20 March 2015

Convert Buddhism

Sharon Stone being "blessed"
by a priest.
In a forthcoming article posted in draft form on academic.edu, 'The Forest Hypothesis', David Drewes considers the question of the origins of Mahāyāna, in the process critiquing recent scholarship by some of the biggest names in this area: Greg Schopen, Paul Harrison, Reggie Ray and Jan Nattier.

This is an important article because it exposes the rather flimsy foundations on which some of the authors have rested some of their conclusions. It's good to see a scholar willing to write and publish critical scholarship at a time when academic journals seem to be reluctant to publish this kind of critique. Perhaps it's because all of the players are long established professors that this is possible. Their reputations are solid enough to withstand a little constructive criticism. In a target culture a critical article would have a disproportionate impact on a scholar's career prospects - and this is bad news for scholarship generally.

This essay will highlight and discuss some particular comments made within the article that are to some extent peripheral to its main point. These thoughts emerge from reflecting on Drewes critique of the way that Buddhists and Buddhologists do history. In particular this paragraph stood out:
"The idea that Buddhism focused on meditation and the transformation of experience was first presented by D.T. Suzuki in the nineteen-twenties in an attempt to claim legitimacy for Japanese Zen Buddhism. Though Suzuki conceded to Pāli scholars that early texts provide little evidence for this, others soon read his perspective back into Pāli texts and it quickly became established as the primary apologetic strategy for depicting Buddhism in general as having special relevance to the modern world." (16-17; my emphasis).
My decad of Buddhist converts, from the 1990s, tend to take the idea that Buddhism was primarily about meditation producing a revolution in consciousness at face value. Sure, we acknowledge the role of other practices and facets of Buddhism, but we see meditation as the most important and most significant Buddhist practice. I've certainly heard colleagues of mine disparage those who do not meditate in terms that suggest they believe that one can scarcely even be a Buddhist if one does not meditate. Clearly this was an idea that appealed to earlier decads as well, particularly those who converted to Buddhist in the 1960s and 1970s. The baby-boomer generation were particularly interested in revolutions of consciousness, at least partly because they were under the influence of psychedelic drugs. Especially in the UK, where most of my teachers come from, they had grown up and come of age in drab, post-war, austerity Britain. They can often remember rationing and bomb craters. American hippies rebelled against a different kind culture. So, with the end of the war the questioning of authority and society that had begun to flower after WWI could get into full swing, though sadly it ended with the capitulation to Neoliberalism and a virtual abdication of power to large, conservative business interests. As Frank Zappa insightfully quipped: "Government is the entertainment wing of the military-industrial complex." It also reminds us that counterculture was always a minority sport.

The Romanticism of Suzuki and his presentation of Buddhism as about seeking radical transformation of consciousness fitted precisely what many of my older colleagues were searching for. Even now they can easily be induced to reminisce about the old days of free love and cheap, but potent, LSD. And Suzuki's writing was at the forefront of popularising Buddhism in the 20th century, especially in the USA where Zen had a much greater presence.

Those of us who were teens in the 1980s had a different experience from the baby-boomers. I grew up in New Zealand. From the year of my birth (1966), France conducted a total of 193 atmospheric and underground nuclear weapon tests (CTBTO) in the Pacific. There were very real concerns about nuclear fallout and there is still the possibility of massive nuclear-radiotide leaks into the ocean from Mururoa Atoll. The Cold War and its arms race were in full swing. We knew that the life on earth could be destroyed 1000s of times over by the stockpiles of nuclear weapons that world powers constructed and aimed at each other, and that Northern Hemisphere leaders seemed to be in love with brinkmanship. Would New Zealand be spared? Or would the fall out mean slow death rather than fast? In my view, the X in Generation X stands for "Cold War" or "annihilation by nuclear weapons". In the same period the UK joined the European Community and began to dismantle remaining ties with former colonies, such as New Zealand.

I suspect my generation took the same recreational drugs as our parents generation, but for different reasons, primarily as an escapist response to the anxiety of a world full of threat. Our counter-culture was not hippies and "free love", but punk and "anger is an energy". We also saw the abandoning of content for style (the triumph of Andy Warhol's fascination with the superficial and banal), the rise of the yuppy, and the collapse of Western Socialism (along with powerful labour unions and generous welfare). I watched my conditions of employment be radically undermined by Neoliberalism. Rewards for being a loyal employee for example were eradicated during my professional life as a librarian. Old values were replaced by a relentless drive for productivity and target culture. As a result we now work more hours for less pay. It's hard not to view this with an element of cynicism for the world of politics and business. Unfortunately the propaganda of Neoliberalism is powerful, and many of my cohort simply fatalistically embrace this 'every man for himself' culture.

The attraction of Buddhism to my generation, then, is far less idealistic on the whole. We don't seek Romantic transcendence so much as nihilistic escape from a hostile world that does not value life or the environment except in Utilitarian terms. Romanticism in this view is a failure, comprehensively triumphed over by Utilitarianism and profit seeking. Romanticism was a decadent, aristocratic movement with no relevance to our lives. It was blind to the realpolitik and, in our time, crushed by businessmen bent on accumulating obscene amounts of wealth at any cost. Far fewer of us were interested in pursuing religion and numbers of Buddhist converts began to drop off.

