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DharmaWorm: Reading the Dharma

by Paul Griffin

In Buddhism, the three avenues to understanding are study, reflection, and meditation.  To study is to listen to the teachings and to read the texts.  To reflect is to think about the material and to make it your own.  In this DharmaWorm blog series, I want to discuss what I’m currently reading.  A quick search on for “dharma” books yields 21,717 options, while a search for “Buddhism” calls up 80,636 books (a search for “meditation” connects you to a mind-numbing 251,665 books–a quarter of a million books on meditation!).  In other words, the sea of dharma books in our culture is deep and treacherous.  I want to be a tenacious and steadfast swimmer of this sea–I’d like one day to reach the other side. 


Lastly, I’d like to note that the idea of this series is not to indulge in the marketplace of dharma, not to flit about from idea to idea searching for my foundation (full disclosure: I already have my teacher, Reggie Ray, and I highly recommend all his books, particularly Indestructible Truth).  Rather, my purpose in this series is to take the evolution of Buddhism in the West seriously, as a scholar and a devoted practitioner, and to try to bring insight and clarity to the myriad of discourses that any good book gives rise to.

Buddhism Without Beliefs, by Stephen Batchelor
The Dhammapada, translated by Ananda Maitreya, foreword by Thich Nhat Hanh
Buddhist Saints in India, by Reggie Ray
The Best Guide To Eastern Philosophy and Religion, Diane Morgan
Ken Wilber


Buddhism Without Beliefs, by Stephen Batchelor
Natural Wakefulness, by Gaylon Ferguson

My friend Leslie sent me Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs in the mail the other day.  She also sent an hour long lecture of his on CD, which I especially enjoyed because of Batchelor’s fine English accent.  Batchelor, a former monk in both the Tibetan and Zen traditions, now a committed nondenominational Buddhist, teaches a pragmatic and agnostic form of Buddhism that would jettison much of traditional Buddhist beliefs, such as karma and reincarnation…


I’ve only read half of Batchelor’s controversial book.  I’ll finish it this week and blog about it again next week.  But what I’ve gathered so far is that Batchelor’s emphasis is on the pragmatic aspects of Buddhism.  He stresses that the Buddha himself spoke not of some mystical, transcendent experience known only by a privileged few, but rather of “having discovered complete freedom of the heart and mind from the compulsions of craving.”  Batchelor stresses practice, that Buddhism is something you do, not something you believe in. 

His language echoes that of modern science, psychology, and philosophy.  Instead of the word “suffering”, Batchelor resorts to the more existential word “anguish,” as in, the first noble truth “challenged people to understand the nature of anguish.”  Moreover, in his effort to express his agnosticism about metaphysical questions of karma and reincarnation (it’s not that Batchelor doesn’t believe in these things, it’s that he doesn’t know), he says, Buddhism’s “concern lies entirely with the nature of existential experience.”  Batchelor’s Buddhism is about living in this world here and now. 


In short, Batchelor, like other writes such as Reggie Ray (see his Buddhist Saints In India), abhors how the institutionalization of Buddhism obscures the heart of the Buddha’s teachings.  Furthermore, like other writers such as Ken Wilber, he sees Buddhism not as a religion offering the same consolations as other religions, but rather as a kind of empirical science of awakening wherein everything can be subjected to experimentation.  “These kinds of speculations [about rebirth, etc.] lead us far from the Buddha’s agnostic and pragmatic perspective and into a consideration of metaphysical views that cannot be demonstrated or refuted, proven or disproven.”  This fully empirical Buddhism–which includes no spurious speculations nor any preservation of unnecessary traditions–is, as Batchelor sees it, the heart of modern dharma.


Other writers have addressed Batchelor’s views.  Here are a few links:

Dark Zen
Monkey Mind
Marjorie L. Silverman

I am also reading the Dhammapada as a daily pre- or post-mediation reflection with Erin, my girlfriend (and mother of our child).  I picked up this slim volume because a student of mine was assigned to read it.  (He was also assigned Diane Morgan’s The Best Guide To Eastern Philosophy and Religion. Is anybody else familiar with this text?  Should it really be the textbook for a 9th grader at the much esteemed Horace Mann High School?)

And because I enjoyed Juan Carlos’s podcast on Gaylon Ferguson’s new book, Natural Wakefulness, I’ve ordered that text online. 

