Among the aims of this essay is to look into some of the core principles and to explore some ways of their resolution. Perhaps the first question is: What"s the problem?
When one looks directly at the source texts extolling the virtues of the arahant and the bodhisattva, they both appear as extraordinarily noble and fine human aspirations. How wonderful and marvelous that we can develop the heart to such degrees of purity and wisdom! Clearly it is not the ideals themselves that are the root cause of any conflict, rather the cause of the purported problem is people – more specifically the issue of tribalism.
It"s the great "mine field" – it"s through a tragically misguided sense of faithfulness to our origins – this is my team, my tribe, my lineage – that we bring the intricacies of intellect to defend our group. Even to the point of bending the facts and the philosophy for the sake of winning the argument.
Whether the area of dispute involves football teams, family feuds or Buddhist philosophies, the dynamics are identical: First, we seize on a few features of the opposition to criticize and make fun of, then we lose ourselves in the overheated labyrinth of position taking and finally, we miss the reality of what we are contending about.
Even though the intent of an exchange or relationship might be very noble or refined, the emotional tone permeating it can, in contrast, be deeply instinctual, territorial and viscerally aggressive – e.g. arguing about the best way to build a free clinic; the true nature of Christ in relationship to God; the best way to bow or even to chop carrots. We might observe proper standards of etiquette, but the heart has been taken over by the reptile brain.
Most often the real issue is not philosophy, it"s hurt feelings. An amicable spiritual discussion that began around 100 BCE, about different approaches to the Buddhas path of practice, somehow evolved into a bitter rivalry a few centuries later. Mutually critical comments being bandied back and forth, degenerated into derogatory insults until the various factions were “Stabbing each other with verbal daggers,” (to use the Buddhas own phrase) and the stereotyping of the opposing group became a fixed view: anyone who aspires to arahantship must be a selfish nihilist, while all those who take the bodhisattva vows are obviously heretical eternalists.
Many different spiritual traditions tell the tale of the blind men and the elephant (its found in the Pali Canon, for example, at Udana 6.4) Isn"t it revealing that when we hear the story we rarely think of ourselves as one of the blind? We prefer to see ourselves more as the monarch watching the sorry squabbling of the sightless. It"s humbling how easily the heart is pulled into exactly this kind of position taking and deluded certainty, based on our attachment to views and opinions. This is especially true when the heart asserts, “This is not an opinion, it"s a fact!” Even if the "fact" is 100% valid, in conventional terms, if we use it as a point of contention with others, it becomes, as Ajahn Chah would say, “Right in fact, but wrong in Dhamma.”
Sometimes it is devout faithfulness, rather than criticism or condemnation, that drives us into such dualisms. One time, when Ajahn Chah was visiting England, a woman who had had a long involvement with the Thai forest tradition came to see him. She was very humble and sincere, but also very concerned:
“I respect your wisdom and your practice as a monk immensely, but I feel uncomfortable receiving your teachings and taking Refuges and Precepts with you; it makes me feel as though I"m being unfaithful to my teacher, Ajahn Maha Boowa.” Ajahn Chah replied, “I don"t really see what the problem is – Ajahn Maha Boowa and I are both disciples of the Buddha.”
It is in this spirit that we will now endeavor to explore these teachings and traditions. In doing so, we can fully appreciate the broad landscape of the Way of the Buddha through eyes that are “right in Dhamma.”