Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Dharmakaya and the deity concept

I have never written a post on the Dharmakaya in the 10+ years this blog has existed.

I'm not sure anyone else has either, except possibly for Brad Warner , and if he didn't, he should have. (Sorry Brad I didn't read your book.)  Because he might be more qualified to write about the topic than me, except for the more than average education I had in Christianity, though, to be honest, I forgot most of what Thomas Aquinas said about Christianity, mostly because his "proofs' for the existence of god were... how shall I put this?... stupid.  And Bertrand Russell was more than a bit priggish in his refutations of Thomas Aquinas's stupidity, but that's neither here nor there, except to say that Russell was more engaging than Aquinas.

I pretty much marginalized the Dharmakaya in my own head when I read Shaku Soen make comparisons to monotheism that I thought were off.  I attributed that to a combination of a hyper-adherence to the literal meanings of Sutras with a lack of understanding of Christianity. Or to put it another way, a kind of Orientalism meets Occidentalism: the demand for understanding an "exotic" religion is made in terms of its Oriental apprehension of the Occidental. 

But  I kind have been missing the point all these years. 

What the heck is a Dharmakaya and why should I care - or not care - if it exists or doesn't? 


On a brief reading of the Wikipedia page, though, I would say that I would understand the Dharmakaya really, really apart from the Western concepts of a monotheistic deity, and not incompatible with my experience.  But definitely not an essential thing "one must believe" in order to be a good Buddhist. 

That is to say, the Dharmakaya is an effort to verbally express implications of an experience of Mind or  awareness of Mind, and its perfection of wisdom.

This is not a single "person" or a trinity, by any means. 

Shaku Soen wrote:


At the outset, let me state that Buddhism is not atheistic as the term is ordinarily understood. It has certainly a God, the highest reality and truth, through which and in which this universe exists. However, the followers of Buddhism usually avoid the term God, for it savors so much of Christianity, whose spirit is not always exactly in accord with the Buddhist interpretation of religious experience. Again, Buddhism is not pantheistic in the sense that it identifies the universe with God. On the other hand, the Buddhist God is absolute and transcendent; this world, being merely its manifestation, is necessarily fragmental and imperfect. To define more exactly the Buddhist notion of the highest being, it may be convenient to borrow the term very happily coined by a modern German scholar, "panentheism," according to which God is πᾶν καὶ ἕν (all and one) and more than the totality of existence. 
One of the most fundamental beliefs of Buddhism is that all the multitudinous and multifarious phenomena in the universe start from, and have their being in, one reality which itself has "no fixed abode," being above spatial and temporal limitations. However different and separate and irreducible things may appear to the senses, the most profound law of the human mind declares that they are all one in their hidden nature. In this world of relativity, or nânâtva as Buddhists call it, subject and object, thought and nature, are separate and distinct, and as far as our sense-experience goes, there is an impassable chasm between the two which no amount of philosophizing can bridge. But the very constitution of the mind demands a unifying principle which is an indispensable hypothesis for our conception of phenomenality; and this hypothesis is called "the gate of sameness," samatâ, in contradistinction to "the gate of difference," nânâtva; and Buddhism declares that no philosophy or religion is satisfactory which does not recognize these two gates. In some measure the "gate of sameness" may be considered to correspond to "God" and the "gate of difference" to the world of individual existence. 
Now, the question is, "How does Buddhism conceive the relation between these two entrances to the abode of Supreme Knowledge (sambodhi)?" And the answer to this decides the Buddhist attitude towards pantheism, theism, atheism, and what not. 
To state it more comprehensively, Buddhism recognizes the coexistence and identity of the two principles, sameness and difference. Things are many and yet one; they are one and yet many. I am not thou, and thou art not I; and yet we are all one in essence. When one slays another, there is an actor, an act, and a sufferer, all distinct and separate; and yet 
"If the red slayer think he slays,
   Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
   I keep, and pass, and turn again."
Buddhism, therefore, says that while we have to acknowledge the world of particulars in which individuality predominates, we must not forget that looking through the gate of sameness all distinctions and contradictions vanish in a higher principle of unity. A Japanese poet thus sings: 
"Rain and hail and ice and snow,
Neither like the other. So!
When they melt, however, lo,
See one stream of water flow! 
Intellectually, the coexistence of the two mutually excluding thoughts is impossible, for the proposition, "Mine are not thine," cannot be made at the same time the proposition, "Mine are thine." But here Buddhism is speaking of our inmost religious experience, which deals directly with facts and not with their more or less distorted intellectual reflections. It is, therefore, really idle to say that Buddhism is pantheistic or atheistic or nihilistic. Buddhism is not a philosophical system, though it is the most rational and intellectual religion in the world. What it proposes is to make clear facts of the deepest spiritual life and to formulate a doctrine which leads its followers to the path of inward experience. 
Thus, according to the proclamation of an enlightened mind, God or the principle of sameness is not transcendent, but immanent in the universe, and we sentient beings are manifesting the divine glory just as much as the lilies of the field. A God who, keeping aloof from his creations, sends down his words of command through specially favored personages, is rejected by Buddhists as against the constitution of human  reason. God must be in us, who are made in his likeness. We cannot presume the duality of God and the world. Religion is not to go to God by forsaking the world, but to find him in it. Our faith is to believe in our essential oneness with him, and not in our sensual separateness. "God in us and we in him," must be made the most fundamental faith of all religion.


It's the personalization  of the notion of God that is troublesome for me here.  What Soen is pointing to does seem to pervade Buddhism, both in its "operatic" form with myriad personages, throughout space and time and so on  This I have no issue with "A God who, keeping aloof from his creations, sends down his words of command through specially favored personages, is rejected by Buddhists as against the constitution of human  reason."  But I think it's a bit much to say "God must be in us, who are made in his likeness."  That's not to say that the "sameness principle"  samatâ, isn't a reality; it most certainly is, and we do indeed resonate  samatâ with breath, with each cycle of our life, with birth, with death, with love, laughter, and with tears.

I often say "Void forbid" or some other such statement in place of god; it's because Void is probably a better stand-in for the Dharmakaya than god.  I still think it does a bit of injustice to refer to the Dharmakaya as god, and it's an injustice to not only Buddhists, but monotheists and atheists.  I think it's better to keep these kinds of categories separated with respect to discussion their particular religious or secular terms of reference.  Sure, there are functional similarities between the Dharmakaya and the monotheist deity or the universe as we (don't) know it.  But the Dharmakaya wasn't put forth to be a placeholder for something in another religion or philosophy.  Or to put it another way, you don't really have samatâ without a corresponding nânâtva, gate of difference.

And yes, that's not necessarily the Buddhism of the practitioners of a Cha'n temple in Xi'an, but Buddhism tends to lack required catechisms that all must memorize by rote.

2 comments:

n. yeti said...

You are using much intellect, old friend. To what avail? Perhaps you should adjust your dhyana without this encumbrance.

Mumon K said...

As I wrote above, the Dharmakaya isn't often addressed by Western convert Buddhists.

Not relying on words and letters does not mean their extirpation.