25 July 2014

Demonising Our Religion

Thai Buddha Amulet
for warding off evil spirits
I started writing this essay before my series on Vitalism and it got overtaken by that project and so comes a little too long after the publication of the article which sparked it. Sometimes a break for digestion is useful however. One of the fascinating aspects of Buddhism in the present is how Buddhists are negotiating the collision with modernity. In a way modernity is too vague a phrase. It refers to what is happening how, but it also suggests the changes in European society and its colonies that have been happening for centuries. Galileo observed the moons of Jupiter in 1610 establishing Scientific Rationalism (or Naturalism) as a transformative force. Martin Luther wrote his 95 theses which led to the formation of the Protestant movement in 1517. Romanticism by contrast emerges only in the 19th century. For a while we seemed to have transcended modernity and become post-modern, but the death of modernity was much overstated and modernity seems to be reasserting itself.

In an interview in Tricycle Magazine, titled Losing Our religion Professor Robert Sharf expresses considerable reservations about Modernism. I'm not in agreement with most of the views expressed in the interview. I'm not convinced by his arguments against "Buddhist Modernism", as he calls it. We're certainly not losing our religion as Buddhism continues to gain ground in the West, and also often unnoticed by Westerners, in India where millions of Dr Ambedkar's followers have formally converted to our religion. But we are in danger of demonising innovations within our religion and stifling the changes that modernity necessitates. 

Sharf has that unfortunate tendency of Americans to think of American Buddhism as Western Buddhism ignoring the rest of the Western world. So his archetypal modernist is D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966), a figure who was hugely influential in America from the 1950s onwards. The weakness of a US-centric, even Zen-centric, view of Western Buddhism become apparent in some of Sharf's complaints about "Western Buddhism" since they clearly do not apply more generally. 

Buddhist Modernism.

The term "Buddhist Modernism" is a problematic one. It gives priority to Modernism and suggests that the contribution from Buddhism is a minority. It seems to say that although I call myself a Buddhist, I am in fact merely a modernist who flirts with Buddhism. This is not fair to Buddhists. Modernist Buddhism would be much more like what we actually do. The Tricycle introduction tells us that Buddhist Modernism is:
"a relatively recent movement that selectively places those elements that are consistent with modern sensibilities at the core of the tradition and dismisses all else."
This is a caricature and a rather cynical one at that. Is it even a movement per se, or is it just Westerners getting interested in Buddhism in all it's varieties? Modernist Buddhism takes in the entire span of Western engagement with Buddhism: from 19th century Sri Lankan so-called Protestant Buddhism, the Pali Text Society, the first European to become a Theravāda bhikkhu, and Edwin Arnold's poetic adaptation of the Lalitavistara Sutra (a best seller in it's day); via 20th Century events such as the founding of the Buddhist Society in London, mass conversion of Ambedkarites in India, and the Triratna Buddhist Order; through to 21st Century breakaway groups like the Secular Buddhist Association, politically active bhikkhus in Burma and renegade Theravāda Bhikkhus ordaining women in Australia. The American scene is a bit over-rated by Americans. Modernist Buddhism begins when people living in the modern world (around the world) begin actively engaging with Buddhism. 

The complaint that Modernist Buddhism is based on a true observation, though others criticise Modernist Buddhists for being too eclectic. Seen in context this complaint tells us nothing whatsoever. All Buddhist movements throughout history have "reduce[d] Buddhism to a simple set of propositions and practices". Partly because the whole is incoherent and partly because there's too much of it to be practically useful anyway, increasingly so as time went on and the Canon of Buddhist writing inexorably expanded. We're all interested in subsets, and disinterested beyond that subset, and this has always been true. Partitioning is the only way to make Buddhism manageable and practical. We're all selective, we're all dealing in simplification. Even the complicated Tibetan forms of Buddhist doctrine are simplifications and in practice most Tibetan Buddhists focus on a subset of their own teachings - usually based on popular commentaries which synthesise and simplify rather than the too-voluminous source texts they managed to preserve. Buddhists are selective. So are scholars of Buddhism. So what?

