we will comment on each and pass over other minor schools.

Zen Buddhism

Like all sects, the Japanese school of Zen Buddhism traces its doctrine back to Gautama himself. The story runs as follows:

The Buddha offered many teachings, and those most easily grasped by the masses were gathered and recorded in the Pali canon. However, there was a more esoteric aspect to his sermons that ws not always recorded because only the keenest of his students perceived it. The relevant example here occurred during the Flower Sermon. Rather than preach via words, the Buddha merely held a golden lotus in the air. As we might expect, the point was missed by almost everyone except for one follower named Mahakasyapa, who indicated his comprehension with a subtle smile. This smile caught the eye of the Buddha, who then designated Mahakasyapa his successor. This insight—The Secret of the Flower—was handed down via twenty-eight patriarchs in India and then carried to China with by Bodhidharma in 520 AD. Finally, in the twelve century AD, this secret teaching spread to Japan and became Zen.

Zen has associations with Amidism but is more or less indifferent to the concepts or organized religion such as scriptural authority, adherence to strict orthodoxy, and iconography. It is far more like a mysticism than a ritual system, more an art than a science. We could say that it differs from orthodoxy Mahayana in the same way that Christ’s sermons and the writings of Christian mystics differ from mainstream systematic Christian theology.

The fundamental creed of Zen is that the kingdom of God is within the heart of man; that the Buddha is not to be found in books, in images, much less in rational concepts, but is in the depths of the heart. The result is an approach to Enlightenment that sets out to exasperate the mind, that it may finally see.

The whole style of Zen is aptly conveyed by that original Flower Sermon, intended as it is to reproduce the insight given to Mahakasyapa, and its method follows accordingly. In fact it is so much like that situation that it is almost absurd to witness. To enter into Zen is to have one’s mind baffled and (intentionally) overwhelmed by paradox and nonsense.

The method or practice of Zen can be described through a few key concepts:

First, zazen. Zazen means ‘seated meditation’ and Zen monks are commonly portrayed in Western films (accurately so) in a large hall seated in a specific posture deep in meditation. This is the lotus posture of Hindu origin.

On what does the student meditate? Here we encounter the confounding element of Zen, which we mentioned above but did not name: the koan.

Koan means simply ‘problem’ but these are problems presented in the form of a riddle that, from a rational point of view, are insoluable or just plain nonsense. A famous example tells of a student who just entered the monastery and asks:

“Please give me instruction, Master.”

The master asks, “Have you had your breakfast?”

“Yes, I have,” replied the student.

“Then go and wash your bowls.”

Or another, which is perhaps more familiar in Western parlance:

“The clapping of two hands emits a sound. What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

During zazen the full force of the mind is intended to be thrown at these problems and then, as no solution is forthcoming, our trust in concepts and logic fades and we are forcibly brought to a point of surrender, and this provides the possibility of an insight. This insight, sometimes years in the making, is called satori. Obviously this practice would be torture to the scientific rationalist.

The student is, however, not alone. A third term, sanzen, comes into play and refers to the daily (twice daily, in fact) interaction between the student and the master. The meetings are brief and during this time the student brings their understanding before the master and the master corrects, affirms, and dismisses.

For the Zen practitioner, the experience of satori is not the same as Enlightenment, nor is it a destination at all, but the beginning of the journey. It may come after years of disciplined focus, but it is merely the first discernment.

Beyond the enigma of the koan, we find that Zen teachings allow us to realize a degree of peace and appreciation for the beauty of things. Some passages sound very much like they could have come directly from Taoist literature, and in fact Zen and Taoism are closely allied. Consider the following poem by Matsunaga Teitoku:

“The morning glory blooms but an hour, and yet it differs not at heart

From the giant pine that lives for a thousand years.”