Okay, that’s all for now.  Tell me what you’re reading!   

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posted October 22, 2009 at 3:21 am

I don’t know Maitreya’s translation of the Dhammapada, but I highly recommend that of Glenn Wallis.
It’s excellent, especially as he cuts through some of the overdramatic or moralistic English phrases people have gotten used to, giving a fresh sense of the original intent of the words: “ease” instead of “happiness” for sukkha, “unbinding” for Nibbana/Nirvana, “sound intention” instead of “right thinking,” “detrimental” instead of “evil.”
I’m using his translation to try to learn some Pali, and it’s extremely useful. His extensive notes are wonderful at situating the Buddha’s thought – and showing how to put the teachings into practice. More useful still is Wallis’s later “Basic Teachings of the Buddha.” His Dhammapada was just a warm-up for this book, in which he selects 16 even earlier texts and guides the reader step by step toward a direct experience of core Buddhist thinking. The climax is a brilliant explanation of the meditation technique from Mindfulness on Breathing – or as Wallis puts it, “present-moment awareness with breathing.”
I can’t recommend these books highly enough! (Both available in Modern Library paperback. And no, I’m not getting paid to say all this!)

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posted October 22, 2009 at 3:42 am

Sorry, just one more point that’s more germane to your article: Wallis also focuses on the empirical nature of the original Buddhist thought. That it’s about a practice that can be done by normal human beings (like Siddatha Gotama).
Wallis is very good, especially in the Basic Teachings book, on how the Buddha in the oldest teachings just wasn’t concerned with the supernatural. He has the famous sutta/sutra in which the Buddha neither affirms nor denies God and the hereafter – he just sets them aside as speculative. To fixate on such questions is like the man who, shot by a poisoned arrow, won’t let himself be treated until he knows who shot the arrow, from where, what kind of wood the arrow was made of, what kind of tip, what sort of bow, what type of bowstring etc etc.
The book’s outside references, if not to real-life experiences, are almost all to other, very early Pali texts – not to later commentaries or schools of thought.

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posted October 22, 2009 at 10:09 am

I finally got around to reading Batchelor’s book recently. I think it has its strong and weak points.
The best critique I’ve read is by Bhikkhu Punnadhammo
“Whereas he would have us believe that he is taking the position of ‘I don’t know’ he betrays a decided bias at every turn for materialism. . . on page 37 we have “All this has nothing to do with the compatibility (or otherwise) of Buddhism and modern science. It is odd that a practice concerned with anguish and the ending of anguish should be obliged to accept ancient Indian metaphysical theories and thus accept as an article of faith that consciousness cannot be explained in terms of brain function.'”
“Odder indeed to many traditional Buddhists is the article of faith of modernists that it can be. Let’s be clear about this. Consciousness has not at all been explained ‘in terms of brain function’ by modern science or by anyone else. It is entirely a metaphysical assumption that it ever can be, an act of faith of the most credulous sort that Mr. Batchelor should be the first to denounce. There is not a shred of a proof of this claim anywhere, only a pious belief in some quarters that such a proof will shortly be forthcoming.”
“Even odder is that when there is a conflict between two metaphysical
assumptions, a Buddhist writer should be so ready to give the benefit of the doubt to the unbuddhist one.”
“He tells us that ‘an agnostic Buddhist would not regard the Dharma as a source of answers to questions of where we came from, where we are going, what happens after death. He would seek such knowledge in the appropriate domains: astrophysics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience etc.’ (p.18) What could any of these disciplines tell us about what happens after death? It is astonishing that a Buddhist writer can so readily dismiss the ancient wisdom tradition and so decisively claim the superiority of modern materialist philosophy.”

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posted October 22, 2009 at 11:13 am

Frankly, I have nothing to add here, but I’m glad to have run across this. In my ignorance of Buddhism, I had always felt that it was a method of cultivaing the soul without the tradition of required belief that is found in, say, The Nicene Creed. Mysteries such as karma and reincarnation, while interesting to contemplate, actually distract from what I feel must be the core and strength of Buddhism.

