Jai Bhim!

Jai Bhim! Dispatches from a Peaceful Revolution by Terry Pilchick
Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1988. BQ336.P5

This is a wonderful little book about the human legacy of one of my favorite people from all history, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar. Pilchick strikes me as a practical and compassionate (although sometimes insufferably British) person who wanted to find out how Ambedkar’s Buddhist community in India was faring. Rather than reading one of Professor Zelliot’s books about it, he went there himself and made friends with the Mahars!

I learned some interesting things along the way: for example, how Sangharakshita, so controversial in Britain, was to Dr. Ambedkar a light of philosophical purity in the chaos of Buddhism as practiced in Sri Lanka and Burma, (74) and how despite being British born and raised, Sangharakshita knew his audience of unimaginably poor Dalits so well when he gave a speech in Maharashtra, he brought knowing smiles and laughter from the crowd. (77) “Sangharakshita sees his listeners in a paradoxical, twofold aspect. On one hand, they are poor, uneducated, mainly illiterate. Even as they sit listening, their bodies express an air of physically ingrained humility … But they have also struggled out of a trap that ensnares most of the world … They know life holds greater purpose than placid obedience to some divine plan.” (128) Thus, his message:

Some people say that, because the Buddha taught ‘impermanence’, Buddhism must be gloomy and pessimistic. But it is wonderful that things are impermanent: it means they change. And if things have to change, then why should they not change for the better. People are changing all the time, so people can become better. Society is changing, so society can become better. … A bad man can become a good man; a good man can become a better man; a better man can become a Buddha. (130)

His talks stay simple and direct, and references to the great Dr. Ambedkar are peppered throughout. My opinion of this guy was certainly raised a little. The eagerness of the Dalits to learn Buddhism was also impressive: “Lokamitra told me that one woman came along to retreats quite regularly in the full knowledge that her husband would beat her when she returned home.” (96) There are so many wonderful stories here, I must quote another

A diminutive man squeezes his way through the throng, hammering open a path with the tiny baby he carries in his arms. He thrusts the dazed infant under Sangharakshita’s nose.
‘Name! Please, Bhanteji! Name!’
Sangharakshita looks at the well-wrapped child. ‘Is it a boy or girl?’
‘Girl, Bhanteji.’
He takes another look, smiles. ‘Bodhipushpa—Flower of Enlightenment.’
Overcome with rapture, the father spins on his heels and batters his way back through the crowd, his eyes wildly seeking out the rest of his group. The entire affair has lasted no more than fifteen seconds, but that name will go with the girl for the rest of her life … as a highly prized talisman. (136)

If you went to India to give a dhamma talk, would you be prepared for an encounter like this? Wow!

One last thing I’d like to talk about today is Pilchick’s observation that “even today many Hindus regard Buddhism as nothing more than just an archaic branch of Hinduism”. (23) Dismissive comments like this are an interesting theme I am seeing in many books about “religion” in India and Japan. Many Japanese people will say that Shinto is non-religious custom. For some reason, we laugh off this insider account as due to ignorance, rather than realizing that this is truly a gem of knowledge to understand the role that our imagined “Shinto” or “Buddhism” play in their home societies.

Pilchick states, correctly, that Buddhists were subject to persecution from Brahmins. But at the same time, Buddhism in India was constantly developing throughout the time it was there. Consider this: the oldest form of Buddhism, Sthaviravada, is strictly materialistic and preaches cessation of suffering in the here and now. (I’m ignoring the developments in Theravada in Southeast Asia.) The next form, Mahayana, holds that the forms in which Sthaviravada were taught were empty of independent meaning, and that true insight can be awakened within oneself without the need to follow a rigid path. The next form, Vajrayana, says further that you can come to identify yourself with these perfections in the forms of bodhisattvas, if you have a competent guru to instruct you. Now, all this is moving away from materialist description of life, and towards yogas. Couldn’t we just tack on modern, guru-based “Hinduism” to this list? The gap between Theravada and Hare Krishnas is huge, but the gap between Vajrayana and Hare Krishnas is not so big, I think. Vaishnavas even had major debates about whether you are allowed to identify yourself with God. So maybe this conception of modern Hindus, that Buddhism was just part of modern Hinduism, is essentially correct.

