24 July 2007

Buddhism: Not Just a Philosophy

In one of my first posts (or at least so Aaron tells me - I'd forgotten all about it) I promised to spend a little time explaining why Buddhism is, contrary to prevailing opinion, a religion. Since this gives me an opportunity to get back to my primary academic interest (and since Aaron tricked me into answering this question for another purpose altogether earlier today) I thought now might be a good time to say a few words on the issue.

The mistaken impression that Buddhism is a philosophy and not a religion dates from the "discovery" of Buddhism by the west. The misunderstandings that happened in this first encounter have characterized the west's understanding of Buddhism to this day.

As I have been taught, there were two major ways that Buddhism entered the western world. First, Wesleyan missionaries (whose names escape me) were sent to Sri Lanka in the Victorian Era to do what missionaries do best - wreak havoc. In order to wreak the most havoc, though, they needed to understand how the religion worked that they were trying to destroy. So, as any good Victorian Xtian would, they asked to see the Buddhist scriptures. The Buddhist monks let them do it, but they were puzzled, because the idea that a religion was contained in books was completely foreign to them. Yes, they had a vibrant scriptural tradition - one whose size makes the Bible look like a footnote - but it played an entirely different role for them. Buddhist scriptures were, first and foremost, holy objects: they were chanted (often in languages that none of the chanters understood) as part of all kinds of rituals; the tomes themselves were used as objects of prophylactic magic, their real, written words having effects completely unrelated to their semantic meanings. Now, when the Wesleyan missionaries translated these documents, they discovered the theological and philosophical musings of incredibly sophisticated thinkers (on par with and surpassing St. Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Tillich in importance) - but in doing so they completely neglected to notice what these texts actually meant to the people who kept them. And thus they carried this mistaken impression of the soul of Buddhism to the west.

Roundabout the same time, the heirs of the enlightenment in Europe - the deists, some romantics, and above all the Orientalists - in short, anyone who had had enough with stodgy monotheistic religion with its commandments and guilt, began to turn to the East in search of an alternative. How convenient that they found there precisely what they were looking for! A religion that had no real gods, no harsh commandments, no covenants - just the perfection of enlightenment reasoning (Hermann Hesse, I'm looking at you). What more could the disillusioned Victorian ask for? For entirely different reasons, the community of the faithless, like the missionaries, found precisely what they expected to see in Buddhism and left the rest. I might also add that the exact same thing happened in the 1960s in America, when a class of people with a similar sense of disillusionment rediscovered the religions of India and China as a way to find spirituality without religion. This is why you can hear a sitar playing in the background of Norwegian Wood, and why armies of soccer moms do Tai-Chi in the living room once junior's been packed off to school. But regardless of whether this cultural exchange was a good thing or a bad thing, the point is that every time the west has become interested in Buddhism, we've gotten it wrong.

I can't begin to list here all the ways that Buddhism is a religion. There are gods. Lots of gods. Amounts of gods that put the Romans to shame. They have a very colorful hell (actually, there's about eight of them). Many sects have a redeemer figure who comes at the moment of death to transport the believer's soul to paradise (Amitabha); many believe in the Messaianic Buddha of the Future who will come at the end of time to restore Buddhist teaching to a hellacious world (Maitreya). They have an all-compassionate, all-powerful savior figure who hears and answers all prayers (Avalokteshvara), and in China at least this god has become female (Guan-yin) and very closely resembles the Virgin Mary of Catholic belief. There are rituals up the wazoo - explicitly magical rituals that follow the universal do-ut-des pattern of religious exchange: I will honor the deity (or his statue or his relics) with a gift (of incense, food, prayers, liquor, money, etc) so that he will be inclined to do something nice for me. And the list goes on and on.

And don't dare say that this is merely Mahayana Buddhism (the main Buddhism of China), and that the "purer" form of Indian Hinayana Buddhism (and its East Asian progeny: Zen) has none of this religious mumbo-jumbo. Because it does. Lots of it. There is an active relic cult in Ceylon; talismanic magic is pervasive in all legitimate Buddhist communities (and by legitimate I am excluding those started by westerners based on a false understanding of Buddhism), and so on. If we take the example of Buddhist insight meditation (like Zen) as representative of all Buddhism everywhere and for all time, we are commiting as grave a fallacy as if we decided that one single monastery (or even a whole order) of contemplative Catholic monks were representative of all of Christendom, or that the skeptico-deist philosophy of Spinoza were an accurate picture of Judaism. The fact remains that the vast majority of Buddhists since the foundation of the Sangha in about 600bce have never once practiced meditation. They were active participants in a religion that posited gods, that had active temples, that sought converts, that believed in magic, that spoke prayers, and that made sacrificial offerings to various deities. Buddhism is and always has been a religion in every sense that counts.

