What is Believable? (6/6)

For five episodes we have been considering ways in which we might respond to a Buddhist teaching that we initially find unacceptable in some way or another from a modern perspective. We have looked at the consequences of everything from simply accepting it on faith to rejecting it out of hand and we have looked at the Buddha’s discussion of this very problem. A primary question that we have kept in mind throughout is, Why was this taught? If a given thesis plays an important functional role in the body of the Buddha’s teachings, some account, yet is nonetheless unbelievable, then perhaps its functional role can be preserved by other means.

Having sought an appropriate context for a teaching and having cleansed the mind of unexamined tacit views, unwilling to simply accept or reject it, the teaching nonetheless does not quite sit well. Perhaps it is just an archaic way of looking at things, has been superseded by modern understandings, contradicts modern norms of propriety or has simply not been interpreted properly. The teaching might nonetheless be rescued.

Series Index

How to upgrade a teaching.

The method here is to discover a modern expression for an archaic teaching true to the latter’s function.

When we view an ancient teaching with modern eyes, we can typically see that it permits a range of interpretations. We often don’t know out of hand, for instance, whether it was intended as myth or metaphor, allegory or actuality. Often it wouldn’t matter so much, as long as its intended function is upheld, and it may have been understood differently in different traditions in any case. When we view an ancient teaching with modern eyes, it may sometimes appear as a clumsy or naïve approximation of something we could state more precisely in terms of our often much more sophisticated understanding of science and psychology, history and humanities.

These considerations define the wiggle room that a skillful reading of ancient texts should exploit as one tries to wrap a modern mind around an ancient text, lest one ends up with the kind of literalism that characterizes modern fundamentalism. Having discovered modern expressions of ancient teachings, teachers will offer them to modern students to facilitate their learning. In this way a distinct modern understanding evolves. The key principle to bear in mind, though, is that an update should always be done with an eye on retaining the full functional integrity of the archaic teachings.

What follows is a couple of examples of the principled updating of Buddhist teachings, both historical and modern. I present these by way of exemplifying this final strategy for dealing with the believability gap.

Home-leaving in ancient China. The first example of update is historical, and also one in which a particularly recalcitrant presupposition was implicated. Early in the first millennium CE in China the Buddhist encouragement of home-leaving ran right up against the unshakably rock-solid value of family in Chinese folk culture. Monastics in India were home-leavers by definition, yet family and home enjoyed a solid place at the center of Chinese social values. The required update of this Buddhist teaching seems to have been a clever side-step, a high point in the annals of early public relations: Re-conceptualize the Sangha as a great big family, with family lineages, heritages and a very long history.

Tracing ordination lineages publicly established an analogy between the layperson’s parental relations and the monastic’s relationship to his or her preceptor/teacher. Monastics were given the surname Shì, for Sakyamuni. With a lot of fudging and creative imagination, family trees reaching indeed all the way back to the Buddha were drafted, spanning far more generations than almost any indigenous Chinese family history. The Sangha, now organized by ordination lineage, thus became a kind of family, such that an incipient monk or nun not so much left his or her family altogether as swapped his or her family, much as a young bride leaves one family to join another. In this way, otherwise bruised Chinese familial sensitivities seem to have been appeased, but the functional value of home leaving retained.

Actually, an analogous update seems to have been reached earlier in India, as early as the time of the Buddha or shortly thereafter, and to have involved a similar clever side-step, engineered either by the Buddha himself or later by his close disciples. The cultural presupposition was, in this case, patriarchy rather than the value of family. In a recent essay I argue that gender equality is as strongly articulated in the Buddha’s teachings as caste equality. However, it was inevitable that this way of thinking would stub its toe on the rock of patriarchy endemic in Indian folk culture at the time of the Buddha, and up to the present day, for that matter. The Buddha’s great concern must have been the acceptability of a women’s monastic order within the prevailing folk culture and even among his lay followers, particularly since the nuns, like the monks, would be dependent on receiving daily alms, and since the kind of independence he wanted to secure for nuns entailed a level of freedom from masculine control that was, in that culture, commonly identified with “loose women.” A solution would be to update his original intention by symbolically putting the nuns under the control of the monks, while ceding a minimal amount of real power to the latter. The result was the now infamous garudhamma rules (which I suggest actually postdates the Buddha himself). In this way, otherwise bruised Indian gender sensitivities seem to have been appeased, while the functional value of an independent order of fully ordained women was secured. (The irony is that those same garudhamma rules commonly bruise modern gender sensitivities. Modern disbelief in this case will likely necessitate an second update of some sort.)

Whether or not these analyses are correct, they illustrate an apt response to the inconsistency of an imported teaching with a local cultural norm that simply will not budge: update the teaching to accommodate the cultural norm while preserving as best as possible the original function.