Sharf may well have coined the term "Buddhist Modernism" in his 1995 article for Numen: 'Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.' His argument in this now dated paper is that contemporary commentators have "greatly exaggerated the role of experience in the history of Buddhism". Contextualised, this point is uncontroversial and even passé. We know that for most of Buddhist history the majority of Buddhists, and even the majority of Buddhist monks, have not meditated. Thus in Buddhism as a cultural phenomenon meditative experience has played only a small role. The problem for Sharf is that modern Buddhism emphasises meditation. Something he resists explaining in positive terms and apparently see as a distortion. I find this attitude incomprehensible. 

Throughout Buddhist history meditation has been seen as essential for liberation. It's just that a lot of the time most people, and all lay people, were convinced that liberation was impossible for them (or indeed anyone). For instance when Kūkai returned to Japan from China in 806 bringing Tantric Buddhist meditative rituals (sādhana) for the first time, he confronted a Buddhist establishment that not only did not meditate (chanting texts was about as close as they got), but which believed liberation to require three incalculable aeons of assiduous practice. Thus for any given person, liberation was always infinitely far off. Kūkai countered this with his slogan "Attaining Buddhahood in this very life" (sokushin jōbutsu) and he met with initial confusion. But he went on to establish the practice of Tantric meditative rituals at the heart of elite Japanese society in a way that lasted for 400 years, until it too was replaced by a reform movement, Zen, which also stressed meditative experience.

The vast majority of Buddhists have always been outside the monastery walls and no society ever seems to have expected lay Buddhists to do much, other than materially support monks. Thus, throughout the history of Buddhism the majority of people who we might identify, even nominally, as Buddhist, have been non-meditators. But reform movements throughout Buddhist history have almost always been about re-emphasising the personal practice of meditation and often involved something of a cult of personality based around one gifted meditator. The major exception being Pure Land Buddhism. Buddhism as a cultural phenomenon has not always emphasised the pursuit of liberation, but where liberation is a concern, with the sole exception of Pure Land Buddhism, it is intimately connected with meditation. Of course meditation requires a context of ethical and devotional practice as we see in most Buddhist groups. 

I note that Sharf seems unaware of the UKs largest Buddhism movements (Trirtana, Soka Gakkai, and NKT), none of which emphasise meditation at the cost of other contextualising practices (SG don't meditate so far as I'm aware). Triratna see meditation as indispensable, but in the context of developing the other "spiritual faculties" as well through devotional practices, study and reflection, the arts, social engagement and even environmental activism. Nor do I see this one-sidedness, for example, in Shambala in the USA (I have a friend involved in Cleveland, OH and know people who've spent time living at Gampo Abbey). So, who is it that is advocating meditation and nothing else, and why are they getting more attention than those much larger and more successful groups that constitute the mainstream of Western Buddhism (at least in the UK and as far as I can tell in Europe too)? 

It seems to me that Sharf's focus is on the wrong aspects of history. He is asking the wrong questions. Instead of complaining that historically Buddhist societies have not emphasised meditation generally, he ought to be taking the time to investigate why this age is one in which liberation again seems possible, and how it relates to previous cultures where this has been true: such as early Heian or early Medieval (1200-1400) Japan; Tang China and Tibet, 1st century Gāndhāra and so on. 

Unprecedented Social Change.

Modern Buddhism, like many reform movements before it, insists that liberation is a reasonable goal for everyone and that therefore everyone ought to take up the practices aimed attaining liberation, in particular meditation. Another aspect of this has been a Protestant-like rejection of the religious institution of monasticism. Just as with Christianity this is largely based on perceptions of corruption and hypocrisy amongst the priestly elite. Sangharakshita's trenchant polemics against the monastic Sangha are as good a representative of this sensibility as any, and he saw the institution from the inside. See for example:
His account of the life of Dharmapala (1980) is also revealing of the habits of Theravāda monks (at least in the mid 20th Century). Like European Protestants of the 16th century, modern day Protestants are sick of the flabby corruption of the priests. Some of this mistrust is also directed at academics despite their role as translators and interpreters of history. Of course there are now Modernist reform movements within the monastic Sangha and many admirable bhikṣu(ṇi)s (Ānandajoti, Anālayo, Bodhi, Hui Feng, Pema Chödrön, Robina Courtin, Sujato and Thanissaro come to mind). 

