FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

These are questions that have been asked at lectures I’ve given on the Buddha’s life and teaching, and in classes I’ve taught. In some cases (most, actually), the questions answered here are derived from questions asked in those other circumstances, but not actually the questions themselves. And in some cases, I am anticipating questions that will arise as we launch the Dhamma.now project. I will add to and change this page as I gather experiences with the actual questions that arise in the context of that project.

Is this Buddhism?

Yes.

But it may not resemble, at first reading, the Buddhism that you might have read about in Buddhist magazines or in books with “Buddhism” or “The Buddha” in their titles. We are mostly concerned with the teachings transmitted in the Pali Canon, which are commonly considered to have originated with the historical figure remembered as “the Buddha”. We are particularly concerned with the distinctive understanding of our behavior and our experience of the world that are expounded in those texts, and the meditative practices that are recommended there. So, assuming that the ultimate source of the canonical texts was the Buddha, we will call the texts “the Buddha’s Teachings”, and we will accept “Buddhism” as one label for our gathering. But it’s important to remember that the purpose of the gathering is to discover the practical application of those teachings to the difficulties we face in our daily living. We are not very much concerned with how “Buddhism” is practiced as a religion, either in Buddhist cultures or in the West, and whether or not any one of us identifies as a “Buddhist” is entirely a matter of choice.

Is this Secular?

Yes.

But again, we need to be sure that we understand the meaning of the adjective to which we are assenting, and even more careful about the entity or entities to which that assent applies. Any person joining our gathering may or may not identify his or her understanding of what’s going on as “secular”. But the gathering as a project—the selections we will study from the Pali Canon and the sense of the Dhamma that we will take from those selections —will remain, to the extent that we can control such things, secular in its attitude and approach. We will not be concerned to find historical truth in the myths we encounter in the canonical texts (although we may find a metaphorical wisdom in many of those), and we will not be concerned that many of the texts clearly presuppose an understanding of things that conflicts with what we know from science and our own shared experience. There are plenty of mystical and supernatural elements in the Pali Canon; we will, for the most part, simply ignore whatever a secular intelligence finds incredible. (We may re-interpret some of that as myth and find some metaphorical wit or wisdom in that, but nothing in our study will challenge credulity).

Is this “Secular Buddhism”?

Wellllll…

When we start combining labels, the level of qualification required increases exponentially. Part of the problem is that “Secular Buddhism” is a term that’s been adopted by many different groups for many different purposes; one of those purposes, all too often, is to separate that group from other groups that put a different word in front of “Buddhism”. In working this Dhamma.now Project out—writing the website and considering how our gathering might be encouraged to develop, one of the attitudes guiding my thinking has certainly been the attitude of secularity. But another attitude that’s been important to the effort has been a dismissal of exclusivity as a useful stance. We all have a lot to learn from one another, and the most important learnings frequently come from people who see the world very differently from the way we see it. So, once again, the gathering is secular in its approach, and what it approaches is Buddhism. But labeling the Dhamma.now Project “Secular Buddhism”, while technically accurate, is not likely to be helpful either in understanding what it is or in getting the most out of it.

What is the Dhamma?

The Pali term Dhamma is frequently translated as “Truth”, or “Law” (always capitalized). It comes from an Indo-European root dṛ, which means “foundation” or “form” (in the carpenter’s sense of the word: something fixed which determines the shape of what’s made with it). It’s probably cognate with our words “firm” and “firmament”. The term refers to the body of law-like causal relationships that determine how particular actions or energy exchanges produce the events we experience; Dhamma determines what emerges as a result of biophysical processes, and it also determines how our psychological, social, and political existence emerges from the ethical choices that we make.

Why Dhamma? Why not Dharma?

There’s no question that Dharma is the more common word in most English discussions of Buddhism. The Pali term Dhamma is used on this website, rather than the Sanskrit Dharma, mainly because the texts that we’ll be mostly working with in our Gatherings come from the Pali Canon.

What is the Pali Canon, and why are we using those texts?

