Sunday, October 23, 2011

Waiting for the Water

There are a half dozen 7-11`s within walking distance of my condo in Bangkok and all are out of bottled water, bread, milk, and Mama (the packaged instant soups Thais like best), and I've noticed that the Oreo supplies are running low.  Clearly a disaster is in the works, but it's extremely slow moving.  Nearly a month ago I traveled with my students to Ayutthaya for a field trip to tour the ancient ruins.  Extremely heavy monsoon rains this season had filled rivers, canals and dams throughout Central Thailand.  We saw a few flooded areas around the ancient city, which is on an island at the confluence of three rivers, and residents and businesses had stacked sandbags to prevent the waters from spreading.  This reclining Buddha, although located in Ayutthaya (my son Nicky and I saw it on a tour two years ago), was not yet wet.

That was then.  Not long after, the Ping overflowed in Chiang Mai, and soon severe flooding was reported in Nakhon Sawan in the heart of the Chao Phraya river basin in central Thailand.  Next came Ayutthaya and the suburb of Wang Noi, former rice fields and now industrial estates where my university (pictured here) built a campus several years ago.  Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya Buddhist University was turned into an island by the flood.  Final exams were cancelled and students were forced to move out of the dormitories, evacuated in boats.  While I escaped with Nan to Phayao, a dry northern province, the water moved relentlessly (but slowly) south toward release in the Gulf of Thailand, stopped only by dykes and barriers in the northern suburbs of Bangkok.

Satellite photos show the watery noose tightening around the capital city.  TV stations now show non-stop videos of Thais struggling to cope with the flooding, declared the worst since 1942 (you can see videos of that flood here), wading down city streets, chest deep in water, dragging their belongings with them in plastic buckets.  By now, 28 of Thailand's 77 provinces have been affected by the floods, nearly 400 have died (several bodies of people who were electrocuted were discovered yesterday near Bangkok), over 113,000 have been displaced and are living in 1,700 temporary shelters.  According to The Nation, nearly 2.5 million people have been affected by the floods.  An estimated 750,000 have contacted water-borne diseases.  Buddhist temples, most located on rivers and canals, have been hard hit.  A major relief effort is underway (the U.S. sent a team of marines who were seen filling sandbags).  Snakes have been reported in the flood waters and a number of crocodiles are on the loose.  People are being told the flood waters could remain from four to six weeks.

Thailand's new prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has been severely tested.  Her opponents have used the crisis to win points they failed to make during the election which overwhelmingly picked her.  Just as Obama was blamed by the radical right for the economic situation created by Republicans under Bush, Yingluck is accused of poor water management even though it was under PM Abhisit's tenure that his government failed to prepare for excessive rain (not much has been said here about global warming as a cause).  The economic consequences of the floods will be devastating.  Since the last big flood in 1995, thousands of factories have been built on former rice fields in the flood plain and most are now under water.  Thailand is the world's largest producer of hard-disk drives, the biggest exporter of rice and rubber, and the second largest supplier of sugar, according to Bloomberg.  Japanese and American car manufacturers, computer companies and consumer electronic firms, all of whom who have extensive operations here, have been hard hit by the disaster, and over 14,000 business operations have been reported closed.  But even more tragic are the many thousands of Thai workers forced to return to upcountry homes without pay while the factories are shut, and perhaps even worse, the illegal workers from Burma who reportedly are streaming back across the border.  Corporations can relocate; the poor have few other choices.

Despite this morning's headline in the Bangkok Post, "Flee to the Rooftops!," central Bangkok, as of 7 a.m. Sunday morning, remains relatively dry.  However, with store supply lines cut, we're running out of food. Yingluck's main problem is sending mixed messages.  The government's Flood Relief Operations Command (with the ugly acronym "FROC"), headquartered at Don Muang Airport, warned of evacuations while the governor of Bangkok (a member of the opposition Democrats), denied this and said "listen only to me."  Then they switched.  Gov. Sukhumbhand ordered 27 riverside communities to evacuate immediately because the water is rising "for unknown reasons," according to MCOT, the government news agency (how about too much water?).  When Yingluck declared the floods a national disaster, the Governor delayed fully opening the canals so that the northern waters would more drain quickly.  Residents have been seen on TV destroying barriers that keep flood waters in their suburbs to protect the wealthier and therefore more essential city of Bangkok.  First Yingluck says the city is protected, and then says it's in danger.  Water must be made to flow out rapidly through a series of canals to the sea because, otherwise, it will take over a month for the waters to disperse.  Twitter has been for me an invaluable source of up-to-the-minute news, but you have to weed out the repetition and wild rumors.

I live in Pinkalo on the western Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River.  My building is two-and-a-half long city blocks from the river, a 20-minute walk or 5-minute bus trip (depending on traffic).  I've been keeping an eye on this embankment under Pinklao Bridge, and two days ago I saw it rise about a foot in two hours.  The barbecue restaurant behind me continues to operate even though sections of the large outdoor building are blocked off by water.  I walked across the bridge to Thammasat University, all boarded up and sandbagged, and then through Banglamphu where Khao San Road is located, and I saw many businesses with quickly constructed cement walls in front of their shops about a meter high.  Preparations are erratic.  Central Pinklao, farther away from the river than I am, has hundreds of sandbags in front, while Major, a shopping mall across the street, had none.

My life had been impacted considerably by the floods.  The conference, for which I spent weeks writing a paper on "Big Tent Buddhism," has been postponed until May.  MCU's campus in Wang Noi has been closed indefinitely and temporary quarters have been obtained at Wat Awaut in Thonburi not far from the river where teachers and students are to gather on Tuesday for the new term.  I began a class in English for graduate students in Linguistics yesterday at Wat Srisudaram near where I live, but here you can see the large statue of magic monk Somdej Toh, not far from the classroom building, threatened by water from the Bangkoknoi khlong (canal).  Two blue boats were stored at the ready near the stairs to my class.   Nan returned home yesterday with a supply of rice, two flashlights, and food cooked by her mother.  At the airport shop I was surprised to see two big bottles of water and a half-loaf of bread on sale which I grabbed before any of the tourists realized there were shortages of supplies and food in Bangkok.  Now we wait for the water to arrive.  Or not.

