The Myth of Progress

Discuss the application of the Dharma to situations of social, political, environmental and economic suffering and injustice.
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Dharmasherab
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The Myth of Progress

Post by Dharmasherab »

The Myth of Progress
Article by Lama Jampa Thaye

https://lamajampa.org/articles-blog/201 ... f-progress
And there may be no 'progress' in religion, in practice, or in the dharma, either.
- Gary Snyder
I’ve been hearing from some people recently that Buddhism needs to change to fit with these modern times. I’m not sure what Buddhism they’re talking about.

The accumulated wisdom of the Buddhist tradition has always been transmitted in a living form, from person to person. It is thus an error to view it as merely a static body of knowledge. Each link in the chain of transmission has to re-present the teachings in light of respective cultural and social settings. We can observe this, for instance, in the early history of dharma in Tibet. At that time the great masters worked with their Indian mentors to establish lines of Indian Buddhist teachings in their new setting, one a world away from the intellectually and artistically sophisticated culture of medieval India.

Yet to accept the necessity of creative re-presentation of the tradition does not necessarily entail that we could or should improve upon the dharma itself. Nevertheless, it seems that such assumptions are prevalent in contemporary Western dharma circles due to the unacknowledged influence of the idea of progress. The power of this myth is at work whenever people talk of such things as “what the modern world can do for Buddhism” or “how science must validate the dharma.”

The notion that history is progressive and that, consequently, we are in important respects superior to preceding generations, is deeply ingrained in our way of thinking. It appears to have its roots in the Judeo-Christian notion that history is linear and is thus moving forward to a terminal point—in Christian terms, the Second Coming of Christ, an event that will usher in the end of history.

The notion of inevitable progress has been so tenacious that today’s dominant liberal and Marxist ideologies, which have in one way or another sought to replace Christianity, have swallowed its historical narrative without demur. They have merely recast it in terms of an inevitable social and intellectual progress culminating in the end of history itself. Without consciously espousing this historical narrative, most of us therefore blithely assume that we are the cleverest humans to appear on this earth, when the truth is far from that.

For every temporary improvement in one area we can point to a corresponding shrinkage of our moral, intellectual, or spiritual capacity in another. The record of the 20th century—one shaped, incidentally, by those who asserted most strongly that history was moving toward an inevitable and perfect climax, be it the communist state or the Thousand-Year Reich—ranks the bloodiest in world history.

Buddhism offers a contrary idea of history. It teaches us that history, as the manifestation of samsara, is essentially cyclical in nature. As with individual beings, so societies and civilizations rise and fall. As it says in the Lalitavistara, “The palaces of impermanence arise and decay together with their inhabitants.”

Incidentally, this is not, it should be noted, a theory of eternal recurrence with an attendant closed universe, Buddhadharma teaches that samsara will continue only so long as its fundamental cause, unawareness, is not eradicated.

In spite of this, the fact remains that for Buddhism progress is not inevitable. The only lasting change is that which is won by the individual effort to apply the methods of the Buddha and, by doing so, finally attaining the transhistorical state of Buddhahood. In this light it makes no sense to talk and act as if we can and must improve on the Buddha in terms of moral sensibility, contemplative experience, and philosophical insight.

To put it plainly, we take refuge in the Buddha because, as the ritual of refuge declares, “He is supreme among humans” due to his realization of the true nature of reality. That true nature of reality, emptiness beyond coming or going, cannot be modified—it neither declines nor improves. This means that the transcendental wisdom that apprehends it cannot be improved either. If that were possible, the Buddha would not be the Enlightened One and a valid source of refuge.

These questions of adaptation were a matter of intense debate in the 13th century when Sakya Pandita cautioned his fellow Tibetans, “Since there is nobody in the three realms wiser than the Buddha, one should not adulterate the sutras and tantras that he taught. To do so is to abandon the doctrine and disparage the Noble Ones.”