Short answer: the texts of the Pali Canon certainly comprise the oldest and most probably authentic record we have of the Buddha’s Discourses. The Pali Canon is the primary body of scriptures in most Theravada Buddhist communities.

Long answer (be patient; this one requires context):

After his experience of Awakening, the Buddha taught for 45 years throughout Northeastern India. For most of that time, he was accompanied by a Sangha of followers, called bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. The members of the Sangha were specially trained in memorization techniques; for three months of every year, during the monsoon season, they would come together in retreat centers to hear the Buddha’s discourses, either from the Buddha himself or from one of the elders in the Sangha, and they would repeat the discourses to one another communally, to be certain that each one had them memorized correctly. Then, during the rest of the year, they would travel individually or in small groups from village to village, repeating the Discourses to the Buddha’s lay followers. Within a few months after the Buddha’s death, a very well-organized and well-coordinated effort was mounted to remember the Teachings; the members of the Sangha were assigned to groups which took responsibility to remember certain portions of the whole; those groups came together frequently for communal recitation of the texts they were responsible for. Twice during the next couple of hundred years, a major Council was held, involving senior reciters from all those groups, and a recitation of the entire body of teachings was completed (the process took many months). Finally, at the Fourth such Council, held toward the beginning of the First Century BCE in the island country of Sri Lanka, the Teachings were written down, in the vernacular language of that time and place, which is known as Pali. Pali is probably close to the Magadhan dialect of Sanskrit that was, again probably, spoken by the Buddha, but it’s impossible to know just how close.

Once the Pali texts were written down, many copies were made, and the Pali Canon spread throughout South and Southeast Asia. Most scholars believe that the texts we have today, although the earliest physical copies that we have only date from several hundred years ago, are very close in content to the texts first written down at that Fourth Council.

Now, does the Pali Canon comprise the words of the Buddha? Almost certainly not; there have been ample opportunities for corruption to creep in, and it certainly has. Teachings were mis-remembered; some were forgotten entirely, and we’ll never know how many or what they were; emendations were introduced as the teachings were transmitted, either well-meant attempts to clarify what was obscure in a remembered discourse, or attempts to support or justify a particular sectarian understanding, or for more practical reasons—to make a particularly difficult discourse easier to remember, for example. Every translator, reading obscure or difficult concepts, made choices. Every copyist, working from a fading manuscript, made choices. Each choice increased the divergence from some imagined original.

But the complete canon is so large that the corruption of a particular piece of it really makes little difference, as long as one is not approaching it as Scripture—holy Truth in which even the least obscurity must be illuminated and every contradiction resolved, one way or another. If we accept the Buddha’s teachings as we find them in the Pali Canon, not as pointers to any particular Truth but as indicators of the direction in which we might find such truths as can assume importance in our lives, then we will find those truths in those teachings. Our purpose in our gatherings, with regard to the teachings in the Pali Canon, is not to resolve the ambiguities in those teachings, but to use the body of canonical texts as a guide to living purposefully given the ambiguity that’s inherent in experience.

Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?

It pretty much depends on the context. Given the breadth and extent of the texts that we have in the Pali Canon, and the overall rationality, coherence, and intellectual integrity of those texts, it’s quite obvious that this collection of the Buddha’s Teachings is much more like what we understand as philosophy than are most other collections of teachings that we call religions. On the other hand, there is no philosophical school (at least in modern times) that has generated so many institutions (monasteries, retreat centers, temples, shrines, prayers and rituals) that we commonly identify with religion.

So perhaps one answer to the question is “Yes”—Buddhism is a religion in the sense that it is practiced as a religion in most Buddhist cultures and by most people who identify as “Buddhists”.

And another possible answer is “Yes”—Buddhism is a philosophy in the sense that the texts attributed to its founder and his major commentators are similar in form, logical rigor, and discursive style to the texts that characterize what we generally understand as systems of philosophy.

Now, if you are a Hindu, or a Christian, or a Muslim, or Yorùbá, or if you are a Kantian, or a Utilitarianist, or a Positivist, then you may not like that answer. But it’s the only answer I have. And there you have it.

