30 October 2015

What is Buddhism? Who is a Buddhist?

A Triratna Buddhist Order
ordination ceremony,
Nagpur, India, 2008. 
A few months after getting involved with the Auckland Buddhist Centre in 1994, I happen to mention to an American work colleague that I was planning to go on a retreat. The chap conformed to many American stereotypes. He was the sort of guy who would repeatedly say, "I might be stupid, but I am ugly", and no one would laugh. On learning that I was planning to go on a Buddhist retreat, he enthused: "Oh I used to be a Boodist, I had my own scroll and everything". And at the time I had no idea what he was talking about. Later on, I learned that there are sects of Buddhism in which the chanting of sections of the Lotus Sutra (from a specially made scroll) is the main religious exercise they practice.

In the mean time I went on the retreat and found it very challenging, but also enjoyed aspects of it, particular the friendliness of the Buddhists. I began to read all of Sangharakshita's books. In his A Survey of Buddhism, written in 1954 while he was still living in India, he wrote that he thought that the Bodhisatva Ideal was the unifying factor of Buddhism. He subsequently changed his mind about this. In The History of My Going for Refuge (1988), Sangharakshita outlines why he thinks that going for refuge to the Three Jewels is the unifying factor of Buddhism:
"As the years went by I increasingly found that the more I related Buddhism to the spiritual life of the individual Buddhist the more I saw it in its deeper interconnections within itself, and the more I saw it in its deeper interconnections within itself the more I saw it not as a collection of miscellaneous parts but as an organic whole. This was nowhere more apparent than in the case of Going for Refuge, which I eventually came to see as the central and definitive Act of the Buddhist life and as the unifying principle, therefore, of Buddhism itself."
All Buddhists go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Saṅgha, if not explicitly then usually implicitly. If going for refuge is the unifying factor then what makes someone a Buddhists is not a belief or set of beliefs, but an action. And in this view, the Bodhisatva Idea is the altruistic dimension of going for refuge. It was this idea that underlay moving away from more traditional styles of ordination or initiation, and the adoption of the Dharmacārin ordination for members of the Triratna Buddhist Order ca. 1980.

This problem of who is a Buddhist and what is Buddhism is one that is something of a hot topic in these days of scepticism about religion. Traditionalists have opinions on this based on classical accounts of ordained and lay members of the Sangha. They tend to focus on beliefs as the basis for creating a dividing line. They see rejecting traditional superstition and supernatural beliefs as placing one outside the Sangha. For example, if one does not believe in karma and rebirth, then one is not a Buddhist. I have seen this kind of opinion from Theravādins, Tibetan Buddhists and from some of my own colleagues.

Other critiques emerge. For some years now blogger, David Chapman has been critiquing what he calls "Consensus Buddhism". Most recently he has pointed out that Buddhist ethics and liberal Secular Humanist values have converged. For his purposes, he characterises this as a simple, though tacit (and perhaps unconscious) adoption of liberal values by Buddhists. This allows him to argue that the ethics of Consensus Buddhism are not Buddhist. The polemic prepares the ground for his own alternative approach to ethics based on the writings of American developmental psychologist, Robert Kegan (Chapman's into here, see also Kegan's Awesome Theory Of Social Maturity). If we are going to coopt a set of values, he argues, then let it be a more rational and well thought out set. 

Scholar/practitioner Justin Whitaker also recently blogged on this subject and an interesting discussion ensued in the comments section between myself and philosopher Amod Lele. In discussing this problem of who is a Buddhist I realised something. If you were to introduce me to a person and they said "I am a Buddhist" what would that tell me about them? I realised that I would know nothing at all about them for certain. I would not know what they believed, or what religious exercises they performed.

Our mystery guest might be a Theravādin lay person from rural Sri Lanka. Their beliefs will be a mix of classical Theravāda and local folk traditions. They believe in the existence and power of local spirits and the necessity of cultivating merit for a good rebirth. In term of religious exercises, these are probably related mainly to propitiating local spirits and supporting monks.

Or they might be a Japan Zen priest who inherited control of the temple from their father and whose beliefs are also a somewhat eclectic mix. Like the Sri Lankan, they probably believe in and propitiate local deities drawn from the Shinto side of Japanese culture. The notion that we live in a degenerate age during which bodhi is not possible might be part of their belief system. They believe in karma and rebirth, and possible have a dash of Pureland Buddhism in the mix. Their religious exercises might range from chanting sutras in mangled Sanskrit, or more likely in Chinese or Japanese translation, and long periods of seated zazen. Or they might contemplate a koan and then have to answer the questions of their master. They also perform rituals.