Posted: March 23rd, 2010 | Book Reviews

Are you a “modern Buddhist”?

The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David L. McMahan
Oxford University Press, 2008. BQ316.M36

Are you aware of the vast gap between the Buddhism you know and the culture familiar to hundreds of millions of people in “Buddhist countries”? All of the practices and goals described by Western Buddhists, such as meditation, a philosophical quest, and an emphasis on freedom and egalitarianism, are part of a great revolution in Buddhist knowledge as the Western world discovers it. In this book, David McMahan seeks to describe these differences, neither demeaning or praising either side, but raising our awareness of the new role that our Buddhist modernism is giving to these ancient teachings.

When we read about Buddhism by choice, seeking out its most fruitful and meaningful teachings, we are doing virtually the opposite of how laypeople experience Buddhism in Thailand or Tibet. For an average Thai woman, Buddhism means a concern with “honoring, appeasing, and managing the spirit powers that pervade her existential world and with generating the karmic effects to provide good fortune in this life and lives to come.” (37) She doesn’t pick out what interests her the most, nor is she familiar with what the Buddha actually taught, except on the most basic level of virtue and compassion. She might see us as a strange phenomenon: we know as much about Buddhism as a fully ordained monk, but we do not perform any of the rituals that she considers essential for moral upkeep.

Our creation of a philosophical world for Buddhism in the Western/Greek tradition makes us undeniably modern, and grounds our Buddhism in European history just as much as Asian history. Even the act of reading a Buddhist text on your own is a transformation: “It would have occurred to virtually no one [in medieval Tibet] simply to pick up a book and try to understand it himself … The vast canonical literature of Buddhism was written as an aid to oral and personal instruction by an authorized teacher.” (17) And this, too, is only one of a huge variety of ways that reading was performed throughout Asia. The way we Westerners read texts is no more culturally neutral than any of these, but comes down to us from Martin Luther’s idea of sola scriptura.

In a major sense, this modernism arose in response to the demands of 19th century Christians to see either rationality or superstition in the teachings they came across. India is the most important case of a complex culture being reduced to a perceived primitive, uninteresting superstition which the British called “Brahmanism” or “Hinduism”. In the Buddhist world, too, accusations like “atheistic, nihilistic, quietistic, pessimistic, and idolatrous” came fast and furious from Western colonists. (69) When contemporary Sri Lankans and Japanese aimed to combat the ignorance of these critics, they created in response a Buddhist modernism, that is to say a Buddhism that was compatible with the Western philosophical tradition. This was the Buddhism that was equivalent to science, opposed to superstition, and in agreement with Christianity or even superior to it.

Although he is in some sense trying to demythologize this modern Buddhism, McMahan is careful to note that modern portrayals of Buddhist literature have often turned out to be accurate. For example, the Tibetan Book of the Dead was given an intense psychological rereading by Carl Jung which described its images of fierce Buddhas and bodhisattvas as “‘nothing but’ the collective unconsciousness inside me.” We might assume that Jung is projecting his own beliefs onto the traditional book of chants. (53) However, if we look at the text of the book, we find that Jung had ample basis for this representation: these powerful beings are indeed described as “appearances” (pratibhasa) who are “not distinct from the deceased subject wandering in the bar do“. (54) Jung’s interpretation was certainly novel, in the sense that any Tibetan he talked with would not have been familiar with it. But that does not mean he was wrong.

