Toward a (Good) Buddhist Fundamentalism

Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock discuss Buddhism in London, 2012

Buddhist scholar/teachers have a laugh at being called Fundamentalists (Stephen Batchelor on the left and John Peacock on the right with Madeleine Bunting, Associate Editor at the Guardian, in the middle).

I thought about calling this post “Is Buddhist Fundamentalism like Christian Fundamentalism?” But after seeing that the bulk of the discussion was clearly on Buddhism, and in fact supporting a sort of “Buddhist Fundamentalism” I thought I’d change the title.

I have, on some occasions, been accused of being a “Buddhist Fundamentalist” over the past few years; usually for suggesting such things as the need to get back to the texts and exact meanings of key terms in order to understand the Buddha’s teaching in a certain place, or in suggesting that certain schools of Buddhism seem to depart radically from what the Buddha taught.

When I do either of these, I am implicitly assuming that “what the Buddha taught” is limited – the Buddha is/was not a divine being capable of giving teachings throughout history. He was a man who lived about 80 years and taught for 45 of those years.

I also assume that the best access to what he taught is in texts. I’m not naive in thinking that the texts ‘preserve’ anything like a perfect historical record, but it’s reasonable to believe that many of the historical events that happened in them actually happened. Much of this is corroborated by other texts and epigraphical evidence. There were kings such-and-such, and teachers such-and-such, and the historical Buddha – and they all did, to some extent, interact.

Buddhism, like Christianity, is amazingly diverse. It has 2400 years of history, has spanned the globe, and can be found in dozens of canonical languages, many of which are extinct today. Some suggest that due to this we should talk about Buddhisms (and, I would guess, Christianities). As a student of Buddhist philosophy, and perhaps more so as a lover of common sense, this strikes me as utterly ridiculous. All things are composed of diverse parts.

It is through language, conventional truth, that we create and use universal identifier such as ‘Buddhism’, ‘car’, and ‘computer’. If I talk about the history of the personal computer and you think I am speaking of the one sitting in front of you, and only that one, as if it represents perfectly every other PC in the world, you are, to be frank, an idiot. And in fact, you may be frustrated when I talk about things that don’t apply well to your PC, such as the development of the mouse (mine has a trackpad!). In fact a great lecture on the personal computer may not ever say anything about your particular computer.

This is often how Buddhists today react when they see/read something about “Buddhism” that doesn’t focus (enough) on their own form of Buddhism, or doesn’t self-qualify enough by saying “I’m covering certain generalities…” All too often, name-calling ensues.

But what is “Buddhist Fundamentalism?”

Buddhist fundamentalism, as discussed below (in the vide0) and often in cyberspace, is the privileging of ancient texts, almost always the Pali Canon, over everything since, including the beliefs and practices of contemporary Buddhists everywhere. It is, as Gregory Schopen recently described, “Bullshit to the 3rd power” (I’ll cover this in a separate post soon). “Bullshit to the 3rd power” is, more specifically according to Schopen, any discussion of “what the Buddha really meant.”

And this does seem to be the main concern of Buddhist Fundamentalists like Batchelor and Peacock.

The point that Peacock (one of my teachers during my MA days in Bristol) makes in responding to the question posed about being a Fundamentalist is excellent: that those who are concerned with understanding the early texts do so in conversation with tradition, not in isolation.The second part of his statement is a bit more controversial, that getting us back to the early texts gets us to a (mythical?) time before dogma.

This is however very different from the dogmatisms of other religions, namely Christianity and Islam, isn’t it? For Buddhism, at least according to Batchelor, Peacock (and myself to some degree), getting back to the ‘fundamentals’ means getting to a sort of pragmatic psychology which is meant to address universal human ethical concerns. For Christianity, there is usually the same ‘getting back to’ elements, but these are usually restricted to Jesus’s saying that “I am the truth, the way…. only though me….” and some of Paul’s writings and then an assortment of Old Testament ‘laws’ that support their own particular brand of restrictive morality.

