Imposing (and Uncovering) Models on Buddhism

I am often asked “why ‘impose’ Western models of thought on Buddhism?” as if discussing the nature of Buddhist philosophy or ethics is some sort of new colonialist/imperialist activity. The fact is, the Buddha used countless models, analogies, and illustrative examples in his teachings. We are given numerous lists: the 2 extremes, the 4 Noble Truths, the Noble 8-fold Path, and the 12-fold knowledge and vision concerning the Truths; and all of that is in his first sermon/sutta. The image of a ‘path’ (magga) is heavily used in his teaching, and later, in the 5th century compiler Buddhaghosa’s great work, the Visuddhimagga: Path of Purification.

Early in my philosophy career I learned to look for signs of the embodied nature of our lived experience, even in our philosophy – which some people sadly treat as a sort of disembodied enterprise. And a conversation last week with my friend Dave Webster rekindled some of my thought in that area. If you’re interested in this topic from a contemporary Western perspective, read Philosophy in the Flesh : The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thoughtby George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. A book that brought the point home to me even more viscerally was William McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples, which tells the history of humanity through the lens of disease. John Powers’ Bull of a Man, about the Buddha, covers some similar territory in terms of imagery, gender and the body in Buddhist thought.

The first book teaches us to listen to our language. See the physical structure of countless words and phrases. Why do we call a ‘point’ a point? Well, like a spear, it’s the most imporant part of a bit of conversation. All of the other stuff behind it serves to support it, but if it’s dull or weak, it has all been for nothing. What about something being ‘brought home’? Well, we encounter so many things in our daily life, how many are important enough for us to literally bring them home? And once it’s there, it’s likely to stay with us, right? And viscerally? It’s from the latin viscera, plural of viscus, an internal part of the abdomen. Those who have been to India or other high-disease areas know just how imporant the proper functioning of that part of our body is. And disease aside, that part of the body is somehow closely connected to many of our emotions.

The second book, Plagues and Peoples, looks through history an asks how illnesses, such as those faced in India today, might have created many of the social and religious taboos and beliefs still held today. A simple example is the notion of purity. It wasn’t always just that “cleanliness is next to Godliness” as I was told as a kid. Not too long ago cleanliness was essential for staying alive. People with poorer hygiene (whether by custom, choice, or availability), even today, simply don’t live as long and are often more sickly than those with greater hygiene – in general. This was especially true when people encountered new populations of people (who in turn carried their own populations of parasites, bacteria, etc). McNeill discusses the development of ‘ritual cleansing’ that had to take place whenever someone of the Brahmin caste met an outsider. This helped prevent the passing of a new disease from that outsider to the Brahmin. Despite this working at least to some extent, many outsiders, and those within communities who worked in areas deemed too impure, were deemed ‘untouchable’ (see Dalit). So the problem of an exchange of disease was transformed into a ritual and was transformed into official religious belief and discrimination.

The Buddha’s Copernican Revolution was to re-envision purity as an internal trait. It is not one’s family that makes one a Brahmin (noble person in this case), but rather his deeds. And what are deeds, essentially? Intentions are our deeds. So we become pure not by ritual performance or avoiding “polluting” people or places, but rather by cleansing the mind of its defilements. It’s little wonder, then, that Buddhism has become such an attractive path for so many Dalits, especially in recent history.

The models we use today may be different from older ones: rebirth made sense in many societies that had regular, almost law-like, seasons; but it doesn’t make so much sense in areas – like England, grumble grumble – where one could have a moderate winter, warm spring, cool wet summer, and warm fall and one’s life and livelihood would hardly change from one so-called season to the next.  That is a bit conjectural on my part, but I have heard it thrown out many times by trusted scholars – at least about the cyclical nature of life-death-rebirth perhaps mirroring India’s weather. The more linear model we have in the West didn’t, of course, arise from England, but weather where it did develop may have had a similar formative effect. I suppose that might be the next book to write, or read if it’s already been written.

