Why “Buddhist Theology” is Not a Good Idea

The careful reader will note that in this essay I am talking about the intellectual category of “Buddhist theology” as such, and not the more general project of adapting Buddhist thought and practice to the present-day.

The even more careful reader will note that the last part of the sentence above does not say “present-day needs,” or some similar expression implicating needs theory. This is because needs theory in the study of religion is an act of bad faith (yes, Sartre once again) in that a construct (“religious needs”) is being passed off as natural entity comparable to the need for air, water, food. And, vague hand-waving in the direction of Maslow’s theory of a needs hierarchy does not solve that problem.

So, here it is: Payne on “Buddhist Theology”

review of Homa Variations in AAR Reading Religion

from the AAR’s Reading Religions:

Homa Variations: The Study of Ritual Change across the Longue Durée

 Editors: Richard K. Payne, Michael Witzel

Oxford Ritual Studies, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, November 2015.
448 pages. $39.95. Paperback. ISBN 9780199351589.
 This edited volume contains thirteen essays on homa, a ritual of votive offerings that are immolated in fire, often in a ritual hearth. Homa Variations is important in the study of ritual and Asian religions because of its more than 3,000-year old history, its large corpus of descriptive texts and ritual manuals, and its wide dissemination throughout Asia, where it continues as a living religious tradition. While fire and its identification with the ancient Vedic fire-god Agni have been broadly retained, other elements of the ritual have been transformed over time and space. Homa Variations thus provides scholars an invaluable opportunity for historically longitudinal study of ritual change.

Co-editor Richard Payne’s excellent introduction orients the reader to definitional, methodological, and theoretical issues, and dispels the view—now mostly outdated—of ritual as rigid and invariant. The following brief summaries belie the richness of the individual essays.

Section 1 contains symbolic and comparative studies. Holly Grether’s comparison of Hindu and Buddhist tantric homa in medieval India reveals shared ritual technologies that speak to an “overarching tantric ritual universe.” Fire and water are sexually homologized with male and female, using symbols such as fire for the male fire-god Agni, and a hearth for the female earth-goddess Śakti.

Tadeuz Skorupski compares Vedic and Buddhist interpretations of fire. In Vedic doctrine, the fire-god Agni mediates between humans and the gods. In Buddhist tantra, fire is related to the acquisition of wisdom on the mundane path, and to the attainment of enlightenment the transcendent path.

Musashi Tachikawa applies the concept of sacred/profane to analyze the mediation of homa fire between deity and practitioner. He notes that Japanese homa employment of imagery is more similar to Indian puja than to Vedic homa.

Section 2 contains six textual studies. Timothy Lubin counters Frits Staal’s theory of the meaningless of Vedic ritual, asserting that the lexical meaning of ritual words can be understood through the examination of change within Vedic texts as pūja rites were assimilated. He builds on Staal’s theory of ritual syntax, adding the term “interleaving” to describe the process of inserting Purānic ritual elements into the Vedic homa.

Tsunehiko Sugiki compares six tantric texts in order to analyze Buddhist systems of internal fire rituals that developed in South Asia between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. Practices include mandalization of the body, the employment of ritual items, and “psychosomatic fire oblation”—a term Sugiki coins to refer to internalized homa rites, including internalized sexual yoga.

Moving to the Tibetan tantric tradition, David Gray examines a tenth-century manual on internal homa practices, while Georgios Halkias probes a Tibetan manual on external homa rites for pacification, enrichment, subjugation, and sorcery. Halkias provides evidence for the early Buddhist rejection of homa—especially the inclusion of blood sacrifice—but he shows how later Mahāyānists legitimated homa as upāya, or skillful means.

Vesna Wallace discusses internal and external homa rituals in the Indian Kālacakra-tantra tradition. Here, external homa is performed as part of larger, complex public rituals for healing, protection, or initiation. The texts include detailed instructions on ritual elements such as fire pits, sacrificial wood of different colors and aromas, utensils, votive offerings, and mantras. The practitioner manipulates these elements in conjunction with symbolic forms, vocalization, and gestures to mobilize and direct invisible forces.

Charles Orzech traces the appropriation of Vedic homa and its development in China from the sixth to the eighth century. In the Vedic tradition, both Brahmins and ordinary householders performed homa rites. In China, however, homa became the purview of trained monastics and imperial elites. Ritual texts stress the superiority of internal practice for a range of functions including exorcism and identification of the practitioner with various deities.