Buddhist Fundamentalists (who might be one of those categories of people you can count on the fingers of one hand) aren’t people you should really worry about. They (we?) seem to believe that Buddhism’s most important thing is… the Buddha – and his teachings. And that the best way to them is the Pali Canon (though comparisons with existing Sanskrit/Chinese versions of the suttas are great). They acknowledge that the texts we have are ‘of a later date’ but also believe that oral preservation in India was as much a science as it was an art and thus trust that most of the teachings attributed to the historical Buddha did in fact come from a historical person: Bho (dear) Gotama, the wanderer, the Tathagata, the Buddha; and that we can use the differentiations in the many different versions to learn more both about the different historical circumstances of the different schools, and, perhaps even to discover mistakes in the texts that the tradition has taken to be most authentic.

Buddhist Fundamentalists are critical of the whole tradition, which includes the texts themselves, the early commentaries, and everything after – including contemporary Western Buddhists. And Fundamentalist Buddhists aren’t exclusively Western. I’ve met several Buddhists from Asia that share this ideal of getting back to the basics. In fact, many discussions of “Buddhist Modernism” in Asia or “Protestant Buddhism” discuss just this trend.

One of my own hobby-horses to note in all of this is the sense in which this is not all terribly new. Buddhists have been reinventing and defending and justifying themselves and appealing to the ‘original’, ‘early’, ‘true’, and/or ‘authentic’ teachings for about as long as Buddhism has been around. So while many Westerners are getting involved in this “return to the original” Buddhism thing, it is not because of Westerners that it exists. We can call it “Protestant” because it reminds us of Protestant Christians, and many will draw explicitly from the reasoning and strategies of Protestant theologians, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that all of this looking backward to find a truer present is caused by Protestant Christians or the Buddhist encounter with the West.

Getting back to Schopen, haven’t Buddhists, throughout history, always been concerned with – and happy to debate about – what the Buddha really meant?

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  • jacob


  • Doug

    Excellent post. I think that one of the reasons why I focus on the early Canon is that I find it some of the most tractable: clear, down-to-earth, compelling. That is to say, the mere fact that it is earlier than material from other sources isn’t alone sufficient to say it’s what should be of interest. (Other people will find other traditions to their liking, which is to be expected).

    I’d be interested to hear more about other traditions that “appeal[ed] to the ‘original’, ‘early’, ‘true’, and/or ‘authentic’ teachings”, since I think focusing on such appeals could demonstrate a disconnect between good Buddhist “fundamentalism” and protestant varieties with which it will be compared.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks, Doug. It’s been a while since I’ve read Mahayana texts directly (2 years probably, yikes). But most, if not all, will spend some time ‘validating’ or ‘authenticating’ their teachings by showing that it is in line with prior Buddhist orthodoxy, i.e. the Buddha. Look at chapter 24 of Nagarjuan’s MMK, for instance: – the first 23 chapters (upon my cursory review) is all his own stuff; although it is couched in familiar Buddhist terminology and follows lines of thought from the Buddha himself, explicit links are not mentioned. Then in ch 24 he makes it clear: I’m just saying what the Buddha said. Likewise in Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, he consistently refers (though without footnotes!) to earlier sutras where the Buddha said x or y. Some sutras are going to be ‘forged’ or put in the mouth of the Buddha (heart sutra, filial piety sutra, e.g.), but this in itself suggests the authority given to the Buddha. A great idea, in Buddhism, is one that can be coordinated with received wisdom, not one that is just good in itself. This, at least, has been the tradition.

