Buddhist Studies the Buddhist Way

Scholars should look at the data from the core teachings.

By J. C. Cleary

To this day the scholarly study of religion revolves around various paradigms created by a small group of twentieth-century Western thinkers. Naturally these paradigms are strongly marked  by their origins in the modern West, with the associated limitations and biases. It is as if comparative linguists proceeded from the assumption that the categories of Latin grammar would provide a universal frame of reference for studying the languages of the world.

The absurdity of this approach is highlighted in Buddhist studies because the Buddhist classics themselves contain sophisticated treatments of many issues central to an understanding of religion. For example: how the teaching interacts with local host cultures; how the teaching uses available media; how the teaching changes in a society over time; how those in the know design religious techniques, conceptual systems, community forms, rituals, and symbols to operate in certain social and cultural contexts; how religious techniques operate in individual psychological development; and how different types of people respond to different styles of teaching.

To ignore all this theoretical material from within the tradition only makes sense on the assumption that we (the modern scholars) can understand them (the Buddhist adepts) better than they understood themselves. It takes for granted that our own contemporary culture is aware of the full range of human possibilities. This is precisely the kind of false universalism, or pretended universalism, which we should be trying to move beyond.

If we advise modern scholars to look carefully at a Buddhist classic such as the Flower Ornament Scripture—the Avatamsaka Sutra/ Huayan Jing, which is the most all-encompassing of the scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism—for theoretical insight on the workings of religion in society, all we are really saying is: Look at the data. You will find that, indeed, “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”

When we approach Buddhist history as modern-day scholars, we are immediately faced with two daunting problems: the intrinsic vastness of the subject matter itself, and the discouraging incompleteness of the data potentially available to us.

We are in the position of researchers who want to plot the contours of a complex surface but have far too few data points to work from. Any curve we plot is sure to be severely underdetermined by the data. This leaves the way open for pure fancy to take over, because the few data points we have can be connected in so many different ways. Without a sound paradigm to guide us, we will be attempting to order the exiguous data willy-nilly, according to our own predilections and preconceptions. The whole field of Buddhist studies would then become prey to the method of “proof by ridiculous assumptions.”

To dramatize this point, take this thought-experiment: the story of the archaeologists and the vessels. Let us imagine that in a country with a history of earthquakes, in the ruins of the temples of a bygone age, archaeologists discover a wealth of ceramic fragments all of similar date. There always seem to be two kinds of shards: one kind is ornately decorated in many colors and highly glazed; the other kind is plain white and unglazed. From our privileged vantage point in the thought-experiment, we know that the original vessels were perfect spheres, with one side ornate and one side plain.

The archaeologists rely on their intuition about “what must have been” to theorize that the two different kinds of fragments represent two different kinds of vessels. Some conjecture that the ornate vessels were the sacred ones, and the plain white vessels were profane ware that happened to be in the temples by chance. Others surmise that there were two types of sacred vessels, one type ornately colored, the other type plain and severe.

Some specialize in the ornate fragments, which they think reveal more about the aesthetics and beliefs of the temple-builders. Some specialize in the plain fragments, which they assume are more representative of the mainstream of the ceramic arts of the ancient people. Another group hypothesizes a wave of more developed conquerors supplanting the plain-ware people with their more ornate style. Yet another school of interpreters insists on the contrary that the higher culture of the ornate vessel makers was submerged by the irruption of the plain pottery culture.

In this way, a whole self-contained universe of discourse is built up among the rival camps of archaeologists.

Now suppose a genuine text from the period of the temples is discovered and deciphered, a text that describes the vessels as they actually were, that is, a single type of spherical vessel, half ornate and half plain. The text moreover explains the symbolism of the design, revealing the ancient people combined plain and ornate to illustrate their belief that the transcendent and the mundane are connected realms, part of a single whole.

Would the archaeologists be justified in ignoring this information on the grounds that it is inherently implausible in light of their own previous assumptions, which, as the learned conclusions of specialists in the field, must be correct? Would it matter that the archaeologists had already divided themselves into professional sub-specialties reflecting their preconceptions? Or would they do better to heed the authentic text, and reconsider their own theories in that light?

In the case of Buddhist studies, we have this “authentic text” in the core teachings that has been preserved in books like the Flower Ornament Scripture. So what does it tell us?