Or they might be a sophisticated WEIRD urbanite, who doubts karma and rebirth, does not believe in spirits or any of that superstitious nonsense. Or a Pureland Buddhist who believes, on the basis of a promise made in a text, that after death Amitābha will appear to them and guide them to another universe in which the religious exercises of Buddhism are really easy and nothing will get in the way of bodhi. Or a Tibetan monk who believes that everything that happens is a result of karma and practices "secret" tantric techniques to transform themselves into a Buddha (or to transform their minds so that they see themselves as the Buddha they already are). They might believe in an ultimate reality. Or in the ultimate un-reality of all things. They might pursue austerity or believe austerity to be pointless. They might believe that we all have to make an effort, or they might believe that no individual effort will make any difference. They might emphasise the "historical Buddha" or de-emphasise the Buddha in favour of a deity of some sort.

If you search on google for images related to "buddhist" the results are dominated by monks in robes. But most Buddhists are not monks. Most of not ordained at all. Monks are probably only about 1% of the Buddhist demographic. Why, then, do monks dominate the popular imagination of Buddhism?

Very often I find I don't even share a basic vocabulary with another Buddhist. They may discuss the Dharma in the convoluted jargon of a Tibetan scholastic, or be blissfully unaware of any technical terms and subscribe to a just chant and be happy kind of approach. Sometimes it doesn't matter what I say because the other is a fan of non-dualist bullshit and simply negates everything I say and a conversation with them on the basis of our individual commitments to Buddhism turns out to be impossible.

The simple declaration "I am a Buddhist" gives me a probability of guessing what someone believes and how that manifests in their life of no better than chance. A statement that conveys no information is meaningless. In the case of the profession of "Buddhism", it might once have been meaningful, and within particular contexts may still be meaningful, but in general, the information is swamped by the noise of the huge variety of possible meanings of the words. I'm not even sure I remain convinced that Sangharakshita is correct to say that going for refuge is a unifying factor in Buddhism. The problem is that while going for refuge is an action, the reasoning and motivation for doing the action are so varied that the shared label may well be just as meaningless.

There is no gold standard for what makes a Buddhist. 

Who is a Buddhist when the statement "I am a Buddhist" appears to have no natural limits or boundaries; when they are dozens of mutually incompatible definitions of what "I am a Buddhist" connotes?

On the other hand, someone may argue that when they meet Buddhists they always find something in common. I would put this down as confirmation bias. As described by Mercier & Sperber's classic article (see my summary) confirmation bias applies when we hold a belief and go looking for reasons to support it. The purpose of this is to make a strong argument for our belief. Reasoning (i.e. thinking without confirmation bias) only works when we are arguing against someone else's proposition, and even then only when we are not too polarised (which leads to implacable opposition) and not too motivated to agree (which leads to groupthink). In this view, confirmation bias is a feature of group centred reasoning where each participant tries to put forward the best argument they can and the others look for and point out weaknesses.

If we go looking for confirmation of our view, we tend to find it. We tend to be uncritical of such confirming evidence, and having found any confirmation we stop looking. Without the argumentative dimension to trigger critical thinking about the ideas of others, humans tend not to use reasoning at all. Other processes, like confirmation bias, dominate cognition and lead us to weak conclusions. The success rate in solo reasoning tasks that lack an argumentative context can be as low as 10% (i.e. considerable worse that random guessing).

So the act of looking for and finding confirmation of our belief is a very poor basis for decision making. It's a very poor way to decide who is a Buddhist and who isn't. One of the problems we have in Buddhism is that scholars of Buddhism often seem to have an emic (or insider's) view of the subject. Confirmation bias afflicts a good deal of scholarship of Buddhism as well, especially with the advent of scholar-monks, so a tradition of critical scholarship of Buddhist ideas has yet to develop. When scholars study Buddhism they seem to go looking for certain features, such as a tendency to convergence and unity in the past (see also Evolution: Trees and Braids and Extending the River Metaphor for Evolution). Or they focus on describing Buddhism as it was, without applying modern critiques.

As I was writing this essay, an email about a new book from Wisdom Publications arrived. One of the blurbs begins:
"The [Dalai Lama] examines the meaning of key texts from the gospels, and finds similarities in Christian and Buddhist teachings, as well as correspondences between the lives of Jesus and Buddha."
If you go looking for similarities, you find them. This is not profound, it is simply a result of a failure to reason, probably caused by lack of effective opposition. One fawning and sycophantic review is included: "The whole book is a joy, an inspiration and truly deeply devout, while at all times light and pleasant, a perfect channel to convey profound realities and insights." Frankly this makes me want to puke. Unless you are very lucky, you find what you are looking for. I count myself moderately lucky to have discovered some problems in Buddhist doctrine, enough to rouse me from the stupid paralysis of the mind that seems so prevalent amongst Buddhists.