      • Doug

        It’s been a very long time since I read through the MMK, but I do recall hearing recently in a talk that Nagarjuna quoted precisely one sutta. Perhaps this is incorrect, but at least it’s clear that Nagarjuna was not a close textual exegetic. As to the ‘forged’ texts: while they do demonstrate a continuing reverence for the person of the Buddha, they don’t show (at least to my eyes) the same reverence for the Canon. So in that sense they would be the opposite of traditions that appealed to ‘authentic’ teachings; indeed, they were making up their own. Right? In that context, appeal to authenticity seems little more than rhetoric. But anyhow my knowledge of the Mahayana is very rusty and I am sure there is plenty I’m missing.

        • Justin Whitaker

          I think your point brings us the the notion that there were competing notions of what constituted ‘authentic’. Mahayanists often quote the Buddha as having said, “all that is well spoken is Buddhavacana (Buddha-speech).”

          But that doesn’t get them around your suggestion of ‘mere rhetoric’ when it came to attributing new sutras to the Buddha. Why do this? Commentarial traditions arose quickly (I’m not sure when we would date the first ‘commentaries’ in various traditions, but this would itself be an interesting discussion); so anything honestly coming from a monk or nun’s own ideas could/should have been properly attributed to him/her. The fact is, there are so many interesting directions such a discussion could go: the value/place of suttas taught by chief disciples and ‘authenticated’ by the Buddha, the various traditions’ understanding of the Abhidhamma/dharma, and the development of a very idea of a ‘Canon’ (which wasn’t a ‘thing’ in their world at all – another one of those Western inventions placed on Buddhism as ‘we’ ‘discovered’ it in the colonial era!)… There’s plenty I’m missing too, but in any case it’s an exciting area of study…

          • Doug

            Yes! Definitely very exciting.
            But I am suspicious of any who would say that the very idea of a ‘canon’ is a wholly western phenomenon. The notion of an ‘authentic’ dharma or practice, it seems to me, is as inherent in Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana, whatever) as it is in any developed religion.
            Though I think to work this out, to tease out the distinctions between the various conceptions of authenticity, would take many years of work. If you have any thoughts on it, I’m all ears.

            • Justin Whitaker

              Yes, calling it wholly a Western idea is pushing it too far (I’ve been reading too much from certain scholars lately…). No thoughts now, unfortunately – but likewise, I’d be happy to hear yours if the topic comes up in your writing at some point.

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  • atomic geography

    Well said.

    But I also think we should give equivalent authority to the oral lineage, teacher to student as the the means to learning what the Buddha said. After all, he spoke it, not wrote his teachings. He didn’t have someone transcribing his teachings, maybe going over the text and ammending it later. And he taught for 45 years. Time enough to test the understanding of his students.

    We priveldge text over oral for a variety of reasons.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Indeed – scholars today over-privilege the written word, and many are working to fix this, especially in anthropology departments. And my sense is that people doing religious studies are (more and more) aware of the need to be very multi-disciplinary in our approach.

  • Robert M Ellis

    Hi Justin,
    I’m sure you know this and are just being provocative, but the sense you are using ‘fundamentalism’ here has nothing to do with the way it is used in Religious Studies, and I think you should point this out more explicitly. Fundamentalism doesn’t just mean appealing to religious texts, but taking them as an absolute source of literal truth. In Islam it doesn’t even mean just that (otherwise pretty much all Muslims would be ‘fundamentalists’ except Tariq Ramadan), but also requires a conservative interpretation of the tradition of interpretation and practice. Your usage could be extra confusing in relation to Buddhism because there are real Sinhalese Buddhist fundamentalists in Sri Lanka. I disagree with the approach to Buddhism you outline, but would never call it ‘fundamentalist’.

    What you don’t seem to address here are some more important questions. Why should trying to establish the original teachings of the Buddha be the most useful thing for Buddhist thinkers to be doing? And why does it arrogate to itself complete dominance of academic Buddhist studies to the exclusion of other approaches? The vast majority of time in Buddhist Studies (in my experience) the importance of the textual interpretation project, and the rightness of the scholarly tradition, is just assumed without discussion. And the vast majority of the time the underlying philosophical and practical issues are not addressed at all. That’s not fundamentalism, but it is narrow and dogmatic.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Hi Robert – good points and thanks for the comment. My use of ‘fundamentalist’ is taken pretty much from Peacock (and the other two) in the video. I agree that it’s not the usual way that the term is used, but it is being used (I’ve encountered similar use of it in the past).