The paradigm outlined below is derived from Buddhist sources. It incorporates certain observations on the human condition and descriptions of the workings of the Buddhist teaching that are well documented within many branches of the Buddhist tradition. It is set forth at length and in rich multidimensional detail in the Flower Ornament Scripture, and summed up in its final book, Entry into the Realm of Reality.

I refer to the principles that underlie the paradigm as axioms, although to the Buddhist seers these were known facts, observable facts, verifiable facts. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the Buddhist paradigm for Buddhist history is that it asks us to entertain certain ideas that may be anathema to our modern way of thinking: First, the idea that the Buddhist adepts of old actually knew what they were doing, and operated in the way they described themselves as operating—that they were not ideologues or myth-makers or believers, not prisoners of the contemporary cultures, not the blind leading the blind; second, and even more unsettling, the idea that there may be basic facts about the human condition and human potential that are mostly unsuspected by our own modern Western civilization, despite its claims to epistemological supremacy and universal scope—that there may be a form of direct perception of reality, a perception outside of cultural conditioning, that enables a superior objectivity and efficiency of operation in the everyday human world.

Axiom 1 – Skillful Means

This axiom states that all genuine manifestations of the Buddhist teaching were essentially provisional expedients deliberately designed to be conducive to the enlightenment of specific audiences in specific historical and cultural conditions. This is called the principle of skillful means.

This axiom reflects the unanimous declaration of the tradition’s own experts that all the diverse forms of the authentic Buddhist teaching were designed and propagated as skillful means. Their ultimate goal was to promote the development of enlightened awareness, which is held to be a potential inherent in all people, though normally obscured by the influence of social conditioning and collective and personal history. The genuineness or legitimacy of a Buddhist teaching depends on whether or not it serves this ultimate goal. As the Zen saying puts it: “Even false words are true if they lead to awakening; even true words are false if they breed attachments.”

The principle of skillful means starts with the observation that the absolute truth as such is inconceivable and cannot be captured in words or forms. To prepare the way for the experience of truth, therefore, it has always been necessary for Buddhist teachers to speak to people in accordance with their currently limited capacities, and supply them with provisional teachings which can gradually transform them and bring to light their inherent potential for enlightenment.

Many of the elementary teachings of Buddhism are concerned with reducing the barriers to enlightenment by inculcating ethical standards for ordinary behavior in the world.

Although the ultimate goal is to open up enlightened perception, the teachings also serve many intermediate, provisional goals, whose attainment will contribute to this final aim. For example, many of the elementary teachings of Buddhism are concerned with reducing the barriers to enlightenment by inculcating ethical standards for ordinary behavior in the world.

Although such work was not always immediately or obviously connected to the development of enlightened perception, Asian history is full of examples of efforts by Buddhists to distribute alms, promote humane values, preserve and spread various kinds of learning, serve economic functions, ameliorate social conditions, and arrange for political protection and social toleration for carrying on the teaching of enlightenment.

Skillful means requires working within the real possibilities of the situation, whatever the outward appearance. It might be better to organize a retreat and save what can be saved than to let everything be destroyed, or it might be better to go down fighting, to set an example of resistance against injustice for later generations. It might be better to serve at court and influence the king rather than to let him run amok as an unbridled tyrant; or it might be better to shun contact with corrupt power centers. At times it might be better not to appear to be a Buddhist at all, in order to advance the acceptance of enlightening teachings.

Classics such as the Flower Ornament Scripture make it clear that the enlightening mission of the Buddhist teachers should be pictured in the broadest terms as encompassing all sorts of practical activities, not only explicitly religious teaching. Skillful means is a concept that can include all manner of activities, so long as they do in fact serve the ultimate goal of the enlightenment of sentient beings. Exercising skill in means requires a special kind of discernment that allows the teacher to see the real pattern of events, and to judge what actions are indicated as effective in a given situation.

Axiom 2 – People Are Deluded by Conditioned Perceptions

This axiom states that ordinarily, in their raw state, people are enlosed within a shell of conditioned perceptions, cut off from reality as such, and in touch only with the interpretations they have been trained to project upon the world. In short, they are trapped in conventional delusions.