This is what the flood in 1942 looked like at the Democracy Monument, a short distance from Pinklao Bridge.  Bangkok residents wait for an uncertain future with some anxiety, hoarding food and watching TV news videos, hoping that what is happening not far to the north will not inconvenience them.  In the meantime, the sun shines in hazy skies this Sunday morning and the streets are quiet and -- dare I say it? -- normal.  It's also not a little exciting, like the time of street troubles a year ago April and May.  Uncertainty can be invigorating. I recall winter storms in the Santa Cruz mountains when torrential rains would cause landslides and the falling of trees.  Once, all roads in and out of Boulder Creek where I lived were closed.  Potential landslides made our house unlivable and we stayed with friends.  It was exciting.  Then there was the 1989 earthquake when we camped outside in the yard for a week because of the aftershocks.  Mother Nature is never boring.

You can almost see my office in the Faculty of Humanities in the lower right of the classroom building pictured here.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Hint of Paradise in Phayao

We arrived in Nan's village of Baan Thung Te at night after a two-hour drive south from Chiang Rai, and all I could tell in the dark was that after a winding journey up into the hills, the streets were paved and empty of people and the houses I could see were built close together.  In the morning I opened the back door to our home and saw this.

None of my photos of this panorama (and I took dozens, at all hours of the day and even night) do it justice.  The brilliant green of rice fields and the mist-enshrouded hills are jaw-droppingly breathtaking.

After two years together, it was my first visit to Phayao, the northern Thai province where Nan grew up.  We were to take possession of the house built 15 years before by her aunt, Ban Yen,  which has remained empty since her death from cancer five years ago.  Nan's mother, Yuan, and her husband, Bong, live next door and you can see a couple of her chickens.  She doesn't eat them or their eggs but just treats them as the family's pets along with two dogs and a cat.  Lest I become overly romantic about rural life, notice that on the pole between the houses is a loudspeaker which wakes the village up at 6 a.m. with Thai country music (called luk thung) and pep talks from the puyaibaan (mayor).  Not long after, the street is filled with farmworkers on motorbikes and in trucks powered by homemade engines without benefit of a muffler.

I was there for a week and Nan for two and the job of cleaning began immediately.  Nan was a fierce taskmaster, enlisting the help of brother Nok, on holiday from electrician's school in Chaing Rai, and yours truly who lugged armloads of crap to the storage room under the house.  At least a dozen years ago, Ban Yen was joined by a Belgian who lived with her for a year and who bought her every kitchen convenience (i.e. water purifier, bread and ice cream makers, and an espresso machine), now all coated in rust.  A huge refrigerator he filled with food now sits idle (we used a smaller one for our limited supplies).  A pile of CDs included all the hit artists in Louvain from the 1990s.  He shipped from home wine glasses and beer steins, and also ceremonial plates and mugs with the crest of some kind of fraternal order, the "Prinses de Louvan," in which he was a member.  When Ban Yen sent him packing, he took only his collection of wine.  Two sections in a large cabinet remain locked, the keys missing, with his curios visible through glass doors.  I thought about trying to contact him via the internet, but was told he had had leukemia and probably was dead by now.

There are only a few surnames in this village of 300 families.  Yuan and Ban Yen's father was named Phetsanu and probably a third of the villagers are Nan's cousins.  Her grandfather accumulated considerable land which includes the sticky rice field out back and at least two-thirds of the town is surrounded by farms.  When the rice crop is harvested in December, it will be replaced with corn for livestock feed.  Nan's grandmother died last year and now her house sits empty like Ban Yen's did before we arrived to claim it.  The village is well organized and divided into 12 sections and most of the lanes are paved.  But there is an unpaved section of the highway out of town that remains dirt because either Baan Thung Te or the neighboring village ran out of money.

The bright lights of Bangkok appeal to most country-born Thais as little more than a source of income rather than as a place to live permanently.  In my five days there I got a much better understanding of how and why Nan loves her home. She wants to return after she graduates from university and, perhaps, uses the degree to work for a couple of years.  My retirement income will allow us to live very well.  She did her best to make me feel comfortable, including making "American breakfast" for me, Nok and Edward, Ban Yen's son who is being raised by Yuan.  She even made me drip coffee, knowing how I dislike the instant stuff Thais drink.

Part of Nan's plan for establishing our presence in her village was to buy a new TV.  This took some time for me to accept, since we can visit no more than every few months.  Besides Edward, the house was full of kids ("cousins," she explained) after we arrived.  We got the set and assorted supplies on a visit to Chiang Rai's new Central shopping center.  Hooking up to Yuan's deep dish antenna cost 1500 baht, half for the channel box, with no further charges for using it (is this legal?).  The antenna brought in over 200 channels and 90 radio stations from all over Asia, but only the Asian Food Channel and Russia Today offered programs in English.  I paid for a DVD player that amazingly played "Rio" and "Transformers 3" that I brought on a thumb drive, making the kids very happy even though there were no Thai subtitles.  I also got them a DVD of "Men in Black" which did have subtitles, and they loved it.  Edward's favorite toy, however, was my iPod.  He played "Angry Birds" until the battery ran out, charged it and played some more.  We've decided to give it to him.

I made lists on my iPad of what I would need to live for a longer period in the village.  Internet came first.  The AIS phone connection was iffy at best since we were probably too remote to merit a cell phone tower.  Once, on the roof next to the antenna, I was able to download email and send a tweet, but it didn't last.  These are the houses of our neighbors to the north and they keep a pig close to our bedroom.  I didn't smell it (aging proboscis) but Nan did and wants to complain to the mayor.  The pigs grunting did trouble my afternoon nap.  Besides moving the pig, my list includes a desk and book cases, reading lamps, something to do (offer English lessons to school kids?), a motorbike, and a good source of ice cream (perhaps in Chiang Kham an hour's drive north).

On our first day home, surrounded by the dust of a cleaning frenzy, I noticed villagers passing our house dressed in black.  I learned they were going to the funeral of a man who died when he hit a pothole while driving drunk on his motorbike (later I saw an impromptu roadside shrine for him).   In the afternoon they returned to the temple for the cremation.  A couple of days later was the full moon wan phra (monk's day) which ended Phansa, the annual Buddhist rain's retreat, an occasion for everyone to celebrate by taking food to donate for tamboon at the wat.  Here in blue is Nan's great aunt Sa, a proprietor of one of the village's two small stores and the town's chief money lender (I've blogged in the past about her notorious grand-daughters, Ben and Bo).  The northern-style temple contained lots of colorful icons and some banners that I had not seen before unique to Lanna Buddhism.  One aging monk and two younger assistants read all the notes included with all the donated food to the assembled gathering (I mentioned my son and parents).  Water blessed by the proceedings was poured onto the bushes and flowers surrounding the simple building.

