Assimilation and revalorization

Assimilation and revalorization July 2, 2011
I was very fortunate as an undergraduate. Even at a rather modest state school, The University of Montana, I managed to stumble into a course taught by a world-class scholar of Buddhism. Prof. Alan Sponberg had taught at Berkeley and Stanford (I believe), before deciding to slow things down a bit with a move to the Rocky Mountains. Despite being skeptical of all things religious – I recall calling myself an ‘anti-theist’ and a Humanist at the time – I was intrigued by the course. But even more than the theoretical and historical teachings, I fell in love with the practice, taught alongside in a Meditation ‘lab’ (‘lab’ being a generic term I think for any ‘add-on’ to a course). That was taught by the then business-student, Bodhipaksa. And the rest, as they say, is history.

That little bit aside, as I dive back into readings/writings for my thesis, one theme keeps reappearing. That theme is, as Dr. Sponberg described in his course, the Assimilation & Revalorization of “current popular culture” for its own uses. The theme came up in his class in the last week or so, as we thought about what Buddhism was becoming in the contemporary world. But it actually seems to be a hermeneutic that should be utilised throughout Buddhist history.

Gombrich elucidates this at length in much of How Buddhism Began, and What the Buddha Thought with special reference to Brahmanism, Johannes Bronkhorst dives into Jain-Buddhist relations in Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India and describes Brahman-Buddhist relations in Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism (which I have yet to read – note the $).  And a book I’m reading now, Noa Ronkin’s Early Buddhist Metaphysics argues that the development of Abhidhamma was influenced by the Vaiśeṣikas, a Brahmanical school of philosophy known for its categorical system of metaphysics.

All of this points to something that the Buddha and early Buddhists, and indeed all great religious figures, were doing: stealing ideas, changing them, and putting them back out there. Or, in terms fit for the classroom: assimilating and revalorizing aspects of the culture around them.

And all of this suggests that we must not, cannot, should not essentialize Buddhism. What does that mean? Well, it means we have to be very careful when we try to say ‘so and so got this or that wrong.’ Yes the Ābhidhammikas seem to be creating a metaphysical system when the Buddha seemed to eschew such things. But how often do we come across new or naive students of Buddhism dismissing Abhidhamma as some misguided misadventure? Too often, in my experience. A better approach would be to say that they were doing something different, and there is likely a reason why they did it. It takes some time first of all to understand just what the difference is to begin with, and it takes even more patience to look into the context of those changes to try to decipher the reasons for them.

The same goes for the numerous strands of development which coalesced, over a period of centuries, into what we now know as Mahāyāna.

But getting back to the early stuff, which is my main area of interest, we have today in the West largely a phenomenon of Buffet Buddhism, people picking and choosing which aspects they like, from whichever tradition, and leaving the rest. Now in a sense this just follows the trend of how Buddhism began and evolved.  But in another sense it is not. It actually evolved through intense debates regarding doctrine and practice, not to mention bits of political underhandedness… It has generally had a very top-down transmission, and thus a relative uniformity from place to place. Buddhism in the West is kind of a mess in this regard – which, if you’re a scholar of it, can be fun.

But I digress once again…

Getting to the point of the matter, what I’m interested in is the oddities of the early Buddhist canon. Times when things should be one way, but wind up being quite another. An example is the famous “Buddha’s reluctance to teach” after his awakening. A fully awakened being, who has spent lifetimes working toward awakening, who vowed so much at the feet of the previous Buddha, we would think, would be jumping at the opportunity to now teach. After all, he’s not selfish, he must know there are others around him (former teachers and his group of five friends, to say the least) who would benefit from his new understanding. But no. He hesitates. Until, of course, the great Brahma Sahampati, begged him to teach.

What may at first seem strange becomes clear when we realize the role of assimilation and revalorization. Did the Buddha ‘believe in’ the gods of Brahmanism? Sure. Did he believe in them in the same way that (pre-) Hindus did? Absolutely not. He took them in and gave them new meaning and value. Going back a bit, many contemporary Buddhists, having a more Hindu vision of the gods, say they don’t ‘believe in’ that portion of Buddhism. The same goes for rebirth. When most modern ‘scientific’ Buddhists say they don’t ‘believe in rebirth,’ I’m tempted to ask, ‘who’s version?’ Often enough, it’s the Brahmanic version, which people then say ‘the Buddha adopted from the culture around him.’

But it’s one thing to say the Buddha ‘adopted’ certain aspects of Brahmanic culture, and quite another to say that he assimilated and revalorized them. And if he did the latter, which seems almost always to be the case, we must ask why. And we must do some of the work of understanding the nuanced new meaning created by the Buddha. 

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