Principles and functions

Buddhism is a religion of innumerable methods, which are often incompatible with each other. Different methods are useful in different situations. Buddhists collect a “bag of tricks,” or “toolkit,” of religious practices that we can use when appropriate.

To use the kit effectively, we must pick the right tool for each job. Each practice has its own function, and should be used when that is the function that is needed. The function is the “how and why” of the practice.

Functions can be understood in terms of base, path, and result. The base is the kind of situation in which the practice is useful. (Most practices have prerequisites of various sorts.) The path is the practice itself: what we do in the situation. It leads to its result. Only when we want its particular result does it make sense to apply a practice.

all Buddhist practices follow from simple principles

Each practice, with its function, follows from a broad principle. Principles are the simple, core themes, or fundamental logic, of Buddhism. Principles explain how and why Buddhism works.

The various principles of Buddhism are frequently incompatible. Generally, one can combine practices that share a principle. Simultaneously applying practices whose principles differ is liable to have an unsatisfactory result—because they are pointing in fundamentally different directions.

For example, the fundamental principle of Sutra is renunciation. When practicing Sutra, one may adopt the practice of abstaining from sensual enjoyments. But enjoyment is a fundamental principle of Tantra. One revels in the delight of consumption. It is not possible to apply both these practices simultaneously—but a single practitioner may frequently switch between them, based on a clear understanding of which will be beneficial in particular cases.

We do not have to swear exclusive allegiance to particular principles, yanas, or practices. They are all valid and valuable. We only have to choose which to apply when.

I never stopped asking annoying “why” questions

I was the kind of kid who never stopped asking annoying “why?” questions. And I was lousy at learning facts by rote in school. I had to understand how the facts fit together in order to remember them. Unless a method made sense, I couldn’t use it to save my life. When taught a skill without explanation, I would complain “but it doesn’t get you anywhere!

I haven’t grown out of this… And that is why I am a Buddhist. The details of Buddhism follow straightforwardly from the principles. If you accept that the principles are sensible—which I do—then there are no contradictions, and nothing you have to believe just because.

Teaching principles is uncommon

Unfortunately, teaching in this way is surprisingly uncommon. Too often, the understanding of principles and functions is absent.

When Buddhist principles are lost, Buddhism reduces to a jumbled collection of arbitrary beliefs. There is no rhyme or reason; no real explanations. Buddhism becomes a mass of holy mysteries to be learned by rote and venerated without understanding.

When understanding of functions is lost, Buddhist practices reduce to an arbitrary morality of “thou shalts.” Without a clear presentation of base, path, and fruit, their only justifications are “because Buddha said so.”