Growing the Dharma: Introduction

This is the second serial installment of my recent ebook draft. I couple of people who posted comments to the first installment see value in focusing on one segment at a time as a readership community.  I encourage critical feedback and comments. I don’t expect what I write to be wildly popular; I wrote it precisely because it runs counter to dominant but improvident trends in Western Buddhism. The complete ebook is here.

Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework

Chapter 1. Introduction

Is Buddhism a religion? Of course the answer depends on one’s definition. I see three options:

  1. A religion involves worship of God. This works for the Abrahamic faiths familiar in the West. Clearly Buddhism fails this criterion.

  2. A religion is a way of life. That is, it informs our life choices at the most fundamental level, our ethical standards, our values, our attitudes, our aspirations. Clearly Buddhism satisfies this criterion.

Many suggest Buddhism is not a religion because it is rather a way of life. It seems to me this is exactly what is expected of any religion when embraced fully: it should be a way of life. But let’s go on:

  1. A religion is a matter of family resemblance,1 that is, if it looks like a duck it is.

This last seems at first like a sloppy criterion, but family resemblance underlies the better part of language; firm definitions are the exception, even for scientific terminology. Maybe to determine if Buddhism is a religion we should try for two out of three. This would make the family resemblance criterion the deciding factor.

The degree of this family resemblance, or the elements that indicate this family resemblance, are what I will call religiosity. Surely Buddhism in all of its traditional forms seems to have something of religion about it–for instance, devotional, ritual, liturgical and institutional features, to supplement what I will call Path elements–the somewhat unique and therefore more “secular” doctrinal aspects and program of personal practice. Yet some have argued recently that Buddhist religiosity is rather a product of cultural accretion that began after the Buddha and has little to do with the core message of the Buddha. Indeed, if we take the core message of the Buddha to be the Four Noble Truths, which includes the Noble Eightfold Path of practice, this view has some merit, as these indeed are rather short on elements one would be inclined to call “religious.” For instance, there is in the Noble Eightfold Path

  • No “Right Bowing,”
  • No “Right Robes,” and
  • No “Right Ecclesiastical Governance.”

My response to this will be something of a middle way. The evidence, which will be reviewed here, makes it undeniable that many elements of religiosity were an intrinsic and functional part of the early Buddhist message, albeit carefully circumscribed in many ways. However through cultural adaptation in virtually every tradition the degree of religiosity has grown more prominent, sometimes exceedingly more prominent. On the other hand, this fortified religiosity, I will maintain, seldom obscures the core message of early Buddhism, in spite of appearances.

In this book I will outline the important aspects of religiosity in early and authentic Buddhism and will illustrate its enhancement in a sample of later traditions. I will then turn to the process of cultural adaptation that shaped these historical traditions and its implications for modern Buddhism. Buddhism stands out in the following two ways: First, if it is a religion it is the earliest world religion, succeeded only substantially by Christianity and Islam, which means that it has historically successfully adapted to often radically new cultures. Second, the integrity of the highly sophisticated core teachings of Buddhism has been remarkably well preserved through these cultural adaptations. This combination of resilience and tolerance to adaptation is likely what made Buddhist the first world religion. I will locate the mechanism, as a matter of fact, outside of the Path elements, in the more religious elements.

Which Buddhism?

I count as one of those who see in Buddhism – in spite of all its doctrinal variants, sects, innovations, cultural manifestations and so on ̶ a common core, that is, a set of unifying features that allows us to talk of “Buddhism” in the singular. In fact, it seems to me that a remarkable aspect of Buddhism – in spite of exhibiting much more scriptural variation than most of the other major religions – is that it seems to have much more consistency of purpose and understanding than, say, Christianity. Somehow, transmitted through many centuries, through many traditions and cultures, and in spite of its accrued variety, Buddhism has managed to preserve the integrity of its early functionality throughout the Buddhist world in spite of enormous variation. The essential core preserved in the traditions includes, for instance, a more-or-less common understanding of liberation and of the Path of training toward liberation which focuses on virtue, wisdom and development of mind, and a recognition of greed, hatred and delusion as the primary qualities of mind to be relieved. It also includes placing trust in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, a prominent role for the monastic order and particular emphasis on the practices of generosity and virtue.

