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Sunday, July 23, 2006


The Role of Challenge in Chinese Buddhism

[NOTE: I wrote this piece a couple of days after the the events described. It reflected a certain understanding; the next post, "That's Debatable," reflects a modification of these views. However, I felt this piece still had some provocative ideas, so I have let it stand as originally written.]

As we drove from the airport to the hotel last Friday night, Mr. Wu and I shared stories and ideas from our respective Buddhist studies. Several times during our discussion, Diego translated Mr. Wu's response to my assertions as, "My father says that can't be true."

My impression is that the assertion of a differing interpretation is unacceptable. As reported previously, when I said that the triad in a Main Hall could be Amitofo-Shakyamuni-Great Sun, Mr. Wu was adamant that that could not be so.

How adamant? Well, the phrase that Diego was gently translating "My father says that can't be true" was in fact "Bu shi!"--roughly equivalent to "No way!"

Venerable Hui Jing: "No!"

My great friend Venerable Hui Jing, the administrator of Huayan Temple, spoke only one word of English all week, and that he spoke repeatedly. It was a much better translation of "Bu Shi" than Diego's. He simply said "No!" with a dismissive wave of his hand, and sometimes a little stomp of the foot for emphasis.

Poor Diego was nervous that I might be offended by all this rejection; I told him to stop worrying, that in fact I greet this sort of reaction as a chance to learn. When I float a story to a sophisticated layman like Mr. Wu, or a monk like Hui Jing, I'm looking for either confirmation, or for alternatives. This method adds immensely to my "stock" of stories, lists of teachings, etc.

For example: On one of my first days there Diego, Venerable Hui Jing, and I were standing exactly between the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower in the courtyard. I decided to send up a trial balloon and see what happened. So I made my assertion. The bell and drum were interesting, I said; the steady drone of a struck bell was like the undivided nature of eternity, while the "thock-thock-thock" of the drum imitated time. To pass between time and eternity was to follow the Middle Way, which led directly, literally to the Buddha (that is, the Buddha seated in the center of the Main Buddha Hall).

A typical temple layout

"No!" cried the monk. He never got around to challenging the "pass between" idea, so I don't know how he felt about it. But he had alternate explanations for both the bell and drum.

The bell, he said, with its serene tone, is a call to prayer. And the use of a drum in temples dates back to a macabre story. A wicked man repented just before death; and he asked that his skin be made into the head of a drum, so that every time someone beat it, people would be reminded of the laws of cause and effect, which would hopefully encourage them to be kinder to one another. ( An aside: I've always loved this quote from Aldous Huxley, a heroic dabbler in spiritual things: "It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than 'Try to be a little kinder.'")

So Venerable Hui Jing rejected my "perennialist" expression of truth in exchange for a more specific tradition. But my mind tends to work in synthesizing ways; so when he says "serene" and "call to prayer," I think that serenity is an attribute of eternity, and prayer is the business of eternity. As for the story of the drum: It is a beautiful illustration of my point. This "cause and effect" we are to be reminded of is a process in time, and cannot take place in eternity where "everything happens at once."

One of "Uncle Joe" Campbell's central ideas was the exploration of the relationship between Elementary (or universal) ideas and and Folk (or ethnic) ideas. My use of "eternity" and "time"--universal concepts--were generalizations of the monk's more localized imagery.

Let's put it this way:

A bell has certain fixed qualities, expressed in many ways.

One of these fixed qualities, at least in the case of a large, sonorous bell, is the steadfast, unbroken nature of its tone. This speaks naturally of eternity. "Prayer" is one of the many ways this can be discussed. Likewise:

A drum has certain fixed qualities, expressed in many ways.

One of these fixed qualities is the discrete nature of its sound. It is vastly different from the bell's continuous tone, ringing off into the distance. And so its sound can remind us of the passage of time and all its artifacts, like the ticking of a clock. A story about cause and effect is one of the many ways this can be discussed.

At its best, a strong tradition can have many benefits. It's like knowing one's scales on the piano, which is the basis of later improvisation. Or, to take an example from my field, I love the fact that I have taught the same lessons many times over; this allows me to concentrate on the efforts of individual students, without worrying about what I am going to do or say next. There is security in a tradition, and this security gives one the confidence to stretch one's wings.

On Saturday night, I attended a service of chant and meditation. During one part of the chant there was a kind of "follow-the-leader" clockwise perambulation around the Buddha in the main hall. When we had been standing, we had held our hands with palms joined at chest height. Once the walking started, a lady was nudging me to point out that I should lower my hands to a gently clasped position in front of the belly. Dang, I thought, why do I have to do it her way? But as we continued to walk, I noticed I was the only one with my hands up; it wasn't her way, but theirs. When Diego stepped forward to give me the same little scold, I lowered my hands.

This, I think, is a China/America difference. We are a "do your own thing" people, a "tossed salad" where all the different styles mingle, yet maintain their own characters. My temple in L.A. had members from all over the world; this temple had members from all over one province of China!

When I was working 20 hours a week in the Bodhisattva Hall of Hsi Lai Temple, I once set myself the task of observing how people bowed to the images. I thought that by doing so, I could learn the "correct" way. I discovered that there was no one way; even amongst the Fo Guang Shan monastics, most of whom are from Taiwan, there was plenty of variation. I am quite sure that a similar trial in this temple would yield more unified results.

"Truth is One, yet the sages call it by many names": so how could there be "one right way" to do something? That smacks of fundamentalism. yet, when one knows where one's hands go, the mind is freed to think on higher things. There is no detriment in exhibiting unity.

In fact, I eventually became careful not to draw too many "nos" from the monk, for fear that he might decide I was heterodox (which I guess I am, in a way) and prevent me from teaching the kids.

But later in the day, I received warm expressions of acceptance, and the week went off without a hitch.

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