The Monastic Sangha as the Torchbearer of the Buddha’s Teaching (Part III)

(Below is cited from A Talk Given by Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi at the Western Buddhist Monastic Conference held at the Bhavana Society, West Virginia, July 2006)

Therefore, the right view of karma and rebirth—of karma as a force that generates repeated existence in the round of birth and death—is the fundamental background right view against which the second type of right view derives its full meaning. The second type of right view—the higher right view that leads to liberation—is the right view of the Four Noble Truths. And now I’m going to make a statement that might again sound a little bold, but I’ll make it all the same: The Four Noble Truths cannot be taught properly, cannot be understood properly, unless they are taught and understood against the background of the right view of karma and its fruits, against the background of an understanding of how karma brings renewed existence, against the background of a comprehensive understanding of our samsaric predicament. I would add, though, as an aside, that when introducing the Buddha’s teaching to people relatively new to Buddhism, one has to make adjustments. One can’t lay the teaching of karma and rebirth on novice students as a necessary article of belief as soon as they enter the door for a first talk on Buddhism. Thus, I believe, as a general principle one can give—and indeed, one should give—what I would call an “adaptive” or “accommodative” presentation of the Four Noble Truths, as the Buddha himself did on occasion, without bringing in rebirth; one doesn’t have to frighten people away at once by bringing in teachings they aren’t prepared to accept. So one can give a psychological presentation of the four truths, showing how experiential suffering arises and ceases in relation to our craving and clinging. This will enable people to get a grip on the Buddha’s teachings as something that can be verified, at least in part, within their present experience. But once their confidence becomes established in the teaching, one should lead them on to a wider, more complete understanding of the Dharma.

Thus, I would say, if one wants to give a truly comprehensive, fully adequate explanation of the Four Noble Truths, a presentation that treats them in depth, one has to bring in the right view of karma and its fruits as the background and to treat the Four Noble Truths as a diagnosis of our samsaric predicament. If one wants to clearly explain how the five aggregates of clinging are dukkha in the deepest sense, one has to explain how these five aggregates are “acquired” again and again through our craving for new existence. If one wants to explain, again in the deepest sense, how craving functions as the second noble truth, the cause of dukkha, one has to explain how craving (taÜhÁ) is ponobhavika, productive of renewed existence. And if one wants to make it clear how the elimination of craving brings about the cessation of dukkha, of suffering, again one has to explain how the removal of craving brings the round of repeated existence to an end, leading to the unconditioned peace and freedom of nibbÁna. If one doesn’t do this for people who are ready for it, whose minds are ripe, then one is not leading them to an adequate understanding of the Dharma. If one keeps on feeding them adaptive presentations of the Dharma, feeding them teachings and practices that are designed to enrich their lives, but does not steer them towards the ultimate truth that transcends life and death, steer them towards a vision of the face of the Deathless, then one is not serving as a fully responsible transmitter of the Dharma.

What is happening today, within what is broadly called “the Theravada tradition,” is that the Dharma is being taught primarily on the basis of the equation: “Dharma equals mindfulness meditation equals bare attention.” Mindfulness meditation is thus being taken out of its original context, the context of the full Noble Eightfold Path—which includes right view as I explained it above, and also right intention as including the intention of renunciation, and right morality as including various factors of restraint over bodily and verbal behavior, and right effort as an endeavor to transform the mind through the abandoning of unwholesome qualities and the development of wholesome qualities—and it is instead being taught as a means for the heightening and intensification of experience simply through being attentive to what is occurring in the present moment. This is the way that the sense of existential malaise that I spoke of earlier is being ameliorated; this is how the alienation from direct experience is being overcome, namely, by using mindfulness meditation as a bridge to take us back to the living experience of the present moment. So because we in the West have become trapped in our conceptual constructs, because our society and civilization have become overwhelmed by our own project of trying to master the world by schemes of conceptual interpretation, we seek refuge in the non-conceptuality of bare mindfulness practice as a means to greater peace and inner fulfillment. We come back into direct contact with our own experience by paying attention to what is happening on each occasion of experience, which leads to what I call “the heightening and intensification of experience.” This mode of practice, I say, does lead to greater peace and inner freedom. What is in question, though, is whether it can intrinsically lead to the ultimate peace and perfect freedom that the practice of the Dharma is intended to bring. And the answer that I have come to, based on my own understanding, is that on its own it can’t. Right mindfulness, which is more than just bare attention, occurs in the full context of the Noble Eightfold Path, and presupposes faith, right understanding, right conduct, and various other factors.

From the fact that the practice of mindfulness meditation brings what I call “a deeper and clearer appreciation of direct experience,” I want to draw what might strike you as a startling conclusion: as long as mindfulness meditation is being taught in this way, monasticism will necessarily appear to be just one option among others. The monastic life and the household life will appear to be equally viable options; the celibate life and the life of one engaged in an ethical sexual relationship will seem equally valid ways of living in accordance with the Dharma. In fact, it might even be argued that for a Dharma practitioner the household life is actually more challenging, and therefore richer and more rewarding. Why so? Because the monastic life creates artificial boundaries between the sacred and the secular; it erects walls between the worldly and the world-transcending; it cuts one off from possibilities of new experience; it prevents one from finding new opportunities to apply mindfulness to daily life. And thus, the argument goes, it is therefore a narrower, more constricted, more constricting, more impoverished lifestyle, a more disempowering lifestyle than that of the earnest lay practitioner.

If this were true, though, there would have been no reason for the Buddha to establish a monastic order of celibate monks and nuns. To see why he did so, let us take another metaphor. Now, if one doesn’t present a broad and clear overview of the Dharma, the celibate life and the life of marital commitment within the bounds of the precepts will seem just like alternative stepping stones leading across the stream. But if one does present a broad and clear overview of the Dharma, then they won’t appear simply as alternative stepping stones. Within a comprehensive picture of the Dharma, if one knows what the “near shore” is, and what the “far shore” is, and how the different stepping stones fit together to lead from the near shore to the far shore, it will then become perfectly evident that the life of marital commitment within the bounds of the precepts is a stepping stone that is necessarily closer to the “near shore” than the celibate life, which is necessarily closer to the “far shore.” This is not to make judgments about the spiritual stature of the people involved in these lifestyles; for it is certainly the case that a person involved in a marital relationship guided by the precepts might be spiritually more advanced than a celibate person. I’m speaking not about individual cases, but about the lifestyles themselves: about celibacy vs. the ethical non-celibate life. Given that the cause of our bondage to saÕsÁra is craving, and that craving for sensual pleasures is one type of craving, and that sexual passion is one of the most powerful manifestations of sensual craving—perhaps the most powerful—it follows that to indulge in sexual passion is to bind oneself to “this shore,” the cycle of birth and death, with one of the most powerful bonds conceivable. Given that the “far shore,” or nibbÁna, is dispassion (virÁga), and that the observance of celibacy is a means to curb lust or passion (rÁga), it follows that the celibate life is potentially a more effective means towards the realization of the ultimate goal. Since monasticism is grounded upon celibacy, it therefore follows that monasticism is in principle more conducive to the ultimate goal of the Dharma than a lay life guided by the precepts. Again, this is not to make judgments about particular individuals, but simply about the broad contours of lifestyles. It might still happen that a lay person might be far more diligent than a monk or nun; it could even happen that at any time lay Buddhists as a whole are living more admirable spiritual lives than the members of the monastic Sangha. But this still does not negate my general principle.

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