I recently completed listening to the Dalai Lama’s book How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life. This is a pretty good little introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. A few interesting quotes jumped out at me that I wanted to share and, perhaps, reference in future posts.
Tibetan Buddhism is Merit Based
I’ve always argued that the Evangelical claim that Mormonism is merit based is a misrepresentation. Buddhism really is a merit based religion according to the following quotes:
With that knowledge, aspire to highest enlightenment by reciting: “Through the collections of merit of my giving, morality, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom, may I achieve Buddhahood in order to help all beings.” (p. 101)
Try to accumulate the two forces of merit and wisdom as much as possible. To increase merit, engage willingly in virtuous activities like generosity and morality. (p. 105)
Tibetan Buddhism Identifies Meaning in Life Coming from Giving Up Personal Happiness
I have long believed that personal happiness may not be what we want out of life, but rather we want ‘meaning.’ And ‘meaning’ seems to come from voluntarily suffering to reduce the suffering of others. The following quote suggests this very relationship:
There was a scholarly practitioner from Drashikyil monastery in the northeastern province of Tibet called Amdo. In 1950 when the Chinese Communist invaded and arrested one thousand out of the three thousand monks at the monastery, a hundred of them were marked to be killed. He was one of them. Taken to execution grounds, and just before being shot, he prayed: May all the ill deeds, obstructions, and suffering of beings be transferred to me, without exception, at this moment, and my happiness and merit [Note the merit based beliefs again] be sent to others. May all creatures be imbued with happiness!
Just a few moments before being killed, he had the spiritual presence to remember the practice of taking on others’ pain and giving away his own happiness! (p. 92)
All Religions Must Make Truth Claims — Buddhism Is No Exception
Theologically Liberals often turn to Buddhism as an example of a religion that doesn’t make truth claims about reality but, instead, accepts all religions as true. This doesn’t seem to be the case. Religions seem to require truth claims about reality to be viable and Tibetan Buddhism is no exception, as the following quotes will suggest:
Know that the Buddha is the teacher of refuge, that the truth paths and true cessations are the actual refuge, and that the Bodhisattvas who have directly realized the true nature of phenomena are our spiritual community, leading all sentient beings to refuge. (p. 100)
Sometimes, it’s even necessary to rebuke other sects of Buddhism when the teach false doctrines:
Intellectually acquired states of mind come about through adherence to false systems. For example, there are followers of some Buddhist schools who believe that phenomena conventionally exist by way of their own character, based on the unfounded “reasoning” that if phenomena were not established in this way, they could not function. This kind of misconception, polluted by an invalid system of tenets, is called artificial, or intellectually acquired. (p. 204 )
And there are supernatural beliefs about reality as well, in this case the Buddhist equivalent to guardian angels:
From the very subtle wind, or energy – which is one entity with that mind – various pure and impure physical forms spontaneously spring forth to assist sentient beings; these are called the Form Bodies of a Buddha. This is Buddhahood, a state of being a source of help and happiness for all sentient beings. (p. 207)
Not All Doctrines Are Welcome
Apparently Buddhism has the same sort of need as Christian religions to make explanations for doctrines that seem unjust or unfair. Consider the following doctrine, which seemingly undermines the whole concept of merit because having a dull mind at the end of life can literally undo all the merit gained throughout life:
Your state of mind just before rebirth is influential in determining the character of your next life. You may have accumulated great merit in your life, but if you leave it with a dull mind, you jeopardize the form that your next life will take. On the other hand, even if you committed some regrettable deeds in your lifetime, when the final day comes, if you are prepared and determined to use that occasion to the fullest, your next rebirth will definite be good. Therefore, strive to train the mind to be fresh, alert, and sharp. (p. 130)
Buddhist View of Mind
Buddhists have some very interesting ideas about what mind and consciousness are. I wanted to share a few. The first is an explanation of why “I” is what they call an “empty” concept: (Note: Tibetan Buddhists believe all concept are actually empty.)
