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Dependent Arising In Context: the Buddha's core lesson, in the context of his time and ours Paperback – January 5, 2013
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That Blanchard has succeeded in this breathtaking endeavor sufficiently to have its central thesis published in Prof. Richard Gombrich's Journal of the Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies suggests that she might be on to something. Dependent Arising in Context contains her main thesis, an explication of the 12-nidana chain from the perspective of her interpretation, and an attempt to refine a new definition of sankharas based on it. Blanchard's intriguing and illuminating argument takes us by the hand and leads us through its scholarly idiosyncrasies, leaving us sometimes frustrated but ultimately convinced.
One of the frustrations that may confront readers is the book's refusal to settle into a recognizable genre. It lacks the rigorous scholarly diction and apparatus of an academic work; nor does it have the comforting tone of a typical "dharma book" , despite its apparently having been written for practitioners. It demands a reader whose search for dharma truth can accommodate a rigorous intellectual engagement with the Pali texts, a niche audience to be sure. Yet those who are willing to make that commitment will find this most challenging of Buddhist doctrines unlocked in a way that opens a host of valuable insights into how our illusion of a static, vulnerable self is produced and maintained.
I think many readers are likely to find Dependent Arising in Context unsettling in its understated iconoclasm, but they are guaranteed to come away understanding one of the foundational doctrines of Buddhism in a radiant new light. Dependent Arising in Context lifts the 12-nidana texts from their supernatural esotericism and presents them as a powerful tool to sharpen our observation of the self creating itself - and to enable us, by observing, to let go.
The second part of the book pretends to present a 'secular' understanding. For this purpose, she adopts the position that secular Buddhism doesn't include reincarnation! Apparently, the author has adopted the Western materialist attitude that because there is no material evidence for reincarnation, it can be discarded from our understanding of dependent arising. She defends her position by finding no direct reference to reincarnation in The Buddha's own discussion of dependent arising.
First, we should recall that ALL written history of The Buddha's statements were recorded many, many years later. There are many references to reincarnation attributed to The Buddha within the Pali corpus that are generally accepted. In fact, he defined enlightenment in terms of no more incarnations.
This is a little like attempting to present an understanding of Christianity without including a concept of God. What's the point?
I consider myself a secular Buddhist. I don't really care about what came before that I can't remember or what might come after that I can't possibly know. My feeling is that the teachings are incredibly practical, about our daily life, our struggles, our neuroses, and the human condition. She doesn't say, by the way, that there's no such thing as reincarnation, she just illustrates that the teaching of Dependent Arising (or Dependent Origination) is not about reincarnation, even though it is steeped in the language of birth, death, and rebirth. She makes a compelling argument that these are just familiar metaphors (based in Hindu creation myth) that Gotama used to address his audience in a language that was common to them. A good teacher understands his students' frame of reference, right?
Another aspect about this that was wonderful is that it is truly a middle path. I have known so many people get into Buddhism and get caught up in a lot of spiritual materialism, especially through renunciation, austerities, clothing, titles, etc., and I have seen several get very stoic as if the ultimate goal is to be like a lump, no emotion, no joy, everything is somehow a manifestation of attachment which is "bad". Many teachings make the goal sound like self-annihilation, an end to any will to continue. That never made any sense to me. It is very all-or-nothing thinking and seems not to be based in the reality of our nature. This book is so practical, helpful, and sane. I highly recommend it.