Saturday, 29 September 2007

A Post-Modern Buddhism?

In a recent issue of Tricycle, Clark Strand argued that for Buddhism to survive in the West, it must adopt some of the more traditional forms of ritual inherent in Christianity and Judaism, so that young people brought up in Buddhist families will continue in the tradition. This is a very ethnocentric viewpoint.

As Tom Armstrong argued:

Strand believes that rituals and tradition and chanting and marriages and burials and birthings, as well as prominent religious holidays, act as family-cohering events within a religion, something the Christians and Jews have in plenitude, while we stinting Buddhists have very little of that group-hug, dress-up bonding crap.

These are valuable things in a culture that adheres to such beliefs, but America is largely moving beyond these older value systems. We are, as Americans, essentially a post-modern culture now. Certainly, many people still need these rituals to feel connected -- and I have no problem with that, the Buddha tailored his teachings to reach a wide range of people. Some teachings were far more advanced than others, both intellectually and culturally. But many Americans, especially Buddhists, are living in a post-ritual, post-mythic world.

When the Buddha was liberated, the culture was predominantly pre-rational, and many of the rituals and ceremonies of this cultural mindset survive into current Buddhist practice, especially in Tibetan Buddhism, which arose in a richly shamanic culture (the Bon tradition). But that was 2,500 years ago. The world has changed, and with it, so has Buddhism as it has moved to the West.

Science has shown that it is highly unlikely that we share the world with demons and other non-corporeal beings. Likewise, it is highly unlikely that there are hells or heavens, other than those we create for ourselves.

So what does this mean for American Buddhists?

When we discover Buddhism, we accept the Four Noble Truths and embark upon the Noble Eightfold Path. Many of us, especially in the Mahayana tradition, take the Bodhisattva Vow to work toward the liberation of all sentient beings before seeking our own liberation. This is very post-rational value system -- putting others before ourselves.

Throughout history, Buddhism has tended to remain aloof from political and social concerns. But in a global community, this is no longer feasible. When we vow to serve the liberation of all sentient beings, there are no exceptions. This is now being very clearly demonstrated by the Buddhist monks in Burma who are demonstrating against an oppressive and violent government.

Many would argue that this is not an appropriate behavior for Buddhist monks. And even their Thai neighbors have refused, so far, to support their efforts. But what can be more appropriate for Buddhist monks than working to free their fellow citizens from tyranny? How better to assist their fellow beings to be free of suffering than to help free them from an oppressive military junta that has blocked all efforts toward democracy?

A post-modernism Buddhism must recognize that we live in an interconnected world -- that Buddhists can no longer stand idly by as oppression happens around them. Thich Nhat Hanh advocated an Engaged Buddhism, after having lived that approach for many years. There is no other responsible course of action.

* * * *

As Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, moved into the West, many teachers failed to recognize that their new audience is so culturally different than their homeland in Tibet or India. While some Americans have been willing to adopt Tibetan traditions, such as prostrations and other archaic rituals, many more are not.

One of the few early teachers to recognize this cultural difference was Chogyam Trungpa. He brought a Westernized version of Tibetan Buddhism to American in the 1970s, the Shambhala tradition. He understood that Americans have different values and mindsets than Tibetans. It has been, sometimes derisively, called secular Buddhism. As such, it might be the first truly post-modern Buddhism, one devoid of rituals and traditions. [The lineage's new leader, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, declared in 2,000 that Shambhala is a Buddhist path, not a secular path.]

In a similar vein, many Western Buddhists, and Americans in particular, do not follow a single tradition. We might practice Big Mind, as developed by Genpo Roshi -- a combination of Zen practice and Voice Dialogue, a development from modern psychology. We might also practice mindfulness and Tonglen, as described by Pema Chodron in her many wonderful books. Many American Buddhists have come to the Dharma from other religions, and consequently may still believe in God, however non-anthropomorphic that belief might be.

If Buddhism in America is to survive and prosper -- and I have no doubt that it will -- we need to be less concerned with bringing in mythic rituals than with being open to the ways Buddhism can evolve to serve people in our current culture. And we also need to accept that our Buddhist values inform every area of our lives, including politics.

Even the Dalai Lama is willing to reject traditional beliefs if current science proves them wrong. We too need to be able to release pre-modern traditions to allow Buddhism to evolve with the current understanding of the world -- our post-modern world.

Monday, 17 September 2007

It's a Kalama-ty - Free enquiry or faith:?

There is a common perception that Buddhism differs from other religions in that it doesn't rely on blind faith and instead encourages personal verification. The Kalama Sutra is sometimes referred to as 'a charter for free enquiry' by many western Buddhists. This factor is often presented as what makes Buddhism stand out as different from most other religions and more compatible with the modern mindset. I, like many others I'm sure, was drawn to Buddhism in part because of this apparent open-minded call for pragmatic empiricism.