EDIT: For anybody interested in the surprisingly religious character of earliest Theravada (/Hinayana) Buddhism, I cannot recommend strongly enough the book "Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India" by Gregory Schopen. It is the first, best, and clearest explanation of precisely the issues I've been dealing with above.

And for the reader with entirely too much time on his hands, I'm providing a link to a short paper I once wrote on the subject: The Paradox of Presence: Reassessing the Role of Relics in Theravada Buddhism.


Peregrine said...

You're right. It is a religion. But it isn't a religion to everyone who practices it. You don't have to practice it as a religion to understand and benefit from its moral or philosophical teachings.

The movement in the west away from Buddhism as a religion and towards more of a philosophy is, in some cases, an attempt to return to the spirit of the Buddha's teaching, and remove the religious trappings that have become attached to it. Maybe it is uniquely western. But it's the same spirit that lead a Zen teacher to respond "If you meet the Buddha on the street, kill him".

An utterance that occasionally turns up in some of the discussions that I've attended is "A religion that fails to change fails to survive". So the western movement towards a philosophical lifestyle instead of a religious one is a natural progression that is intended to return the teachings to a philosophical and moral framework, instead of bowing to statues. You don't need to bow to statues to become enlightened. The Buddha himself would not likely bow to statues.

Ben said...

Granted: a great deal of modern Buddhist practice is indeed non-religious in nature, and the core tenets of Buddhism are in many ways more conducive to non-theist interpretation than are, say, Christianity (where belief in the divinity of Christ is more important than doing anything that the fellow supposedly said). I wouldn't challenge for a moment the assertion that the Buddhism you're speaking of (which I have heard very aptly called "Buddhist Protestantism") is, indeed, a primarily philosophical movement. Indeed, I think that this Buddhism-without-religion is an excellent thing for humanity in general, and a great step toward the humanist goal of removing the supernatural element from an otherwise healthy and vibrant cultural system that religion provides.

But I do have to be skeptical when you invoke "the [true?] spirit of the Buddha's teaching." After all, as we've seen in all the anti-Christian-fundamentalist literature that's come out lately, who's to decide what the most true, honest, or original interpretation of a religious tenet is? As a student of the history of religions, I've found that the answer is not and cannot be in the texts themselves because the reader supplies far too much of the interpretation himself. Which is fine if you're taking the text from a literary, interpretive perspective and want to find personal meaning in it for yourself. More power to you - you picked an infinitely better book than the Bible. But if you're interested in how people actually responded to this text - say, in the very earliest days of the Buddhist community - then you have to look at other sources: you have to look at the archaeological evidence, for example, which shows through burial patterns that there was, even in the Buddha's own time, a thriving cult of the salvific power of the Buddha's body. Now, perhaps my criteria for truth value are different - which is also fine - but if I look for the 'Ur-buddhism' of its earliest days, and I find a thriving relic cult, then my necessary conclusion is that these things are as integral and important to Buddhism as its philosophical foundation because they are both as old and as long-lasting. Even if this is an uncomfortable realization - that the triple gem itself of Buddha, Sangha, and Dhamma contains a nod to the magical reliquary power of the Rupakaya-body - it is nonetheless a historical truth that we have to deal with.

The reason that Rinzai instructed his Zen audience to kill the Buddha on sight stems from the fact that, for many reasons, the Zen sect in 14th Century Japan was a particularly iconoclastic one. But if we take Rinzai as representative of Buddhism we commit the same fallacy as if we took Martin Luther as representative of all Christianity. One need only find another prominent Buddhist monk who wrote on the importance of statue worship (and these are in the majority, historically) to bring us back to square one.

Aaron J. Golas said...

But Peregrine, we're not talking about a gradual change from within. What right does the west have to call this philosophy "Buddhism," when it's based on a mere part of the actual religion?

Those Wesleyan missionaries didn't go back to Europe saying, "Buddhism has some crazy rituals, but we could totally do something with this philosophy from their scripture." They went back saying, "This is their holy scripture, so everything we need to know about Buddhism must be in here."

