There are currently two prominent fractions in Buddhism when it comes to the question of life after death. One is leaving the answer open, like some of the teachers in the Dogen Zenji tradition (“just be prepared to do your zazen”), for others like the Tibetans it is fundamental for their concept of the reborn tulkus and dalai lamas. You will rarely find a Buddhist who definitely denies reincarnation. The reason mainly lies in the concept of a mind to which someone awakens which is not his but “universal”. Even those Buddhists who are aware of the Buddha’s (correcting) teachings of the atman (self!) as eternal and pure in sutras like the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana regularly miss that there is no “re” in dropping one’s ego, that the insight given in the nonsubstantiality and impermanence of the “I” that leads us through our earthly existence does not include any coming back of anything personal or individual, as all those features are “empty” (shunyata). What is eternal, naturally is free of impermanent features, so the nature of beings is that of an eternal Buddhanature that is not dependent on an individual biography and character flaws. The effects of deeds will not be directed on a certain rebirth that accumulates a personal, individual karma, but follow a rather chaotic way in accord with a thermodynamic law which states that energy within an isolated system is neither created nor destroyed. Thus it is impossible to know a deceased through certain tests and discern him as a former dalai lama, as it is only the energy that survives and the individual characteristics do not, otherwise their nature would not be of emptiness (in Buddhist terms it would actually be the unenlightened who returns and not the awakened one …).

Of course this is not in line with the Pali Canon’s teachings of hells and animal realms in which one could fall when doing, speaking or even thinking wrong. One might cynically answer that those teachings were given to a rather dumb audience, as traditional Buddhists believe it is important to whom the Buddha spoke (well if it was, you could forget about studying the Pali Canon at all because he surely never spoke to you). In this blog, the Pali Canon is considered to be a work of  literature (with facets of fiction and fairy tale) which one has to understand by historical-critical exegesis and metaphorically. Metaphorical understanding does not mean that you project something into the Pali Canon that cannot have been there, as recently a monk Sujato did when asking Buddhists to support same sex marriage but insisting that it would exclude minors – whereas in Shakyamuni’s lifetime the marriage of (what we consider today as) children was as normal as much later in the times of  a certain Mohammed and even during the Khmer empire in Angkor. Interpreting scriptures does not justify enforcing modern views in an historical incorrect way. If you stick to a literal understanding and want to transmit it over the course of time, contradictions like the one above are common. Shakyamuni has just not spoken of many topics that dominate discussions today, be it sexual abuse, the internet, stem cell research or organ donation. The answer has to be given by your “own” freed mind, not by quoting out-of-date data. A Buddha’s achievement lies in providing a way of detachment from greed, hate and illusions, i.e. from suffering. This way means awakening to a higher wisdom, in the detection of a universal mind. Anything that a historical Shakyamuni said in terms of marriage (condemning adultery which for not just a few people is the beginning of relief), eating (snakes are not a common dish in Europe), sleeping (on the ground is practiced until today widely in Asia, although the same people who seem to follow a precept there do not hesitate to outsmart customers the other day in their market booths) , ordination (not allowed for effeminate homosexuals, the Pandika) etc. are limited views developed at a certain place in a certain time.

Linking an old understanding with a modern topic: If you want to know where the ethical dilemma of an attachment to reincarnation lies, just ask a Buddhist if he/she is an organ donator. You will be surprised to see how many Buddhists do not accept brain death as the end of their conscious life, as there may be a subtle consciousness living on that is able to somehow feel and suffer wherefore no organs should be taken. Once again, those adepts mix up the empty, non-substantial features of their person that they somehow secretly just value too much and wish to survive instead of “giving up” to the universal mind that knows no suffering.

One argument given by religious people helps manifesting the real power of zen ethics (here I have to add that a lot of prominent “masters” believed in reincarnation – but they were all linked to institutionalized Buddhism, wearing robes and ranks). It is the conviction that in a limited life without any afterlife, justice (as implied in rebirth according to karma or Last Judgment) would not be done and chaos and immorality would rule the world. Not only does this view contradict scientific findings of an instinctive moral, it also reveals a moral insecurity of those religious people – they simply do not trust their own instincts and ask for an artificial code to show them the way. Actually, they project from themselves onto others. The history of our world religions, all equipped with a much similar set of ethical rules, discloses how wrong they are. There is no doubt that artificial commandments have not made mankind any better, on the contrary. To me it seems that they help to disturb people’s minds, just look at the hypocritical justifications of violence by rabbis and ulamas nowadays. The people who cannot trust their moral instincts are those you cannot trust. Remember this when you are in doubt next time, and see if I’m right. Of course, this is just another rule, so beware of exceptions.