Wherever we walked in the village we were surround by children like the Pied Piper.  I may have been the first farang to visit since the Belgian left years before.  People (mostly "cousins") invited us into theirs homes, many of them raised off the ground, constructed from huge planks of wood (perhaps illegally cut), and furnished very simply. This is a poor farming village in one of the poorest provinces and there were pregnant ladies, babies and children everywhere (and husbands often missing, or off to work in Bangkok or Taiwan).  I was invariably offered kanom (desserts) of rice wrapped in banana leaves by our hosts.  Nan talked in the northern dialect of Thai with the mothers of friends who have left to work or marry, and the kids mugged for my camera.  One friend had identical twins just learning to walk, and at her house they slept in an oversized cradle hanging from the porch rafter like a swing that her father had spent a month constructing, and now the grandmother pulled a cord to make it rock.  The warmth and friendliness I encountered everywhere gave me a peek into a communal society that no longer exists in the West where the individual is primary (Life as a child for few years in a small town in North Carolina was similar, except for the segregation of blacks).

It's not exactly a rocking chair, and the laundry will have to find another place to dry, and Bay Yen's antique motorbike will need to go, but this porch outside the front door of our home in Phayao is not a bad spot from which to watching the passing parade.  It's not a question of whether but of when.  I'm not yet ready to give up the virtual comfort of the internet and hope I can eventually have Skype conversations with distant friends.  My life in Bangkok is getting busier.  I finished my paper on Buddhism a couple of days ago, but the conference may be delayed since the university remains isolated by flood waters.  I'm scheduled to teach more classes in English and Linguistics next month if temporary quarters can be found.  If I can continue to be nourished by reading material, music and movies, the move to Baan Thung Te will be a plus rather than a retreat or escape.  Friends have issued warnings about the inaccessibility of rural health facilities, but I'm determined not to fade away in a hospital, so that's no bother.  At least there will be a steady supply of kalamae, the dessert speciality of northern Thailand which tastes a little like caramel but is much more addictive.

When I got returned to Bangkok I went to decompress with Jerry about the experience.  He spends 10 days a month in a village in Surin near the Cambodian border where he built Lamyai and her family a two-story house.  We traded stories, noticing similarities and differences.  He has a couple of years on me and knows it might not be long before he could have to give up his sociable Bangkok life for permanent rural retirement.  The mind might be willing but the body has limits.  Both of us are fortunate that big hearted women have chosen us to take care of in ways beyond imagination.  I was nervous before the trip because I'd heard all of the horror stories about farang taken advantage of by their wife's country relations.  But even more, it was the uncertainty -- what was I getting myself into?  On a different note, I also didn't want to be seduced by romantic notions of a remote paradise.  I was determined to look at Phayao with unblinkered eyes.

I have to say that I was pleased and surprised by the hint of paradise I found in Phayao.  Now if we can just relocate the pig and get my Facebook page to load, all would be perfect.

Friday, October 07, 2011

A Tale of Three Buddhist Modernisms

Once 19th century European philologists had rescued Pali and Sanskrit texts from the dustbin of history and constructed what they considered was an "original Buddhism" based on a founder and an ancient scripture, the Christian missionaries and foreign colonizers in Asia were faced with determining the status of actual existing heathens and idolators who mixed and matched their worship of Hindu deities with icons of the Buddha and local gods in their bizarre rituals.  Their practices were labeled as superstitions and "corrupt." Since legitimate nation states were deemed to possess modern characteristics, which included a recognized world religion, both anti-colonial nationalists and monarchs sought to update their religion in a process that scholars are calling "Buddhist Modernism."

For the purposes of this study, I want to examine the modernization of Buddhism in Sri, Lanka, Thailand, and, finally, in America.  In each case, modernizers reinterpreted the Buddha's teaching to appeal to a new audience while calling their reconstructions the "true" and "pure" Buddhism to affirm its authenticity.  But there were also ulterior motives.  In Sri Lanka, under the thumb of British rule, Christianity's privileged status was contested by local nationalists and a couple of Theosophists from America on a mission to uncover Eastern mystical wisdom.  In Thailand, a monk who became king reformed the local religion to partly prevent colonizing attempts by the British and France.  In America, the case was slightly different. Christianity was in crisis after two world wars and had failed to deliver the goods in the new capitalist culture of consumption.  Missionaries from several Buddhist nations brought to dissatisfied Americans a modernized faith that fitted their needs, one that was rational and shorn of unfamiliar rituals.

The literature on Buddhist modernism and its history is voluminous and growing daily.  "Modern Buddhism" was coined as a category in the 1970s by Heinz Bechert. A comprehensive summary is given by David L. McMahan in The Making of Buddhist Modernism (2008), and an overall view  is provided by David S. Lopez in the introduction to his A Modern Buddhist Bible (2002).  Lopez has followed this with Buddhism and Science: a Guide for the Perplexed (2008) which examines one of the basic tenets of Buddhist modernism that Buddhism is superior to other religions because it is scientific due to the early advice of the Buddha to test and verify every claim about reality.  A number of writers have studied the reforms of Thailand's King Mongkut (Rama IV) and similar efforts at further modernisation of Buddhism by reforming that reform on the part of the monk Buddhadasa Bhikku.  The subject of American, and by extension Western, Buddhism has been dissected by numerous scholars.  One has even suggested calling it "Ameriyana" to indicate that it has all the characteristics of a new sect like the other "yanas."

The key point to remember about Buddhist modernism is that it is a new reinterpretation based on a selection of myriad of texts discovered and translated by Europeans, usually with the connivance of Asians who used this new construction to make claims for social and political as well as religious purposes; it was a co-creation of East and West and not another "Orientalism."   And it resulted in separating "Buddhism" from the hybrid cultural values and practices the people of Asian had engaged in for over a millennium.  The actual lived religion of Asians in all its national and ethnic forms is more ritualistic and superstitious compared to the reasonable and intellectual understanding of Buddhism that often serves the interests of elites more than and common people.

