Buddhism: religion or philosophy?

This is the question again, raised by the renowned philosopher Michael McGhee for the UK’s Guardian newspaper. The short article is set to be the start of a series on the topic, so we can look forward to further installments in the days to come.

Today’s article rehearses some of the issues we’ve seen raised in the news and among bloggers lately, namely the decontextualization of Buddhist practices, rebranded as “mindfulness” and sold to people free of “religion.” However, McGhee does want to distinguish between:

  1. the development of what might be called a new Western (or American or wherever) Buddhism, with notably different belief structures and/or particular practices, art forms, pilgrimage sites, etc, and 
  2. reduction of Buddhist practice to a technique. 

He writes, specifically:

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.

This last bit is important.

But first it is worth noting that #1 is happening, though just how much, where, and when is a contentious topic. You can listen to me and some amazing scholars discussing certain aspects of Buddhism in the West with Ted Meissner here. Some of that contentiousness that I have seen – and this seems to be from practitioners/bloggers more so than from academics – is found in the argument that #1 is not happening and can not happen: that any authentic Buddhism will always be in Asia and the best that Westerners can do is to mimic that as much as possible.

Returning to the practice’s “rootedness as a practice of ethical preparation” (that’s a mouthful). This is a bit different from the usual approach, which discusses ethics as preparatory to mindfulness, which is in turn preparatory to wisdom, the old sila, samadhi, panna 3-fold path. What McGhee seems to be saying is that practices such as meditation are themselves ethical preparation. For what? For a life lived wisely.

What dictates what wisely means? The broader, living tradition with all of its ceremonies, rituals, and community. This is what McGhee sees being lost when we try to move Buddhism out of the category of religion. Thus, the growing wariness of “teachers” offering mindfulness under various logos and trademarks as a stand-alone tool to help people work harder, get richer, and feel better about themselves is entirely appropriate.

McGhee concludes:

More positively, though, thinking of Buddhism as a philosophy brings it into dialogue with the ancient conception of philosophy, one of whose essential components was precisely what was called spiritual practice or exercise, the various ways in which one is able to liberate oneself from illusion and make oneself better capable of ethical action and, of course, the ethical refusal to act. It is worth noting that the ancient philosophers tried to live in communities and one can think of a philosophical community, whether instantiated in a Christian congregation, a Buddhist sangha, a humanist group, as serving to protect and support the conditions for that undeluded perception of the world from which issues moral action.

buddha with plato and aristotle at the academy

Click for a slightly larger image.

Buddhism as a philosophy in dialogue with ancient Western philosophy? This is another one of those areas of contention in the modern academy. Some like to toss around ideas of incommensurability, as if the languages of each side make communication ultimately impossible. However, as has always and will always be the case, language is in flux. Two systems of thought, each using its own language, when brought together, will borrow from one another, adapt, adopt, change, etc.

  • Our understanding of ancient Western philosophy is not a closed book.
  • Nor is our understanding of Buddhism.
  • Nor is our understanding of ourselves today.

There is a growing interest on the part of professional philosophers to hear what light can be shed on “Western” problems by shifting to the religious, theoretical, metaphysical (etc) frameworks of the East. We are also seeing more holes punched in the “East vs West” paradigm that has dominated Western academia for the last 500 years.

In light of these developments, treating Buddhism as a philosophy – to be engaged with philosophically in dialogue as McGhee suggests – is an exciting new prospect for the twenty-first century. Articles, dissertations, and books are being written now on topics such as free will and theoretical ethics, the philosophies of logic and language, as well as environmental and bioethics, all utilizing the theoretical tools of non-Western traditions to open new windows of possibility in what many see as dusty old rooms of the same old thought turned over again and again for 2500 years; all in the name of comparative philosophy and comparative religions.

~

See also: What is Buddhism? - on the importance of academics understanding students’ preconceptions of religions as we teach them and perhaps even using those preconceptions as teaching tools. And What does Buddhism in America Mean to You? - covering Purser and Loy’s excellent summer article on Mindfulness along with a Tibetan Buddhist’s rejection of “Scientific Buddhism.” And for an amazing – still relevant after 18 years – paper on the topic of meditation as an ethical activity see the (free!) paper over at the Journal of Buddhist Ethics – here.