It is crucial to understand that “justice” is not done by nature itself and men have to fight for it. It cannot be delayed, the consolation that people look for in a life after death is the hope of the helpless. The crooks of our world, when you ask them, will either not believe in a judgment after life or, being part of institutionalized and classic religion, trust in the forgiveness of a god. So rejecting rebirth (resurrection etc.) does not only root a person in its natural moral abilities (without any intellectual superstructure), it also requires full responsibility, e.g. for bringing people to justice as well as making one’s remains available to those in need. No one who believes he has “dropped body-and-mind” (a popular saying in the Dogen tradition) and cannot be an organ donator has dropped anything than a clear mind.


“You cannot sound the depth of the Buddha’s realization by sitting meditation.”

Current movements trying to modernize Buddhism (like Secular Buddhism) don’t go far enough, as they still rely on dogma (e.g. the four noble truths) or meditation. Early Chan was already more developed. Here are some of the achievements that are mostly forgotten or unknown in other Buddhist traditions.

1) Zen is not about being good or bad: “Cutting the bad and cultivating the good to become a Buddha – that is a wrong thought stemming from one’s own mind.” Zen goes beyond those categories or wants to detect what lies behind it. Any criteria and moral judgment has to be treated with caution, being a product of thought that is superimposed on “reality”.

2) “Truth” lies beyond any norms, the mind has to blast them. This goes for the norms of Buddhist teachers, too: “If one does not seek understanding and wisdom, he will avoid the delusions of dharma teachers and meditation masters.”

3) Events trump words: “Who deduces the dharma from events instead of relying on the teaching of a master can be called a man with sharp wisdom.”

4) The life of a zen adept welcomes all feelings, he “neither rejects jealousy nor greed” because he knows they are empty, but “turns any place of bad influence (karma) into a Buddha event”.

The place of precepts are the four immeasurable states of mind (kindness, empathy, shared joy, equanimity), no set of sila or rules that paint the world in black and white.

5) Scriptures (sutras) are seen as products of the mind and therefore misleading: “When there are no sophisticated gimmicks of the mind, what need is there for sitting meditation and right mindfulness?”

Thoughts toward enlightenment and the invocation of scriptures and commentaries only nourish intellectual understanding: “Don’t use mind to get rid of mind!”

6) Karma has not existed per se but is created by mankind through believing: ‘I do bad, so I will be punished; I do good, so I will be rewarded.’ The ‘bad’ karma arises only by this distinction itself.

All those quotes come from the Tunhuang rolls, the earliest findings of chan transmission. More can be read in Jeffrey L. Broughton’s The Bodhidharma Anthology (Berkeley 1999). It becomes obvious were so many Buddhist schools in the East and West went astray and that not even in zen dojos you will find much of this early spirit.


Recently I read Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel “Nausea” in German. It was published in its original French version in the year 1938 and introduces some of Sartre’s main philosophical ideas. People  sometimes ask if Zen Buddhism is a kind of nihilism or existentialism, as the zen adept often speaks of emptiness (shunyata), the non-substantial nature of anything and anybody. So let’s have a look at the protagonist Roquentin’s view on life. I translate from the German version (“Der Ekel”, Rowohlt 1963).

“Nothing has changed, but everything exists in a different mode. I cannot describe it. It is like nausea and still its the opposite; finally an adventure befalls me, and when I ask myself, I see that it is me whom it befalls, that I am I and that I am here … something will happen.” (p. 6) “I don’t know if the world has suddenly shrunk or if it is due to me that all sounds and forms suddenly combine to such a unity. (…) I go home after an empty Sunday – and it is there!” (p. 62) “Here I sat, bend forward, my head downwards … and suddenly I had this enlightenment. It was breathtaking. Never before had I felt what it meant: to exist. (…) One cannot say two words without speaking about this existence and in the end still doesn’t touch it. When I believed that I thought of it, I thought of nothing, I had an empty head or at best one word in my head, the word: “to be”.  (…) If one had asked me what this existence is, I would have answered in good faith that it is nothing, at best an empty form that attaches to things from the outside without changing their nature.” (p. 113) This culminates in: “When I say ‘I’ now, it seems to be unsubstantial … I am forgotten … Suddenly this ‘I’ becomes paler and paler, and now it is over – it dies down. Clear, immobile, abandoned the mind (consciousness) rests between the walls; it extends into eternity. (…) This is the significance of one’s mind: to know its own needlessness.” (p. 178)

