Zen, Buddhist Modernism, & a Naturalistic Perennialism

Zen, Buddhist Modernism, & a Naturalistic Perennialism June 3, 2017


Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler is one half with his brother Hondo Dave Rutschman, of the blogging team No Zen in the West. I consider that blog one of a handful of seriously important Zen Buddhist blogs out on the inter webs right now.

On the first of this month Jiryu wrote a piece called What Real Buddhist Should Do. His thesis is simple. I quote. “…if you don’t get interdependence, and if you don’t hear the call to enact, live out, and DO interdependence in some real way in your actual life and your actual world, then you’re not practicing Buddhism.” It is an adamant assertion. And, sure, it’s a bit of a polemic. And, of course, it generated some responses. A few of them quite heated.

Me, I liked it a lot. And, I agreed with it. I think the Zen priest points true. And, so, naturally, I reposted it at my Facebook page. I like to think my Facebook “friends” are a cut above. And they do come through. Two of them offered considered reflections as well as citations in support of their perspectives on questions that were raised with the responses to Jiryu’s original posting.

The relevant one for me, at least why I cite them here, has to do with a continuing question, “what is Buddhism, actually?” As it turns out the answer to that is not as cut and dried as one might hope. It turns on the question of how Buddhist is “interdependence” “Buddha nature,” and “original awakening?” And, with that, whether Zen is Buddhism at all?

I thought those two friends captured something of the heart of that debate. Buddhist chaplain Alan Cossitt presents the core challenge, writing “interdependence played zero part in the earliest teachings…” He adds, it “didn’t arise until over a thousand years after the Buddha’s death.” I don’t know his actual stance, but that is the nub of the argument against the Mahayana and Zen. It’s johnny-come-lately to Buddhism.

To this old Zen hand Richard Kollmar offered as a rejoinder a handful of citations from the Suttas. “‘When this is present, that comes to be; from the arising of this, that arises. When this is absent, that does not come to be; upon the cessation of this, that ceases.’ M.II.32, S.II. 28.65, Vin. I. 41: ‘Of events, which derive their being from causes, the Tathagata has spoken of their causes & of their cessation.’ Numerous passages describing the interdependent co-arising of, among other things, sense perceptions.”

And Alan then replied how this view of dependent origination was not originally understood to mean interdependence. Rather, he continues, “Dependent Origination in the Pali Canon was a description of how a individual sentient mind creates suffering, and how if any of the steps in dependent origination are interrupted, cessation and liberation could occur (for the individual). It was not a description of relationship between individuals.

“That idea came much later (for example in the “Mind Only” teachings of Yogacharya). In early Buddhism, the core moral teaching was that all sentient beings share the powerful desire to be free of suffering. Many of the generalizations of the Buddha’s teaching didn’t arise until the scholars and philosophers of the Sectarian era got ahold of his teachings. They began the generalization and movement of Buddhist concepts into areas where the historical Buddha seemed to refuse to go.”

Not quite satisfied with that Alan goes on to cite David McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism:

“That we live in a radically interconnected world has become a truism. Indeed, this age of internationalism and the internet might well be called the age of inter: there is nothing that is not interconnected, interdependent, interwoven, interlaced, interactive, or interfacing with something else to make it what it is. Thus, any religious tradition that can claim “interdependence” as a central doctrine lays claim to timely cultural resonance and considerable cultural cachet.

It is not surprising then that this term has been emerging with greater and greater frequency in contemporary Buddhist literature and acquiring increasing consonance with other modern discourses of interdependence. Sometimes used to translate the term pratītya-samutpāda (more precisely translated “dependent origination” or “dependent co-arising”), this term’s semantic field has now extended to represent what many today see as the fundamental outlook of Buddhism—a doctrinal sine qua non with broad-ranging implications on personal, social, and global scales. It is not only a philosophical description of the world but also an idea with powerful ethical and political implications: if we are all part of a vast, interdependent network of being, what we do can have profound effects on others as our actions reverberate throughout it.

As articulated in contemporary Buddhist literature, the concept of interdependence combines empirical description, world-affirming wonder, and an ethical imperative. The empirical description represents the world as a vast, interconnected web of internally related beings—that is, whose identity is not a priori independent of the systems they are a part of but is inseparable from those systems. Description of this web sometimes melds indistinguishably with descriptions of other interrelated processes like communication networks or biological systems. The contemporary Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has coined the term “interbeing” to capture the idea of the interdependence of all things, presenting it in an accessible and playful style…”

Now, to be clear this understanding of interdependence may not be part of the earliest strata of Buddhist teachings, or, at least it is not fully developed in that earliest strata. But, it comes, and it is fully integrated into Buddhist teachings today and has been for a long time.

So, Tathagatagarba was originally understood as our potential for Buddhahood. But in time, with reflection, it was uncovered both through logic, and more importantly as something found within our individual hearts. What was uncovered was the exact identity of the causal world and our awakening. This fully understood insight is found among other sources in the Mahayana Mahaparinivara Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra, and the Awakening of Faith. And, absolutely, it rests at the foundations of Zen’s understanding of awakening.

But Alan is right, this view and its historicity within Buddhism is challenged. The most vocal of these critics are the Japanese scholars Noriaki Hakamaya and Shiro Matsumoto, who are particularly concerned for the primacy of the historic Buddha’s insight into dependent origination. And they start with that observation original awakening comes quite late to Buddhist understanding. They actually go a step farther and suggest because Zen is so tied up with this insight that it shouldn’t even be considered Buddhist.

