Buddhism as Religion: Historical mistakes and rhetorical flourishes

Last night was the opening panel of the conference on “Buddhist Ministry—Whither and Why?” being hosted by the Harvard Divinity School’s Buddhist Ministry Initiative. During the discussion period, John Makransky (Boston College) made the point that this is a unique moment in Buddhist history. By this I understood him to mean the complexity of Buddhist traditions all simultaneously present in one globalized society. Personally I would have added the transformative effect of so much of the tradition’s textual history being available as a result of research and translation projects, and available so easily as a result of electronic media.

One of the other participants, however, asserted that what makes the present moment historically unique is that always in the past when the Buddhist religion entered a society, that society was spiritual, but that today the Buddhist religion is entering a society that is materialistic. While this is an old trope and probably self-satisfying for many self-identified Buddhists, I think it is wrong on four counts.

First, Buddhism was not a “religion” (okay now I can use the scare quotes I’d been holding back) until about the middle of the nineteenth century, when that category and way of conceiving of social organization was imposed upon it by Euro-American comparative theologians. To categorize Buddhism as a religion entails certain understandings of Buddhism that may not be desirable. As just one example, these include such assumptions as the this-worldly/other-worldly opposition, which distorts much of Buddhist thought regarding the nature of being and human being in the world, as well as the nature of the path to awakening.

Second, despite some idealizations, I don’t think that any of the societies that Buddhism has encountered during its long history could fairly be described as “spiritual.” They may have had what we now categorize as religious traditions of their own, but most people most of the time have been concerned with survival and have turned to those traditions for assistance in attaining their goals. I don’t find anything particularly spiritual about Han dynasty China, or Asuka era Japan, or Anuradhapura Sri Lanka, or any of the many other societies that could be named in this regard.

Third, Buddhism moved as an entire culture of its own, and moved as part of mercantile relations between societies. Buddhism seems to have often been welcomed because of the benefits it brought. These included practical matters such as wet rice agriculture, and also such less tangible matters as the promise of political supremacy through the suppression of one’s enemies. Buddhism moved as an institution, the monastery, which is what allowed Xuanzang for example to travel from Tang to India, and return.

Fourth, our present society seems to be highly religious and highly spiritual (though the distinction between the two is problematic). If we consider for example the high level of religious rhetoric expected of politicians in the US today, and how much public policy is being driven by the recently concocted idea of the US as a Christian nation, religion seems to be one of the strongest driving forces. The rhetorical situation seems to be very different in Europe, but there one finds strongly entrenched religious forces resisting Buddhism. Even the rhetorical attempt to shift away from “religious” to “spiritual” to rescue the argument is rather evidently mistaken when one looks more widely at the spiritual bases of the self-help and pop-psych movements. The rapid spread of mindfulness is no doubt in part to be explained by its apparent status as a scientifically proven form of mental self-help, but also in part as a non-religious form of spirituality.

Beyond the truism that every historical moment is unique, how we explain that uniqueness to ourselves is important. It may be comforting or self-satisfying to see Buddhism as a beacon of spirituality in the desserts of Western materialism, but like every rhetoric it has consequences. In this case it distorts both the present and the past.

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