What is the meaning of this teaching? Is this the standard Buddhist emphasis on impermanence and the inevitability of death? Or is something more going on here. Let us refer to the commentary of Kinso for an answer:

“He who has found the way in the morning may die at peace in the evening. To bloom in the morning, to await the heat of the sun, and then to perish, such is the lot appointed to the morning glory by Providence. There are pines, indeed, which have lived for a thousand years, but the morning glory, who must die so soon, never for a moment forgets herself, or shows herself to be envious of others. Every morning her flowers unfold, magically fair, they yield the natural virtue that has been granted to them, then they wither. And thus they perform their duty faithfully. Why condemn that faithfulness as vain and profitless.

“It is the same with the pine as with the morning glory, but as the life of the latter is the shorter, it illustrates the principle in a more striking way. The giant pine does not ponder on its thousand years, nor the morning glory on its life of a single day. Each does simply what it must. Certainly, the fate of the morning glory is other than that of the pine, yet their destiny is alike in this, that they fulfill the will of Providence, and are content.”

Pure Land Buddhism, or Amidism

Pure Land Buddhism, also called Amidismin English, is a school that takes as its center of gravity the cult of the Buddha Amitabha (Amida in Japanese). We have already mentioned the doctrine of parivarta which involves the transfer of merit from one believer to another or to all living things. Amidism likewise holds that those who persevere in their faith (in Amida/Amitabha) will be reborn in the Pure Land. Thus, it can be seen how both common names for this school are apt.

The obvious similarities between Amidism and Christianity, each centering on a ‘saving faith’ in a personal God, need little comment in order to be understood. Although the cyclic vision is altered somewhat between Hinduism and Buddhism, the basic principles remain the same and so the process of involution prevails, hence the reliance on recitation once humanity reaches a point of spiritual weakness that precludes the possibility of accomplishing Dharma. The cult of Amitabha is an expression of trust in Divine Mercy, of which the Buddha Amitabha is the personification. Such is the allowance made for believers in the final age of the Kali Yuga.

Aside from this distinctive emphasis, we can identify several primary texts that this school uses, known as the “Three Pure Land Sutras”.

  1. Longer Sukhavativyuha Sutra (Infinite Life Sutra)
  2. Amitayurdhyana Sutra (Contemplation Sutra)
  3. Shorter Sukhavativyuha Sutra (Amitabha Sutra)

These sutras tell of Amitabha and his Pure Land of Bliss called Sukhavati.

The spiritual method, as mentioned above, centers on devotion to Amitabha and the practice of recitation of the Divine Name, similar to what is called the Jesus Prayer in Christianity. The bodhisattvas are instructed by Amitabha:

“If you wish to come and be born in my realm, you must always call me to mind again and again, you must always keep this thought in mind without letting up, and thus you will succeed in coming to be born in my realm.”

In Chinese, the term for this recitation is nianfo, in Japanese, nenbutsu, during which the practitioner makes use of prayer beads, after the fashion of the Christian Rosary or the Islamic Misbaha.

Vajrayana, or Tibetan Buddhism

As we summarize the Tibetan tradition, we should note that it is characterized not simply as a ‘denomination’ within the Mahayana, but as its own yana or ‘path’, called Vajrayana, the “Diamond Way”, so distinct is it from all of the schools of Buddhism that we have discussed so far. We have already outlined its canon, and now we will note the distinguishing marks of its doctrine.

First, a word about the name Vajrayana. The word Vajra refers to the thunderbolt of Indra, a god mentioned frequently in the Pali texts. In Buddhism this thunderbolt becomes the scepter of Buddha, and it is described as a diamond scepter.

If we ask what warrants categorizing Tibetan Buddhism as a unique ‘path’, the answer is in the fact that Vajrayana is at heart a tantric way, and this is why this path is also called Tantric Buddhism, so predominant is this feature. We might say that Tantra was born in Hinduism, developed further by the Buddhist, and refined and amplified to its full potential in Tibet.

What is Tantra? In the context of Hinduism, Tantra refers to a set of esoteric texts discussing the interrelatedness of things. The meaning of the word itself denotes weaving, which calls to mind the vision of the warp and weft perpetually intertwining in an act of creation. Tantra, as a spiritual method, amounts to an attempt to enlist and integrate all of the latent or potential powers at man’s disposal toward the goal of spiritual realization. It integrates energy by controlling, refining, and focusing it. So powerful is this ‘technology’, we are told by the Tibetans, that it permits the attainment of nirvana in a single lifetime. This is no small thing, needless to say.