In fact, the main criticism I have of this book is that it does not attribute enough agency to Asian Buddhists for the elements of Buddhism that have reached us today, such as meditation, interbeing, and aesthetics. McMahan quotes Paul Heelas as saying, “people—whether ‘premodern’/’traditional’, ‘modern’ or even ‘post-modern’/’post-traditional’—always live in terms of … typically conflicting demands” to change or renew the meaning of their culture; our own modernism is just the past 100 years of change in a long, living history. (58) One of the Victorian conceits in their encounter with Buddhism was to portray it as ancient teachings submerged in a “dead” religion, and I think we should avoid framing the Western encounter with Buddhism as “breathing life” into it. Some examples of undoubtedly traditional Buddhism used to modern effect, such as tree ordination in Thailand, might have sufficed to round out the complex image presented here. McMahan brushes over these developments as “post-modern” or “retraditionalization”, which seems to imply (falsely) that they have progressed beyond a stage of modernism. (247)

One thing I think McMahan could pay more attention to is the Western discourse on the terms “religion” and “religions”, and their role in the creation of this modernism. D.T. Suzuki’s claim that Zen is “the essence of religion” (143) is novel, not because nobody had ever claimed an essential nature for Zen before, but because he connects it to the Western ecumenical idea of “religion” as the universal impulse that arises in various forms throughout the world, as opposed to different impulses for different places. He then places Zen as the breakthrough technique to uncover the Ground-Source of this mysterious impulse. It is good to note how Buddhism was reconciled with science by 20th century modernists, but how was it reconciled with this idea of “religion”? Has a discourse on universal spiritual impulse been important, or perhaps even necessary, in the creation of this modernism? This question may be confusing, but I believe it is quite important for understanding how we modern seekers relate ourselves to Buddhism today.

Posted: March 23rd, 2010 | Book Reviews

Devas in the Attic

Light of Liberation: A History of Buddhism in India
Dharma Publishing, 1992. BQ286.L54

Today I had to plug through many history books of the sort described in my last post. Some were fascinating in their own right (The Search for the Buddha was a roller-coaster ride, guiding me through the excitement of discovering a lost civilization in the midst of colonial India) but few told me anything new about Buddhism, even the ones which were purportedly about Buddhist history. For some reason there is a book of “history” attributed to Daisaku Ikeda in this library, full of inaccuracies and quite obviously cribbed from other texts by a ghostwriter. But just because a book is written from an insider perspective doesn’t mean it is necessarily ignorant of real Buddhist history. My favorite book today actually presents Early Buddhism from an unapologetically Tibetan perspective.

It is refreshing, after reading so many books which shrug or speculate about the origin of Mahayana scriptures, to read one which proclaims, apparently without any embarrassment, that Buddha left some of his higher-level sutras with nagas, devas, and gandharvas for safekeeping, and that the most difficult sutras, for the sake of expedience in the limited time given to Buddha on earth, were proclaimed in higher realms that “humans and devas alike could not normally access … on their own”, but which it was possible to visit “through the perfection of a profound samadhi”. Like a passworded chatroom! (125)

Well, I don’t mean to laugh at these cosmic fantasies. Rather, it is disappointing that historians who search for the “real” early Buddhism often fail to report them, because learning the way that Tibetan Buddhists themselves think about the most powerful sutras is the best way to understand them. Think about it this way: for those monks who had only material understanding, Buddha explained the simple teachings of dependent arising and nonself. Then, when he appeared to be meditating in this world, he held a special conference for his best disciples and gave them the sort of insights only perceivable by a Buddha. These teachings were, of course, held back from the general public until the sudden Mahayana revolution of the first and second centuries CE, when they were revealed. (300)

A lot of useful territory is covered in this account, so let’s just talk about what interests me. First is the Trial of Ananda, an incident where Mahakashyapa blocks Ananda from attending the First Buddhist Council on the following grounds:

  1. Ananda had requested that women be admitted into the order.
  2. Ananda had not asked the Buddha to remain in the world.
  3. Ananda had [stepped] on the Buddha’s robe [while sewing it].
  4. Ananda had once given impure water to the Buddha.
  5. Ananda had not clarified with the Buddha which Vinaya rules were to be always kept and which could be sometimes set aside.
  6. Ananda had shown the Buddha’s unclothed corpse to the Sangha.
  7. Ananda had shown the corpse of the Buddha to women, who profaned it with their tears. (159-160)

I don’t know about you guys, but to me this list damns Mahakashyapa as a prude and an old fuddy-duddy, while making Ananda out to be the more compassionate and eager of the two. I guess he does seem a little absent-minded, though.

