The Third Recollection

The Yaksa asked, “What is the most wonderful thing?”

Yudhisthira Maharaj replied, “The most wonderful thing is that although everyday innumerable humans and their animals go to the abode of death, still a man thinks he is immortal.”

– [Mahabharata, Meditation 128: The Lake of Death]

There is an old joke that Buddhists spend their whole lives preparing for death, and there is some truth to that. We are constantly being reminded that we are all subject to aging, sickness, and death. In one of the most common Pāli chants, The Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection, the first three recollections are just that. The fourth recollection is that when we die “all that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.” [AN 5.57]

For most people, that sounds pretty depressing. But in the Buddha’s teaching, death is a natural and normal part of life. It is most definitely not a cause for grief, torment, and anguish. As one Tibetan teacher once told me, “In a certain sense, there is no such thing as death. There is simply the next moment.”

Death for a Buddhist is a simple reality. It is also a tool. While we are living, the recollection of death gives us a healthy sense of urgency. This life is precious. It is an opportunity to do something important. We have this chance to develop the path. When we die, we do not know how we will be reborn. So now, while we can, we need to devote ourselves to the path. And we need to train our minds so when the moment of death does come, we will be prepared, and we will not be subject to the whims and fears of a wild, untrained mind.

That sense of urgency is not limited to Buddhist training. My father died five days before my 18th birthday. It happened suddenly. The night before he died, we had an argument, so my last words to my father were angry ones. It took me a very long time to get over his death, and there was a lot of guilt over the argument. But when I did finally get over it, what I learned was not to put things off. Treat people as if you will never see them again. Never put off telling someone that you love them. Death can come at any time to anyone. It happens every day. Live your life with that thought always in mind.

That lesson came in very handy some years later. Shortly after my father died, I met the man who would become my father-in-law. We were close almost from the very beginning. In retrospect, we had a very unusual relationship. We did things together all the time. It all felt normal and natural.

Then we got the phone call. He was only in his mid-50’s, but he had a heart attack and died just as suddenly as my own father had. I was in shock and upset, of course, but the bigger part of me was grateful. I had been given a second chance, and while I was sad that he was gone, the larger part of me was simply grateful that we had the time together that we did. The glass was more than half full.

When the time of our own death comes, it is very important to have a calm and supportive environment. People who have had near death experiences tell us how sensitive the consciousness is at the moment of death. So it is very important to be around people who will be calm and loving. For many Buddhists, having a monk or a nun in attendance is a wonderful boon. Conversely, being in an emergency room full of frantic nurses and doctors and loudly screaming machines and wailing family members is without doubt a worst-case scenario.

My mother died in 2012, and she was in a coma for the last week of her life. Because I knew about near death experiences and the state of the consciousness, I spent a lot of time with her. And after she died, I spent the entire night with her, thinking thoughts of gentle loving-kindness. It was actually quite wonderful for me. My final hours with my mother were spent in love and gratitude for all of the kind things that she did for me and all the good things that she gave to me. By the end of the night, I was completely at ease with her death, and I never really experienced any grief. What I did experience was love and gratitude.

During our death and after our death, the trained mind gives us a better chance to either escape from the rounds of rebirth completely, or to at least have an auspicious rebirth, one where we can continue the practice. This is not necessarily a human rebirth, as some schools of Buddhism believe. We know from the Buddha’s teachings that there are once returners and non-returners who are reborn in the heavenly realms. And if you don’t have to worry about a fussy human body and all of its relentless demands, and you don’t have to deal with so many cranky people and getting an education and finding a job and paying a mortgage, etc., doing the practice may be quite a bit easier.

Because of the Buddha’s teachings and his transcendent understanding of existence, we are very fortunate to have a rational, sensible way to think about life and death. This is why those of us who are his followers are so deeply grateful to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṇgha. Without the Three Jewels, we are just lost, wandering around in the desert with no way out.

Posted in Buddhist practice, Teachings of the Buddha | Tagged | Leave a comment

Non-self

One of the most fascinating teachings of the Buddha is the one on anatta, non-self. Not surprisingly, it is enormously misunderstood.

The Buddha was focused on one thing, and that is teaching us how to escape from dukkha (suffering/stress/unsatisfactoriness) and to attain the liberation of nirvana. He was relentless in his single-minded devotion to that objective.

