Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
David Brazier discovered Buddhism in the 1960’s and followed it as a personal spiritual quest and an outlet for his social idealism. The New Buddhism challenges the views of many western Buddhists, proposing a focus on the earliest Buddhist teachings and social activism
Brazier practised Zen with Jiyu Kennet Roshi and then explored Tibetan and Vietnamese Buddhism. He now identifies with the Buddhist tradition as a whole. ‘I feel I am not a this Buddhist or a that Buddhist, just a Buddhist. The Buddha was not a Zen Buddhist nor a Pure Land Buddhist. He taught Enlightenment.’
Brazier has practised Buddhism for over 40 years. He is a strong character – intelligent, charismatic and thoughtful – and becoming widely known in Europe and North America as a writer, a Buddhist teacher and a social activist. Vishvapani spoke to him at a terraced house in North London, the base for his activities.
Dharma Life: What is ‘New Buddhism’?
David Brazier: New Buddhism means opening up the implications of the Buddha’s message for society as a whole. Buddhism has tended to be seen in the West as a retiring philosophy, and I don’t think that was the Buddha’s intention. He sent people forth to make a difference in the world. My book is a contribution to a debate that is happening all over the world, particularly in the West. People are often asking what is the relevance of Buddhism to the contemporary world, to our future, to the ecological crisis, to the nuclear age? Many people hope that Buddhism can bring a spiritual dimension to life, and at the same time offer the prospect of a harmonious world.
V: What is it that makes social engagement truly Buddhist and not just western liberalism wrapped in Buddhist terminology?
DB: People in the Engaged Buddhist movement have to think more deeply about their theory to avoid wishful-thinking. I often read articles that are effectively saying, ‘Given that Buddhism is a religion of individual salvation, how can we justify it having a socially engaged dimension?’ That’s defeating oneself before one starts. If Buddhism is about withdrawal, then forget Engaged Buddhism. To make a case for Engaged Buddhism you have to say that the Buddha was an Engaged Buddhist. In The New Buddhism I challenge people to think more fundamentally about what they are doing.
V: Why is such rethinking necessary?
DB: A broad consensus is emerging in much of western Buddhism that contains many implicit assumptions that are highly questionable. The New Buddhism challenges some of those. There is the idea that Enlightenment takes a long time – it lies umpteen lifetimes hence. With that comes the idea that you won’t be fit to do anything for the world until you achieve that. This seems to me a doctrine of defeat.
A second line is the ‘interbeing’ argument, which runs that the justification for social engagement is that we are all mystically a part of one another, so being engaged is a form of enlightened self-interest. That is also self-defeating. It may be a better argument than simple greed, but it is not the pinnacle of what human beings are capable of.
V: Is this a criticism of the Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh who has promoted ‘Interbeing’?
DB: I don’t want to personalise the argument. Thich Nhat Hanh is a poet, and he has done an excellent job of inspiring a section of population to a socially engaged interpretation of Buddhism. I thank him for that; but as a philosophy it is weak. People who are worse poets but better philosophers than Thich Nhat Hanh need to give us an ideological underpinning that will stand us in better stead.
V: You identify this underpinning as the Buddha’s own philosophy of ‘dependent origination’ (the teaching that all things arise in dependence upon causes and conditions) and that we can make a difference by affecting some of these conditions. Why do you favour this approach?
DB: You can only bring out the importance by considering the alternatives. Dependent origination allows for an actor creating conditions for different futures and therefore for choice, and at the same time allows for freedom and accident – both of which are features of the real world. This was the Buddha’s genius, and we mess about with it to our cost.
There is a certain sort of mystical thinking that erodes the basis on which you can make responsible decisions. Teaching that everything is part of everything else may work if people are already committed to compassion. But if everything is part of everything else, then there is no real choice, and no basis for values.
Sometimes I meet Buddhist audiences who object to making any choices whatsoever. I ask them to reflect on their own mentality and see what elements they would like to cultivate, and what they would like to diminish. They say, ‘Oh, we can’t do that. That’s dualistic!’ But that is exactly what the Buddha asked us to do. So this theory of non-dualism cuts away whole swathes of things the Buddha considered vital to his enterprise.
V: In The New Buddhism you discuss the controversy around the book Zen at War (which charges Japanese Buddhists with complicity in World War II) and articles that have singled out the Zen teacher Yasutani Roshi for particular criticism. What is so important about this debate?
DB: I like to understand, to get inside the skin of the other person, even if I disagree with them. It interests me to ask, ‘Why on earth did Hitler see the world like that?’ So why did Yasutani Roshi, an experienced and respected Zen master, see the world in militaristic, nationalist terms? The answer is that his idea of non-duality made it make sense. He could write with conviction that the precept about killing did not mean you shouldn’t slaughter the enemy because to say so would be a dualistic judgement. If your ‘true Zen’ spirit sets you beyond good and evil then anything is possible – including being a samurai and slicing people in half with your sword.
