Monday, June 6, 2016

To Dispel Doubts (Ask a Monk)

Leonard Price (later Ven. Nyanasobhano), Bhikkhu Tissa Dispels Some Doubts (Buddhist Publication Society via Access to Insight); Amber Larson, Dhr. Seven (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly
What does Buddhism have to offer science? (Seed
Monk (
It is near sunset on a hot summer afternoon. Outside a temple a Buddhist monk named Ven. Tissa sits quietly on a mat in the shade of a tree. Mr. Prentice, a layman, comes hiking up the road, wiping his perspiring face with a handkerchief. He sees the monk and approaches him.
MR. PRENTICE: Oh, Ven. Tissa, I was hoping I'd find you here.
VEN. TISSA: Good afternoon, Mr. Prentice.

Man comes to see Ven. Matthieu Ricard.
PRENTICE: You remember my name. I wasn't sure if you would. I've come around the temple every now and then — just out of curiosity, mainly.
TISSA: Is it curiosity that brings you here now?

PRENTICE: I guess you could say that. Isn't this heat awful?
TISSA: Sit down, Mr. Prentice. There's plenty of lawn.

PRENTICE: Ah, so there is. Thank you.

He looks around doubtfully then settles in the shade at a respectful distance.

I'm a bit worn out. It's kind of a long walk from my house. I wonder if you might have time to answer some questions?
TISSA: I'll try. What's on your mind?

Can Buddhism be practiced on a lawn in Central Asia? Sure (
PRENTICE: In a word, Buddhism.
TISSA: All of it?

Remember your questions? (
PRENTICE: Ha, ha, no. It's just that I've been doing some reading — plus hearing an occasional lecture here — and I must say I find Buddhism very attractive, at least in theory. It's very cool, rational, and scientific in its explanations of reality. I can appreciate that. I like to think I'm a man of science. The Buddhist analysis of mind and matter appears to me almost like a scientific investigation. But the other part, the religious part, gives me trouble.
TISSA: You're a great admirer of science, are you, Mr. Prentice?

The Buddha was born in Central Asia.
PRENTICE: Oh yes, no question.
TISSA: Could it be that you appreciate Buddhism in proportion as it resembles science?

PRENTICE: Uh, well, possibly.
TISSA: If that's so, why not stay with the real article? Why bother with Buddhism?

PRENTICE: Well, of course, science lacks a... It lacks...
TISSA: The religious part?

Shaolin monks, Kung Fu Monastery, Hunan Province, China (Ana Paola Pineda/
Monk fights back against police (ki-media).
PRENTICE: Exactly. You see, venerable sir, the problem is this. Much as I like what I know of Buddhism, much as I approve of it intellectually, I find it difficult to actually commit myself to it as a religious discipline. I have too many doubts. I admire the philosophy, but I suppose I just can't take it seriously.
TISSA: Seriousness is precisely the difference between philosophy and religion. The philosopher deals in expendable theories; the religious person puts one's own life on the line.

PRENTICE: And that's exactly what I'm not prepared to do.
TISSA: Many people feel that way.

PRENTICE: And yet — it's what I'd like to do. To be serious. To put my life on the line. The trouble is I don't have any motivation.
TISSA: Hmm, how far is it from your house to here?
PRENTICE: Oh, eight or ten blocks, I suppose.
TISSA: And you walked eight or ten blocks on a hot afternoon to tell me you don't have any motivation?
Good tiger (
PRENTICE: Ah, good point!
TISSA: Buddhist discipline begins and ends with self-examination. Buddhist philosophy or theory, if you will, instructs us how to carry out that examination and the efforts that follow. We can read the philosophy all we want, but if we don't practice it — if we don't take the medicine, so to speak — it won't do anything for us. Now, you tell me that you've been reading Buddhist literature, and you say you have doubts. What specifically is troubling you?
PRENTICE: Nothing specific, I think. Just general doubts keep me from taking the medicine. To put it bluntly, Why should I undertake what promises to be a horrendously hard discipline of meditation and religious observances and so on? What will I get out of it?
TISSA: First of all, a "horrendously hard discipline" will by itself accomplish nothing.

Karmapa and Dalai Lama (wiseattention)
PRENTICE: Nothing?!
TISSA: You should get rid of the notion of investing an effort in order to get something in return.

PRENTICE: I don't understand.
TISSA: We've already "got" more than we can handle — namely, suffering. We follow the teachings of the Buddha in order to get rid of suffering. Most people don't understand this important point. They think that they have to try to acquire something — wisdom or knowledge or freedom.
Mahayana Buddhist monk at peace in a field of daisies (Yi Jue/
PRENTICE: But the Buddha does speak of wisdom and knowledge and freedom and so on. Aren't these things worthwhile?
TISSA: Certainly. But they are not objects to be grasped at as we habitually grasp at things we desire. The highest truth is not a prize to be seized. IT is here all the time. Buddhist discipline aims at removing the obstructions that prevent our seeing the truth. The practitioner must certainly make an effort, but he should not try to "get" anything by his effort.
PRENTICE: It seems paradoxical to me.
TISSA: Only because you are accustomed to the ordinary way of doing things — a way which, I might guess, has not brought you the happiness you seek.
PRENTICE: Perhaps you're right about that. Let me rephrase my question. I mean, even though I appreciate Buddhist thought, I don't feel motivated to actually commit myself to it. Why should I just... leap into the dark, so to speak?
TISSA: You should not leap into the dark under any circumstances.

The first part of the famous Kalama Sutra
PRENTICE: But isn't that what Buddhism demands? A leap of faith, anyway.
TISSA: Absolutely not. Blind hope or blind faith won't help you in the least.

PRENTICE: Then what reason do I have to...
TISSA: Ah, there's the word — reason. You see, Mr. Prentice, the practicing-Buddhist needs reason founded on direct insight. The two go together. Don't believe out of mere hope. Don't believe from abstract logic. Don't believe what you can't see clearly for yourself.
  • [This is the first message of the Buddha's Kalama Sutra. Although this discourse is frequently cited as the Buddha's encouragement to follow one's own sense of right and wrong, it actually says something much more rigorous than that. Traditions are not to be followed simply because they are traditions.] 
PRENTICE: There's very little I can see. I certainly can't see enlightenment ahead, I can't see nirvana.
TISSA: And what can you see, Mr. Prentice?
PRENTICE (after a troubled pause): My own confusion. My uncertainty. My unhappiness.
PRENTICE: I don't want to sound grandiose, but I see, well, suffering — at least my own suffering.

Ven. Tissa is silent. Mr Prentice continues haltingly:
Science confirms happiness (
I don't mean to say I have any kind of penetrating vision. I just have this recognition that things aren't the way they ought to be, that I'm getting older but not any wiser, that something is wrong in the world or in me. I'd like to do something about it. I'd like to get free from this confusion, this...

Well, what word can I use but "suffering"? I suppose that's why I got interested in Buddhism — because it talks about suffering and the way to the end of suffering. If some kind of deliverance is really possible, I'd like to achieve it. More

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