Images of folks: some children, Islamic boarding school students, Buddhist Sunday school students, men in prayer, and a teacher of Krishnamurti vipassana meditation (Hudoyo Hupodio)
Sulak Sivaraksa on Buddhist Ecumenism
Today I accidentally encountered Sulak Sivaraksa at my school. Was very fortunate not to have missed his talk despite its not being advertised ahead of time!
At the 43:25 mark of the video, he calls on me. I ask the following:
Q: In relation to your comment that it’s not okay to just be focusing on inner stability and peace, that we have to radiate it outward—that, from a very traditional, or the common understanding between Theravada and Mahayana in this country, people tend to see the difference between the arhat and the bodhisattva and say that Theravadans don’t care about anyone else, they’re just concerned with their own salvation or their own awakening, and they aren’t concerned with anyone else.
I’m curious if you see your understanding as a traditional Theravadan view or do you feel that it has been influenced by the northern teachings? Could you respond to that? I don’t necessarily agree with that distinction, I’m just curious.
A: I think that is the usual Mahayana slander against Theravada. Theravada = small vehicle, which is true. Very small vehicle, small beautiful! To say that Theravada only care for yourself is not possible. Because the Buddha’s teaching on anatta is selflessness, not selfishness. And the Buddha teaches, in all schools, that we are interconnected.
In my last exile, I was teaching at Ryukoku University in Kyoto. Before I left there, I had to give one formal lecture. Hundreds of people came to my lecture, interpretation, and they were surprised. Theravada—we thought you only care for yourself, but what you’re talking is very similar to us. All schools of Buddhism have something very similar. Different stress, that’s all. So, Mahayana is sometimes special. Theravada sometimes special. But if you stress on the wrong thing, it could be wrong. If Theravada says, we are the only authentic [Buddhism], Pali is the sacred language spoken by the Buddha. It’s all bullshit. The Buddha never spoke Pali. I think one has to be honest, and we have to learn from Mahayana, Vajrayana, Theravada.
The uniqueness of Thich Nhat Hanh, he’s from Vietnam, he understands Mahayana, Chinese, Sanskrit, he also studied Pali. He’s from Vietnam [Mahayana country], which is next to Cambodia [Theravada country]. We all have to learn from each other.
Is it a philosophy or a religion?
If Buddhism simply is a set of broadly construed ideas and ideals—the truth of emptiness, the value of contemplation, the cultivation of a compassionate heart and nonviolent action—then to ‘be Buddhist’ in the midst of postmodernity is not difficult at all; what is more, the very generality of these ideas and ideals means that Buddhism itself becomes a virtually unrestricted tradition, such that, as Jorge Luis Borges puts it ‘[a] good Buddhist can be a Lutheran or Methodist or Presbyterian or Calvinist or Shintoist or Taoist or Catholic; he may be a proselyte of Islam or of the Jewish religion, all with complete freedom.’ Conversely, to the degree that he or she values emptiness, contemplation, and compassion, the Lutheran, Taoist or Jew—or, for that matter, the secular humanist—may with equal conviction claim to be a Buddhist. If that is all there is to it, if Buddhism is simply an infinitely protean postmodern philosophy, then it is little more than a cipher, bereft of distinctive content, applicable everywhere, hence nowhere. If, on the other hand, Buddhism is understood as not just an ideology but a religion, then it is not enough simply to subscribe to certain general ideas or values of Buddhist provenance, and declare oneself a Buddhist; rather, one must, to quote Borges again, ‘feel the four noble truths and the eightfold path,’ tell the Buddha’s story, do the things that Buddhists always have done; one must, in short, form one’s life through the myths, symbols, metaphors, and ritual acts of Buddhist tradition. And, to the degree that from a postmodern perspective not just religions, but ideological systems and analytical processes, too, are understood to be human constructions rooted in myths, symbols, metaphors, and ritual acts, philosophy itself never can be self-sufficient, for it turns out to be inextricable from mythopoetic processes fundamental to human language, thought and society. In this sense, being Buddhist in postmodernity begins to look a lot like being Buddhist in a traditional setting — but without the philosophical certainty.
—Roger R. Jackson, “In Search of a Postmodern Middle” in Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars
(Note: Borges quotes taken from Seven Nights)
Empathetic awareness of another’s suffering calls for a response that is driven not by the conceit of knowing what is the right thing to do in general, but by the courageous humility to risk what may be the most wise and loving thing to do in that particular case.
Interested in Buddhism but don’t know where to begin?
A recent question in my inbox reminded me that I have responded to variations on this question on a few occasions and so I thought it might be nice to share the links with you in case you’re wondering the same.
- How do I start a personal meditation practice?
- Where to start/What to read?
- Is a blog a good place to learn?
- Is it possible to learn and become a Buddhist through self-study and meditation?