Section 3 contains four descriptive studies. Todd Lewis and Naresh Bajrachrya discuss the development of Newar Buddhist homa in Nepal. The Newar tradition developed local characteristics such as hereditary married monastics who performed homa at transitional life occasions of householders and elites. The authors argue that the assimilation of Vedic rituals demonstrates Buddhist creativity in adapting to Hindu cultural hegemony.

Nawaraj Chaulagain focuses on homa ritual during the rule of Nepalese Hindu kings (c. 1559–2008). The ritual inverts the image of the king as benevolent, and emphasizes power and cruelty through the king’s participation in blood sacrifice that climaxes with the offering of the animal’s liver to Kāli. The transcendent purpose of the ritual is to awaken the feminine to restore cosmic order, while the mundane purpose is to “legitimate royal authority and state-sanctioned violence.”

Payne then analyzes the Shugendō saitō goma (Japanese for homa), highlighting processes of ritual appropriation and adaptation as Shungendō developed within the matrix of esoteric Buddhism. Payne goes beyond description and applies syntactic analysis to a saitō goma ritual text to reveal its genealogical relation to Shingon—Japanese esoteric Buddhism—goma ritual.

Co-editor Michael Witzel examines textual and oral versions of the agnihotra, a complex 100-sequence Vedic fire ritual closely related to the homa. Both versions exhibit Newari influence and localization seen in the ritual deities, the social status of priests, and the incorporation of local mythology. Witzel’s analysis of the ritual structure shows how ritual units are added symmetrically to frame the basic ritual.

These essays make a significant contribution to ritual studies and Asian religious studies by describing the symbolism and procedures in homa ritual, explicating and analyzing a number of ritual homa texts, and illustrating the wide range of homa variations. They destabilize previous ideas about ritual rigidity and contribute to a growing body of scholarly literature that valorizes ritual as a creative, social process. The essays are grounded in research, and discussions of theory support the central narratives. A map of the region and a chronology, however, would have helped to contextualize and integrate the wide range of material in this volume. But overall, Homa Variations is an excellent study with a consistently high caliber of scholarship, and clear and engaging writing. The material may be difficult for undergraduates, but this volume is highly recommended for graduate students and scholars in the field.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lisa Kochinski is a doctoral student in religion at the University of Southern California.

Date of Review:

May 5, 2017
About the Editors: 

Richard K. Payne is Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Berkeley.

Michael Witzel is Wales Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University.

ego’s rule

This mindfulness stuff is kinda interesting. Today I learned the ego’s rule:


Today was the 40th annual 4 mile Saratoga to Los Gatos Rotary Club community fund raiser walk & run. I always go out alone, so being in a group was a new experience. I was dismayed to listen to my ego come up with lots of reasons for feeling superior:

• I’m not hunched over like that old guy.

• I’m not as badly overweight as that dude.

• Those ladies sure gossip a lot.

• My registration number is much lower than his, and hers, and his, and theirs.

• Spandex is not flattering.

• Those guys are so competitive!

• Yay! I just passed the father walking with his 4 year old daughter.

• How can he dress like that?

• Does she really need to carry all that stuff with her?

and so on and on.

Just in case you need something to feel superior about, my per mile average time as 16:55. But of course, I could have run the whole way if I’d really wanted to.

circularity of advice?: clinging to views

Matthias Mauderer recently wrote to ask about clinging to views and the apparent contradiction that follows from clinging to the view that views are not to be clung to:

