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Tony's Dharma Pages

Renunciation and Gratitude
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Buddhism Essays
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China Garden

There are two main forms of Buddhism today. I respect both and think any genuine vehicle of the Dharma is sufficient, but I can’t claim to be without biases. To understand the difference between the two, here is a brief history.

Early Buddhism developed 18 different schools, mostly based on minor distinctions regarding the Buddha’s teachings. They were primarily monastic and scholastic, though there are also forest traditions, which still exist today, with wondering monks adhering to the early model of the Buddha.

Since the Buddha did not write down his teachings, there was a council established by all of his followers (Sangha) after his death to determine what he said, what credible people reported that he said, and what was just hearsay or false teachings. His cousin, close friend, and attendant Ananda, known for his prodigious memory, was able to recite his most important teachings in detail.

More councils were held in a span of a few hundred years. They debated monastic rules and finer points of doctrine, as well as establishing metaphysical formulations to explain the Dharma (Abhidharma). Buddhism had schisms at this point due to disagreements over rules and doctrine. A reform movement eventually led to an emphasis on universal salvation in Indian Buddhism, both devotion in monasteries to the path of the Bodhisattvas, and later lay devotion to Bodhisattvas and Buddhas. New sutras (or new interpretations) emerged, starting in south India, and later in the north, along with new forms of practice.


These Buddhists called these approaches “Mahayana” (great vehicle) to distinguish themselves from the “Hinayana” (narrow vehicle). Today Mahayana is an umbrella of sects to the north and east of India, including Vajrayana (Tantra) in Tibet, Cha’n and Pure Land in China and Vietnam, Nichiren, Shin, Shingon and Tendai in Japan, and versions of Cha’n in Korea (Seon) Vietnam (Thien) and Japan (Zen). Philosophical and devotional forms of Mahayana exist with rich cosmologies, iconography and art, and a variety of meditation techniques/objects. Both Chinese and Tibetan sects have a thorough record of the Agamas (early texts) as well as later sutras written in Sanskrit. 

The original 18 schools in India eventually disappeared, except one. A modified form moved south to Sri Lanka and became known as the “Theravada” (way of the elders). Theravada is now found mainly in Southeast Asia, and has preserved the Agamas and other teachings written in Pali, a folk language, which sounds similar to Sanskrit, the standard language used in Indian religion (except in the south). The Pali Canon is divided into three baskets: doctrine (Suttas, or the discourses of the Buddha), rules and precepts (Vinaya), and the Abhidharma.

Theravada and Mahayana have both lay-practitioners and monks (and some nuns). Some Mahayana sects, particularly in Japan, have lay priests, and Zen, like Theravada, is primarily monastically based. All genuine vehicles of Buddhism see the Dharma, as the Buddha did, as founded upon wisdom and compassion. Theravada tends to focus on moral renunciation, concentration, insight, and jhana meditation (the eightfold path) as a precondition for awakening and virtue. Mahayana tends to focus on compassion, insight into emptiness, and the reality of our inherent Buddha-nature, as the precondition for awakening.

While there is rarely any serious discord between Theravada or Mahayana vehicles, misunderstandings can arise, so this is my attempt to defend both points of view in light of common critiques.

Defense of the Theravada View

Heroic emphasis on enlightenment can lead to a separation from this life and its active responsibilities and a radical undervaluing of the sacred wisdom of ordinary human life. . . . We can no longer afford this flight into transcendence because it is part of the reason why no one has intervened to stop the ruin and devastation of nature.

– Andrew Harvey

Most spiritual paths that I know of begin with some form of renunciation. This is not just done to earn merit from a cosmic Lord by denying ourselves pleasure, although it sometimes is, but is also born out of a practical need to shift our lifestyle and priorities, for the good of all.

Let’s apply this to the environmental situation, in response to Harvey’s critique. Inaction did not cause devastation of the ecosystem, action did. That means we should act as quickly as possible to correct it, right? A quick response is required, yes, but not a careless one. Complex problems deserve more than superficial answers. There is a danger of getting lost in armchair theorizing and tedious planning committees if we adopt this attitude, but the best minds in the field are already providing us with solutions. What we need, first and foremost, is to not act.

