Buddhist Life Buddhist Path: The Foundations of Buddhism based on earliest sources
by Bhikkhu Cintita
Review Part 1: Buddhist Life.
Many books, articles, and summaries of Buddhism will give you a collection of lists such as the Four Noble Truths, the Eight Fold Path, and so on. Or, they will begin with meditation. But these approaches often sacrifice deeper understanding. They also create a somewhat unbalanced view of just what Buddhism is really all about.
In his book on Buddhist living and its path to enlightenment, Bhikkhu Cintita gives the reader a much more practical approach, and a surprisingly modern, rational interpretation of Buddhist teachings than expected. For naturalists interested in learning about Buddhism, Bhikkhu Cintita’s textbook seems an excellent guide.
Bhikkhu Cintita is an American-born Buddhist monk. He holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of California, and was once CEO of a software company where his work involved research and development in artificial intelligence. He was originally ordained in the Zen tradition and later ordained in Theravada Buddhism in Burma. I was made aware of his book recently when he came to speak at the temple my wife and I attend.
After reading Bhikkhu Cintita’s book, you will begin to understand just how much a Buddhism stripped down to merely “atheism + meditation” would be sacrificing. You’ll also learn why many popularizers’ myopic focus on meditation misses the point. And, most surprising, you’ll learn how bizarre a thing it is to say, “I am a Buddhist, except for that stuff about karma and rebirth”.
For me as a naturalist, it was refreshing to see a monk speak of karma and rebirth in a way that makes sense. And, even better, he does this not through revisionism, but by restricting his approach to what is called Early Buddhism. This was the period from the life of the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) to after his death and up until the rise of sectarian Buddhism and those traditions that evolved into the various schools of Buddhism today.
Bhikkhu Cintita’s own school of Theravada is known for its focus and preservation of the earliest texts but even Theravada, Bhikkhu Cintita admits, has added many commentaries. He states, “The earliest stratum is the closest what the Buddha actually taught and how he taught it”. So he has opted to focus in this book only on the earliest texts which form the “root of all Buddhism”. He ads that this body of work is surprisingly consistent, profound, and comprehensive.
The book is arranged in two sections (called ‘books’). Book One is “Buddhist Life” and Book Two is “Buddhist Path”. As the author describes it, the idea is there are two lanes on the highway. The Path is the highway, and one can follow the path in the Lay lane, or the Monastic lane. Both of these are Buddhist Life. The first book then, deals with the kind of life style that gets someone going on the path. The second book is about how the path works at different mile markers to bring us to awakening. This review will be of the first part, covering Buddhist Life.
Here, Bhikkhu Cintita describes both life as a lay practitioner and monastic and explains the elements therein. He also described elements of the Buddha’s life and how that played into the ideas in the teachings. In practice, he ends up describing a lot of philosophy so it’s not all just lifestyle.
Samsara is described as the “inability to free ourselves from the recurring patterns of thinking and responding” to the “soap opera of life”. Awakening entails a break from that cycle. It “entails a radical reworking of human cognitive faculties”.
The author notes that many who came to Buddhism later in life often have frustration learning and teaching Buddhism (to their children for example) because they tend to center it on meditation – something he seeks to correct with this book. Bhikkhu Cintita lays out the stages of gradual instruction and begins with generosity. This is the beginning of Buddhist practice. Only with real experience in generosity can we get a visceral understanding of its benefits and the nature of interconnectedness.
From there we are ready to begin understanding the consequences of our actions. And it is here that the reader will begin to see how central and foundational the notion of karma is to Buddhist philosophy and practice. But karma may not be what most readers think it is.
While I prefer the Sanskrit, most monks I believe prefer the Pali “kamma” as does the book’s author. Kamma does not mean some kind of supernatural bank account of good deeds and punishments. Literally it means “volitional action”. So, to say “I don’t believe in karma” makes no sense if the word is being used in its proper way (everyone believes in volitional action). Such a phrase only makes sense if talking about an interpretation of karma that diverges from that described in early Buddhism. Bhikkhu Cintita states:
“The great challenge of accomplishing good is to trace, as best as possible, with discerning wisdom, just what the heck all the consequences of the simplest actions might be. We live in a very complex and highly interdependent world in which the consequences of the simplest action run very deep, playing themselves out almost forever.”
