Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Tradition and Innovation

October Flower 2
October Flower 2, Helsinki, 2005

Scientific progress is blazingly fast. That's because at its core lies a robust method for sorting out ideas that work from ideas that don't. It also means that in it, innovation is an almost unqualified positive. No matter how crazy an idea is, if it can be tested, it can be quickly rejected as invalid, or incorporated into the body of scientific knowledge. That's how we got from a barely-working steam-driven mine pump to a composite-bodied trans-Pacific jetliner in two hundred short years. This wild and very tangible success of the scientific method -- in both knowledge and technology -- is why we value innovation so highly. In our society, a single great idea can make a huge impact on the lives of millions or even billions of people, for good or for ill.

Buddhism, on the other hand, moves slowly. Theravada Buddhism is probably still pretty close to what it was around Siddhattha Gotama's time. It took three hundred years to transform that into Ch'an and Pure Land Buddhism in China, and most of the descendants of this transformation, in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam anyway, are still very closely related both in terms of thought and practice. The formation of Tibetan Buddhism took just about as long.

Lately, these and other traditions have made the leap into yet another culture. Ours. Just as before, these traditions carry the baggage of the cultures from which we've adopted them. And just like before, this collision of cultures has resulted in a wave of innovation, as practitioners attempt to sort out the cultural baggage from the "core" of the Dharma -- whatever that may be -- and find ways to meld Buddhism with the new culture within which it finds itself. Quite probably more so this time than on its previous rounds around the block, because our time and our culture regards innovation and invention exceptionally highly.

Here's where we run into trouble. Buddhism -- like any religion -- is about the personal, experiential, and subjective. That means that it does not easily lend itself to the kind of testing we're used to doing with science and technology. Karma takes a long time to ripen, and the true value of a teacher is often only seen after the fact, by the teachers s/he has taught or the texts s/he has left behind.

We haven't developed a test for enlightenment, or even a definition of enlightenment that would be scientifically testable. The best scientific research has been able to do is demonstrate that meditation does most people good. At the same time, we're playing with fire: religious experience, ritual, and practice works at very deep levels. It has the potential for great good, and great harm.

An established tradition has a visible track record, in the form of its adherents and its history. Before diving in, it's at least possible to examine it from the outside. What kinds of people practice it? What has gone wrong in its history? What has gone right? How do its adherents relate to these things? Most major Buddhist traditions have, on the whole, pretty good track records, and the worst kinds of innovations in them have tended to flame out quickly. Buddhist traditions in and of themselves have been experiments, of a sort, with ideas and practices that work tending to stay in, and ideas and practices that are actually harmful tending to fall by the wayside.

The upshot is that the downside of bad ideas is far bigger than in science or technology, whereas the upside of good ones isn't nearly as big. Any given innovation has the potential to make things much worse, but only a little better. Things do need to change as Buddhist traditions take root in new soil. I'm sure that eventually a genuinely Western Buddhism will emerge. Perhaps it'll incorporate something of the scientific method, or perhaps something of our idea of the individual rather than the family or other group as the fundamental social actor. Perhaps Buddhism will lead Christianity to rediscover its own and largely forgotten contemplative traditions. Just like before, in Tibet, China, Japan, and elsewhere, this will take time. Perhaps it will be a gradual, collective effort, or perhaps we will see our own Huineng, Hakuin, or Dogen.

Until then -- and even then, perhaps -- it's best to be wary of overly innovative teachers. Ditching the chopsticks and nested lacquer bowls for fine sesshin dining is one thing; ditching the concept of anatta or bringing in Jungian theory, or meditating while piping in binaural beats through headphones is another. Traditions should not be straitjackets, but neither should they be carelessly tossed aside. Most of the stuff is there for a reason. Buddhism lives in the twilight between subjective experience and objective consequences, and there are monsters in the darkness. Let's not tear down the walls keeping them out.

4 comments:

  1. Exactly, even the middle way has a middle way. To far one way and we get lunatics like Bill Harris, too far the other and we turn off 95% of the population to Buddhism because they find some of the customes very forgein.

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  2. Why would you compare science or the myth of scientific method (and an overrated one, for that matter, see P. K. Feyerabend) with buddhism? Aren't their respective goals compatible and cleary diffentiated?

    WRT western flavour of Buddhism, wouldn't Krishnamurti work (I mean Jiddu, not U.G. who's way cooler) qualify as that?

    Regards

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  3. (1) Why would I, indeed?
    (2) I should hope not.

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  4. Fine. Don't count on those trans-Pacific jetliner first class tickets to enlightment coming your way, then.

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