The defence of Yasutani offered by the American Zen teacher Robert Aitken boiled down to saying, you cannot expect somebody to rise above their culture. But the aim of Buddhism is to give you the strength of character to do just that. Part of the broad consensus recommends ‘going with the flow’. But the Buddha taught a rebellion, and he told us to stand against the current. A Buddhist who is surrounded by militarism should be standing against it.
V: You argue that the various Buddhist schools teach several versions of Enlightenment. How is it possible to distinguish between these when for all schools Enlightenment is unknowable and indefinable?
DB: As soon as people say ‘unknowable’ and ‘indefinable’ I become suspicious. If people are advocating something, they must know what they are advocating. There is a lot of rhetoric in Buddhism about how you can’t put certain things in words, but I don’t find much of that in the original texts. The Buddha was a great user of words. He had no compunction about defining things, and he was a clear thinker
You can certainly say that words are pointing at something, and that the words for Enlightenment are metaphors; I’d agree with that. But to claim that no such process is possible is wrong. The finger must point at the moon and we must look where it is pointing, and consider the consequences of going where it indicates.
V: Connected with your criticism of certain Buddhist philosophies, in the book you ask what at first seems a strange question, ‘What is Enlightenment for?’ What are you trying to get at?
DB: Asking, ‘What is Enlightenment for?’ is a device to help people question what they are doing, and why they are doing it. I don’t agree with people who say that Buddhism is about emptying your mind and not thinking. That’s what makes dictatorships feasible. It is important to think.
V: So what is your own answer?
DB: One way I’d answer the question is to say that Enlightenment is to make us into better instruments in the work of creating a better world. For some people the answer would be to gain a personal bliss or a nice experience, perhaps. To me that is an answer of considerably lesser scope. Buddhism is not about self-seeking.
V: That sounds like an activist’s answer. Isn’t Enlightenment about being rather than doing?
DB: I would say we are what we do. That is basic Buddhism: we are our karma. Our life is a commitment, even if we act blinVy or foolishly we have thereby committed ourselves to something blind and foolish.
V: Doesn’t that detract from Buddhism’s emphasis on the need to prepare oneself through intensive practice and to cultivate virtues that will be expressed when the occasion arises?
DB: Buddhism certainly emphasises cultivating virtues through Dharma practice, this is well and good. But we are already in this life. So we’re learning on the job. It’s not as if we can go away to some preparation school for life. If Buddhist practices lead you to believe you can’t do anything for the world until you have attained a particular level then you are going to wait a long time: there may not be a world any more when you want to return to it. This approach is also self-defeating. You learn these skills in the thick of life – by encountering situations in which the outcome matters.
It seems folly to think that we can all go off up a mountain, train ourselves to reach perfection and leave the rest of the world to be run by people who aren’t doing that. I am certainly not against going on retreat, cultivating the mind, cultivating virtues. But don’t do so thinking you have to be perfect before addressing the world and its needs. Being engaged on the street is every bit as much a practice.
V: Does that not suggest the path only has value as a means to doing good for others?
DB: The argument is circular. A good world is full of good people. Anything that helps someone to be a better person is intrinsically a contribution to the world, and that doesn’t start after you become Enlightened. You will learn through your daily encounters with people, not just through rarefied practices. Those are useful but not the whole story.
Enlightenment is a change of heart. It bites deep into one’s being. Such transformations occur through the rough and tumble of life. The characters in Buddhist texts often had a rotten life, or got into a real mess or did evil things. Those people undergo the great transformations because they see, perhaps with horror, what they have done. A complete turn-around needs to occur – in the person’s intentions, behaviour, their feeling for life. And that comes through the encounter with things that matter.
V: You make much of the Buddha’s teaching of the Pure Land: a fabulous ideal world. For you is this a myth or something we can actually create? Is there a contradiction between seeing the world as duhkha (inherently unsatisfactory) and as something that in itself can be transformed into a Pure Land?
DB: Absolutely, and that contradiction provides the dynamic for our lives. We are simultaneously up to our eyebrows in duhkha and committed to creating the Pure Land. In one sense the Pure Land appears at every moment, and so does duhkha. Every moment we commit ourselves again, and that is what a Buddhist life is all about. In words that is a paradox. In practice it is a vibrant way of living.
V: Those who look to politics for a better world argue, in effect, that if only we only had the right rulers following the right policies everything would be alright. So the radical politics is doomed to disillusionment. How does a Buddhist approach differ?
DB: Disillusionment is important. But that does not mean social action is not highly significant. It is possible to create conditions for good, though I don’t think that will be achieved just through a change of government. The liberal agenda fails in thinking we could get to a place where the whole job is already done for us because the system took care of it, as if virtue could be legislated out of existence. But humans are humans and the world is the world. It is in its midst that we must commit ourselves to the struggle for the Ideal.
The New Buddhism is published by Constable Robinson, Associated Press