13 July 2010

Buddhism? (reprise)

As I implied earlier, there is no small amount of confusion and in the English-speaking world about what the word Buddhism means. For this sangha's purposes, I defined Buddhism in the first instance as a way to do things, a thing to do informed by thousands of years of committed practice. This particular thing to do or way to do things has specific characteristics that set it apart. I will address those differences, but first I would like to tackle an immediate objection:

Isn't Buddhism really an institutional religion (a religion and a set of religious institutions)? A historical phenomenon indigenous to South Asia? A culture or set of cultures? A stream of absolute wisdom given from on high to alleviate the sufferings of the deluded masses below? A liferaft for suffering individuals in need of a refuge? A scheme for selling Himalayan kitsch and New-Agey-Self-Helpy gizmos?

Any of those definitions are plausible, although I take issue with some of them (start here if interested). But the definition I give above is not necessarily in conflict with the spirit of these questions above. For instance, there are Buddhist doctrines that are distinct from non-Buddhist ones. The Buddha's teaching on rebirth (disputed by some) is one example. These doctrines and their mastery are in themselves a method of practice; to reject a Buddhist doctrine out of hand is in a sense an avoidance strategy, an attempt to evade an important aspect of practice. Careful study and contemplation of the teachings is one method, one way to shovel the stuff, one of many. How about the difficult double-negations of Madhyamika reasoning? A method, a means to accomplish something. Mumbling mantras, performing mudras, visualization? A method. Walking laps around the stupa, doing prostrations, copying and reciting sutras, sitting meditation, and the rest? Methods. Seung Sahn Sunim's famous (and brilliant!) "only go straight"? A method, a means.

These methods are embodied in very diverse cultures, earnestly practiced and promoted by committed people, transmitted with care and at great self-sacrifice by the same. To paraphrase Peter Hershock, Buddhism is not a commodity but a kind of learning context: Buddhist communities are particular kinds of learning communities. But what kind of learning is this? Is it really learning in the last analysis? I invite you all to contemplate this question before I guide us through the matter of how Buddhist methods can be distinguished from other methods.

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Worth noting in passing: this explanation of Buddhism as a set of methods applied to a particular purpose is a good way around the knotty question of whether Buddhism is or is not a religion in the same way this or that version of Christianity might be, or Eckankar, or even Flying Spaghetti Monsterism: a kind of institution identified with a set of objects (tropes, doctrines, experiences, symbols, stories) one must identify with. What has Buddhism to do with object-identification, with clinging to things? I mean this earnestly, even if a certain kind of pranksterism is taken for granted here.

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