What Sartre’s protagonist describes is an awakening experience similar to reports we get from Buddhists who talk about their own enlightening moments. Not being captured by Buddhist terminology, there is no doubt for Sartre that they are happening to an unsubstantial “I”. They come all of a sudden, they create an impression of a unity of all phenomena whose nature is empty, they shake one’s life to the bone while the (logic, idea-connecting) thought process actually comes to a halt.

The characteristics “clear”, “immobile” and “eternal” could directly stem from those Mahayana sutras like the Mahaparanirvana Sutra that deal with the Tathagata, the Buddha-Nature, and speak of an atman (self) as correcting the prevalent belief of Buddhists in an anatman (non-self). The self here is the true nature of phenomena without being a self in the sense of an “I”,  it is the antidote to the danger of falling into a kind of nihilism when sticking solely to the  concept of anatman. It just means that the interpreters of the dhamma have detected a logical problem and defect in the Pali Canon or, if you want to believe that, certain adepts have left out an important teaching of Shakyamuni himself. A lot of Buddhists make the mistake of justifying rebirth with an underlying stream of life or existence that they derive from the concept of Buddha-Nature but see as somehow  identical to their personal existence which actually ends with braindeath. But Buddha-Nature knows no “re”, no coming back, as it is eternal and devoid of any individual signs (which makes the whole reborn tulku and lama business in Tibet a make-belief Buddhism). “Behind the existing which stumbles from one present to the next, without past, without future, behind those sounds which molder from day to day towards death, the melody remains the same, unchanged.” (p. 184)

Sartre’s protagonist was sitting when it first happened to him – but in a position that you will not find recommended in any handbooks for meditation. Still his view on life changed, and the basic nausea or disgust that he felt made room to a non-distinguishing, all-encompassing moral when he later on in this philosophical novel is the only one to console a guy in a library who has touched and stroked the back of some male pupils while teaching them and was immediately scolded and offended by the other adults in the room. The protagonist knows that he is “meaningless for all eternity” (p. 137) and naturally does the most ethical thing that this moment requires. In this act we can see the struggle ended that had troubled him before: “I feel responsible and guilty. (…) My thoughts, that is I; therefore I cannot stop thinking. I exist because I think … and cannot stop me from thinking. (…) I myself extract me from nothingness on which after all I put my hope.” (p. 108) But whereas his doing speaks otherwise, the protagonist still considers all sense-giving efforts of mankind to be fruitless and an illusion. “Nothingness was only an idea in my head (…) it hadn’t come before existence, it was an existence like many others and appeared after them.” (p. 143) In the aftermath of enlightenment, rationally analyzing it, in a style that we know of koan, even what was detected or experienced before is doubted, is destroyed, to go farther, to find the pure deed and doing itself. Ideas and concepts of the mind are not to be trusted, but with existence comes a certain responsibility.

Sartre developed a kind of insight that could be called “Dogen without Buddhism” or “Secular Buddhism without Buddha”. By acknowledging the “I” as an individual struggling for meaning and insight that are not there per se, he allows this “I” to see through itself by its needless mind and detect a clear, unmovable, eternal entity (Dasein). Enlightenment is manifested in the acts of the awakened which blast the common limits of people’s ethics.

Disciples of Buddhism often misunderstand the teaching of the sila, as they are given to monks, and laypersons are free to accept them. In Southeast Asia laypersons can stay silent when a certain sila is recited in temples, knowing that they can’t keep it. The sila are just a guidance for laymen, or better for those who feel ethically insecure and do not possess wisdom (prajna). For the others their wisdom is giving them the right view on the precepts, as it leads them to the eightfold path. It is not the other way round. By keeping the precepts, one will NOT acquire wisdom automatically. Thus one popular distinction of the eightfold path into wisdom (referring to right view and right intention), ethical conduct (right speech, right action, right livelihood) and meditation/samadhi (right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration) is misleading because it suggests that the three divisions are on an equal level. You can clearly find out by watching those Buddhists who insist on the sila (and especially on right speech when they don’t like what is said) that they mostly lack higher wisdom, even when they do meditation a lot. So samadhi, too, is not a guarantee for wisdom. We find wise people everywhere who are neither Buddhists nor thinking of precepts or doing meditation. The way to wisdom is obviously not restricted to Buddhists.

