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In response to my earlier question about the nature of "remedies" offered by Buddhism, I got many replies that quoted parables and similies, such as "The burning house" and "the raft".

I understand that people try to stick to the original teachings of the Buddha and other great gurus; but the ancient gurus gave their answers in parables and similes appropriate to their times and circumstances (and so they talked about rivers, rafts, burning houses, children fascinated with wooden toys, etc.).

Why aren't modern-day gurus comfortable creating original parables with modern imagery: for example a hitch-hiker who takes a lift from a trucker, and repays him by gifting him a smartphone?

Isn't Buddhism about imbibing spiritual teachings, applying them in one's life, and as a bonus, imparting those teachings convincingly in an age-appropriate and context-specific (i.e. modern) way?

migrated from buddhism.stackexchange.com Sep 6 '15 at 11:04

This question came from our site for people practicing or interested in Buddhist philosophy, teaching, and practice.

  • Actually I did try to use modern metaphors in this answer. There's nothing wrong with that. And I think other people who answer questions here may also do that, though I can't recall specific examples. Of course, more than half the answers use traditional metaphors and examples. – ruben2020 Sep 24 '15 at 17:36
  • Thanks for pointing it out. Much appreciated! – Krishnaraj Rao Sep 24 '15 at 17:48
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"So, why are modern-day gurus still stuck with imagery from the middle-ages? Why aren't they comfortable creating original parables with imagery such as a hitch-hiker who takes a lift from a trucker, and repays him by gifting him a smartphone?"

Do you know for sure there aren't Buddhists that do this? Substitute the wooden toy with a smartphone if you want, it makes no difference. I think that quoting from a source just adds more credibility, it shows that the person has done his research and isn't just speculating. If a person invents her own simile there is a chance that that person has misunderstood the point, but if the person quotes from scripture and gives his interpretation, you can always look at the same quote and either agree or disagree and when you discuss you will always be on the same page, so to speak.

"No offence, but I am led to ask whether people currently involved in Buddhist discussions are stuck with showing how thoroughly they have read the ancient Buddhist scriptures, rather than how deeply they have imbibed the teachings."

The scriptures are part of the teachings, the source of the teachings. It makes sense that to learn the teachings, what you call true Buddhism, they must go to the source material. When they go to another person's teachings, are they still Buddhists or followers of the new guru? New religions are created this way.

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Your question has two parts, one is "These people here they..., am I right or am I right?"

The other part of the question is, "Why haven't people upgraded the metaphorical language to reflect modern society?" This has an answer in the context of a StackExchange site.

People are expected to ask questions that could potentially have a single correct, best answer. This is just a byproduct of the SE history as a software development Q&A that grew beyond it's original topic. For an answer to be somewhat objectively correct, eventually it will need to cite sources and that puts us not only in the symbolic imagery of 2000 years ago, but the exact surviving words.

Every thing else is "unverifiable personal gnosis," a hand phrase I borrow from the Asatru community. If I rewrite the Lotus Sutra so that it takes place in modern times, then it is just me talking. If I make claims that this was revealed to me, then it needs to meet the same standards as other texts that got into the Taisho, Kangjur or Tripitaka. In the Mahayana case, a text was admitted because it was so similar enough to earlier sutras and used the same symbolic imagery, including elephants and lions, even though people from Tibet and China hadn't ever seen either.

The better place for unverifiable personal gnosis is a blog, an example would be the meaningness project, who I greatly enjoy reading, but his blog posts wouldn't make for authoritative answers on a Q&A site.

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I got many replies that quoted parables and similies, such as "The burning house" and "the raft"

It was me who mentioned those two parables, about "the burning house" and "the raft".

Because I am not a guru I wouldn't want to answer a question which asks about Buddhist doctrine (a.k.a. "dhamma preaching") by quoting myself: instead I want to answer by quoting a Buddhist guru (and in my case, preferably by quoting doctrine attributed to the historical Buddha).

It's a mistake to equate my answers with the answers of "modern-day gurus".

