Authors & Thought Leaders

Franz Metcalf on Approaching Modern Questions Through the Buddha’s Ancient Words

Published on January 25, 2017

Article by Franz Metcalf

Franz Metcalf, a Buddhist scholar with a doctorate in religion from the University of Chicago, is the co-author of Buddhist Spirituality and a professor at California State University, Los Angeles. He visited Bodhi Tree in 2001 to talk about his book What Would Buddha Do?, which brings Buddhism up-to-date for the individual needs of our current society. Here, he explains how to find our own Buddha nature, and explores how the words of the Buddha can address those nagging questions about our jobs, relationships, daily dilemmas and, ultimately, life and death.

photo of Buddhist Scholar Franz MetcalfFranz Metcalf’s Story

Franz Metcalf began his graduate studies of religion 25 years ago, getting his master’s degree at the Graduate Theological Union, comparing Buddhist and Catholic spiritual practices. He earned a doctoral fellowship at the University of Chicago and pursued his interest in Zen by writing his dissertation on the question, “Why do Americans practice Zen Buddhism?” He was awarded distinction on both his doctoral exams and his dissertation, receiving his PhD in 1997.

Currently, Metcalf teaches religious studies at Cal State, Los Angeles and is director of The Forge Guild of Spiritual Leaders and Teachers. His books include What Would Buddha Do?, Buddha in Your Backpack and Just Add Buddha. A scholar-practitioner of Buddhism, Metcalf is president of the Western Region of the American Academy of Religion and book review editor the Journal of Global Buddhism. He continues to inquire into Buddhism and psychology, both academically and personally, and is working on a historical-spiritual detective novel. —Justine Amodeo

“If Buddha can be found in a simple leaf, well, Buddha must be everywhere. Buddhist scriptures tell us over and over that all things are Buddha’s body. The trick is seeing them that way.”Franz Metcalf

The following is an edited version of Franz Metcalf’s 2001 Bodhi Tree Bookstore presentation.

Franz Metcalf: First of all, What Would Buddha Do? is not an introduction to Buddhism nor an anthology of Buddhist scriptures. However, it is deeply rooted in them. I wanted to ask questions that we ask in our contemporary lives, and find the answers in the life and the teachings of Buddha. Essentially, my book tries to bring Buddhism up-to-date for our individual needs in our current society. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to read or use this book, so don’t be afraid. It’s not a pressure situation.

Finding Buddha in a Simple Leaf

I want to read you an example from the book: What Would Buddha Do, when making a salad? Here’s the answer. “Picking up a green leaf, turn it into Buddha’s body; taking Buddha’s body, turn it in to a green leaf. This is the wondrous process of saving all living things.” This is from Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Instructions for the Cook. My explanation is, “Although we like to say simple pleasures are the best and claim we love people who are the salt of the earth, most of us do not act this way. We might think all things are part of a blessed creation, but we don’t treat them as such. Buddha’s teaching asks us to practice what we preach. If Buddha can be found in a simple leaf, well, Buddha must be everywhere. Buddhist scriptures tell us over and over that all things are Buddha’s body. The trick is seeing them that way. Dogen emphasizes that this is practice and awakening at once: When we treat the leaf as Buddha, we won’t need to give special care to Buddha’s body, since we already lavish that care on the whole world. Acting this way is acting as Buddha; acting as Buddha, we are Buddhas. Being Buddhas, we save all living things. It starts with the leaf.”

In treating all things as Buddha’s body, they come alive in ways that we can’t predict, but that’s where the excitement is. In fact, Buddha nature constitutes our essence, but we don’t act like it. We need help, and that’s where the rich tradition of Buddhism comes in. Buddhist teaching is an expedient means for helping us to be happier, richer, more wise, more compassionate people.

Practical Buddhist Wisdom for Everyday Life

I wrote this book to help people bring Buddhist wisdom into their daily lives, not in an airy, intellectual manner, but in a practical way. Buddha is a spiritual figure, but also he’s a person who struggled with life and the questions of living. I’m trying to bring the Buddha-in-the-text to life, which will help you bring to life your own Buddha nature as you live every day.