In order to address this problem using reason, we need to argue about what we believe with people who disagree with our view while having a shared commitment to discovering the truth. We need to test opposing views and see which stands up the best. But in religious contexts views are held strongly, i.e. associated with strong emotions, and polarisation or groupthink are almost the defaults. In these circumstances, we cannot expect people to reason effectively. They will either be anxious to disagree or to agree and this defeats reasoning.

With this in mind, my answer to the problem is that it seems that anyone who calls themselves a Buddhist, is a Buddhist. But most people find this an unappealing prospect. Certainly Amod Lele didn't seem to like this prospect (we seem to agree on very little). On the other hand, Justin Whitaker seems to be annoyed by those who disagree with him on where to draw the line between Buddhist and non-Buddhist when it involves excluding some people.

I think this is because when each of us says "I am a Buddhist" we have a frame of reference in our minds. In terms of George Lakoff's theory of categorization (see his book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things) we all have a prototype in mind when we hear the word "Buddhist" and when we come across examples of "Buddhist", we unconsciously compare it to our personal prototype and weigh up how similar it is. If the qualities of the example overlap sufficiently with our prototype then we can accept that the person is a Buddhist. I say, "personal prototype" as a rhetorical device because prototypes will vary from individual to individual, but in fact what constitutes the prototype of a category for any individual is largely determined by culture and experience.

The problem of who controls and arbitrates the categories of "Buddhism" and "Buddhist" is complicated by the imperialist tendencies of the WEIRD world. All to often we first impose our values on the discussion as a starting condition and then insist that the conclusions must conform to those values. It's quite clear that WEIRD values are modernist values that have very little to do with traditional Buddhist values except by accident. We tend to see our own values as universal values against which anything can be weighed. The fact is that this is another logical fallacy that leads to poor reasoning and weak decisions.

We want our heartfelt declaration to mean something to other people. We want "I am a Buddhism" to mean something to others. We want them to see us as special. We want the religious affiliation to say something about us. But we have no way of knowing what it communicates to anyone else. As often as not "Buddha" seems to bring to mind the Chinese folk hero Hotei who is erroneously called the "Laughing Buddha" - fat,  jolly, and trivial. 

There are some people who say that I (Jayarava) am not a Buddhist because I do not believe what they believe. They are entitled to that opinion and even to exclude me from their Buddhist activities on that basis. It usually doesn't bother me too much when someone says this because the belief system they profess usually seems pretty stupid to me and I think I've got the better end of the deal if they won't talk to me.

The fact is that we like to sit in judgement. "Stephen Batchelor is a Buddhist" or "Stephen Batchelor is not a Buddhist". My response is to wonder first why I should care about some random stranger's opinion on Stephen Batchelor. I can't see how either statement affects me. But then it matters for some Buddhists because they only have regard for the opinions of other Buddhists. A non-Buddhist cannot be expected to have anything interesting to say, especially on the subject of Buddhism! So delineating the category is important for people who think that way.

If I'm being thoughtful, I might wonder how they came to that decision because religious beliefs and decision making are subjects that interest me in the abstract. The actual decision is entirely irrelevant to my life and work, but there is an interesting process going on of someone defining their world through the decisions that they come to, that does interest me. It interests me because that's what we all do, but it's very difficult to study oneself doing it because so much of one's cognition happens unconsciously.

So these kinds of questions are really only interesting to me for the light they shed on the psychology of belief. I define "Buddhism" and "Buddhist" pragmatically. I suppose to some extent, I say that I am a Buddhist to reassure my colleagues and friends in the Triratna Buddhist Order, the religious community that I am a member of. As much as anything I am expressing my continued desire the belong to this community (See also Why I am (still) a Buddhist from 2012). In saying that I myself am a Buddhist, I no longer expect that to be meaningful to others, except to the extent that they will identify me with their existing prototype. I still largely share a prototype with other members of the Triratna Buddhist Order, but I expect that my prototype is very different to other Buddhists. Quite often as I express my views on traditional Buddhism, the result is so far from another person's prototype of a Buddhist that I seem outside the category to them. They experience cognitive dissonance. Which is fine. Buddhism is so varied that we'll probably always have this problem. About the best I can hope for is that my being a Buddhist might be the beginning of a conversation.

My understanding of what it means to be a Buddhist has been shaped in recent years by studying Buddhist doctrines and discovering the widespread systematic faults in them. And that study is a work in progress. I can see how doctrines fail to do what they were intended to do, but I cannot yet see the end result of spelling out just how bad Buddhist philosophy generally is. Right now I think we are all in the flames of transformation, and we cannot imagine how we will emerge from the conflagration.

Related Posts with Thumbnails