Getting Closer To Reality

Closer-to-Reality DhammaVinaya Seminar was held for the first time (24 – 27 November 2006) in Sàsanàrakkha Buddhist Sanctuary. Based on his opening address, VEN AGGACITTA now gives us the highlights of the objective, background, rationale, methodology and open-ended hopes of the seminar. 

Welcome everyone, to Closer-to-Reality DhammaVinaya Seminar (CRDS), the first of its kind to be held in this part of the world as far as I know. The primary purpose of this seminar is:

to identify, discuss and help rectify some of the popular miscon-ceptions and misinterpretations of the DhammaVinaya that have crept into Buddhism and which Buddhists themselves – Theravādin Buddhists in particular – commonly believe in.

It is our hope that through this seminar the participants can discover what is closer to reality so that they can share it with others.

Perhaps you might be interested to know why or how this seminar came about. It all started in December 2004, after Lim Kooi Fong was invited to share his views on Dhamma propagation in modern Malaysia during Introduction to Monkhood Programme (IMP) 3. Commenting on his statement, that after years of conducting sutta discussions he had never got any of his students to share the Dhamma, Ven Kumara emailed him, saying: “I think the reason was that they are the ‘wrong’ types of personalities for this kind of thing. You need people who are by nature sufficiently extroverted. Many sufficiently extroverted people who also have Dhamma knowledge are already Dhamma speakers.”

However, Ven Kumara noted that some of these speakers often misquoted the Buddha, quoted him out of context or simply put words into his mouth. Kooi Fong agreed, acknow-ledging: “We have been taking our position for granted, and many times we do not prepare our talks very well prior to the event. The off-the-cuff response usually catches many of us with ‘the Buddha said’ situations.”

Meanwhile, Ven Kumara had also got in touch with Hor Kwei Loon, and in their discussions they agreed that the time had come to hold a ‘refresher course’ for Dhamma speakers. They also gave various suggestions on the content and structure of the course, which will be open to invited participants only.

Ven Kumara then brought up this matter to me, and in the course of our discussion, we shared the general perception that the Dhamma talks given by some speakers in Malaysia are not solidly based on the Pali scriptures but are based instead on

• what they have heard from teachers or other Dhamma speakers
• what they have read in Dhamma books, which are personal or commentarial interpretations of the DhammaVinaya
• their personal experiences and views.

Consequently, they may misquote the DhammaVinaya, misinterpret the meaning, and misinform and misguide the audience, thus misrepresenting the truth. As the intention to mislead may not be present, the harm caused to oneself, to others and to the Saddhamma (True Dhamma) may not be too grave. It cannot be totally dismissed either.
While I realised a need to address this undesirable situation, I was not agreeable to the name ‘refresher course’. It sounded rather patronising and would probably intimidate and deter established Dhamma speakers from participation. We are all aware that conceit is only eradicated when one becomes an arahant, and surely the best and most established Dhamma speaker around is not yet one. In fact, the more successful and popular one is, the bigger the ego becomes, and the more rooted are oneÅfs pet views and opinions of the DhammaVinaya.

Another point I was apprehensive about was that the event was targeting Dhamma speakers and Dhamma leaders. Sure, I realise that they are the ones who should know their stuff properly before teaching others; yet will they be humble enough to unlearn or brave enough to challenge their comfort zone?

After much consideration (yoniso manasikara), I suggested that the event should be renamed “Closer-to-Reality DhammaVinaya Seminar” and be opened to all who are interested, with priority given to Dhamma speakers and Dhamma leaders. Instead of “Buddhist Leaders’ Refresher Course” or “Buddha Dhamma Refresher Course for Dhamma Speakers” don’t you think that “Closer-to-Reality DhammaVinaya Seminar” sounds less patronising, less presumptuous and more open-ended?

“Closer-to-Reality” shows that we’re just trying to get closer to reality as we realise that reality is complex and not easily—or even possibly—comprehensible in its totality. We may comprehend some limited aspects of reality through our senses based on what is available, but not the whole of it because of the limitations of our sensory perceptions, methodology, apparatus, known data, etc.

This event is not a course because we do not claim nor expect to be able to give definite answers in a structured way. We will attempt to probe and prod certain notions about the DhammaVinaya that have long been taken for granted, but which are questionable upon closer scrutiny. We will present the criteria and methodology of our scrutiny, suggest some tentative conclusions and open the issues to everyone for further discussion. That is why this event is called a seminar—a conference; a meeting for an exchange of ideas.

To recap, we are here to “identify, discuss and help rectify some of the popular misconceptions and misinterpretations of the DhammaVinaya that have crept into Buddhism and which Buddhists themselves—Theravadin Buddhists in particular—commonly believe in.”

