18 December 2015

The Problem of Class and Popular Buddhism.

Lim Soo Peng
One of the major problems for all Buddhists is that, in the inherited tradition, there are far too many ideas, attitudes, and practices for us to make sense of them all. This is made worse by the many internal contradictions in the tradition. We can really only understand a small subset, usually carefully cherry-picked for consistency. This problem is not helped by the history of repeated schism and reformation. With the formation of sects, differences of opinion about what constitutes orthodoxy (correct opinion) and orthopraxy (correct practice) become polarised and then sclerotic. The opposite happens when syncretic movements come along and combine various elements, including some from other religions, to create new sects. The situation is more complex because the traditional Indian sectarian factions do not always translate to other cultures. So the ancient Chinese, for example, perceived a relatively unified tradition coming from India (cherry picked by Indian and Central Asian monks), but they created their own indigenous factions that fractured along different lines than Indian Buddhism even while retaining some of the Indian sectarian jargon. 

When people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic (WEIRD) countries (henceforth "weirdos") began to interact with Buddhism they also suffered from this problem of information overload. And like the Chinese and Tibetans they also had their own agendas, their own culture, history, and politics that shaped the way that they saw Buddhism and the way they used it. In order to make Buddhism manageable, weirdos did what other cultures have done. They sorted Buddhist ideas, attitudes, and practices into categories, using their own perceptions of some traditional categories overlaid with local ideas.

A particular obsession for weirdos is the myth of original Buddhism as a category. Original Buddhism includes some aspects of received Buddhism and excludes others based on WEIRD values as the main criteria (this is also called Buddhist Modernism). To some extent this preoccupation with "origins" and "original" emerges out of the Protestant movement. Protestantism was founded on a rejection of the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of the day and an attempt to, as they saw it, return to a more authentic religious experience in line with "original" Christianity. In this case the Bible, as a record of the original Christianity, was the guarantor of authenticity. Contrarily they relied on the Bible in vernacular languages to convey this authenticity. On the other hand, this pre-occupation is one that many Buddhists through history have shared. Buddhists like to claim that their teachings reflect the original ideas of the putative founder of the religion, with accretions removed and distortions corrected. Many lineages were artificially constructed so as to suggest that innovations could be traced to the Buddha for example.

One of the criteria that weirdos bring to categorising Buddhism is class. I'm not entirely sure that I fully understand class, but these are some observations which draw on my attempts to understand the British class system over the last decade and a half. One of the themes that I will try to explore here is the way that concerns with class and authenticity overlap in WEIRD Buddhism.


European ideas about class are still decisive in understanding British culture. For centuries land owners and capitalists have demonised working people as lazy and immoral (see Mercantilism: Six Centuries of Vilifying the Poor). To combat these perceived failings, those in power have always organised matters so that the poor have to struggle to make ends meet. In a world where computers and mechanisation have increased productivity a thousand-fold, the pressure is always on the poor to work harder and for less wages, while the wealthy take an every greater share of the profits produced by labour. A recent New Economics Foundation report showed that only 61% of British workers have a secure job that pays a living wage, in the same week that our government hail the lowest post-crash unemployment figures. Wages are so low, at the low end, that many full-time workers require government handouts to make ends meet. In today's world there is no a priori reason why anyone should work hard, because we could all meet our basic needs with minimal effort. In order to justify everyone working hard, working hard has become an end in itself, become a virtue, almost a sacrament. Hard work purifies the poor and makes them worthy (in this worldview). To help rationalise working hard, we are also under constant pressure to participate in aspirational consumerism (including snobbery about products and brands). Since the 1970s this has focussed on using credit to buy what we do not need and cannot afford. Once in debt, one cannot stop working (see my account of debt and morality in Why Killing is Wrong).

The wealthy of Europe despise working class people despite the fact that their labour is still a primary source of wealth - they are like vegetarians who hate vegetables. A sort of general disdain is explicit everywhere in the British class system. In the class worldview, being poor is a sign of laziness and immorality; being rich is a sign of industriousness and virtuousness (despite all evidence to the contrary). And working people are generally poor, at least by comparison with the upper classes, because of the structure of the economy. The wealthy of Britain, aided by the middle-classes (as administrators and managers), systematically oppress the workers and try to ensure that work is oppressive. In the relatively liberal times of the post-WWII years, the distribution of wealth in the UK evened out to some extent (working people could afford to own their own home for example). Similarly pay and working conditions improved under the influence of labour unions for about a century, until the 1980s when the powers of unions were legislated away by a parliament determined to shift the balance of power back towards the idle rich. Since then trend is reversing so that pay and working conditions are being degraded, inequality is on the rise, and the wealthy are consolidating their grip on power. There is class war here already, it's just that it's not the proletariat who are waging it. (see for example my economics blog on the government's use of non-linear warfare techniques).