What he did not do was to describe the ultimate nature of reality. Rather, he said that if you follow his course of training, you will see it for yourself. He also seems to have been skeptical that if you tried to understand the ultimate nature of reality without seeing it for yourself, that you would not understand it anyway. Nirvana, he said, is “the unconditioned.” It lies beyond time and space. It defies conventional notions.

This is very important to remember when undertaking the Buddha’s system of training. His teaching is designed to help us to become free from dukkha. This is true of the teaching on non-self as well. The Buddha actually abstained from saying whether the self actually exists. In Buddhism the ultimate nature of the self is called one of the “ten indeterminate questions.” (Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta, MN 72). He even went on to say that pondering these questions is a hindrance to awakening:

Therefore, oh monks, do not brood over [any of these views] Such brooding, Oh monks, is senseless, has nothing to do with genuine pure conduct, does not lead to aversion, detachment, extinction, nor to peace, to full comprehension, enlightenment and Nibbāna, etc.– [SN 56]

So the Buddha’s teaching on non-self is not a statement about ultimate reality. It is, as Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu says, a strategy.

This is one reason why the practice of jhāna – meditative absorption – is so important. At some point, when your concentration is very good, you will feel a sense of freedom. It is temporary and conditioned, of course, but it gives you a taste of the possibilities of freedom when you fully awaken.

And when you are very concentrated, you can turn your attention to the feeling of “me.” The deeper your concentration is, the more likely you are to feel the sense of “me” weakening. As Ayya Khema says, the less “me” there is, the more free you feel. There is significantly less stress. And when you attain stream-entry, the sense of “me” disappears completely.

Something else you can see – and this is clearest in the fourth jhāna – is how much energy we put into protecting this sense of “me.” Our discursive thinking – our internal dialog – is all designed to protect that sense of “me.” This is why when the mind starts to quiet down, it will rebel. There may even be a sense of panic. This is because the perception of “me” is dying, and it will fight to survive. This is where patience and persistence are critical. You must gently ease the mind back into quiet, serenity, and stillness.

It can be useful at that stage to tap into the feeling of joy, happiness, and freedom that come with the still mind. In other words, rather than paying attention to the stress and fear of the still mind, turn your attention to the peace of stillness. In that way we focus on the positive aspect of the stillness rather than the negative.

You will hear it said – because it is true – that when you awaken, the issue of whether the self exists or not is irrelevant. What is left is only the sense of ease, peace, tranquility, and freedom. You are simply happy. The mind is clear. Concepts and opinions fall away. There is just this.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What the Buddha Taught

I remember reading years ago that one problem that Buddhists have is easily explaining what they believe. If you are a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew, this is not so hard. But trying to put the Buddha’s vast system of teachings into a few catch phrases is, well, impossible.

Even different schools of Buddhism disagree on what the Buddha taught. I suppose that is not so strange. The same is true in other religions as well.

For those of us who practice the Buddha’s path, having a framework for his teachings is very important. For example, I have written frequently about acts of sexual misconduct among people who claim to teach the Buddha’s Dharma. But if you understand what the Buddha taught, it is not possible to behave in that way.

So for a while I have wanted to write a paper that outlines what the Buddha taught. And finally, on an unusual rainy day here in New Mexico, I have done this. The result is on the Papers and Projects tab. It is called “What the Buddha Taught.”

Posted in Buddha's Enlightenment, Buddhist ethics, Buddhist meditation, Buddhist practice, Teachings of the Buddha | Leave a comment

Joy Redux

I want to revisit a topic about which I have written previously, and that is the topic of joy.

I have been listening recently to some of Ayya Khema’s Dharma talks. If you are not familiar with her, Ayya Khema is one of the most remarkable practitioners of the 20thcentury. She died in 1997. But thanks to the miracles of technology, over 400 of her Dharma talks are available at Dharmaseed.org.

In this talk, Ayya Khema spends quite a bit of time talking about joy in meditation. This is one of the most important parts of the Buddha’s path. It is one of the factors of awakening. However, in all my years of going to retreats, I hardly ever remember hearing it discussed. But I have heard people talking about how hard it is to meditate – regularly – many times.

This has never made any sense to me. Of course, meditation does not always go smoothly. Some days are harder than others. But think of something that you really enjoy doing. Does that always go perfectly? Of course not. But you do it because the enjoyment you get from it outweighs the time when things do not go as well.

