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.


Anonymous said...

As an anthropologist who has studied Buddhism and Thai Buddhism academically for two decades, I think you don't need to worry so much. You already have a good grasp, as far as I can tell, of the most salient current meta-theoretical reflections on the concepts of 'religion', 'Buddhism(s)', and 'Theravada'. And your impression of the contrast between the lived and the textual/canonical tradition is very accurate and salient to your focus and topic. And your sense of the importance and salience of the devotional, the practical and the unsystematic with regards to popular practice is also very on target. Furthermore, more and more scholars talk about 'Buddhisms' and one can even do so productively within the territorial and national boundaries of Thailand, as well.

You have a good sense of the general intellectual and even academic lay of the land, and your observational eye is on target. I think you should confidently feel free to proceed forward with whatever direction you wish to take your musings & observations. Don't worry. It doesn't seem to me like you will embarrass yourself. Have fun with it!

Vishvapani said...

You seem pretty good at relating to Buddhism without playing the religion game, so maybe you should relate to academia without playing the academic game, worrying about getting it right, feeling that they are the experts and you need to impress them - or at least not embarrass yourself - in their terms.

That means saying what you feel, believe and know from your own experience. All the things academics don't do, which is why they are mostly so dull.