It is also interesting to see the constant citation of Bu-ston, whom I imagine to be a sort of Eusebius of Mahayana Buddhism. Well, this book is a lot more readable than those confusing histories based on Eusebius… when we get to the Mahayana section, especially, our teachers like Nagarjuna and Asanga travel to the land of the nagas, extremely high mountains, and even Tushita Heaven to study with Maitreya. They hear truths so powerful that they cannot understand them. Yes, even if the Mahayana canon is just “fanfiction”, this does sound like an interesting subject to read more about.

Posted: March 18th, 2010 | Book Reviews

The British Discovery of Buddhism

The British Discovery of Buddhism by Philip C. Almond
Cambridge University Press, 1988. BQ162.G7

This book could better be titled “The British Invention of Buddhism”, since Almond demonstrates how the British were tying together a multitude of traditions dispersed throughout Asia. As he writes: “The religion having been ‘created’, there came the ensuing realization that its adherents outnumbered those of Christianity.” (12) Rather than putting scare quotes around the world “created”, I think they would be better placed around the words “religion” and “adherents”, since the Chinese being labeled by the British did not think of themselves as “adherents” of anything endorsed in Thailand, and vice versa.

In terms of religious-secular discussions, it is also extremely interesting to see the British nation as a religious icon in this period, pitted against the falsehoods of the pagans. One jeremiad bewails that as the British flag “is displayed over the mountain capital of Ceylon, it tells us of principle sacrificed, of religion dishonoured, of atheism perpetuated, of idolatry countenanced, and of a false and wide-spread superstition protected and maintained.” (134) Parallels might be drawn with the modern British anxiety about protecting the Muslims in their midst, or the use of “secular” American symbols in the evangelical community–do we not hear similar complaints emanating from that group, even today?

There are all sorts of treats to be found in this text, such as Francis Wilford’s quest to identify Mount Caucasus with Britain, the theory that Buddha was really African or Mongolian, the identification of Buddha with Odin (!), or the fact that these inquiries proliferated for decades before a single examination was done of any Buddhist teaching, probably out of disinterest–Christianity, after all, had superior knowledge!

When the dhamma begins to leak into the narrative, I feel an intense annoyance with how the conservative Christians responded to this new and unusual culture. Although they were a minority, they approached the topic with an insistence on superiority and domination, an demeaning attitude towards those interested in foreign things, constant comparison of “Orientals” to children, and so forth. Consider how John F. Davis described Buddhist monks: “They have, nearly all of them, an expression approaching to idiotcy [sic], which is probably acquired by that dreamy state in which one of their most famous professors is said to have passed nine years with his eyes fixed upon a wall!” Almond simply says that these writers were overwhelmed by a monastic simplicity that “contrasted so much with their more active, ‘muscular’ vision of the Christian life.” (122)

We can be indebted to Almond for his cool, neutral exposition of these poor excuses for debate; today’s evangelical movement can only hope for such an undeservedly fair treatment a century from now. But at the same time, even the positive Victorian image of the Buddha, exemplified by The Light of Asia, is clouded in Oriental fantasy and British inventions. This is where Edward Said comes into play, as the creation of the Orient, even in a positive light, constructs a West that is necessarily in opposition to “Oriental” ideals. I am very glad that I was not alive at that time!

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Book Reviews, Secular-Religious

Northern Buddhist Dark Humor

Once, when the Venerable Ananda was staying in the Venuvana, he overheard a monk reciting a verse from the Dhammapada: “It would be better for a man to live a single day and see a marsh fowl than for him to live a hundred years and not see a marsh fowl.”

The Venerable Ananda went up to him and said, “My son, the Buddha did not say that! This is what he said: ‘It would be better for a man to live a single day and see the harsh, foul nature of samsara than for him to live a hundred years and not see the harsh, foul nature of samsara.'”

The monk then went to see his preceptor and said: “The Venerable Ananda tells me that the Buddha did not speak this verse.”