The problem is, I believe, the way in which meditation is mis-taught.

The first step in any meditation practice is to establish a sense of well-being. We learn to enjoy the simple act of breathing. And of course this is not easy because our whole lives we have been taught that what we want is to excite the senses. We want good food, sex, music, luxury, etc. And when the Buddha points out to us that this is inevitably going to be a failed strategy for happiness, we think that he is teaching a doctrine of denial.

But wait, there’s more (!). Much more. While we whittle away at our habitual craving for sense pleasure, we simultaneously cultivate joyful states of mind. We replace the unreliable and addictive sense pleasures with the more reliable pleasure that comes from meditation. We can learn to “gladden the mind,” as the Buddha tells us in the Ānāpānasati Sutta [MN 118]. And since we can learn to do this on demand, it does not require us to produce certain conditions so that we can be happy. And as Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu points out, it is a happiness that causes no harm. We are not taking anything from anyone.

And what eventually happens – naturally, in my view – is that the joy, happiness, contentment, and peace that comes from being able to simply stay with the breath becomes eminently more desirable. Now of course this is not the end of the path. We must then use these wonderful states of mind to gain insight and to develop what Ṭhānissaro likes to translate as “discernment.” It is often translated as “wisdom,” but I think that “discernment” more properly captures the active, in-the-moment quality of the Pāli word “pañña.” And this is the fundamental, three-step process of meditation: well-being, jhāna, and discernment.

Ayya Khema further points out that this discernment can happen through any of the Three Characteristics of dukka (stress/suffering), annica (impermanence), and anatta (non-self), although seeing one of these inevitably leads to the other two. It is just that for different people, one of them may provide a more optimal doorway.

But back to the topic of joy. In the first jhāna, joy is the pre-eminent quality. It may manifest in a number of ways, and it may be stronger or weaker. The first jhāna is usually strongest in people who need its healing power the most. In the second jhāna, the joy gets toned down a little into something closer to happiness and contentment. And in the third jhāna, the calm contentment and happiness is joined by equanimity. In the third jhāna you can – as Sharon Salzberg describes it – “sit in the midst of your own experience.” You can conjure up even painful memories, and they simply float by.

All of this is accompanied by stillness and silence. The mind grows quitter. There is a deep sense of peace.

None of this is very easy. There is nothing in our experience that tells us to cultivate a mind at peace. In worldly affairs, no one will encourage us to be in this way. Even most meditation teachers do not tell us that this is what we are working at, that this is a very important part of the path, that we want to learn to get the mind to settle down and then experience the beauty of a mind at ease.

Ayya Krema also points out in this talk that while everyone knows what it means to be angry, hardly anyone knows what it is like to experience joy, especially joy that is self-generated and does not rely on external sense pleasure. That is an astonishingly simple and true statement.

There are so many benefits to the joy, happiness, and contentment that come with the meditative absorptions. A mind at peace has no ill will. It does not want anything. You can experience true metta, the mind that cannot hate. You can experience true muditā. If you are truly happy, why would you not be happy when others are happy? You are already happy, so there is no reason for jealousy.

The stillness also provides a place of healing. We can look at our own suffering – even our most painful memories – with compassion, patience, kindness, and perspective. And as we get more skilled at looking at our pain, when we can see it and not be overwhelmed by it and learn from it, we also naturally develop compassion for all beings. This is the experience of dukkha that we all share. There is no reason to judge others. We see in them our own foolishness, and in their foolishness, we see ours.

And at the center of it all is the cultivation of joy. This is the hub of the wheel of meditation.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Jack Kornfield and the Coverup

Apropos of my last blog entry about Lama Surya Das and his acts of sexual misconduct, I ran across this entry from a forum on Surya Das’ sexual abuse at Against the Stream (ATS) Buddhist Society. Most of this entry is about Surya Das himself. But this paragraph about Jack Kornfield really stuck out to me:

In your article you speak of “Kornfield” and his “investigation.” Kornfield is a close friend of Das. One time I rejected Das’ invitation to give me a ride. I guess he finally realized he was never going to get anywhere with me, it took years to convey this message. The next day, Das sicced Kornfield on me during a Dharma event. In fact, Kornfield singled me out to have a talk with me. I’d never met or had spoken to Kornfield. Kornfield tried to intimidate me and tried to force me to leave the Dharma event. When I stood my ground, Kornfield called me a “demon” and referred to Das as his “close friend.” Kornfield is no saint.