The characteristics of Buddhist modernism are broad and variable for the three I intend to discuss.  Because of its beginnings, a focus on the written text and a purported founder who wrote or inspired them is essential (think the Jesus story as a model).  Tradition, ritual and myth are dethroned, a characteristic it shares with Protestantism which gave many of its defenders a model.  Along with ritual, clericalism is deemphasized.  Because the Buddha supposedly rejected the Brahmin priesthood along with the caste system, anti-Catholic Westerners saw him as an ally and he was hailed as the "Luther of Asia."  The importance of individual experience led to deflating the need for a mediator with the divine, although many devotees were later to accept the necessity of a "guru" and the value of a teaching lineage which allegedly led back to the Buddha.  Other characteristics that influenced Buddhism modernism included romanticism, centralization/decentralization, affirmation of the ordinary, environmental concern, social engagement, scientific naturalism, and a focus on techniques of meditation to the exclusion of all other rituals and practices, an imbalance especially predominant in western Buddhism.  McMahan writes that it is an "actual new form of Buddhism" that is
the result of a process of modernization, westernization, reinterpretation, image-making, revitalization, and reform that has been taking place not only in the West but also in Asian countries for over a century. This new form of Buddhism has been fashioned by modernizing Asian Buddhists and western enthusiasts deeply engaged in creating Buddhist responses to the dominant problems and questions of modernity, such as epistemic uncertainty, religious pluralism, the threat of nihilism, conflicts between science and religion, war, and environmental destruction.
Lopez adds that what was different about Buddhist modernism "was the conviction that centuries of cultural and clerical ossification could be stripped from the teachings of the Buddha to reveal a Buddhism that was neither Theravada or Mahayana, neither monastic or lay, neither Sinhalese, Japanese, Chinese or Thai." He adds that it is "perhaps best to consider modern Buddhism not as a universal religion beyond sectarian borders, but as itself a Buddhist sect."

Theosophy was developed in New York in the 1870's by Madame Blavatsky, Col. Henry Olcott and others as a movement to discover and reveal ancient wisdom in the mysterious East.  Their claims, recognizable today as New Age true verities, involved communication with "Mahatmas" (great souls) who lived in Tibet.  In their travels in India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) they, perhaps unwittingly, inspired nationalist movements in both countries.  One of their proteges was Krishnamurti who later rejected their support and achieved spiritual renown on his own.  In Colombo, where Buddhism was dying out (as it had previously in India), Blavatsky and Olcott took Refugee Vows and became perhaps the first Western converts.  Olcott declared his mission to be the restoration of "true" Buddhism in that country and wrote The Buddhist Catechism which is still in use, and helped to design a Buddhist flag.  A native disciple took the name Anagarika Dharmapala.  He helped to found the Maha Bodhi Society which continues today and attended the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 to much acclaim.  Olcott, whose memorial statue I have seen in Colombo, said he was not a "debased modern" Buddhist, like the Sinhalese who were ignorant of their own religion. He identified his Buddhism with that of the Buddha himself.  "Our Buddhism," he declared, "was, in a word, a philosophy, not a creed."  During a talk Dharmapala gave in New York, he declared:
The message of the Buddha that I bring to you is free from theology, priestcraft, rituals, ceremonies, dogmas, heavens, hells and other theological shibboleths.  The Buddha taught to the civilized Aryans of India twenty-five centuries ago a scientific religion containing the highest individualistic altruistic ethics, a philosophy of life built on psychological mysticism and a cosmology which is in harmony with geology, astronomy, radioactivity and reality.
In short, a Buddhism very unlike that practiced by millions of ignorant Buddhists throughout Asia, but one very congenial to western tastes.

"More than any other single person," King Mongkut of Siam (Rama IV), in the words of Buddhist (Tibetan) blogger David Chapman, "invented Western Buddhism."  Before the Theosophists ever set foot in Asia, King Mongkut, grandson of Rama I, founder of the current Chakri dynasty, had been a monk for 27 years.  He formed a new monastic order, Thammayut, to purge what he saw as superstitious and magical elements from the state religion.  He also dictated a strict ascetic practice for his monks and emphasized a literal interpretation of scripture.  Taking scripture rather than oral tradition as authoritative was a new idea, according to Chapman, that some attribute to his friendship with Protestant missionaries.  He also believed Buddhism should be rational and scientific (the latter an interest that killed him when he contacted malaria while on an expedition to observe a solar eclipse he had predicted).  Siam's independence was threatened by the British in Burma and the French in neighboring Laos and Cambodia.  King Mongkut, and his son, King Chulalongkorn, undertook a modernizing program to show the foreign powers that their country was a modern one which should not be colonized.  Rama V centralized both political and religious authority in Bangkok (which some have called a form of "internal colonisation") and put monks under control with the Sangha Act of 1902 which is still largely in place. Along with his successor, Rama VI, these three modernizing kings of Siam, as Brooke Schedneck has shown,  used Buddhism to centralize and create a national culture and political identity.  In the process,
The Siamese have modified the Buddhist tradition to highight to Westerners its modern elements.  Thus Buddism was used to help Siam remain sovereigh and maintain its own modernity but at the same time to be compatible with the Western model.
Modern Buddhism, she writes, "is clearly a variable and complex tradition that can be molded to suit one's interests for desired results."