What I particular want to draw attention to here is that the first substantial European contacts with Buddhism were: some of the most important meetings happened amongst the elite of late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, amongst the sons of wealthy industrialists and minor aristocracy, at a time when the poor had almost no rights: they could not vote; were subject to cruel punishments such as execution or transportation to Australia for relatively minor breaches of law; had lost access to common lands etc. By contrast, privately educated, privileged, wealthy young men, who saw themselves as exercising the natural right of their class to rule the world. (See particularly the Evolution and Empire section of my essay The Politics of Evolution and Modernist Buddhism) found roles as administrators in the Empire or as mid-level officers in the military forces that kept the Imperial thumb on the "natives". Some of the main characters are evoked in detail in Charles Allen's book The Buddha and the Sahibs. All credit to those men. They had the independence of mind, the confidence, and enough freedom from convention to go out and rediscover Indian Buddhism and the education to begin to decrypt what time had encrypted. But we need to see them in context: they saw their domination of India and of Europe as a natural consequence of their innate superiority. It was these men who set the template for the British engagement with Buddhism. Through them the idea of "original Buddhism" became a foundation myth of WEIRD Buddhism. The rediscovery of Indian Buddhism sparked off a series of attempts to rediscover what the original Buddhism, taught by the Buddha might have been like.

Popular Buddhism

How WEIRD Buddhists
imagine themselves
Class, colonialism, and the original Buddhism myth gave rise to fault-lines in Buddhism from the WEIRD point of view. Original Buddhism was sharply distinguished from what we can call "popular Buddhism". Popular Buddhism is the Buddhism practised by the despised classes, i.e. working people and the poor generally. And in Asia this meant not simply workers and labourers, but foreign and dark-skinned workers. The history of racism in British culture at home and as a feature of British Imperialism is complex. It would be foolish to characterise it in simplistic and one-sided terms. But racism has certainly been a feature of British identity and to some extent it remains a marginal feature. Racism is still prevalent in pockets. In Victorian times, and until quite recently, ordinary working people in Buddhist countries were almost inevitably characterised in classist and racist terms as child-like, irrational, superstitious, foolish, and credulous. Forms of Buddhism practised by such people could hardly be taken seriously by the weirdos. When it comes to Buddhism this attitude has not really changed. If the masters of the poor in these countries were at least rich, they were also seen to participate in the same superstitions and to place themselves at the feet of monks. So they could not be taken seriously either.

Modern day Indian Buddhists
In contrast to the labouring people and their superstitious masters were the wealthy, largely indolent, and often corpulent monks, who had long since eliminated women from their ranks. At this point "forest" monks were completely invisible. Monasteries often controlled the land the workers laboured on and ordered the lives of the poor through "education". The first item of education for every lay person being how to treat monks with respect. Clearly these monks had a lot more in common with the representatives of Empire than with their own subjects. They were wealthy, literate, and actually venerated by the people. If there was ever going to be a meeting of minds between Asian Buddhists and WEIRD ex-Christians then it was between monks and colonial administrators.

Before long, the idea that Theravāda monks were the true representatives of Buddhism in Europe was cemented. I think the dynamic was different in the USA. Americans got interested in Buddhism almost a century later, after the fall of the British Empire and at a time when the USA was emerging as a world superpower, along with the rise of the military-industrial complex. Buddhism caught on amongst the counter-culture which was looking for non-conformist role models and alternative visions (this is something of a theme in US history anyway).  Americans seem to find the Romantic figure of the Japanese Zen master attractive. The true individual, living in a militaristic state, but free of social conventions. Later "crazy" Tibetan gurus played into the same myth. Similarly the lay run Pure Land organisations struck a chord with American Protestantism, where in Europe it offended the hierarchical sensibilities.