You can read the entire entry at https://engagedharma.net/2018/04/08/ats-and-sexual-misconduct/.

Western Buddhism is full of what I call “celebrity teachers.” They are people who – for the most part – are popular because of their personalities, not their understanding of the Dharma or the depth of their practice. Most Western teachers do not even teach rebirth or jhāna. Very few of them understand dependent co-arising or non-self.

This is not just a modern problem. In the well-known and mostly misunderstood Kālama Sutta [AN 3.65], the Kālama people go to the Buddha and ask him how to know if a teaching or a teacher are authentic:

Come, Kālāmas, do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence [of a speaker], or because you think: ‘The ascetic is our guru.’ But when, Kālāmas, you know for yourselves: ‘These things are unwholesome; these things are blameworthy; these things are censured by the wise; these things, if accepted and undertaken, lead to harm and suffering,’ then you should abandon them. – [AN 3.65]

The passage that stands out to me is the “seeming competence of the speaker.” Some people have dynamic, forceful personalities. They can be very convincing even when trying to sell you a bill of goods. Have you ever had a saleperson sell you something that you did not want or need?

We are particularly vulnerable when it comes to our spiritual practice. Women can be particularly vulnerable to men with dynamic personalities. It is a worst-case scenario.

This is an important issue. When a Buddhist teacher commits an act of sexual misconduct, it reflects badly on the beautiful teachings of the Buddha. I am especially sad that people who could benefit from the Buddha’s teachings turn away from them because they have been sexually mistreated, or simply badly treated in any way. The latter has happened to me many times, and often it was by a celebrity teacher.

The Buddha’s teachings could not be clearer on this topic. The third precept says that a disciple of the Buddha – male or female, lay or monastic – agrees to abstain from sexual misconduct. “Sexual misconduct” is using your sexual energy to harm yourself or others. How much clearer can that be?

As we have learned so many times over the years, first there is the crime, and then there is the coverup. The coverup is always worse. Someone like Jack Kornfield should know better than to engage in juvenile, bullying behavior toward someone who is the victim of sexual assault.

Jack Kornfield… shame on you.

 

Posted in Buddhist ethics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

It’s Simple

I have a dear friend who was once a student of Lama Surya Das. I went to a short retreat with Surya Das at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies many years ago. I quite enjoyed it. I also really enjoyed his first book, “Awakening the Buddha Within.” I have recommended that book to many people, although to be sure I read it a very long time ago, and I do not know what I would think about it today.

In any event, my friend told me that when she started to study with Surya, a woman with whom she became friends told her that she had had an unwanted affair with Surya. She also said that later she found out that he had multiple affairs with students, some of which overlapped, and some of which occurred while he was still married. I did some research on the Internet, and while it was difficult to find, sure enough there are references to his sexual indiscretions on various forums.

Surya Das claims to be “enlightened,” what we now more properly call “awakened.” I heard him describe his moment of awakening at the retreat. However, we know from the Buddhist texts that this cannot be possible. According to the texts, someone who is awakened is “accomplished in the Precepts.” This means that they are incapable of breaking them. Surya apparently had some sort of meditative experience that he interprets as awakening. It may have been jhāna. This is a common error. But he certainly is not awakened.

This type of sexual misconduct is – sadly – so common, and yet the Buddha was very clear about karma and how our actions have consequences. For some reason, in many schools of Buddhism they have this notion that you can do an end run around ethical behavior. The Buddha would never have said such a thing. It would be like trying to ignore the law of gravity. The basis for everything the Buddha taught was generosity and virtue, virtue being most clearly defined as the Five Precepts.

One of my favorite discourses is the “Instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone” [MN 61]. In the discourse, the Buddha was talking to his son Rahūla, who was only seven years old. When you think of the Buddha as father talking to his little boy, it is quite endearing. He started the discourse by talking about the importance of always speaking the truth. The commentaries tell us that this is because someone had come to the Bamboo Monastery looking for the Buddha, and Rahūla, who was trying to protect his father’s privacy, told the man that the Buddha was not there. So the Buddha started this discourse by telling Rahula how important it is to always speak the truth.

