In recent years, there’s been an on-going debate, or perhaps it should be called a discussion, over whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy. I always say that while Buddhism obviously embraces both religion and philosophy, it goes beyond them. It’s a path, a Way, and I think it is unique, which I suppose makes me a believer in Buddhist exceptionalism.
My attention was drawn yesterday to a 2007 interview in Tricycle with Robert Sharf, a professor at Berkeley. Sharf has some opinions about the religion vs. philosophy controversy, and evidently he has some issues with modern Buddhism that writer Andrew Cooper sums up this way:
Sharf’s critique of Buddhist modernism stems from a belief that we cannot reduce Buddhism to a simple set of propositions and practices without in some way distorting our sense of its wholeness and complexity. For Sharf, understanding a religious tradition demands not only familiarity with contemporary practice but also a willingness to enter into dialogue with what is historically past and culturally foreign. To participate in such a dialogue we need knowledge of the context in which the tradition is embedded and an ability to see past the presuppositions of our own time and place. Clearing the ground, as it were, for this dialogue with tradition is the job of critical scholarly practice in religious life.”
I couldn’t agree more. The only problem is that most people could care less about Buddhism’s historical past, and at best have only a passing interest in its cultural roots. They may not even be interested in becoming enlightened. They just want to meditate or chant, get some peace of mind, find a tool to help cope with problems, or experience just a small measure of happiness.
So what is to be done? Tell folks they can’t meditate unless they study Buddhist history? Insist that as a qualification for becoming a Buddhist, you must master all the teachings within the tradition you’ve associated yourself with? Naturally, that’s absurd. The right approach is a Middle Way approach, one that is accommodating to the needs of different individuals and their interests. Even so, Sharf’s point about understanding the context of Buddhism should be given some deliberation.
The logic of Buddha-dharma is Eastern, and therefore, contrasts, and at times, even conflicts with with Western logical thinking. Having a sense of the historical and culture context of Buddhism helps individuals navigate through this and reduces misunderstanding. It shouldn’t be mandatory, though. People should be able to feel they can come into Buddhism without being saddled with stuff they don’t want. We need to find better ways of presenting dharma in a Western context that doesn’t leave it diluted, detoured, or destroyed.
Sharf places the bulk of his criticism of Buddhist modernism with the Buddhism of a hundred or so years ago, when it was first introduced to the West. I get the impression that he feels the major players at that time, both Eastern and Western, mishandled some of the dharma and their flawed take remains embedded with Western Buddhism today.
I agree with much of what Sharf has to say, for instance that “There is also a kind of arrogance in claiming that Buddhism is not so much a religion as it is the path to the truth behind all religions.” It’s not. All religious philosophies do not point to One truth. They are not all the same, nor all they all equal. Buddhism does not lead to the same truth as Christianity. Although there are points where they may intersect, Buddhism and Christianity are entirely different paths. I’m not sure I’d call it arrogance. Seems more like confusion to me.
On the other hand, I disagree with a number of his comments about attempts to make Buddhism compatible with science, but I also realize that it’s not important for Buddhism to be compatible with science.
On a slightly different subject, he says that “[When] we downplay ritual, we risk weakening our bonds to community and tradition. That’s a pretty major loss.” Not really. The sangha during the Buddha’s time had a terrific sense of community, and very little ritual. Most Buddhist ritualism came long after the Buddha departed the scene.
One important point Sharf makes is about the emphasis on “experience,” such as kensho, satori, realizing high states of attainment like sotapatti, or “stream entry” – experiences we can place under the heading of “sudden enlightenment.” Even though many of these concepts date back to early Buddhism, the modern preoccupation with them is a dangerous trend because it gives people the impression that meditation is a quick fix. When they find out it isn’t, they often give up. Frequently, I hear people say that meditation is boring. Yeah, it is. And hard, too. However, the point of meditation is not to have some attainment but to change yourself, to cultivate (bhavana) a better person. When people give up because it’s not easy, they miss out on the real the benefit of practice that could have been theirs.
According to Sharf, when “primacy is given to individual spiritual experience”, something is lost. Here I think he is talking about experience in a different context than that discussed in the above paragraph. And what gets lost? He says, “The sangha gets lost! The community gets lost.” Personally, I don’t feel that Buddhism is really about community. It’s about the teachings, the dharma, and the ultimate transformation of the individual who practices dharma.
This is why the Buddha taught “enlightenment by one’s own efforts” and advised his followers to “be lamps unto themselves, relying upon themselves only and not relying upon any external help.” Practice must include others, but not necessarily in any organized sense, rather more in the way that one person lights a lamp within themselves, and then helps the next person light their lamp.
I’m not suggesting that community isn’t helpful, even essential, for it is difficult to maintain a practice without the camaraderie and mutual encouragement found in a sangha.
Things do get lost in modern Buddhism. Michael McGhee, a senior lecturer in philosophy at Liverpool University, who has weighed into this discussion of religion vs. philosophy with a more recent article, “Is Buddhism a religion?” makes a point about the effort to de- mythologize or secularize Buddhism that I feel is worth calling to your attention:
But it is one thing to seek to liberate Buddhist practice from unsustainable or unbelievable worldviews and another to reduce it to a mere technique, even one that is therapeutic. The usual culprit is the calming technique that makes it easier to carry out the bombing run or makes one a more sharply predatory capitalist. The reason one might want to say that meditation has been reduced to a technique is that it has lost its essential rootedness as a practice of ethical preparation.”
In my experience, ethics is an aspect of dharma that too often falls by the wayside in favor of other topics. I especially wonder about the more secular Buddhists (I don’t know if “Secular Buddhism” really exists off the Internet), and with behavioral medicine programs such as Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which I have no experience with – I wonder to what extent, if any, ethics in all the various forms of modern Buddhism is de-emphasized.
Because ethics is a synonym for morality, it has a negative connotation for many people. After all, one of the motivations for some to seek out Buddhism is frustration over the excessive moralizing of their previous religion. But we should never lose sight of the fact that Buddhism was among the first spiritual teachings in India to place an emphasis on moral conduct. It is not enough, the Buddha maintained, to merely practice meditation and reject materialism; one should also strive to lead a moral, upright life.
Ethics (sila) is one of the three pillars of Buddhism; the other two being meditation (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna). When ethics is left out, the dharma becomes lopsided.
Meditation helps balance the mind so that the influence of the roots of unwholesome mental states are counteracted. Wisdom is knowing the right thing to do, understanding the value of virtuous acts and the folly of non-virtuous ones. That, at least, is their most basic operations.
The Sanskrit word sila literally means “behavior,” and the real benefit to be derived from meditation and wisdom is a change in behavior, or in the Buddha’s words, “to avoid negative actions, and do actions that are good.” Thus, ethics in Buddhism is the result of meditation and wisdom, and without it, neither dharma nor practice is complete.
Well, that is more than enough for now. I hope I offered some thoughts worthy of your consideration, and thanks for reading The Endless Further.