Although Sharf's academic complaint is against other academics who over-emphasise experience he seems to have generalised this to include Buddhists who do so. Compare the work of Dr Sue Hamilton which has decisively shown that the primary concern of early Buddhist ideas about liberation were tied up with the nature of experience. It's not only moderns who are concerned with experience. Ābhidharmikas of many varieties went into great depth cataloguing experience and trying to understand the mechanics of it. My reading of the early Perfection of Wisdom texts is that they share this preoccupation. The constant return to experience goes alongside interest in meditation in reform movements. Meditation is nothing more or less than the examination of the nature of experience. 

Sharf seems to consider that Modernist adaptations of Buddhism are not legitimate because he does not see the historical precedents for them. As though precedent was the only form of legitimisation. Apart from the fact that there are historical precedents for interest in meditation everywhere we look, we have to ask where he does find relevant historical precedents for Buddhism's encounter with modernity that might inform alternate responses? As far as I understand modernity in the West it is unprecedented anywhere in history. The sheer scale and pace of technological, social and political change we are currently experiencing is unprecedented and we have been saying this for at least a century and a half. Arguing that precedent is the only form of legitimation in times of unprecedented events means that no adaptation to modernity will ever be legitimate. But clearly adaptation is required. And clearly buddhism has adapted to circumstance and culture time and time again. There is that kind of precedent. 

Ronald Davidson has outlined what seem to be the social and political changes that resulted in the only other event in Buddhist history that might even come close to Modernism - the Tantric synthesis of the 6th century. Davidson describes how the collapse of civil society as a result of Huna attacks on the Gupta Empire resulted in a chaotic situation. Law and Order on the wider scale broke down. Trade routes became untenable. Certain regions became too dangerous to live in, causing large scale migrations. The reach of civil order shrank and withdrew behind city walls, leaving the countryside exposed to banditry. In the resulting milieu a new religious sensibility was required and did in fact develop. As society broke down, religion compensated by bringing together disparate elements and synthesising them into an entirely new approach to liberation that we call Tantra.

In the face of unprecedented challenges Buddhism was always going to need to come up with unprecedented responses. However Sharf seems to be resistant to the changes that are emerging. So, what is wrong with modernity?

Critiquing Modernism

Sharf urges "a willingness to enter into dialogue with what is historically past and culturally foreign." This is itself a Modernist attitude. Buddhists have ever been reluctant to see themselves as historically conditioned or to acknowledge the culturally foreign. Innovations are almost inevitably attributed to the Buddha (or to the most impressive historical figure to whom they can plausibly be attributed), and assimilation of non-Buddhist ideas - such as when a Bodhisatva named Avalokita-svara absorbs some of Śiva's attributes (e.g. blue throat) and iconography and becomes Avalokita-īśvara - are never acknowledged but presented as a fait accompli.

The Rhys Davids were very influential at the beginning of the modern engagement with Buddhism in the 1870s and 1880s and seem to get lost in the American versions of modern Buddhist history (Which apparently begins with Suzuki's visit to San Francisco). It is because of RDs that we translate bodhi as "enlightenment" for example. The RDs and some of their contemporaries were consciously trying to align European Buddhism with the European Enlightenment; and the Buddha with (British) figures like Newton, Hume, and Berkeley. They lived in the immediate Post-Darwinian era and saw Christianity in crisis, but could not imagine life without religion. They saw Buddhism as a "rational religion" that might replace superstitious Christianity. And this was half a century before Suzuki began to influence American Buddhist thought in the 1950s. The Pali Text Society was founded in the UK in 1881. The Buddhist Society in 1924. Suzuki seems to have been influenced by his training under German-American theologian Paul Carus. Carus himself is described as "He was a key figure in the introduction of Buddhism, to the West" (where again for "West" we have to read "America"). Suzuki is important in America, no doubt, but he was influenced by Carus and others, presumably his Theosophist wife Beatrice (who doesn't rate a separate Wikipedia article or any mention in Tricycle and seems to be absent from history as women often are). Even in American the roots of Buddhism go back to the 1850s: see Buddhism in America.