But then the Buddha talked in detail about how to train yourself in proper conduct. I hope you will read the entire discourse. But this passage will give you the flavor of the teaching:

“What do you think, Rahula: What is a mirror for?”

“For reflection, sir.”

“In the same way, Rahula, bodily actions, verbal actions, and mental actions are to be done with repeated reflection.”

“Whenever you want to do a bodily action, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily action I want to do — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Would it be an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful bodily action with painful consequences, painful results, then any bodily action of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction… it would be a skillful bodily action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any bodily action of that sort is fit for you to do.”

This is such a common theme in the Buddha’s teaching that every time that I hear one of these sexual misconduct stories, I slowly pound my head on the nearest available hard object. This is not rocket science. Don’t do things that cause harm. And if you do, think about it and try not to do it again. Do not turn it into an exercise in self-judgment. Conversely, try and do things that are beneficial. That’s it. It is not complicated. And if you don’t cultivate ethical behavior, there is no point in meditating or studying the Dharma. You certainly should not be teaching it.

Posted in Buddhist ethics, Buddhist practice, Teachings of the Buddha | Tagged | Leave a comment

One Moment

In Buddhism we often talk about the present moment. And in each life there are billions of present moments.

Most of them are noise. But every so often we have a deeply profound moment. We need to cherish and remember those moments. They are our connection to a greater reality.

There is a lovely article in today’s New York Times about a young woman in Japan. Her village and the local Buddhist temple – where her father is the head monk – were destroyed in the 2011 tsunami. After spending a lot of time providing relief for the local community, she was inspired to succeed her father as the chief monk at the temple.

This story reminded me of one of those moments in my life. I went to India in 2004 on a Buddhist pilgrimage. We had a free day in Bodh Gaya, the Mecca of Buddhism. We were free to walk around, visit the main temple, and do whatever we pleased.

I found myself mainly going to all of the wonderful temples there. Bodh Gaya is full of temples from Buddhist countries around the world. Each temple is in its own native country’s style. It is like a Buddhist United Nations.

After a fashion I found myself in a Japanese Zen temple. I wandered in and there was a nun giving a talk to a group of Japanese. It was in Japanese so obviously I could not understand her. But the mood in that temple was so serene and so deeply profound that I found in that temple a Dharma talk that did not need words. I was completely overwhelmed by the power of that moment.

When I first began practicing the Buddha’s path, a teacher of mine said that even in Asia true Dharma is hard to find. To tell you the truth, at the time I did not believe him. Now many years later I have found that, sadly, that is too true.

But every so often you get a moment like that one. One of the beauties of the Buddha’s path is that in those moments there is no nationality, no religion, no gender, and no race. There is only being, in the most transparent and transcendent way that can be meant. And it is in those moments that the possibilities of this path are revealed.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Endless School Shootings

Those of you who follow this blog know that I am working my way through the 547 Jātaka Tales, editing and illustrating them. One of the things that strikes me as I go through this exercise is that these stories were how people for many centuries learned about the teachings of the Buddha. But even more importantly, they were the popular entertainment of the time. If you were a child in a Buddhist culture, you probably spent your evenings listening to these stories. They were TV.

When you grow up immersed in stories about patience, kindness, caring for animals, honesty, compassion, wisdom, and all the other virtuous qualities, they become part of your marrow.

Compare that to how we live.

I used to watch the program The Blacklist, but after a while I was so horrified by the extreme violence that I stopped. I could not believe that anyone thought it was appropriate to put such images on over-the-air television. More recently I started to watch the Netflix series Godless, partly because it was filmed near where I live in New Mexico. By the time they had shown the second graphic rape scene, I decided that this is not something in which I wanted to participate.

Did television cause the shootings in Parkland, Florida? Of course not. Life is always complicated. How we get to a specific point in time is influenced by an infinite array of causes and conditions. The Buddha once said:

“The result of kamma is an inconceivable matter that one should not try to conceive; one who tries to conceive it would reap either madness or frustration.” – [AN 4.77]

But at a certain point people decide how they want to be. This happens to us as individuals and it happens to us collectively. And unless we decide that we want virtue to be a centerpiece in our country, then it will be – as the New York Times headline said – “Leaders Offer Prayers. Children Are Buried. Repeat.”