I realize that many people see in Buddhism exactly the opposite: They find it extremely fragmented, dispersed over an impossible range of doctrinal positions, beliefs, practices and rituals. For instance, any given Buddhist tradition considers itself almost invariably the almost unique heir of Buddhist authenticity. Yet in exploring other lands and other sects it is faced with peculiarity and anomaly in the practices and beliefs of the other laity, the garb of the other monastics, the style of other liturgy, the presence of unfamiliar figures in temple statuary, unfamiliar rites at temple altars, unknown scriptures on temple bookshelves, and hocus pocus all around. For many in the West who first come to Buddhism and survey the entire array of traditions, unbiased by any particular tradition, the variance is even more striking and it is easy to see how they might throw their hands up in despair and perhaps entertain the hope that Baha’i or Sufism is easier to sort out.

I hope to gain in this book a recognition and explanation of the great resilience of Buddhism in retaining the integrity and functionality of its authentic teachings that exists alongside a great tolerance for adaptation and change.

Religiosity in Buddhism

Religiosity seems to be a universal, found throughout the world. Scholars of comparative religion have looked at this in detail, but here are the recurring features that I observe in almost all religions and that contribute to the family resemblance of Buddhism and “religion”:

  • Ritual and ceremony. These are conventionalized actions and activities.
  • Ritual spaces. Certain places and spatial relations are made significant or sacred through ritual or placement at an elevation or naturally central location.
  • Ritual artifacts. A central or prominent altar is common. Sometimes clothing is an indicator of social role in religious activities. Incense, candles, flowers and sacred images are common.
  • Respect, devotion and worship. Certain rituals and gestures are used to express degrees of reverence or respect, either to designated people, to ritual artifacts, to abstractions or to otherworldly beings.
  • Scripture. Texts convey the basic doctrine or mythology of the religion and often go back to the founding of the religion. Scriptures are often regarded as ritual artifacts.
  • Tradition. Many of the rituals, artifacts, scripture and so on are archaic, that is, bespeak of an ancient time to give a sense of embeddedness in a long tradition.
  • Chanting. Typically this is a group activity and involves reciting scripture.
  • Community, and group identity. There is a sense of belonging to a community, often assuming a certain role in a community dynamics and interrelatedness, much like belonging to a family.
  • Common world view or conviction. This is faith in a certain set of doctrines, creeds or values or confidence in an authority.
  • Salvation. The ultimate goal is generally some form of transcendence of this one worldly life.
  • Clergy. There is often a class of professionals who dedicate themselves to understanding and practice of the religion, who generally conduct or lead the rituals and who take care of the community and sometimes enjoy the status of ritual artifacts themselves.
  • Institutions. The community is generally organized according to certain principles and this organization sustains the clergy, owns ritual spaces and objects and provides some degree of governance and authority.

A shorter list of topics I will focus on here is as follows:

  • Devotion.
  • Community.
  • Salvation.

I make no further attempt to define religiosity than to provide this list and its summary. The common statement, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” seems generally intended to sweep aside many of the elements on this list, particularly the more institutional elements. Why this list comes together as something requiring special attention, evoking even alarm, in the Western mind is discussed in a few chapters.

It is worth noting parenthetically that each of these features listed here to as characteristic of religion is nonetheless found also in what would normally be regarded as secular contexts, or at least their close counterparts are. For instance, table manners and proper arrangements of cutlery and plates and glasses in a proper table setting exhibit a large number of these features. Sports events also involve ritual, ritual spaces, worship, chanting, group identity, and typically a sense of tradition. Government functions and places of government exhibit almost every one of these features, by my count, with appropriate substitution of terms, elected officials for clergy, etc. Armies likewise exhibit most, with analogous substitutions, maybe because they need to be equipped to deal with fundamental issues of life and death. Even Academia exhibits a lot of these features. We are, in other words, far from a definitive definition of religion, but this characterization will suffice for our purposes.2

These elements in Buddhism that I collect under religiosity, or under devotion, community and salvation, we will see, have a unique flavor in Buddhism that doubtlessly originated with its founder. In their early manifestation they are functionally very rational, systematic and clearly articulated. The functions they serve are as follows:

  1. They provide methods of practice that help purify and develop the mind in wholesome ways, but that lend themselves to community, casual and even children’s practice.
  2. They provide a social infrastructure in support of off-the-deep-end types of intensive practice and study and for its propagation and transmission to future generations in its full integrity. That is, they support the BuddhaSasana, lived Buddhism in all of its dimensions, including historical and social.
  3. They provide an attitudinal context that gives rise to individual aspirations to undertake the intensive practice and study that can culminate in Awakening.

