From Sutra

And then the Buddha said, “Get out of my face, monks.”

Or an analysis of Lay Responsibility

Earlier today I picked up my copy of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Majjhima Nikaya and saw an index card jutting out from within the pages. I flipped to the proper place and found MN 67, the Catuma Sutta, and remembered I had set it aside because I wanted to talk about it here.

There isn’t a satisfactory translation available online, so let me summarize: The Buddha is residing near the city of Catuma when he overhears a group of monks being particularly noisy. He calls the monks before him and dismisses them, telling them to leave because they are too loud.

As the group of monks is leaving, the local villagers see them walking away with their heads hung low. Some of these villagers then go before the Buddha and implore him to allow the monks to return, so that they can live near the Buddha and be trained properly. The Brahma Sahampati shows up and makes a similar plea to add a divine component – the Buddha relents, lets the monks return, and then gives a more formal teaching on some of the dangers of the monastic life.

What I love about this sutta is the way it depicts the relationship between the lay and monastic communities, and how it speaks to certain responsibilities that modern communities somewhat neglect.

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A Funny Thing: Karma as Ontology and Ethics

Karma: it’s a funny thing.

I have been meaning to respond to my partner’s post on Karma for quite some time- aside from raising questions about whether the earthquake was a result of China’s karma or not, and whether it is proper to say that a disaster is caused by karma or not, I feel it begs the larger question about if this type of discussion is even productive.

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It; The Shobogenzo

Recently, I have found myself doing something that I had hoped for but had never thought possible: reading the Shobogenzo and loving it.

Let me explain. I have a long standing difficulty with koans because they are commonly [and perhaps unfairly] characterized as having an alien logic all their own, designed to allow those who consider them to escape their wordly views which are immersed in duality and come to the realization of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all that is and ever will be and thus gain all kinds of groovy zen powers…

*ahem*

I’m sure that much of this is true, but what I find unhelpful is English translations that play up grammatical ambiguities in Chinese and Japanese for overflowing obtuseness and maximum mysticality. While these problems are assuredly reduced by a good student-teacher relationship, a parable that cannot be understood doesn’t have a whole lot of value.

To explain: on one occasion I stopped inside a Tower Records which was going out of business and, while passing the vastly marked down book section, found a modest collection of Buddhist books. I picked up a translation of the Chinese Shobogenzo, a collection of koans collected by Dogen, founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism. Though this translation featured some ambiguity, the translator’s original commentary attempted to resolve these by layering on further flowery confusion. Consider this excerpt from the commentary on the much cited koan “Juzhi holds up one finger:”

“…Although the boy lost a finger, he gained his nostils. Don’t you see? The truth of Juzhi’s teachings is not to be found in the finger. This being the case, you tell me, if the truth is not in the finger, then where is it?”

I’m not sure, but this editor has decided not to include anything so silly as the answer in his commentary.

So such has been the case with me and koans, and my experience with the Shobogenzo. That is why Shasta Abbey’s Rev. Hubert Nearman’s translation of the Shobogenzo has been such a delight.

The Reverend’s translation is thoughtful, analytical, and helpful. When linguistic ambiguities are resolved, they are done so consistently, providing an overarching reading designed to develop understanding. The Reverend also takes care to tell you what it is he is resolving, so you can revisit those ambiguities on your own if you like.

It has been a great joy to read, and I hope to mention it more as I continue onward. I would recommend the translator’s introduction to anyone interested in truth and good writing from any walk of life with variable leanings towards the Dharma.

Searching for the Sound

Recently I had the opportunity to look over a manuscript of a collection of Buddhist parables that was going through the editing process. I was reading a plain spoken rendition of the Sutra to Vacchagotta on Fire, when something just didn’t seem right.

One thing I noticed is that the story from the manuscript I was reading used the Sanskrit rendering, Vacagotra, instead of the Pali which I am more used to. But that wasn’t it. There was something more.

The Buddha didn’t sound quite right.

It is a funny thing to think, because to even make that sort of assumption, one would have to have the borderline arrogant idea of what the Buddha should sound like. Yet I found that I did have certain expectations, and this translation of a loose and lucid retelling didn’t carry the same firm but compassionate nobility that I had become used to.

This string of wonderings made me realize that the Buddha has many voices folded into one in the Sutras. The Buddha is caring without being syrupy. He speaks with a seriousness that comes through even in his humor, when we laugh because something has been described so accurately, not because reason and expectations have been bent here and there. But more than anything, the Buddha is apt- he speaks what is beautiful, what is beneficial, at the right time with the right phrasing.

I’m not sure that I would have been able to notice these elements so much if I did not encounter a portion in which they were lacking. That voice, that cadence, is such a comfort to me that I feel it very much when it is not there, and it is a comfort to be able to know it.

What is the Buddha’s voice to you?