Analytic Theology

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Reply to Stéphane Dreyfus

March 20th, 2010 by David Kronemyer · 2 Comments

DAVID KRONEMYER: On September 20, 2009 I posted a note Thich Nhat Hanh at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium.   Stéphane Dreyfus, whom I mentioned in the note, was kind enough to post a reply.  This note is in response to Dreyfus’ defense of his practice of “Western Buddhism” – an endeavor I believe is deeply flawed from a philosophical standpoint for the reasons I originally set forth and elaborate herein (among others).

I.  Money-Changers at the Temple

One of the criticisms I made in my original note was the excessive pageantry associated with Thich Nhat Hanh’s performance.  This in and of itself was an obstacle to the effective demonstration (and any subsequent discussion) of Buddhist practices.  Undoubtedly Hanh is an expert in them.  However his presentation totally lacked any concrete theological substance.  It was not reasoned discourse deserving of serious scholarly consideration but rather a venture into the realm of pop culture.

The reason why this is objectionable is because of Hanh’s pretense he was engaging in universal spiritual practices.  The overabundance of artifacts of material culture (sumi-e/tranh thuỷ mặc’ brush painting calligraphy on display and for sale), simony, purposefully-engineered exoticism and feel-good platitudes created the attractive illusion of a complete spiritual experience.  To paraphrase analogous imagery from the Judeo-Christian tradition it was no different from the money-changers at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Hanh explicitly invited his audience to partake of all of the benefits of traditional institutional religion (in the case of Buddhism, enlightenment, satori, kensho, nirvana, achieving a state of utter immanence with the world and the falling away of the ego) without any risk of the punishment for wrongdoing within Buddhist tradition.  He inferred analogous elements found within the Judeo-Christian tradition (such as, for example, hell and eternal torment) could be dispensed with summarily.

“Spiritual” implies a notion of universality.  One of my objectives is to liberate the spiritual from this and similar Platonic conceptions and to clarify its specific spatio-temporal etiology.  This is not mere semantics.  Making this distinction is crucial to exploring the social and anthropological implications of the introduction and adaptation of Buddhist practices into the lives of Westerners of traditionally non-Buddhist ancestry.

II.  Truth and Consequences

So far this simply is a modest criticism of Hanh’s methods and technique.  Far more disconcerting is for any one person (or organization) to present an incomplete and piecemeal portrait of a venerable 2,500-year-old tradition such as Buddhism.  Hanh does not speak for all Buddhists nor is he a font of Buddhist orthodoxy.  Rather he presents a sanitized version of Buddhism more fit for transportation into and consumption by western pop culture.

A good example of this is the concept of punishment after death for one’s misadventures on earth.  One of the attractive features of Buddhism is its highly developed cosmology.  Canonical Buddhist texts prominently emphasize concepts such as the the Śūragama Sūtra or Chinese Chan-specific Sūtra of The Great Vows of Kitigarbha Bodhisattva.  They discuss topics such as supernatural punishment for one’s actions on earth.  One might descend the spokes bhavacakra’s six realms of existence, possibly even winding up at the bottom in Naraka, the Buddhist version of hell.  Another example is that described in the Ojo Yoshu by Genshin.  The miscreant is subjected to climbing a tree ringed with swords, then sliding downward as the points of the swords shift upwards to impale him.  These punishments rival those of Dante’s Inferno.

Hanh conveniently omitted these frightful elements from his presentation.  They cannot be disregarded simply as appendages suitable for being discarded when Buddhism is dumbed-down for western audiences.  Hanh’s failure to present these counterpart elements is disingenuous.  They are inseparable aspects of Buddhist thought.

III.  Orthodoxy versus Orthopraxy

Hanh’s muddling of concepts also is worrysome because it is an attempt to define the limits of orthodoxy.  Faith (Śraddhā) is an important component of Buddhist practice.  It is emphasized by occasionally-neglected canonical texts such as Kasibharadvaja Sutta, Kalama Sutta, Mahaparinirvana Sutra and notably in the Pure Land school). Hanh on the other hand implies that, for western culture, Buddhism is strictly orthopraxic in nature.  Good conduct is exoteric and can be measured behaviorally.  All one has to do is adhere to formulaic algorithms such as chanting, proper posture and the seamless performance of rituals.  What one actually believes is a moot point.