To purge these religious elements across the board from one’s understanding is simply to miss the larger context in which the Path of practice is sustained; it is to fail to appreciate the past and to take responsibility for the future. If Buddhists of the past had purged religiosity from Buddhism in this way, had been consistently spiritual but not religious, there would be no baby left for us in the twenty-first century befuddlement to throw out with the bathwater.

Overview

My reasons for writing this book are as follows:

  • Buddhist elements of devotion, transcendence and community tend to be poorly comprehended and unappreciated in the West, producing a limited and lopsided system of understanding and practice. I hope this book will contribute to a more well-rounded practice and understanding within a still incipient Western Buddhist movement.
  • Religiosity is deeply implicated the sometimes wild culturally conditioned variations observed among and within the various Buddhist traditions. I hope that by bringing some order to these variations, I hope this book will provide a perspective that will make the Buddhist landscape easier to navigate.
  • The non-Path elements of devotion and community provide the mechanisms that underlie, as I will show, Buddhism’s remarkably tolerance of variation including its capacity for absorbing many elements of local cultures, alongside its amazing resilience with regard to maintain its authentic functions. I hope this book will serve to articulate this important yet rarely recognized aspect of the genius of Buddhism.

I will begin with religiosity in early Buddhist doctrine, drawing on early sources, particularly the Pali discourses and monastic code, to show the functional role of devotion, transcendence and community in early Buddhism. I will make use of a botanical metaphor, in particular its physiological aspect in order to bring out the functional interrelatedness among the various elements of practice and understanding. I will discuss how the religious elements are integrated into an organic whole in clear and rational roles.

I will I then seek to deepen our understanding of these roles progressively as I turn to historical, sociological and personal aspects of these religious elements. Just as we turn from botany to plant genetics in order to understand change and variation through time, we will turn from doctrine to history in order to see how Buddhist traditions have taken on many different forms, particularly embellishing under cultural pressures the religious elements that concern us, yet remarkably preserving for the most part the early physiology. Just as we turn from botany and genetics to hortoculture in order to understand the role of human intervention in the well-being of the plant and in the breeding of domestic variants with desirable features, we will turn from doctrine and history to the sociology of Buddhist communities in order to understand the role of an adept subcommunity in domesticating and maintaining an authentic Adept Buddhism, alongside which a wilder Folk Buddhism inevitably exists. This is the source of Buddhism’s resilience.

Finally, just as the gastronome must make choices among the great varieties of domestic and wild foods at hand in the culinary world, the would-be student and practitioner of Buddhism in the West must find his way among the great variety of Buddhisms, Eastern and Western, spiritual, religious and secular, early and traditional, Theravada and Mahayana, village and forest, folk and adept, in the modern landscape. Having brought the reader from the field almost to the dinner table, I will conclude with tips on navigating the Buddhist buffet counter.

1This term comes from Wittgenstein.

2See Tweed (2006) for a discussion of the many attempts to define religion, and a recent bold attempt at a new one.

28 Responses to “Growing the Dharma: Introduction”

  1. Luke Says:

    This is a well rounded introduction, and definitely reflects befuddlements that have surfaced thier way into my noggin. Understanding context, history, development and core teachings, along with personal application of the teachings has helped sort the huge variety of different buddhist teachings, which at first is overwhelming but has become to be a beautiful aspect of this tradition. And perhaps questioning ones idea of religion could be very helpful, we are probably carrying around a lot of useless baggage in context to the word. I am also not a fan of different groups of meditators that choose only one aspect of Buddhist thought and reject the others, you need more elements ( the whole package of Buddhist teaching) to break the bonds of cyclical living than just mindfullness or concentration. As a Teacher once said, “… One could be mindful while robbing a bank…”

  2. Sophia M. Says:

    I think that whether Buddhism is deemed a religion or not depends on the person performing the assessment and what this person deems to be the definition of “religion.” So there is bound to be variation. Given this, the issue is whose definition will prevail, whose definition to subscribe to – and for what purpose. That’s a rich issue to explore.