The idea that Buddhist Modernism is necessarily ontologically dualistic is partial at best. More and more Buddhist modernists embrace ontological monism as the most likely situation. I've been arguing against mind/body dualism for years and regularly get accused of being a Materialist for that reason. I've written an extended critique of Vitalism which is one of the most important varieties of dualism. However the idea that duality is foreign to Buddhism is also misleading. Just look at the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is deeply dualistic. The interim state (Skt. anatarabhāva = Tib. bardo) between death and new life is widely accepted in Buddhism. Just read any Jātaka story for another form of dualism - they clearly depict souls transmigrating and retaining their identities. All the disembodied spirits that haunt our stories also suggest ontological dualism. Buddhism is full of it! And the standard Buddhist critique of dualism is not an outright denial, but a hedge which allows a disembodied consciousness to arise when the conditions are right, even in the interim state (which is neither here nor there).

Early Buddhists appear to accept, or at the very least not to offer any challenge to, the idea of an external, observer independent reality. They're just not interested in it because the content of experience is of only minor interest in the bid to understand the mechanisms of experience. Which specific object happens to be stimulating desire at present is of no particular interest. Sense objects are a requirement for experience, but never the focus of investigation. What version of Buddhist epistemology is Sharf working with?

In answer to the question "But to get back to your point, what gets lost when primacy is given to individual spiritual experience?", Sharf's response is that "The sangha gets lost! The community gets lost." If the Sangha has been lost in Modernist Buddhism then someone ought to tell the various large Sanghas that span the Western World. We in the Triratna Sangha must have missed that memo because our sangha is growing and getting quite large now. Indeed some of the problems we are wrestling with are due to an overly large sangha. In particular how do we maintain consensus decision making in an Order of 2000+ members who are distributed around the world and have no common language (many of our members are monoglot in their mother tongue). How do we cultivate that sense of involvement in something that transcends the local situation? In contradiction to what Sharf says we're very much alive to the third jewel! Even the very Modernist Secular Buddhist Association is clearly trying to build a Sangha.

I'm not sure of the details of the situation in America is, but my impression is that, even in the home of libertarianism, sanghas are flourishing, even though a few people chose to operate outside of sanghas (and even they tend to habitually haunt online forums as ersatz communities). I simply see no evidence whatsoever that an emphasis on spiritual experience has led to sangha being "lost". 

Seeing Modernism in a Positive Light

What are we to make of these scholars who decree that Modernist Buddhism is not a legitimate adaptation of Buddhism to the present? Are these the same kind of thinkers who once saw Tantra as a "degeneration" of pure Buddhism? On one hand it is useful to identify how we Modernists are responding to Buddhism and the state of the world. But on the other if all our innovations are seen as illegitimate then Buddhism may as well be dead right now.

In fact my reading of Robert Sharf's criticisms of American Buddhism is that they are hardly different from generalised liberal criticisms of American culture: viz, Individualism at the expense of society; engineering at the expense of architecture (literally and metaphorically); and a confusion of values leading to relativism and hedonism. Sharf sounds like he might be just a(nother) liberal academic complaining "O tempora o mores". In general terms, sure, I find Utilitarianism ugly as an ideal and ugly in terms of the results it produces. I deplore Neolibertarianism and its effects on society. But the vast majority of Buddhists are also against those values, primarily because of other streams of Modernity especially Romanticism. As much as I dislike Romanticism, it is at least opposed to Utilitarianism! And the majority of Buddhists I know give expression to these values in how they live, even when they live what might be relatively conventional lives. Radicals are always few in number and require the support of followers.