What could I possibly mean by that? I mean restraint. Reassess your relationship to the environment. Don’t buy disposable junk you don’t need. Don’t pollute – body, mind, or environment. Don’t burn more fossil fuels. Don’t continue to fund unscrupulous corporations. Don’t make your carbon footprint any larger. In short, disengage, as much as is realistically possible, from the consumer tread-mill, if it is unsustainable.

Inaction is not the sole means of solving the eco-crisis. Spiritual paths usually involve some form of positive action; mindful action in which we contribute something useful to our world. Instead of throwing away our garbage, we can recycle. In addition to not cutting down more trees, we can plant new ones. There are many things we can do. But without restraint from that which is harmful, the benefits of these actions will be canceled out.

Defense of the Mahayana View

If… you see emptiness as the ground of being to which we’re all going to return, then what need is there to train the mind in concentration and discernment, since we’re all going to get there anyway? And even if we need training to get back to our ground of being, what’s to keep us from coming out of it and suffering all over again? So in all these scenarios, the whole idea of training the mind seems futile and pointless.

– Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The Bhikkhu makes a compelling case in his essay on emptiness that treating it as a mere idea (rather than a direct realization) does not properly train the mind the way Buddhism is supposed to. In a similar essay, he argues that nirvana should not be understood as a place, but rather as the end of a process – clinging to phenomena, and with it the creation of karma. By the same token, although “samsara” is often used interchangeably with “the world,” it is actually a series of actions. 

Here he deconstructs the distinction made in Mahayana philosophy between “nirvana-with-remainder” (the private release from samsara by the Arhat) and “nirvana-without-remainder” (full realization beyond duality, the collapse of samara into nirvana understood by the Bodhisattva).

According to some Mahayana philosophers, nirvana-with-remainder is an impermanent state. Thus it’s a mistake to aim for liberation for oneself while neglecting the liberation of other sentient beings, according to them. Thanissaro rebuts that if we define nirvana, as the Buddha did, as liberation from clinging to, or identifying with, manifestation at all, then it could never be incomplete. From this point of view, it’s illogical to assume that there could be two types of nirvana, or that samsara and nirvana could merge into one reality.

I think the issue is even more subtle than that, though. In response to the question of what’s to keep one from leaving nirvana and suffering all over again, the answer is: nothing. It does not follow, however, that the spiritual journey is pointless. Total liberation means we are not just free to enjoy this gift by ourselves, but are free to share it with others. If we decide not to permanently disappear into a “ground of being,” so be it. The unbound mind, or Buddha-nature, does not cease to be available to us. This is the “name that calls” in Shin Buddhist affirmation. 

My first Buddhist teacher, Thich Tri Hoang, pointed out that the statue of the Bodhisattva of Mercy (in Chinese, the goddess Kuan Yin) looks sad, as she is involved with the suffering of all beings. Although we may not notice it, on the inside she is smiling. Compassion and wisdom are mutually supportive.

The Buddha himself spent 40 years teaching the Dharma (even though he was initially tempted to not share it, due to the possibility that no one else would understand), not only with his teachings, but through his own example. Why presume that his enlightened state – if it is the same potential in all of us  is limited? Enlightenment can be contagious, and there are many vehicles to spread it.  

The Parable of the Poison Arrow

Thanissaro Bhikkhu has demonstrated that emptiness in Buddhism is not merely a metaphysical doctrine, but a mode of perception. Hold nothing, material or mental, as “I,” “me,” or “mine” and you will be freed. This is not just a theory, it is a practice.

The Buddha himself stressed the need for practicality on the path. In answer to a student who said he would only join his sangha if he told him whether the universe was created or uncreated, stable or impermanent, he replied with a parable. Suppose a man was shot with a poison arrow. If he insisted on not being treated by a physician until he knew what town the doctor was from, what material of the arrow is made of, or other questions unrelated to the task of removing the arrow, he would die before getting his answers. Similarly, we should focus on how to attain freedom, rather than speculate on what it is intellectually. 

However, this oft cited parable does not mention what the man does after the arrow is pulled out. Wouldn’t it be natural to show gratitude toward his helpers? And should he not gain insight from this experience of salvation?

To me, this is what the religious and philosophical aspects of Mahayana are all about – gratitude, and sympathetic resonance – a sense of inter-relatedness with all of our fellow beings. This, from the Mahayana point of view, is where real wisdom comes from, apart from the discernment developed in contemplation, however necessary. The trajectory of life goes on, and we can be grateful awakening is possible whenever we lose ourselves in samsara.