When we talk about adaptation and flexibility, then, we should not confuse them with improving the Buddha’s teachings. None of the intellectual products of this particular civilization, be they political ideologies or transient scientific theories of the material world, possess anything that could improve the core of the dharma. In asserting this, one is not denying that the dharma can vary in its expression but rather, following the words of the bodhisattva Maitreya in the Uttaratantrashastra, that the ultimate source of the dharma—its very core, so to speak—is the unchanging state of Buddhahood: “In a true sense only the buddha is the refuge of beings since only he embodies the body of the dharma (dharmakaya).”

The rejection of progress as incompatible with the very nature of dharma might strike some as being in conflict with the view expressed in such Mahayana scriptures as the Saddharmapundarikasutra that all beings will eventually attain Buddhahood. The Mahayana notion of universal enlightenment should not, however, be misunderstood as a claim that progress toward Buddhahood is somehow structured into the very nature of the world, and that we are always reaching ever closer to it. Instead, its sense is that all beings will obtain enlightenment because they are primordially pervaded by buddhanature, the true nature of reality itself. As it says in the Hevajra Tantra, “All beings are already buddhas but this is obscured. When the obscurations are removed this is Buddhahood.”

The task before us in the 21st century is not to alter the timeless message of the Buddha, but, once we have received it fully (a process which may well have some way to go!), to present it in the language and organizational forms most appropriate for the contemporary situation. By doing so, we will emulate the bodhisattva Samantabhadra’s famous vow: “May I teach the dharma in however many languages of beings there may be.”

It would serve us well to remember that in the West, it’s still the early days of buddhadharma. For us, the Buddha is still teaching in Bodhgaya and Guru Padmasambhava has just decided to tame the proud.
“When one does not understand death, life can be very confusing.” - Ajahn Chah
Malcolm
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Re: The Myth of Progress

Post by Malcolm »

Dharmasherab wrote: Mon Oct 04, 2021 4:55 pm
These questions of adaptation were a matter of intense debate in the 13th century when Sakya Pandita cautioned his fellow Tibetans, “Since there is nobody in the three realms wiser than the Buddha, one should not adulterate the sutras and tantras that he taught. To do so is to abandon the doctrine and disparage the Noble Ones.”
People who quote Sakya Pandita need to be careful, lest they be hoisted on their own petard.
"Death stands before all who are born."
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Dharmasherab
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Re: The Myth of Progress

Post by Dharmasherab »

Lama Jampa Thaye is of the Sakya schook of Buddhism (as well as Karma Kagyu). The HH Sakya Trichen was one of the main teachers of Lama Jampa Thaye. So I can reassure he did take care when quoting Sakya Pandita.
“When one does not understand death, life can be very confusing.” - Ajahn Chah
Malcolm
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Re: The Myth of Progress

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Dharmasherab wrote: Mon Oct 04, 2021 5:21 pm So I can reassure he did take care when quoting Sakya Pandita.
Yeah, he really didn't. I am Loppon Kunga Namdrol, also of the Sakya school. HH Sakya Trichen is one of my main teachers too, from whom I have received all the main teachings of the Sakya school. I have also received the transmission for Sapan's Three Vows, so I am intimately familiar with its contents. Sapan did not approve of termas, which Jampa Thaye practices (Konchog Chidu). Hence, hoisted in his own petard.
"Death stands before all who are born."
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Re: The Myth of Progress

Post by Johnny Dangerous »

Heh, I can agree with his general tone here but it is a funny quote to use when someone is practicing an “innovation” of sorts I.e. Terma. Maybe he just wrote it with his Sakya hat on.
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Malcolm
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Re: The Myth of Progress

Post by Malcolm »

Johnny Dangerous wrote: Mon Oct 04, 2021 6:17 pm Heh, I can agree with his general tone here but it is a funny quote to use when someone is practicing an “innovation” of sorts I.e. Terma. Maybe he just wrote it with his Sakya hat on.
No, since he cites Padmasambhava in the end. For early Sakyapas like Sapan, Padmasambhava was an important imperial period figure, but he and others in his milieu were very resistant to the nascent mythopoeia about Padmsambhava by Nyangral, Guru Chowang, and others in the late 12th and the 13th century Nyingma scene connected with the burgeoning treasure tradition.
"Death stands before all who are born."
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Dharmasherab
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Re: The Myth of Progress

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Malcolm wrote: Mon Oct 04, 2021 5:55 pm Yeah, he really didn't........Sapan did not approve of termas, which Jampa Thaye practices (Konchog Chidu). Hence, hoisted in his own petard.
So this is based on the disagreement between whether termas are approved or not? Is it? How does that change one's understanding? In this instance what is your understanding of what Sakya Pandita mentioned?