Is this part of a movement?

No.

Are there similar gatherings in other cities?

Not to my knowledge.

Who was the Buddha?

The Bare Facts

To the best of our knowledge, which is not all that good, he was a man named Siddhatta Gotama (Siddhatta of the Gotama family) born toward the beginning of the Fifth Century BCE in a town called Lumbini just south of the Himalayas. Siddhatta was the son of a wealthy and powerful clan leader among the people known as the Sakyans, and he was raised with all the privileges that normally attend to the eldest sons of wealthy and powerful community leaders. We have no details about his early life. What we know from the canonical texts and the commentaries on those texts is that he became disenchanted with his life of privilege and power, left his home and family, and became a samana, a solitary student-wanderer, living on alms, traveling on foot, owning nothing but a simple set of robes. He studied with some of the leading teachers of his time, tried a life of severe asceticism, and finally set about an intensive practice of meditation which led him, in the Spring of his 35th year, to Awaken to an understanding of how things unfold in this world which could, when combined with meditative practice, lead to a diminution or complete cessation of anguish and existential suffering. With his Awakening bodhi in the language of his time), Siddhatta earned the title of The Buddha, the Awakened One.

For the next 45 years, the Buddha taught his Dhamma—the way that he’d found to attain release from the pain of living in a difficult and suffering world. He attracted tens of thousands of lay followers and created a large, formally organized, and exceptionally well disciplined Sangha (“assembly”) of renunciant followers, who remained celibate, lived alone or in communal gatherings, and spread the Buddha’s teachings throughout Northern India and beyond.

The Buddha died when he was 80, naming no successor.

According to the texts of the Pali Canon (see above), the Buddha never laid any claim to divinity, and he asserted, again and again, that the experience he’d had was one that anyone could have; anyone who had that experience would, moreover, Awaken to the same release that had entitled Siddhatta Gotama to be called the Buddha.

Those are the bare facts, and they are probably close to what really happened. But none of the sources are totally reliable, and we can know nothing with certainty.

The Reality

The people we know—the appearances, personalities, world views, teachings that we attach to a name—exist on a continuum that stretches, for example, from Bilbo Baggins at one end to your spouse on the other. In between there are figures like Confucius, Mary Magdelene, Socrates, Murasaki Shikibu, Zheng He, Marco Polo, Teresa of Avila, Louis XIV, Anne Boleyn, Amerigo Vespucci, Pocahontas, George and Martha Washington, John Brown, Oscar Wilde, Emma Goldman, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Tiny Tim.

The place that all such figures have in our minds, the image we carry and the mental associations we attach to the name, the sense of reality that the name evokes, is mediated by various channels: books about them or by them, pictures and statues, what we’ve been told by teachers or friends or TV personalities. In no case do we know any person wholly and directly. But they are all nonetheless real.

Anything we know as real gains its reality by its ability to fit into the model we construct of a real world. The people we assume to be real people prove their reality by their capacity to find a place in that world and to move us with their presence—to make us laugh or weep, to excite our admiration or disapproval, to inform us about the world from the perspective of their reality and so to increase the subtlety and depth of our understanding and help us respond skillfully to events in the world we share.

It is in that sense that the Buddha is real, as real as Abraham Lincoln or Gloria Steinem. The figure that emerges from the texts of the Pali Canon lives in a real world that is remarkably congruent with the world I know, deals with people who resemble in pertinent ways the people I’ve dealt with in my real life, demonstrates real ironic wit, real sorrow, real anger, real patience, real compassion, real friendship, and, most importantly, real wisdom.

So the Buddha becomes real to me, and takes on more tangible reality the more of his teachings I read, the more I learn of his times and the culture in which he moved as an historical figure, and the more clearly I am able, based on what I learn, to make defensible guesses regarding aspects of his history and thinking about which the texts are either silent or tantalizingly vague or ambiguous.

