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.

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.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Shedding religious identity

An American Religious Self-Identification Survey reported in The Christian Science Monitor concludes that the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christians has declined to 76%, a drop of 10% since 1990. The number of Americans declaring themselves to identify with no religion has increased to 15%, a rise of 10% since 1990.

Interestingly, only 10% of those who identified with no religion declare themselves to be atheists or agnostics. This could suggest that Americans are not abandoning some of the core beliefs of religion as much as they are abandoning identification with a particular set of dogmas and practices. Perhaps what these people are abandoning is labels, and the sorts of things that labels often lead to, such as pride on the individual level and fund-raising campaigns on the institutional level.

I cannot help seeing the rise of the “No Religion” response as a sign of health and vitality in American culture. Institutional affiliation can come at a high price to those who indulge in it. A sense of communal belonging can rarely be acquired without at least a slight reduction in the willingness to speak critically and to act authentically. Speaking one's deepest and most sincere convictions is, in all but the rarest of communities, the shortest route to the margins of acceptability.

The only kind of community I have ever been attracted to is a community of people who are wary of organized and institutionalized communities. Over the years, I have found myself in several such communities. My experience has been that when such anti-community communities form by some freakish accident, one of two things happen. They either fall apart quickly, or they begin taking themselves seriously as communities and take on organized institutional structures—such things as by-laws, compliance with governmental regulations concerning non-profit organizations, a hankering for institutional recognition within the broader public, and perhaps a physical presence, such as a building or rented space with a sign outside telling the world that the community has a name and therefore exists. When the development of institutional structures happens, the people who are most allergic to organizations quietly (or sometimes noisily) leave. Hard feelings make the rounds of both the stay-ins and the drop-outs. It's often a sad situation.

Paradoxically, despite a fairly robust allergy to organized religion, I have become a member of several of them. Not only that, but I have gone pretty far out of my way to take the various steps that membership requires. Perhaps I enjoy the self-discipline involved in the pursuit of membership. The membership itself, once acquired, usually ends up feeling like an ill-fitting uniform. Shortly after becoming a member of a religious organization, I tend to become one of those who responds No Religion when asked about my religious self-identity.

Perhaps people with my temperament should pursue a catch-and-release approach to religion, like some of my friends who love the process of catching trout but quickly return their prey to the stream before anyone has to do any killing, cleaning, frying or eating. Whatever the case may be, I couldn't help feeling a surge of solidarity and kinship with the 15% of Americans who identify themselves as having no religion. I only pray that we can remain disorganized.