08 July 2011

Rescuing the Dharma from Fundamentalists

Then a miracle occurs
© Sidney Harris
MY TITLE THIS WEEK is taken from a book by Bishop Shelby Spong, who, apart from having a delightfully resonant surname, wrote Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, a book I read long before converting to Buddhism. I no longer recall much about Bishop Spong's opus other than the title, but that phrase has popped into my head a number of times recently as I have been confronted by fundamentalist Buddhists. Surely the phrase 'Buddhist fundamentalist' should be redundant, at least if I am referring to the colloquially pejorative use of fundamentalist, but sadly it is not. Over the years I've met many fundamentalist Buddhists online, but have also met one or two in person.

Buddhists will often tell you that Buddhism is not a religion of blind faith. I think this is at best a misconception. Buddhists take many things on faith, most of them blindly, and many of us have spent a good part of our lives searching for confirmation of those articles of faith, usually without ever finding it. To keep believing, after decades of seeking and not finding, requires a great deal of faith. (Though I should add it's not that we've found nothing at all, just not what we were told to seek) Amongst the articles of faith that characterise Buddhism are beliefs in ideas such as karma, rebirth and nirvāṇa. For many years I myself accepted the notion of some kind of Absolute Reality, some reality above and beyond the one I currently experience - in philosophical terms this kind of thinking is called Idealism. This Absolute Reality has many names: nirvāṇa, dharmakāya, amṛta. Sometimes it is described in terms of paramārthasatya - ultimate truth, or ultimate reality, or Even Ultimate Reality! Talking to Buddhists it rapidly becomes clear that the belief in such views is not supported by personal experience, though personal experiences have been interpreted to fit these dogmas. These truly are articles of faith in the sense of beliefs unsupported by any evidence, only ancient, scriptural testimony. And what's more, when one presumes to question the validity of such beliefs the believer can become upset and even aggressive.

The basic problem of fundamentalism seems to be that if you question the articles of faith, then the faith disappears, and the person is left with nothing. I do not believe that this faith is Buddhism in the first place, or that it harms Buddhism to set aside views, or that we cannot dispense with the Iron Age Indian worldview that underpins traditional Buddhism and the Indic language terminology that comes with it. If Buddhism is not a religion of blind faith (and I am saying that for the majority this is a moot point), then relinquishing articles of faith should present no problems at all.

Because I'm in the habit of reinterpreting scripture, and questioning traditional authorities, I often find that fundamentalists are upset by what I write. For instance some time ago a chap going by the name of 'Namdrol' on the E-Sangha bulletin board, in a discussion of the Theravāda three lifetimes model of the nidāna chain - for which there is no Pāli Canonical authority - declared: "to reject the three lifetimes model is harming the dharma". I mentioned back then that I thought this a fundamentalist view, but was told that the word "fundamentalist" was banned in that forum (along with any reference to the New Kadampa Tradition which was a bit of a give away). E-Sangha died not long afterwards, but not before I realised that online forums, and arguing with strangers on the internet generally, were a waste of my time and started focussing on writing this blog.

When I first discovered the Dharma I fell in love with it. I just took the whole thing on, accepted everything I heard uncritically for a long honeymoon period. When you're in love you don't see the flaws in your lover. I read quite widely, but mostly at the level of popular Buddhism, and certainly nothing very scholarly or critical (in the sense of critical thinking). And I ended up getting into arguments. I've always learned through intellectual disputation, and I wanted to test this new found belief system. But as I got older, and I got interested in Buddhist scholarship, I found myself becoming less sure, more doubtful about what was now more obviously dogma at best, and often rank superstition.

As time has gone on I have come to see that the traditional accounts of Buddhism are not entirely coherent, that certain key terms and concepts are very, very difficult to understand, though talked about incessantly. [1] Indeed some dogmas which seem reasonable at a level of popular simplification, are positively incoherent when considered in detail. At the same time I became more interested in practice and what actually happens because my own experience of doing Buddhist practice was exciting and revealing. I began to have insights into my own character and the dynamics of my personality that I don't think I could have gained except through intensive practice. These insights changed my life, in some cases dramatically, and mostly positively. I don't claim that these were Insights in the technical Buddhist sense, but they were significant breakthroughs for me personally, and as a result I suffer considerably less than I used to, though still a lot more than I would prefer.

Where a dogma is incoherent or inconsistent I think we have a duty to say so. Where history or archaeology is at odds with tradition, we must not sweep it under the carpet. And where the Iron Age Indian world view conflicts with the modern scientific world view then I think we must accept the findings of science and adapt our presentation of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama has said something similar [2], though I've found his followers more the usually ready to accept dogma - with one or two exceptions (see e.g. the blog Buddhism Sucks).

