and the Buddha
[Note: down to the stars
this article is identical to "The
Influence of Joseph Campbell."]
To understand the point of view
expressed in the Realize! pages, you must understand two
of the most important influences on my thinking. One of
these is the work of Joseph Campbell; the other is my studies in
Until my divorce in 1990, I was pretty
much a "Western Civ" kind of guy, interested in Greek
philosophy, Medieval scholasticism, and British
literature. My majors in university were English and philosophy,
and-- as I was in those days an "Evangelical
Christian"-- I used these disciplines to explore (and
ultimately justify) my belief in the Bible as The Word of God.
All this changed when my wife left and
everything I knew was cut loose from its moorings.
Unlike some, who find that such
experiences strengthen their faith, I found mine shattered. The
"faith community" that my wife and I had been a part
of failed me utterly, and I started searching for something...more.
As mentioned above, this
search led me initially to the writings of Joseph Campbell. But,
as useful as his thinking has been for me, it is still not a
living "wisdom tradition" (though I hope it might
become one some day). As my thinking continued to develop,
I found myself in the mid-90s craving a more cohesive way of
seeing the world. And some of the same people who had led me to
Joseph Campbell were also deeply interested in Buddhism (and in
Native American beliefs--a story told in the Joseph
And so I read and
discussed this completely "alien" tradition
sporadically with friends I trusted throughout the early and
mid-90s, little realizing that my life was soon to take a
serious turn to the East.
In late 1996 I found
myself for various reasons without meaningful employment.
Scanning the want-ads one day, I saw this notice: "Teach
English in Japan. AEON Corporation," followed by a phone
number. I called the number, which led to applications and
interviews and--long story short--found myself on a plane on
February 22, 1997, winging my way to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Let's be clear: I was not
on a quest for enlightenment when I went to Japan. I
was just fulfilling a job contract.
Or was I? Because
once I got there, something was "awakened" in me (in
the usual sense, not the technical Buddhist one) and I began to
learn things I had never imagined.
five years later, I had studied with a lama, and befriended
several monks. I had completed the four largest pilgrimages
in Japan, numbering 188 temples (read details of one of those pilgrimages here).
I had visited literally hundreds of Buddhist temples and Shinto
shrines. I had chanted numerous Buddhist prayers, and had
sat Zazen. I had also picked the brains of many friends, gaijin
and Japanese, including priests of various Buddhist
schools. I had lit more sticks of incense, venerated more
statues, and devoured more books than I can count.
And still my knowledge
of what the Buddha really taught was deficient. I
had gained a great deal of experiential knowledge, but somehow
there hadn't been a "click."
After nearly five years,
I returned to the U.S. and made an astounding discovery. I
had ended my time in Japan with a ten-week
journey that had stripped me down to a bundle of raw
emotions. Now, back in the States, I was undergoing
reverse culture shock--a bit like Post Traumatic Stress. I was casting about for a way to deepen and
broaden the experience gained during my sojourn in Japan, to
link up my knowledge of temples and pilgrimages with authentic
Buddhist teachings, while making my re-entry into an America
that was radically different from the one I had left (this was,
after all, just three months after September 11, 2001).
And to my surprise, in
my own home town of Rosemead, California, on the very street
where my family had bought land and built a house in the late
40s (a house where my aunt was still living in early 2002),
there was a Buddhist university, the University
of the West, operated by a vital, living monastic
community--and they offered a Ph.D. for a mere $1,000US a
So I took a job as an
administrator in an ESL school, and in September of 2002 I went
back to school.
By December of 2003 I
had completed all of the coursework for a Doctor of Philosophy
in the study of religions--and there I stopped, due largely to
my departure to China. I lack the dissertation and the
language requirement (Sanskrit, Pali, classical Chinese, or
Tibetan)--and I may never complete it.
And I don't care.
Because what I learned
gave me enough to give the rest of my sojourn in this world a
shape and a direction.
Meanwhile, to round out
my formal studies, I left the ESL school and went to work full time
at Hsi Lai
Temple, the Chinese Buddhist temple which had sponsored
the university, and said to be the largest Buddhist temple in
the Western hemisphere. As a tour guide, editor, and ESL teacher
to the staff (including monks and nuns), I learned as much
in six months at the temple as I did in a year and a half at the
university. These two experiences--the university and the
temple--gave me the sort of balanced exposure I needed to
continue my studies and practice on my own. Melding them with my
previous Christian studies and the universalism I had acquired
through Joseph Campbell and my other studies, this experience helped me arrive
at the Neo-Perennialist
viewpoint I now espouse. (Follow my Tour
of Hsi Lai Temple here, to learn more about what the
temple and the university taught me.)
Living in South China,
on the Hong Kong border, has also helped tremendously in
consolidating my appreciation and understanding of Buddhism. You see,
there is little "pure Buddhism" in China; rather, it
is blended with Taoism, Confucianism, and folk traditions into a
world view that is based, not on doctrine, but on "what
works." By examining the ideas that underlie these
various traditions, the conclusions I have reached have been
expanded and reinforced. It is a truly remarkable
And what, exactly, has
Buddhism brought to me?