    It seems to me that traditionally, Easterners would not bug themselves with questions whether a particular school of thought and practice is a religion or not. It would be interesting to know whether they have an equivalent concept to “religion” at all, and if yes, what it is.

    Western notions of “religion” are sometimes strongly influenced by Western religiology, politology, historiography (and probably a few more fields of study), and these, in turn, appear to have been built and shaped strongly in relation to Christianity. Christianity’s fire-and-brimstone exclusivist attitude still resonates in the secular notions of what religion is. For example, even for some Western atheists, it is Christianity that is considered a “proper religion”, while all others are “alternative.”

    I think that what seems to be most relevant in the question whether Buddhism is a religion or not is the conviction that what is needed for salvation is a _system_ of beliefs and practices – a system as opposed to an accumulation of various beliefs and practices that may or may not fit together and that may or may not lead to the promised goal.

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Sophia,

      I think I agree. It is not necessary to define what religion is (that is why I don’t), but it is important to let Buddhism be Buddhism rather than imposing outside ideas concerning religiosity or non-religiosity on it, which is what we tend to do, for instance, in insisting on a “Secular” Buddhism.

  3. Luke Says:

    What
    Do sad people have in
    Common?

    It seems
    They have all built a shrine
    To the past
    And often go there
    And do a strange wail and
    Worship.

    What is the beginning of
    Happiness?

    It is to stop being
    So religious
    Like That.

    – “The Gift” – versions of Hafiz by Daniel Ladinsky

    This poem speaks loudly to me, this has undoubtedly been siad before, but if we cling too tightly to external forms of worship, or if we are moved to them out of fear and blindly imitate the rituals and actions of others they become broken artifacts. I think if we can develop the true spirit of practice the external forms of religion can enrich our lives, especially if it is resonating with something truly felt within. Religion can become Upaya or skillfull means rather than entrapment. And of course the Buddha’s raft simile goes hand in hand with the idea of religion in relation to Buddhism.

    “I shall show you how the Dhamma is similar to a raft, being for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping…”

    “When you know the Dhamma to be similar to a raft, you should abandon even the teachings, how much more so things contrary to the teachings..”

    [MN 22.13 All translations of the sutta are by Bhikkhu Bodhi]

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      The Buddha was concerned that people cling to empty forms with the assumption that they are somehow efficaceous (silabbataparamasa). This is the third of the ten fetters, and one of the three that is overcome before the first stage of awakening (sotapatti).

  4. Ross David H Says:

    Not trying to derail your book (which I’m interested to see more of), but another way of saying what is and isn’t a religion would be to define it functionally, i.e. what is it intended to do. Things like:
    1) help you decide what to do in morally ambiguous situations
    2) help you cope emotionally with grief, catastrophe, and fear of death
    3) provide a consistent set of ethical precepts for a society, for example to make it easier for parents to figure out what to teach their kids
    4) etc.

    Some of these are filled by a secular philosophy, but not all of them, and especially not for people who (by temperament or training or lifestyle) are ill-equipped for philosophizing. Does it “quack like a duck?” Well, if it accomplishes the primary functions of other religions, it does.

    Looking forward to more from you on this.

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Ross,

      Thanks. I agree. Your points can be subsumed under “way of life,” and certainly are all found in any form of Buddhism. Many who would regard Buddhism as a non-religion would, and would have to, regard ethics as a secular concern. My concern is not really to define what religion is, but to show how the attempt to set Buddhism as something apart from religion is fruitless: it produces a feeble and inviable Buddhism. Bear with me.

      • Sophia M. Says:

        “the attempt to set Buddhism as something apart from religion is fruitless: it produces a feeble and inviable Buddhism”

        – But by subscribing to TOE, isn’t one producing just that kind of “feeble and inviable Buddhism”, a Buddhism that kneels before mainstream Western science?