The monk’s preceptor replied: “The Venerable Ananda is a mistaken, senile old man who can no longer remember the Dhamma. Keep on reciting the way you were taught.”

Later, Ananda came by and heard the verse being recited just as before, without change. He said: “My son, did I not tell you the Buddha did not say that?”

The monk replied: “Yes, but my preceptor said, ‘Ananda is getting on in years and cannot remember so well: go on reciting as before.'”

Ananda reflected: “I myself told him the correct verse, but he did not accept it.” Ananda then contemplated the question of whether anyone would be able to convince this monk to correct his recitation, and he realized: “There is no one who can get him to change. The Buddha’s disciples Shariputra, Maudgalyayana, and Mahakashyapa have all entered nibbana; to whom could I now turn as an authority? I shall also enter nibbana.”

Aśokarajavadana (“The Face of King Aśoka”), unknown Chinese translator in Taisho Tripitaka 2042.50:115b-c, trans. John S. Strong in The Experience of Buddhism p. 90

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Excerpts

Engaged Buddhist Reader

Engaged Buddhist Reader
Parallax Press, 1996. BQ122.E54

People today are seeking happiness, much more than we did in the past. I know how to seek food, and I know how to seek shelter, but what does it mean to seek happiness? Where is there to look, beyond the world itself? Shouldn’t people be happy simply by being here? Really what this “seeking” means is that people are confused by the world around them, and don’t know how to interpret what they see and hear. We may have a lot of book-knowledge, but we lack this know-how to respond to suffering when we feel it, or to deal with our anger or other feelings that rise up in us.

In Buddhism, there are three schools, Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. We often think that you have to pick a school and learn only what that school teaches. But all these teachings are only the teachings of the sanghas. Buddha did not have a sangha to show him the way. He gained his insight from the Dhammayana, the vehicle of reality. The reality that you are sitting in right now as you read this is your vehicle to become a Buddha. Only by knowing how to read and interpret this vehicle can you really call yourself an awakened person. The sangha vehicles can only give you some hints.

I knew this book would be good when I saw it on the shelf, but I was not expecting every page to be filled with insights such as these. (The above meandering was inspired by the contribution of the Cambodian monk Ghosananda.) Its messages will stop your hurried mind and draw you into deep contemplation, beginning with the teaching of the Dalai Lama on compassion and love on the very first page. Some essays have appeared before in various works, but combined here with their neighbors, their power is amplified. Because I felt a strong desire to stop reading halfway through and call my parents to reaffirm my gratitude and love to them, it took me over four hours to finish in total. Not only the big names in Engaged Buddhism but also underappreciated authors like Maha Ghosananda and A.T. Ariyaratne appear here, giving tales from real life of how they engage with difficult situations and change people’s lives for the better.

Even the millennia of Buddhist stories from the past, often forgotten by Western authors exubriant at the discovery of this rich world of knowledge, are starting to come to light in these pages. I especially like the story of Prince Vessantara, a parable of the welfare state. Vessantara gave freely to the people, and they became wealthy and happy, but they began to fear that the prince would take away their new wealth, so they banished him. Robert A.F. Thurman recognizes that the situation in the United States is very much the same today. “Hoarding creates poverty. Giving away creates wealth. Imagination of scarcity is thus the cause of loss.” (88)

Today, our collective understanding remains very limited, but the power we have created for ourselves is very great. Even if you only take your gun out of its holster to shoot wolves, do you really know what impact those deaths will have on the environment? (181) We entrust ourselves with life and death situations all the time, but we do not have this knowing. The way we drive our cars, the way we eat our food, all of this will determine the direction our civilization will take. As the Dalai Lama concludes, the blueprint for our society is in our mind. (250) But how much time do we take to think about these things every day?

This book summarizes roughly the first decade of Engaged Buddhist writing, 1986-1996. In terms of political change, I do not know how we might quantify the work of this movement: the number of Vietnam veterans who came to peace with their past? The number of Sri Lankans who abandoned violence? But in terms of a change of heart, this is a testimony to worlds that have been changed, and deserves an engaged read by all who work for peace.