King Mongkut's reforms were continued by Buddhadasa Bhikku a century later, albeit in a different direction.  As Peter A. Jackson points out in his book Buddhadasa: Theravada Buddhism and Modernist Reform in Thailand (1987, rev. 2003),  his reforms closely parallel aspects of King Mongkut's reforms, which included a rejection of traditional cosmogony and cosmology and an attempt in western terms to demythologize the world. "Buddhist intellectual culture in Thailand until the twentieth century," Jackson writes, "can only be described as conservative and stagnant."  Under the influence of European-influenced forms of Buddhism, Buddhadasa and others rejected folk religion and "assumed the very principles of rationality, logical consistency, and scientific methodology which were previously used to denigrate Buddhism...[in order] to prove the scientific character of the religion."  This same reformed Buddhism, says Jackson, "was ironically held up as symbolizing 'Thai-ness' and Thai independence from the west."  Buddhadasa, who died in 1993, is much admirer today by educated Thai Buddhists who share his iconoclasm and preference for meditation.  He rejected large sections of the Abhidhamma text and Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga commentaries as well as a concern for kamma and rebirth, views according to one scholar that most Thais would find "shocking." He also claimed monks had no privileged access to nibbana which is equally possible for lay people. Buddhadasa hoped to purge popular religious practice of magic and superstition and rejected the popular view of "merit as a metaphysical quantity which can be accumulated" (he reinterpreted it as an selfless act for the benefit of others).  According to Jackson,
Buddhadasa claims that the source of the obfuscation of the Buddha's universally relevant message of salvation lies in the influence of Brahmanical and animist beliefs, which have become associated with institutional Buddhism and which have distorted the original pristine character of the religion.
A universalist who would be more highly regarded were his works translated and distributed widely in the west, Buddhadasa believed that all religions were different fingers pointing at the same moon (to borrow a metaphor).  In a small book titled No Religion, he wrote that
Those who have penetrated to the essential nature of religion will regard all religions as being the same.  Although they may say there is Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, Islam, or whatever, they will also say that all religions are inwardly the same.  However, those who have penetrated to the highest understanding of Dhamma will feel that the thing called "religion" doesn't exist at all.
This is a very heart-warming message to Buddhist modernists everywhere, and it certainly affirms that a "big tent" is possible, not only for Buddhists but for people of all faiths.  But it's a message very much at odds to those unaware of alternate Buddhist realities as well as true believers who hold to one "true" Buddhism over all others.

While I intend to talk about America's acceptance of Buddhist modernism, I've run out of space, and will have to rethink if I need to make points about this that others before me have said better in the past.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Great Buddhist Debate

Monks of Tharpa Choeling circa 1978 behind Venerable Abbot Geshe Tamdrin Rabten (with sunglasses). Left-to-right: Claude Grenier, Stephen Schettini, Christopher Pace, Laurence Williamson, Brian Grabia, Arnold Possick, Dominique Monmayeul, Stephen Batchelor, Helmut Gassner, Eckart Zabel, Bruno Le Guevel, Alan Wallace, Geshe Tamdrin Rabten, Geshe Jhampa Lhodro, Geshe Gendun Zangpo, Elio Guarisco and Gen Lo Norbu on the occasion of the novice ordination of Laurence, Dominique and Eckart.
They could be spiritual twins. Both went to Dharamsala, India, in the early 1970s to study at the Tibetan Works & Archives after it was established by the Dalai Lama, and both ordained as monks.  B. Alan Wallace from Pasadena, the son of a professor at a Baptist seminary, was three years older than Stephen Batchelor who was born in Scotland and raised by a single mother in a London suburb.  Both were sent by the Dalai Lamai to Switzerland to study with Geshé Rabten, first at the Tibet Institute Rikon, then located at Le Mont-Pèlerin, and later at the Swiss hamlet of Schwendi where they helped the contemplative Tibetan monk establish Tharpa Choeling (now Rabten Choeling).  Joining them there was Stephen Schettini, who two years ago published a memoir, The Novice, with the subtitle "Why I Became a Buddhist Monk, Why I Quit, and What I Learned." (This photo is borrowed from Schettini's web site.)

Wallace and Batchelor have become proponents of two seemingly diametrically opposed views of Buddhism.  Wallace represents the traditionalists, and Batchelor the secularists, and their views were aired in a sometimes contentious exchange during the last year in the pages of Mandala, a quarterly published by the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) which follows the Buddhist tradition of Lama Tsongkhapa of Tibet as taught by FPMT's founder, Lama Thubten Yeshe.  Wallace began with "Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist," and Batchelor responded with "An Open Letter to B. Alan Wallace."  Schettinni weighed in with his own reminiscences of the two one-time friends with "A Old Story of Faith and Doubt."  Buddhist blogger Ted Meissner has also made extensive comments on the Speculative Non-Buddhist blog.  This is no tempest in a tea pot, but a serious discussion of fundamental differences between two prominent Western Buddhists that raises question about whether all "buddhisms" can fit under the same big tent.

Wallace is not subtle, and comes out with both guns blazing.  Calling Batchelor's opinions in numerous books "ridiculous," "groundless speculation" and even "illegitimate," he writes that his old colleague was "recreating Buddhism to conform to his current views" despite the "consensus by professional scholars and contemplatives throughout history" and ignoring the "most compelling evidence of what the Buddha taught."  Wallace takes aim at Batchelor ideas presented in Buddhism Without Beliefs (1997) and most recently in Confession of a Buddhist Atheist (2010), which show his "strong antipathy toward religion and religious institutions" and his "blind acceptance of materialist assumptions about consciousness."  Wallace pulls out his Weapons of Mass Destruction and links this "scientific materialism" with "the unspeakable tragedy of communist regimes' attempts to annihilate Buddhism from the face of the earth."  (Granted, he piggybacks this on a critique of atheist Sam Harris's curious support of Buddhism which is connected to similar allegations against religion).

The real target of Wallace's over-the-top ire is undoubtably Batchelor's denial of rebirth and karma.  Wallace believes rebirth was central to the Buddha's teaching, a unique position for his time. Batchelor thinks it was a prevailing belief in the Indian world view and that the Buddha neither affirmed nor denied it, but rather treated it as irrelevant.  Wallace thinks his old comrade thus takes the "illegitimate option to reinvent the Buddha and his teachings based on one's own prejudices.  This unfortunately is the route followed by Stephen Batchelor and other like-minded people who are intent on reshaping the Buddha in their own images."  An experience of the Buddha's wisdom can be accessed through meditation, Wallace believes, and criticizes Batchelor's account which he says "describes the experiences of those who have failed to calm the restlessness and lethargy of their own minds through the practice of samadhi, and failed to realize emptiness or transcend language and concepts through the practice of vipashyana."

Near the end of his diatribe, Wallace calls Batchelor and Harris "both decent, well-intentioned men," but says their writings are may be regarded as "near enemies" of the true Buddhist virtues as described by the commentator Buddhaghosa: loving-kindness, compassion, emphathetic joy, and equanimity.  Their view of the Buddha's teaching are "false facsimiles of all those that have been handed down reverently from one generation to the next since the time of the Buddha."

