: How would you respond to being called a Buddhist modernist who has simply dropped those parts of the Buddhist tradition that aren’t in accord with contemporary secular and largely Western assumptions? Recently I was talking to a Buddhist who was keen to say that the teaching of the Buddha with regard to the various worlds and rebirth is true both in the form and spirit. I was trying to say that it is the spirit that is important, the form is often metaphor. Such an approach I have read being described as that of a Buddhist modernist.
: Everything I teach is in accord with the scriptures and the Four Noble Truths. That is our reference point and the teaching we use for meditation. I would not call myself a modernist, but maybe because of practice I can relate it to people’s experience in a modern time. Often when you read the suttas, many people would find those very difficult to relate to, because often the translations don’t mean much to them, or it makes it sound as if it has happened to the Buddha and to no one else, and it doesn’t reach your heart, doesn’t inspire you to realize that it is talking about your own existence. This was the Buddha’s whole purpose in teaching. It was to bring to our attention what existence really is.
: When I read the scriptures with their references to the gods, they are always treated in a less than reverential way. There is that lovely passage where the Buddha is speaking to the Brahma God who says: ‘I was here from the beginning, I was the Creator.’ The Buddha turns around and says something like, ‘But you don’t know that.’ It made me burst out laughing when I read that. It does seem then the metaphorical way of handling references to supernatural beings is original to the texts themselves and not imposed on them, and is to be expected,bearing in mind the way the Buddha criticizes people for claiming certainty over views or opinions which are not certain.
: Well of course that was the way people thought at that time.
Christian cathedrals are full of angels, devils and hells.
At that time people’s minds were conditioned to perceive the world through myths, symbols and metaphors. Our time on on the other hand is one in which we perceive the world through theories, logic and rational thought,scientific views and psychology.
The cosmology of Buddhism however, from the highest heaven to the lowest hell, is simply a metaphor for the whole realm of human experience, from the most refined state of consciousness, which is neither perception nor non-perception, to the lowest form of misery,unmitigated pain and anguish which is the deepest hell.
Though we may experience these extremes, most of our lives are lived in between that. So the animal, human and first levels of the deva realms are in that middle position. So you find that we relate to the animal kingdom a lot because we share an animal-type body, and then the Four Maharajas, the Protectors of the World, can be seen as ‘guardian angels’ or the powers of shame and moral dread which guide you from doing terrible things. So simple people take things quite literally, and the more sophisticated take them more metaphorically, but whichever way you take them, they are still quite helpful!
Seriously though, to believe in deva
worlds literally doesn’t seem necessary and the Buddha didn’t make that his teaching. The Four Noble Truths is what he taught – and he said that this is all you have to know. These other things are like trying to count all the leaves in the forest.