A Body of Praise
In the more than ten years I have subscribed to Tricycle, I can’t remember a more engaging issue than the last (Fall 2002). I have often wondered why Tricycle has never addressed in depth the importance of a healthy physical body in nurturing and supporting a meditative practice. Your special section, “The Body: Vehicle for Awakening,” is superb. I can hardly wait to share the edifying articles with my personal training clients, whom I encourage to practice not only physical fitness but a meditative discipline as well. Thanks so much for creating an outstanding, helpful magazine.

—Clark Elliott, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Your Fall 2002 special section, “The Body: Vehicle for Awakening,” prompts me to honor lay Zen teacher Katsuki Sekida. In his book Zen Training he not only makes the technique of working on a koan explicit, but he details the physiology and biochemistry of what then happens to your body. Besides charting the tidal movement of air in the lungs, he explains how abdominal tension stimulates the hypothalamus to promote wakefulness.

Here it is, I thought: not only the ultimate how-to manual, but the science to back it up. How much more American can you get? Mr. Sekida, however, was too far ahead of his time and failed to make the impact I anticipated. I imagined seekers recoiling from the notion that the spirit could be stripped down to nuts and bolts. Meanwhile, those unable to grasp the technique couldn’t help but feel inadequate.

But your special section, along with yoga’s surge in popularity, gives hope that seekers will finally accept that the body is the vehicle we ride to realization, and that it needs to be modified if it wants to run top fuel.

—Russell Wellen, Sleepy Hollow, New York

Practice Over Doctrine?
Your interview with S. N. Goenka (“Finding Sense in Sensation,” Fall 2002) shows that Goenka knows that Vipassana is a Buddhist meditation practice. Indeed, he attributes its discovery to the Buddha. Yet Goenka’s followers deny that they are Buddhists and that they are doing any sort of religious practice. They claim to be nonsectarian and nonreligious.

Emphasis on practice over doctrine recurs regularly in the history of religions as reform movements. But scholars of religions have shown that practice cannot be divorced from the context of doctrine. Vipassana cannot work to purify the mind without the insight of impermanence (or anicca, arising and passing away), a doctrine that distinguishes Buddhism from most other religions.

Numbers of us scholars are dubious about why the “Goenka-ists” do not recognize their Buddhist heritage and affiliation. Perhaps this letter will elicit an explanatory response.

© Neal Crosbie

—Nancy McCagney, Santa Barbara, California

A student of S. N. Goenka’s responds
In his preface to the Devanagari Pali Tipitaka, Acharya Goenka wrote: “One reason why India lost the practical teaching of the Buddha was because it lost the words of the Buddha.” Are Acharya Goenka’s historic efforts to publicize the Tipitaka freely around the world an indication of his divorcing the practice from the doctrine? The writer is a scholar. She will surely understand the significance of these ancient texts as a guiding light and a matrix for one’s dhamma practice.

Acharya Goenka teaches nothing but the Buddha’s teaching. However, he doesn’t use the word Buddhism to describe what he teaches.

He understands that the word Buddhism is convenient, and some of those who use it don’t use it in a sectarian sense. He understands that. Still, Acharya Goenka avoids using this word, as it does have a sectarian connotation for most people. Every follower of the Buddha’s teaching knows that it is not sectarian. The Buddha never referred to his followers as Bauddha (Buddhists). He called them dhammim, dhammiko, etc. (meaning “dhamma practitioner”). Acharya Goenka highlights the non-sectarian, universal nature of dhamma, thereby inviting people from different religions to “come and see”—to give a trial to the meditation technique taught by the Buddha.

It would not be right to say that Goenka’s students do not recognize their Buddhist heritage and affiliation. Every time Acharya Goenka starts a meditation course, he begins with the homage to the Buddha. Every student on a Vipassana retreat has to take refuge in the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha) at the beginning of the course, and students are taught about the Four Noble Truths, Three Characteristics, Eightfold Path, and Dependent Origination. Acharya Goenka encourages his students to go back to the original words of the Buddha to clarify their practice.

The writer has coined the word “Goenka-ists.” It would not be right to use this coinage, because Acharya Goenka is not propagating any doctrine of his own. He has never claimed to be a Buddha or a bodhisattva or even an arahat. He teaches nothing but what the Buddha taught. He maintains that he is merely passing on what he learned from his teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, the last one among the illustrious chain of teachers that kept the practice of Vipassana in its purity through the millennia.

I strongly urge the writer to attend a ten-day retreat to learn how the quintessence of the Buddha’s teaching is so effectively transmitted by Acharya Goenka.

—Dhananjay Chavan, M.D., Nashik, India

Shining A Light
I’m pleased to see Tricycle expanding its editorial view of Buddhism.

I had long suffered from a regrettable ignorance and prejudice about Pure Land as a “merely” devotional and unmeditative style of Buddhism, something unworthy of a serious person’s attention. The two book reviews on Shin Buddhism (Fall 2002) convinced me to check out some books from the library, and I discovered thoughtful and humblingly wise words that let me see Pure Land Buddhism more clearly.

I also appreciated Jeff Wilson’s “Down Home Dharma” (Fall 2002) very much for showing the geographical variety of Buddhism within the U.S. Too often, American Buddhist magazines focus on major cities like New York or Los Angeles, or places that get a lot of press for being “spiritual,” such as Taos.