Another reason why I quote or reference existing text is so that you can read more of it (more of whatever I referenced) if you want to. For example I linked to Wikipedia's article about Upaya because I thought, based on your question, that was a subject that would interest you.

It's also a mistake to conflate my answers with the answers from other users of this site. For example another user might have chosen to answer your question with a definite "yes", saying that there are several kinds of Yāna for different people.

And (I don't know why) most of the site's users chose not to answer your question, nor to upvote any of the answers.

I find this tendency to stick with outdated imagery somewhat disturbing, because it suggests a lack of original thought-process

Sorry about that.

being able to impart those teachings convincingly in an age-appropriate and context-specific way

You're probably right; I don't know how old you are or how much you know about Buddhism already.

In one of your comments you wrote, "my philosophy is informed by Hinduism", and this was your first question on the site; so I tried to be conservative in my answer, i.e. ensure that my answer mentioned some of the most essential/central Buddhist doctrines.

And actually I'm not trying to be "convincing": instead I'm trying to be "authentic".

I remember this from Confucius' Analects,

Tzu-lu made Tzu-kao the prefect of Pi. The Master said, 'He is ruining another man's son.'1

Tzu-lu replied, 'His job will be to lead the common people and the officers, and to honour the altars to the spirits of the earth and grain. In order to be considered learned, is it necessary for him to study the books?'

The Master said, 'It is for this reason that I dislike men who are plausible.'

because Tzu-kao had a lot of talent but he hadn't yet studied.

(Apparently Confucius was a fan of having studied and being learned.)

So if I write an answer on this site, I try to write something that is true, not just plausible or convincing.

Elsewhere there are many other people's attempts to render the intent of Buddhism or their understanding of Buddhism in accessible, modern language. If you compare http://fakebuddhaquotes.com/ with http://www.realbuddhaquotes.com/ you might (I don't know) prefer the more authentic quotes.

Buddhism is NOT about being able being able to sound like a reincarnated Indian or Chinese sage, or like his favourite student.

I think there are several schools of Buddhism. One is Theravada which is somewhat defined by (and which studies) the Pali scriptures.

There are also other schools (Zen for example) which has a literature of its own, such as this or this.

And there are living people who can try to answer your questions, some of whom will do better than others.

stuck with showing how thoroughly they have read the ancient Buddhist scriptures, rather than how deeply they have imbibed the teachings

I was trying to do neither: I was trying to answer your question.

Maybe next time you could be more specific (in your question) about what you're looking for (in an answer), e.g. "please don't quote scripture". A problem though with trying to do that here might be that asking, "What do you think?" is usually treated as off-topic on this site: because if there are 100 users reading the site then asking "What do you think?" might result in 100 different answers, which isn't exactly the purpose of this site. The purpose of this site is to answer questions; a question which invites an infinite number of answers is, in some sense, a question which cannot be answered (it has no single answer, no single answer is sufficient, it is unanswerable). So instead of "What do you think about X?" you're encouraged to ask more impersonal questions like "What does Buddhism say about X?" or "What is a solution to my problem with X?". In turn, impersonal questions like "What does Buddhism say about X?" encourages people to reference Buddhist literature.

One more thing is that Buddhism doesn't always respond to "yes or no" questions. So if you ask "Can there be one Dharma for all stages?" a Buddhist answer might be "yes and no" (or, the answer might be a criticism of the question). I wonder whether the "wholesome roots" might be a good answer if you are looking for a-single-dhamma-to-suit-all-occasions.