      • bhikkhucintita Says:

        How so? I what sense does my personally endorsing the theory of evolution mean that Buddhism is bowing before science? I don’t think Buddhism is included in science, nor that science is included in Buddhism. Their functions are entirely different. However Buddhism shares with science an empiricism that will sometimes provide some overlap.

  5. Sophia M. Says:

    Venerable –

    Could you say a bit more about how come you subscribe to the Theory of Evolution?

    How do you find that it is in accord with Buddhism? Especially in regard to two things: 1. Do you find that natural selection as proposed in TOE is in line with the Dhamma? 2. In Buddhism, they traditionally speak of many realms; how do you reconcile this with TOE?

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Sophia,

      It is interesting, in the nineteenth century Buddhism was tauted in the West as having anticipated the theory of evolution in its teachings on karma and rebirth. I think that was a bit of oversell. Certainly no was proposing natural selection, nor did people have much of an idea of childhood development, social influences in learning, or genetics. People still thought the earth was flat. My own feeling is that all of these factors are part of a more complete account of how karmic factor tend to perpetuate themselves into future lives, more complete than the idea of serial rebirth found in early Buddhism. The chapter of this book on “Transcendence” discusses this very issue.

      Probably realms of rebirth is an orthogonal issue. I discuss these realms briefly, mostly to argue that they have a rather marginal functional role in the Buddha’s thinking, although they assumed an increasingly important role in Buddhism pretty quickly, even by the time of the Abhidhamma. They are adapted from pan-Indian myths.

  6. Sophia M. Says:

    “How so? I what sense does my personally endorsing the theory of evolution mean that Buddhism is bowing before science?”

    I said – “But by subscribing to TOE, isn’t one producing just that kind of “feeble and inviable Buddhism”, a Buddhism that kneels before mainstream Western science?”

    You are a Buddhist, you make a point of publicly talking about Buddhism, and on behalf of Buddhism. You express hope that through you writing, people may come to a better understanding of Buddhism. Of Buddhism, not of _a_ Buddhism.
    While everyone is entitled to their own version of Buddhism, each of which is _a_ Buddhism, I think that speaking on behalf of Buddhism as such – as in the-one-and-only-true Buddhism, is another matter.

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Sophia,

      I guess I am still missing your point about bowing before science. Maybe you can clarify it a bit more. Am I, as a Buddhist teacher, not supposed to make a statement about science, even when asked? I think I am missing some unstated presupposition. Would this also apply to politics, or food, for instance, or only science?

      • Sophia M. Says:

        When said statement about science is to the effect of agreeing with science or endorsing it, then it’s clear where the speaker’s allegiance is.
        On the one hand, you say you are against secular Buddhism, but on the other hand, your endorsment of science enforces secular Buddhism …

      • bhikkhucintita Says:

        Sophia,

        The unstated presupposition seems to be that religion and science are in opposition, that the more scientific one is the less religious and the more religious the less scientific. Is that right? I think this is a widely held presupposition, often held in common by strident atheists and religious fundamentalists, who effectively end up debating, “Who has better the better science, science or the Bible?”

        I don’t think this is a viable presupposition at all. In fact I don’t think I make any statements that contradict science in this book (correct me if you find one), and moreover I take pains to find parallels in /science/ for most of the important aspects of Buddhist /religiosity/ that I discuss. This is not to say that Buddhism and science will not come to different conclusions sometimes. Science and religion (or Buddhism) serve different roles in people’s lives so it is natural their methods will be different. Buddhism makes use of a rich mythology, which tends to raise scientific eyebrows. But in fact because the Buddha’s metaphysics is so constrained, and because blind faith really goes against the Buddhist grain, Buddhism, at least in its earliest form, has relatively few conflicts with science, certainly fewer than the more belief-centered religions.

      • bhikkhucintita Says:

        Another way science and religion are often put in opposition is in regarding the former as rational and the latter as irrational. However, as we will see in this book, the religiosity of the Buddha is highly rational, that is, it is functionally motivated and minimal for its functions. On the other hand, in most later traditions it gets a bit more off-the-wall.

