The Hegemonic Power of Categories & Rhetoric, or Why Bother?

Hegemony is an understandably popular term these days—and remains important despite the potential for its overuse to the point of irrelevance. It refers, as I understand it, to the ability of certain ideas to be accepted as natural, and thereby to be invisible in their control of thinking. So much so that one is effectively a willing participant in the propagation of the systems of thought that dominate one’s thinking.  (This is my own narrow focus of the much broader theorizing of Antonio Gramsci.)

“Religion” is just one such concept, and it continues to play an unconscious role in forming present-day ideas about Buddhism. One important way is in the oppositional pairing of religious and secular. Under this dichotomy, if one critiques Secular Buddhism (itself a different project from criticizing it, though some of its adherents don’t seem to recognize that difference), then the presumption is that one is in favor of a religious kind of Buddhism. If positive and negative valencing is added to the mix, things become even more complicated. For example, if one thinks as some Secular Buddhists appear to, that religion equals abuse of authority and is therefore negative, then any critique of Secular Buddhism is cast as protecting the abusers, perhaps being one of them. (An example: one Secular Buddhist tweeter attributed all of the sexual exploitation by Buddhist masters—itself a dismayingly long list—to the religious character of Buddhism.)

The more specific example at hand: the opening of Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism without Beliefs. Batchelor here employs a specific (and we note, modern) notion of what religion in general is. That is the idea that religion is about belief in doctrines. He says for example,

Religious interpretations invariably reduce complexity to uniformity, while elevating matter-of-factness to holiness. Over time, increasing emphasis has been placed on a single Absolute Truth, such as “the Deathless,” “the Unconditioned,” “the Void,” “Nirvana,” “Buddha Nature,” etc., rather than on an interwove complex of truths. (4)

Similarly, but coming from the opposite direction, we find David Brazier proclaiming that Buddhism really truly actually is a religion (“It Needs Saying” Tricycle, 30 May 2015). In making his claim that Buddhism is a religion, he has a great deal to say about what Buddhism is not—psychology, way of life, philosophy, culture or cultural artifact, therapy or psychotherapy, mode of social welfare, science or scientific, and so on. Unfortunately, there are only unsupported assertions when he claims that Buddhism is a religion. He uncritically employs the rhetoric of spirit–matter dualism, such as:

In Buddhism, the spiritual is primary and the physical is a domain in which spirit acts.

In this vein, Brazier repeats Romantic conceptions of religion as the realm of the indefinable, the immeasurable:

The soul of religion is something else. It is a different domain of existence. It is the one that makes life worth living.

And makes recourse to the language of mystery:

Taking refuge is an act of faith. To think that taking refuge is just like joining a worldly organization is to miss the essence and to reduce the supreme mystery to a mundane procedure. Far from reducing mystery to mundanity, Buddhism is about infusing the mundane with the sacred.

And, despite his rejection of a psychological understanding of Buddhism makes exactly that move by confusing the ātman denied in the doctrine of anātman with the ego:

Each deepening of refuge is a lessening of ego. More faith, less ego. Thus Buddhism finds salvation beyond self.

Thus, the religious character of Buddhism is at best defined negatively, but when he is done—unless you are willing to do his work for him by filling in the gaps left by the absence of any positive statement regarding what religion is and why Buddhism fits that definition—we are left not knowing what he means by his claim that Buddhism is a religion.

Yet another approach, taken by two scholars who are not promoting any particular interpretation, or trying to sell you a weekend workshop, is that of Robert Buswell and Donald Lopez, Jr. In a Tricycle blog post titled “Buddhism: Philosophy or Religion?” they discuss the kinds of miracles and marvels that drive Secular Buddhists to throw out a majority of the Buddhist canon. (This is one of their series “10 Misconceptions…” the whole of which is worth reading.) In relation to this dispute—It’s philosophy! NO, it’s religion!, (or cynically: NO, it’s a lifestyle that generates sales, don’t mess with my profits!)—one of the most important statements they make is:

Indeed, separating philosophy from religion does not work well in the case of Buddhism. Trying to tease apart these two strands of the dispensation would have seemed a futile endeavor to most Buddhists over the long history of the tradition. We in the West need to get over this false dichotomy, which has no significance in speaking about Buddhism or other Asian religions.

Fundamental here is the fact that both philosophy and religion are concepts and social institutions whose history is firmly rooted in the culture of Western Europe. The apparently clear difference between the two is a cultural artifact, a construct, not an absolute fact about anything at all. Rather than imposing our cultural categories onto Buddhism and then arguing over whether the cultural category I have chosen to impose is better than yours, it might be most productive to abandon those categories, along with the power and authority that implicitly accrues to them. In other words, maybe it doesn’t have to be anything other than just what it is already.

One of the standard resistances to critical thinking is the question—Well, what’s your answer?

Despite its power to silence, to marginalize, or to dismiss critical thought, this question must itself also be resisted. I take heart in Nagarjuna and the Prāsaṅgika strain of Madhyamaka that resisted the temptation to postulate any position, and chose instead to remain in a state of tension, the tension that binds opposites together.

Given the power of intellectual categories and discursive rhetoric to guide thought without reflection (the very definition of hegemony), critical thinking is essential. It enables greater freedom by making the obvious problematic.

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4 thoughts on “The Hegemonic Power of Categories & Rhetoric, or Why Bother?

  1. Great post, thanks. I particularly like the point you make that the binary approach to religion is itself a Western artifact. Is there also an issue with confusing belief and faith, which are different entities?

    • Dear Ed, Yes, indeed, there is such a problem, which as I understand it follows from the modern (19th century) reduction of religion to systems of beliefs. This is probably a consequence in its turn of the Enlightenment model of the self as a coherent, unitary agent rationally determining the course of actions to be taken in pursuit of rational goals. Many others who are more qualified have discussed the distinction between faith and belief much more adequately than I, but it remains a persistent problem. Most importantly for my purposes, it is a problem in that addressing Christian doctrine as inadequate when compared to Buddhist doctrine, as some modern Buddhists have done, is in fact no more convincing than when a Christian does the reverse.
      Most important in terms of intellectual projects, however, is the consequence of the coherence of faith (in the sense of śraddhā) that is resistant to rational argumentation (which is not to say that faith is irrational, but rather that unlike rational or deductive systems, the failing of one element does not bring the collapse of the whole). It is, I’m afraid, the coherence of a religious system that is not a logical coherence, but some other kind, that comparative philosophy and comparative religion often fail to take into account. This requires much more thinking and writing than can be undertaken right now, with the start of classes…
      thanks again

  2. Pingback: Buddhism under Capitalism: Lifestyle encoding of identity | Richard K. Payne

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