Calling this philosophy "Buddhism" perpetuates misunderstanding of the religion.

As for intending to "return the teachings to a philosophical and moral framework, instead of bowing to statues," you've got it backwards. Religion is ritual and belief with some philosophy tacked on over the years, not philosophy with ritual tacked on. Joe Buddhist was burning incense to heal his sick goat long before he was contemplating what place goat-healing held in the nature of the universe. That's not to discredit the philosophy; it's to point out that the philosophy does not make or break Buddhism.

taisen said...

I suspect that the distinction between philosophy and religion that your post relies upon is in itself something of a cultural artefact. (Perhaps even a temporal artefact... since secular philosophy probably isn't even that old in the Western tradition).

The easy answer, as a 'protestant Buddhist' myself, is that yes, Buddhism is a religion... but not as we know it. It's a religion whose founder died saying, "Don't believe me, go and test this shit out for yourself." One of the ways we can tell it's a religion is that there are sets of ethical rules & guidelines... some very extensive, like the Vinaya of the Pali canon, others more succinct, like the five precepts for laypeople of many Mahayana sects (which are intended to be reflected on and interpreted on a case-by-case basis). Fundamentally, though, these are not 'revealed' ethics, they're 'natural' ethics (the Athenians would have loved this shit). They stem from an ontology expressed by the three conditions of being (anatta, annica and dukkha), which posits a world which exists not independently of any element but interdependently of all of them, and it is this interdependent origination of all things that is the source of Buddhist ethics. The difference from a theistic tradition is that there is a methodology that leads to an experiential grasp of the ontology, one isn't ordered to take this on faith. In fact, in my tradition (and not just its Western incarnation, this is fairly orthodox stuff), one's "Great Faith" must be matched by "Great Doubt".

So my 'easy answer' sells Buddhism short. While Buddhism certainly is religious, much of the the shorthand guff that loads this term for us Westerners doesn't apply.

I'd like to correct a couple of your own misconceptions, too, if that's OK. The chanting of the sutras (scriptures) in out-of-date languages does indeed happen in some contexts, but the sutras have also been translated into the language of every country where Buddhism has taken hold, and made available for study & commentary, or where the language is important, the monks & scholars learn to speak the original language (be it Pali or Sanskrit, for example). Even the most iconoclastic Zen masters had years of (probably rather dull) sutra study behind them.

But sure, there's also the usual human nonsense attached to Buddhism like all other religions, the fetishism, etc. But to try to pin it down as either 'religion' or 'philosophy' is just as culturally imperialistic as those rabid, er, I mean, fine young men and women of the Church.

Buddhism has always been a multi-levelled religio-philosipho-thingy, anyway. The Vajrayana sages go on at length about how all the teachings are provisional, and that the Buddha taught different things in different ways to different people, depending on their conditions (cf upaya or skilfull means). So Joe Buddhist burning incense for the goat, is practicing the Buddhism of the peasants which might be focused on the practical applications of compassion in daily life (remember this compassion is underpinned by the very philosophical tenets you say aren't relevant to Joe Buddhist), primarily his family & village, but also, "all sentient beings".

The philosophy absolutely makes or breaks Buddhism. It is indeed the sine qua non... if Joe Buddhist doesn't appreciate that, it's a reflection on his socio-cultural milieu, the power structures inherent in his country and perhaps his sect. But Bikkhu Jack (Joe's brother who went to become a monk at age 13), no matter how much bowing and scraping he does, might well want to argue the point with you, having now been taught to read and write in Pali, and having studied the scriptures for many years! [Sure, there are bad monks, too.] If you take the Buddhism away, things look very different... indeed, in most places outside of India, they look pretty much like animism.

Ben said...

You've made a lot of really good points here, Taisen, and given me quite a bit to think about. As a historian, it's very rarely that I have to consider religions in their modern manifestations, so it's nice to have that bit of very well-reasoned clarification. It's always seemed clear that Buddhism was categorically different from western institutions, but I'd never had the time or inclination to nail down the distinctions in my mind - and certainly not as eloquently.

Also: the fact that you can use "ontology" "bikkhu" and "shit" in the same train of thought not only demonstrates that you clearly know what you're talking about, but also that I like your style [not being sarcastic]. Thanks for posting!