Karmic payback. “We are the heirs of our own deeds,” the law of karma, has been explained and exemplified in various ways in different schools of Buddhism, and often described as a law of nature that eventually imposes justice for good and bad deeds. An unwholesome deed (karma) committed now, for instance, will eventually ripen by producing an unfortunate result (vipaka) immediately or at some later time, in this life or in a future life. For instance the following are some kinds of results found in the early discourses of bad deeds, in roughly descending order of frequency:

  • An unfortunate realm of rebirth, for instance, as a hungry ghost or as a chipmunk,
  • Unfortunate circumstances of rebirth, for instance, as a human, but born into a poor family, into poor health or into a displeasing body,
  • Unfortunate circumstances in the present life, such as loss of wealth, bad reputation or declining health,
  • An unfortunate incident in the present or in a future life, for instance, being struck by lightning a day after committing a theft.

The function of the teaching of karmic payback can be found in two equivalences it entails. The first is the equivalence of practice and benefit. We practice because we expect some benefit to ensue. Note that our practice is exactly karma, i.e, deeds or misdeeds of body speech and mind. Most other things that we “practice” – for instance, wood carving or ballroom dancing – we practice with the expectation of some personal advantage or satisfaction; Buddhism should be no different, and in fact it’s even more so. The second is the equivalence of personal benefit and benefit for others. Acts of generosity, kindness backed by wisdom are exactly what bring the most personal advantage and satisfaction. These two equivalences, of practice and benefit, and of virtue and reward, together encourage a life of practice rooted in the wholesome factors of generosity, kindness and wisdom.

Nonetheless, the law of karma is often found unbelievable in modern society specifically because it is unclear what kind of known mechanism might account for the various ways in which a deed might ripen. OK, Santa Claus may have young children covered on a year-to-year basis, but how could my act of generosity now possibly ripen as financial success in my next life? Who is keeping track for me? The following update of the law of karma might resolve this believability deficit.

Rather than presenting karmic payback as a law, let’s break the law of karma into a set of causal relations, focusing on unwholesome karma:

  • Craving manifests as suffering. This is the second Noble Truth. Therefore unwholesome karmic acts driven by greed or hate experience an immediate partial payback as suffering.
  • Craving is based in delusion. Therefore unwholesome karmic acts driven by delusion are also likely to lead to suffering.
  • Repeated karmic acts of a given type turn to habit, and habits become definitive of character. For instance, repeated acts based in anger make one into an angry person. This ensures future acts rooted in anger, each of which, involving a kind of craving, will entail further future suffering.
  • Habitual suffering (anxiety, stress, etc.) often manifest in physical health. For instance, an habitually angry person suffers almost constant stress, which famously weakens the cardiovascular system. An habitually needy person might likewise suffer from depression and alchoholism.
  • Unwholesome acts often manifest as social censure. Few of us enjoy the company of an angry or needy person. Once cheated by a merchant we are unlikely to return to his place of business, nor recommend it to friends. Social censure even manifests as retribution in many cases. Unwholesome acts therefore often lead to unfortunate circumstances.
  • Craving distorts perception. For instance, a person aflame with anger will see a his antagonist as a demon. The habitually angry person will live in a world of demons, a kind of hell realm. Living under social censure will only magnify this experience.

Our updated understanding of karmic payback posits that the archaic law of karma is a generalization over the effects of these principles, at least as a rough and easily formulated approximation. These principles themselves require no substantial update of the Buddha’s teachings. Furthermore, updating the law of karma in this way continues to uphold the functionality of the archaic law of encouraging a life of practice rooted in the wholesome roots of generosity, kindness and wisdom.

This leaves only the question, Does our update account for the specific examples of karmic payback found in the Buddha’s discourses? The most common of these examples make reference to conditions and realms of rebirth. However, these are consistent with our update of karmic payback: The latter traces much of human suffering to the development of the human character, with its ingrained habit patterns. Rebirth is taught as the force of that selfsame karmically formed character projecting itself into a new life. For instance, an angry character plagued by demons in this life will likely be reborn in a hell realm of his own making; he already lives in one even before death.

Unfortunate incidents – Mahamogallana is, in later teachings, said to have been murdered as a karmic payback for having caused the death of his parents in a previous life – are not accounted for in the update. Indeed it would be difficult to imagine what causal mechanisms might be at play in these cases in any account. However, we should note, first, that such incidents are relatively rare in the early discourses, and, second, that the discussion of karmic payback was there quite characteristically marked by allegory.

Allegory is well suited for explicating abstract principles, like the law of karma, by simple example, since the examples are chosen not for their factuality, but for their illustrative qualities. “If you do this bad thing, that bad thing is the likely result” is an optimal way of illustrating the law of karma; what could be more concrete? It doesn’t even matter if “that” is actually a bad thing, as long as people generally think it is. For instance, is being born in a wealthy family (as opposed to a middle class family) really a predictor of future well-being? Many Asian Buddhists think that by performing meritorious deeds they will improve their chances of winning the lottery. However, research tracing the fates of lottery-winners finds that these on average are very unfortunate people indeed. The early examples also tend to ignore cumulative effects of karma, for instance, the results of habitual actions, and to favor one-to-one correspondences of karmic act and result, for instance that offering this food to this monk in this life will result in vast wealth in the next. This balance makes no literal sense: we perform thousands of karmic acts in a day but suffer rebirth, the most common karmic result, only occasionally. But this balance is exactly what the allegorical nature of the discussion of karmic payback would suggest: a one-to-one correspondence makes a better story.