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor tradition; nor rumor; nor what is in a scripture; nor surmise; nor axiom; nor specious reasoning; nor bias towards one’s beliefs; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' When you yourselves know: 'These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them.
On the other hand, every school of Buddhism includes faith. In certain circles, the merest hint that Buddhism encourages (or possibly even allows for free enquiry) or that this is the meaning of the Kalama Sutra will get shouted down usually along with reference to an interpretation of the sutra by Bikkhu Bodhi. So how should we interpret this sutra? Interpretations vary and we have to bear in mind of course that contemporary interpretations may have drifted somewhat from the original intention of the teaching(probably in the direction of faith-based dogmatism if the 'meme' theory of religious evolution has much truth to it).

Bikkhu Bodhi argues that the advice to disregard dogma, rumour, spurious logic, personal bias, the authority of one's teacher and so on, but to go upon that which can be personally verified and that which is 'praised by the wise', is directed at non-Buddhists and that once someone accepts the Buddha as one's teacher, this advice no longer applies and one should accept the authority of Buddha on faith.

...because the Kalamas had not yet come to accept the Buddha in terms of his unique mission, as the discloser of the liberating truth, it would not have been in place for him to expound to them the Dhamma unique to his own Dispensation... These teachings are specifically intended for those who have accepted the Buddha as their guide to deliverance, and in the suttas he expounds them only to those who "have gained faith in the Tathagata" and who possess the perspective necessary to grasp them and apply them....
We begin with an immediately verifiable teaching whose validity can be attested by anyone with the moral integrity to follow it through to its conclusions, namely, that the defilements cause harm and suffering both personal and social...This increased confidence in the teaching brings along a deepened faith in the Buddha as teacher, and thus disposes one to accept on trust those principles he enunciates that are relevant to the quest for awakening, even when they lie beyond one's own capacity for verification.
While it seems clear that the Kalama Sutra doesn't necessarily encourage dispensing with all faith in favour of personal investigation, this interpretation seems problematic.

First of all, the logic is pretty convoluted - we are to believe that, purely as a means of teaching/indoctrinating these people, the Buddha encouraged them to believe he was in favour of independent verification, but neglected to mention that after they 'signed up' they would be increasingly encouraged to discard it in favour of faith in metaphysical doctrines which they would never be able to verify. This seems to characterise the Buddha as exactly the sort of spiritual con-artist that the Kalamas had encountered before and were trying to defend themselves against. Also, this would involve the Kalama's directly contradicting Buddha's own advice to not go solely upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' Surely such advice was not to be disregarded after the monk Siddharth Gautama became their teacher?

It is further contradicted by the next section which is often regarded as a sort of Buddhist-equivalent to Pascal's Wager. Bikkhu Bodhi himself summarises this nicely where he describes the solaces of a ... "noble disciple [i.e. a monk, a disciple of Buddha] , devoid of covetousness and ill will, undeluded" dwells pervading the world with boundless loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity. Thus purified of hate and malice, he enjoys here and now four "solaces": If there is an afterlife and kammic result, then he will undergo a pleasant rebirth, while if there is none he still lives happily here and now; if evil results befall an evil-doer, then no evil will befall him, and if evil results do not befall an evil-doer, then he is purified anyway.

In other words, it doesn't matter whether followers of Buddha believe in literal rebirth and Kamma, they will benefit from the practice anyway. Sounds pretty reasonable.

Human beings are naturally empirical animals - we build up our understanding of the world by interacting with it. But we are also social animals and this is where much of our strength comes from - no individual has enough direct experiences in a lifetime to build up a really broad understanding - we rely on the experiences of others. Buddha, it seems to me, is pragmatically urging the Kalamas to rely primarily on what they can directly verify and on trusted opinion.

The Sutra certainly doesn't suggest that people can believe whatever they like, however empiricism is not believing whatever you like, it is being humble before reality. On the other hand, it doesn't, as I interpret it, imply at all that we don't need any faith at all. Without faith, we have no constancy in our practice or our mind - we need to have confidence in the teacher and in the teaching. But this is confidence that is reinforced by direct experience.

The Kalama Sutra
A Look at the Kalama Sutra - Bikkhu Bodhi
Buddhism and Science: Probing the Boundaries of Faith and Reason - Dr. Martin J. Verhoeven
How Free is Freedom of Thought - Sanath Nanayakkara

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Praying to the Buddha

The Washington Post has an article that highlights how the Vatican, and the U.S. Catholic Bishops are conducting an investigation of Georgetown University Catholic Theologian Peter Phan, apparently for comments regarding pluralism that he made in some of his writings. The Vatican claims that Phan's writings, especially a recent book titled Being Religious Interreligiously, "is notably confused on a number of points of Catholic doctrine and also contains serious ambiguities."

The Vatican's comments about "serious ambiguities" should give us pause, and should also remind us of what a progressive and "modern" buddhism, or a progressive spiritual practice if you will, ought not do. Any ethical/moral practice, and any practice that purports to guide our behavior by reliance on otherworldly speculation, should be extra careful about claims to certainty. Ambiguity is inescapable in human affairs, and we might do well to consider that a healthy respect for, and critical reflection on, ambiguity might enhance our moral imagination.

