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Dispatches from the present

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Consult the Sutras

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Couple months ago, I read Wang Wei’s poetry, floor to ceiling. He, as you know, was this big Buddhist; so his poems refer to Buddhist lala, left and bloody right. I, who am supposedly interested in Buddhism, was picking up on exactly none of these references. There’d be something about a phantom city. I check the footnote: “Lotus Sutra, Chapter Whatever.” There’d be something about the way a particular Sanskrit letter is written. Footnote: “Nirvana Sutra, Chapter Whatever.” Sutra this and sutra that.

Okay, before I go any further, are we clear on what a sutra is? This is definitely the kind of thing you can hear about your whole life without ever getting clear on it. A Buddhist sutra is a sermon of the Buddha. You’ve heard of Jesus’s “Sermon on the Mount”? It’s like that, only much longer and there are people asking lots of questions. The parts of the Gospels where people are pestering Jesus with questions? “What about this, what about that—?” That’s like a sutra.

How many are there. About a billion. Most of ’em don’t matter. But there are around fifteen that matter like crazy. I, who am supposedly interested in Buddhism, had read two: the Diamond Sutra, and the Vimalakirti. I had not read them attentively. Wang Wei, like almost every Chinese Buddhist, tends to refer to the Lotus. There was some point, as the “fragrance accumulated,” where I got mad: “That tears it. I’m going up the mountain right now.”

These last couple months have been a wild ride. I can see why I didn’t read the stuff attentively before. The material is eye-crossingly repetitive and disorganized. It’s not at all the kind of thing you can read once and you’re good. So, I regrouped my shit. I read all that spangablasm into a voice-recorder, incrementally, and played it back while doing calligraphy. Kids, I’ve heard the following five items many times now:

Diamond Sutra
Vimalakirti Sutra
Lotus Sutra
Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines Sutra
Nirvana Sutra (vol. 1 of 4)

…and I’ve got the next six I’m going to look at lined up. I don’t care how long it takes. Wang Wei must not be permitted to mystify his reader any further.

What did I learn from the sutras? I learned the Buddha never loses his temper. He never raises his voice. He doesn’t speak with any kind of drama. He just calmly explains and explains and explains.

The sutras never show him in a stress position. No one ever insults him to his face or offers to drive nails through him. So you never get a picture of what your life might be like if you had thoughts like his. You have to surmise what it would be like. You would never lose your temper. People would ask you questions all day long.

The Buddha was surprisingly willing to devote a lot of time to explaining why what he is saying to you now contradicts what he said before. It appears he is licensed to tell you false things, provided it will help you. You know how parents lie to their children to keep ’em out of trouble? Standard procedure about which we should feel no ambivalence or anxiety, right? Well, that’s how the Buddha rolls. He explains this many times.

To me, the above is a Buddha booboo. It makes you wonder if what he’s telling you now isn’t false also, i.e. merely what you need to hear, so you don’t burn yourself on the stove—and not the actual truth.

Best parts of the sutras? The blessings. When the sutra starts in about how lucky you are to have this sutra in front of you, and that any person who understands the least little dot of it heaps up an amount of karmic merit astronomically exceeding that of a person who filled uncountable universes with jewels and gave it as an offering—that’s the good stuff, at least in terms of making you have a feeling.

Best parts of the sutras in terms of doctrine are the parts where they say there is no self, there are no dharmas, and so you have to vow to save everyone, while acknowledging (with every pore of your skin) that no one will be saved. You must proceed groundlessly. I happen to agree with that, 100 percent. Nietzsche would probably agree with it, too. (He wasn’t against your having morals; he was against your thinking your morals were true.)

Two other differences between Christianity and Buddhism. In Buddhism, the Buddha didn’t create the universe. Therefore, all that karmic gibberish isn’t his fault. Good and evil are just matters of physics in Buddhism. In this way, Buddhism evades a few big problems with Christianity (“Why does God allow…,” etc.).

The other difference is time. In Christianity, you have exactly one lifetime to work out your fate. Lot of pressure there. And the universe is just not that old to begin with. In Buddhism there have been people and Buddhas and holy books for trillions upon trillions of years, and the future is the same. Consequently, it’s quite possible that Donald Trump and everyone else you don’t like will eventually be Buddhas. In some sutras, it’s certain they will. Little by little, they’ll get there!

It’s positively funny how unbearable the latter point is, even to Buddhists. You can watch the Buddha say and unsay it in the same sutra. Vide the Nirvana Sutra, passim.

In closing, I recommend Chan Buddhism. The Japanese call it Zen. It entails (a) cheerfully accepting that the sutras are “self-consuming artifacts,” and (b) making fun of the Buddha as a, quote, chatterbox, and as a, quote, toothless old Hindu. The advantages to this approach speak for themselves. And lest anyone get giddy with all this iconoclasm, Zen provides an excellent proven remedy: sitting quietly with your mouth shut.