Hanh cannot dismiss the concepts of orthodox Buddhism simply as esoteric symbolism for the benefit of western consumption (for example, the misnomer Buddhist hell does not exist as a literal place but rather is an allegory for negative emotions).  There is no benefit to a Buddhism which has been cleansed or purged of its critical tenets, even for a sycophantic post-modern western audience.  Hanh’s approach is insidious because he effectively establishes himself as the arbitrator of canonical doctrine, which he then can attenuate to the perceived needs and requirements of his followers.  This is a slippery slope (and accounts for Pope Benedict XVI’s recent statement that Buddhism is “autoerotic”).  Who among Hanh’s audience would make the literal acceptance of the six realms part of their daily practice and affirmations as Christians do (to varying degrees) with the concept of hell, purgatory, sin and atonement?  How many Western Buddhists practice their faith spurred with the fear of being reincarnated upon their death as an animal, or a hungry ghost?  How many Western Buddhists prepare themselves for their entry into the bardo/antarabhāva upon their upon their death?  One cannot lead an enriched spiritual life if it is devoid of eschatology or punishment for wrongdoing.  This same thinking has fueled everything from pogroms to massacres such as the ones that occurred within culturally Buddhist Cambodia.

IV.  Noble Truths

Dreyfus’ proposal regarding the proper understanding of the Four Noble Truths also is incorrect.  Fundamental tenets of Buddhism, they are Dukkha (the nature of suffering); Dukkha Samudaya (suffering’s origin); Dukkha Nirodha (suffering’s cessation); and Dukkha Nirodha Gamini Patipada Magga) (the path).  The latter three necessarily issue from the first.  They are conditional – not independently, individually authoritative.  Each is a clarification of and an elaboration on its immediate predecessor.  All ultimately are contingent upon the plausibility and sustainability of the First Noble Truth (Dukkha).  The west does not require the concept of Dukkha just like persons in East Asia do not need a Christian concept like original sin or transubstantiation.  Proclaiming the Four Noble Truths to be axiomatic to the human condition no different from affixing the same appelation to the Ten Commandments or the seven deadly sins.

The doctrine of Pratītyasamutpāda, which Dreyfus cites, also is culture-bound.  Like Dukkha it is not apriori or universally axiomatic in the way physics and chemistry are.

To elaborate this contast, compare the Buddhist notion of suffering with that of the Catholic Church.  In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, within which the Middle Way, the Noble Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths are elucidated, the Four Noble Truths are described as statements on the nature, origin, ending and the path leading to the ending of suffering.  Suffering’s end, dukkhanirodho, explicitly is described as the Third Noble Truth of the four.

For the Christian, on the other hand, suffering is not something that needs to be overcome.  In his 1984 apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris, Pope John Paul II wrote:

“With these and similar words the witnesses of the New Covenant speak of the greatness of the Redemption, accomplished through the suffering of Christ.  The Redeemer suffered in place of man and for man.  Every man has his own share in the Redemption.  Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished.  He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption.  Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.”

The Four Noble Truths were formulated and adopted by a specific culture to cope with suffering.  They lack the universality Dreyfus claims for them.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition suffering is an indispensable component of life.  Rather than to be fled from it is to be embraced.

V.  Zazen

It is bold to claim a specific ethno-cultural practice is useful outside of and separate from the broader ethno-cultural framework from within which it arose.  Oriental cultures, for example, have strived mightily to acquire and utilize Western industrial technology (such as the Internet).  Simultaneously their rulers show no desire for their populace to succumb, by their implementation, to the runaway westernization of morals, attitudes and social fabric.  They want to incorporate the material and procedural artifacts from a foreign culture (the west) while simultaneously attempting to preserve those of their own indigenous culture.

The Buddhist practice of zazen is a good example.  Proponents such as Hanh have aggressively promoted it in the west as a kind of “spiritual technology.”  Like an Apple iPhone or an Amazon Kindle it can be used by anyone, anywhere, regardless of their individual background or beliefs.  Zazen also has infiltrated the academy.  Considerable peer-reviewed and entirely credentialed research has shown its practice alters the brainwaves of long-time practitioners and at least calms the nervous systems of everybody else.  Given these benefits, what possibly could be wrong with it?