Posted in Buddhist ethics, Teachings of the Buddha | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Joy and Happiness

Those of you who follow this blog may have noticed a new tab, the one labeled Jātaka Tales. I am taking the time to edit and illustrate the 547 stories from that collection. I hope that you will read through them. It is a wonderful body of literature.

As I write this I have just posted Jātaka 10, the story of Bhaddiya. It is a charming story about the joy and happiness that being a Buddhist monk/practitioner can bring. And that brings me to a favorite topic of mine, and that is the cultivation of joy.

One reason that I started almost everything you see on this web site is a result of my dissatisfaction with the way meditation and the Buddhist path are usually taught. Like many people I spent years gamely struggling through retreats and maintaining a daily sitting practice. It felt like a thankless, Sysiphean task. And like most people I pretended to live that way out of love and graciousness. But frankly, I was mainly deceiving myself.

The good news is that the more I read the Buddha’s original teachings in the Pāli Canon, the more I realized that I was not practicing the way the Buddha taught. For example, the first 6 steps in his teaching of Mindfulness of Breathing (MN 118) are:

  1. Know when the breath is long.
  2. Know when the breath is short.
  3. Expand your awareness to experience the whole body.
  4. Calm and tranquilize the whole body.
  5. (Step 4 leads to) Experiencing joy.
  6. (Step 5 leads to) Experiencing happiness and contentment.

This is the core of the first phase of a meditation practice. It is your home base. Whenever things are not going well, either in your meditation or your life, this is where you return. It is a sanctuary, a safe and calm place, a protected harbor.

Now of course, this is not easy. This takes considerable time. But if you are only taught, as I was, to be with whatever arises, or, as in Zen, that nothing happens until you have the great breakthrough, not only do you not have the proper objective, it is a futile way to proceed.

The Buddha taught the gradual path. You get better at it over time. You develop serenity and stillness, and you use that serenity and stillness to watch ever more subtle movements of the mind. This leads to even greater serenity and stillness. Along the way you will experience the freedom of a happy, blissful non-self, and ultimately you will let go of all of that and attain the freedom of awakening.

That is always the objective. It is a happiness that does not depend on sense pleasure. Even a few precious moments of stillness are incredibly healing. They are a taste of the great peace that comes with awakening.

So you do not have to wait until some miracle happens, or simply learn to tolerate whatever comes up in the mind. The Buddha never taught either of those things. He taught us to cultivate, step-by-step, moments of great peace, contentment, and happiness, moments that finally become permanent. For Nirvaṇa is the only thing that is, in the end, permanent. And that is quite a statement. The Buddha’s great discovery was not the Noble Truth of suffering. It was that by understanding the Noble Truth of suffering that we can attain final, permanent bliss and happiness.

Posted in Buddhist meditation, Buddhist practice, Teachings of the Buddha | 2 Comments

Right Speech/Wrong Speech

I was talking to a friend of mine this past week, and he told me something quite astonishing. He said that Mahatma Gandhi was in favor of the caste system in India, and that he defended it. Further, he said, the Richard Attenborough film about Gandhi was, in his words, “bullshit.”

Now, I would not say that I am an expert on Gandhi, but I have always admired him tremendously. So when I got home, I did an Internet search to see if what he said was true.

Sure enough, I found that there are claims that this was his view. In particular, a woman named Arundhati Roy, who is a prize-winning author, makes these claims and wants everything named after Gandhi to be changed.

However, as you might suspect, the truth is more complicated than that:

“Prof Mridula Mukherjee, an expert in modern Indian history at Jawaharlal University in Delhi, said Roy’s criticism was misplaced. ‘Gandhi devoted much of his life to fighting caste prejudice. He was a reformer not a revivalist within the Hindu religion. His effort was in keeping with his philosophy of nonviolence and bringing social transformation without creating hatred,’ Mukherjee said.”
– [“Arundhati Roy accuses Mahatma Gandhi of discrimination”, The Guardian, July 18, 2014]

And his descendants vehemently deny that Gandhi supported the caste system:

“Being outspoken is one thing but being so blasé about your ignorance is quite another,” said Tushar Gandhi, great-grandson of the world-renowned thinker and activist. “It’s just an attempt to get publicity.”

