How to Stay Relevant for 2,500 Years

During our class debate on the theories of the two truths and two natures by both Tsong Khapa and Go Rampa, there were multiple points and questions about consciousness and karma. Attempting to grapple with both theories and their effect on Buddhist teachings it became clear that for Tsong Khapa, the Buddha was able to teach because he maintained the existence of the conventional truth, which allowed him to reach out and connect with his followers through his teachings. But for Go Rampa the conventional truth does not existence, but rather it is the collection of good karma the Buddha had garnered throughout his life that allows him to teach without generating new karma. While I find his concept to be more difficult to understand, Go Rampa’s “Zombie Buddha” provides an interesting explanation. However, it is Tsong Khapa’s concept that allows the religion to do much more than simply teach, it allows it to grow and it allows it stay relevant; a necessary ability that the religion has been using for thousands of years.

To teach anything transformative like religion, it is essential to connect to the student or practitioner. As a religion thousands of years old, Buddhism has grown with the times. It has adapted and assumed new interpretations, built new and distinct religious schools, all through a constant and genuine interaction with the conceptual world. The old scripts show that the Buddha was an interactive teacher. When a student would question a certain theory or reveal that they needed more time to understand a concept, the Buddha would tailor his teachings for them. We can see this with the development of the Buddha’s evolutionary teaching style, as explained by our professor with the example of elementary versus high-school level science class material. Buddha interacted with the conventional truth; with the physical world around him, especially with the minds of his student to connect to them. He was an active teacher; he did not simply leave scripts or texts to be interpreted without any guidance or assistance after his death. Instead he was an active participant in the educational process within the “conceptual” world.

Buddhism has continued to employ this type of active teaching style and religious development long after the Buddha’s death. Generations after generations of Buddhist theorists and practitioners have found ways to re-associate with the Buddhist texts and find their relevance for the world today. Some examples of such movements come from as recent a time as the 1960s. An example called Engaged Buddhism, which applied traditional Buddhist practices to the challenges of the globalized world today such as war, famine and inequality. Pioneered by the monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, he re-imagined the Buddhist texts within this engaged framework to expand the religions’ reach to other cultures and countries that had very little previous experience with the religion. Under Tsong Khapa’s concept of the two noble truths this religious adaptability for current times and challenges is possible and to deny the essentiality of the conceptual world is to let the religious teachings die off out of irrelevance.

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4 Responses to How to Stay Relevant for 2,500 Years

  1. Lily says:

    You brought up a really great point in this post! When we discuss Buddhism, I think it can be easy to forget just how long these texts, thoughts and ideas have existed because we put them in contexts that we understand today. It is interesting to think about how we are able to continue having new discussions with material conceived thousands of years ago, and that despite the fact that it was made so long ago, they are still relevant to life today. I wonder if we are adapting Buddhist concepts to modern life, or if, when we break it down to its very foundations, we are still asking the same questions that people asked when Buddhism was originally created. Have we come any closer to an “understanding” of anything by examining the Buddha’s teachings? Or are we still as lost in life today as people were at the founding of Buddhism?

  2. azhou says:

    I thought it was interesting that you brought up the importance the Buddha’s active teaching style and how he tailored his teachings to different students. This makes me think back to the discussion we had in class on all the different schools of Buddhism. Your ideas on how the Buddha needed a conceptual world in order to spread his teachings definitely makes it easy to see how so many different schools of Buddhism have been able to form, which likewise presents a very convincing case for Tsong Kapa’s teachings. I also really liked how you connected this to contemporary times and would be excited in hearing you expand more on the effects of Engaged Buddhism!

  3. makalaka says:

    I enjoyed this as well. I find the zombie buddha concept hard to follow at times. I feel as well that Tsong Khapa’s perspective is much more friendly to new students. This may also be because of the complexity of Go Rampa’s views. It is hard to want to become a zombie buddha surviving on past karma.
    I also enjoyed that you mentioned that the buddha’s teachings differed depending upon the student he was teaching to. This shows that there is more than one path to enlightenment.

  4. Sarah says:

    Thank you so much for this post! While your distillation of the two truths as understood by Tsong Khapa and Go Rampa was great, what I enjoyed most from your post was your engagement of the idea that religions must be dynamic to stay relevant. Furthermore, I am excited to learn more about “Engaged Buddhism,” thanks for raising it in your post!

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