I've written a number of posts exploring the philosophical problems of belief in karma and rebirth [3]. Intellectual honesty says that at best we can be agnostic about rebirth, but it's the kind of strict agnosticism associated with the Tooth Fairy (this is cited from Richard Dawkin's book Unweaving the Rainbow). Tooth Fairy agnosticism acknowledges that we cannot know for certain that there is no tooth fairy - after all how would one disprove such a proposition? It would be much easier to disprove the opposite proposition - that the tooth fairy doesn't exist - simply by producing the Tooth Fairy. Equally the Tooth Fairy is not something we need to take seriously, or spend a lot of time agonising over. Rebirth is a pre-scientific afterlife belief with very little to distinguish it from other afterlife beliefs, at least there is no more evidence for or against it than any of the others. The so-called proof of such beliefs is merely that at some time in the past, some people appeared to believe it, though the argument over whether the Buddha himself believed in rebirth continues to bubble away 2500 year later. The same people appear to have believed in gods, demons, and animistic spirits. The same people believed that a person could possess magical powers to fly though the air, hear conversations at a distance, and multiply their body so as to be in many places at once. If we accept rebirth as 'true' then why not all these others things? And of course there are some credulous folk who do believe every story the ancients told as having a basis in fact. They may also believe in bigfoot, the yeti, visitors from another planet living amongst us, that economics will solve the world's problems, and no doubt the tooth fairy. But what people believe is not as important as how they behave as a result of what they believe!

In a recent comment on this blog, one person asked what was left if we stripped away all of the articles of faith. I suggest we are left with some simple propositions. We suffer. We can gain insights into the conditions for, and workings of, suffering, and thereby suffer less (and help those around us to suffer less also). We gain insights into suffering through examining the arising and passing away of suffering. That we suffer is a simple observation, and I do not think any one can argue against this. Sangharakshita has proposed that the Buddha starts with an experience because it cannot be argued with (A Survey of Buddhism, p.145f.). The problem of suffering is not incidental or accidental: suffering is the central problem of Buddhism. I do maintain that there is a distinction between pain and suffering on more or less traditional Buddhist lines, and that suffering is a mental response to physical pain. The early Buddhist tradition was talking about suffering in this sense (c.f. my commentary on the Salla Sutta).

The proposition that we can gain insights into why we suffer, and thereby lessen our suffering, is one I can vouch for from personal experience and without resorting to mysticism, or obscure Indian jargon, or a world-view alien to the one I grew up with. The one article of faith that I maintain is that there is, so far as I can see, no limit to the extent of the insight which is possible; and therefore no limit on the extent to which we can reduce suffering in the world. Pain is inherent to sentient existence, suffering is not. One can be in pain, for instance and be happy. I can see no reason that the insights gained could not make permanent and irreversible changes in the way we perceive pain. After all we've probably all had an experience which has forever changed us.

And what I find is that the methods of Buddhist practice, and even more so the fundamental principles of Buddhist practices, are very conducive to understanding and relieving suffering. There are also methods not traditionally associated with Buddhism - tai chi, yoga, psychotherapy etc - which can help. Clearly the idea that anything that helps is part of 'the method' is one that is very attractive to some, but threatening to the fundamentalist. Fundamentalists are not simply conservative, they don't just resist innovation and change, they are opposed to any change - in direct contradiction of the dictum that everything changes.

In the last year of so I have had a little contact with varieties of so-called 'secular' Buddhist, 'atheist' Buddhists and even 'non-Buddhist' Buddhists, and while I have some sympathy with them I think we differ in some ways. To me religious Buddhism is fine. I have no problem with bells and smells, and devotional practices, or even idol worship. Because my criteria is not ideological or philosophical, it is pragmatic. I think religious Buddhism, with some caveats, is a good thing.

Buddhism has near enemies and far enemies. A near enemy is something we mistake for the true quality, while a far enemy is the polar opposite.

One near enemy of Buddhism is that instead of disinterestedly investigating our minds for insights into suffering, we tendentiously try to prove a dogma, to achieve a certain state, and see every experience in an elaborate sectarian ideological framework. It is a delicious irony that the great figures of Buddhism, from the Buddha onwards, have been the one's that said - "no, my experience does not fit the traditional narratives" and developed their own ways of making sense of the experience of doing Buddhist practices. In this respect I must say I find the new crop of arahants, who appear to confirm the traditional narratives, intriguingly old school.

One of the great problems of Buddhist fundamentalism is the way we Buddhists speak of our beliefs as Reality (always capitalised). Our dogmas are different because they are "the way things are". But are they? How do we know this? The knowledge that our dogmas are Reality, if it comes at all, only comes with Awakening (which we also capitalise). So logically if we are not awakened, we do not know the truth - so why do we believe? The best the unawakened can do is to have faith in the awakened - who ever they are. But few Buddhists really make this distinction, and many argue as if they personally know the truth. I've done this. It seems plausible partly because paṭicca-samuppāda is superficially a theory of cause and effect. Cause and effect is how we experience the world, so a doctrine which proclaims cause and effect must be true. But paṭicca-samuppāda was not originally a doctrine of cause and effect, it was an idea about how the experience of suffering arises, and used the language of conditionality, not of cause and effect. There's no real evidence that the originator(s) of this doctrine intended it to be a theory of cause and effect, let alone a Theory of Everything. And there's every evidence that the Western Intellectual tradition has understood cause and effect for at least as long as the East has - at least since the Buddha's Greek contemporaries, but throughout the intervening period we find quotes to the effect that "everything changes". If cause and effect, or even conditionality, was all the Buddha was talking about then we are all awakened, because in fact this is all rather easy to understand, and is covered in high-school physics. The fact that we do not appear to be awakened, in the sense that we still suffer, suggests very strongly that in focusing on cause and effect we are looking in the wrong place!