In any case, all of this points back to the fact that we (humans) tend to think and communicate by way of embodied models. Think of this as you read the Buddha’s teachings. I know Stephen Batchel or has dug into some of the models that the Buddha used in his Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, but he really just scratches the surface. And instead of worrying too much about the impossition of models on Buddhism – go see for yourself what is already there and ask, does this work? Does it help to shed light on my own experience or understanding of life? How could this be better communicated today in different parts of the world to people of different backgrounds?

  • Vladislav

    Thanks for the interesting links. About weather changing and the theory of rebirth, I can’t agree that it has it roots in Indiand change of seasons, because in India it’s quite monotonous process, contrastically not alike to the seasons in North European part. Talking about it, the season changing in Russia with it’s strictly continental climat is the one with very contrast extreams. But there is no any rebirth theory in Russian mithology.
    These days I’m reading BAtchelor’s “Confessions…” and I don’t find it scratching the surface, but thanks anyway.

  • Gregory Wonderwheel

    Well, I imagine that the very idea that the “Four Noble Truths” might be a “model” is very controversial among some Buddhists, whom I would call “fundamentalist” in their view of this question. One of the essential points of the Mahayana Ekayana (Great Vehicle One Vehicle) view of Buddha Dharma is that all verbal teachings are at best only models and as such are skillful expedient means of teaching Buddha Dharma and as expedient means they are not to be mistaken for Buddha Dharma itself.

    As for rebirth, I think it is an intellectual error by the so-called “trusted scholars” to reify it into some kind of seasonal origination. The notion of rebirth comes from the actual psychic experiences of meditators, mystics, and shamans. To discount this as if rebirth is just a philosophical deduction from observing seasons is a bias imposed by the model of Western materialism. If a person has not experienced past life recall, then there is no basis for another person to speculate as to how that recall is experienced. That is, rebirth is not based on any kind of objective study or observation of nature and extrapolating that into a model, but is based on memory itself, the memory of past lives that arise in the deepest meditation and most profound mystic experiences.

    Scholars are notoriously stupid when it comes to understanding transmundane, transcendental, or depth experiences. It would be far more fruitful to look at the archetypal psychology of Carl Jung (including his diary of his own depth experiences in the recently published Red Book) to understand the origins of rebirth as arising from the psychic field and not from such things as objective considerations of the seasons.

    I agree wholeheartedly (which is a word-model worth exploring) that the question of embodiment is essential to the Buddha Dharma. The body-map or body-model that we construct in our consciousness is essential to out illusion of self-image. We can see this starkly evident in what is known as the “phantom limb syndrome.” Even whn a limb is lost we can still believe it is there and still “feel” it. This shows us that the embodied nature of our lived experience is very largely constructed by our body mapping and that what goes for our body mapping equally goes for our world mapping. The construction of our body-view and our world-view together make up the construction of our self-image and our delusional belief in the model of a separate self.

    Meditation is an effective way to melt the constructed body-view of our self-image that is embodied as our body-map. It is sometimes said that the body contains or stores memories, but from the other view it is memories that construct and store the body. The True Body is the body that is not determined by “inside and outside,” “self and other,” etc. Buddha taught that the True Body is “pure” because it is not affected or contained by the mundane notions of “purity and impurity.” That is, we don’t “become pure” by cleansing the mind of its defilements, the True Body is inherently pure because it is not stained by dualistic concepts like purity and impurity.

    So “cleansing the mind of defilements” means seeing through the mind’s constructtion of models that are based on the inherent dualistic or polarizing structure of consciousness. We are able to have a world view, a body map, and a self image, that is any and every kind of model, exactly because of the polarizing function of consciousness that constructs the model out of the oppositions of the mind’s sensations, perceptions and mental formations. Cleansing the mind of defilements doesn’t mean becoming pure without impurity, but in seeing that there is no model of purity that does not necessarily rely on impurity for its construction.