By Rev. Jon Turner
Siddhartha Gautama realized insight at 35 years old, after six years of meditative and ascetic practice. From this point on he was known as the Buddha. This is an adjective not a title. It means one who is awake. The Buddha then went on to teach the Buddha Dharma until his death at 80 years old. Thus, this is a teaching that was developed over a 45 year period consisting – by some estimates – of some 500,000 pages within the sutras of the Buddhist Mahayana canon.
This is both a plus and a minus. It is very beneficial that we have so many different teachings that can resonate with so many different people but it can also be very overwhelming and sometimes inconsistent. This problem is intensified when issues of language are also considered. Imagine the Buddhist monks of China trying to translate all this text from Sanskrit into Chinese. These are two very different languages. The former is rather exacting and formal while the latter much more free and poetic. The scale of this project is enormous.
One approach taken by both the Chinese and the Japanese was to try to reduce the size of the problem by finding ways to categorize the Buddha’s teachings. In computer science, we call this divide and conquer. Rather than solving the entire problem all at once, we instead try to solve many smaller problems. In this case, Buddhists tried to find a way of categorizing the teachings into smaller groups. Then these groups could be prioritized and studied somewhat independently.
One such method was to simply divide the teachings in two. One group of teachings would be categorized as exoteric and the other as esoteric. Exoteric refers to teachings that are relatively straight forward and more common sense oriented. For example, Selected Saying #3 in our service book from the Dhammapada is one of these teachings:
Happiness follows sorrow, sorrow follow happiness,
but when one no longer discriminates between
happiness and sorrow, a good deed and a bad
deed, one is able to realize freedom.
It is a very powerful teaching because it is straight forward and clear. It appeals to our logical and rationality. One might say it is a teaching for the mind. This approach is very popular in American Buddhism.
Esoteric teachings are said to be ones that are trying to communicate a feeling. They appeal to our body. They are something affective. They touch our heart and appeal to our intuition. An example of this can also be found in Selected Saying #7 from Shinran Shonin:
The person who attains shinjin and joy
It is taught, is equal to the Tathāgatas.
Great shinjin is itself Buddha-nature;
Buddha-nature is none other than Tathāgata.
I am not exactly sure what this means intellectually but it touches my heart somewhere beneath my intellect. It is a feeling, an emotion, an intuition. I may not know what this means but I certainly know how it feels – even if I cannot articulate it. We could say that Shinran is trying to transmit an emotion rather than merely transmitting information. In America, this approach is less popular.
We need both kinds of teachings. The mind and the body must both be involved in our practice. But often we focus too much on an academic and intellectual understanding of Buddhism. I did this for the first four years that I attended OCBC. I often found it odd to “waste” 50 minutes sitting and chanting to get to a five minute Dharma Talk. I wasn’t yet appreciating the importance of using the body to lead the mind.
The term esoteric is often misunderstood as secret teachings or something New Age or cosmic. In Buddhism, it does not mean these things. It merely means to practice with one’s body. There are three main esoteric practices. I call them the three M’s. They are mandalas, mudras and mantras. These are challenging to define precisely so I will use very general definitions. Mandalas are images that are viewed – like the sand paintings in Tibetan Buddhism. Mudras are hand gestures like gassho. Mantras are vocalizations like Namuamidabutsu. When we say something it forces us to engage and feel. Like hearing yourself say “I love you”. These are all designed to communicate an emotional truth.
Half of what I have learned about Buddhism has come from books and study. The other half has come from seeing Amida Buddha on the altar, bowing in gassho and saying Namuamidabutsu. I cannot explain what this means but I do know how it feels. There are many things like this in life. Buddhism, surprisingly, happens to be one of them.
Rev. Jon Turner