Batchelor's response is more measured and collegial.  He begins by apologizing for "any offence I might inadvertently have caused you and others through my writing."  He recognizes that his views might "conflict with Buddhist orthodoxy" and might seem "puzzling, objectionable and even heretical to followers of traditional Buddhist schools." His students, however, have included many frusted by traditional forms of Buddhism who find themselves confronted with a "Church-like institution that requires unconditional allegiance to a teacher and acceptance of a non-negotiable set of doctrinal beliefs."  Batchelor writes that he left the Tibetan monastery where they were colleagues because "I could no longer in good faith accept certain traditional beliefs," and went to Korean to study as a monk in the Zen tradition" which he found "refreshing and liberating"

As for rebirth, "the Buddha would have regarded this entire argument as being beside the point."  Batchelor continues to study the Pali Canon, an authority on which both former monks agree, but they come to different conclusions about the meaning of suttas based on different selection and interpretation.  Both cite the Kalama Sutta.  Batchelor add that "this is the only text I know of in the Pali Canon where the Buddha explicitly states that the practice of the Dharma is valid and worthwhile 'even if there is no hereafter and there are no fruits of actions good or ill.' This is the closest he comes to an agnostic position on the subject."  He notes also that he and Wallace both cite passages describing the Buddha's awakening. "It is hardly surprising that you select a Pali text that describes it in terms of remembering past lives, while I prefer to cite the accounts that don't."

Batchelor's view of the intractability of language is particularly galling to Wallace who quotes him as saying: "We can no more step out of language and imagination than we can step out of our bodies."  This contradicts Wallace's belief that experiences that confirm his traditional view are gained through meditation and practice, outside of our linguistic cages.  Batchelor sees this as an attempt to claim privileged insight into the texts.
The Pali canon might be the most uncontested record of what the Buddha taught, but that doesn't mean it speaks in a single, unambiguous voice.  One hears multiple voices, some apparently contradicting others.  In part, this is because the Buddha taught dialogically, address the needs of different audiences, rather than imposing a single one-size-fits-all doctrine.  And it is precisely this diversity, I feel that has allowed for different forms of the Dharma to evolve and flourish.
I can think of no better words for a manifesto of "Big Tent Buddhism."

Schettini, the ex-novice, has a unique perspective.  "Alan and Stephen were both elder monks and teachers in our little community, and so role models to the rest of us."  The two shared close quarters but differed in temperament.  He says Batchelor "put on an air of nonchalance" while Wallace seemed "uncomfortable in his skin."  Wallace is "a loyal traditionalist and authority figure" who feels "both qualified and responsible to state what is acceptable and what is not."  On the other hand, Batchelor "is more concerned about the plausibility of the teachings ascribed to the Buddha than dependent on whether or not he actually taught them."  The crux of the difference, according to Schettini, is that "what to Alan is historical fact is to Stephen debatable."  Batchelor's rewriting of history and reconstruction of what's been "true" for traditional Buddhists "undermines the august pretentions of scholarship and tradition and infuriates Alan."

What's particularly troubling to Schettini about the exchange of his elder monks is that "Alan questions Stephen's integrity.  That's not debate; it's personal." Wallace's tone is unfriendly and rude, treating him as an upstart while claiming to be a paragon of correctness.  "Alan sees himself as representative of the tradition in a way that Stephen is not...I think that icons are important fixtures in the Dharma landscape and so are iconoclasts."  Wallace's screed raises two important questions for Schettini:  Are these teachings and people really sacred?  Is Alan trying to keep Buddhism pure? He says Buddhism a religion for Wallace, and therefore sacred, but not for Batchelor.  And the former novice agrees with Batchelor that purity is impossible.  "Buddhism is a construct."  Can Western Buddhism not handle diversity? he asks.  As for himself, "I lost faith in the scholarly illusion of the straight and narrow...I don't know exactly what the Buddha taught.  I wasn't there."

I'm not sure what points each settled in the great debate between the traditionalist and the secular incarnations of Buddhism.  Traditionalists like Wallace abound; he publishes frequently, is leading a retreat in Phuket as I write, and speaks and teaches his version of the dhamma around the globe.  Batchelor, on the other hand, has spawned a generation of followers with his doubts about purity and the "true" tradition, gathering a new generation of hardcore, pragmatic and secular Buddhists to his orbit.  Can they all hang together in today's "Big Tent Buddhism"?

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

What's a Modern Monotheist to Do?

The religious culture of Thailand is bewildering to a visitor.  Thais bow in respect (even while they are driving) to monks, spirit houses, temples, fertility shrines, ribbon-wrapped trees, and even collections of toy zebras along the highway (I've yet to figure out why).  They wear string tied around wrists that has been blessed by monks or relatives wishing them to be safe.  Similar string is looped around houses and even buildings like my condo, presumably as a form of protection, and often the string will have been connected to a monk preaching the teachings of the Buddha (buddhasasana) while holding a leaf-shaped screen in front of his face.  Lovers lay flowers on the altar of a Hindu diety at a shrine in front of Central World, one of Bangkok's biggest malls, to petition or thank the god for favors granted.  I've been told that only monks can achieve enlightenment and certainly not women (who are prevented by Thai clerics from becoming nuns). The faithful wear large amulets around their necks (sometimes huge collections of them) which are bought and sold like rare stamps at a market opposite one of the city's oldest monasteries.  Few meditate but most donate food, flowers, incense, candles and money to monks and at temples to make merit (tamboon) in hopes of a fortunate rebirth.

What's a trained monotheist to do?  I'm well-read (comparatively speaking) in the different world religions and am sufficiently versed in the wisdom of D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn (not to mention Theosophy and numerous New Age writings).  I've studied Hindu philosophy, been to India, and even once lectured at UC Santa Cruz on the Bhagavad Gita.  A little book by Ram Dass taught me to meditate, and I've gone on retreats with Jack Kornfeld and Pema Chodron, among others.  Surely I should be capable of understanding Buddhism in Thailand.  Thus began my education in the lived tradition of faith, and my current attempt to write an academic paper for a conference in December at my university.

The old labels and methods of classification dont' work very well in Asia.  I'm now convinced that "religion," "Buddhism," "Hinduism" and even "Theravada Buddhism" are terms invented in the 19th and early 20th century by mostly Western scholars (with some eager assistance from Asians struggling with missionaries and colonial power) to construct doctrinaire world views suggested by Pali and Sanskrit texts.  The living traditions in Southeast Asia practiced by Asians were ignored or denigrated until they were reinvented and repackaged to conform with modern Western sensibilities and exported to America and Europe with great success.  Meanwhile, the unexpurgated local traditions continue, and, if recent reports are true, are flourishing and proliferating despite state (and intellectual) attempts at centralization and control.  The shopworn labels make it difficult to see the inextricable hybridity of culture and values because we want to identify the separate strands in a syncretistic amalgam ("this is Buddhism, this is animism, this is Brahmanism').