Class and Popular Buddhism

So, in Europe the congenitally wealthy, university educated elite were the first intermediaries, interpreting Buddhism, and setting the agenda for engaging with Buddhism from the beginning and through the formative period of many WEIRD Buddhist organisations. In Britain, Buddhism is still largely the preserve of the middle-aged, aspirational, middle-classes and the academy. Popular Buddhism is still largely despised by mainstream Buddhist groups. There is a tendency to look down on those who does not conform to the "original Buddhism" myth. "Popular Buddhism" is a term of derision and dismissal. But popular Buddhism is by definition popular. The vast majority of the hundreds of millions of Buddhists in the world practice some form of what we would call popular Buddhism, or to hone in on the problem from the WEIRD point-of-view, they are traditional lay Buddhists who do not meditate.

Within WEIRD approaches to Buddhism there are two broadly based camps: Rationalist and Romantic, both strongly affected by class attitudes. The original Rationalists and Romantics were both part of an educated elite. Rationalists embraced the Enlightenment and perhaps over-identified with it. Romanticism grew out of rejection of the excesses of rationalism. Contemporary Modernism  Buddhism is a mish-mash of these.

Rationalists disastrously misinterpreted the nature and function of reason. Basing themselves on preconceptions that probably go back to ancient Greece, they misunderstood reason as an abstract, disembodied, purely logical process distinct from embodied processes like emotions. They marginalised emotion in their philosophy, and set in motion a number of dehumanising political and economic memes that we are still struggling with today - the most egregious being Free Market Capitalism (driven now by Game Theory).

In the Rationalist account of Buddhism, original Buddhism must have been rational because Rationalists identify with the rational elements in our own history. In this account traditional Buddhists are getting it wrong because they practice magic and superstition. They are also wrong to venerate monks who do not exemplify the values of the enlightenment, but are more like the Catholic priesthood that Martin Luther was rebelling against. Ironically, it's unlikely that the Iron Age Indians shared the Victorian misconceptions about reason. In this account the Buddha is a man with an ethical plan to make us all better people through enabling us to govern our emotions through logic. The person is inadvertently personified in the TV and film character of Commander Spock of the Starship Enterprise. A "man" who tries to live by logic alone, though he clearly fails and is constantly rediscovering his human side. 

In the Romantic account of Buddhism the Buddha was a mystic who discovered the true nature of reality (a Western preoccupation that has no parallel in early Buddhist thought) by breaking through the illusion of the world to the world beyond. The other world, the true world, is beyond rational thought, beyond comprehension and can only be experienced, it cannot be talked about. Sometimes it takes the form of realising an inner essence which is the world as well (a meme from the early Upaniṣads). In this account, traditional Buddhists are getting it wrong because they do not meditate and therefore can never experience the liberating mystical insight of the Buddha. Propitiating monks and spirits is all very well, but unless one has the mystical experience for oneself, one is just going through the emotions. Not meditating is a form of surrender to the mundane world, virtually a capitulation to Materialism. Ironically the Iron Age Indians certainly did not share the Romantic view of emotions. Romantics disastrously misinterpreted the nature and function of emotion. They saw emotions as more authentic than reason and cultivating strong emotions as a way to be more authentic. Romantics tend to fall victim to the dualistic fallacy of the matter/spirit dichotomy - emotions being associated with spirit and reason with matter.

Most Buddhists are exposed to both of these narratives and to some extent draw on both of them when they conceptualise Buddhism. The result is unsurprisingly confused. The Buddha was a man who transcended his humanity through mystical experiences. Out of these mystical experiences came a supremely rational, ethical teaching. One seeks to understand the nature of reality (by most definitions, an objective realm independent of experience) by paying attention to experience, though even in Buddhist psychology experience is inherently subjective. Buddhism must be rational, but not too rational. And mystical, but not too mystical. The true Buddhist experiences an abundance of certain emotions, but never the wrong kind. We seek a non-dual matter/spirit duality. The contradiction, it seems, is seldom apparent to believers.

The one thing that everyone is agreed on is that traditional Buddhists are doing it wrong and that the taint of popular Buddhism is to be avoided. WEIRD Buddhists (including so-called "secular "Buddhists) are still trying to eliminate all the pesky "popular" elements from Buddhism, to purify it and to refine away the dross from the ore of received tradition to expose the pure gold of original Buddhism. 


