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?