*HH Sakya Trichen is my main teacher in Vajrayana (I am new to Vajrayana and joined in 2016).
“When one does not understand death, life can be very confusing.” - Ajahn Chah
Malcolm
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Re: The Myth of Progress

Post by Malcolm »

Dharmasherab wrote: Mon Oct 04, 2021 6:54 pm
Malcolm wrote: Mon Oct 04, 2021 5:55 pm Yeah, he really didn't........Sapan did not approve of termas, which Jampa Thaye practices (Konchog Chidu). Hence, hoisted in his own petard.
So this is based on the disagreement between whether termas are approved or not? Is it? How does that change one's understanding? In this instance what is your understanding of what Sakya Pandita mentioned?

*HH Sakya Trichen is my main teacher in Vajrayana (I am new to Vajrayana and joined in 2016).
Well, I have been around in 1989.

My point was and is, one needs to be careful in invoking Sapan when complaining about "progress," if you yourself are engaged in practices which Sapan scoffed at——in Jampa Thaye's case, both Kagyu Mahāmudra and the terma tradition. Trying to position yourself as a Buddhist conservative using Sapan as an authority when yourself engage in practices of which Sapan plainly rejected, well, a little inept. Otherwise, I am sure Jampa Thaye is a nice fellow. I never met him.
In this instance what is your understanding of what Sakya Pandita mentioned?
One should rely on a doctrine taught by the Buddhas, realized by mahasiddhas, commented upon by panditas, and translated by the lotsawas. That's it. All of Thaye's other remarks are just so much conservative whinging that have nothing to with Buddhadharma. I mean, what are we to make of Aśoka murdering 18,000 Jains over a satirical cartoon? Continue to revere him as the ideal Dharmarāja? Come on.

This, "The rejection of progress as incompatible with the very nature of dharma...," is a ridiculous assertion, as ridiculous as those people whom Salya Pandita chided for rejecting medicine because some people imagine, foolishly, that accepting medicine to cure illness means one has no faith in Dharma.

He directly contradicts himself in the very next passage:

The Mahayana notion of universal enlightenment should not, however, be misunderstood as a claim that progress toward Buddhahood is somehow structured into the very nature of the world, and that we are always reaching ever closer to it. Instead, its sense is that all beings will obtain enlightenment because they are primordially pervaded by buddhanature, the true nature of reality itself.

If the true nature of reality is buddhanature (it isn't, only sentient beings have buddhanature, not rocks and trees) then progress towards buddhahood is structured into the nature of the world.


This is also poorly written, "Buddhism offers a contrary idea of history. It teaches us that history, as the manifestation of samsara, is essentially cyclical in nature." Buddhism does not teach anything at all about history. History is a modern, empirically-based discipline, which did not exist in the time of the Buddha. At best, during the time of the Buddha, there was only "Itihasa," that is, just so stories.

The funny thing, he could be criticizing the right wing author, Francis Fukuyama here, "The notion of inevitable progress has been so tenacious that today’s dominant liberal and Marxist ideologies, which have in one way or another sought to replace Christianity, have swallowed its historical narrative without demur. They have merely recast it in terms of an inevitable social and intellectual progress culminating in the end of history itself." Of course, Fukuyama retreated from his neoconservative ideals in the wake of the Iraq war:

https://www.spiegel.de/international/in ... 07315.html

Finally he says, in contradiction to his whole spiel, "The task before us in the 21st century is not to alter the timeless message of the Buddha, but, once we have received it fully (a process which may well have some way to go!), to present it in the language and organizational forms most appropriate for the contemporary situation."