We may not have all the answers to serve you on a tray, but we can present solid evidence from the scriptures and from modern research findings; then brainstorm to come up with better methodologies and resource facilities for further research. After all, the search for truth is a lifelong process of learning, unlearning and changing our views to accord with updated discoveries.

Ground Rules
For a start, we need to agree on certain ground rules so that the seminar can be conducted in an objective, orderly manner and discussions will not drift aimlessly into irrelevant areas beyond the scope of the topic. These ground rules can be found in

1. the Four Great Standards as stated in AN 4:180 (see insert)
2. the advice to the Kalamas as stated in AN 3:66 (see insert)
3. the criteria for scholarly discussion as stated in the beginning of Milindapanha, where Ven Nagasena and King Milinda agreed to discuss as scholars: “When scholars discuss, there is a summing up and unravelling; and when one or the other is shown to be in error, he admits his mistake, yet he does not become angry”
This implies the need to be objective, to be willing to set aside one’s own views or even common views, so as to allow us to get closer to reality.

While the Four Great Standards encourage dogmatism, the Buddha’s advice to the Kālāmas stresses the importance of empirical and experiential knowledge even over dogma-tism and rational thinking. In this seminar we shall utilise both approaches according to the following guidelines:

• Attempt to establish the relative authenticity of the extant texts in the Pāli Canon based on the findings of modern scholars
• Determine the reliable texts according to relative authenticity
• Scrutinise variant readings and translations
• Compare with documented life experiences and scientific research findings.

It is hoped that these guidelines can help us systematically define the premises or reference points from which we can identify, discuss and help rectify popular misconceptions and misinterpretations of the DhammaVinaya.

Structure and Protocol
The speakers will each give a one-hour presentation on a specified topic based on solid evidence. After a ten-minute break, the topic will be open to all participants for an hour of discussion. During the presentation, only questions related to clarification of what is being presented will be allowed. It is not the right time for the questioner to express his/her views or opinions. You can do that during the discussion proper. Towards the end of the seminar there will be two sessions for discussing other matters not covered by our specified topics. Before closing I shall give an appraisal of the seminar and offer some follow-up proposals to nurture our spirit of inquiry so that we can move on even closer to reality. Finally it will be your turn to give us your feedback.

Our programme also includes an early morning session of group meditation followed by light exercise before breakfast. In the evening, there is a short pūjā of recitations in Pali. After that, participants have the option to meditate, exercise or watch a movie that is related to the theme of the seminar.

What other better way to start off the seminar than to establish ourselves in the right attitude towards the quest for truth as prescribed by our Blessed One in Canki Sutta (MN 95). There he mentions five grounds for accepting something (view, belief, notion, information, etc.)

First Steps Based on Five Grounds

• Faith (Saddha)
• Fancy (Ruci)
• Oral Tradition (Anussava)
• Speculation (Akaraparivitakka)
• Reflective Acceptance of a View (Ditthinijjhanakkhanti).

Something that is accepted on any of these grounds may actually be empty, hollow and false; while something else that is not accepted on any of these grounds may actually be factual, true and unmistaken. So it is not proper, says the Buddha, for a wise person who preserves or guards truth to come to the definite conclusion: “Only this is true, anything else is wrong.”

Guarding Truth
So how does one preserve or guard truth? One should profess one’s grounds without excluding others: “This is just

• my faith.”
• my fancy.”
• my tradition.”
• my idea.”
• my reflective acceptance of a view.”

But he does not come to the definite conclusion, “Only this is true, anything else is wrong.” In this way he preserves truth. But as yet there is no discovery of truth, says the Buddha.

Let us take a look at some of our commonly held beliefs and customary practices, such as
• Law of kamma
• Rites and rituals
• Five-point prostration
• It is all right for monks to accept money in a temple but not in the pasar malam (night market)
• Possibility of liberation
• Pāli Tipitaka contains the authentic words of the Buddha
• Rebirth
• Intermediate state between death and rebirth.
If we are honest with ourselves, most of us will have to admit that we have accepted all the above on the five grounds, and therefore—if we value truth—have no right to come to the definite conclusion, “Only this is true, anything else is wrong.” Why? Because we have yet to discover truth in a personal, experiential way. How then to discover truth?

Discovering Truth 
Below is a summary of the detailed instructions given by the Buddha in Canki Sutta:

• First, one should investigate the virtue of a teacher to ensure that he is pure in thought, word and deed; does not prompt his students to do harmful or unbeneficial things; and teaches Dhamma that is profound, peaceful and unattainable by mere reasoning, to be experienced by the wise.
• Being satisfied with his investigation, he gets into the spiritual path through the following steps:
1. Has faith in the teacher (saddhajato)
2. Approaches him (upasankamati)
3. Associates with him (payirupasati)
4. Listens to him (sotam odahati)
5. Hears the Dhamma (dhammaa sunati)
7. Considers its meaning (attham upaparikkhati)
8. Accepts it after reflection (dhamma nijjhanam khamanti)
9. Becomes enthusiastic (chando jayati)
10. Attempts [to practise] it (ussahati)
11. Weighs/assesses it (tuleti)
12. Strives (padahati)
13. Realises (sacchikaroti).