This idea has been given various formulations. It is said that people are poisoned by desire, anger, and ignorance, that people are imprisoned in routine habits, that people are in the grip of karmic consciousness, that the world people perceive is like a dream or a magical illusion.

The Yogacara teaching of Mahayana Buddhism gives an analysis of the process of delusion quite consonant with modern ideas on cognition. According to the Yogacara teaching, ordinary unenlightened people are not in touch with the world as it is; instead, what they perceive is the system of mental representations that they have been conditioned to project upon the bare reality of the world. Their minds accumulate a stock of these mental representations in the course of their upbringing and acculturation, and they pass through life using this stock of concepts and images to construct an imaginary reality—imaginary, but consensually validated by the community that shares the same set of representations.

Ordinarily, the shell of conditioned perception is invisible to people as such, because they reify their own constructs and think of them as independently existing phenomena. The bundle of conditioned habits and perceptions which people then identify as themselves is, in the Buddhist view, the crux of delusion, the false self.

If this is the false self, what is the real self? It is the buddha-nature of sentient beings, their innate capacity for enlightened perception, for wisdom and compassion. Enlightenment means activating this latent capacity, gaining the practical use of it in day-to-day life. In Zen terms, “dying the great death” refers to the death of the false self, which opens the way for rebirth into the lucidity of direct perception. “How is it when the person who has died the great death returns to life?” asks the Zen public case. “He cannot travel by night: he must arrive in broad daylight.” Here “night” symbolizes a blanked-out mental state; “broad daylight” represents active life in the world of differentiations, working for universal salvation.

Axiom 3 – The Capture of the World-Transcending by the Worldly

This axiom states that all sorts of originally enlightening teachings—including conceptual schemes, practical techniques, images and symbols and ritual observances, forms of companionship, and groupings of people—are regularly captured by the world of orinary conditioned perception, the prevailing karmic consciousness, thus transforming what had served as means of enlightenment into part of the scenery of delusion.

This axiom is of a piece with the first two axioms, the principle that all genuine Buddhist teachings are intended as skillful means to promote enlightened awareness, and the observation that in their raw state people are deluded, screened off from reality by their own conditioned perceptions.

This axiom underlies a view of the history of religion regularly expressed by the Buddhist adepts. In the normal course of events, the teaching devices and methods originally designed by enlightened teachers and intended for enlightening purposes are in effect “captured” by the mundane world. Through misuse, they are drained of their enlightening effect, and made into part of the scenery of delusion, that is, part of the world of cultural symbols and belief systems and emotional allegiances.

Originally valid and effective teachings might become routinized and be employed mechanically, by rote, in ignorance of the requirements that must be met for them to work effectively. Teaching devices and methods of practice might be applied in a fragmented way, as though they were not integral wholes. What started out as provisional teaching devices may come to be worshiped as sacred dogmas or defended as cherished ideologies, and their original intent forgotten.

This “capture of the world-transcending by the worldly” reveals itself in characteristic symptoms, which were pointed out again and again by Buddhist adepts through the ages:

  • Texts are regarded as sacrosanct, but their essential message goes unheeded. Forms of practice are seen as magical keys, as panaceas for all, rather than as specifically targeted medicines that must be specifically prescribed.
  • Forms of practice are taken up by the wrong people at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.
  • Famous teachers are idolized for their personalities, while their teachings are forgotten.
  • People are accepted as authorities because they hold high positions in religious institutions, despite their lack of enlightened insight, or even simple virtue.
  • Groupings of seekers brought together for a limited time period by teachers of insight live on as fossilized institutions, as cults mechanically parodying some of the original teacher’s methods.
  • The “religious life” becomes a kind of worldly career attracting the ambitious in search of rank, and the lazy in search of economic security—”The wheel of food, supplants the wheel of the teaching.”
  • Sectarian disputes arise over external forms, or oversimplified false alternatives. Elements of teaching designs are incorporated into beliefs, myths, and rituals, whose function is to maintain false consciousness and promote blind conformity.

This kind of analysis is anathema to institutionalized religions, but it explains why Buddhist history has been marked by a continuous supersession of forms, as new teachers came forth with new devices and new formulations to keep the enterprise of enlightening teaching alive.