  • BuddhiHermit Hermit

    You may have inferred this, but I can’t say that I would conclude the same, based on what you have presented above.

    “What dictates what wisely means? The broader, living tradition with all of its ceremonies, rituals, and community. This is what McGhee sees being lost when we try to move Buddhism out of the category of religion.”

    “Wisely” is both a reference to our highest natural ethics, and to increased understanding as emancipation grows. As wisdom grows, there is less inclination to brand anything – “Buddhist” or “Western”

    • justinwhitaker

      I think we might be in agreement, Mr. Hermit, or just talking on different levels. My point, made perhaps too hastily, is that our determinations of what is “wise” depend on our communities. If you do mindfulness and then go ask GW Bush and Dick Cheney what wisdom is, you’ll likely be steered in a very different direction (and perhaps a different course in life) than if you asked a mature Buddhist teacher. Does that make more sense. Or in the corporate world, where a “wise” decision means improving the bottom line, even at the cost of some obscure ecosystem or a few thousand workers.

      I agree with you about “Wisely” – but I think we’re both inside the Buddhisty context, so others might have other notions.

      • BuddhiHermit Hermit

        Thank you for the clarification Justin. This, and a reading of some of your other comments indicate an accord. My view also suggests that the breadth or depth of a person’s perspective will incline them to a different determination of Wisdom, but rather than the community determining their definition of Wisdom, I would suggest that their Wisdom determines their choice of community.

        In purely political or corporate cases, I, (despite also being a corporate animal) see very little breadth, and consequently agree there is little of what one would have called Wisdom in a more enlightened context. Some interdisciplinary thinking would help, but would probably also shake some of the certainties that are held as a surrogate to security.

        In a similar vein, I noted your and Genju’s comments on mindfulness practice. Surely this is just another instance, in a long line of instances where a technique has been borrowed from some mystery tradition or other, reshaped, and re-applied without any concern for the original context. As one would expect, this approach carries a high risk of unforeseen consequences, but as long as those consequences are far enough into an unseen future, they are as good as non-existent to the new practitioner.

        Breivik thought he was using meditation, but out of context, it actually became dissociative hypnosis. I’m convinced that out of context mindfulness practice will also see it devolve into a psychological process.

        I say “psychological process” to differentiate it from say, “spiritual process”, just as circling a room, is differentiated from climbing a ladder. Initially, you see new things in the room, but in the end, everything just recycles.

        I’m of the opinion that these things tend to pass, because they always fail to deliver, sometimes as a trend; sometimes at the individual level. They pass even more quickly, when people actively strive to grow their Wisdom, and that requires a desire for a more holistic or right view, however one chooses to deconstruct it.

        • justinwhitaker

          Thanks for that, Mr. Hermit. It does seem that we’re on the same base about this; and Purser and Loy in the summer McMindfulness article did mention some of the past ‘movements’ that failed to deliver in the end. I think the uncritical “mindfulness” pushers will come and go (or switch to whatever is trendy next), and those who are more critical and aware of the holistic nature of practice will learn from their failings.

        • dadafountain

          Confucians certainly did the same thing, absorbing and repurposing Buddhist practices to make better bureaucrats (then turning around and –at times– persecuting Buddhists), and they sure seemed happy with the deal. I’m not clear this is a fad so much as a common way societies take up new technologies of attention and equanimity.

  • Ian Carmichael

    Well! Liberal Buddhism! Get used to the joy and tension of it folks. Christianity has been doing so for nearly 150 years!

    • justinwhitaker

      Ha! Yep. I think you’re right, Ian. We’re in for a bumpy ride.

  • jamesiford

    I’m so stealing your Buddha/Plato?Aristotle picture…

    • justinwhitaker

      Lovely to see it gracing the cover of your facebook profile! :)

  • http://www.108zenbooks.com Genju

    Oh. Your best writing yet!