When he realises the ultimate truth and sees it by penetrating with wisdom, he is said to have discovered truth. Thus we see that the Buddha’s idea of discovering truth is experiential in nature. However, this is by no means confined to the ultimate truth of Nibbana (as is implied in the above context) for he also admits of different levels of truth-assuming that the term Dhamma also covers truth in the contexts below-that can be experienced.

For example, in PathamaSanditthika Sutta (AN 6:47), he was asked by a wandering ascetic, Moliyasivaka: “In what way, Bhante, is the Dhamma directly visible, immediate, inviting one to come and see, worthy of application, to be personally experienced by the wise?” The Buddha’s reply was: “If you thus know of the greed, hatred or delusion present in you that it is there; and when greed, hatred or delusion is absent that it is absent-that is a way the Dhamma is directly visible, immediate, inviting one to come and see, worthy of application, to be personally experienced by the wise.” (abridged)

Again in UpavanaSanditthika Sutta (SN 35:70), when asked the same question by Ven Upavana, the Buddha told him that if a bhikkhu knows the presence or absence of lust within himself for any of the six sense objects, then “the Dhamma is directly visible, immediate, inviting one to come and see, worthy of application, to be personally experienced by the wise.”

In summary, there are various levels of understanding truth and reality:

1. Through direct experience, e.g.
• introspective self-awareness, which is within the reach of all who care to practise Right Mindfulness (samma sati) supported by the other factors of the Noble Eightfold Path
• development of psychic powers, which is more for the talented practitioner, whether renunciant or lay

2. Through second-hand knowledge accepted on the five grounds, e.g.• accounts of live experiences
• scriptures
• research findings of scholars and scientists.

For most of us it is a little of (1) and much of (2). So it will stand us in good stead to try to be level-headed and open-minded without being paralysed by the fact that most of the time our understanding of reality is tentative and subject to modification according to ever newer discoveries.

And that is why this seminar can be so exciting. Firmly based on the ground rules and pre-programmed with the right attitude, we shall help each other make new discoveries with far-reaching implications-discoveries that will challenge our current understanding of the DhammaVinaya and consequently require us to unlearn old ideas, relearn new facts, be open to undeniable possibilities and be comfortable with the tentative, dynamic nature of our understanding. For how else can we get closer to reality than by acknow-ledging our limitations, updating our information and widening our perspectives through continual scrutiny and discussion?

Four Great Standards
Before he passed away, the Buddha gave us practical advice to assess situations in which we hear a monk proclaiming that what he teaches “is the Dhamma… Vinaya… teachings of the Master”. He may say that he heard and learned it in the presence of

• the Buddha himself,
• a Sangha in a certain monastery with its theras (elders) and leaders,
• many learned theras in a certain monastery who are holders of the traditional teachings, bearers of the Dhamma, Vinaya, and the summaries, or
• a learned thera in a certain monastery who is a holder of the traditional teachings, bearer of the Dhamma, Vinaya, and the summaries.

In such situations, without rejoicing in or scorning the monk’s words, we should investigate to see if such teachings are included in the suttas or seen in vinaya. If they are, we may conclude that they are the words of the Buddha and that they have been well learned by the speaker. Otherwise, we may conclude that they are not the words of the Buddha and that they have been wrongly learned by the speaker, and so we should reject them.

Extracted and paraphrased from AN 4:180

Kàlàma Sutta
Also commonly known as “The Charter of Free Inquiry”, this discourse was given by the Buddha to the Kalamas who were perplexed by the conflicting claims of visiting monks and priests. The following is a translation of some relevant parts of the sutta by Ven Bhikkhu Bodhi.

“Come, Kalamas. Do not go
1. by oral tradition (anussavena),
2. by lineage of teaching (paramparaya),
3. by hearsay (itikiraya),
4. by a collection of scriptures (pitakasampadanena),
5. by logical reasoning (takkahetu),
6. by inferential reasoning (nayahetu),
7. by reflection on reasons (akaraparivitakkena),
8. by the acceptance of a view after pondering it (ditthinijjhanakkhantiya),
9. by the seeming competence of a speaker (bhabbarupataya),
10. or because you think, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ (‘samano no garu’ti.)

“But when you know for yourselves, ‘These things are unwholesome, these things are blameable, these things are censured by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practised, lead to harm and suf-fering’, then you should abandon them… But when you know for yourselves, ‘These things are whole-some, these things are blameless, these things are praised by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practised, lead to welfare and happiness’, then you should engage in them….”
Extracted and paraphrased from AN 3:66

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