Thursday, 21 April 2016

The Koan of Tradition

Nepal - In the Morning Light, Kapilavastu (9239973510)

An aspect of Meditation in the Wild (Rusty Ring review here) that I greatly appreciated was author Charles S. Fisher's relentless pursuit of verifiable history in our practice models. This, as he points out, is hard to come by, given the piecemeal nature of early Buddhist documentation. Nevertheless, Fisher found many thought-provoking differences between current teaching and historical fact; I listed several in my review.

But I left out the most compelling, for more thorough consideration later:

The Shakyas, Fisher says, had no king.

Let that settle in for a minute. This is the approximate Buddhist equivalent of saying that Christ wasn't poor. It throws shade on a central element of our world view, and poses some provocative questions.

And as it turns out, my brother Charles was precise: not only were Gautama's people – a northern nation called the Shakyas – democratic, they weren't even Brahmins. In other words, the entire Buddhic origin story is false; Gautama was not in fact a prince. Nor was he a member of the immutable, unattainable Indian overclass. He was probably a Kshatriya, that is, an ordinary citizen, albeit at the top of the common heap.

The Sākyans evidently had no king. Theirs was a republican form of government, probably with a leader, elected from time to time. The administration and judicial affairs of the gotta [clan] were discussed in their Santhāgāra…
(Note that final word, which clearly shares etymology with "sangha".)

I suggest that this inconvenient truth is in fact a gift, and that employing authentic Zen don't-know-mind will smelt it into usable gold. Therefore, may I respectfully suggest we question ourselves on this matter – without, as is our practice, answering – in the following vein:

  • How does our renewed knowledge of the Buddha's true origins change our understanding of his perspectives and motivations?

  • Why did we change the story?

  • What does it mean that we changed the story?

  • How does the factual version challenge us?

  • Scare us?

  • Uplift us?

  • How about the mythical version?

  • Are we required to correct this misconception?

  • In what ways might the "enhanced" story endanger authentic practice?

  • Can facts endanger authentic practice?

  • Can both versions coexist in our practice?

  • If so, how?

  • If not, what are we called to do, as individual Zenners?

  • Is this a problem?

And so on.

Peace and progress to the nation of seekers.

(Photo of morning in Kapilavastu, Nepali city of the Buddha's birth, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)
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