Buddhism or Dhamma-Vinaya: Just Labels?

Below is a note I wrote back in mid 2011.  Reposted here for sharing.

Decided to put this as a note instead of a comment to a note [1] written by “Ehi Passiko”.  Last year (2010), I conducted a meditation retreat for this Jewish family with Jewish and Catholic members in their family house in Turin, Italy.

One recurring question that came up was how they can practise Buddhism while continuing their Jewish tradition.  I shared with them that it is not the Buddhist way to convert people wholesale, rather whatever aspects of our life that leads to greed, hatred and delusion should be given up.

For them, the Jewish tradition is more than a religion, it is a culture in its own.  It is akin to asking a Chinese to stop
being a Chinese because he wants to be a Buddhist.  hmmm … that may well explain why Chinese cultures and festives are practiced where possible without conflict within Buddhist communities and temples.

Having said that, if we assume that the Buddha was not into labels etc, we would be quite wrong.  The Buddha set down certain rules for the Sangha to maintain the distinction with the other ascetics.  While many concerns discipline pertaining to the practice, others concerned outer forms so that lay disciples would not confuse them with others.

If the teachings are taught, adopted by other religions, and practiced up to stream entry, sotapanna or even Arahant-hood, then there is no fear, for Ven. Susima [2] despite entering the order for the wrong reasons, upon penetrating into the truth, naturally gave up the wrong ways.  He would not continue what he and his counterparts had intended, to use the Dharma to get lay support but continue their own practices.

If other religions adopt the teachings and practices without attributing it to the Buddha’s discovery of it, and do not reach fruition, then a few things may happen.  Say a person with a god centric religion practices part of the Dharma, but maintains their holy scriptures.  If we say that labels are not important, then it is quite ok for Buddhists to then go to Churches to pray to God, interpreting God in a certain way in line with the Noble Eightfold Path.  In fact that is what some Jews, Catholics and Christians are doing.  But if they do not revise or review their scriptures, later generations may slowly get confused over the two, assuming that they are the same or end up assimilating the Dharma into theirs.  The trick is whether later generations will be interpreting their scriptures in line with the Noble Eightfold Path or the Noble Eightfold Path (and the Dharma) in line with their God-centric teachings.

Such two way assimilation has occurred in India, China and most countries where Buddhism is adopted as a major religion.  In some cases, such as India, Buddhism got so assimilated that it became indistinguishable, Buddha even became a manifestation of the Hindhu God.  The Buddhist teachings became more and more interpreted in line with Atman-centric, Brahman-centric teachings than in line with what the Buddhat taught.

In China, some would likewise argue that the one to two millenium of exchanges has integrated Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.  While the three are sometimes practiced unanimously in Chinese temples, the monastic tradition in China maintained a certain level of purity in the teachings while adopting localised changes to the facade and expressions of the teachings in terms of the language of the text, chanting, robes, etc.  This allows us today to bridge the Northern tradition with the Southern tradition through the teachings and discern that which is core Dharma practices or cultural practices.  I’m not an authority in Thai Buddhism to comment, but I wonder how much of Thai-Buddhist amulets are due to integration with indigenious religion or hindhu-brahministic practices or vajrayana practices.

Will dropping Buddhist labels lead to harmony and peace?  Take a look at countries and regions world wide that do not have Buddhist lables but has singular predominant religion in place.  I do not see much of harmony and peace.  Perhaps dropping all labels and practising the Noble Eightfold Path is key.  But will others drop their labels and do so?

I’ll keep my robes and label as a monk for the time being and practise the Noble Eightfold path.

Footnote: There is the teaching on the “Simile of the Raft”, where one should not cling onto the Dharma even as one do not cling onto the raft after crossing the river.  While we are unenlightened, we need the Dharma-Vinaya and the labels that points to and describes it.  If we discard it before we attain enlightenment, it would be like discarding the raft before crossing the river. *