    I’ve started to approach the Buddhism of the West with the stance of “Not Yer Grandma’s Buddhism.” Although I suspect the Buddhism of the Burmese vihara is far from the one that emerged under the Bo tree. The challenge for all of us is to meet these evolutions without holding onto our opinion of how it was-and-there-fore-should-be. In essence that is what I mean by renunciation. And then to detach from our reaction to the word itself.

    And to the word “mindfulness” – which is taking on the proportions of a conceptual witch hunt among Buddhists. So, I ask – what took them 35 years to decide to challenge this? Because some of us earn our (right) livelihood from it? How is that any different from the monastics who live off poor village people and promise the Buddhist version of indulgences? (And no, I’m certainly not getting rich off my Mindfulness Clinic but we sure are emptying the ocean by the thimble-ful!)

    Alan Wallace, in his amazing book, The Four Immeasurables, sets the bar tightly and high. If we are not practicing an ethical life off the cushion, we can’t expect to plunk our butt down and discover our luminous, enlightened self with all its capacity to make wise discernments. So whatever mutation Buddhism takes, it will always have to hold the line on practice as an ethic in itself.

    Oh… before I end the rant… love the art work and definitely stealing it too… in a mindful, discerning that I am doing you good way.

    • justinwhitaker

      Replying now at your site, Genju! :)

      I’m not sure how far I want to take renunciation here. If tomorrow morning people start telling me the sky is green, my “opinion of how it was-and-there-fore-should-be” will be clung to quite tightly until I am properly convinced. Same goes with those telling me tantra is about great sex or Buddhist practice can make me rich.

      There are those who can rightly expand our views of things, and then there are hucksters to be ignored, pointed out, or refuted…

      The witch-hunt notion will have to be fleshed out more, but I’ll say more on your blog:

      http://108zenbooks.com/2013/10/08/not-yer-grannys-buddhism/

  • Thomas Armstrong

    Justy: I promised to leave you alone until November. With this comment (and a return tweet) ‘happening’ today, I will delay my return to full-on bothering you until November 2.

    First off, I think the problem is WHAT YOU & McGHEE are doing: Fretting. Y’all are becoming fundamentalist Buddhists. You know what stark raving fundies become, don’t cha? TERRORISTS!

    I mean, just look what has become of the Republican Party! The fundies have snapped it up and are driving our whole freaking country to ruin.

    As Sylvester Cat says: “Unlax!” Put your Buddhist feet up. Have a beer. Sheesh.

    • justinwhitaker

      Tomtom, back so soon? Well, that’s okay. I enjoy ‘seeing’ you here. You’d have to say more to convince me that either I or McGhee is just fretting. I, for one, am interested in people simply having a proper understanding of what they’re doing, including myself. And that goes for my studies of philosophy and religion more broadly as much as anything. The question of just how (& perhaps if) Buddhism is a religion and/or a philosophy is a good one to keep asking if only to keep us from becoming lazy with our categories. This is especially true in the realm of academic philosophy, where any mention of things non-Western will raise eyebrows or draw cringes. People who see the philosophical value of Buddhism, both in terms of theoretical wisdom and practical, still have their work cut out for them. But I think it is work worth doing. I’ll have a beer later in your honor. :)

      • Thomas Armstrong

        I certainly understand that those of your who go to beer halls and speak Urdu and Pali and Sanscrit (and write your emails in esperanto).are interested in (and overmuch delight in) the highly technical minutia and that y’all are in search of Buddhisms’ equivalent to the Higg’s Boson.

        Most of what y’all do in important, but it also won’t impact people’s lives. We, the hoi polloi Buddhists can learn pretty much all we know by watching the Keanu Reeves segments in the movie Little Buddha. (1) Not too far this way; not too far that. MIDDLE!; (2) Take a pick ax to your ego; (3) Love others; and (4) Be above it all in a certain peculiar way which’ll give you an E Ticket to Paranirvana.

        Basically, y’all are interested in making the sausage, whereas we the ‘polloi are just the sausage eaters.

        This is — as Ian Carmichael says — Liberal Buddhism slash Western Buddhism.

  • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

    I’m a bit late to this party, but here goes. It seems to me that Western philosophy is a house so out-of-order for such a long time that there’s not a great deal in it for Buddhists to go down the road suggested by McGhee. Indeed his own critiques of philosophy are part of what convince me of this. If there is incommensurability then it is in the fundamental questions that Western Philosophers and Buddhists ask. Questions such as “what is there?” or “What can we know about what is there?” (the basic questions of Western ontology and epistemology) have almost no relevance to Buddhism in practice.

    Even worse, Buddhist philosophy itself is a rats nest of unquestioned (and unquestionable) assumptions and presuppositions that fall apart under scrutiny. The longer it goes on the less coherent Buddhist philosophy is. Once the Abhidharma starts to dominate the whole structure becomes self-defeating (IMHO). Buddhist philosophy, such as it is, needs a radical over-haul in light of contemporary scholarship into the *domain of interest* with particular attention to scholars like Sue Hamilton, Noa Ronkin, Collette Cox, and Jan Nattier. The domain of interest being *experience* rather than *reality*.

    McGhee strikes me as rather Romantic in his approach to philosophy, as though he imagines that philosophy is once again about how we should live as it was in the days of Ancient Greece. But that’s not my impression of contemporary philosophy. Sure there is engaged philosophy, but it stands out because it is minority and left-field. If it were mainstream and taken seriously we might be living in a very different world. I think philosophers might find it interesting to engage with aspects of Buddhist thought, but I keep being deeply disappointed by my attempts to engage with philosophy ancient or modern.

    I agree that #1 – the development of Western Buddhism – is happening. The process is very similar to the development of Chinese Buddhism in the first centuries of the common era (and will probably also take centuries for anything substantial to happen). But the West is too pluralistic for there to be a singular monolithic Western Buddhism. China saw the development of a number of new syncretic or parochial forms of the Dharma, but we are far more pluralistic than early medieval China! US Buddhism is clearly going in different directions than, say, New Zealand Buddhism (where syncretism with Māori culture is a society-wide factor). And even within a small country like NZ (4 million people) Buddhism is pluralistic. Even within the Buddhist Order I’m a member of, there is pluralism.

    When I saw #2 the reduction of Buddhism to technique, I wondered what was coming. You don’t say much which is maybe just as well. My view is that Buddhism is a system of practice (praxy) rather than a system of belief (doxy). Certainly beliefs go along with the practices, but a Buddhist is primarily someone who does Buddhist practices in a Buddhist way (ethos) with other Buddhists, not primarily someone who believes Buddhist doctrines. As I’m sure you know, Buddhists are highly critical of those who only engage with doctrine and not practice – anti-intellectualism is almost a modern Buddhist virtue.

    WRT “mindfulness” I think we too often mistake a rubric for a single technique. The really good thing about mindfulness practitioners is that by dropping some of the Buddhist bullshit, they reach a far wider audience than Buddhists have traditionally reached and help a lot of people towards well-being. They’re so much more successful than “Buddhism” and in a much shorter space of time, that it galls many people who then spill their bile.

    I think the art work says something about incommensurability. The Greeks are all human peers, discussing things and exploring knowledge together. Some are teaching, but this doesn’t make them super-human. The Buddha is set apart and people are grovelling to him in supplication in order to passively receive knowledge, while he sits apart and aloof. None of the Buddhist supplicants are doing Buddhist practice as I understand it, whereas all of the Greeks are doing their involved. I know which ideal attracts me and in that perhaps I have more in common with McGhee than I first thought.

    • justinwhitaker

      Thanks for the comments, Jayarava.

      “It seems to me that Western philosophy is a house so out-of-order for such a long time that there’s not a great deal in it for Buddhists…” – Has philosophy ever been a house in-order? From Thales and Socrates on, it has always been a hobby for the odd and (often) well-off. The range of questions in W.Phil are wide and (odd as it is for me to be quoting him), Zizek is right to say “what we philosophers can do is just correct the questions.” So if Buddhist thought helps do this, all the better for W. Phil.

      Re: re-working Buddhist philosophy – Yes! Let’s make it happen.