This happens organically anyway. There is no need to contrive this, especially by going off like some Buddhist William F. Buckley Jr. on the supposed tragedies of "liberalism." What people have to do is learn Tibetan, receive the teachings, do the retreats, and pass on the teachings. Personal politics has very little to do with this process. But when people begin citing people like Sapan, who was a strict formalist when it came discerning which teachings were of valid provenance as opposed to Tibetan innovations, they had better make sure they are not hoisting themselves on their own petards.
"Death stands before all who are born."
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tingdzin
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Re: The Myth of Progress

Post by tingdzin »

I too look askance at people who think Buddhist tradition can be altered at the whim of the politically correct. But I am also extremely wary of people like JT who claim to be spokesmen for "the timeless wisdom of the Buddhas". Having narrow teaching qualifications in a single school of Buddhism hardly qualifies one to pronounce upon the whole vast spectrum of Buddhist thought, practice, and history that have come down to us over 2500 years.

Since you do admit you are a newbie, though, rather than get on your case, I would just suggest you study and practice a good deal more before taking sides in controversies. Five years is pretty much nothing.
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Re: The Myth of Progress

Post by PadmaVonSamba »

I’ve been hearing from some people recently that Buddhism needs to change to fit with these modern times. I’m not sure what Buddhism they’re talking about.
When there is some significant change to what the conflicting thoughts and emotions are, self-grasping, greed, impatience, anger, desire, and so on, then maybe the Dharma would need to change. But these have remained the same since forever.
Water containers used to be bags made from animal bellies. Then there were chalices of metal and cups made from clay, then glass, and now plastic bottles. But the water (except of course pollution etc) is still basically the same thing as it always was, because that’s what satisfies thirst.
Same with the Buddhadharma. Eventually some of the symbolism or the rituals and traditions may change, but the actual teaching and practice, the essential Dharma addresses the facts of our human condition. And humans haven’t really changed that much in over 3000 years.
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Re: The Myth of Progress

Post by PadmaVonSamba »

This Jampa fellow says:
The record of the 20th century—one shaped, incidentally, by those who asserted most strongly that history was moving toward an inevitable and perfect climax, be it the communist state or the Thousand-Year Reich—ranks the bloodiest in world history.
This might or might not be true. But the funny thing is, whenever people talk about how awful the “modern” 20th century was, the fact is that WW1 was a turning point in world history because it really marks the end of the “age of conquest” which had really been all of human history.

I’m not saying that imperialism and colonialism suddenly ended. Of course not. But my point is, for example, Germany’s invasion of Europe (WW2) would now be regarded as an evil, aggressive action, whereas had it occurred a century or two earlier, history would have it remembers as a perfectly legitimate means of expansion, just as it regarded the expansion of British empire.

Of course, this all depends on who you ask. The Indian population certainly didn’t think very highly of British rule.

In short, before the 20th century, invading and conquering and subduing another people was generally regarded as perfectly legitimate everywhere in the world. That’s what you did with power. Genghis Khan did it. The Romans did it. Even if you were on the captured side, there wasn’t much disagreement that you would have been the invader, if you could have been.

After WW1, there was a shift (at least in Europe, but that’s where most of the imperialist countries were) and a view that “we don’t do that any more!” (at least to each other. As I said, colonialism still continued and continues today).

I am aware that this is a painfully simplistic analysis of history. My point is that the 20th century really marked the beginning of an era where war and rule by invasion and conquest is a bad thing, rather than a good thing. Nations still do it, of course. But today, if one country invades another, this is regarded as an act of aggression, where as a couple of centuries ago it would have been regarded simply as a glorious and noble display of superiority and power.

And I think that much of the political awareness and social change happening today, much of it on a personal level, all the way down to one’s own gender identity, is derivative of this shift that occurred a hundred years ago on an international scale. There is a greater view of individual autonomy, an attitude that “you don’t have the right to rule over me” (at least by force).

In most ways this is probably good, although in terms of societal identity as a whole, it also probably weakens the glue, and you end up with all this neo-tribalism and imbalanced “me first” politics.

So, I think it’s funny when people discredit the modern age, because I think we are generally headed in the right direction. When injustice occurs, people mobilize and speak out against it. When the powers-that-be want to burn someone at the stake, they don’t just bring marshmallows to the bonfire.
EMPTIFUL.
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