Now, of course, you may know about the popular “What Would Jesus Do?” movement. The principle behind it is that when people are in an everyday situation which might make them act in an un-Christian way, they can take a moment to ask, “What would Jesus do? Let me take a breath, and live according to his example.” What would Buddha Do? asks the same kinds of questions but looks for the answers in the teachings of Buddha. However, the Buddhist scriptures are enormous and it can be a bewildering array of texts for a layperson. But I knew that with my training I could draw on that broad tradition, and create a book that provides answers that really help people in life.

Differences and Commonalities in Spiritual Traditions

Audience: How much difference is there in what Jesus would do and what Buddha would do in a modern situation? Are the differences great, or did you come to the conclusion that all great teachers would and should do the same thing?

Franz Metcalf: There is a great deal of commonality in spiritual traditions. That seems natural and right, because the great spiritual teachers like Buddha or Jesus are filled with compassion for their fellow people and would act in ways that would express it. Generally, the answers to “What would Jesus do?” and “What would Buddha do?” are very similar. But in specifics, they can be quite different, because the two teachers were historical people. Jesus, of course, may have been more than just human. It is generally felt that he was fully human as well as divine. At any rate, they both lived in human environments and human societies and were constrained and created by their economic, social relationships, and cultures, which were very different. In specific instances, they give different answers, and that was one reason why I thought it would be useful to have a What Would Buddha Do? book.

Audience: Are there any specific questions that appear in the What Would Jesus Do? book where you said, “Ah, this is something that Buddha would definitely do differently and I can put that in my book?”

Metcalf: There’s a pair of questions in my book, “What would Buddha do for a wife or girlfriend?” and “What would Buddha do for a husband or boyfriend?” The answers to these questions that I found in the Buddhist scriptures are quite different than those that Jesus might have given, because there was a clear hierarchical relationship in early Christianity between the man and his wife. That patriarchy is simply not present in Buddhist texts. Men’s and women’s relationships are reciprocal and more egalitarian. Also, attitudes towards the environment are usually quite different because in the Judeo-Christian tradition, humans have dominion over the Earth, which is certainly not an idea that’s present in Buddhism.

Applying Buddhist Wisdom to Modern Dilemmas

Audience: How did you choose the questions included in the book?

Metcalf: Three kinds of principles informed my choice of questions and answers. First, there were certain questions for which I was already searching for answers within Buddhism. Secondly, while I was searching through the scriptures, I found bits of practical wisdom that I wanted to be sure to include in the book. So in those situations, I had the answer first, and then realized that it answered a question that we all face. The third principle was that I wanted to represent the whole spectrum of Buddhist teachings and texts.

The questions try to focus on specific things that we face every day. For example, what would Buddha do about dieting? What would Buddha do if his credit cards were maxed out? What would Buddha do about the homeless? What would Buddha do if his prayers went unanswered? Some are funny; some are not. But they’re all serious because they represent fundamental Buddhist wisdom in response to universal modern dilemmas.

The answers came from different scriptures. It includes texts from the Pali Canon—the oldest canon we have—and from Indian Mahayana and early Chinese Buddhism. It includes texts in the Vajrayana tradition from Tibet, the Zen tradition in China and Japan, koans, and from Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. I draw on the Dhammapada several times because it is a particularly good example of an early Buddhist text that is also very practical. The explanations are my words and where I am most personal because I try to share with the reader the way that I make Buddhism come to life and work for me. In the explanations I’m sometimes philosophical and sometimes funny and sometimes poignant, but I’m always honest. You have to be honest asking what would Buddha do, or it is not going to help you. Your way of being honest with these questions may be quite different, but I’m showing you how it works for me and how it’s alive for me, and I hope that my approach serves as a stimulating and illuminating example for you.

People ask me if I’m Buddhist, and though it is a difficult question for me, my best answer is that I’m “practically” Buddhist. I’ve been studying Buddhism for 15 years, and it has grown closer and closer to me. The scholarly kind of membrane between me and the things that I’ve studied has grown more and more porous and flimsy and has in many places completely fallen apart. Buddhism is now part of my life, and I am using Buddhist principles and Buddhist ideas and thinking in Buddhist ways, trying to follow a Buddhist example, and doing Buddhist meditation every day. I’m also a member of a group called The Forge Institute for Spirituality and Social Change, and we’re trying to help spiritually independent people, who are outside of a particular tradition, to network and revive ordinary life with spiritual values. We think it’s a worthy effort.

