Saturday, March 21, 2009

What on earth is authentic Buddhism?

A few months ago on a discussion group managed by Unitarian-Universalist Buddhist Fellowship, there was a discussion of E-Sangha. Most of the comments were critical of the perceived mission that E-Sangha has set for itself of preserving true and authentic Buddhism. E-Sangha posts a list of guidelines for its current and prospective members. In these guidelines we learn that E-Sangha describes itself as having the following mission:

E-sangha is a world-wide virtual community where Buddhists from a variety of traditions, and those who are interested in Buddhism, are able to meet together to discuss and come to a correct understanding of Buddhist teaching and learn how to reap the immense benefits of Buddhism in their daily lives.

E-Sangha's intent is to keep the Buddhist tradition alive and flourishing, and to help bring peace, harmony, and happiness into everyone's life.

On reading further into the guidelines, one learns a little more about what a “correct understanding” involves. For one thing, it involves refraining from mentioning or posting a link to any website that promotes false Buddhism. On the banned wagon are the New Kadampa Tradition, the Dark Zen website of Master Zenmar, and the True Buddha School website that promotes the teachings of a Taiwanese monk named Ven. Sheng-yen Lu, modestly billed as the greatest tantrayāna teacher of all time. Not exactly on the banned list but coming in for regular criticism on E-Sangha is the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, described as an organization founded by a man with “a sexually criminal mind.” (A comment on this characterization of the FWBO can be found on Out of a Living Silence, another blog site that I maintain.) Also not allowed on E-Sangha is any post that questions such core Buddhist doctrines as karma and rebirth. Nor can one post a link to a website promoting any religion other than Buddhism. Under the Right Speech guidelines, E-Sangha prohibits using the term “fundamentalist” with reference to any Buddhist teacher. Failure to comply with the twenty-eight guidelines may result in being banned permanently from E-Sangha (thus showing that there is an exception to the Buddha's observation that nothing is permanent).

To any Buddhists whose early exposure to Buddhism included a reading of what is commonly called The Kalāma Sutta, the insistence on doctrinal correctness at E-Sangha might seem a little strange. In that sutta of the Pali Canon of Theravāsa Buddhism we encounter the Buddhas saying this to the Kalāma people:

It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias toward a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them.

The sutta seems to be an invitation to discover for oneself which teachings are viable, being guided by the wise but not necessarily beholden to everything that the wise approve and censure. Plenty of essays have been written suggesting that the sutta is in fact not an invitation to free-thinking and open-ended interpretation, but many Buddhists in the West read the sutta in that way anyway. I confess that I read it that way and that I might lose much of my interest in Buddhism if it were to turn out that discovering for oneself which practices are fruitful and which counderproductive is not a core principle in Buddhism.

On March 17, 2009 the following observations by Stephen A. Evans on the Kalāma Sutta were posted on an academic Buddhist studies discussion group:

The commentary on this sutta is minimal and it is hardly mentioned elsewhere before around 1900. It seems to have been siezed upon by the British in their project of interpreting Buddhism as a modern-rational religion fully compatible with the ideals of the European enlightenment (The Buddha as the Bertrand Russell of Benares). That project, in my opinion, was misguided and has led to a century of misreading Theravada that forms a formidable barrier to comprehension. Buddhist scholars in traditionally Buddhist countries, esp. Sri Lanka, have largely jumped on the British bandwagon, seduced, it would seem, by the possibility that their tradition is more modern than modern, more western than the west. However, these representations of Buddhism have little or no resemblance to Buddhism as actually practiced (often by those same scholars).

Presupposed, if not directly stated, in Stephen Evans's observations are a number of principles that strike me as problematic.

  • If a text did not receive the attention of Buddhist commentators before 1900, it does not deserve the attention of scholars or Buddhists now.
  • British and other Western people have a “project” that distorts their understanding of Buddhism, while the projects of Asians in their own periods of history did not distort their interpretations of Buddhism.
  • Deviation from traditional Theravāda understandings of Buddhism is better described as misguided than as progressive or even simply as different.
  • Asian Buddhists who see value in Western interpretations of Buddhism are being “seduced” rather than enabled to see traditional teachings in a fresh and perhaps fruitful light.
  • Buddhism as actually practiced in Asia is somehow the authentic Buddhism, and looking for alternative possibilities in transmitting or discussing the theories and practices of Buddhism is somehow inauthentic, misguided and misleading.
  • Finding something of value in formerly neglected texts, or coming up with innovative interpretations of often-cited texts is best described as building an obstacle than as making a new window.

Taken together, these presuppositions sounds like a prescription for turning Buddhism into a mummified remant fit only to be displayed in a museum of dead religions. They certainly do not sound like a formula for keeping Buddhism vital by being adaptable to the needs of yet another culture in yet another time. Indeed, there is almost nothing in Stephen Evans's observations of the possible importance of the Kalāma Sutta that is keeping with the spirit of Buddhism as I have come to know it. At the risk of embracing a Buddhism that is not correct or authentic by the canons of those who make it their business to preserve the purity of traditions, I am more interested in experiencing Buddhism as flowing river than as a block of ice.


Unknown said...

First allow me to thank you for the opportunity to respond and clarify (I stumbled across this while trolling for possible responses to my translation of a collection of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu's essays published last year)
Second, for quoting me /wildly/ out of context, and finally for attributing a set of presuppositions to me without having, apparently, read any of my (admittably meager) published work, including the Buddhist Studies Review paper from which the quote was extracted.

Sarcasm aside, that paper gives the lie, to the imputed presupposition that the Kaalaamasutta does not deserve the attention of scholars today.

I have no objection whatsoever to the Westies' radical modifications/adaptations of Buddhism. That, after all is what the Chinese, then the Japanese did. Repeatedly. (and, for that matter the Indians & probably Sri Lankans over the centuries). My goodness, there is no such thing as "authentic Buddhism".

Similarly, while I have no use for the apparently intolerant dogmatasm of E-sangha (I'm not familiar with it), I have no objection to their promoting /their/ brand of Buddhism.

To a large extent my comment quoted here are of a scholarly nature: I fear that a set of presuppositions in western scholarship have closed off multiple interpretive possibilities, and far from building obstacles (to appropriate the metaphor) I am trying to open windows by calling into question presuppositions that I believe have hamstrung western scholarship.

This may be relevant to practicing Buddhists as well, in that the presuppositions/inclinations etc. that have so informed the western practice of Buddhism might--unquestioned--serve as a barrier to broader possibilities and understandings. Too often, westie buddhists come to Asia, cry "That's not /real/ Buddhism" and flee back to the west.

Anyway, the Kaalaama paper is part of a larger effort to extract an epistemology from the Nikaayas, what I call in my most recent paper an epistemology of liberation, that in turn will support new interpretations of such constructs as the five aggregates and dependent origination. But to open the window for new interpretations, requires calling into question some of the old presuppositions. The Kaalaama paper showed that the sutta in question is more an ethical than an epistemological text and that the proto-scientific interpretation that has become popular is questionable.

Finally, hey! Good to hear from you. Years ago we both participated in the buddha.short.fat.guy newsgroup.