      McGhee is a fan of Hadot, which probably accounts for the ‘romantic’ impression. Perhaps philosophy these days could turn back to its more practical roots (in addition to turning to Buddhism for direction).

      I agree re: anti-intellectualism. I am lucky enough to be shielded from it a fair bit, as most of my Buddhisty friends have degrees IN Buddhist Studies, so they enjoy the critical, text-oriented side of things. Some of that is no doubt due to the way that “Buddhism” is sold/marketed in the West, but some, I imagine, is due to we intellectually inclined types being really shitty at expressing how helpful and important it is to critically analyse the texts and history. I won’t point fingers, and this definitely isn’t pointed at you, but I’ve seen some who definitely use intellectualism as a tool used to brow-beat those who haven’t read and absorbed the latest *theory*.

      The discussion regarding “mindfulness” needs to go on. I agree that there is probably much more good coming from it than problems. But addressing the problems seems to be a helpful activity, especially WRT commodification.

      “None of the Buddhist supplicants are doing Buddhist practice as I understand it…” Really? That might warrant a discussion by itself…

      • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

        “None of the Buddhist supplicants are doing Buddhist practice as I understand it…” Really? That might warrant a discussion by itself…”

        I suppose one could argue that bowing to the Buddha is a Buddhist practice – in the sense that Buddhists do that kind of thing. It’s more a sort of respectful convention isn’t it? Has anyone ever argued that it’s a means to enlightenment? But the active participation of the “Greeks” looks much more attractive to me whatever the Buddhists are doing!

        One can use intellectualism as a club to beat the people who are unwilling to think. When I right hardcore linguistic oriented blog posts I sometimes imagine the heads of Reddit readers exploding… :-)

        • dadafountain

          ” suppose one could argue that bowing to the Buddha is a Buddhist
          practice – in the sense that Buddhists do that kind of thing. It’s more a
          sort of respectful convention isn’t it? Has anyone ever argued that
          it’s a means to enlightenment?”

          Ask certain non-Japanese Zen lineages about 108 Bows Practice, or ask any Tibetan about Ngondro practice (100,000+ bows, as well as several other similar repetitions, before you’re considered ready for tantric instruction). They DEFINITELY think prostration is a crucial piece of the path.

          • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

            Yeah. Sad really.

            • dadafountain

              That said, 100,000 bows is a pretty good way to learn mindfulness of the body. You couldn’t DO that many without racking up patience, persistence and equanimity, and that’s already 4 factors of enlightenment right there.

              • justinwhitaker

                I’m not too worried about bowing/prostration-focused people. I can see the good it does in terms of building humility (like doing a lot of things we don’t think we really need to do) or generating bodily awareness (similar to yoga) as a part of meditation practice. It’s only a problem, imho, when it seems to be an end in itself and/or a bragging point / ego booster for the practitioner.

  • http://www.sundancekidonline.com/ Jennifer L Myers

    I wasn’t aware there was such a strong delineation between the terms ‘religion’ and ‘philosophy’ or that it really matters much. This writer appears to know very little about Buddhism except that it involves meditation. McGee only mentions Buddhism in terms of a meditative practice, but Buddhism is much, much more than that. What Westerners fail to realize is that there are as many different sects of Buddhism as there are denominations of Christianity, and they do not all teach exactly the same thing in the same manner. People lump Buddhism into a category and call it “mindfulness” or ” peaceful meditation” or something else Eastern and spiritual, without ever learning about the history of Buddhism or the differences between the teachings.

    • justinwhitaker

      Hi Jennifer. Thanks for the comments. I’ll give you my word that McGhee does certainly know a great deal about Buddhism. What he is discussing is the all-too-common tendency (of others) to reduce Buddhism to meditation. He is critiquing that and saying it leaves out a lot of what has been a part of Buddhism for the last 2500 years, including community, ritual, ethics, etc.