      The term ‘fundamentalist’, much like ‘cult’, is going to have different connotations depending on when and how it is used. Part of my post’s intent was to suggest that a ‘Buddhist’ Fundamentalism, if there is such a thing in scholars like Peacock, is going to be very little like a Christian (or Islamic) Fundamentalism.

      Those questions are indeed important, and perhaps perennial. But the first: If there was such a being – a historical Buddha – who could have said much of what is purported and these words were of such a power to convert whole nations and countless billions of people, changing the course of history in Asia and no doubt the world, then we should be curious about this being – the historical Buddha. Right now the figure of the Buddha is encased in a great deal of historical fog. We can see more clearly what his followers were like a few hundred or thousand years later, but we can only get a general glimpse of him. To understand just how and why his teaching was so powerful, it helps to understand the system itself – as much as possible – free from later alterations. Many scholars just throw up there hands – “we can’t know the Buddha….” But such, I think, is misguided.

      Whether or not Buddhism is ‘right’ or not is, for better or worse, mostly left to Philosophy departments. I studied here in Bristol with Paul Williams, a famous case of someone who thought that, in the end, Buddhism is *wrong*, but people willing to make broad claims like that, based, albeit, on very nitty-gritty philosophical points, are going to be hard to come by. Paul Griffiths (another Catholic) is another good writer willing to go toe-to-toe with the ‘rightness’ of the tradition – though it’s been a while since I”ve looked at his work. Charles Goodman seems to be a key up-and-comer in giving thoughtful philosophical defense to one way that Buddhism might be ‘right’. That whole recent conference at Central Michigan was just a bunch of discussion of philosophical/practical issues in the tradition – I can send you a link if you haven’t viewed the videos. Owen Flanagan seems happy to challenge the underlying philosophical issues of karma and rebirth (dismissing them), while supporting the notion of impermanence and Buddhist practice. Damien Keown has been quite prolific in addressing practical issues based on his Virtue Ethics interpretation of Buddhism.

      There are whole volumes of work coming in from anthropologists in Nepal, Thailand, etc – far too much for me to keep up with, but it’s out there – Justin McDaniel, Anne Hansen, plenty from Don Swearer…

      In fact I find myself wishing there were *more* importance placed on textual interpretations – especially Pali (Tibetan was big for a long time, now Chinese seems to be the cool thing). But such is life :)

      • Doug

        Re. the philosophical ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of Buddhism: this is something that I’ve been wrestling with as well, given my background. But I think even a cursory look will show that those two categories cannot be very revealing. Clearly, the Buddhism of the Pali Canon (just to take that for discussion, given this thread) is ‘wrong’ about many things. There is no rebirth. There is no causally active karma. There is no ‘divine eye’, nor the ability to literally multiply oneself nor sink into the ground, through deep samadhi. So if anyone in a modern context is really looking to find the Buddhism of the Pali Canon ‘right’, they must be out of their mind.

        That said, this approach to discovering ‘rightness’ cannot be the best: any ancient system of philosophy will have elements that are scientifically premodern.

        So the task for a philosopher has to be to begin by isolating some sort of ‘rational kernel’ to Buddhist thought and practice before one goes about the task of analyzing whether or not it is correct.

        Of course, this process is open to all kinds of disagreement on what constitutes Buddhism’s ‘rational kernel’. I would argue that it does not include the supernormal powers, at least not at the highest level of analysis, since these are not an essential part of the path.

        But the kernel probably will contain reincarnation and karma. Then the question at least for a modern philosopher is, “Does there exist a reasonable reconstruction of Buddhism without these elements?” I think there does, but again, not all will agree.