I believe what is called “Buddhist Modernism” is in fact not far removed from the Buddhism we find in the writings of the Zen masters. So, I’m comfortable with the referencing to Professor McMahan. That’s one thing. But, there’s another thing, as well. I believe there is indeed a current that runs through much of religion, what people have variously tried to name as perennialism or, I prefer, universalism. And my question is not whether the teaching of interdependence is not fully developed in Buddhism until later, but rather, is it true?

And that’s the part I find important. To use the term “truism” as Professor McMahan does, whether he meant it in this use or not, is to trivialize something of profound significance. I assert that the insight into our interrelatedness is not only the flowering of all the potentiality of Buddhism, but is also the core insight that enlivens all religions. It is the truth that the authors of perennialism are reaching for. It is, in fact, the possibility of healing in this broken world.

I’ve written about this before. I suspect I will again. I find it critically important. Me, I first stumbled upon the term Perennialism in Aldous Huxley’s lovely book the Perennial Philosophy, published three years before I was born. And, for me in my youth searching for an intellectually honest, which meant to me not obviously conflicting with the natural world, this book together with Richard Maurice Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness, and William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience outlined the general direction for my quest for meaning and purpose in life. (Later Eyelyn Underhill’s Mysticism would provides some important correctives to Professor James. But going much farther in my personal spiritual bibliography is wandering too far afield from the point of this reflection.)

In practice I have a complicated relationship with Perennialism. On the one hand I think it points in the right direction broadly when it suggests there are truths that each religion touch. This insight is a big reason I would eventually find myself a Unitarian Universalist. On the other hand it seems pretty obvious to me that there is not a single mountain and that all religions are following their separate paths up to the same summit. Lots of different mountains. Some are more useful than others. Which is probably why Zen Buddhism and its disciplines remains the core of my actual interior life.

For me the best example of the problems with Perennialism is Huston Smith’s Religions of Man, first published in 1958. For many years those of us interested in the World’s Religions found it offered our first glimpses into the richness that are the world spiritualities. For good reason it has continued in print for years, and even today with the more inclusive re-titling the World’s Religions, has all together sold over two million copies.

What the author doesn’t tell folk is that he is a full on Traditionalist, a form of Perennialism that I find attractive, but which has some serious problems trying to crowbar all the religions into the same basic camp. So, his book, which is admirable in so many ways, when it comes to Buddhism just has a terrible time. Professor Smith believes down to the soles of his feet that there is a true religion under all religions and that it is grounded in a mystical theism. And so the chapter on Buddhism is deeply marred by his, to my mind, desperate reach for theistic elements in Buddhism. Which in the way he means it, just isn’t there. But, not only finding it but trying to make theism the normative expression of the tradition.

(I’m also cautioned by how Traditionalism itself with its focus on holding fast to received traditions has been neatly incorporated into some proto-fascistic political philosophies. But, that’s noted for another reflection…)

I suggest perennialism needs a modifier. And I suggest that modifier is naturalistic. What I think Zen and any other spirituality that recognizes our interrelatedness can be best understood as a form of naturalistic perennialism.

At this point in my life the issue is this. I believe there are currents of religion that are rooted in our biology, and as something natural, also something that people can find within all religions. And I hope it would therefore be obvious also available without any religion at all. We are able to perceive our connections, not just intellectually, but intuitively, physically. Awakening, salvation, all those different words that point to some great healing of some terrible rift are about our totally human, absolutely natural ability to see into our interrelatedness.

This body knowing manifests in a number of possible ways. One inclines us toward ethics – what I see as an innate sense of the “fair,” a sense that things should be harmonious, what is good for the goose is good for the gander kind of proto-morality confusingly coupled with a deeply held desire to get one up, and with that an inclination to cheat. I believe pretty much all religious ethics arise out of these two things existing in tension. And, I find Jiryu’s posting a full throated call to the consequences of our seeing into our radical interrelatedness – when the rubber hits the road.

But, what I would not like to be lost in this discussion around interrelatedness, interdependence, interbeing is the mystical aspect of this insight. By mystical I mean quite narrowly an apprehension of a root to all our individual consciousnesses. For most of the world’s religions this root is seen as God, and as profoundly personal. But Buddhism shows this does not have to be experienced that way. And, for me and my naturalistic turn, it is a pointing to our biology. We seem to have within the structures of our brains an ability to see at the same time that we are different and distinct and acting in our own interests, that there is a common place, we exist within an intimacy so profound it is fair to call it one.

So, back to that debate generated by Jiryu, and then  joined in by Alan and Richard.

Me, I find the Buddhist explanation, particularly the Zen Buddhist explanation, and more specifically the “modernist” Zen Buddhist explanation is as close as we come to an accurate statement of the universal current. It points true. Or, as true as our words can point. And maybe most important Zen introduces a technology of the spirit, a practical discipline to help us see this for ourselves, and then to deepen into the mysteries of connection.

That’s the project. That’s the universal message. We are called by the universe itself, and by our biology to know our radical interrelatedness, our interdependence, our interbeing. This is the ancient call of our hearts. This is the secret of our healing in this broken world.

Nothing less.

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