Saturday, September 24, 2011
I've recently stumbled into some discussions that have gotten me thinking about identity and doctrine, specifically Buddhist identity and Buddhist doctrine. There's a debate ongoing for roughly two and a half millennia about what, exactly, is Buddhism, and who should be considered Buddhist and who shouldn't. Currently, one division in the debate goes between a group I'll dub the 'non-sectarians,' and another one that I'll dub the 'fundamentalists.' I can't think of any better terms, although these ones are a bit loaded. Let it be stated up-front that I fall pretty clearly into the 'fundamentalist' camp, despite not identifying as a Buddhist and not having formally taken refuge as one.
The 'non-sectarians' feel that we shouldn't attempt to define what Buddhism is or isn't. They believe that such an attempt is not merely futile but actually harmful, since it causes division between people who would otherwise share values and goals, and, equally importantly, distracts from the practice of Buddhism, which is best left to each individual Buddhist to define for himself. The Buddhist traditions, in their intellectual, religious, ritualistic, and 'spiritual' dimensions, are something to be drawn from, not something to be codified or analyzed.
The 'fundamentalists,' conversely, feel that despite the broad variety of traditions it consists of, Buddhism can and should also be treated as a coherent philosophy with identifiable core features, that this philosophy forms a doctrinal structure that is indispensable in grounding and guiding the practice, and that movements and teachers that materially deviate from these core features should no longer be regarded as properly Buddhist.
The near enemy of 'fundamentalism' is, clearly, well, fundamentalism—a rigid and inflexible adherence to a set of doctrinal positions that become unchallenged and unchallengable dogma, and a corresponding intolerance of points of view that do not share these positions.
The near enemy of 'non-sectarianism' is a mushy anything-goes tolerance that refuses to challenge bad behavior, exploitation, or outright abuse, giving cover to cults, hucksters, and conmen of all stripes.
The term Consensus Buddhism—coined by its opponents, I think—refers to the somewhat amorphous but pretty large group of first- and second-generation American Buddhists that got going in the 1960's and 1970's, and subsequently went on to establish institutions. While they represent a broad variety of traditions, they do share an identifiable ethos. One opponent of Consensus Buddhism (with whom I agree on this point but disagree strongly on a number of others) argues that it is mostly a Western Liberal hippie ethos dressed up in Buddhist ritual and tradition. Consensus Buddhism frowns strongly on 'fundamentalism' and is very big on 'non-sectarianism.'
In my opinion, Consensus Buddhism has strayed so far into mushy anything-goes territory that it has largely lost sight of what Buddhism originally was about. It has become a religion of self-help, self-improvement, good behavior, and emotional security. It's about reducing suffering, becoming a more functional citizen, and getting comfortable in the life you're living. Challenging notions like 'awakening' and 'renunciation' are edited out, by denying their validity altogether, or their applicability to Western society, or by mythologizing them, or by treating them as 'symbolic', or by just not talking about them at all. Due to its fierce non-sectarianism, Consensus Buddhism has repeatedly and persistently failed to address blatant abuses by people and groups operating under its umbrella: the ongoing Eido Tai Shimano and Dennis Genpo Merzel scandals are particularly egregious examples, but a whole undergrowth of sometimes frankly scary stuff thrives under the protection of its omertà. There's "Zen Master Rama's" Frederick Lenz Foundation, deeply embedded in the structures of the Consensus, all kinds of dodgy characters peddling their schtick under the banner of 'non-sectarianism' or 'post-modernism,' unchallenged by them, or in some cases actually a part of the Consensus.
That stuff stinks. It stinks so bad and so far that one of the reasons I don't identify as a Buddhist, and have no intention to start to do so, is that I don't want any of that stench on me.
Therefore, a discussion of what is and isn't Buddhism is absolutely necessary, even with the concomitant risk of sliding into the 'near enemy' of rigid dogmatism or sectarianism, or, Amida forbid, provoking dissension and strife among 'Buddhists.'
One of the usual ways any such discussions tend to get derailed is that a discussion of doctrine—philosophy, teaching, whatever—gets conflated with a discussion of identity. These are two separate but related notions. There are lots and lots of Buddhists (Catholics, Protestants, Shi'ites, Sunnis, Shaivis, Vaishnavis, Trotskyites, Republicans, whatever) with very strong Buddhist (etc.) identities. Many, perhaps most of them are also highly heterodox. That's just the way things are. There are Buddhists who hold un-Buddhist beliefs or practice un-Buddhist practices, and I see no compelling reason to attempt to deny them their identities. On the contrary, I would find that highly offensive. People should be allowed to define their identities however the hell they want.
However, that is not the same question as looking at Buddhism, or an individual Buddhist tradition, as a doctrinal and philosophical structure. Because of the sheer mass of material and variety of traditions, there are bound to be contradictions and conflicts in it. Yet it's not hard at all to identify salient features that distinguish Buddhism from neighboring doctrinal systems. Buddhism is not the same as Advaita Vedanta, nor Taoism, nor Shintoism, nor Confucianism, nor Sufism, nor existentialism, nor postmodernism, nor Western Liberal hippie-ism. There is overlap with all of these doctrinal systems, and more, but there are also divergences. By looking at these commonalities and divergences, a picture starts to emerge. We can then look at that picture and refine it, debate what's in it and what's not.
This leads to the second common way such a process gets derailed: it turns into an attempt at defining 'true' Buddhism, the one that has all of the central distinguishing features, and none of the 'accretions.' It becomes very easy to go from that to, say, dismissing Ch'an as Taoism with meditation, Zen as Ch'an with samurais, Tibetan Buddhism as Theravada with earth spirits, and so on and so forth. Down that road, too, lies madness.
But that debate needs to be had. My view is that a Buddhism that substitutes reduction of suffering for liberation from suffering, group therapy for eyebrow-to-eyebrow encounter, emotional security for challenge, productive citizenship for awakening, spiritual consumerism for renunciation, homilies for rigorous thinking, the ego, id, and superego for cittas, caittas, dhammas, and skandhas, niceness for truth, is no longer recognizably Buddhist. I certainly want no truck with such a religion.
Not now, not ever.