  • Once again, thanks, Chris, for your objectivity and tolerance. And sorry for being somewhat prickly in the way I worded that question. I didn't aim to offend people, but that is evidently what I did. – Krishnaraj Rao Sep 7 '15 at 11:04
  • FYI the three vote-to-close reasons were all that the question was "primarily opinion based Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise." It's unusual that people vote-to-close a question (I can't easily explain why they did, the site's usual policy at least for the moderators is to accept almost any question). – ChrisW Sep 7 '15 at 13:47
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    There are a few phrases you could delete from the question to make it seem less "offensive" especially anything about people-on-this-site instead of Buddhism-beyond-this-site (e.g. "lack of original thought-process" and "I am led to ask whether people currently involved"). And if you're asking a delicate question perhaps remove your own opinion e.g. "I feel that true Buddhism is", so that you only ask a neutral question (the current question may imply that you know what "true Buddhism" is and that other people don't ... even if that were true that sounds more like an argument than a question). – ChrisW Sep 7 '15 at 13:58
  • Anyway, welcome to the site! I hope in future you find a way to ask questions that you want to, without people voting to close them. Apparently you need to be a bit careful, because it only takes a handful of (i.e. 5) users to vote to close a question. I think people are probably willing to answer questions and to share what they can, but maybe less eager to face (or reply to) criticism. – ChrisW Sep 7 '15 at 14:10
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    Phrases like "I feel" indicate that I am aware that what I write is not an absolute truth, but only an opinion. Still, I shall introspect, and look for gentler ways to word everything. – Krishnaraj Rao Sep 7 '15 at 14:39
  • @KrishnarajRao I'm sorry I'm a bit mystified about why people were voting to close, so slight tweaks like this to the literary style are all I'm able to suggest. Hopefully it won't be disastrous though. Even if some future question does get closed, as long as it has a salvageable core and you're patient, we ought to be able to discuss that question here on meta, to figure out how to edit it and reopen it. – ChrisW Sep 7 '15 at 14:46
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    Another tweak might be to phrase the question as a positive instead of as a negative: not "why don't Buddhist teachers use modern metaphors" but "which Buddhist teachers (can you recommend some Buddhist teachers who) do use modern metaphors?" – ChrisW Sep 7 '15 at 14:58
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I want to echo a little of some answers here and maybe offer some counter points.

While I understand that people try to stick to the original teachings of the Buddha and other great gurus, I find this tendency to stick with outdated imagery somewhat disturbing, because it suggests a lack of original thought-process.

So, why are modern-day gurus still stuck with imagery from the middle-ages? Why aren't they comfortable creating original parables with imagery such as a hitch-hiker who takes a lift from a trucker, and repays him by gifting him a smartphone? [...]

If we take Buddhism in general, I don't think we will find a "tendency to stick with outdated imagery" nor I think this suggests lack of originality.

Take any dhamma talk -- one of the main channels of buddhism teaching. Past or present. From any tradition. In general, I highly doubt one will find this tendency in such speeches emphasized -- quite the contrary, they often reflect their current times. This can also be easily seen in dhamma books, many don't reference any old text at all.

(unfortunately, the examples I have at hand at the moment are in portuguese, but I'm confident it won't be difficult to find samples in books, in monk blogs, or even in youtube dhamma talks speaking of modern subjects and offering creative/original explanations and analogies).

No offence, but I am led to ask whether people currently involved in Buddhist discussions are stuck with showing how thoroughly they have read the ancient Buddhist scriptures, rather than how deeply they have imbibed the teachings.

This is a natural social phenomenon. I don't think there's a way to repress this forming in a society. Old Zen stories make quite a fun illustration of this, by the way. But it's a mistake to conclude that Buddhists discussions are "infertile" after being exposed to just a few groups that seemed that way.

Specifically in regard to this site, I think @MatthewMartin and @ChrisW explained well why we find answers here that are "not original thinking": this is not a community that promotes original thinking, but strive for "authentic" answers -- as "credible" as a "regular person" can provide.

The point is actually simple: many of us are not scholars or monks and/or many of us do not "trust" ourselves to "teach Buddhism" and/or don't want people to blindly trust us (us: these anonymous icons on the internet). The next best thing in this case is to point the questioner to resources (an emulation of the strategy of another tradition: the scientific).

Unfortunately, the closest to authentic resources we have available are a combination of: being old, with few or no english translations, and not free from authenticity criticism. This should explain many problems with this site's contents (problems that are just very hard to be satisfactorily solved), but I find highly unlikely that these problems would put at risk it's usefulness. And i think that's it's purpose: being useful, not being a final answer.