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Anan E. Maus

posted October 22, 2009 at 1:43 pm

“In Buddhism, the three avenues to understanding are study, reflection, and meditation.”
I don’t think one can provide a more succinct, yet comprehensive description of the path. I think those three avenues are all that is necessary for the path…I think they are perfectly powerful and all other aspects of the path can flow from them.
I am reading Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.
And here is a Buddhist Bibliography from Sensei Jundo, the monk who runs the Treeleaf Zendo, that also has a blog on Beliefnet:
• Opening the Hand of Thought by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (2004 Edition) **
• Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi **
• Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi **
• A Heart To Heart Chat On Buddhism With Old Master Gudo by Gudo Wafu Nishijima Roshi (Jundo Cohen, Translator) **
• To Meet the Real Dragon, Gudo Wafu Nishijima Roshi
• Sit Down and Shut Up by Brad Warner **
• Nothing Special: Living Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck **
• Everyday Zen: Love & Work by Charlotte Joko Beck **
• Ending the Pursuit of Happiness: A Zen Guide by Barry Magid
• No Death, No Fear by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh
• Asking about Zen: 108 Answers, Rev. Jiho Sargent **
• The Art of Just Sitting, edited by John Daido Loori
• Returning to Silence by Dainin Katagiri Roshi **
• You Have to Say Something by Dainin Katagiri Roshi
• The Essence of Zen by Sekkei Harada Roshi
• The Zen Teaching of “Homeless” Kodo by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi **
• One Robe One Bowl by Ryokan
• Bankei Zen: Translations from The Record of Bankei translated by Peter Haskel
• The Zen Teaching of Huang Po translated by John Blofeld
• Meditation Now or Never by Steve Hagen
• Zen and the Brain by Dr. James Austin
• From The Zen Kitchen To Enlightenment: Refining Your Life by Eihei Dogen; Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (Translator) **
• Nothing Is Hidden : Essays on Zen Master Dogen’s Instructions for the Cook by Shohaku Okumura Roshi **
• The Wholehearted Way, A Commentary on Dogen’s Bendowa by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi **
• Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo-Zuimonki available online: **
• Enlightenment Unfolds (the essential teachings of Dogen) by Kazuaki Tanahashi **
• Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen by Kazuaki Tanahashi **
• Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo (4 Volumes), translated by Nishijima-Cross
• Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, Revised, Third Edition (Paperback) by Hee-Jin Kim
• Dogen’s Pure Standards for the Zen Community (Eihei Shingi), Leighton/Okumura
• Dogen’s Extensive Record (Eihei Koroku), Leighton/Okumura
• Buddhist Philosophy, A Historical Analysis by David J. Kalupahana **
• In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Bhikkhu Bodhi (Editor)
• The Life of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Nanamoli
• What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition by Walpola Rahula (Jundo: very traditional Theravada outlook)
• Mahayana Buddhism, The Doctrinal Foundations, by Paul Williams
• Buddhism Is Not What You Think by Steve Hagen **
• Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor
• Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Talks on the Sandokai by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi
• The Heart Sutra by Red Pine (Bill Porter)
• Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on Heart Sutra by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh
• The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch by Hui-neng and Philip Yampolsky
• The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teaching of Hui-Neng translated Red Pine (Bill Porter)
• The Sutra of Hui-Neng, Grand Master of Zen With Hui-neng’s Commentary on the Diamond Sutra translated by Thomas Cleary
• The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma, Red Pine
• The Diamond Sutra, Thich Nhat Hanh
• The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika by Nagarjuna and Jay L. Garfield
• Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way by Nagarjuna and David J. Kalupahana
• Zen Buddhism, Volume 1: A History (India & China) by Heinrich Dumoulin
• Zen Buddhism, Volume 2: A History (Japan) by Heinrich Dumoulin
• The Record of Transmitting the Light (Keizan Zenji’s Denkoroku), F. Cook
• Living and Dying in Zazen (Biographies of Sawaki Roshi, Uchiyama Roshi and others associated with Antai-ji) by Arthur Braverman
• Gateless Barrier: Zen Comments on the Mumonkan by Zenkai Shibayama Roshi
• Book of Serenity: One Hundred Zen Dialogues by Thomas Cleary
• Master Dogen’s Shinji Shobogenzo (Koan Collection) by Gudo Nishijima Roshi
• The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics by Robert Aitken Roshi
• Zen at War by Brian Victoria
• The New Social Face of Buddhism: A Call to Action by Ken Jones
• The New Buddhism by David Brazier
• At Hells Gate by Claude Anshin Thomas

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posted November 19, 2010 at 5:33 pm

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