Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Is Buddhism obsolete?

In a recent conversation with a group of Quakers, a Friend made the observation that the Quakers may have become obsolete, because most of the radical changes in religion they stood for in the seventeenth century have become realities in the twenty-first century. Quaker values that have not become realities, such as disarmament and prison reform, are also the values of so many other religious and secular organizations that the Quakers are no longer distinct. Whatever the answer to the question about the current relevance of Quakers may be, I have often mulled over to what extent Buddhism still has a role to play in the modern world.

In the fourth century, Vasubandhu argued that Buddhism was unique among the religious philosophies of India in that it denied that there is a permanent and unchanging self. This denial of a permanent self, said Vasubandhu, made Buddhism the only reliable path to liberation from suffering. Modern Buddhists—at least the ones I am familiar with—are rarely inclined to think that Buddhism is a uniquely effective path to liberation. Some Buddhists, influenced by modern psychology, question whether it is possible to eradicate the root causes of suffering at all and so would question whether Buddhism can actually deliver what it promises. Others, who have confidence that Buddhism is indeed a way to eliminate the causes of distress, see Buddhism as only one of many possible paths to the goal. I am not sure which of these two stances I take; I tend to waver between them, although I probably spend more time in the camp of those who think no one ever has and no one ever will attain nirvana or become fully enlightened in the way traditional Buddhism promises.

Setting aside the question of whether anyone has ever actually been a buddha or an arhant, there are modern Buddhists who question how unique Buddhism is in today's world in taking the position that there is no permanent self. I frankly have never, to the best of my knowledge, met anyone in the modern world who believes in permanent selves. Buddhism seems to me like a remedy for a disease no one has any more. Buddhism has a penetrating analysis of delusions that may have been common two millennia ago, but they are not common any more. We suffer from other diseases these days. We need other kinds of penetrating analysis.

Taking all this into account, I suppose I have to say that I do not see anything of importance in Buddhist theory and practice that makes Buddhism unique or even particularly distinctive in today's world. That could account for why my missionary impulses have always been rather feeble. On the other hand, it has never been at all important to me to be part of a unique system of religious philosophy and practice. Much more important to me has been to do the best I can in following the precepts that Buddhism has in common with most other philosophies. I am familiar with Buddhist thought and practice, and I try to be competent at it. Insofar as I succeed in being competent, it turns out that I end up also being equally competent at being a Stoic and a Quaker.

The truth of the matter is that I'm not very good at being a Buddhist, a Stoic or a Quaker. I am a man of many shortcomings and failings. I fall far short of the ideals of all the world's religions and philosophies. As long as that is the case—and I expect it will be the case for as long as I live—I will need the guidance of everything and everyone that can provide it. It would be foolish to limit myself to just one guide. In short, as long as I am in the condition I am in, neither Buddhism nor Quakerism nor Stoicism is obsolete. In me they will always have a loyal customer.

6 comments:

star said...

I croggle at your statement, "I frankly have never, to the best of my knowledge, met anyone in the modern world who believes in permanent selves." Either you hang out with remarkable people or your definition of "permanent selves" is narrow enough to exclude the beliefs of most of the people I encounter here in Texas. Most of us have some sense that there's a "me" and my religious friends all believe that "me" goes on in the form of a soul after death. Am I misunderstanding what you mean by "permanent self"?

Richard Hayes said...

I don't think you misunderstood what I meant by "permanent self." I meant just the sort of thing you report that people believe in Texas. I am not aware of any of my friends holding that sort of view. That could either say something about the kinds of people I befriend, or about my awareness of what my friends believe.

star said...

Thanks for answering, and sorry to be responding to a year-old post; I realize your views may have changed.

If your views as stated here are based on the relatively small set of your friends, it's really not safe to extend that with "Buddhism seems to me like a remedy for a disease no one has any more". I think in a way this is the kind of issue with reasoning that the Buddha tried to point out, and Nagarjuna was trying to explain (and that you discussed and I responded to in another of your posts*) with the concept of "emptiness", and of people believing in essences. We see that all the people we know believe X and so that must be an essential belief people have. The Buddha even argues in a sutta I've seen that we need to not draw conclusions from limited data.

This isn't a big dramatic example of the point about emptiness, but our world is made up of a zillion small distortions of what is, and they add up. The choices people make based on reading your apparent conclusion that Buddhism doesn't teach anything special or of use in the world today can have negative consequences for them, and for the world. This would be an example of kamma, wouldn't it?

* how's that for a convoluted sentence?

Richard Hayes said...

It's inconceivable to me that anyone would be so dim-witted that they would take my word for it that Buddhism is obsolete. If they were silly enough to take my word for it, then they are probably too silly to get much use out of Buddhism in the first place. So I doubt any harm comes of my expressing the thought that Buddhism may be obsolete. Besides, my intention in raising questions of any kind is to encourage people to think for themselves, which is a positive intention. So if any kamma is involved, it is surely kusalakamma.

star said...

I was, of course, just presenting it as a theoretical example, not accusing you of doing harm.

Richard Hayes said...

It's a good example that makes a good point. I appreciate the point and was not feeling accused.