So, it's also a mistake to expect this community to be formed solely by high learned members, scholarly rigorous or spiritually accomplished (of course, the more of these, the better). But we do have some tools for reviewing and scrutiny, and I'd say we are willing to not repeat mistakes in our posts when they are pointed out to us.

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It doesn't matter if the teaching approach is modern or not. Students would do well to let go of original thought-processes. Students should just listen to dhamma, experience just what is moment by moment and let go of coming up with ideas that can bring conflict with the teacher and the student's practice. There are plenty of teachers that are original and modern anyway like Ajahn Chah and his similes about guns, hypodermic Needles, tape recorders and balloons. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai/chah/insimpleterms.html

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I think the responses to this question and the voting against it as a question are symptomatic of fundamental problems with this site at present. Buddhism stack-exchange is dominated by traditionalists who block vote for each other's questions and answers. Often quite trivial questions and answers receive high votes if they are couched in Traditionalist terms, and receive low or negative votes if they depart from tradition. Voting seems to reflect approval for the person, rather than the merit of questions and answers.

And yes, the most active members do tend to answer questions in terms that are antiquated and traditional. Of course we can see some positive value in tradition and many of the old stories do still resonate emotionally for some people. But acceptance and repeating the old stories is also an expression of group membership and identity. The constant citing of blocks of (often poorly translated) quotes from suttas with no consideration of the content also seems to be connected with this phenomenon.

Some of the answers note that some prominent Buddhist "teachers" do use modern images and symbols, so the question is why such innovations are not evident here as well - why is the Pāḷi Canon, and the Access to Insight website, the accepted authority?

I agree that the answers frequently "are stuck with showing how thoroughly they have read the ancient Buddhist scriptures".

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    Thanks, Jayarava. I am a newbie on this forum, and I'm not admirably well-read either. Whatever my reading has been (in Hindu, Christian, Islam, Sufiism, Buddhist scriptures -- plus other philosophers -- is not reference-worthy. It's a mismash of concepts sitting in my head and imbibed into my life. I'm not proud of this, but I'm not entirely ashamed of it either. Just a candid confession made in the heat of the moment. – Krishnaraj Rao Sep 7 '15 at 11:11
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    'why is the Pāḷi Canon, and the Access to Insight website, the accepted authority?' It's because the Buddhists take refuge in Buddha, Dhamma and Sanga, not scholarly articles. Pāḷi Canon, and the Access to Insight represent the Dhamma. – dmsp Sep 7 '15 at 11:25
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    In the case of general questions, I think it is less that the pali canon and access to insight (or whatever) are "accepted as authority", and more that a user interested in providing material for an answer must chose sources of credibility. And one is not only limited by what is available (more so by what is available in english) but also -- and obviously -- by his own knowledge. In the end, it's a quote in an answer, among many answers. – Thiago Sep 8 '15 at 0:56
  • I think it is fair to select a source of information and stick to it so as to avoid multiplying the wordings and creating misunderstandings. I also think that apt modern sources should be used. But people have limited time, and if they learned by a particular tradition and sources, that is what they know of to quote. It is also true that many people on SE in general seem to have a very strict logic-tradition mindset, and interpret everything (including my kidding comments) very narrowly. This is perhaps a tendency of reasoning people in general. Feeling people tend more towards fundamentalism. – user2341 Apr 14 '17 at 14:09
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Buddhists are followers of The Lord Buddhas teachings.

...how deeply they have imbibed the teachings.

To gain this they should check, learn and practice the Teachings of ancient past. To communicate with others (give the message/ show the path) they use ancient texts, when appropriate. If someone needs a specific answer for a specific problem, the question should be specific.

Is Buddhism discussion and thought-process stuck in the ancient past?

It should be. Otherwise that is something else.

  • Edit: Edited grammar and spelling. Feel free to roll-back if not agreeable. – Lanka Sep 7 '15 at 11:02

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