Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What Buddhism Might Be

Perhaps this will sound familiar to you.

"John: Personally, I kinda think *all* religions are bogus.

Mary: In general I agree with you.  I'm definitely an atheist and I think the whole idea of "church" is disturbing.  But Buddhism isn't actually a *religion*; it's more of a *philosophy*.

John: Dude, all that bowing, celestial Buddhas, rosary beads, meditation, nirvana, those crazy hats the Tibetans wear... that's totally religion!  It might have some philosophy mixed in, but overall it's a religion."

If you've spent any time around philosophy or religious studies departments, it almost certainly does sound familiar.  As I spend most of my time in philosophy, much in religious studies, a bit in IU's secular student alliance, I am tired of listening to people have this debate.  Usually one person has read one pop Buddhism book and has made up his mind one way or the other, while the other person is even more oblivious.  It's just tiring.

If you yourself do serious work in areas you or others call "Buddhism", you are probably also familiar with this:

"Other person: Interesting paper!  Zen is awesome!  Are you Buddhist?

You: ...um... *god damn it I hate when people do that* ...well..."

The following is a list of the candidates for the intention of the word "Buddhism".  I implore you to consider them.

1)The set of practices that actually lead to enlightenment.
2)The set of practices the historical Buddha claimed lead to enlightenment.
3) The set of practices people calling themselves "Buddhists" believe actually lead to enlightenment.
4) The set of practices people calling themselves "Buddhists" believe the historical Buddha claimed lead to enlightenment.
5)The list of dogmas to which people calling themselves "Buddhists" ascribe.
6) The list of dogmas to which the historical Buddha actually ascribed.
7) The list of dogmas to which people calling themselves "Buddhists" believe the historical Buddha ascribed.
*Note: The list of dogmas ascribing to which leads to enlightenment falls under 1.  Similarly for those Buddhists believe lead to it etc.*
8) The particular way about which people calling themselves "Buddhists" do philosophy; the methods upon which they agree are legitimate forms of argumentation (their unique brand of analysis, logic, etc.)
9) The particular set of texts whose content grounds number 8.
10) The set of texts written by actual buddhas and bodhisattvas.
11) The set of texts people calling themselves "Buddhists" believe were written by buddhas and bodhisattvas.
12) The truth to which actual buddhas actually awaken.
13) The set of truths to which people calling themselves "Buddhists" believe buddhas awaken (that is, if x believes p and y believes q and x and y are Buddhists, then p and q are elements of "Buddhism".)
14) Actual enlightenment itself, whatever it be.
15) The set of things people calling themselves "Buddhists" believe enlightenment to be.
16)The set of practices people calling themselves "Buddhist" call "Buddhist practices" (regardless of whether they also believe these to  be salvifically efficacious).
17)The set of dogmas people calling themselves "Buddhist" call "Buddhist dogmas" (regardless of whether said people actually ascribe to said dogmas).
18) Some combination of the above.

Whether or not "Buddhism" counts as a "religion", and whether or not it counts as a "philosophy", depends on which of the above you take "Buddhism" to be.  If you take it to be one of, or a combination of, the things that focus on salvation, then "Buddhism" is indeed a religion.  If you take it to be only the philosophy things, it's a philosophy.  If you take it to be only the text things, then it's a literary movement.  If you take it to be 17 or 18, it's an anthropological phenomenon whose name I don't know.

It's false that there is necessarily no fact of the matter about whether Buddhism is a philosophy, a religion, a combination of those, or something else entirely.  There may well be a fact of the matter.  But it depends on which of the available options counts as "Buddhism".  Matsumoto Shiro, for instance, takes Buddhism to be something very specific: the doctrines of dependent origination and emptiness.  This falls under category 12: the truth to which actual Buddhas actually awaken.  If you do not yourself believe that there's such a thing as "enlightenment" yet agree with Matsumoto that these two doctrines constitute Buddhism, then you think that Buddhism is (an extremely limited version of) number 13.

I think that one of the above constitutes genuine Buddhism, but I'm not going to tell you which one because it is not my point.  My point is that the "religion vs philosophy" debate over Buddhism is only substantive if you're willing to do the work of making these sorts of distinctions.  That means careful thought, study of the terms involved, and not tolerating from yourself or your debate partner near perfect ignorance of the world beyond Western pop culture.

In other news, I am in fact willing to answer the question, "Are you Buddhist?" but only if you're willing to demonstrate to me that you have a reasonable understanding of what it is you're asking.

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