However our ancient Buddhist predecessors were after something different again. Drewes concludes:
"The Buddhahood Mahāyānists sought was not the thin, this-worldly, religious experience of modern apologists, but a state of omniscience and nearly infinite power and glory to be attained in another world after death. Though they remain largely unexplored, the primary methods that Mahāyāna sūtras recommend for pursuing this goal are magical or supernatural means of generating merit (puṇya) that would be very difficult to construe as having any special value in secular discourse. Until we put aside the attempt to depict ancient Buddhists as being focused on something that has special relevance to modern life, an understanding of their religious world will remain beyond our reach." [Emphasis added]
This captures in a nutshell some of the misgivings that I have developed in my years of studying Buddhist texts. The stated or implied goals of the texts are often very different from what we say we are pursuing, and radically at odds with how we pursue them. The more secular the orientation, the less in common with Buddhism that Buddhists seem to have. On the other hand I was a participant recently in a discussion about "merit". It was very difficult to get my colleagues to acknowledge the ancient pattern of the puṇya economy, and the discussion was resolutely steered towards redefining merit in secular terms without the willingness to acknowledge that this redefinition had little to do with the traditional understanding. Merit is one of many inconvenient truths about traditional Buddhism. 

One of the big complaints about the popularity of Mindfulness Therapies is that they commercialise the Dharma. The complaint appears valid on face value because part of the narrative of Western Buddhism is of "spiritual" monks unconcerned with temporal matters (temporal contrasts with eternal here). But this complaint simply does not stand against the history of monks and monasteries. For as long as we have history of Buddhist institutions we see them involved in commerce. Not just using money, but at times coining it. Not just trading in products, but in usury. Buddhists have often enjoyed and ruthlessly exploited tax exemptions. Buddhists, or the demands of the Buddhist religion, have bankrupted more than one state. Notably the Tang Dynasty in China which ended up sacking the monasteries in 845 CE to recover solvency (rather like Henry VIII had to do in the 16th century). At other times Buddhists have virtually or actually taken over the executive arm of government, with Tibet being the most egregious example of this. Most of the wealth of Tibet, up to 1959, was tied up in and controlled by monks living in monasteries. The clergy doubled as a civil service. And senior positions in government were occupied by "reincarnated" men. The Chinese were not wrong about how oppressive this form of government was. Had there been a drop of oil in Tibet there is no doubt in my mind that the West would also have been keen to introduce democracy to the backward and oppressive Tibetan state. The pattern is repeated across Asia. Where we perceive Buddhism as a bulwark against Merchantilism, in fact historically the Buddhist establishment has typically exemplified what we seek to escape from. In countries with a large established Buddhist clergy it still does. Buddhist organisations tend to be rigidly hierarchical, patriarchal, authoritarian and acquisitive. 

We idealise Buddhism in terms of legendary times and places where motivations were clear and monks were "pure". Amongst my Buddhist colleagues and contemporaries I constantly scent the matter/spirit duality that seems to define Western notions of spirituality, even, or perhaps especially amongst Buddhists. It's not that they proclaim this dualism, but that the beliefs they do proclaim seem inextricably bound up in rejection of matter and attempts to embrace "spirit". We see it negatively in the anti-science and anti-intellectual stances that are common amongst Buddhists, which confusingly lives alongside claims that Buddhism is compatible with a rationalist worldview. We see it positively in the yearning for transcendence (of the material) and the search for the "true nature of reality".

Meanwhile the vast majority of Buddhists are really only dabbling in techniques that do not lead to any great revolution in consciousness. For most Buddhists these days the demands of work and family leave very little time for concerted practice. The business culture means that more is demanded from workers, while as consumers the war for our attention means we are constantly bombarded with intense sensory stimulation. Precious few attain anything like nirvāṇa, and those who do generally make the point that it's nothing like the idealised narratives in the texts. Most Buddhists are simply aiming to pad out saṃsāra and make life in the kāmadhatu more bearable. There's really no problem with this lifestyle. Historically this is how the vast majority of Buddhists have lived. But we presently lie to ourselves about how effective our practice is and what we might achieve. We may as well fess up about this. We may as well tailor our offering to the reality of the situation.

For example very little of what the Triratna Buddhist Order offers is aimed at families. We talk mainly to individuals and still treat people as separate from their familial context. We no longer, I think, actively encourage people to abandon their present context and dive into a religious life. We no longer encourage (particularly men) to leave partners and families and become fulltime practitioners. In any case the full-immersion experience is more difficult to find and sustain in these days of aging Buddhists. Changes to the welfare system in the UK since the 1980s have been devastating to our ability to live without doing productive work for example. The collapse of profits from our premier right-livelihood business some 10 years ago, and the demise of that business as I write, has reduced the amount of money we have available for supporting experimentation. That said, more and more of us are married, with kids, working, and concerned about surviving retirement, but we still aim our programs at single adults and design our centres for them.

Certainly anyone interested in the history of Buddhism and in the study of that history, especially in what is these days called the Early Mahāyāna, should read Drewes article. It is a very concise smackdown of a number of preconceptions about history that have been prominent. But that aside the implications are huge for how we understand the present, how we come to terms with our modern Buddhism, with the secularist trends and the reasonable doubts that arise from the clash with a modern worldview. The whole presentation of modern Buddhism is an apologetic, by which we mean an attempt at justification. We don't see it because most of us don't have the time and skills to delve deeper. One of the nice things about the move towards open access publishing and a website like academia.edu is that it gives the general reader access to literature that 10 years ago would have remained out of reach.

I've said before that in the battle between traditional religion and modernity, and it really is a battle, it's not science that is really devastating, but history. When we understand quite how much history has been distorted in order to make Buddhism attractive to modern Westerners it is salutary. It's not really a lie as such. The intention was, I'm sure, to make Buddhism accessible. But we too often lose sight of what is done to achieve this goal. We don't get to see the translators at work. They don't footnote their changes. This may be because they are largely working unconsciously. But we then base our apologetics on a form of Buddhism that only ever existed in myth and argue that we are blessed with authenticity because we conform to a distorted history. The irony is that we follow a religion which is vehemently critical of views, when we cannot help but relate to our views rather than the Dharma because we don't even see that we have views. All too many of us are convinced that our view is the Dharma.

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