What, if anything, is Buddhism?

What, if anything, is Buddhism? March 12, 2009

This title comes from a fascinating somewhat recent paper by UCLA’s Jonathan Silk, one of the great Buddhologists of our time. That paper is titled, “What, If Anything, Is Mahāyāna Buddhism? Problems of Definitions and Classifications” (Numen, Vol. 49, No. 4 (2002), pp. 355-405).

It brings to light the issue of defining our subject area and the amazing difficulties therein. One of my great pleasures over the last three years has been serving on the committee for an American Academy of Religion group looking at “Buddhism in the West.” Each year we receive a slew of presentation proposals and choose some to be presented at the annual AAR meeting. Here a consistent theme has come up in the discussion of Buddhism in the West: the so-called “Two Buddhisms” model.

This model divides Buddhists in the West into two groups: immigrant Buddhists and convert Buddhists. The immigrant Buddhists generally try to maintain the type of Buddhism they practiced before, preserving ritual, language, and other elements from their home country. Converts pick and choose aspects they find most helpful, often searching for the “true Buddhism” to be found when “cultural accretions” are stripped away. What you end up with is two quite remarkably different kinds of Buddhism. The immigrant laypeople rarely, if ever, meditate, they donate regularly to temples and monastics, believe in ghosts and take part in (to Western eyes) strange rituals. Western converts meditate a lot, spend more on books about Buddhism than at their local meditation center, and avoid anything looking “superstitious.”

On the one hand, this model looks good and may make good intuitive sense. But for those who have studied Buddhism in the West, and for many simply experiencing it, these categories fall apart pretty fast. We find plenty of converts chanting dutifully in languages they don’t understand, immigrants meditating assiduously, and so on. Those who cling fast to the model say that this is simply the “Westernization” of immigrants and the “cultural appropriation” of some converts, thus showing the model’s continued usefulness, albeit growingly muddled.

Detractors of the model focus on its flaws, sometimes to the point of no longer seeing its usefulness. When I taught Intro to Buddhism to college students, I used this model – basically. For two days I described the “Two Buddhisms” as relatively separate and determinable categories, and then on the third day I showed the problem with the model. It was a very useful tool for introducing Buddhism in the West to new students.

If a better way of classifying Buddhism in the West comes along, a way that first year students can easily comprehend, I’m sure I will adopt it. But what Silk’s article brilliantly shows (here in regard to Mahayana Buddhism vs Mainstream or Theravada or Hinayana Buddhism) is that sometimes the old yet flawed schema is the best we’ve got. Silk’s article draws us through a great historical survey and a dazzling assortment of conceptual tools that can be used to determine just what is Mahayana Buddhism. In the end though the answer seems to be that, even with all this work, we still don’t have an answer.

The same questions and analysis can arise when we ask, “what, if anything, is Buddhism?” and (for me especially), “what counts as Buddhist Ethics?”

In the end we find that attempts to draw a firm line around our concepts (i.e. to define them) are always doomed to failure. Either our method is flawed, or new evidence (counterexamples to our ‘rules’) will arise to force revision. We tell our first-year students that, “Buddhism radically downplays the role of gods (devas).” But then we introduce them to Tibetan Buddhism, where the gods – as benevolent deities, malevolent protectors, and archetypal bodhisattvas – play an overwhelming role. Or we tell them that meditation plays a central role in the Buddhist path and then later introduce them to Jodo Shinshu, where meditation as we know it is virtually absent.

It all serves to validate the Buddhist notions of selflessness/emptiness (that no person or thing has intrinsic existence or characteristics) and impermanence (our definitions, whatever they may be, are not going to last forever). It also highlights the failing nature of language itself to grasp reality. If we are wise we see that our labels are just useful designations and do not refer to any inherently existing thing. A good textual demonstration of this is in the Questions of King Milinda (Menander).

In the end we can see the whole exercise in trying to find a ‘definition’ as either foolish eel-wriggling (a term the Buddha used for the spiritual used-car salesmen of his day) or a skillful way of digging into the rich history and many ‘structures’ of Buddhism. An answer or answers may be found to our questions, but remember to hold the answers lightly, not clinging to them so that if they no longer serve us one day, we can let them go.

That, I must say, is Buddhism. — Your comments, either eel-wriggling or otherwise, are most welcome. (cross-posted at Progressive Buddhism, so please comment there)

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