The Buddha said in the Nagara Sutta that it is the “rightly self-awakened” of former times who followed the path. He then imitated this way to find out the truth about reality. It seems that the other awakened ones prior to him awakened before their life was thought to be a certain path.  So we should understand that the real Path begins when we are awakened and not vice versa. The Buddha had to do otherwise himself, but his life and struggle can teach us to avoid strict ascetism, for example. Nevertheless the Buddha awakened BEFORE he taught about a path, and he even refused to preach first, meaning that he was initially satisfied in being a pratyekabuddha (who doesn’t teach). WE do not have to mimic the Buddha’s life but instead can profit from the shortcut – by insight (meditation) we see through our illusions, discover emptiness and acquire wisdom. Then our path may become eightfold, tenfold, twentyfold or onefold – this is just a matter of definition and words.

What does it mean to look at the sila with wisdom and not trying to acquire that wisdom by sticking to their literal meaning? I give a couple of examples. Scientists found out that we lie a lot on a daily basis. No one seems to be an exception. A rule for always speaking the truth is therefore too abstract and unrealistic to be kept. It just means to try to stick to what we feel is “the truth”. Actually, it is impossible not to lie, and when you listen and watch carefully, you will know when praised Buddhist teachers keep their doubts for themselves or just stick to rhetoric that does not even make sense to them. A lot of lies are created to leave the liar in control of a situation.

Right Livelihood in the Eightfold Path includes not to breed animals for slaughter. As I said before, a farmer’s life is one of the most honest I can think of. It is not possible to feed all mankind without meat, and according to some reading of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, Shakyamuni is said to have died from eating pork. We can find a lot of those contradictions in the Palicanon, even a foulmouthed Shakyamuni, e.g. when he scolded Devadatta. We can not take the words of the Palicanon for granted, we have to drop teachings which don’t make sense (anymore) and see their core just as a hint (in those two cases: to restrict our consumption of meat and our use of reproach). That’s why we call it a Path, going on, and not a status quo.

Another example is the rule against the ingestion of intoxicants, including alcohol. We now know that moderate drinking (e.g. of wine) can prolong life. Even if this wasn’t “true”, we also know that drugs which change the mind (perception) have led some people to deep insights. There are always exceptions from a rule. When the Buddha allowed medicine, he must have known that it may consist of alcohol and mind-changing ingredients. Nowadays anti-depressants keep people alive (by preventing suicide). But for some the non-prescribed drugs as wine or beer have a similar effect of soothing and motivating them. I could go on like this when taking further sila into account, which some lays like to follow at least on certain days, as not to sleep on soft and high beds (although that may just ease the pain of some elderly), not to use perfume (although some disgusting smells could be averted by a deodorant), not to visit musical and theatrical performances (as if there was no wisdom to be found in art). Not to speak of all the monks who accept money …

To explain why a soldier or a butcher can be a Buddhist will raise more concerns. It was widely misunderstood even in the zen scene (especially by Brian Victoria) that the prohibition to kill does not mean that no one could “rightly” do so. Whatever a civilian court may rule in such cases, a man of insight who has dropped his attachments and is able to kill without hate, greed, remorse etc. would actually be an ideal soldier. It is therefore not possible for those with prajna to accept an exclusive viewpoint where an awakened person would refrain from participating in a war or killing in self-defence or as assistance in an emergency. No one hopes for it, but when a necessity is felt, he or she is able to swing the sword without swaying it (without hate), as was taught by former zen masters like Takuan and Omori Sogen. We have to understand that the sila are made to make us ethically alive and survive and not to have us eradicated from the planet.

Buddhadasa Bhikkhu used the term “chit wang” in Thai for the void mind as we find it in the texts attributed to Huangpo and Huineng (which Buddhadasa translated himself from the English). From this liberated Buddha-mind the power for any social revolution may arise. As we clearly see in most of Southeast Asian countries, they are in need of reform. What seems to be important for a society’s identity (like the Thai’s or Burmese’s), the lay-monk distinction, can be clearly detected as the main obstacle for change. It is always the more traditional and easy-to-chew Buddhism that is popular here, and it is infiltrating people’s mind for quite a while through a TV channel called DMC. The monk behind it is called Luang Phaw Dhammajayo, and (a parallel to the Vietnamese described in last week’s blog entry) he is quite a rich landlord, too. His greasy talks rely on superstition, a simple understanding of kamma and rebirth, and thus do just the opposite of Buddhadasa’s teachings – they bind and create illusions. Of course, this is required to collect money from his followers who have to dress in white and move up the ladder of this “Dhammakaya” movement.

