Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Difficulty of Receiving Buddhism in the West

A primary difficulty of receiving Buddhism into the West (as a psycho-social cultural context) is due to the peculiarity that Buddhism has nothing to teach, or to be more accurate, Buddhism is an un-teaching, not a teaching and not a non-teaching.  Buddhism, as a terminology, is a word created within the Western psycho-social context that adds the suffix “ism” to the core word “Buddha,” and that very process is among the first moves by the Western worldview to Westernize, appropriate, acclimate and accommodate the Buddha Dharma. This process of adaptation is human, normal, and indeed, inevitable, and took place on every occasion that the Buddha Dharma expanded outside its original context of Brahmanical culture in the India of 5th century BCE.  

The Sanskrit word dharma (Pali, dhamma) is very interesting and very difficult to translate into a single English word.  It has meanings that range from the minute to the all encompassing.  At one end of the spectrum, “a dharma” refers to a quantum of thingness, i.e., to that which makes a thing a thing, or in other words, to the fundamental pattern of a thing’s thinginess.  At the other end of the spectrum of connotations, “the Dharma” refers to the worldview or Weltanschauung of the person or context being described.  In the time of the Buddha, when two wandering spiritual mendicants (sramana) met each other on the road, they would inquire “Whose Dharma do you follow?” by way of sizing up and knowing where each other “was coming from” spiritually and intellectually.  A follower of Siddhartha Gautama, known by the two titles Shakyamuni Buddha, or simply the Buddha, would say, “I follow the Buddha Dharma.” It is because this is the widest and most inclusive connotation that it is conventionally capitalized in English.  Between these two ends of the spectrum, dharma can refer to a specific method of religious or skillful practice, to a teaching, to the law or duty of an individual, to the laws and duties of a society or culture, to a truth, to the Truth, to real things, to Reality, etc.   

In English, the myriad difficulties of translating the affective idea complex of “the Buddha Dharma” into English are dodged by simply using the suffix “ism” and saying Buddhism. While this has utility and is within lexicological validity, it creates some acculturation problems, because “ism” includes the two connotations of “a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory” and “an oppressive and especially discriminatory attitude,” both of which are erroneous when applied to Buddha Dharma.  Thus from the get go, the term Buddhism has problematic and mistaken connotations as the English word for the Buddha Dharma.  For example, some Christians believe that Buddhism is not even a religion because it is an “ism,” without understanding that their term Christianity is simply a fancy way of saying ‘Christism’.

Most importantly for understanding Buddhism in the West, is the awareness that Buddhism, as an “ism,” is not “a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory.”  This is immanently hard for Westerners to grok.  The best way to get this is to know that Buddhism is more like a mental medicine, a prescription for what ails us spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically (known by the term dukkha), and is not a doctrine or theory to be asserted, grasped onto, and promoted as a standard of belief.  The medicine of Buddhism requires a certain degree of faith in its efficacy, but it does not require any degree of belief in it as if it were a doctrine or dogma of tenets.  In other words, Buddhism does espouse a distinctive diagnosis of the cause of our suffering, dissatisfaction, and sense of imbalance in life (again, all coming under the term dukkha) and a prescription (which can be taken as a theory or hypothesis until personally proven to oneself) for the treatment and cure of that experience of off-centeredness.  In this sense, Buddhism does include a distinctive cause and theory to be put personally to the test of one’s own practice, proof, and realization, but without a doctrine or dogma to be taken merely on belief. It is only in this way that “ism” may be applied to the Buddha Dharma which is the .

This is the main source of the Western misunderstanding of how Buddhism relates to the stories of karma and reincarnation. Many Westerners feel some immediate, direct, and inherent affinity toward Buddhism, but are appalled, more or less specifically or vaguely, by the teachings of karma and reincarnation (or its synonym rebith) found in Buddhism.   What is not appreciated in the West is that the Buddhist views of karma and reincarnation are not truth assertions in themselves, but are truth responses to the Brahmanical doctrines about karma and reincarnation.  The Buddha’s awakening, for which he earned the title Buddha or Awakened One, gave him insight into the true workings of karma and rebirth, functions that the Brahmanical culture and doctrines were mistaken about. 

Brahmanical teachings on karma and rebirth emphasized the roles of atman, our essential or true self, and Brahman, the Universal Self of True Reality, and held that our psycho-spiritual liberation from what ails us is achieved when we personally realize that atman and Brahman are identical.  This was defined as the insight into the true nature of reality.  Buddha agreed with the frame of reference that our liberation is achieved when we realize an accurate apprehension and correct comprehension of the true nature of the universe, but based on his own insight into this true nature, he had to respond to the Brahmanical conceptual errors about the notion of self, both personal and cosmic, and therefore the Buddha taught the idea anatman, no-self, as the antidote to that mistaken idea of self.  Similarly, in response to mistaken Vedic and non-Vedic ideas about causation (including such views as a first cause similar to the ‘Big Bang’ and causation by a supreme being) , the Buddha taught the idea of dependent-origination (pratitya-samutpada) and that this was another aspect of the liberation arising upon viewing true nature of the universe accurately. 

Thus, the Buddhist response to the binding characteristics of the religions and philosophies of his day was to acknowledge the phenomenological basis of the worldviews he encountered, but to provide corrective analyses of the observed phenomena.  Integral to his analysis was the inquiry and examination of the mental constructs by which phenomena are observed, categorized, and analyzed.  That is, the Buddha Dharma is based on an approach to experience that inquires into its basis and an appreciation of that the phenomenological basis of reality lies in the phenomena of cognition and awareness.

So when Buddhism teaches about karma and rebirth, it is not positing a dogmatic assertion, but a corrective treatment for the misunderstandings about karma and rebirth.  To the extent that someone holds a wrong view of karma and rebirth, then the Buddha Dharma addresses that mistaken notion.  But we should remember that a view that denies there is any phenomenological basis for the ideas of karma and rebirth is just as mistaken as the Brahmanical or Christian views of karma and rebirth that depend on the literalization or essentialization of a self.  However, and this is the nuanced and subtle point that Westerners almost always miss, if a person has no view at all about karma and rebirth and neither denies their workings nor asserts a mistaken view of their workings, then Buddhism has no need “to correct” that person’s views on karma and rebirth because there are none and so Buddhism is able to leave well enough alone.  But in truth, it rarely happens that a person genuinely has no view of karma and rebirth, and the Christian idea of a cul-de-sac heaven or the atheist idea of nothing continuing after death both need correction by the Buddha Dharma. 

So when Buddha Dharma comes to the West and presents its ideas, we should remember that it is presenting responses to the ideas that are encountered in the West in terms of the Buddha’s awakening.  At least that is the ideal. But of course, in practice, Buddhist teachers and students have a wide range of personal insights and degrees of awakening, and therefore, many things get said and transmitted about Buddhism that are either merely fuzzy or downright inaccurate.  

The goal of Buddhism is liberation from what produces our psycho-spiritual ills and ailments.  Fundamentally, it is our own bifurcated and polarized consciousness that is the trunk of the branches and leaves of those ills.  As Buddhism comes to the West, Buddhism does not need to impose any specific set of dogmas onto Westerners because the whole project of Buddhism is to free Westerners from our own presuppositions, not to inculcated a new and foreign set of presuppositions.  This is the only very narrow seed or grain of truth in the secular Westerner’s doubts about karma and rebirth.  And since many new students or converts to Buddhism don’t fully understand the Buddhist view of karma and rebirth there has been much confusion sown.  Likewise, some foreign teachers of Buddhism have come to the West and mistakenly attempted to teach karma and rebirth as if they were speaking to members of their own culture and have thus muddied the waters unnecessarily and inappropriately. 

When Buddhism came to China, it met and had to deal with the preexisting religions of Taoism and Confucianism.  For example, as with Buddha teaching a correct view of the preexisting idea of karma, Buddhists in China had to teach a correct view of the preexisting Taoist idea of “the Way,” the Dao (Tao), and they did so by accepting and acknowledging the phenomenal basis for the idea, not by rejecting the idea.  Then they acculturated Buddhism by providing a re-visioning and re-articulating of what that idea was conveying but from a Buddhist perspective in order to liberate people from the bondage that the mistaken attachment to the idea had generated.         

Likewise, with Buddhism coming to the West, its goal is not to inculcate foreign ideas like karma and rebirth where they have not already arisen.  But actually, many if not most Westerners do not themselves know how deeply the ideas of karma and rebirth are already embedded in Western culture through Greek, Pagan, Jewish, and Christian sources just to name a few. The Christian idea of “you reap what you sow” is basic karma, and the idea of going to hell or heaven after we die is a teaching of rebirth.  But much of modern Western culture is a stream that flows away from religious views and embraces a secular view of materialist science, and this current of modernism dismisses all views that hint of religion as mere superstition.  So Buddhism has two main rivers of Western culture that it must simultaneously address: Western religion and Western science. 

It is the Western stream of secular scientism that gives rise to the voices proclaiming and advocating an anti-karma and anti-rebirth secularization or normalization of Buddhism.  That’s okay, and these voices need to be responded to, but we should not neglect or forget that the voices of Western religion must just as necessarily be responded to by Buddhists if Buddhism is to acclimate and acculturate in the West.  Buddhism must respond to and address both Western science’s mistaken views of materialism and consciousness as well as Western religions’ mistaken views of God and spiritual salvation.  But in order to do so, Buddhism does not deny God and salvation and does not deny science.  Buddhism addresses both God and science by acknowledging that they are each systems of conceptual response to experienced phenomenological reality. Buddhism then adds the nuances of its perspective that arise in the light of Buddha’s awakening. 

As Buddhism comes to the West, it provides a revisioned approach to both science and God.  In a sense, Buddhism will “blow up” the preconceptions of both God and science as it accustoms itself to the West. As for God, Buddhism sees God without anthropomorphism in the same way that it sees both the individual person and the cosmic personage of Brahma without a self (anatman).  As for science, Buddhism asks what is “matter” and how can matter be maintained as a substance or a thing in light of the relationship between energy, mass, and light in the same way that it asked how can karmic energies and influences be reborn when there is no self or substance to carry them? And of course Buddhism asks science how does consciousness arise if there is only brain matter and no mind?  In these ways, Buddhism does not deny science and instead encourages science to delve deeply into its own assumptions and premises and to not stop short by clinging to comfortable notions of matter as if the fundamental questions have been resolved.   The answer to the questions of karma and rebirth lie exactly in this questioning of science’s own presumptions of matter and materialism by using the scientific method itself.     

The preeminent psychologist Carl G. Jung pointed out that some variety of the notion of reincarnation and rebirth appears in every culture and therefore should be taken as a universal psychological phenomenon worthy of study.  This is the view of a Western scientist who takes psychology as an empirical science based on the psyche, not on matter.  In Western culture, the inquiry of the universe can be done in two modes: that of matter or mind, i.e., physics or psyche.  Aristotle called the first physics and the other metaphysics, or what was beyond physics.  Sadly for Western science, scientific inquiry in the 20th century became dominated by the first, and scientific study via the second was usurped and almost entirely atrophied by disuse. This conceptualization of metaphysics as the study of the non-physical obfuscated and relegated the field of psychology away from empirical scientific inquiry because it was not physical and created for psychology the guilt by association with religion and superstition which were metaphysical.  That is, Western materialists who studied natural phenomenon as “matter” denigrated and despised the study of natural phenomenon as mind and psyche.  The term psychology as the scientific study of the psyche as mind has been nearly entirely usurped by the study of the mindless but measurable physical reactions of a material body and brain matter.  This is one of the core problems of Western science and materialist secularization that Buddhism is and will address in order to liberate people from the bondage that Western materialism has imposed on its own Western science and the Western worldview. 

Western secular Buddhists may be skeptical about what they imagine that Buddhism is asking them to believe about karma and rebirth (when in fact Buddhism is not asking them to believe anything), but as yet, those who are vociferous about this skepticism have not seemed to glimpse that the real danger that Buddhism poses for their Western worldview has nothing at all to do with karma or rebirth but with their own closely and dearly held beliefs about matter and mind.  Buddhism asks that they inquire into their own materialistic worldview along with its presumptions and its assumptions of observer and the observed that their science utilizes in forming its dominant and domineering relationship to the universe as matter and energy.  Whether they know it yet or not, this is the genuine difficulty that secularists face with receiving Buddhism in the West.


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