Posted: March 16th, 2010 | Book Reviews

Buddhism and the Emerging World Civilization

Today I decided to read every book in my university library with the call number BQ (Buddhism). I don’t have a way to calculate exactly how many titles this is, but I believe there are roughly 2,000 books here. I don’t expect to make 2,000 blog posts, and I expect to do a lot of skimming. However, when I run across a hidden gem, it is my intention to give it the respectful mindfulness it deserves.

Buddhism and the Emerging World Civilization
Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. BQ120.B8123

Opening the first page of my first book, I discover it is written in honor of a man after my own heart, a certain Nolan Pliny Jacobson, who hoped to constructed a life-affirming “world civilization” free of any ideology or belief system. “His writings celebrate all that brings together and brings out the joyful and vibrant qualities of the whole earth and the living creatures that inhabit it.” (xii) How does this optimism translate into practice?

The first writer, an analytic philosopher named Bart Gruzalski, provides an analysis of Buddhist terms in English. Since my readers may be unfamiliar with Buddhism, this discussion may be useful. He demonstrates how acting “without desire” in Buddhism is not a move towards apathy, as those attached to the idea of devotional love might characterize it. Instead, it represents a move away from emotional blindness and towards compassionate understanding. He similarly differentiates between a mere habit, i.e. something we do with neither (conscious) desire nor mindfulness, and a skill, something we have obtained through attentive practice. It is important when translating from the Buddha’s original language that we understand how terms like “skillful” and “attentive” are closely related in the dhamma, and separated from terms like “habit” or “rote”. Concluding, this writer describes a Buddha as a person who is “a skillfully compassionate being, fully awake and nonattached.” (12)

In the next essay, by Cedric Heppler, we learn that Professor Jacobson’s worldview began with the prospect of a “natural religion”, an old 18th century term that I want to rescue from the changes in meaning both words have undergone by renaming it “human inclinations”. He considered in 1948 that human beings are naturally inclined towards “a warm mutuality and fellow-feeling”, which he felt at the time to be one expression of the word “God” (this later changed), but that a confusion over how this could be achieved had created “mental disorder, alcoholism, suicide,” and so forth. (18) After reading about how he revitalized Hume with modern language, we look at Professor Jacobson’s view after his Buddhist “conversion”: he still insists on a reliance on natural, human inclinations, but has given up on trying to redefine “God” and now, quoting a guy named Whitehead, places his own thought in opposition to God/Brahma/Allah, that “great refusal of rationality to assert its rights.” (27) If you can figure out the Hegelian self-alienation being employed, I suppose this turn of phrase seems rather clever, as it undoubtedly did to the three authors through which it came to me: Whitehead, Jacobson, and Heppler. I am not a big fan of the concealed psychoanalysis, though. It seems to Orientalize previous philosophers somewhat. Some of the other writers in this book also have this tendency to put down other ways of thought (83), but I agree with Durkheim that nobody likes to think of themselves as irrational or insufficiently rational. Assuming superiority is not the proper way for Buddhists to approach other cultures.

In the essay “Creativity and the Emerging World Civilization”, by David Lee Miller, I learn a new fascinating tidbit: Professor Jacobson went to study in Burma in 1961, during the brief period when it was a somewhat functioning democracy. Now I’m very interested in this guy! I have several Burmese friends, and I believe that within their country, sealed off by the military regime, is an untapped wealth of knowledge and compassion as well as other powerful expressions of the heart. (I say “untapped” because very little is written about Burma for us moderns to digest, although certainly the Burmese tap into their own cultural reservoir all the time.) However, the essay digresses into a discussion of creativity. Jacobson interestingly defines creativity as the opposite of suffering, and therefore the power that can save us from suffering. He wrote: “Buddhism is humankind’s most persevering effort to participate in the creativity incarnate in the passing now.” (44) This is an intriguing statement, but it is kind of mystical and difficult for me to understand. Is this Burmese Buddhism? It seems to me to be at the very least a new and lively expression of natural religion. But we take our leave here. Hmm, this essay leaves a lot of questions unanswered… another author quotes Jacobson attributing much of his life’s insights to this year in Burma (97), but with no further context. Alas, his book is not in this library.

