There is no Pure Buddhism

Several topics have been bouncing around my head lately all somewhat revolving around the above idea: there is no pure Buddhism.

  1. All Buddhism is syncretic (borrows from multiple traditions sources). The Buddha himself was syncretic, the Abhidhammists/Abhidharmists were syncretic (see Noa Ronkin’s recent great work, Early Buddhist Metaphysics), early Mahayana, as far as we can tell, was syncretic, and so on and so forth. So when scholars or others point at Tantric Buddhism and say, “that’s not Buddhism, but a syncretic blend of…” they’re simply missing out on the history of Buddhism.

    Today in a Buddhist Studies group discussion, the notion of Tantric Theravada came up. Based on how many of us are taught Buddhism that would be a contradiction in terms, but it exists (in Thailand in this case, I believe).

    That’s not to say we can’t get close to an idea of what Candrakirti or Dogen or the Buddha really taught and understood (as opposed to the (mis)-understandings of some of their followers). That’s what scholarship is all about, and indeed a great number of practitioners will engage in the same kind of work: dissecting texts, looking for clues to abnormalities, trying to judge why different ideas are presented at different times, perhaps discovering and demonstrating that certain ‘teachings’ held to be authentic are in fact apocryphal, and so on.
    I don’t know the history of Biblical scholarship all that well, but there were periods when scholars either searched for “the historical Jesus” or, at the other extreme, suggested that there is no real evidence for us to even talk about Jesus having existed. Today it seems that scholars of Buddhism are riding the same wave.

  2. The word ‘tradition’ is fuzzy. My thanks to Erick’s comment on my post on Buddhist Modernism for spurring this on. Next time you’re listening to someone talk about Buddhism and they drop the word tradition, or traditional, ask them exactly what they mean by that. If they say that “traditionally, Thailand is a Thearavada only country” ask if that means there is no Mahayana, or never was any, or if there are any Mahayana influences on the Theravada today… Odds are, unless they’re fairly well versed on Thai Buddhism, they’ll either pound some sort of party line: Thai Buddhism is and always was Theravada! Or they’ll get get a bit uncomfortable…

    Often, appeals to tradition are just dropped as if they should not be questioned; and yet the vagueness of ‘tradition’ makes such appeals at least border on Argumentum ad verecundiam – which is precisely why they should be  poked and prodded.

  3. And another tiny thought on McMahan’s book… While he suggests that Buddhist Modernists have borrowed from aspects of (primarily) 19th century Western thought in recent times, it may be just as much the case, if not more that Buddhist Modernists have simply been reacting to the same geo-political, intellectual, and economic circumstances that Westerners faced 200 years ago.That is to say, taking the ‘nature/environmental thought’ example I used in my recent post, that it might not be the case that much of Buddhist Modernism has anything to do with Western Romantics or Transcendentalists in terms of any verifiable causal relationship. It may be rather that the Romantics and Transcendentalists were responding to features like rapid economic change, social upheaval, and understandings of global networks in much the same way as Asian Buddhists of the 20th and 21st centuries have. All of these rapid changes simply occurred later in most of Asia, allowing for the appearance of causal connections between the resulting changes in popular ideology.

    To put it in simpler terms (for some), McMahan has presented a Hegelian – “flow of the Geist, or Spirit of Ideas” model, while I would suggest a more Marxist, ground-up understanding. Look at the physical conditions that produced these waves of thought, instead of treating history like a bunch of disembodied thinking things.

    Another example that might help my case is that of the secularization of Britain and Japan. It’s not the case that European secular ideas influenced Japan after WWII, but rather that Japan’s similar experience of the horrors of ideologically fueled warfare and subsequent calm and economic boom led to a more secular state just as it did in much of Europe. Of course the many factors involved are incredibly complex, which is why I would probably not dare venture into attempting to prove such a thesis even in a very long book.

  4. There is no privileged position from which to describe Buddhism – or any religious phenomenon, for that matter. In today’s Buddhologist gathering, we examined a chapter of Gavin Flood’s Beyond Phenomenology: Rethinking the Study of Religion. With a title like that… I’ll let you complete the sentence. In any case we get a good overview of the history of ways of studying religion and potential flaws in them.  It brings me back, a bit, to a post I wrote here (as well as at Progressive Buddhism) about modes of authenticity in Buddhism. It’s still a rather unformed thesis there and now, but essentially, there are various ways to understand truth-claims. I had written that the “Spiritual” dimension – or here, “phenomenological” or experiential – was not really a realm for scholars to worry too much about. I suppose that in a sense that is wrong, insofar as scholars ARE looking at the experiential claims of Buddhists. They aren’t looking at them to determine whether they are true, but rather to determine whether claims about experiences are a part of Buddhist tradition :) or whether they represent a relatively new phenomenon in Buddhism.But I digress. The upshot of the study, for me, was something that I have long thought to be necessary in any kind of scholarship: to look at the topic from various perspectives. If you’re talking about Zen sitting practice, find the doctrinal sources, interview monks about their experience, and do comparative analysis with coexisting/competing traditions. There is no one source that will give the definitive truth of what is going on.  Too often people, from practitioners to Post-modernists get on a hobby-horse about having the definitive and complete explanation of a broad and diverse religious phenomenon. They simplify it down to “all x is y” in some appealing rhetoric and support it with various examples, conveniently leaving out the problematic counterexamples. But little in life really holds up to such simple/simplistic “all x is y” categorization.