Must we join Sharf in seeing Modernist Buddhism or even Buddhist Modernism in negative terms? Protestant Buddhism, like Protestant Christianity, was and is a progressive movement. It criticised corrupt and bloated (often state controlled) ecclesiastical power bases. In a place like Sri Lanka where the term was coined, protest was an absolute necessity (though arguably that pendulum has swung too far). The Sri Lankan monastic sangha was, and not for the first time, moribund and merely formalistic. The extreme conservatism of the monastic establishment in South East Asia is also obvious. Witness the response to Western bhikkhus ordaining women. They were kicked out of their organisation. Certainly we must protest against such practices as institutionalised sexism. If we are not Protestants in this respect, then we are part of the problem.

On the other hand the bhikkhu sangha in Sri Lanka is once again infected with Nationalism and politically active monks who don't meditate, but use hate speech and call for violence against Tamils and anyone else who opposes their ideas of racial and religious purity. Sri Lanka is struggling against a powerful fascism inspired by Buddhist monks. That's the downside of collectivity, of sangha divorced from a personal commitment to the religious ideals of Buddhism. Without the personal engagement with practices like meditation, a group may well drift into this kind of quasi-madness. The advantage of the Protestant-like personal engagement is that each person feels they can be held accountable for their actions and not simply go along with the crowd. 

Scientific Rationalism meant the end of being ruled by superstition (or at least the beginning of the end). That's clearly a good thing. Charles Darwin's daughter, Ann, died at least in part from the Water Treatment, based on four humours theory, that she was subjected to when desperately ill. She probably had tuberculosis and would have been cured by antibiotics had she lived a century later. That is progress. Reconciling Buddhism entirely with scientific rationalism is obviously going to be slow and painful, and perhaps eternally incomplete, but I think we're making progress on that front also.

Why cannot we be proud of being Modern Buddhists, proud of the changes we are making and excited about the new 21st Century Buddhism? I certainly am. I love it. Although we're seeing a burgeoning of conservative apologetics for good old-fashioned Buddhism, we're also seeing a continuing stream of innovations and exploration of potential new avenues for Buddhism. The UK now has a mindfulness class for MPs and senior civil servants in parliament. This may well be the most significant event in the last 500 years of Buddhism, since historically Buddhism only takes root when adopted by the social elite. 

I welcome open discussion of the role of Modernism in our Buddhism and wish to see the critiques developed further, so that we're more aware of the cultural influences we operate under. I'm appreciative of McMahan's efforts in this direction. And for instance of Thanissaro's critique of Romanticism. But I compare McMahan's descriptive approach with the conservative, prescriptive approach of Sharf and I find the latter much less attractive. The fact that McMahan does not seem to have a vested interest is an interesting observation on the perils of emic scholars - people of a conservative religion, studying their own religion, tend to come to conservative conclusions.

It's my belief at this time that conservatism with respect to Buddhism will be deeply counter-productive. Conservative Buddhists are obsessed with authenticity, authority and legitimation. And this leads to the view that if we don't already have it, it's not worth having. Conservative Buddhists seem to see science as a kind of fad that we'll grow out of; and innovations like mindfulness therapies as dangerous threats to the authority of Buddhism (when in fact it's more like a threat to conservative power-bases within existing hierarchies). And this too seems counter-productive to me. 

I am a Modernist. I was born in 1966, how could I be anything else? Even growing up in small town New Zealand we had Modernism. Like all cultural phenomena, Modernism has its pros and cons. We can't afford to be one eyed about it. I'm also a Buddhist. If my studies have shown me one thing it's that Buddhism changes. We Buddhists change with the times. We always have. Sometimes the changes have amounted to upheaval. We regroup, refocus, and re-invent ourselves.


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