(EarlyAM Mon 5-31-2010)
Buddhism may be a subject uniquely suited to the hypertext approach of the World Wide Web. As a Philosophy-Religion, it stands out as one with explicit advice from its founder to adapt and add materials to suit the times. Of course, there is a quality test to meet, yet barring gross errors, anyone can add a contribution to the dharma discussion. (Just look at the Lost TV show's entry on the subject!)
One of the sources of with a fluid subject is that one has to fine some kind of core principle that can be used as an achor to learn around. At the very least it is universally agreed that Prince Siddartha Guatama, the Shakyamuni Buddha, was the prime originator of the tradition. Of course, he borrowed some earlier concepts, but at least there is no squabble over primacy. Also, Shakyamuni Buddha's teachings have to be seriously considered as a starting point for any discussion. Again, there is come doubt over accuracy due to the fact that he himself wrote nothing, and the only existing records began a few hundred years after his death, yet by and large the main themes of his instruction are solid enough.
The profusion of diversity begins with the separation of focus into major categories of Therevada and Mahayana. (Side note - there are tricky questions of authenticity vs. modern terminology. I choose to use modern interpretations to best connect with the current audience. Professional scholars should have no trouble with individual terms. I feel it is time to begin using the most correct terms possible despite certain parts of tradition, and it so happens that the term "Hinayana" is little more than an a political insult which was somehow granted near-official status.) Roughly, the division of focus here is whether one should improve oneself first to become a more qualified leader more capable of "what I do is what I say", or whether one should simply start performing altruistic acts of compassion and then catch up to the theory as time permits.
Therevada has a fairly well bounded scope. There are the (best known) original instructions of Shakyamuni Buddha, the direct auxilliaries added according to proper tradion, and the reader's choice of modern explanatory commentaries. In a nutshell, by reigning in excess, every other decision under contemplation stands a better chance of being correct by being less likely to be influenced by irrational factors.
The Mahayana founders discovered that much of this boils down to a question of authenticity and ethics. They admitted that a novice should refrain from egotistical presumptions of expertise of instruction. However, all groups agreed it would take even serious committed monks a great deal of time to gain a working expertise, and just maybe, some useful good could be performed in the interim. Therefore, when the ethics and conceptual nature of an act were clearly positive, the Mahayana approach urges the student to simply perform the good deed. As an exaggerated example, if you see someone about to be hit by an inattentive driver's vehicle, take action. *Conceptually simple* acts need not wait until after an expert level certification in emotional control. However, some care must be taken with the Mahayana approach that theoretical study is not neglected entirely!
The fascinating point is, that the two paths diverge so early that at the very outset the prospective student is faced with a circular question of "which type of Buddhist" she/he wishes to be! (I am not even going to get into the self-referential near-paradox that this decision must be made 'before one becomes a Buddhist' !) For now, let us declare both approaches as equal in objective value. Fortunately Shakyamuni Buddha himself allowed considerable leeway for any particular student to create a unique study program along the Path. My own interpretation leans roughly according to the Therevada approach, following the premise that precision of instruction is becoming more important in the internet age, and an advocate should do some work upon oneself before announcing proclomations to the larger audience. However there is a Middle Way (!) before true expert status is attained that becomes sufficient for simple advocacy.
Back to the Web approach to study! "A Few Clicks" should get someone to where they wish to begin. It is still commonly agreed that the Four Noble Truths belong right near the top of any Buddhist course of study. Put broadly:
1. Life is full of discontent
2. Existential Discontent is often caused by misunderstanding the fragility of life.
3. A change in perceptual outlook negates this discontent.
4. Putting effort into a path of discipline changes perceptual outlook.
CLICK HERE for the FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS page.
Already we have a branch! The Sokka Gakkai and related traditions declare that the next most important foundational concept is Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.
CLICK HERE for the Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo Intro Page.
The traditional Therevada approach follows the classical version of the Fouth Noble Truth that the classical disciplined path of choice is the 8-Fold Path.
1. Right Views
2. Right Thinking
3. Right Speech
4. Right Action
5. Right Lifestyle
6. Right Endeavor
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Meditation
CLICK HERE to go to the 8-Fold Path Intro Page.
Some Major Sangha Traditions
A Sangha is one of the "three jewels" of a complete Buddhist course of practice. Simply, it is a group of Buddhist practitioners who follow a specified inspirational path. There are some important modern social psychology issues emerging from the fact that the top Sanghas prefer to be very focused in their direct lineage and tend not to directly dialogue with the other Sangha tradions in the broader spirit of overall Buddhism. With "focus" comes concerns of "lock-in" effects. Not unlike the phenomenon known from the software deployment IT field, Sangha Lock-In emerges from a declaration that only specific materials are "the most correct path". The ones below are listed in very rough order of encouragement of newcomers.
Sokka Gakkai (Value Creation Society)
This Sangha is the primary proponent of the Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo chanting style of practice. One fundamental feature of the Sangha was designed to be absolutely the most reductionistic entry point into Buddhism. "If you can manage six syllables you can practice". Briefly, chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo attempts to tap into the relations of Cause and Effect delivered through the sonic harmony of chanting rather than the more popularly familiar silent meditations. The Sokka Gakkai employs a "flat practice", meaning that beyond the signature chanting practice, the next energies of practice are spent in Sangha meetings with locally selected discussion topics. The emphasis tends to be upon following leadership example rather than the study of theory.
New Kadampa (American Tibetan)
This is emerging as the leading American Tibetan branch. It may be the most theory oriented of the rising Sanghas. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has produced a suite of study component books describing an aspect of practice.
Current Zen practice seems to be conducted on a regional level. Seung Sahn's Kwan Um school has a presence in the North East US. California hosts a few Zen sanghas. Other regional groups are spread across the country.
Buddhism hosts a curious feature in that someone's introduction to the concepts may very well be in the religious philosophy section of a bookstore. Beyond the national Sangha level, it is essentially unknown for someone to first find an official representative Sangha matching a particular text on the shelf. Yet across the spread of bookstores, the same texts begin to repeat themselves! Thus some local Buddhists who perhaps already know of each other may decide to add a text to their repetoire on a unique basis. Yet the very exposure of the same spread of texts may be responsible for a deeply subconscious unity of beginning Buddhist practioners!
Beyond the specific lineage materials of the national Sanghas, the remaining spread of books forms a network on conceptual components grouped roughly by tradition. The major traditions are:
There are some works appearing describing the individual lives of teachers and students from a variety of perspectives. These works fit into the practice of leadership examples.
This final category may be the most exciting. Academic works attempt to study broadly based yet conceptually specific issues in overall Buddhism. This is the category in which I place the many "Overview" books. However, there are many import cross-disciplinary efforts emerging which would fall under this category. Among the most breathtaking are the Zen and the Brain volumes by Dr. James Austin which attempt to fill in the many notorious unclear areas of classical practice by examining neurobiological of the past few years. Still important however are the interpretive takes on the traditional concepts. Rounding out the diverse category are collations of otherwise scattered small texts across many lineage sources which are at risk of becoming otherwise lost.
This project has emerged from this last "Bookstore/Academic" orientation. Some of the works are the materials of overseas Sanghas, but for the entry level prospective American Buddhist, it truly becomes a situation of "read carefully and be ever ready to correct an error". But enough caveats!
The wonderful side of heterogenous text practice is the wonderful (and somewhat intimidating!) spread of study materials.
CLICK HERE to go to the Book List Page