Remembering the Old Buddha, the Buddha Who Entered Our World To Destroy It

Jiryu Mark has a nice new post, American Buddhist Apocrypha, over at the No Zen in the West blog where they’re getting really educated these days. A backwoods, unlearned guy like me had to look up “apocrypha” – “hidden,” “esoteric,” “spurious,” “of questionable authenticity.”

I think it’s a word that’ll come in handy in wild fox country, so thanks to Jiryu, one of the finest of the California Zen ilk.

“I think we owe it to ourselves,” says Jiryu, “and to each other to be as transparent as we can about what we’re inheriting and what we’re making up.  To do so is to make this whole transition of Buddhism more conscious, more clear:  ‘Here’s what we’re taking; here’s what we’re leaving.’”

Along with what we’re inheriting, leaving out, and making up, I’d add that there’s also what we’re re-spinning.

And that’s just what I wanted to blow some gas about here, having just finished Donald Lopez’s The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life.

Lopez’s book is a provocative combination of scholarship and passion – just what the doctor ordered -  deconstructing what has become commonly understood about the old buddhadharma these weird days.

Lopez traces the origins of a new Buddha, the Scientific Buddha, from the racist and ignorant speculations of the earliest travelers from Europe to Asia who saw all the various Buddha images as a wide variety of idols, not realizing for hundreds of years that they were different depictions of the same guy. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that somebody bothered to study the texts.

The Scientific Buddha that most people nowadays confuse with the old Buddha, according to Lopez, was born in the 19th century, in an effort to find a religion that was in harmony with “science. ” But as Lopez points out,

“If Buddhism was compatible with the science of the nineteenth century [mostly phrenology and astrology], how can it also be compatible with the science of the twenty-first? …How can the same timeless truths be constantly reflected in discoveries that have changed, and continue to change, so drastically over time? …It is clear that the Buddhism that is compatible with science must jettison much of what Buddhism has been, and is, in order to claim that compatibility.”

I suppose when impermanence and emptiness are the heart of the matter, one could argue that Buddhism could morph to just about anything (like this incredibly trite presentation of Zen by Jeff Bridges on the Daily Show – I love ‘em both but this is really a disservice).

Lopez’s penetrating scholarly gaze is directed at the common assumption in dharma circles that Darwinian evolution and Buddha’s karma have a lot in common, of particular interest for wild fox zennists, I hope. For starters, according to Lopez, evolution and karma have purposes that are exactly opposite – evolution being about survival of the fittest and karma being about extinction of all species.

“Thus, far from teaching a dharma compatible with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, it is perhaps more accurate to regard the Buddha as a counter-evolutionary, actively seeking the extinction of the human race, and indeed of all species, through the eradication of the selfish gene.”

And, “…My suggestion is that this incompatibility carries with it a particular power. My suggestion is that we allow the buddha to remain beyond the world, completely at odds with the world and with science.”

You don’t hear that much!

Lopez also provides an “Interlude: A Primer on Buddhist Meditation” that puts the central practice of the Scientific Buddha, so-called mindfulness, in its place, concluding that “…It is inaccurate to assume that Buddhist meditation is encompassed by something called mindfulness, which has come to represent Buddhist meditation in many conversations, including those in the domain of science, in recent years.”

Lopez goes on to argue that rather than stress reduction, the more common goal of Buddhist meditation is stress induction.

“This stress is the result of a profound dissatisfaction with the world. Rather than seeking a sense of peaceful satisfaction with the unfolding of experience, the goal of this practice is to produce a state of mind that is highly judgemental, indeed judging this world to be like a prison. This sense of dissatisfaction is regarded as an essential prerequisite for progress on the Buddhist path…. The Buddhist practitioner embarks on a path intended not to reduce stress or lower cholesterol, but to uproot more fundamental forms of suffering.”

And we’re not done with Lopez’s critique.

“[The Scientific Buddha] was born into a world of colonial subjugation of Asia by Europe. He fought valiantly to win Buddhism its place among the great religions of the world…. For this buddha was stripped of his many magical elements and his dharma was deracinated. The meditation he taught was only something called ‘mindfulness,’ and even then, a pale form of that practice. That is, he taught something that no other buddha in the past had taught: stress reduction.”

So where do we go from here?

Lopez suggests that “Rather than imagining things about the Buddha and his teachings for which there is no evidence, we might dwell on what is there, and the ways in which these things might somehow continue to bear meaning. The preservation of mythological and the miraculous is not merely a matter of aesthetics. At least two questions, pondered by Buddhists over the centuries, remain worthy of our contemplation: ‘What does it mean to seek the welfare of others?’ and ‘Is there a self?’

Lopez concludes by turning from the so-called original teachings (dating from the 9th century) to the Great Vehicle spin of the dharma, championed by the Diamond Sutra.

“To understand oneself, and the world, as merely a process, an extraordinary process of cause and effect, operating without an essence, yet seeing the salvation of others, who also do not exist, as the highest form of human endeavor. This is the challenge….”

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