      • Robert M. Ellis

        “Whether or not Buddhism is ‘right’ or not is, for better or worse, mostly left to Philosophy departments.” As someone who has worked in Philosophy departments, I can tell you that it is also overwhelmingly ignored by them. Philosophy in the West works on two accepted sets of assumptions, analytic or continental, and Buddhism fits ill into either. The result of this is that anyone, like me, who has attempted to seriously address the philosophical issues around Buddhism finds all the doors closed in both RS and Philosophy departments. I’m not saying that it is wrong to investigate the historical Buddha, but I do think that this task has upstaged far more important and practically-relevant issues amongst the academics who could have been tackling them.

        Owen Flanagan is not a very illuminating example to quote. At least, I suppose, he is an example of a philosopher who has taken an interest in Buddhism, but he’s also an example of one who has evidently learned nothing from it and merely applied analytic assumptions to it. I wouldn’t phrase the relevant question as one of whether Buddhism as a whole is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but rather of which aspects of it are helpful and which unhelpful, and how, in the larger picture, Buddhism can itself contribute to our understanding of the conception of ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘helpful’ and ‘unhelpful’ i.e. value judgement. Buddhism itself offers criteria of judgement that can be used to challenge Flanagan and his fellow scientific naturalists.

        • Justin Whitaker

          Yes, I know philosophers tend to ignore Eastern philosophy. You’ve no doubt heard of the group of academics called ‘the cowherds’ trying to remedy this. Like the many forays into “Buddhism and …. (name your continental philosopher)” these remain helpful and interesting, but isolated and largely ignored by Western philosophers. But there are people doing it, and with some degree of, albeit fleeting, success.

          I agree regarding Flanagan; though I’ve come across a few Buddhists who like him.

          What about Gombrich? His into to his latest book suggests that Buddha should be studied alongside Plato and Aristotle, which sounds like a very positive first step. One of the problems we have – in the West and in philosophy departments – is simply a lack of literacy in things Buddhist. If we could simply raise the bar of minimal understanding of the tradition, then, I hope, further, deeper discussions can take place on a broader and more lasting scale.

          • mufi


            “I agree regarding Flanagan; though I’ve come across a few Buddhists who like him.”

            I don’t identify as a Buddhist, but I owe much credit to Flanagan (along with others, like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Thich Nhat Hahn) with increasing my interest in Buddhism.

            And, as I enjoy your blog and value your opinion, Justin, I’d be interested to hear why you agree with Robert’s assessment of Flanagan.

            Or, better yet, I’ll take the “ad hominem” out of frame and simply ask: What’s wrong with an analytic-philosophical and scientific-naturalistic critique of Buddhism?

            Or even more simply: Why not “naturalize” Buddhism?

            [Note that this question is not directed to Robert, whose opinions on these matters I'm already somewhat familiar with from other forums, such as the SBA.]

            • Justin Whitaker

              Hi Mufi,

              Thanks for dropping by and the comment. I’ll start by saying that I don’t have anything against naturalizing Buddhism, per se. I think that may be a key task for contemporary Buddhists to ensure the ongoing viability of the tradition in the West. It is something I will be happy to observe and write about; while my main focus is on giving a faithful (albeit slanted in my own way) account of Buddhist philosophy/ethics.

              My main interest is in understanding what the Buddha (as best we can guess) actually thought and believed about the world and the human condition. So my interest is less in naturalizing or otherwise altering/fixing Buddhism and more in simply seeing how the Buddha’s use and understanding of ‘supernormal’ powers, karma and rebirth, the various realms of being, and the likes all fit in to the a coherent whole (if they do). Again, I think this is a valid project for people who want to do it, but it is not mine.

              • mufi

                Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Justin.