Connected to the idea of volitional action is merit-making. Here the author describes the concept of merit very carefully that make the concept very naturalistic. I believe he truly understands it this way. But what’s more. I believe there is a substantial chance that he believes this is really how the Buddha saw it. In any case, I think the reader will find the following extremely useful in practice.
He states that as we do various generous deeds, we can “think of ourselves as” earning personal merit. Merit (puñña) is “a kind of approximate composite measure of the ethical action”. He calls it a “tool” and a “rough metric” to measure our progress. This conceptual tool incorporates the consequences and the intentions of the action.
Using this tool, Bhikkhu Cintita shows how we can then consider in our actions such things as the relative value of generosity based on who receives it, what we give, how is it given, and why we give. In each of these categories there are enlightening and perhaps surprising things to be read and considered.
The genius of this tool is that it calls us to take note and be mindful of our actions, and just how they can effect that complex web of causality in which we find ourselves. It makes us think about the consequences and value of our actions in detail. This is the function of karma in the Buddhist life. With this understanding, it becomes very difficult to imagine how the rest of Buddhist thought and practice can even work with its skeletal supports left out because it effects every action of the practitioner.
The consequences of our volitional actions are called ‘karmic fruits’. And what of those magical notions of karma where bad/good things happen to us because we did some unrelated or unconnected bad/good thing? Bhikkhu Cintita notes that examples in early texts are relatively rare and could be allegorical:
“…it does not require some kind of mysterious cosmic accounting mechanism… In fact, practical, psychological, Physiological, and sociological processes in themselves seem adequately to motivate virtually all of the claims about kammic fruits.”
And not all that happens to us for good or ill is the result of our volitional actions (karma). The author states strongly, “This misunderstanding, very widely accepted in many modern schools of Buddhism, is, in fact, unambiguously denied by the Buddha…”
It is in approaching rebirth that Bhikkhu Cintita shows openness to some concepts that may raise the eyebrow of naturalists. In a footnote he seems to have been convinced by some studies of unexplained memories in children. But in the thrust of the rebirth concept and its role in Buddhist practice he is far more practical. The author stresses the importance of a perspective where our actions have larger consequences than our own lives “in their broader context and total network of relationships”. He states:
“I have made the case not for the specifics of linear rebirth as it is generally understood, but only for validity of a more general principle consistent with a variety of methods by which kammic results might be perpetuated, including, for instance, genetic or social.”
As such Bhikkhu Cintita’s aim is on the practical and allows for a broad agnosticism on various takes, naturalistic to paranormal. Indeed, an appreciation for the effects of our actions out into the network of relationships and lives beyond our own is crucial for the practice and some kind of naturalistic take on (and recognition of) a continual rebirth of patterns in our lives and the lives of others will be important I believe. The author’s down to earth approach in this book is what naturalists will find most useful.
There is so much more to which this review cannot do justice, purity from greed, hate, and delusion; harmonizing with others in community; perspectives on monastic life and its role in the community; etc. But it is worth noting that it is at the end of instruction (of Book One) that Bhikkhu Cintita places Faith – not the beginning. Refuge is the Buddhist term for faith:
“…faith here is quite different from how faith is understood in most religious contexts, having more to do with ‘working assumption’ than with ‘belief’, and quite distinct from ‘blind faith’ which the Buddha in no way endorsed.”
Once the practitioner is ready to take refuge, this means they are willing to accept the Buddhist teachings and put them into practice as their working assumption. And, in so doing, continually test them with their own experience so that trust is increased over time. This testing and questioning is essential to Buddhist practice.
As should be obvious by now, I recommend this book to anyone interested in Buddhism, but especially to naturalists. For this reason, in the SNS Practice Support Group, we will be using this book as a textbook and I’ll be taking the group through sections of it as inspiration to spark interesting discussion in the group. If you would like to join the group please let us know (information here).
Also, stay tuned for a future installment, where I will review Book Two: Buddhist Path.
You can get this book at this link.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.