Let’s see more articles like these, which shine a light instead of looking under the street lamps of our urban centers and pricey retreat spots. I’m also interested to read more about the schools of Buddhism that have achieved diversity in class, race, and gender; several previous articles in Tricycle have raised this vexatious issue, and clearly there are lessons for sanghas that desire better integration.

—J. B. Bell, Vancouver, British Columbia

Distinguishing Verses
I would like to make a few observations regarding your recent interview with Stephen Batchelor (Fall 2002). Mr. Batchelor’s statement that rebirth “was simply a part of the Indian worldview the Buddha inherited” is at odds with the written record of the Buddha’s enlightenment in the Maha Saccaka Sutta, discourse thirty-six of the Majjhima Nikaya, the 1995 translation by Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi. It is recorded that on recollecting what had transpired on that auspicious night under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha said, “I recollected my manifold past lives, that is, one birth, two birth . . . Thus with their aspects and particulars I recollected my manifold past lives.” The Buddha’s second insight related to the rebirth of others. “Thus with the divine eye, which is purified and surpasses the human, I saw beings passing away and reappearing, inferior and superior, fair and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate, and I understood how beings pass on according to their actions.” As a part of the third insight, the Buddha said, “Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.” These verses clearly and unequivocally speak of rebirth and show that the Buddha’s knowledge of rebirth was part and parcel of his enlightenment, and not “simply a part of the Indian worldview.”

One could reject those verses, and similar ones in the Bhayabherava Sutta, as being inaccurate, distorted, incomplete, or later additions. It seems that Mr. Batchelor necessarily must question the authenticity of those particular sutta verses since he maintains that Buddha simply accepted the rebirth doctrine as part of his inherited worldview. If Mr. Batchelor rejects the verses relating to rebirth, why not reject all the verses relating the Buddha’s enlightenment, including the one relating to suffering? The Buddha said, “I directly knew as it actually is: This is suffering; This is the origin of suffering; This is the cessation of suffering; This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.” Of course, to reject this verse would be to reject the Four Noble Truths, the foundation of Buddhism.

Why are some verses rejected and others not? What are the rules, the criteria? How does Mr. Batchelor make the distinction?

—Jerry S. Byrd, Washington, D.C.

As a longtime Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, I was pleased to read your interview with Stephen Batchelor. Like Batchelor, I struggled with the notion of reincarnation, and could not accept it on blind faith. While I am not closed to the idea of rebirth, I think it is important to do what the Buddha exhorted us to do: to verify the truths he spoke rather than simply to accept them. This is what distinguishes the Buddha’s teachings from other faiths, which often advocate an “all or nothing” approach. Short of verification, we may well conclude—as in the Buddha’s worldview—that the earth is flat.

—Marina Stockschleder, Mannheim, Germany

© Mike Taylor
© Mike Taylor

Spotting Uncertainty
I read with interest your article “Putting Spot Down” (Summer 2002). As a small-animal veterinarian and a person who humbly tries to follow the teachings of the Buddha, this subject has confounded me for a long time. A veterinary student was surprised when I mentioned that I was not sure if it was ever okay to euthanize an animal. The practice of “putting to sleep” old or suffering pets is well established in our profession. Fortunately, it is no longer common practice to kill on demand, no questions asked, although individual practitioners have different comfort levels about which situations warrant this extreme measure.

This subject, like so many others, may seem clear-cut to the outside observer who finds it easiest to follow a simple rule or principle. To say that it should never be done gets one off the hook in a way, but fails to address the entire situation. In the article, one view was expressed that we should not interfere in any way with the natural dying process. But we medicate, resuscitate, and prevent the “natural” process all the time, and as long as that is seen as “preserving” life rather than interfering with a natural death, it’s acceptable.

However, if we shorten the time an animal spends in agony during a “natural” death by giving an injection, that is viewed as a taboo “killing.” Where do we draw the line on “interfering”?

I greatly appreciate those dedicated pet owners who are willing and able to give their old or ailing pets the necessary care to allow them a natural death. As expressed in the article, it can be a rewarding experience to help an animal through this time. However, not all situations lend themselves to this. Remember, there is no Medicare or Medicaid to help owners pay for long-term hospice-type care for pets, and many veterinary clinics are not equipped to handle that type of care. What is the solution for the old, hundred-pound dog who can’t get up any more, whose owners are elderly themselves and cannot lift him, and who lies outdoors in the heat of summer in his own excrement, maggots invading his flesh? Or the animal in kidney failure who retches and vomits constantly, whose mouth, esophagus, and stomach are ulcerated and infected? Or the pet hit by a car, his limbs mangled, unsalvageable? Is it right to tell the owners in these situations that this is natural and that they should just let the dying process progress without intervention?

Many pet owners cannot afford the type of medication and treatment that might at least keep these animals more comfortable during their last days, and they choose euthanasia with a great deal of regret and sadness.

Even though I have just made some statements that appear to support the concept of pet euthanasia, I still feel ambivalent about it. In the spirit of an article that preceded “Putting Spot Down,” I continue to look at this subject with “Necessary Doubt” (Summer 2002).

There are situations that seem to call clearly for humane assistance in the dying process, but they should not blind us to the actuality of what is being done, which is ending a life.

—Sandy Wasson, D.V.M., Yakima, Washington