A coiled rope’s specked color and coiling are similar to those of a snake, and when the rope is perceived in a dim area, the thought arises, “This is a snake.” As for the rope, at that time when it is seen to be a snake, the collection and parts of the rope are not even in the slightest way a snake. Therefore, the sanke it merely setup by conceptuality. In the same way, when the thought “I” arises in dependence upon mind and body, nothing within mind and body – neither the collection which is a continuum of earlier and later moments, nor the collection of the parts at one time, nor the separate parts, nor the continuum of any of the separate parts – is in even the slightest way the “I.” Also there is not even the slightest something that is a different entity from mind and body that is apprehendable as the “I.” Consequently, the “I’ is merely setup by conceptuality in dependence upon mind and body; it is not established by way of its own entity. (Quoting from Tsongkhapa about unfindability and the fact that phenomena are dependent on conceptuality.) (p. 139)
And this one represents an infinite regress of consciousness similar to the LDS Concept of “gods”:
A mind arises in dependence upon a former mind of similar type, which requires that there has been an earlier beginningless continuum of mind. If the production of a mind did not need to depend upon former moments of mind but could just be produced causelessly, then a mind could be produced anywhere and any time, which is absurd. Similarly, if consciousness was not produced as a continuation of a former entity of consciousness and instead were produced from something physical, either it would always, absurdly, be produced or it would never be produced, which is also absurd. This indicates that consciousness is a continuation of a former entity of consciousness.
Because consciousness is based in a former moment of consciousness, there can be no beginning to its continuum. There is no beginning of consciousness, and there is no end to it. This continuum makes possible the transformation of the mind into improved states. When the mental continuum is associated with impure states, our experience is limited to the realm of cyclic existence. When the mental continuum breaks free from impure states, we can achieve nirvana. (p. 176)
Meaning: I’d Rather Suffer for A Purpose
As noted above, Buddhism is described as preferring meaning found in suffering over happiness. This is really a profound thought for me, and one I approve of. In fact, Buddhism takes this quite far, literally choosing to define all suffering in life as coming from something one has done bad and never from just chance. While this might sound far- fetched to atheists, I believe the Dali Lama is right in that this doctrine is preferable to meaningless suffering, which is what Atheists want us to believe in.
While this doctrine might seem distasteful in some ways, the end result is that Buddhists see life as entirely just. While personally I prefer the Mormon solution to this issue, I applaud Buddhism for taking the question seriously and theorizing of a possible answer to this problem rather than just ignoring it like atheists do:
When you are confronted with trouble, do whatever you can to overcome it, but it if is insurmountable, then reflect on the fact that this trouble is due to your own actions in this, or a previous life. Understanding that suffering comes from karma will bring some peace as it reveals that life is not unjust. Otherwise sorry and pain might seem to be meaningless. (p. 131 -132)
This quote further emphasizes a point I’ve made elsewhere – that justice, God, and afterlife are not three separate concepts, but three manifestations of a single concept. Likewise, I believe a quote like this (as well as many of the others above) prove that Buddhism (Tibetan Buddhism anyhow) is a Theistic religion even if it does not accept a personal God. But reality itself ends up playing the same role and the end result is the same. There are many concepts of “God” that humans have believed over the ages. Buddhism effectively raises ‘reality’ or ‘the universe’ (their view of it anyhow) to the very place “God” holds to a Christian.  And like the Christian view of “God” the Buddhist view of “Reality” or “the Universe” may turn out to be true or false.
 There are many more similarities than just this, but this will suffice for my current point.
I love these ideas. Well, most of them. I agree that the LDS religion is not merit based, and I prefer it that way. Otherwise I’m doomed. But I love the idea of the purpose of life being to find meaning in suffering, rather than avoiding it.
With the concept of elevation of sacrifice, one might almost think that Christianity is an offshoot of Buddhism.
This is a great post.
While you referred a little bit to the Buddhist concept of not-self (e.g., the “I” is empty), you kinda treated this neutrally…whereas many other people I’ve seen address Buddhism (esp. from Mormon backgrounds) have (perhaps expectedly) vehemently rejected this idea.
What are your thoughts?
Well, that’s a tough question for me. When you really understand what the Dalai Lama is saying, the concept of ’emptiness’ both truth and trite to me. So I guess you can say that I agree in the concept of emptiness — including of self — but don’t really care and don’t believe it’s worth making a religion around. You might say it’s a somewhat “empty” concept to me. Sort of obvious.
The Dalai Lama anyhow used “empty” to mean something pretty close to “changing.” If the opposite of “empty” is “never changing” then count me as “empty.”
Also, as an AI fanatic, I’m pretty open to the idea that our minds (whatever those are) are made up of various agents that we might not perceive as ‘intelligent’ individually. In other words, I think it is possible to break minds down into parts. (If you can’t do that, then I perceive that as meaning they are atomic and therefore unexplainable by any set of laws — and therefore incomprehendible. You argued with me over this in a past post.) This seems to fit well with what the Dalai Lama was getting at. And, again, I see no problem with this.