      In terms of the religion/philosophy distinction, this too is something that is somewhat practitioner-driven. Many Buddhists in the West are trying to say that what they do isn’t “religion” for various reasons (most having to do with outdated definitions of “religion” in my experience), while others, often more traditional Buddhists, are saying that Buddhism definitely isn’t a “philosophy” often with the sense that “philosophy” is just what some a few old white guys do in armchairs in ivory towers. Indeed some philosophers do give it this image, but that is only part of the picture, hence my concluding remarks about philosophy/buddhism/etc not being closed books.

      There is also a continuing debate inside academia about how/where to teach things like Buddhism. Currently about 90% of it is taught in religion departments, 8-9% in sociology/anthropology/area studies departments, and 1% (maybe) taught in philosophy departments – this is just my rough guess, so I’d be happy to hear what others think. In any case there is a growing sense that this needs to change.

      • http://www.sundancekidonline.com/ Jennifer L Myers

        I’ve always considered Buddhism BOTH a religion and a philosophy. It’s listed as one of the world’s top religions along with Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam, but many people think of it as more of a philosophy of life. I think in terms of academia, it’s more important to focus on the variety of Buddhists sects and the differences in what they teach, rather than being overly concerned about whether it’s a religion or philosophy.

  • Y. A. Warren

    It seems to me that the simple difference between religion and philosophy is ritual. it seems that religions are sought to put rules around what we can expect from the individuals bonded by outward adherence to the set of rules and rituals. Philosophy is simply what one thinks, with or without a community. Both may be important in civilized society, but it is in the practice that comes out of each that the earth is impacted.

    Ritual and rules often keep people from individual mindfulness. We cannot continue to pretend that individual mindfulness or salvation is sufficient unto itself. Any philosophy or religion that doesn’t include family and community harmony as the ultimate goal is simply spiritual masturbation.

    • justinwhitaker

      That’s a good distinction, Y.A. Ritual does seem to be missing from most philosophy, at least these days. I’m not so sure about ancient philosophy though, or what some people seem to be seeking to revive via the work of P. Hadot.

      This “individual mindfulness” idea might be a more modern invention as well, at least in the West. Aristotle, for instance, extols the importance of community and the ‘wise man’ as a guide in ethics…

      Anyhow – thanks for your contributions on this vexing (to some, and boring to others) question. – jw

      • Y. A. Warren

        You are welcome. Philosophy is the love of thinking. I love to engage with others who love to think.

        • Michael Schapers

          In Chinese ‘thought’-traditions like Daoisms and Confucianisms, which perhaps even more than Buddhisms are considered Eastern forms of philosophy, ‘ritual’ (which one could define as ‘the indispensable enactment of the outcome of reflection, in the form of cultivation’) is a crucial component (for Confucianisms this is the well-defined concept of 禮, for Daoisms there is a less-enclosed structure of 修道-practice). It is a very Western bias to neglect ritual in philosophy, leaving it to religion and etiquette. If ritual is nothing but a certain category of the enactment of philosophy, and if we acknowledge that praxis was a focal point for those Greek thinkers we consider to be the Founding Fathers of philosophy – then it is erroneous to make the two mutually exclusive.

    • Tom A

      Although you do raise many good points in respects to the power of ritual over a person’s ability to be individually mindful, I would propose that the distinguishing factor between a religion and a philosophy is a supernatural element.
      You can be a Stoic, Existentialist, or a Feminist and use rituals to reinforce the beliefs that those schools represent. However, none of them make divine claims about the universe, whereas other religions, such as Roman Catholicism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Judaism, make claims such as these the core of their movement.
      In short, a philosophy that a person practices grounds and justifies itself based on principle (such as utilitarianism and net well-being). A religion grounds and justifies itself by the existence of divine power (such as Christianity and divine grace and forgiveness).

      • Thomas Armstrong

        Yipes. There is more than one Tom A. floating around. The guy above ain’t me. — Tom Armstrong

        • Tom A

          Woops, Sorry about that. Yes, this is Thomas Andercot, not Armstrong. Kudos on the incredible name :)

  • Matt Stone

    Buddhism has its philosophical side. But the same could be said for Christianity or Islam. So before posing an either/or question I personally think it is wise to consider the both/and possibilities. After all, Buddhism does have a religious side too as this photo aptly demonstrates.

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