While this book goes into great detail regarding the overlaps between Buddhism and process philosophy, not many of its essays actually deal with community, society, or civilization, because Buddhism does not have much to say about these pressing issues (although I think the construction of the sangha has been vastly understudied in Western literature). One interesting exception is “One Out of Many: The Way of Creation Toward a Planetary Community”, written by Howard L. Parsons in the style of the Epcot World Showcase. We learn in this vacuous essay that “worldwide technology, science, and a scientific community are growing and becoming integrated,” “a revolution in information and communication–by radio, television, telephone, computer, and other equipment–is taking place,” “trucks, trains, ships and airplanes carry cargo”, and so forth. (155-6) I didn’t see Buddhism mentioned in this essay, though.

This book leaves me with an interest in Professor Jacobson’s work, although it does not seem to add to his existing corpus in any appreciable way. I am intrigued by his work in Burma, as well as his authorship of a book called Nihon-do: The Japan Way that looks at Japan from a holistic rather than myopically “religious” perspective. (192) These writings overlap with my personal interests and probably have a lot to say that the book did not. I will leave you with a quote from the excellent final essay, “Buddhism and the Emerging World Civilization” by Seizo Ohe:

Most people say, “Science is cool, religion is warm.” But many astronauts, looking at the earth from above, seem to feel the genuine bond of all men and women who live on the green planet. And contemporary ecologists feel their sincere fellowship not only with human beings, animals, and plants but with other nonliving things, just as the Buddha taught more than two thousand years ago. (208)

Try to protect young men and women from expanding sensual desires with recent technological progress, and keep them within the sound order of the great harmony of nature. Try to help their love of their native land continuously grow into their love of humankind, by preventing them from corruption of all sorts of sociopolitical power and monetary pollution. … Then our grown-up children, young men and women, will be happier with themselves than they are today. (211)

This is a sort of test post, since it’s the first book I read. I learned from writing this review that I should read the entire book before I write the post. Also, I will read multiple books every day and choose only one to write about. In this way I hope to bring you some interesting insights every day. So, please subscribe 🙂

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Posted: March 15th, 2010 | Book Reviews, Kokoro 1 Comment »

“Religious Studies”: The Future of an Illusion

On a shrine's wish board: "Chihiro and Tomoko, together forever!" Is this religion? Does it even matter? (Peter Held)

A century ago Sigmund Freud proclaimed the end of religion as an influence on humanity. He defined an illusion as something which people want to believe but can be neither proved nor disproved, and combined it with the concept of religion, which he either perceived or defined as a collection of childish ideas people used to hold about the world. The real illusion, invisible to Freud’s eyes, was his imposition of that idea onto the entire world. He claimed without proof to perceive a single concept which has existed in all times and places, but religion is a Western word, developed in a Christian society. As religious scholars, we hasten to equate it to concepts in other language: dharma, tao, bhakti, or even islam. We draw our anthropology from The Golden Bough, assuming in some way or another that the coincidental practices of strange or incompletely developed peoples echo pan-human themes. Although we in fact find that the language worlds of other cultures have created quite different societies, we insist that they are expressing a form of our permanent entity, “religion”. This is unacceptable.

The field of religious studies has spent over a century building up scholarship based on this falsely presumed universality. What is the benefit of a comparison between medieval Japanese and Arab mystics, when you don’t understand either language? Such pursuits do not lead us closer to an understanding of either Japan or the Islamic caliphate, but are in fact an exercise in finding new meanings for tired English words such as “insight”, “ecstasy”, or “ineffable”. This is not a work of cultural exchange, but of ecumenical theology. Historical examples from faraway places are transformed through our work into precedents for our more complete understanding, mere ingredients to enrich these Western categories. One would think, after decades of this work, that we would have developed sufficiently rich language to enlighten the entire world.