The energies in question are varied and engage man at every level, extending to each of the senses. It is obvious that one of the most intense and widely available ‘energies’ is the sexual experience. Tantric Buddhists see no reason why sex should not be susceptible to ‘transfiguration’ and thereby enlisted as a support for the spiritual quest. This attitude toward sex is no different than we find in the Song of Songs. The underlying assumption is that the evil of things is in the use made of them by persons, and so there is no denigration of sexual activity in itself, nor is there any kind of elevation of it beyond the order and context to which it rightly belongs.

Unfortunately, the West has developed an exaggerated fixation on sex, resulting in an inability to comfortably discuss it in any context, vacillating between puritan squeamishness and unbridled debauchery. In this context it becomes difficult to conceive of sex as conducive to spiritual growth. To even suggest this seems scandalous, and since there is also a fascination with scandal, it is no surprise that the only thing most Western people know about Tantra is that it might involve some kind of ‘sex magic’. It might not be too grossly inaccurate to say that it does include this, but to make sex a central feature of Tantra is to completely ignore the attention given by the Vajrayana to virtually every other human experience and the whole range of techniques it has developed.

In short, it is grossly misleading to emphasize the use of sexuality in Tantra without taking into account the larger world in which it is situated.

Moreover, we can add the condition that the sexual experience is only of spiritual value when it takes place in a context of love—not lust, but a true openness to what another has to offer and a sincere appreciation for union with another such that we overcome our typical closedness and are enabled to get beyond conditioned individuality.

Having situated sexuality within Tantra, we can turn to the various other physical energies that it seeks to enlist.

As for general physical movement, we can point out that Tantric teachings, in Hinduism, for the basis of its yoga, which is again a deliberate practice situated within a larger context of spiritual realization, a practice that becomes meaningless or perverse outside that larger context. What differentiates the Tibetan Tantra is that it carries all of this further, and what in raja yoga is a ‘posture’ is in the Vajrayana an elaborate ‘dance’ in which the participants are always moving, prostrating themselves, performing precise calisthenic hand movements, and so on.

As for sound, there is a particular emphasis on the primordiality of speech and the magic this implies, causing the Tibetans to develop a method of chanting that is not known anywhere else in the world. The term referring to this art is Mantra. Physical movement is encompassed by the term Mudra.

Visually, we find the Mandalas which involve holy iconography. As far as bodily adornments, the Tibetan wardrobe would strike us as shameless pageantry with its elaborate headgear, silver inlays, ribbons, etc. Even children can be seen wearing boots reminiscent of a military general on parade.

All of this is external, of course, and is in service of the real work that concerns adherents, which is taking place internally and is equally colorful and elaborate, seeking to visualize the deities and pursue union with them. All of the aforementioned comes together in a grand project of spiritual focus and ascent.

Lastly, we cannot have a discussion of Tibetan Buddhism without mentioning the office of the Dalai Lama. The name for this office is identical to the deity it incarnates (and reincarnates), and it is said that this bodhisattva serves the function of providing a direct spiritual influence in the world, as a kind of ‘spiritual center’ in service of all the world. This is, of course, the vocation of all bodhisattvas and for that matter Buddhism in general, but the Dalai Lama is its personficiation. It is believed that Chenrezig has reincarnated many times over the last several centuries. We have given his Tibetan name (Chenrezig), but he has other names, such as Kwan Yin (China), Kannon (Japan), and Avalokiteshvara (India).

Before moving on, a few words about the function performed by the Dalai Lama. It should be understood that he is not analogous to the Catholic pope, for he does not define doctrine or manage and clerical bureaucracy. His function is more one of presence and emanation: he functions as a kind of spiritual pole, and in this way gives to the world a spiritual perfume, although that is perhaps an understatement. He realizes the highest of Buddhist principles, he is compassion and mercy personified.