Axiom 4 – The Necessity of Enlightened Teachers

This axiom states that genuine Buddhist teachers must be enlightned: not bound by arbitrary conditioning, free to enter the world of delusion without being trapped by it, directly perceiving the true pattern of cause and effect and the workings of conditioned minds to be able to design appropriate teachings.

The term “enlightenment” in the Buddhist context is defined in terms of the four wisdoms: the wisdom to see all things as images reflected in the mirror of the one absolute reality, the wisdom to experience the inherent ontological equality of all phenomena, the wisdom to discern objectively the real patterns of cause and effect running through the physical and psychic events of relative reality, and the wisdom to devise effective strategies of action to accomplish the compassionate works of enlightening beings, active in the world of ordinary deluded beings.

Genuine Buddhist teachers, then, are not “seekers,” they are “finders.” A classic term is “those who have Arrived.” Only this level of attainment can equip a person to carry out the teacher’s essential role: to make a living adaptation of the timeless placeless Truth to the needs and possibilities of the people of a particular time and place.

The real teacher must be able to assess the various potentials and individual needs of would-be students. The teacher’s function is to act as a spiritual good friend who can prescribe the proper methods to students at the proper time, direct their development, and gauge their progress. The teacher’s goal is not to engender dependence, but to enable the student to transcend the need for a teacher, to arrive at “the wisdom that has no teacher.”

Genuine teachers employ their insight in order to counteract the processes of the “capture of the world-transcending by the worldly,” to work against the inbred human tendencies toward dogmatism, myth-making, rote learning, emotional addictions, worshiping externals, and mistaking means for ends. This is why Buddhist teachers have appeared in history so often in the apparent role of reformers and even iconoclasts.


These four axioms suggest a core and periphery paradigm for understanding Buddhist history. Guiding metaphor: Enlightening influences radiating from a core of enlightened teachers to various particular human communities. In each cultural and historical context, a variegated periphery whose “distance” from the core increases as fidelity to the original intent of the core teaching diminishes.

The core: The adept teachers, the workers with enlightened insight who perceive the real trend of events and who re-adapt and reapply the teaching to ensure its effectiveness in the circumstances at hand. Some but not all of the activities of the core teachers left traces, which we can examine to learn something of their teaching methods and the underlying expertise. Traditional term: “the buddhas and bodhisattvas.”

Near-the-core: The faithful assistants of the core teachers, in all walks of life, who are able to act as distortion-free channels for the messages from the core. Traditional term: “those who have entered the stream.”

The periphery has several zones:

  • The sincere followers: those whose behavior and mentality reflect the positive transformative influence of the core teaching; the sincere followers of genuine Buddhism. Traditional term: “the hearers.”
  • Those whose lives are improved: those whose lives are somewhat tinged with genuine Buddhist influences, those who are better than they would have been if they had been molded only by the worldly influences of their culture and time.
  • The distorters: those who follow a semblance of Buddhism in a fundamentally distorted way: clerical careerists, ideologues, emotionalists, cultists—those who wish to cash in on Buddhism for worldly ends like prestige, economic gain, belonging to an in-group, deriving a sense of personal significance. Traditional terms: “the outsiders,” “those on deviant paths.”
  • The outer periphery: societies where the very existence of the teachings of enlightenment is defined as nonexistent, totally discredited by the antics of imitators, or actively suppressed. Traditional term: “worlds where there is no buddha.”

The paradigm outlined here is not put forward merely as a superior heuristic device for bringing explanatory order to a great diversity of phenomena. The Buddhist sources maintain that this paradigm accurately represents the actual social processes of Buddhist history: that enlightening teachings were disseminated by a core of adept teachers and their helpers, then diffused outward into society and culture at large, gradually undergoing assimilation into the surrounding worldly mentalities, and inevitably suffering distortion and eventual vitiation along the way. The paradigm thus provides not only a more encompassing conceptual scheme to apply to Buddhist social and cultural history, but also gives a true picture of the inner dynamic of that history.

The descriptions of the various zones of the periphery are meant to be suggestive of the way in which Buddhist studies could conceptualize the great range of Buddhist and Buddhist-tinged social and cultural phenomena in terms of their relationship to the values and perspectives of the core teachings. The Buddhist paradigm lets us avoid the fallacy of automatically accepting all social and cultural forms derived from Buddhist models as equally valid expressions of Buddhism.