My intention here is not to provide an air-tight case that this is the optimal modern understanding of the law of karma – though I personally am rather partial to it –, but rather to illustrate how the principled updating of archaic teachings might work. I hope this example, like the ones before it, at least tells a good story. Updating teachings in this manner is, I feel, the most principled way in which Buddhism will adapt to modernity. Actually updating is an inevitable consequence of a Buddhist fully engaged understanding and practice. This is because we are not asked to accept teachings passively, but to examine them, put them to the test and relate to them in our own experience, that is, to reach an understanding that is our own. A modern mind will rarely arrive at the same understanding as the ancient Indian mind, nor of the variety minds that required the various historical updates of teachings still preserved in the various traditions of Buddhism. Updating is integral to the reasonable skeptic’s process of understanding.

Conclusion to the Series

I hope that at least two or three readers are still with me in what has turned out to be a rather long-winded discussion of Believability in Buddhism.

We are in a (rather exciting) historical process in which Buddhism, of Asian origin and historical development, is encountering modernity, essentially of European origin but spread with empire throughout the world. As these two great movements pass over and through one another, unbelievability stands as the most turbulent center of this encounter. Unbelievability is the “humbug” response, whose impulse is immediately and decisively to reject out of hand – to take the modernist’s perspective – any Buddhist teaching that conflicts with a modern world view. Among secular Buddhists the appropriateness of this impulse is even commonly accepted as a point of faith.

To my mind this unbelievability impulse is ill-considered because many of the teachings thereby rejected turn out to be body parts of the baby – not the bathwater –, that is, parts functionally integral to living, breathing Buddhism. To my mind this impulse is ill-considered also because there are more reasoned alternatives that – rather than making our own quick and easy Buddhism – will make Buddhism even more fully our own.

Making Buddhism our own is a natural and time-honored outcome of the tension in Buddhist between understanding (or theory) and practice. The Buddha describes how we understand the Dharma initially as a matter of faith, but then are challenged to discover the Dharma in our own practice experience, often as something quite different from what we had at first thought we understood. This is how we make Buddhism our own. The reasonable skeptic is perhaps in the best position to succeed in this endeavor: The naïvely credulous is likely to fix on an understanding that is unassailed by mere practice. The die-hard skeptic is unlikely to take the more challenging teachings seriously in the first place. The reasonable skeptic will take the teachings seriously, but, ever questioning, will allow experience and wise reflection to challenge what might have been an initially faulty understanding in any case. I identify the unbelievability impulse with the die-hard skeptic.

Most Buddhist teachings are quite readily acceptable to moderns, even when obscure, yet still in need of verification. Others are simply incidental and good candidates for rejection or ignoring. However some will be functionally significant in the system of the Dharma, yet difficult to accept or even unbelievable for many moderns. This case requires some kind of accommodation, either by adapting the teachings to modern views or by adapting modern views to the teachings. These are the the upgrade and reconsideration strategies respectively. An third strategy is contextualization, which is really a subtype of reconsideration, since it reconsiders the modern strict imposition of scientific standards on religious teachings. Reconsideration is significant in that it presents a challenge to the very widespread hubris that the the modern worldview is superior to alternative worldviews, including the Buddhist worldview. This is part of the reasonable skeptic’s challenge of engaging with Buddhist teachings completely

3 Responses to “What is Believable? (6/6)”

  1. Randy Says:

    Good series. It certainly addresses my personal issues with believability as well as seems to align, for the most part, with conclusions I have come to. That does not mean I like it because I agree with it (smile), but more it still leaves me room for my doubts that usually surface when I attempt to take things literally or apply them unilaterally. Bad things still do happen to good people and the reverse and ‘you will get your reward in heaven’ does not work for me… unless of course heaven is not a place, but a state of mind and ‘mind’ in a greater sense than the current thoughts running through me, is ultimately where all resides… or is imagined.

    Now I have to go fix…,


    Salam Alykum.



  2. Ross David H Says:

    Well done! It puts me in mind of the research done in the last twenty years or so on the effects of religion. Prior to that (and even now among many scientists), the attitude towards religion was either to ignore it or dismiss it. In recent years, some research has begun on “what does it do?” It’s a different attitude, that requires thinking of religion as a different sort of thing than science.

    One challenge will be how to decide whether or not the candidate replacement for a given unacceptable tenet, is working as an effective replacement. How do you measure success?

    Good series, thank you for writing it!


  3. bhikkhucintita Says:

    Can you give some references for the research on the effects of religion? I am not sure what research that would be and maybe I just don’t know about it at all.


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