In the WEIRD world Buddhism is still largely the preserve of educated, middle-class, Baby-boomers. In fact religion generally is in decline as more and more people reject it, and generations of believers simply die out. Buddhism does continue to attract new converts within this atmosphere of rejection and distrust but in quite small numbers. Middle-class British people are aspirational, which generally conflicts with Buddhisms rejection of material aspiration. The middle-classes embrace the values and attitudes of the upper-classes and aspire to "rise up" to that level (metaphors of verticality are embedded in discussions of religion: see for example Metaphors and Materialism). Hence the popularity of TV shows like Downton Abbey. They are fascinated by the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and can never get enough dramas set in the upper-classes. They reject the values and attitudes of the working-class.

Simon Evans on 
Stand Up for the Week.

The idea that the working classes might become aspirational is frightening because it is associated with Communism. At the very least labour unions in Britain were capable of causing havoc and holding the country to ransom to line their own pockets. The aspirations of the working classes must be deflected into triviality or at least into the desire to become middle-class. Where middle-class people have become slaves to their credit cards, working poor people have tended to suffer more from loan-sharks. And as educated, middle-class, right-wing comedian, Simon Evans, pointed out in 2013, "the poor are fat". The obesity epidemic is disproportionately prevalent amongst the poor. Evans is highlighting, tongue in cheek, that problems like obesity prevent the poor from changing their situation. The fact that the wealthy have promoted cheap food that is packed with sugar, salt, and fat because it is an easy way to make a profit (just like dealing crack is easy once you get people addicted). Then a paternalistic state tuts at the poor choices made by the poor and seeks to "nudge" them in the right direction while leaving the wealthy shit-food manufacturers to make an "honest" living. Similarly the onus is on addicts to stop smoking, rather than on tobacco companies to stop selling their toxic weed.

The theme of making Buddhism "accessible" to working class people is one that has been explored in the middle class media. For example Tricycle Magazine: "Making Buddhism accessible to working-class people." (1 Aug 2011). Google "working class Buddhism" and one sees a slew of such articles, (which also suggest that the class problem is just as prevalent in the USA). The fact is that most WEIRD Buddhist organisations not only do not cater for popular Buddhism, but we do not countenance popular Buddhism. We are not interested in popular religion. Our identity is partly bound up in being an elite. And like the elite in the British class system, we think that we are destined to rule the world (sort of). We like to think that we can save the human race from itself and that when humanity finally realises that we are the saviours, that they will thank us. We think, "If only they would follow our example", but frankly if our example was so amazing the world would be beating down our doors wanting to know our secret. The fact is that most of us are ordinary, at best, and do not inspire mass appeal. We simultaneously reject what is popular and wish that what we do value would become popular.

The fact is that most people don't want to devote time to individual religious exercises. They have families, peers, social obligations and favour communal activities that strengthen their sense of belonging - that why our churches are empty and our massive football stadiums are full on the weekend. We tell them that social obligations are a hindrance, because there are suttas that say so. We often fail to see that even monks have social obligations. Unless they already see these obligations as a hindrance, then people are unlikely to be receptive to our message. If they do see social obligations as a hindrance they're likely to be maladjusted to life and make poor practitioners. We Buddhists have not fully grasped, it seems, the social nature of the human being. Or we try to take the place of a social group - but still rejecting the "trivial" socialising that forms an effective human group. On one hand the general decline of religion tells us something important about what we might offer then as a religion. On the other hand what people want from religion (a social context, consolation for the unfairness of life and death, etc) we tend to look down on. It's no great surprise that Western Buddhism has not inspired mass conversion and that we barely number 1% of the population (including traditional Buddhists!). On the contrary, it's amazing that we have attracted so many people to our worldview.

A lot of my recent work has involved doing archaeology on Buddhist ideas and trying to show that major innovations are usually based on perceived deficiencies in the Buddhist tradition. For example I have tried to show how the problem of action at a temporal distance, that emerges from the internal conflict between pratītyasamutpāda and karma, proved deeply problematic for Buddhists. It gave rise to ideas like the Doctrine of Momentariness, the Sarva-asti Doctrine, and the Ālayavijñāna. One conclusion that emerges from this is that modern critiques and polemics are not necessarily simply misconceptions of a fundamentally sound and sensible tradition. On the contrary at various points in history the tradition of the day perceived the received tradition as unsound and nonsensible and set out to rectify the problem. So criticism per se is not necessarily problematic. And critics are not necessarily heretics - the most influential Buddhists have always been critics, not to say polemicists. 


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