Maybe I’m referring to other forms of Buddhism and mixing them all up (a greivous error, so sue me), but I think the contention often comes in with the “goal”/”afterlife.”
It seems to me (and I don’t know much but from blog posts like these and from others) to Nirvana (as it relates to the emptiness of the self, impermanence, etc., etc.,) is the complete dismantling of all the things that one has (erroneously) considered to be the self. So, instead of thinking of Nirvana as *you* accomplishing this great task that is attributed to *you*, it’s more of “you” reducing to nothing.
…is that still both truth and trite to you? Or do you think I have it wrong (or a different understanding than what the Dalai Lama/Tibetan Buddhism teaches), or was I just unclear?
I have tried to make sense of Nirvana. The problem is that it’s never fully explained and is assumed to be unexplainable.
Some seem to think of it in such a way that it’s very similar to the Christian concept of heaven. Others do seem to think of it as the dismantling of self just as you said.
Taking your interpretation literally, I guess I have one thing to say: Atheists make it a lot easier and less painful, so their religion is superior in this regard.
What, you think I’m not serious?
I’m sure you’re completely serious. That magnifies my previous response.
Very interesting points. I find the concept of all suffering and blessing being merit based to be curious within Buddhism. I’ve always considered this concept somewhat immature within it’s LDS context, wherein naive members pat themselves on the back for every blessing they receive, and feel guilt for every trial they face. Whereas the more mature view found in Ecclesiastes: “The rain falls upon the just and the unjust” seems to many to be a much more reasonable indicator of the distribution of suffering and blessing in life.
Is the Ecclesiastes view entirely missing from Bhuddism? Do they really consider every suffering to be a punishment for sin?
This seems to be quite an idealistic view of life, not unlike the “best of all possible worlds” philosophers of the Enlightenment, who thought that “whatever is, is right.”
Also would be curious to hear your own views on why you feel Mormonism is “not merit-based.” Would this be in the case of grace-based general salvation in one of the kingdoms of glory as opposed to merit-based salvation in the Celestial Kingdom?
I wonder how far Buddhism’s merit based development applies: to just reincarnation or also in reaching Nirvana?
The focus is that we are reincarnated until we achieve complete Nirvana, at which time we can regain the Well of Souls. The main idea in Buddhism is to escape the illusion of the physical world, and return to the real world of spirit.
This is where meaning comes into play. Meaning leads us to the nothingness: or the real spiritual realm, versus the illusion of the physical. Happiness is an illusion of the physical world, whereas suffering, while also illusion, does offer the benefit of giving meaning and can thus lead us back to Nirvana.
Merit comes primarily into play in what we reincarnate into on the following life. If our mind is dulled prior to death, we may not be able to see clearly to reincarnate into a higher form.
“Would this be in the case of grace-based general salvation…”
But I don’t really see Celestial salvation as merit based in any ultimate sense. It’s still entirely grace enabled.
Ram, thanks for the further explanation. That all fits very well with what I read/listened to.
Bruce, I haven’t studied Tibetan Buddhism that much. I did spend a year with the Air Force in South Korea, and spent a lot of time learning about standard Buddhism. I believe that many concepts apply between the different forms. The Tibetans call their Buddhas “Lamas”. A Buddha is a person who has achieved Nirvana or the highest level of spiritual being, and remains behind to be a teacher to everyone else.
As I said, Nirvana is the achieving of experiencing nothingness. This world is illusion, and our ultimate goal is to achieve the Well of Souls. Nirvana is the ability to glimpse that well while still in the world of illusion.
An LDS analogy is our striving to throw off the natural man and become a child of Christ. Our search for Nirvana would be our efforts to stand again in the presence of the Godhead. Having the gift of the Holy Ghost in action in our lives could be a form/level of Nirvana, while the experience of the 2nd Comforter would be a full Nirvana experience. Our goal is to escape the flesh and not just make it to a kingdom of glory, but the fullness.
The difference is that they see the physical body as an illusion. We see the physical body as a natural part of our spiritual development.
According to Buddhism, how did we get here? Somehow there were ripples or splashes in the Well/Ocean of souls and some were splattered down into the physical realm, trapped until they can find Nirvana and escape the illusion.
That all seems to fit pretty well with the book. And, like all religions, it makes good sense within the assumptions it’s built on. I’m always amazed just how rational all religions are.
(I was setting up SilverRain’s account and forgot to logout and originally made this comment as her by mistake.)