Living a Richer Life

I want to walk through the book a bit to give you an idea of how you would use it in your daily life. It begins with questions about the self and interior attitudes, and they expand through the book finishing up with questions dealing with the great matter of life and death, as the Zen tradition calls it. The first category is called “What’s Wrong With Me?” It goes right for the jugular of how we poison our own experience. The Buddhist tradition says that there are three poisons in life: greed, hatred and ignorance. And the Buddha, of course, had all of these, but he rid himself of them. That’s what makes his example so useful for us. If we follow his advice, we may be able to do the same. So, the category “What’s Wrong With Me?” tries to bring us back to taking responsibility for our own minds and our personal flaws. It’s the browbeating section of the book. The next section, “Toward a New Me,” is more positive. Here the book moves from talking about our faults to opportunities we have to learn from all our experiences. “What would Buddha do when making a salad?” is from this section of the book. All experiences can be our teachers, even those that involve lettuce leaves.

The next category, “Pure Love,” addresses what makes us real. We exist in our contacts and especially in our relationships. The idea that we’re a separate thing that exists eternally, or even for a time, in and of itself, is not present in the Buddhist tradition. Buddhism doesn’t look at our experience and our lives in the world that way. Instead, we exist only insofar as we interact, as we are in relationship. Those relationships define our universe. And, of course, we experience relationship most deeply in the realm of love. We all have a lot of experience in relationships and family, in love, but we all could use a little example and wisdom from the Buddha to help us live more richly and fully in those environments. It helps us even when we come to the ultimate end of relationship, which is loss, always loss.

The next section after love is, naturally, lust or “Lust for Life.” What Would Buddha Do? really zeroes in on desire and the drive we have to experience pleasure. So this category contains questions and answers on, obviously, sex, but also on food and on material possessions and all that juicy stuff that we want, and it tries to help us have it and enjoy it, but not destroy ourselves in the process.

Now, after indulgence comes righteousness. The next category is “Doing the Right Thing,” which focuses on Buddhist ethical moral principles and how they can guide our everyday conduct. When you’re acting from the motivation of doing the right thing, following the Buddhist example, it’s not a burden and it becomes something that enriches your life.

Then comes the section called “Walking the Walk on the Noble Path,” and here it’s a whole variety of different situations that concern our dealings with other individuals or small groups. Very worldly.

The next category, “The Buddha in the Machine,” expands upon those questions, but specifically focuses on how we are constantly in interaction with institutions, and how we are constrained and pushed in different directions by them. Sometimes it feels like we’re being ground up in the gears of our society’s institutions. If you’re an employer, you might read, “What would Buddha do as a boss?” or if you’re an employee, you might read, “What would Buddha do at a boring job?” Our whole society could benefit from “What would Buddha do when sickened by politics?”

The last category is, “The Big Question.” We all wrestle with these questions but luckily, Buddha struggled with them, too, and his triumph over them can come to our aid. What would Buddha do about death? What would Buddha do about religion? What would Buddha do to be happy? What would Buddha do when doubting his spiritual path? These are questions that we all share.

Let me conclude with a classic Buddhist simile. What Would Buddha Do? will help guide you, but like all teachers, it is just a raft. When you’re crossing the river, you need the raft; when you get to the far side and you go on, you need to leave it behind. You don’t carry it on your back. Leave it for someone else to use. There are a lot of questions and answers in this book, but your life is filled with many more questions, and I hope the principles I offer will help you to ask yourself what Buddha would do in those situations, so that you will be able to come up with your own answers, in the moment, as you’re living your life.

What Would Buddha Do?

By Franz Metcalf (134 pp.) 
Franz Metcalf uses the teachings of the Buddha to answer questions about our daily life dilemmas, and demonstrates the Buddha’s relevancy in this day and age. Each question is answered by words found in the sacred texts, and by a contemporary explanation of how to apply these teaching to our lives. The Buddha was a person just like us and struggled with life just as we do but he discovered the answer to life’s deepest mysteries. Because he was born into an Eastern culture, his teachings address our modern problems in similar ways to Jesus Christ, but with a greater emphasis on the value of all living things and in a tone that is less patriarchal. Buddhism can speak directly to us, without demanding that we give up our freedom. Frantz Metcalf’s hope is that we allow the sense of What Would Buddha Do? to permeate every aspect of our daily routine to help us find our own Buddha nature, and to allow that nature to guide us through life.

Published on: January 25, 2017

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