My Blog of Blogs
Current and historical attempts to chronicle my life and thoughts
(more about these blogs)

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Provisional Truth

The "Front Porch" of Dharma

The Story of Buddhism (mentioned on June 22) has a long discussion on provisional vs. definitive truth. Those statements of the Buddha "that cannot be taken literally are regarded as provisional or subject to interpretation. Those that can be taken literally are regarded as definitive." (p.112) This is an aspect of upaya, the "skillful means" used by the Buddha to help followers on the path. In its most extreme form, this may involve lying; whatever it takes to bring about benefit for the hearer. I knew Taiwanese nuns in Los Angeles with a 200-word English vocabulary, but they knew the expression "white lie"!

For example, in Chapter Three of The Lotus Sutra, the Buddha tells "The Parable of the Burning House." If a man's house is on fire, and his sons are distracted inside and are not concerned about leaving, he is justified in telling them that there are three kinds of carts outside for their pleasure: one is pulled by a goat, another by a deer, and a third by an ox. In fact there are no such carts; there is just one uniform (and magnificent) kind of cart pulled by a majestic white ox. But the man had to "lie" to distract his children and get them outside. This story is a device of the Mahayana to describe why the original teachings had three vehicles and the Mahayana prescribes only one, the Buddha vehicle. In the early days the Buddha spoke of the sravaka, or hearer vehicle (the most common vehicle, for arhats); the pratyekabuddha or solitary practitioner, vehicle (for those born when no Buddha is in the world, and who discover enlightenment on their own), and the Bodhisattva vehicle, the most majestic of all--the vehicle of the Mahayana. So the Buddha had to "distract" his early hearers with the promise of various vehicles to get them going, and then presents the One Vehicle when they are ready to hear it. (In addition to the Amazon link above, the Lotus Sutra is available online.)

My Venerable Friend

Later in The Story of Buddhism, Lopez is talking about the various reasons that people have become monks--and not always the right reasons. However, he says, "It would be inappropriate to assume that one's initial motivation provided any indication of one's future success...One of the most prominent Tibetan monks of the modern period explained that he decided to enter the order because he liked the looks of the monks' robes."

This is an important idea: We all start from where we are. "Just as I am," the Christian hymn says, "I come, I come."

When I read Lopez's story, I was instantly reminded of a dear friend. She is quite a cultivated nun, who has now lived in several countries and has developed a wise perspective. But when I asked her why she had become a nun, she told me a most charming story. At the age of 19, still in her hometown in central China, she had visited a temple. She was taken with the appearance of the monks and nuns, and got it into her head that they had the ability to do the sort of magical martial arts seen in movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon--flying, walking on tree-tops, etc.

So she signed up. And she said she was in the order several years before she learned that that sort of thing doesn't really happen, but by then she had learned the real benefits of the Buddha-Dharma, so she decided to fulfill her vows, and has never looked back.

Who knows what sort of silliness might cause us to turn a corner one day and find ourselves living richer, fuller, happier lives?

* * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * *

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave me a message; I can't wait to hear from you!