So, if we make the effort to realize Siddhattha Gotama, the Buddha, what benefit can we take from that realization?

That is, of course, what the Dhamma.now project is all about. But, as a very brief overview, the benefits one can take from the texts of the Pali Canon and the realized Buddha to be discovered in those texts fall into two categories:

A way of seeing. The Buddha’s vision of how experience emerges from our contact with the world is compelling and immediately useful in reducing or eliminating the anxiety, fear, and delusional belief that frequently accompanies experience. The Buddha’s way culminates (and originates) in the famous eightfold Path, comprising elements of wisdom, virtuous conduct, and constant focused awareness.

A way of practicing. In order for the Path to guide us to a way of living skillfully in a difficult world, a life marked by intimate friendships, a compassionate relationship to those still suffering, deep joy, and equanimity, we must cultivate it in our daily lives. The Buddha defined a practice to do that; it involves a variety of meditative techniques, all designed to maintain a mindful engagement with our experience and a continually renewed commitment to the Path.

So, in our gatherings, we will study the Buddha’s way of seeing in an effort to take from that whatever elements help us see our own situations more clearly, with a view to responding skillfully to those situations. And we will practice together and learn from one another how to develop the skillful ways of living recommended in the Buddha’s teachings.

Who are you?

I am Richard Blumberg. I had a long career doing what used to be called “commercial writing” and wound up founding and helping to run what became a fairly large advertising agency. Following that, I founded what became the first Internet Service Provider in Cincinnati–a fascinating experience but a business disaster. I’ve been retired for more than ten years.

Personally, I am a lifelong resident of Cincinnati. I’ve been gladly married to the same woman for more than 50 years; Joan is also a lifelong Cincinnatian, and we’ve lived in our house in Hyde Park for the past 40 years. We have two grown children, both happily married, doing worthwhile work and thriving. We have three young grandchildren. I am the only one in the family who practices Buddhism.

I’ve always been interested in Eastern religions, and in Buddhism particularly, and about 15 years ago, that interest became more serious, more personal, more scholarly in its expression, and more focused on the Pali Canon. I’ve learned a little Pali and have done my own translations/renderings of a number of canonical suttas; I’ve been moderating courses in the Buddha’s teachings at the University of Cincinnati’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute for the past 5 or 6 years, and I’ve also created and taught courses in the Buddha’s teachings or in meditation at other venues in and around Cincinnati. I maintain the Dharma Study website to support the classes I teach. The website at blumberg.org has more about me and links to projects that I’ve initiated or with which I’ve been involved.

Why are you doing this?

I’ve gotten a lot from my practice and study of the Buddha’s teachings. I haven’t gotten what people tell me they get from revealed religion—consolation, transcendent experience, conviction. But what I’ve gotten helps me live more easily in a world that seems to be careering toward disaster and in a body that each day comes closer to dying. I think that other people might find that way of living worth exploring, and it is a way that anyone can learn—not something that has to received through grace, or authenticated by a guru, or attained only with great difficulty, or even thoroughly; getting just a little bit helps some, and getting more, or getting it more deeply, helps more.

What I’ve gotten from my study and practice is what I think of as the Dhamma, and I would like to transmit that to others. When I’ve been able to do that, in my teaching and in conversations I’ve had over the years, I’ve found the experience rewarding, and it seems that the people whom I’ve taught or talked with have gotten something out of it as well. I believe, based on my experience of the Dhamma and on what I’ve learned through acquiring that experience, that a wider understanding of the Dhamma and more extensive practice of a way of living based on the Dhamma would make for a better world and might help us, as a society, deal with problems that now appear intractable. The Dhamma.now Project is a very modest attempt to make that happen in this small corner of the world.

If the Dhamma.now Project sparks an interest in the Dhamma, or if it becomes a movement and spreads, I would welcome that, but with some considerable ambivalence. If a community of people with a shared interest in the Dhamma emerges from this gathering, I’d find that rewarding. If it turns out to be just too difficult, if it founders or fails, that will be OK; I’ve done what I feel that I have to do.