We’re finishing up week 2 of Rita Gross’s Tricycle Retreat, “Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners,” today. This week Gross discussed India’s spiritual scene at the time of the Buddha. She reminds us that the Buddha didn’t come up with his philosophy all on his own, that he made use of many of the ideas popular with his spiritual contemporaries. For example, the Buddha did not invent notions of karma, rebirth, and a vast cosmos.

Gross has been wonderful at responding to comments left by retreat participants, especially ones that have to do with history. One participant comments that she thought of the Buddha’s leaving home as a metaphor.

I think leaving home is not repugnant to us all, I think rather it is a fantasy to those who perceive family and commitments as bondage and this was embraced by the 60s/70s generation in their quest for eternal youth. Now these same people (I count myself one of them) are seeing another deeper side of the teaching, and this metaphor of the Buddha’s home-leaving is not taken seriously except by fundamentalists and dogmatists. We wish them well! But we are here in the world. Come on in, the water’s fine.

Gross responds, informing us that leaving home was an important part of religious life at the time of the Buddha:

Monasticism has always been very important in Buddhism, so whether or not we are personally attracted to it, we need to respect and understand it. There is no single lifestyle that is relevant and appropriate for all Buddhists.

Also, it is important to develop empathy and understand things that we may not be attracted to ourselves from the inside, to understand why such practices and beliefs make sense to those who follow them. Such respect and empathy is very important for successfully negotiating religious diversity. I always insisted upon it with my university students, who were often eager to dismiss any religion or point of view other than their own.

Next week Gross will explore where the Buddha split with his contemporaries. What innovations did he make? What was original with him? Tune in next week!

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