The answer is that it is disingenuous to divest a specific ethno-cultural practice from the specific ethno-cultural environment from which it emerged – particularly, the motivation behind the practice.  There is a significant sense in which non-western Buddhists simply have fallen prey to an effective marketing gimmick.  Not only can they elide suffering but they might live forever, at least in some form.  Disaffiliating themselves from religion (in the sense of the Judeo-Christian tradition), new-age Buddhism excessively exalts an eschatology whereby normal human beings like you and me can attain a state of rarefied gurudom.  This is a form of reverse cultural imperialism.  The Judeo-Christian tradition is particularly vulnerable to rituals and traditions, which purport transcend one’s individual life and promise it will endure after one’s inevitable passing.  Reverse cultural imperialism also carries with it the significant risk of misunderstandings arising out of misalignment of practices.  This is evidenced by the collisions and collusions surrounding “masters”  like Taizan Maezumi, Chogyam Trungpa and Richard Baker.

While Buddhism is 2,500 years old the practice of zazen among the laity is of relatively recent origin.  It was encouraged by the antinomian Japanese philosopher Eihei Dogen during the 13th century.  It was transplanted to North America in the 1950s with Shunryu Suzuki’s arrival in San Francisco to minister to the Japanese-American Buddhist community.  Perceiving an opportunity, Suzuki branched out to begin working with non-Japanese Americans, themselves the undirected product of the prevailing counter-cultural currents of the time.  It was a short step from this to the “human potential” movement of the 1960s and an even shorter one to the “mindfulness” movement of the 2000s.

Just to make sure I’m not being misunderstood, there is no question but that zazen is a venerable 2,500-year-old tradition.  It requires commendable commitment and dexterity from its genuine eastern practicioners who are embedded in its culture and points of reference.  This could not be more different however than the kind of faux-Buddhism practiced by post-structuralist westerners.

The transplantation of zazen also raises serious issues of cultural equity.  What about zazen makes it portable between the east and the west, but propitiating Hungry Ghosts/pretas is not?  Why should one practice bodhicitta but not worship the mummies of Chinese Chan abbots?  While every good western Buddhist can discourse on the Four Noble Truths, there is little emphasis on the cosmological impications of saṃsāra or karma, itself a concept that has become so detached from its Sanskrit origins as to be completely meaningless (as in, “you’ve got good karma, dude!”).  This is not designed as a rhetorical question.  Among ethnologists the practices of pretas, jikiniki and gaki are thoroughly ensconced within the indigenous ethno-cultural beliefs of ther host countries.  But zazen has been corrupted so it is more palatable to western cultural tastes.  What authority (other than sages such as Hanh) renders decisions on such matters of dogma?  Is zazen somehow “safer” for western consumption, where its inappropriate or unskillful consumption presents less risk of contamination to the exporting culture?

A second example of a culturally-specific practice inextricably tied to its theological counterpart is the Buddhist tradition of alms begging.  In Japan to this day it is considered essential for Buddhist monks to sally forth from their monasteries and beg for food and supplies from the surrounding lay community.  Far from being regarded as out of place, it is an established tradition.  In western culture on the other hand the nearest equivalent to alms-begging is being homeless.  Westerners feel no compulsion to dispense alms to peregrinating monks or to anybody else for that matter.  The closest equivalent in the Judeo-Christian tradition (as it presently exists) might be Catholic cenobites.  Their means of support traditionally has been through the manufacture and sale of products such as illuminated texts or alcohol.

Buddhist apologists might regard this omission of an integral cultural practice as a necessary compromise to adapting the faith to American norms.  At what point however does the dissection of a venerable 2,500-year-old practice result in an outcome that no longer is a faithful iteration of it?  It has become over-transformed to the point where the original (functional) practice has vanished.  It may be impractical for Buddhist monks to beg in western cities.  It is culturally oblivious to contend this is the only aspect of Buddhism that needs fall by the wayside.  Conversely it would be every bit as peculiar to attempt to import the Catholic practice of solemnly reciting the Pater Noster into an eastern culture.  It lacks any concept of a Judeo-Christian god whom the prayer is attempting to propitiate and is meaningless without that point-of-reference.