  7. Ross David H Says:

    Well, if you ask if he agrees with the Theory of Evolution, he has to either say yes, say no, or refuse to answer the question. Since he believes it (as do I and many other Buddhists), he says so. That’s not the same as having “allegiance” to science instead of Buddhism. As he pointed out, they’re orthogonal.

    • Sophia M. Says:

      I don’t think this is a case where one can have it both ways. Instead, it’s a case where one has to take sides.

      Both science and Budddhism are making or attempting to make truth claims about the same things. One cannot say a thing is both x and y, with x and y being mutually exclusive. Unless, of course, one is playing pseudo-zen sophistry games.

      Science acknowledges only that which is interpersonally verifiable, objectively measurable. That means it is categorically at odds with Buddhism and its focus on working with one’s privacy.

      • bhikkhucintita Says:

        “I don’t think this is a case where one can have it both ways. Instead, it’s a case where one has to take sides.”

        Why? The average person maintains different truths at the same time. You cannot enjoy a sports game without a fabricated running interpretation over the physical reality.

        “Both science and Budddhism are making or attempting to make truth claims about the same things. One cannot say a thing is both x and y, with x and y being mutually exclusive.”

        What is an example where Buddhism says x and where science says y about something? Clearly evolution is not an example.

        “Science acknowledges only that which is interpersonally verifiable, objectively measurable.”

        No, but science is very good at constraining its mental fabrications. Are atoms objectively verifiable, light as waves or as particles, gravity, the curvature of space? These are theories or models that have consequences which may or may not be verifiable at some level, but the theoretical constructs are not verifiable themselves. You are stating a nineteenth century view of science.

        “That means it is categorically at odds with Buddhism and its focus on working with one’s privacy.”

        Why does this make it at odds with Buddhism? By the same token one could say astronomy is at odds with botony because they focus on different realms. It seems to me this ensures that they will not be at odds with one another. How can there by something about which science says x and Buddhism says y?

  8. Sophia M. Says:

    “However Buddhism shares with science an empiricism that will sometimes provide some overlap.”

    Could you say a bit more about this?
    Because I don’t see any overlap, just a categorical disconnect, as noted above with the juxtaposition of focusing on the objectively verifiable and the private.

    “I don’t think this is a viable presupposition at all. In fact I don’t think I make any statements that contradict science in this book (correct me if you find one), and moreover I take pains to find parallels in /science/ for most of the important aspects of Buddhist /religiosity/ that I discuss.”

    And that’s what I find problematic.
    It sounds to me like trying really hard not to offend any PC sensitivities, along with an effort to fit in with modern culture, to not be perceived as the weirdo.

    “Another way science and religion are often put in opposition is in regarding the former as rational and the latter as irrational. However, as we will see in this book, the religiosity of the Buddha is highly rational, that is, it is functionally motivated and minimal for its functions.”

    “The religiosity of the Buddha is highly rational” by whose idea of “rationality”?
    “Functional” by whose idea of “functionality”?

    Certainly not science’s.

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Sophia,

      “Could you say a bit more about this? Because I don’t see any overlap, just a categorical disconnect, as noted above with the juxtaposition of focusing on the objectively verifiable and the private.”

      To some degree modern science has become interested in subjective experiences. Sometimes this involves bringing more objective scientific methods to bear in looking for certain correlations, as in correlating brain measurements with reported meditative experiences. Modern physics, interestingly enough, has discovered it cannot dismiss the mind as a variable in many of its models. This is something that has been understood in Buddhism for millennia: There is no independently describable objective reality that does not arise at least in part from mind.

      “”I don’t think this is a viable presupposition at all. In fact I don’t think I make any statements that contradict science in this book (correct me if you find one), and moreover I take pains to find parallels in /science/ for most of the important aspects of Buddhist /religiosity/ that I discuss.” And that’s what I find problematic. It sounds to me like trying really hard not to offend any PC sensitivities, along with an effort to fit in with modern culture, to not be perceived as the weirdo.”

      Be careful about attributing intentions to others. That goes beyond what you can know.