Perhaps literary and rhetorical critic Kenneth Burke put it best in his book A Grammar of Motives, when he noted:
A perfectionist might seek to evolve terms free of ambiguity and inconsistency (as with the terministic ideals of symbolic logic and logical positivism)...We take it for granted that, insofar as men cannot themselves create the universe, there must remain something essentially enigmatic about the problem of motives, and that this underlying enigma will manifest itself in inevitable ambiguities and inconsistencies among the terms for motives. Accordingly, what we want is not terms that avoid ambiguity, but terms that clearly reveal the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise (xviii) [Emphasis added].
It seems to me that Burke was absolutely right. Ambiguity has a kind of existential inherency when we speak about ultimate matters, or when we use final vocabularies. To be sure, the Catholic Church can declare dogma and rules that seek to eschew ambiguity, but seeing how its pronouncements are meant to elicit adherence based on an ultimate lawgiver, and hence on their not been the ones to "create the universe," ambiguity is inescapable. Moreover, as per church doctrine, we cannot know the mind of God right?

So what kind of comments has Prof. Phan made that are troublesome to the Church? In a January issue of Commonweal, felicitously titled "Praying to the Buddha: Living Amid Religious Pluralism," Phan wrote:
"It is only by means of a patient and painstaking investigation of particular texts, doctrines, liturgical practices, and moral precepts that both differences and similarities between Christianity and other religions may emerge. Only in this way can there be a mutual understanding, full of challenge, correction, and enrichment, for both Christians and non-Christians.

"For even if Christ embodies the fullness of God's self-revelation, the church's understanding of this revelation remains imperfect, and its practice of it remains partial, at times even sinful."

The article (do read it for a taste of Rev. Phan's "subversive" nature) emphasizes precisely the need for a strong pluralism that requires we remain undogmatic, and in fact extend ourselves to a dialogue of life, and in action with others. Apparently, the Vatican, and the U.S. Catholic Bishops seem to have missed the point of Phan's article. It seems to me that, along with Burke, we (and here I will include the religious, spiritualists, and others like me, atheists and humanists alike) do not want to avoid ambiguity. Instead we ought to look deeply, to reflect mindfully, on exactly those nodes and moments when ambiguities necessarily arise. It is out of those moments of deep reflection over those uncertainties, and of sustained attention to our desire to fix and suture meaning, that we may re-cognize and transform our suffering.

A Progressive or modern Buddhism, even what I like to call a Zen Humanism is best when non-dogmatic, when deeply pluralist. Such an orientation does not mean that we must accept every pronouncement in the name of some confused "cultural sensivity." It does require that we look deeply at those claims, and engage them with an explicit self-consciousness for our own positionality, for willingness to discursive contestation, and for the seeking of agreement on a deep moral convention that we can agree promotes life and freedom, maximizes autonomy, and recognizes its own contextuality. My excursus here is not a programmatic presentation of such an approach, and so it remains superficial and perforce more tantalizing than substantive. Yet, in exploring the questions of what a progressive or modern Buddhism, or a Buddhist-inspired ethical path, might look like, I hope we can eschew the example provided by the Vatican in this instance, and look deeply at the pluralism to which Rev. Phan commends us.



Wednesday, 12 September 2007

A 21st Century Sangha

Half a decade ago, as an undergraduate studying Philosophy at The University of Montana and a newly enthralled Buddhist practitioner, I started the "UM Campus Sangha." It quickly grew to two people, sometimes three, but then petered out. I was a bit of a geek, with little personal charisma and even less in organizing skills, but I tried it again the following year, and the year after.

Nothing really stuck. Then last year, returning to UM as a graduate student in Philosophy and given the chance of a lifetime to teach a 150+ student Intro to Buddhism course, I gave the sangha another try. This time I had the help of some highly motivated students (my students!?) and the sangha was reborn.

Over the year we did a variety of meditations, concentrating on the two I knew best from the FWBO, the Mindfulness of Breathing and Development of Loving-kindness (Metta Bhavana). For over a month we closely studied and discussed the metta sutta. We even capped off last spring with a short retreat outside of town.

But now I have left UM for studies in London and need advice: what should the sangha do now? What ideas or projects could help maintain this now entirely student-led group? What is the key, if there is one, to a successful young sangha in the 21st century?

I will say that they are off to a great start, contacting area sanghas:
Osel Shen Pen Ling, Ewam, Open Way, Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, and Vipassana MT to bring in experienced meditators each month as well as to take 'field trips.' They also have done their bit for outreach, holding a booth at the back-to-school "welcome feast" on the first Friday of classes.

But what now? Looking forward to your comments and advice.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Welcome to Progressive Buddhism

We have the framework to begin writing. Please support the blog with your contributions - whether it swims or fades into the mists of blog obscurity are dependent on that support, especially at this stage. It's not a problem to duplicate material that you've published elsewhere.

In the meantime, I'll continue to contact Buddhist bloggers who I think would fit here. And I'll start working on my first proper post myself.

I hereby declare this blog - open!

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Discussion of Progressive Buddhism blog

We can use this post as a discussion area for the blog.

We can discuss:

Should we have any 'Quality Control'?
What is on-topic?
Tips on how to write a good blog entry
Design of blog template

Any other suggestions?

I'll expand on this later.

Kind regards,


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