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  What I hope to show (and celebrate) in this dry, footnoted paper is the appealing diversity of "buddhisms," a cornucopia of old and new practices and interpretations that owe their impetus to the reported teachings of a perhaps mythical renunciant 2,500 years ago in the foothills of the Himalayas.  Like the Russian semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin who celebrated the contrasting and polyphonic voices in Doestoevsky's writing, I hear the story told by the admirers of the Buddha's teachings as a glorious babel and want to imagine a "big tent" in which they can all reside.  This means resistance to the gatekeepers who wish to control entry, who claim to have found the only "pure" and "original" Buddhism as taught by its founder to his disciples.  Such origin stories are chimera which only serve purposes of control.

It may be impossible for a Westerner, growing up in countries where Church and State have long been rigorously separated, to understand a culture with no division between the sacred and the secular.  Japan, Thailand and other Asian polities had no words for "religion" until the Christian missionaries arrived, and in Japan the word used was "Christian" until other neologisms were devised.  Modernisation was accompanied by a disenchantment in the West whereby magic, superstition and the irrational were displaced by a whole raft of isms that fragmented dominant world views.  It has been assumed that the final victory of modernity would mean the end of religion, and certainly, now that the globe has been unified electronically and digitally, that should be the case.  But religion today, in all of its local and universal forms, seems stronger than ever.  Postmodernist thinkers are trying to explain this anomaly.

But I digress.  The objectives of academic analysis and the diffusion of cognitive dissonance conflict.  Attending dhamma talks and meditation retreats didn't help.  I began to think that meditation was the pastime of the idle well-off and did not help me to access the Thai religious world view.  Each night my wife bowed three times to the Triple Gem and said her prayers.  "What do you pray for," I asked.  "That everyone be happy," she said.  We keep a collection of icons on top of the bookshelf and refresh them every Wan Phra (monk's day) with flowers, water, and red soda.  The other morning we rose early and went to find a monk at the market where she bought two bags of congee and offered it to him for tamboon.  "Now I feel happy," she said afterwards.  When my friend Holly died, at the cremation ceremony I felt more curious than reverent about the ritual, and I suspect the other expats had similar feelings.  I don't know what the Thais felt, those certain of the fact of rebirth, but then, as now, I feel like an outsider.

Like most academics, I can't stop blabbering.  This was meant to be a trial run of my paper which must be completed by the 15th, but I've only managed to insert another paragraph after the first third of my outline (a very well delineated one, I think, but resistant to expansion).

So, let me make another stab at a summary.  There are many diverse buddhisms, unified only by reference to a founding figure and respect for a large collection of texts written at some distance after his death.  In the 19th century this hodgepodge was cobbled by Western translators and academics into a World Religion called Buddhism, a self-serving gesture we might call intellectual colonialism.  Asians collaborated, largely in order to be accepted as modern nations with a Religion to avoid conversion efforts and European land grabs.  Few spoke for the living followers of the Buddha who lived in a meaningful cosmos rather than in possession of membership in a hypothetical religion.

This situation persists today.  Most of the literature I've found in English is written by Westerners.  Some are beginning to recognize the enormous difference forced together under the label "Buddhism." Can they all really coexist under my imaginary "big tent"?  Should they?  I've said nothing here about the teachings of the Buddha, passed down over the centuries, that are so persuasive and compelling to so many of different stripes.  What fascinates me is the history of the creation and recreation of "Buddhism," its inculturation and reinterpretation, first in Asia and later across the world.  This invention has served to support state formations and national identities, and today participates in an out-of-control culture of consumerism where religions no less than religious objects are commodities.

And yet...  Here in Thailand, thinkers and researchers are discovering that the centralized Sangha bureaucracy, a product of 19th century reforms that nationalized Buddhism here as well as in Sri Lanka, has failed to prevent religious diversity at the local level.  Just as provincial Thais have been contesting politically the internal colonization of Bangkok, monks and laypeople are taking back their faith.  "Uniform or standard Buddhism is a thing of the past," declares Phra Paisal Visalo.  "Thai Buddhism is returning to diversity again."  Pattana Kitarsa, who has studied popular spirit cults and the profusion of deities on spirit shrines, writes that the "harmonious coexistence of deities from diverse religious traditions, ranging from Buddha to local and royal spirits, indicates a degree of transgression of the existing religious hierarchy and order." Two researchers studying "relocalization" of popular Buddhism, see that "at the local level many of the vital signs are quite strong" despite a crisis in the institution as a whole "beset by problems of scandal, corruption, commercialization and declining authority."  In a recent essay, Phra Anil Sakya concludes that, "With the onset of modernity and its profound social changes, surprisingly animistic expressions of Buddhism are flourishing and apparently on the increase."

This institution of Buddhism might be dying, but its successors in all their multiplicity are already here.  Vive le differance!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

This is Not Just Another Academic Paper About Buddhism

But it might become one...

It's easy (relatively speaking) for me to pen blog posts.  In the five-and-a-half years I've been doing this, I've written 470 of them, which is nothing to be sneezed at.  Mostly I've tried to come from the heart rather than the head, but that hasn't always been possible.  I'm a thinker more than a doer.  But the thought of writing something for an academic conference on Buddhism, something that is coming out of the deepest recesses of my curiosity about "religion," something that might even get published,  freezes my fingers.

Perhaps instead of giving a paper, I'll just read my blog.  I've made a few stabs at saying something about Buddhism in the last two posts.  Today I'll try and sketch out the argument I'd like to make.

It's always good to begin with a joke.  Several months ago, the Dalai Lama was touring Australia and an interviewer took the opportunity to tell him a well-worn joke (in the original, the Tibetan leader orders a hot dog "with everything").  But he didn't understand the reference, "Make me one with everything." Its humor depends on the common Western misconception that all Eastern spirituality is a search for mystical union, or "oneness," with the universe.  Most Buddhist teaching does not advocate an expansion of self, but rather the reverse.