Gandhi was especially appalled by the treatment of outcastes:

“Mahatma Gandhi was accused of acting as an apologist for the caste system in India. In 1932, he resorted to fasting ‘to block an affirmative action’ planned by Britain in favour of the outcastes, the so-called ‘untouchables’. Gandhi tried his best to undermine the centuries-old caste system and to remove the blot of untouchability from Hinduism. When he returned from South Africa, Gandhi was on the periphery of nationalist politics and launched a propaganda against the evils of untouchability. His fasting struck the British officials as a thinly disguised mode of coercion. After he was released from jail, Gandhi embarked on a tour in hopes of informing the Indians about the evils of untouchability.”
– [“Gandi and His Critics”, B.R. Nanda, Oxford Scholarship Online, 1994]

He also went through a change in views on the caste system:

“Gandhi’s views in regard to basic aspects of the caste system changed in the last years of his life. In the 1920s he had held that every Hindu ‘must follow the hereditary profession’ and that ‘prohibition of intermarriage’ between people of different varnas was ‘necessary for a rapid evolution of the soul.’ But later he gradually became ‘a social revolutionist,’ advocating intermarriage between Brahmins and Untouchables in order to dismantle the caste system ‘root and branch,’ and acknowledging that ‘When all become casteless, monopoly of occupations would go.’ The changes were due in part to the influence of two opponents of the caste system whose integrity he held in high regard: Ambedkar and Gora. His view of marriage between people of different religious affiliations underwent a similar change.”
– [“Changes in Mahatma Gandhi’s views on caste and intermarriage”, Mark Lindley]

(Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is an important person in Buddhism because he revived Buddhism in India, founding the Dalit Buddhist Movement, partly as a way to fight against the caste system.)

It is also, I think, important to remember the times. In politics, it is often necessary to seek incremental change given current realities. You cannot let the “perfect be the enemy of the good.” The caste system in India is deeply entrenched. To an outsider it may seem obvious that it is woefully discriminatory, and that is true. But then all cultures have some form of caste system. We certainly do in the U.S. I live among native Americans, Blacks, and Hispanics who will attest to that. Women are also largely outcastes, and most especially the poor are outcastes. It just takes a more formal form in India.

And while I know this will be quite controversial, I also saw how the caste system can work. In India your profession is inherited. If you are in Agra you might be descended from the people who built the Taj Mahal. Those skilled workers still exist, and they do the same extraordinary work. Of course, you might not want to do that kind of work, but it gives you family, tradition, and a kind of security. It is an inherited guild system.

I am not trying to defend it, just to try and get inside of it. Social systems persist because there are at least some benefits. And further, as I have seen moving to New Mexico and learning about the pueblo Indian culture, we always look at another culture through our own eyes, and we judge it based on our own often myopic values. Most people I know judge India based on one or two things they know about it. There are a million things to know about India. It is a very complicated country.

This is all by way of saying several things. First, Gandhi’s views on caste are not, as far as I can tell, all that simple. They are not one dimensional. He most assuredly deplored untouchability. At worst his views on caste and how to eliminate the caste system changed over time.

But second is the matter of speech and how we handle information that we hear. In the Buddha’s teachings on right speech, he taught two aspects that are in play here. First and most importantly is speaking the truth. Saying that Gandhi defended the caste system is simply not true. And Richard Attenborough’s film about Gandhi, while I am sure it is not perfect, is not “bullshit.” Gandhi and Attenborough’s film about him have been quite inspirational to many people. I am one of them.

The second aspect to right speech is causing discord in the community. This friend of mine spends a lot of time in India. I presume that he is perpetuating these beliefs about Gandhi. In a country that is as politically charged as India, where political parties are always trying to re-write history based on their own ideologies, sowing seeds of discord is very unskillful.

One of the aspects of the Buddha’s teachings that is especially hard to hear is how much damage we do with our unskillfulness. The moral and ethical precepts are about refraining from doing harm. We abstain from killing and harming. We abstain from taking what is not freely offered. We abstain from illicit sex. We abstain from wrong speech. We abstain from intoxication. And most importantly we constantly examine the consequences of our actions and try to learn from our mistakes.

We all want to do good things, but it would be more helpful if we put as much energy into not acting in ways that are harmful. We do more harm with wrong speech than with any other form of conduct. For some reason we always seem to want to tear people down and to believe the worst about them. This can be extremely damaging, to ourselves and to others.

Posted in Buddhist ethics, Buddhist practice, India, Teachings of the Buddha | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment