Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A response to James Ford’s Blog on Modernist Buddhism


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James Ford’s take on Modernist Buddhism seems to present a noble hope for an integration of Buddhism with a Western world view that is just doomed to failure, because it attempts to straddle a divide that cannot be straddled.  Buddhism can accommodate itself to science but not to the religion of scientific materialism, because scientific materialism is a belief system that should not be confused with the activity of science.  

The label “Modernist Buddhism” is about as useless as the label Modernist Art. The adjective provides no descriptive content and only detracts and demeans the noun being modified.  The complete failure of the term is shown by the suggestion that Thich Nhat Hanh and Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, could be considered as such within its penumbra. 

No, karma and rebirth are not “an explanation for human hurt” any more than gravity is an explanation for the art of Jackson Pollack.  Buddhism’s response to the question of original sin is the chain of causation, in which ignorance about our own true nature is the key link, not a projected anthropomorphic creator who is the cause.   The Three Marks are about the marks of conditioned things, not about our own true nature of awakening which is unconditioned.  Things don’t “exist within their moments,” unless those moments are seen as a dream. Because moments don’t exist either, both the “thing” and the “moment” only appear as a dream. 

To believe that one can “capture the teachings of Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha of history,” is a delusion that rests upon the failure to fully digest the meaning of the Three Marks.  Historical materialism was not created by modernists, but has been a central problem of human consciousness since the dawn of history.  Both historical anthropomorphism and historical materialism are cognitive illnesses resting on the mental activities of reification and literalization. 

The literalizations of rebirths is the problem, but the denial of rebirth is not the solution, deliteralization is.  That people believe there is an entity that is reborn is the problem, not rebirth.  You, the reader, are the living proof of rebirth, whether or not you know it to be so.  Do you remember your first day out of your mother’s womb? Just because you don’t remember your first day of breath does not mean it never happened.   The “entity” that you are today is not the “entity” of your first day. Not a single cell remains. Yet through the magic of memory you have crafted a reification of identity that you believe is reborn from day to day.  Don’t let memory fool you, the no-self that is reborn from day to day is the no-self that is reborn from life to life.   Rebirth is not merely a motivational ploy, it is a fact of the universe that won’t go away by ignoring it, any more than the laws of physics will cease when people don’t pay attention to them.

If the books Buddhism Without Beliefs to After Buddhism are the standard of Modernist Buddhism, then the Buddha Dharma is in good shape because those books show how their author is not really interested in Buddha Dharma, and is only interested in his own views.  However, one could say that readers are in deep trouble when they read those books and are mistakenly lead to believe they are learning about Buddhism.  Here is where the label Modernist Buddhism becomes a negation of actual Buddhism.

I recently saw and heard Richard Wright at my local independent bookstore Copperfield's Books in Sebastopol, CA, during his book tour for Why Buddhism is True and while he may be entertaining to people who have no knowledge of Buddhism, and he does give a credible outline of some of the basic ideas in Buddha Dharma, overall, his attempt to wed Buddhism with modernist scientific materialism is an utter failure.  His portrayal of the scientific view is filled with the anthropomorphic creationist jargon of what is oxymoronically called “evolutionary psychology.” For example he says that "natural selection has designed us" and "natural selection has created ur minds" and "the way we are wired."   

That Modernist Buddhists “do not believe in a literal rebirth” is not the problem with Modernist Buddhism.  As I noted above, the belief in a literal entity being reborn is the problem for which the Buddha provided the medicine. But Modernist Buddhists want to throw out the baby of rebirth with the dirty water of literalizing. The Modernist Buddhist believes in the birth of the literal person in this life, but not in the rebirth of the deliteralized currents of the life streams that make up the karmic seeds and perfumes.  The whining about karma and rebirth by Modernist Buddhists only shows their lack of scientific inquiry.  The presumption that karma and rebirth are merely superstitious supernaturalism is held with religious fervor as a doctrinal tenet.  

From whatever perspective, if karma and rebirth are denied, then that stream is not in the Buddha Dharma watershed. This is because the unique perspective on karma and rebirth is an essential part and parcel of the greatest discovery of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. The story is that under the Bodhi Tree, the Buddha realized the Three Direct Knowings:  The first was that of his past lives and the past lives of all beings. The second was of the laws of karma. The third was that he was free of all obstacles and released from attachments.
There is absolutely nothing in the discovery of the Buddhist view of karma and rebirth that is contrary to or incompatible with modern science. To suggest otherwise only shows that the suggestor has a warped and perverted view of science. Saying karma and rebirth are silly because there is no good theory for their application is just like a time when a person said that gravity is silly because there is no good theory or “proof” of its existence (i.e. before Newton). Likewise it is like a time when we said that people’s characteristics were transferred by the blood, before anyone knew of DNA. Karma and the rebirth of karmic characteristics are vastly more complex and difficult to describe and analyze than DNA or the laws of physics, but those laws of karma exist just the same whether or not we have the language to scientifically describe them with accuracy, just like the laws of physics existed before they were adequately described.
When a person has a genuine kensho experience, then the vision of karma and of rebirth as  characteristics conditioned by karma become intuitively clear, even while the scientific language for it is lacking. In my view, this could even be used as a litmus test for genuine, or at least genuinely profound, kensho. That is, an intuitive knowing of rebirth and the laws of karma.  There may be something like a genuine kensho, even it if is shallow, that does not touch the knowing of karma and rebirth, but that should not be used as confirmation for a genuinely adequate kensho, and a person should not be encouraged to use such a shallow kensho, if indeed it is a real kensho, as the measurement for the truth of karma and rebirth.  .
Yet, even with a deeply profound kensho, because the person lives within a social context, they are reduced to using concrete metaphors and imagery for describing it. Yes, the concrete imagery is susceptible to literalization and a falling back into pre-Buddhist paradigms for expressing the understanding of karma and rebirth in which a “person” or “soul” is discussed as transmigrating. But if this type of language is used by a Buddhist, it is a Buddhist using non-Buddhist terminology and thus causing confusion.
The great discovery of the Buddha was that karma and rebirth function absent the need to hypothesize a “person” or “soul.” It is not until modern physics and science that we are now in the position to begin a scientific study of the karma and rebirth phenomenon. The traditional Buddhist view, as expressed in the Lankavatara Sutra uses the image of the wave and the ocean. Karma is the wave action and what is reborn is the ocean itself, not an individual person or soul. Thus, we can see that the “modern” Buddhist can and should accept that karma and rebirth are pre-scientific descriptions of laws that are similar to wave formations, the ambiguity of analyzing light as a wave or a particle, etc.
The notion that “We are birthed out of the conditions of existence, live, and then as we die, it all falls apart. There is no extra or after for most modernist Buddhists.” is a result of not being able to deal with the ambiguity of the “wavicle” phenomenon of karma and rebirth. If a person says, “it is all too confusing for me, so I won’t make an opinion about karma and rebirth”, then that is not at all problematic to me. However, if someone says, “based on my limited view I assert there is no karma or rebirth, there is no extra or continuation of life” then to me, that person is not a Buddhist, even though, they may be friendly to Buddha Dharma otherwise.  

Likewise, a focus on “ethics and purpose” in Buddhism is well and good, but severely limited. Zen master Guefeng Zongmi listed five levels of profundity in Buddhism from shallow to deep, and “ethics and purpose” are teachings found in the two shallowest levels. The question “I wish I were happier” is in the shallowest level, and “why is there so much suffering” is found in the second shallowest level.  This means that they are questions common to all levels of Buddhism, as the surface levels of the ocean are common to the entire ocean. But sticking to “ethics and purpose” in such a way is like telling an oceanographer to only study the sea to a depth of 36 inches. Sure you will map the perimeter of the ocean’s shoreline that way, but you will overlook the depths entirely.   

Framing the question as one of “human flourishing” is exactly the kind of commercialization of the self-help genre that is selling nowadays.  Human flourishing has been the perennial project of all spiritual projects since humans became self-reflective. In this context, the fact that the idea of rebirth is swimming against the tide of contemporary materialism is one of its chief arguments for being a medicine of our modernist ailment and materialism disease.  The roll that materialist naturalism plays in the disease of our culture is exactly what the medicine of Buddha Dharma is well placed to cure.  By adhering to the disease and denaturing Buddhism into a materialist naturalism only perverts Buddhism. It is the appropriation of the medicine by the disease, not the cure of the disease by the medicine.

The idea that “consciousness can be fully accounted for by reducing it to material processes” is anathema to Buddhism. This is not Buddhism.  This is the materialism that removes the psyche from psychology, usurps the word psychology for what is actually physiology, and then presents this perversion as science.  

Let me say this plain and simple: any person, in the West or the East,  who truly believes that our best knowledge of the world is achieved by analyzing phenomena as the outcome of processes of physical causation; posits that there’s no world behind or beyond the material world of physics, chemistry, and biology; and believes  that consciousness can be fully accounted for by reducing it to material processes JUST IS NOT A BUDDHIST. They may be an artificially Buddhist flavored modernist, but they are not an actual Buddhist.  Today, Buddhists do not capitulate themselves to the “modern sense of the world” any more than they did to the then modern sense of the world in the past centuries and millennia ago.   To capitulate to the conventional sense of the world is just not Buddhism.  Yes, one must accommodate one’s views in public to a certain extent if it seems that an Emperor would chop off our head for stating the truth that challenges that conventional truth.  So to the extent that modern materialists would chop off the heads of Buddhists who go against the materialist sense of the world, then it behooves Buddhists to somewhat go along to get along. 

The idea that modernists need a “glue” to hold together traditional Buddhist ethics because they are shaped by modern materialist culture is just another way of saying modernists want to appropriate Buddhism to suit their own purposes.  Aristotle had some good ideas, but his concept of the dilemma is at the root of everything that is wrong with modernist materialism.  Aristotle said that life can be examined as physics and as metaphysics, i.e., that which is not physics. That was good. But he then formulated the concept of the dilemma which states that a proposition is either true or false.    When Aristotle’s concept of the dilemma became directed at his own outline of inquiring about the universe as physics and metaphysics, the materialists in favor of physics said their side was true and the other side, the metaphysics, was false. Thus Aristotle’s eudaimonia became, in the hands of the materialists, both one sided and narrow minded as merely a flourishing of their materialist perspective.  

The project of Buddhism is to transplant itself into the West, not to transplant Aristotle into Buddhism.  The “endpoint” of Buddhist practice has NEVER been about “ending rebirth,” except to the extent as envisioned by the shallowest surface understanding of Buddhism by those who are attached to their view of the person as an entity.  The endpoint of Buddhism has always been awakening, as the title Buddha means an “awakened one.” 

To formulate the endpoint of Western or Modernist Buddhism as “living the best kind of life one possibly can” is like saying the endpoint of one’s vacation is to have a well functioning car.  This is a reinterpretation of the Buddhist awakening that trivializes its scope and depth. Labeling it “eudaimonic enlightenment” is just a fancy name for genetically modified enlightenment. This is clear by the need to immediately provide the warning that Aristotle’s virtues are not Buddhist virtues. And there is a whole lot more to the Buddhist wisdom of prajna and jnana than mere insight into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and the absence of self-nature. 

So while one may be sympathetic with Modernist Buddhism, it is not Modernist Buddhism to accept the presence of Tathagatagarbha in the human heart-mind. So while I agree that the wisdom of the Mahayana Mahaparinivara Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Lankavatara Sutra, the Diamond Cutter Sutra, and the Treatise on the Mahayana Awakening of Faith are absolutely congruent with the foundations of Zen awakening, the awareness of the exact identity of the causal world and awakening, that is, of delusion and enlightenment, is something that completely blows up modern materialism, not something that affirms materialism.

James Ford arrives at a destination with a panoramic view of Zen and the Heart Sutra. But it is only with a rationalizing sleight of hand that the Heart Sutra or any other Mahayana Sutras, as well as many if not most of the Suttas of the Pali Canon, can be made consistent with the materialist Buddhist Modernism.  In other words, it is no defense of Modernist Buddhism to describe a Buddhism that burns away the materialist superstructure yet pretends there is no inconsistency. 

To say “things are real but they are temporary” is another toy rattle to give to a crying child that has no greater or lesser degree of fact than to say “you are reborn from one life to another.”  Once awakening, even by the names kensho or satori, is acknowledged, we have left the precincts of Modernist Buddhism, and I don’t think it does anyone any good to pretend otherwise.  An admonition that any emergent Modernist Buddhism must take awakening into account is doomed to failure exactly because materialism cannot coexist with awakening.  

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Some links in Ford’s original post:

by Marjorie L. Silverman

Why Secular Buddhism is Not True
by sujato.


A MoreEnlightened Way of Being, The entrance of Buddhist ethics into the modern world 

By Seth Zuiho Segall








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