Alex M. said...

Great entry... and I have to agree with the facts of it, though I have a slightly different perspective:

You say that westerners read Buddhist texts, and found a rational voice within them, despite the occultism of Buddhist practitioners...

So why do we say that the westerners are the ones who misunderstand Buddhism? It seems apparent to me that it is a philosophical teaching that acquired ritual and superstition like a snowball. What else would happen to a populist belief for 2500 years?

It is possible Buddhism popped out fully supernatural, but due to the over-rational tone of the original texts (with exceptions), I don't feel this is so.

This isn't much like "interpreting what Christ was really like" if all we have to do is actually read the texts for ourselves.... Only western Buddhists seriously meditate, apparantly, but this isn't exactly a corruption. It's in the pali canon. So who exactly went astray?

The main mistakes a western Buddhist will make is 1. assuming that all Buddhism, indeed most of the traditional religion "Buddhism", is like the rational Zen, etc. of today. and 2. wrapping himself in mysticism because of the prepacked pretense of Buddhism being a religion.

And I'm sure most western Buddhists do make these mistakes. Personally I think the (apparant) theories of the Siddartha Gautama are worthy of understanding like any philosophy. And what do we call the apprehension of this philosophy but "Buddhism". Am I confusing you with the religion that shares this name? Definitions are sometimes difficult, aren't they? :)

Alex M. said...

...though I hadn't yet read some of your responses above which do provide interesting food for thought.... Seems like you've looked into this more than I have.. hmm...

History is a riddle.

Ben said...

Yeah. I just find it a little difficult to think that the Western tradition of interpretation can be the correct one if the religion in question is not a western phenomenon. I would feel the same way if Chinese scholars told us that we've been getting Plato wrong - the "correct" interpretation, if such a thing exists, lies in my mind (the mind of a historian, that is) in the historical usage of those ideas - which has been profoundly religious.

If we take it from a different perspective: there are plenty of people in the modern west who want to go back to Jesus, not as a god, but as a moral exemplar (Thomas Jefferson, for example). Of course, whether Jesus was particularly moral is another question entirely. But is Jesus' moral philosophy the "true" Christianity? Or is Christianity what Christianity DOES - i.e. a religion through and through? If you're interested in philosophy, ways of living the good life, and applying the wisdom of great sages (real or fictive) to your everyday life, then you have the liberty to look at Jesus and Gautama and Krishna through the lens of philosophical and ethical instruction. But if you're interested in social dynamics, history, belief systems, and the like, then you have to privilege practice over creed.

So in this, ultimately, we're in agreement. There is a great deal in the philosophical content of Buddhism that is worthy of study, and this content is in many ways completely divorced from the actual practice of Buddhism for the majority of its history.

Alex M. said...

I would say some people did get Plato wrong... neo-Platonists. In fact, I think we only define them as such because their near-mystical interpretation of Plato is distinct from the popular understanding today...

I wonder what would have happened if the neo-platonists had gained dominance over the western historical record?

Would we see Plato as you are portraying Buddhism? Would cute philisophical interpretations of Plato be seen as as a corruption of something that was orignaly just religion?

Just a thought, anyway.

It's quite possible that Buddhism is just pure-hindu style religion morphed syncretically into atheist-friendly philosophy. (as Alan Watts put it "Hinduism stripped for export")

But even still, can't you say that a way of life has evolved out of this, with very specific practices ("dependently originated" if you will)..... and what do we call it? I still meditate and seek "enlightenment" in a sense. (like Neitschze's Ubermench: not really something that "exists" with a referent in matter.. but a concept of being.. "the good" in western philosophy) What do you call me?

I suggest that Buddhism is like the word "Marxism"... it refers to a set of vocabulary and concepts.... not necessarily the organization working under the leader Karl Marx. You don't need to do exactly what Marx says, you don't even have to do exactly what Marx's immediate followers did.... you are simply using their vocabulary to define certain concepts (might I add that all our concepts are borrowed from others.)


One way to look at Buddhism is a set of practices and beliefs. And you might say that those practices changed between theravadin and zennist, zennist and westerner. Buddhism might look like it had mutated or corrupted under that definition.

But if Buddhism was simply "seeking liberation", "transforming one's life" (through the dichotomy of Buddhism: enlightenment, right effort, etc.), then that concept would be the same in theravadin, mahayana, zen, the west.... there would be no corruption there. The method of achievement is even roughly the same, since it's worshipped by the superstitious and studied by the philosophers.