Instead, by attributing a wealth of practices to the Western construct which was already enraging intellectuals like Freud a century ago, we have succeeded in alienating ourselves from our human siblings in the global south, and undoing the careful work of anthropologists and sociologists. Today, “religion” is a bogeyman: popular speakers or bloggers will frighten audiences with the specter of Islamic extremism, or “religious delusion” in general, as a worldwide phenomenon responsible for keeping faraway cultures in the Dark Ages or threatening the very basis of civilization. We must ask ourselves: what has the importance given to the Western religious category added to our discourse on Middle Eastern politics, if not to mystify discussions of the subcontinent with claims of widespread brainwashing by some vaguely imagined, church-like institution, the pan-regional “Religion”? If we dropped our pretenses of “sacredness” and the “transcendent” and moved to interpret lowercase-I islam as just one pattern of life among many in the diverse cultures of the Middle East, wouldn’t Western readers be less guarded and more open to understanding these different but altogether human conceptions?

Meanwhile, those communities whose cultural property we have appropriated and transformed for our own theological quests are not always happy with their exploitation, as we have seen from the backlash by Indians against the Wendy Doniger school of “Hindu studies”. When these groups deny the validity of Western analysis, the academic response has been to fall back on mean-spirited Orientalist rhetoric, and what seemed like a friendly, inclusive ecumenicism quickly becomes a harsh verbal battle. Consider the response of Morris J. Augustine to Timothy Fitzgerald’s point that most Japanese people do not self-identify as religious:

It is not surprising to me that Japanese students and/or professors never really think about what they are doing [during family ceremonies] … this is a typical example of the “nihonjinron” or conscious or unconscious feeling that their own race and culture is in a class by itself and cannot simply be compared to others.

We see here the dark side of religious studies: if the subject people does not want to be included in our peculiar Weltgeist, they’re either too ignorant to understand their own culture, or they think they’re better than us! Both these claims are clearly based directly on a belief in “religion” as an immutable, universal, and sacred category. Augustine is not the first religious scholar to make condescending generalizations about Japanese self-identity; D.C. Holtom shrugged off Japanese complaints in a similar way in the 1930s, leading to the invention of the term “State Shinto” to describe Japanese fascism religiously and the pronouncement of a “Shinto Directive” during the Allied Occupation which imposed Western secularism by force.

One could argue that interfaith dialogue, drawing distinctions between religions and explaining them, has deepened understanding between Christians and Jews as well as other “faith communities”, but has “religion” really done any work here that “culture” could not? In fact, is it even proper to describe Judaism as “religion” when it is practiced culturally by a large number of atheists? Meanwhile, the sanctity of the religious category has served to create a perception in India of an irreconcilable divide between Hindus and Muslims. To claim despite all this that religious studies is a net benefactor on our perception of current events, you must first confess your faith in its theological tenets—for example, Augustine’s belief “that the mysterious Source-Ground from which all religions have emerged has fired the inspiration of very different charismatic leaders in hundreds of different societies in every age”. (No wonder he so vehemently denies Japanese non-religiosity.)

For the rest of us, it is well past time to open up the discourse. Not only questions of “religious” and “secular”, but also constantly changing categories like “state”, “politics”, “civility”, “barbarity”, and so forth, must be examined in a way that does not hold any of these words to be endowed with any permanent and unchanging meaning throughout the centuries. If this approach is bad-mouthed as postmodernism, I deny the accusation: this is Buddhism, and the philosophy I here employ is emptiness. If critics insist on relying on some particular definition for any of these words, that will allow them to examine Japanese society from the perspective of the Religion and the Church, then they are relying on a different perspective in which some concepts are written in the sky, unchanging now and forever. To those people, I leave the job of repairing religious studies. They can write whatever they like—just don’t assume that anyone will automatically consider it relevant.

There is much work to be done, to present the worlds of non-Western societies in a comprehensible way that does not diminish the value they give to insiders. To the prospective scholar, I ask: are you willing to take on the challenge?

Posted: March 11th, 2010 | Japan, Postcolonialism, Secular-Religious


Alright everyone, let’s try this again. Take it from the top–

and with feeling

Posted: March 2nd, 2010 | Site news