                Sorry to keep pressing you (and to reintroduce the “ad hominem” element into the conversation), but I’m still left curious: Given that you “don’t have anything against naturalizing Buddhism, per se”, what do you think was particularly wrong with Owen Flanagan’s attempt at naturalizing Buddhism?

                I ask because you appear to endorse a rather strong denouncement of Flanagan, which sharply contrasts with my own response to his work (which, btw, I see as analogous to the approach that you ascribe to Gombrich above; viz. that “Buddha should be studied alongside Plato and Aristotle”).

                Perhaps I misunderstood the nature of your agreement with Robert. If so, then I apologize.

                • Justin Whitaker

                  The difference I see between Gombrich and Flanagan is that Gombrich sees karma and rebirth as essential aspects of Buddhism. They are key to the soteriology and ethics. I agree. And like Gombrich I’m agnostic about the reality of these processes – I still call myself a Buddhist, Gombrich does not (and he doesn’t meditate :).

                  If we strip these out, as Flanagan would like, what we have left is not Buddhism. Philosophically it is something very different. So why call it “Buddhism ‘Naturalized’”? Call it materialism. Call it materialism that appreciates Buddhism. The Buddha had access to materialist teachings and rejected them. So I agree to a great extent with Robert that Flanagan is simply applying his own method, finding the parts of Buddhism that agree or are interesting from that particular standpoint, and going on from there.

                  But again, I think what Flanagan is doing is interesting and may indeed form key aspects of Buddhism today (which may turn out to be very different philosophically from the Buddhism of 2400 years ago)…

                  So, to recap (I have a sinus infection, so my head is not terribly clear at the moment): Gombrich and I are more interested in the Buddha as the Buddha, a great thinker 2400 years ago – understanding him, his context, and his philosophical system. Flanagan and other naturalizers are interested, I believe, in finding the correct/true/useful aspects of Buddhism – often picking and choosing from throughout Buddhist history – and applying them to modern thought and practice.

                • mufi

                  Justin: Thanks for clarifying.

                  I basically agree with that assessment, although I might add that the project of naturalization would seem to hinge somewhat on an accurate (or at least plausible) historical understanding of “the Buddha as the Buddha”, lest the naturalizers cherry-pick from the wrong species (so to speak).

                  Also, I just did a quick search of (my Kindle version of) The Bodhisattva’a Brain and come up with the following quote, which speaks to your question “So why call it “Buddhism ‘Naturalized’””?:

                  “Even if there is a minority movement that fits the bill of naturalized Buddhism in the sense that it dissociates itself from beliefs in supernatural and nonphysical phenomena, it does not follow that it really deserves to call itself Buddhism. Actually it doesn’t matter to me whether the philosophical theory I am interested in talking about here is called ‘Buddhism,’ ‘buddhism’, or just the philosophical theory-the metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics-that remains after you subtract the unwarranted nonnatural beliefs in Buddhism from Buddhism.”

                  It doesn’t much matter to me either what we call it, so long as we still find truth, good, and beauty (to use the platonic terms that Flanagan prefers) in the result.

                  However, relative to the majority of 21st-Century Western naturalists (or secularists or scientific skeptics) on whose worldview and lifestyle Buddhism has had little or no impact, some sort of label (be it “B. Naturalized ” or “Secular B.”) makes sense to me as as a short-hand distinction – one which expresses appreciation to that B. influence. But I also understand why this practice might irk traditionalists or B. scholars, to whom B. Naturalized represents a sharp divergence with the past.

                • mufi

                  PS: I don’t know that this particular divergence is any sharper than that of certain branches of Christianity or Judaism. (Given my personal history with the latter, the Reconstructionist and Humanistic denominations of Judaism come most readily to mind.) I simply mean to acknowledge the radical nature of all such divergences from religious orthodoxy.

                • Justin Whitaker

                  Very true. Buddhism Naturalized or Secular Buddhism may be just another step in the evolution of the religion that we’ll all have to accept as an ‘authentic’ part of Buddhism.

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