When the people of Southeast Asia do not question their support for the orange-robed who justify their laziness with rules and regulations of the Vinaya – the first part of the Palicanon and thus a fundament of Theravada Buddhism – the doors for guys like Dhammayo are opened. For some, this is an inevitable part of a nation’s tradition and identity, for others the lay-monk distinction is just another possibility to create classes, differences, hierarchies, and to abuse power in the name of a Lord. A monk who would have to feed himself and lead the life of a farmer – one of the most honorable ways to exist – when not meditating (and perhaps studying scripts from time to time) could not so easily be lead to DMC’s abstractions.  A monk’s life cannot be a role model for humankind (whereas the farmer’s life is just that) and would, due to his celibacy and inability to take care of himself, just cause the extinction of mankind (and therefore the dhamma). Instead of sucking on others and nevertheless denouncing their average behaviour he’d have to take full responsibility of his own life and be criticized on the same level.

Of course, abolishing the monk-layhood distinction is impossible without reading and understanding even the Vinaya not literally but metaphorically. Buddadhasa called this “phasa tam”, the dhamma language, an interpretive and revealing reading of the canon, as opposed to “phasa kom”,  everyday language and a literal understanding. Thus e.g. the precept not to unroot a vegetable would become the rule for mindful agriculture. Monks nowadays are able to use airplanes instead of walking thousand of miles but they refrain from giving up anything in the Vinaya that contradicts their right to a rather comfortable life of social welfare. They think this is justified just by sharing their limited knowledge and insight in the dhamma, and in the case of DMC they even get sponsored for leading people astray. It has come so far that the robe is nothing in the eye of a wise man anymore, it rather makes one puke when in sight. One should look at a robed person in the way the Buddha is said to have taught impermanence: See the skull of the person, watch the decaying flesh, smell the stinking fluids he or she is made of. And only then listen carefully to what is said and find out if it is anything else than the filth you have just imagined.

When it comes to dana (giving), it should be based on the insight in anatta (non-self). A lot of people ask themselves when to give and how to give, and in a world full of betrayal and greed those questions are justified. For someone who claims to be a monk and even a teacher of Buddhism, on the other hand, practice should be clear. It is not wise in a world where masses lack food, clean water and medical support, to spend 10 million Euro (wherever they come from) for an institution that upholds primarily ones own teachings and name, as the EIAB does. No surprise, the Vietnamese millionaire Thich Nhat Hanh (TNH) who also tends to cite only his own writings in his books, nearing his own death, just reaps his own karma when contradicting his lifelong teaching of mindfulness by giving his sangha their own status symbol. TNH may not talk much about his past in Vietnam and his former inclination towards the militant Thich Tri Quang. But he liked to reform the precepts and thus once stated: “A bhikshu who lends money with interest, invests money, buys and sells stocks or shares, invests in land or real estate, or plays the lottery, commits an offense which involves Release and Expression of Regret.” (Thich Nhat Hanh, Freedom Wherever We Go: A Buddhist Monastic Code for the 21st Century, Parallax Press, 2004). As we can see in the certificate of registration for EIAB (HRB 20905, AG Dortmund) TNH is mentioned as one of its shareholders.

What we could deduct from this is simply that the practice of mindfulness does not necessarily lead to mindfulness. But the nub of the matter is that when you are able to make or collect more money than necessary for your basics, it is time to share it with those most in need. It is not the Germans who want to attend seminars, lectures and meditation retreats, as they are offered in thousands per year. I am writing this from the library of a foundation who takes care of physically and mentally handicapped, blind, deaf, orphans and the elderly. This foundation is run by Christians. A Buddhist who cannot see the real needs of people with the eye of a Christian and the heart of agape should refrain from talking a lot about loving-kindness (metta). Metta is love without clinging (upadana), and for a zen practitioner it means that he drops even the clinging to his own posse and reaches out to mankind as the true sangha of the earth. There he will see what is urgent (to feed and treat) and what is not (to attract masses).