Buddhism has been described as a "big tent" religion, a place like the illusive political party tent that can house a broad selection of views and opinions.  Some see its doctrines emphasizing orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy, promoting correct conduct and practice rather than right beliefs.  There is little heresy in the world religion of Buddhism which allows different understandings of the Buddha's teachings to coexist.  When Zen rose to popularity in America, it was embraced by the beats, followers of various New Age spiritualities and hippies, all of whom joined together with immigrant Buddhists and disciples of teachers from Thailand, Korea and other Asian countries.  In my hometown of Santa Cruz, CA, there are three Tibetan monasteries, one from Burma, a Zen center and two vipassana groups (and that's just for starters).  Socially engaged Buddhists promote peace and justice events and participate with Christians in communal meditation.

After 30 years of reading and studying various traditions of Buddhism in America, meditating semi-regularly and going on numerous retreats, I came to Thailand believing I understood the basics.  But popular Buddhism here is something entirely different and was quite unexpected.  It's more cultural, incorporating magic and superstition, like the all-encompassing religiosity I encountered in India where temples were filled with people of all all ages and classes, joyfully participating in what to me were arcane rituals.  It's more devotional and less intellectual than in the west where one has the "freedom" to choose a new religion or spiritual practice like a lifestyle.  And Thai Buddhism is a fulltime affair rather than a sabbath interlude.

The paper I proposed will be for a panel on "Unifying Buddhist Philosophical Views," but the more I looked around the less unified I found Buddhism to be.  Aside from the identity of the founder and the Pali scriptures which most Buddhists take to be authoritative, there are enormous differences: between Asian and Western Buddhists, American convert and immigrant Buddhists, traditionalists and modernists, nationalists and universalists, secularists and religionists, even old hippies and young punks.     Many claim to follow the "original" and "pure" teachings of the Buddha, while teachers in the West argue that Buddhism is a psychology or philosophy rather than a religion.  Even among the accepted "schools" of Buddhism -- Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana -- there are unbridgeable differences in ritual, style and custom.  How can the "big tent" hold them all?

Perhaps "Buddhism" is a reification of disparate practices and it would be better to speak of "buddhisms" in the lower-case plural, just as some Christian theologians use the term "christianities" to emphasize the proliferation of sects after the death of Jesus and before church councils canonized scripture.  I accept the social constructionist argument that both "Buddhism" and "religion" are categories created in the 19th century by scholars to distinguish Christianity from the other two ethnic monotheism and from the heathenism, paganism and idolatry that missionaries and colonizers were discovering outside Euroamerica.

Jonathan Z. Smith writes that "while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion — there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study." Tim Fitzgerald wants "to reconceptualizse what is now called religious studies as the study of institutionalized values, and the relation between values and the legitimation of power in a specific society."  Tomoko Masuzaw writes in The Invention Of World Religions, Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved In The Language Of Pluralism the discovery of Buddhism "was therefore from the beginning, in a somewhat literal and nontribial sense, a textual construction; it was a project that put a premium on the supposed thoughts and deeds of the reputed bounder and on a certain body of writing that was perceived to authorize, and in turn was authorized by, the founder figure."

The term "Theravada Buddhism" to distinguish Buddhists of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka from their northern cousins, is disparaged by Pali scholar Peter Skilling who suggests that it "came to be distinguished as a kind of Buddhism or as a "religion" -- remembering that "Buddhism" is a modern term and that "religion" is a vexed concept -- only in the late colonial and early globalized periods, that is, in the twentieth century."  Prapod Assavavirulhakarn, in his excellent study of Therevada Buddhism in Southeast Asia, says the label is "a Western, or, at least, a modern construction," and that most adherents are unaware of it outside departments of Buddhist Studies.  Western scholars believed it was closest to the early or primitive Buddhism taught by the Buddha himself.  But "there is no 'pure' or 'primitive' aspect of any of the religions, and certainly no 'ism' existed."

So does that clear the decks?  If you follow the argument so far, there is no such thing as "religion" in the singular, or even a monolithic "Buddhism," and the label "Theravada Buddhism" applied to the what was called disparagingly "Hinayana" (lesser vehicle) by the Mahayanists is a misnomer of little use in speaking of the living tradition practiced by millions of Asian Buddhists, from Sri Lanka to Korea.  Other than stories about the founder, written down hundreds of years after his death, we have Pali and Sanskit texts translated by European philologists in the 19th century.  These were then used to construct an "original" Buddhism and to ridicule actually existing Buddhists encountered by Christian missionaries as corrupt and superstitious.  The first great difference, then, is between 19th century Western enthusiasts, from Schopenhauer to Thoreau, and the masses worshipping Buddha images in temples throughout Asia for two thousand years.

This is not an academic paper because, for one, there are no footnotes and the evidence for my assertions and claims needs to be collected from a massive pile of printouts and documents in my bookshelf.  If I've planted some doubts about the true verities of Buddhist Studies I will have succeeded, at least this far.  But please don't misconstrue my thesis: I intend to affirm the value of "buddhisms" and, in particular, the devotional culture of veneration and merit-making that surrounds me here in Thailand.  While as a philosopher I'm attracted to secular and modernist reinterpretations of the Buddha's teachings, I worry that innovations in the West that reject rituals and "superstitions" may throw the baby out with the bath water.  I share the sentiments of a blogger named Jayarava who wrote, "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 scott at them as merely 'ethnic buddhists'."

Donald K. Swearer gives a warning in his book, The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia.  "This modernized view of the Buddha-dhamma demythologizes the tradition in the service of ethical and psychological values... There is a risk, however, that in the service of rationality and relevance, the varied and challenging complexity of the tradition is ignored or lost."

In conclusion, I hope to show that the various schools and traditions, old and new, that owe their genesis and inspiration to a legendary figure called the Buddha and the teachings recorded over two thousand years by his followers, can be recognize through "family resemblances" and can communicate   through conversation despite any differences. The annual Day of Vesak celebrations at my university that attract two thousand monks and lay Buddhists to a unified gathering bear witness to that possibility.  And the numerous online blogs, web sites and message boards today make global exchanges a reality.

I know some of my regular readers may find this a bit dry, but I hope you'll indulge this experiment to write an academic paper via blog posts over the next few days.  Suggestions and criticism are  appreciated.