    Life is messy. Religion is messier.

    And the study of living religion, by living beings: an utter shitstorm, kid.

  • Marique

    This post is very freeing and wise. That adds to my happiness : ) I very much agree with 3: I too feel we are all participants in the same Zeitgeist – which becomes clearer every time when arriving in a new era, leaving it. And eventually we all keep finding out the same truth to a certain extend – although not all stretch their thinking beyond current or next lives ; ) Hahaha, knowing the messy sh**storms :D Participant observing is a way ; ) Welcoming the fertile sh** to grow beautiful flowers ;D No need even to sow – wild flowers arise with ease…

    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks, Marique.

  • Dion Peoples

    Funny how this showed up in my Google newsfeed!!! Amazing. I have my PhD in Buddhism, but my work never seems to be read by anyone, not even on Facebook. 120+ articles… nobody ever says anything about any of them… forces the feelings of being irrelevant. I suppose I should jump off FB, and start a blog or something and just make myself a public-person? I got tons of opinions, but usually Buddhists are looking for what the Buddha says, and people don’t give a ___ about what I say. Funny how I can get more comments on FB for posting an music-video, but few comments when I propose a tough question on Buddhism. I’m not a game-player as you know… I don’t know how these other people are becoming famous-Buddhists… and I toil in obscurity, like a forest-monastic. It’s just funny that I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I am unknown… and You SHOW UP in GOOGLE NEWS!!! Congrats, Brother… really! #peace!

    • Justin Whitaker

      Heya Dion – don’t short-change yourself. You’re doing great work in Thailand teaching, organizing, and raising a family. I’d love to see you start a blog too though, if time allows.

  • http://RichGriese.NET Rich Griese

    I am not interested in the supernaturalism of Christianity, but am very interested in the study of the early history of the group. I am always happy to talk to others that are also interested in this topic. My interest specifically is up till perhaps a generation or two after Irenaeus. But I would say I am interested in anything from the Maccabean revolt up till about 384CE when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET/religion

  • Mark Van Cleve

    Would the Buddha be a Buddhist, according to what Buddhism is for most of the world’s Buddhists, in 2011? I would say no. He was pretty clear that we shouldn’t believe anything just because he said so, and that alone I think precludes the religion that his movement has become.

  • http://buddhaspace.blogspot.com G

    Excellent post, Justin. There are elements in Buddhist teachings & practices (such as the Four Noble Truths & samatha-vipassana meditation) that might be deemed basic or central to the Dhamma & Vinaya, or ‘Buddhism’), but as you write, Buddhism is by its very nature syncretic, so the search for a ‘pure’ Buddhism is probably a forlorn one.

    Thankfully, for those of us not so concerned with the search for the academic ‘truth’ concerning Buddhism, this shouldn’t way too heavily on our minds, as long as the form of Buddhism we practice will “lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding.” (SN 56.31: Simsapa Sutta) May we all, “Walk on!”

    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks, G. I know there are many aspects, most clearly in the Pali suttas, that I would call ‘original/central/etc’ – but I’m also open to many of these being questioned (at least a bit open). I really enjoyed R. Gombrich’s recent works that have tried to show that metta alone could suffice in liberation for the Buddha, contrary to what later tradition came to think. And now J. Bronkhorst is suggesting that the Buddha grew up outside the influence of Brahmanism in “Greater Magadha” (at least that’s what I understand from a couple second-hand accounts.

      And while these may not rock the boat too much outside of a tiny dinghy in academia, traditions of practice in Buddhism have never been completely divorced from scholars… What if we find an authentic new sutta in which the Buddha says we should LIGHT PEOPLE ON FIRE? Okay, probably not going to happen, but still – we walk on in flux-filled times.

  • http://www.averagebuddhist.com Barbara Arboleda

    The inherent problem with studying any religion is the fact that these great religious leaders lived so darn long ago. All we have is what their students passed down. Even as a singing teacher I am intimately familiar with how easy it is for students to misunderstand things…The teachings of all of the world’s most practiced religions have passed through so many hands and been filtered through so many cultures that knowing the “truth” is impossible (if it is even desirable at all).

  • Gary

    There is no miss communication between what the Vinaya & Sutta Piṭaka is trying to convey to us the students.
    If there is a so called “authentic new sutta” it is quite easy to see if its really authentic or not based on what it says and the subject it is trying to touch on.
    Within all the suttas it does not contradict what the whole theme of what the Buddha is saying.
    The Majjhima Nikaya, Anguttara Nikaya & Samyutta Nikaya are the best source to start off with before jumping in to “authentic new suttas”
    one should also remember that the Buddha “before the breaking up of the 5 aggregates” had told his students 2600 years ago that his teachings were complete.

  • http://my.opera.com/songha123/about/ Jan

    Hi, baue doch Flattr Schalter ein. Ich würde was spenden :)

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