Let's say that some thought statue worship would bring liberation. Some thought it would be koans. Westerners practice meditation, act in compassion, try to achieve a radical perspective shift, and accept evolution and all that.

I accept 100% the idea that classical Buddhism is misrepresented by its modern popularity, however. But it isn't quite as simple as saying "it's really a religion". It's really just concepts and words passed on.... and those concepts are superstitious when they hit superstitious ears and they are practical philosophical concepts when they hit secular ears. When we're talking about "life conduct", how could it be otherwise?

Religion and philosophy really are just recent artifacts of western thought. (hey I'm with philosophy... my modern western mind can't work any other way... but they both seek the same things originally)


Religions aren't actually one perfect unchanging way of life... that's just what the abrahamic ones would have us believe :) So Buddhism doesn't worship statues anymore.... well it's the 21st century...... why would we?

Alex M. said...

....all that said though.. if I was a historian researching classic Buddhism... this western Zen stuff would be nothing but a nuisance as I was searching the EBSCO or whatever :)

Again, as you are a historian.... I accept your plea that this feels like a misconception of what Buddhism WAS (what is IS to history).

Thomas Bradford Newhall said...

A breath of fresh air. I've had a lot of similar ideas that I couldn't have put more eloquently. Ahh, if only I'd had you as a foil in my religion classes...

Anyway, you may have read it but the book "Curators of the Buddha" by Donald Lopez, ed. Talks about the two issues you are talking about.

I would posit though, that Buddhism as it has come to "the west" (for want of a better term) should be interpreted separately from Buddhism in it's homeland. In short, saying to those American Buddhists "Your Buddhism may not be 'religion' as you define it, but in China, Japan, Korea, et. al., I'm sure you'd find Buddhism quite 'religious.'" Just a thought.

Also, there were missionaries from Oberlin in China as well, though a number of them were killed in the Boxer Uprising.


Ben Cox said...

I have read a bunch of stuff by Don Lopez, but not that particular volume. I'll be sure to check it out as soon as Harvard lets me in to their danged library.

I'd say your schema is something I can get behind. The last thing I'd want to do is disrupt a vibrant and successful community of nonviolent secular humanists who govern their lives according to Buddhist ethical teaching (talk about the need for a concise lexicon!) -- but it is nice when people aren't in the dark about historical realities. It's all about awareness, really.

Thomas Bradford Newhall said...

Ah, so you're going to Harvard, eh? Good luck. Keep an eye out for a guy named Paul Julian in the Philosophy department. He's a friend I met in Taiwan, and would probably love to chat about Buddhism with you.


kailoong said...

If religion is something that everyone practises it, then peeing and shitting is also a religion. Everyone pees and shits, then it must be a religion, so let's call it Peeshit religion and have a special day for it.

Buddha had never said his teaching is a religion. Many people said Buddhism is their religion for simplicity sake. How many people want a normal conversation to become a interlectual discussion bout belief? Instead of debating whether it's a religion, teaching, way of life, philoshophy, why not just spend the time improving mankind and ourself's well being.


Ben Cox said...

I think you miss my point, Kailoong. I'm concerned about the people who *don't* call Buddhism a religion, not the ones who do. And not even that: I'm concerned about American Buddhist Modernists who think that Buddhism has always been a non-religion. It's the historical inaccuracy of the claim that bothers me, nothing more.

In fact, I find much to admire in Buddhist Modernism. It, like Humanistic Judaism, is (or can be) a way of keeping the semblance of a religion without making any claims that violate the laws of physics. You can have a Buddhism without the supernatural much more easily than you can have, say, a Christianity - and many many modern Buddhists are doing that. And I support that completely.

But, as a historian, I just want people to understand that the Buddhism of modern America is very different than the Buddhism of 6th century Ceylon - and we do a disservice to early Buddhists by reading our own beliefs onto them.

As for shitting, I could make a flippant remark about how I'm at my most pious when I'm on the john, but I'll refrain. Nowhere did I claim that religion is simply what people do. What I do mean to say is that no definition of a religion is possible without taking religious actions into account. Defecation doesn't count as a religious action unless you routinely chant the Nembutsu while taking a leak. If you do, please feel free to get in touch with me, because I'm in need of a dissertation topic.