When a doctrine is Reality, when it is the Truth, when it is just "how things are", then to question it is not really possible. Indeed to question Reality is seen not merely as heresy, but as insanity. Buddhists will happily tell you that we don't have a sin called heresy; but they are also fond of the apocryphal quotation "all pṛthagjanas are crazy". The pṛthagjanas are you and me, the hoi polloi, the unawakened, and usually this statement includes the people citing it (and after 17 years of looking I've yet to find the source). So if I question the notion of karma, I'm not simply a heretic, I'm not offending anybody (because we Buddhists don't get offended) I'm just expressing my insane "views".

Most of the time this delusion of knowing Reality is actually pretty benign. Buddhists, on the whole, are tolerant of lunatics like me (See the case of the mad monk). Buddhists don't tend to coerce, manipulate, bully or injure unbelievers. It's been known to happen, including amongst our clergy, but it's rare. We are mostly harmless, as one would expect. We spout incomprehensible jargon a lot of the time, and are often a slightly edgy combination of zealous and defensive. But Buddhism, on the whole, is not a cult that is going to damage you. The main problem is confirmation bias -- if you already know what Reality is, you will dismiss everything else.

A far enemy of Buddhism, which we are seeing more and more, is militant nihilistic iconoclasm which strikes down any and all manifestations of religion. Perhaps we need to reflect on why some people are so violently opposed to religion per se - after all religion in some form is a feature of all human cultures, and to hate religion seems to me to be tantamount to hating our humanity. Many people appear to be appalled by their humanity. The sociality, irrationality, emotionality, and fragility of all humans appears to be deeply problematic to some. Is it a symptom of the widespread alienation that characterises the post-industrial world?

Buddhism proceeds by many ways and means to illuminate the way that suffering arises, but the focus is always on the arising and passing away of mental states. I would say that even those who "merely" offer generosity to monks are at least potentially fully participating in this exploration since to be truly generous one must find a deep empathetic connection with another being and give them what they truly need, to make them happy at whatever the cost to ourselves (the very opposite of the philosophy of Ayn Rand which has been so very influential on Wall St and in The City, as well as in Silicon Valley). Poor traditional Buddhists assiduously feeding and caring for monks are in some ways more admirable than middle-class Western Buddhists with desultory meditation practices and still driven by their own selfishness. Though we so often scoff at them as merely 'ethnic Buddhists'.

So, yes, I think we can dispense with the vast bulk of traditional Buddhist narratives, worldviews and terminology, and yet still consider ourselves to be Buddhist if we pursue Buddhist practices. I define a Buddhist in terms of what they do, not what they profess to believe. A Buddhist is someone who explicitly and purposefully pursues some form, any form, of practice whose purpose is ultimately to identify and ameliorate the causes of suffering; and who calls themselves as a Buddhist in the process. The last bit is relatively inconsequential. I personally know Buddhists with beliefs ranging from outright materialism, through the wackiest aliens-amongst-us conspiracy theories, to the most esoteric mysticism, whom I know to be good people, sincerely pursuing a Buddhist path, and even finding some success upon it, at least in the sense of manifesting Buddhist virtues like friendliness and generosity. I also know plenty of people who share values I hold dear, and even express them in virtues I admire, but who have no inclination to call themselves Buddhist.

Karma and rebirth as traditionally taught are just dogmas. Buddhists are afraid that if we dispense with karma and rebirth no one will be moral, and freedom from suffering will not be possible - after all it takes many lifetimes to practice the perfections. Christians expressed a similar fear about the death of God - without God, they said, people will be immoral, and the world will turn to chaos. Are we more or less moral than our 17th century pre-European-Enlightenment forebears? Probably about the same on average. Probably about the same, on average, as individuals anyway, as anyone anywhere, any time. Because morality is not determined by profession of belief. Even the faithful can sin; even the heathen can be moral. To find what makes us moral we need to look deeper than belief and religion. To find out what causes us to suffer we need to look at our own minds, and set aside our preconceived ideas.

Buddhists, of all people, should recognise that our traditions have sprung from centuries of cultural change, that our narratives and doctrines are not "original" and haven't been for more than 2000 years. Buddhists, of all people, have nothing to fear from change, should embrace change, should initiate change. Fundamentalism just seems out of place amongst us.

"What can we take on trust in this uncertain life?
Happiness, greatness,
pride - nothing is secure, nothing keeps."

Euripides (ca. 480 BC – 406 BC), Hecuba. [4]



  1. See for instance: Confessions.
  2. "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview." The New York Times (12 November 2005) [via Wikiquote]
  3. see e.e. Rebirth and the Scientific Method; and Hierarchies of Values.
  4. Note that Euripides's estimated dates coincide exactly with the most recent estimations for the dates of the Buddha.
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