Sunday, February 22, 2009

Geshe Sonam Rinchen

I read How Karma Works: The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising by Geshe Sonam Rinchen. Transcribed talks are edited and translated by Ruth Sonam. This is a deep book that at times went over my head. The twelve nidanas are one conception of pratitya samutpada, conditioned existence. This is not a book for someone new to Buddhism who wants to know about karma.

Here a quotes I liked from the book:

"As intelligent people we must look for the very heart of Buddhist practice and investigate how this relates to our minds and whether it is relevant to our lives." (p.16). In fact reading the whole page and the next one are good quotes, but I don't want to quote too much.

The tradition allow for doubt, and the real test is your pragmatic application. This is one reason why Buddhism doesn't have to have schismatic debates. Nobody can say to me, "no, you will pragmatically benefit from the concept of motivation by rebirth." That sounds absurd. You could have a debate about what would be the best way to motivate Americans or women or some such group, but that would perhaps be part sociological, and I just won't be interested in that kind of marketing.

"We cannot hope to transform ourselves by constructing fantasies. Transformation must be rooted in reality and based on seeing things as they actually are." (p.42)

I can be a bit of the dreamy type, so I find this quote a wonderful antidote. This should be one of my slogans.

"Our attention should be firmly directed inwards and we should take the teachings very personally, constantly relating them to ourselves and to the search to discover the real cause of our difficulties." (p. 55-56)

This is another theme I like: You need to directly apply the teachings, more is folly. Reading a bunch of books, but not changing who you are, is not what Buddhism is about.

I think what I like about these quotes is that they get filed under right motivation, of the eightfold path.

I don't like the idea that we know anything about rebirth, and in general that is one of the most off-putting aspect of various Tibetan Buddhism--the idea that you should be motivated by rebirth. Rebirth does not motivate me. I have no real information about it. I don't dismiss it, because it is foreign or because it's not part of my experience. But I also honor my feeling that it doesn't signify anything I can make sense of. On p. 133-4, in note 46, explaining the "eight assets" the author discusses actions that result in different rebirths. I feel incredulous. I'm skeptical someone could actually know that. I do believe that people have deep spiritual experiences and that they might see things that I can't understand or imagine, but I'm going to honor my experience in this one. I would refer you to the early works of Stephen Batchelor for further development of this theme. He is famous for his break with the Tibetans over this issue.

My solution was to insert for, "and you should not do that because of rebirth," something like, "and that's why you would benefit from putting in the extra effort to work towards enlightenment," or something else I believed in.

Now is this me holding to a belief, clinging to an idea? Or is it the tradition clinging to a belief? Time will tell. Anyway, it's not a debate about truth in philosophy, I'm talking about the pragmatic application of the teachings. Rebirth just doesn't motivate.

"The purified side of the twelve links begins when we become exalted being with direct experience of reality" (p. 91). What this reality is, and if there's some special emphasis in Buddhism is another thing. We have so many defenses and our distortions of reality make a closer perception of reality difficult.

The FWBO has a strength in that it thinks also about the positive spiral, and not just the negative 12 links. While this book misses this canonical stuff, this book is excellent for going over the 12 nidanas. I must admit that I have to reread it, it's pretty complex and there were sections I didn't understand.

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