Given the four axioms, it follows that the core of Buddhism in all eras in all countries was made up of enlightened adepts with direct experience of Truth.

It is important to note that the core workers were “on the outside looking in,” from the point of view of the host cultures in which they operated. Their allegiance was to the truth itself, and not to localized interpretations or temporary forms. They made use of the languages, concepts, symbols, and cultural forms of the societies in which they worked, or introduced innovations building on this material, not because their perception and knowledge was confined within these cultural frameworks, but in order to communicate with the denizens of these cultures. The core workers were “free to come or go,” free to operate within existing institutions and semantic fields, and free to stand aside from them and initiate new departures for the host culture.

The clearest proof of this is the fact that the core teachings of Buddhism put forward key ideas that no culture then or now accepts—for example, the idea that humans ordinarily live inside an artificial imaginary reality, and that ordinary human perception is a conditioned construct.

Some members of the core were public figures, others were deeply hidden. Some produced widely known teachings and founded or guided famous Buddhist institutions. Others carried on their work in obscurity, known only to inner circles of disciples and immediate local communities. The core workers were to be found not only in overtly “religious” settings, but were also active as “secret agents” in other arenas of life, such as political and military affairs, commerce and industry and agriculture, the arts and popular culture, and community organizing and social welfare work.

The core teachers performed the indispensable function of constantly renewing the teaching and adapting it to the needs of the time. With their enlightened insight, they were in a position to judge when and how to introduce, modify, or abandon particular teaching devices and organizational forms. Their duty was to counteract the human tendency to freeze teachings intended to promote enlightened perception into dogma and sacrosanct ideology, and to keep the instrumental function of the teaching alive.

Readers who study the other religious traditions should be considering how the Buddhist paradigm for Buddhist history outlined above may shed light on their own areas of interest.

Those who study such things as ritual practices, doctrinal systems, religious images, parables, and myths, may wish to consider the possibility that these might originally have been intended as provisional expedients, suited to the mentality of the people to whom they are addressed, and designed to transform their behavior and their consciousness.

The idea of the capture of originally enlightening teachings by worldly concerns, and the prevalence of culturally conditioned delusion, may be relevant to understanding many apparently paradoxical twists in the history of belief—to give just two notorious examples, the Roman emperors making Christianity their state religion, or the Umayya clan taking command of the Muslim movement.

The axiom that enlightened teachers are necessary to keep the religion of truth alive may help account for the negative results so often observed with attempts to institutionalize religious teachings, to staff religious organizations with unregenerate individuals, and to capture truth in dogmatic formulas.

In the present cultural context, there are obvious sources of resistance to the Buddhist paradigm. In essence, the paradigm accepts the reality of human capacities such as enlightenment, and direct perception of reality, and the ability to transcend time and place and culture and language, which have no place in the modern, secular Western worldview. The real challenge, from a purely Western scientific view, is to look carefully at the data that may reveal possibilities that go beyond our preconceptions.

So where is the data that suggest that such phenomena as direct perception of reality beyond time and place and culture and language might exist? Those who want to find such data should consult the core teachings, and the Flower Ornament Scripture would be a logical place to start, because this book is traditionally named as the highest expression of the Buddhist Teaching. Here is a sample, adapted from the Flower Ornament Scripture, book 39, translated by Thomas Cleary:

The buddha sends forth a light and shows the assembled bodhisattvas there with him a cosmic vision.

The bodhisattvas see countless lands. In every one of these lands, they see the great bodhisattvas teaching in the various cities, towns, communities, and nations of the human world, teaching the truth by various different means, teaching various modes of conduct, appearing in various forms, as people of different castes and races, using various manifestations and various teaching formulas.

Then they see that everywhere in all those countless lands, the teachings of enlightenment in all forms is reflected in the minds of all living beings, using their own languages, within their own perceptions.

They see the enlightened teachers with the same knowledge in all ages, appearing to all beings according to their mentalities, everywhere in all lands, ceaselessly explaining the teachings of the buddhas and guiding sentient beings.

J. C. Cleary holds a PhD in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University. His published translations include The Blue Cliff Record, Swampland Flowers, Zen Dawn, and A Buddha from Korea.

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