Foremost is my sense
that Buddhism is not so much a religion as a psychological
system. My teachers from Sri Lanka (home of
what might be called "Fundamentalist Buddhism") showed
me that the Buddha never claimed to be more than a man--an
enlightened man, to be sure, but a man nonetheless. And
the techniques that he espoused had mostly to do with
controlling the mind, and never with "calling on the gods
The Buddha was extremely
rational. He never asked for faith: The Kalama
Sutra makes the Buddha's attitude toward
experience (vs. authority) quite clear:
"Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk
[i.e. the Buddha] is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them."
Likewise, later, after repeating the first part of this speech, the Buddha ended it with:
"Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them."
yourselves know...": a reasonable criterion.
He also said that the
teaching was subservient to the goal. In the well-known
"Raft Simile," the Buddha indicated that we must grasp
his teachings lightly, and not struggle to keep them beyond
The Blessed One said: "Suppose a man were traveling along a path. He would see a great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious and risky, the further shore secure and free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. The thought would occur to him, 'Here is this great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious and risky, the further shore secure and free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. What if I were to gather grass, twigs, branches,
and leaves and, having bound them together to make a raft, were to cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with my hands
and feet?' Then the man, having gathered grass, twigs, branches,
and leaves, having bound them together to make a raft, would cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with his hands and feet. Having crossed over to the further shore, he might think, 'How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands and feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don't I, having hoisted it on my head or carrying on my back, go wherever I like?' What do you think, monks: Would the man, in doing that, be doing what should be done with the raft?"
"And what should the man do in order to be doing what should be done with the raft? There is the case where the man, having crossed over, would think, 'How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in
dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands
and feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don't I, having dragged it on dry land or sinking it in the water, go wherever I like?' In doing this, he would be doing what should be done with the raft. In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma
[the Buddha's teachings] compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dhamma as taught compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dhammas, to say nothing of
--from the Alagaddupama Sutta
Though we must grasp
the Dharma lightly, this does not mean that we can take
the Dharma lightly. In the same sutra, he warned in the
Water-Snake simile that when we do grasp the Dharma, we
must grasp it correctly!
While the early
teachings of the Buddha make it clear that there is nothing
"supernatural" in his teachings, and that the goal of
enlightenment is far more important than the things that he
said, it must be
noted that there is something in the human that cries out for something
to worship. And so, as the Mahayana tradition developed in India
and later migrated to China and points east, it incorporated opportunities
for veneration, prayer, and the other trappings of theism.
Many Buddhists light incense and make other offerings, and even
prostrate themselves, before images of the Buddha.
And so there are two
main "paths" in Buddhism: psychological exercise or
religious practice. The Japanese call the first jiriki,
"self-power," where one's efforts save one. This
is sometimes called "The Way of the Monkey," whose
baby clings with his own strength to his mother as she flies to
safety. They call the other tariki, "other
power," where one is saved by calling on supernatural
aid. This is "The Way of the Kitten," who is
carried to safety in his mother's mouth.
In Buddhist practice, you can have it both ways.
And so, although I have
never actually "become a Buddhist" (in the Chinese
tradition, this is done by "Taking Refuge in the Triple
Gem" of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha), I do
recite prayers every day (almost), and attempt to put into practice many of
the wise teachings, as outlined below. I have even
acquired a large wooden statue of the Buddha, and this summer
hope to develop and decorate a "Joss Room" in my spare
bedroom where I can sit and chant.
The following is a
partial list of Buddhist ideas (in no particular order) that have been important in my
development. Many of them are discussed from time to time in
and further essays will be developed as time goes by. (See a
more complete list at Buddhism
- Buddhahood and Buddha
- The Dharma as a teaching which reflects universal laws
- Emptiness (which
results from Dependent Origination, the idea that something
exists only in its relation to all other things)
Interconnectedness, "Indra's Net of Gems"
Prerequisite to any understanding of the Dharma, it is a
lifetime's practice unto itself
- Veracity: Huston
Smith's word for "seeing things as they really
- Cause and effect
- The simplest ethical
precepts I ever heard: "Avoid Evil, Do Good, and Purify
- The importance of
moral behavior before the mind can be tamed
or "Skillful means"--the idea of adjusting the
means of teaching to fit the student
- Karma and Merit
- The Vows of the
- Wisdom and Compassion
- Two Truths: The
conventional truths by which we operate in the world, and
the Absolute Truth of "that world"; important here
is the idea that sometimes we must operate according to one
kind of truth, and sometimes by the other
Three Poisons: (1) greed or desire, (2) anger or hatred, and
(3) ignorance or delusion
- The Four Noble
Truths, which include the crucial idea that "All life
is suffering" because "Suffering is caused by
desire," and if we could control our desires we would
- The Five
Precepts: "I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from: (1) harming living beings, (2) taking things not freely given (stealing), (3) sexual misconduct, (4) false speech (lying), (5) intoxicating drinks and drugs causing carelessness."
- The Six Perfections: (1) giving or charity (practice of compassion), (2) morality, (3) patience, (4) vigor or diligence, (5) meditation, and (6)
- The Noble Eightfold
Path: Two for Wisdom: (1) Right View and (2) Right Intention;
Three for Ethical Conduct: (3) Right Speech, (4) Right Action, and (5) Right Livelihood; and
Three for Mental Development: (6) Right Effort, (7) Right Mindfulness, and (8) Right Concentration
(C) 2006 James Baquet