      “”The religiosity of the Buddha is highly rational” by whose idea of “rationality”? “Functional” by whose idea of “functionality”? Certainly not science’s.”

      This very point is developed in detail in the rest of the book. Bear with me.

      Before continuing this thread, let me ask, Sophia, about your intentions in visiting this blog. Are they to learn about Buddhism? Or to teach us about science? So far you’ve done a lot of shooting from the hip, which serves neither purpose. If you want to learn about Buddhism you cannot start from the assumption that you have it all worked out already. Please stay, but listen attentively. If you want to teach science be aware that the readership of this blog is undoubtedly highly educated. I was myself a scientist before I embarked on my Buddhist career. You might not have much new to offer.

  9. Sophia M. Says:

    “Be careful about attributing intentions to others. That goes beyond what you can know.”

    I said – “And that’s what I find problematic. It sounds to me like trying really hard not to offend any PC sensitivities, along with an effort to fit in with modern culture, to not be perceived as the weirdo.”
    But it seems that what you’ve _heard_ is something along the lines of “You are trying really hard not to offend any PC sensitivities, along with having an effort to fit in with modern culture, to not be perceived as the weirdo.” …

    “Before continuing this thread, let me ask, Sophia, about your intentions in visiting this blog. Are they to learn about Buddhism? Or to teach us about science? So far you’ve done a lot of shooting from the hip, which serves neither purpose. If you want to learn about Buddhism you cannot start from the assumption that you have it all worked out already. Please stay, but listen attentively. If you want to teach science be aware that the readership of this blog is undoubtedly highly educated. I was myself a scientist before I embarked on my Buddhist career. You might not have much new to offer.”

    For people who dismiss philosophy of science (and, arguably, most scientists and people who are into science do), I really don’t have anything new or worthwhile to offer.
    I’m sorry if what I say sounds slike shooting from the hip. In part, I speak briefly and generally because of my apathy toward Buddhists, and in part because speaking briefly and generally and then checking the way the other person replied, tends to make it clear very quickly where the other person is actually coming from. The way people respond to a challenge, especially if it’s a lowly one, quickly says a lot about them. In the Pali Canon, the Buddha didn’t play one-upmanship games, but most people do …

    Visiting this blog is probably one of my last attempts to communicate with Buddhists.

    To “listen attentively” would, at this point for me, mean to agree with whatever you say, unquestioningly.

    There is only one thing that I want to clear up for myself: Given that I have been rejected by Buddhists, how come I still have some interest in Buddhism – at least in the Pali Canon – and why doesn’t it go away? How to make sense of this interest? I certainly don’t want to be an impostor, and I don’t want to stay where I am not appreciated. And I most certainly don’t want to engage in practices proposed by people who rejected me.

    I’ve been reading your book, esp. the chapter on refuge, and that has been one of the most discouraging, disheartening things I have read in a long time. If I am to take things as you describe them, then the situation is hopeless for me. Rationality, faith and trust as you talk about them, are to me recipes for bad faith and living a life of quiet desperation.

    Please note that I’m talking about my perceptions of things, I’m not making claims about your intentions or your book. (One thing that has always struck me as odd is how come so many people, including many Buddhists, have such difficulty comprehending assertiveness for what it is.)

    With this, I’ll bow out.

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      I hope you don’t feel rejected. Don’t feel you need to bow out, you are quite welcome here. I hope I have not been unduly assertive.

      Your interest means you see something of value in Buddhism. That’s good. You just don’t see your way to getting there.

      Buddhism is challenging, it is difficult to wrap your mind around, especially for Westerners who grow up with values and influences inimical to Buddhism and bring a lot of hubris to boot. I know, because it has been a long and difficult path of discovery for me. Without a willingness to plunge in boldly it simply does not work; you end up holding Buddhism at arms length. It is exactly at that point where you are thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding,” that the challenge is to be met. That is where you plunge in.