A third example is exporting the Islamic practice of salah, ritual ablutions and bowing towards the Ka’ba in Mecca five times a day.  Most westerners would find such practices to be disruptive.  Most westerners don’t know what the Ka’ba is, or for that matter the direction of Mecca.  They do not know the contours and geography of the desert, the sparsity of water, the long journeys by camel, the annealing of tribal loyalty in the face of overwhelming adversity, all of which resulted in the noble faith that Islam is today.  If told to do so, they might just bow five times a day and assume it simply was for the calisthenic pleasure of their exertions.

The same might be said to be true of many new-age yoga parlors.  Yoga studios take a specific practice of physical and mental discipline.  They divest it of the Hindu philosophy, which it utterly articulates and expresses.  The result is a spirited workout routine, requiring no more commitment than scheduling a time on one’s day-planner.  This model has proven to be extraordinarily successful.  But almost nobody is in a position to apprise you Karma Yoga was fully realized through the practices and life of Mahatma Ghandhi.  He was not at all interested in relaxing his hamstrings or perfecting the Warrior Pose/virabhadrasana.

Once ensconsed a quasi-adopted cultural practice is difficult to dislodge.  It assumes a life of its own, metamorphosizing in a way even its importers must find amazing.  It acquires an economic infrastructure.  Publishers have created an industry to purvey psychological-spiritual self-help books.  Authors enjoy lucrative traveling-lecture circuits.  The outcome of these marketing initiatives is a large population identifying itself as “spiritual” but not “religious.”

This deprives the notion of spirituality of any cognitive content.  Being spiritual doesn’t give one license to selectively sample revered tenets from different cultural traditions, each with a defined historic theology and jurisprudence, to create one’s own personal religious smorgasbord.  Theologians, preachers and ministers do not undergo the travails of faith and circumspection only to end up with pablum.  Far better for one to have an institutional relationship with an established traditional religion than to be a post-modern dilettante, adrift in a sea of competing pop-spiritualities – a condition Jürgen Habermas accurately and succinctly defined as “post-modern chatter.”

There is not an unmet need in western culture for zazen to fill, which our existing cultural institutions has not historically assuaged.  There is no unrequited yearning for the heavily manufactured “Big Mind” technique of Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi, which even many American Zen Masters and practitioners consider to be caricaturesque in its artificiality.  There is no perpetual state of absence or unrequited longing.  Western civilization has done well for itself before the introduction of Buddhism.  It has been potent enough to emerge from history as the present global hegemon, however tenuously it currently holds that title.  It even won a world war against a Buddhist aggressor (Japan).

VI.  Conclusion

Buddhism (like Christianity and Islam) styles itself as a universal religion which, can be practiced by anyone, anywhere in the world.  In contrast to Judaism and Hinduism, all three have missionary traditions.  The main issue I have raised in this note is why the Judeo-Christian tradition requires elements from a specific cultural tradition arising around the same time on the border of Nepal, when it already possesses cultural traditions of its own.  If the Judeo-Christian tradition is unsatisfactory for some reason, then it should regress back to its Norse/Celtic/Hellenic/Roman paganism origins as an alternative.  There is no reason why it should redirect itself towards foreign cultures with values that, in certain cases, completely are antithetical.  There is no point to exchanging one universal religion (Christianity) for another (Buddhism).

The real issue is not “universalism A” (Christianity) versus “universalism B” (Buddhism) but rather the tension between universalism and spatio-temporally specific folkloric traditions.  The occidental heritage has plenty of esoteric and exoteric, orthodoxic and orthopraxic, literal and symbolic imagery to offer a passionate seeker, than do murky forays into incompatible thought structures.  They are not complementary to our zeitgeist, our mode of being-in-the-world.  Before we look abroad to Buddhism for answers to questions like “why is there suffering” we would do well to examine more fully our own known (and lesser-known) cultural traditions for coping with it.

Recommended Reading

Richmond, Ivan (2003).  Silence and noise: Growing up Zen in America.

Downing, Michael (2002).  Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center.

Victoria, Daizen (2003).  Zen War Stories.

Victoria, Daizen (2006).  Zen at War.