      For me the first point at which I was able to do that is upon encountering the full range of ritual forms of Japanese Soto Zen, the bowing, the exact ways of stepping and holding one’s hands, the prescribed ways of laying out one’s eating implements before meals. My response was, “You’ve got to be kidding,” and I was willing to argue ’til I was blue in he face why all this cultural accretion was quite unnecessary to real Buddhism. Alan Watts had assured me I wouldn’t have to do such things. But at that point I decided to extend the benefit of the doubt, to seek out, rather than avoid, what I most resisted, at least until I could get to the bottom of it. Mostly I was curious about the depth of my own emotional defensiveness toward something that on the surface might have been silly but was rather harmless. This was a bold move that I have never regretted and the only way I could have overcome my own unrecognized cultural biases.

      You are clearly at this point with the refuges. I recognize that response. It is not much different from where I was 15 years ago. If you plunge in right there you will not be disappointed. If not, then further pursuit of the Buddhist path as any more than an armchair Buddhism is probably is hopeless.

  10. Sophia M. Says:

    Normally, I would not reply anymore, but as this communication is an example of the problems with Western Buddhism I’ve been talking about all along, I’ll give it a try.

    “I hope I have not been unduly assertive.”

    Just the opposite, I think you haven’t been assertive enough. However, it seems you’re using the term “assertive” in a different meaning than I do. I am using it the way it is used in more recent resources on communication (e.g. http://www.amazon.com/The-Assertiveness-Workbook-Yourself-Relationships/dp/1572242094)

    “Buddhism is challenging, it is difficult to wrap your mind around, especially for Westerners who grow up with values and influences inimical to Buddhism and bring a lot of hubris to boot. I know, because it has been a long and difficult path of discovery for me. Without a willingness to plunge in boldly it simply does not work; you end up holding Buddhism at arms length. It is exactly at that point where you are thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding,” that the challenge is to be met. That is where you plunge in.

    For me the first point at which I was able to do that is upon encountering the full range of ritual forms of Japanese Soto Zen, the bowing, the exact ways of stepping and holding one’s hands, the prescribed ways of laying out one’s eating implements before meals. My response was, “You’ve got to be kidding,” and I was willing to argue ’til I was blue in he face why all this cultural accretion was quite unnecessary to real Buddhism. Alan Watts had assured me I wouldn’t have to do such things. But at that point I decided to extend the benefit of the doubt, to seek out, rather than avoid, what I most resisted, at least until I could get to the bottom of it. Mostly I was curious about the depth of my own emotional defensiveness toward something that on the surface might have been silly but was rather harmless. This was a bold move that I have never regretted and the only way I could have overcome my own unrecognized cultural biases.

    You are clearly at this point with the refuges. I recognize that response. It is not much different from where I was 15 years ago.”

    I can’t relate to what you’re talking about. I don’t understand why you think I am in a similar place as you have been years back. I have learned Buddhism primarily from the suttas in the Pali Canon as I’ve read them at Access To Insight. I don’t find those “difficult to wrap my mind around”. Monastics, temples, order of doing things etc. are also not odd to me. I’ve always felt attracted to religious people, religious objects and religious ways of doing things.

    My problems are mainly with people who claim to be Buddhists. Because what they teach, say and do often doesn’t seem too have anything much to do with what I have read in the Pali Canon. It’s like a totally different culture, and especially, a totally different mood. With Buddhists, I often notice a dog-eat-dog mentality, one-upmanship games, psychological bullying, witch hunts, mob mentality, fear, tension – so often so that I suspect this is the norm, something to be cultivated. And yet I don’t recall any of that being advised in the Pali Canon.

    For me, “to plunge in” as you suggest, would mean to force myself into just some Buddhist group, and to forcibly cut off those aspects of my practice and understanding that don’t fit with that particular group, and to artificially create practices and understandings that would help me fit into that particular group. For another Buddhist group, I would have to cut off and add yet different parts.

    The only times when I think to myself “You’ve got to be kidding,” is when I see Buddhists behave like angsty, angry teenagers and where I am expected to behave that way too, in order to be considered a Buddhist and accepted into the fold, lest I be dismissed as an “armchair Buddhist.”

    ” If you plunge in right there you will not be disappointed. If not, then further pursuit of the Buddhist path as any more than an armchair Buddhism is probably is hopeless.”

    I think that your negativity toward Westerners who happen to have some interest in Buddhism is only exacerbating the problem you have set out to solve.

    And yes, I do feel rejected, by you too.

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