In one of your recent posts, you mention the translation of the Atthakavagga by Gil Fronsdal. In this translation, Gil Fronsdal comments as follows on ‘The Discourse to Pasura’:
“The ideal person doesn’t cling to anything as being ultimate. This doesn’t mean the Buddha is suggesting that one should have no views. In fact, the narrator seems to advocate the view or teaching that one should avoid holding tight to any view; there is no peace in clinging.” (p. 71)
Isn’t there a contradiction in advocating the view ‘that one should avoid holding tight to ANY view’ while at the same time propagating the view that there is no peace in clinging to views?
Doesn’t here the Buddha himself cling to a view, namely the view that there is no peace in clinging? How can the difference between his propagated view and the views he advises not to cling to be explained? Or does the Buddha in the end even not cling to his view that there is no peace in clinging?
(First off, let me say—though it is doubtless obvious—that what follows is my answer and not Gil’s.)
This is an important and difficult question, and there have been some discussions that apply to this. Perhaps the most immediately appealing is to distinguish between right and wrong views, which may for example be taken from the eightfold path’s inclusion of “right view” (samyak-dṛṣṭi). One could argue  (and at times I have myself) that as not just one of the eight but as the first, right view is foundational to the others. Classically this included such matters as understanding that actions have consequences, and the formulation of this idea as the four noble truths.
However, if one takes the symbolism of the eight-spoked wheel seriously, right view is not fixed—it is not a single set of doctrinal claims that are to be clung to. Rather, it is—in contemporary terminology—constantly updated. As a wheel, rather than an eight-runged ladder, as one moves through each of the other seven, until one eventually comes back to right view. As I interpret this symbolism, it means that one’s view is changed, modified, revised, updated as a consequence of having gone through the other steps. This willingness to move off one’s position, change in response to having paid attention to the fact that actions do have consequences, is one way to understand the advice that one should not cling to views.
We can amplify this by considering more closely what the term dṛṣṭi means, though we have to keep in mind that connotations vary, even in canonic literature and over relatively short timespans. Not being a Sanskritist, my recourse for such a question is to Buswell & Lopez, Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. There we find it defined as
dṛṣṭi: “In Sanskrit, view’ or ‘opinion; nearly always used pejoratively in Buddhism to refer to a ‘wrong view.'”
That would suggest that views negatively valued as mistaken are the general category, and why “right view” is the marked category. The next two entries indicate just how complex Matthias’ question is, however:
dṛṣṭiparāmarśa: “‘attachment to (wrong) views’…Dṛṣṭiparāmarśa suggests that a person mistakenly and stubbornly clings to one’s own speculative views as being correct and superior to all others.”
dṛṣṭiprāpta: “‘one who has attained understanding’ or ‘one who attains through seeing'”
Another approach might be to consider the advice to be therapeutic—by which I do not mean “psychotherapeutic,” but rather as a kind of correction to one’s mistaken conceptions. And mistaken conceptions not in a sense that while it includes simple errors about how things work, more relevantly includes mistaken conceptions created by thinking itself. In this regard, we may think of Wittgenstein’s attempt to cure philosophy of the entanglements created by language by using language. No conceptual system is so entirely “crystallized” (or hermetically sealed) that there is no leverage from within, that is, from within philosophy, or within language, or within the scope of views, as to have no “point of leverage” upon which critical reflection may take hold. Instead, it is the case that we are in fact capable of commenting on the system from within the system itself (this is also the character of self-referential conscious awareness, svasaṃvedana). And, perhaps paradoxically, at the same time admitting that any such comment is constrained by our own positionality and is therefore partial.
To take the limitations consequent upon perspectival awareness as a defeat of all criticism (all views are equally views and therefore no view can critique another view) is nihilistic, however, and fails to take the final radical step of criticism, which is the realization that there is no alternative to a positioned, or located critique. That is, all critiques are positioned, located—there is no angelic perspective, or view from nowhere, that is the true, or absolute, or absolutely true one. And that means that there is no final view. Nothing is ever settled.
There are only better and worse views, and that in turn raises the question of better or worse according to what criteria? And, of course, in the next critical turn, on what basis are those criteria the ones to be employed? Why are those criteria better than others–that is, by what criteria does one judge criteria?
The alternative, of course, is to claim absolute status to some views, which means denying that they are “views” or constructs or conventions, but rather discoveries. And the distinction between a view and a discovery is an important one. To discover where I last put my glasses is not an opinion or a view or a construct or a convention. I now have my glasses in hand and can put them on my face and see whether it is a squirrel or the neighbors’ cat out there by the garage.
The same dynamic has come up in relation to the teaching of emptiness. A very sincere theology student who was struggling mightily with Buddhist thought once asked: Since you say that emptiness applies to all things, including my claims regarding the eternal, doesn’t that mean that emptiness itself is an absolute? So then, doesn’t Buddhism also teach, at least implicitly, that there are absolute, timeless, eternal, unchanging truths?
The logic of this was so obviously circular that I knew there must be something wrong. And then, to pile anecdote on top of anecdote, I remembered the cute girl I met during my freshman year in college—a strict behaviorist, à la Skinner, you know, conditioning rats to push the pedal to get the treat kind of thing. She, very frustratingly, was quite complacent in being able to answer every objection I raised with a behaviorist answer—Why are you maintaining a behaviorist position? Because I’ve been conditioned to. (okay, this is not a case of perfect recall, but something I’ve appropriated from Daniel Dennett’s recent From Bacteria to Bach and Back)
At the time the fact that there was no possible counter-evidence did not strike me as anything other than frustrating, but should have been a clue that there is something fundamentally wrong with the position—this is not science, but an act of faith, or a belief in magic as discussed by Terence Deacon in Incomplete Nature, with “conditioning” filling in all of the explanatory gaps.
So, back to the previous anecdote—what I was finally able to think through is that there is a difference to be drawn between “universal” and “absolute/timeless/eternal/unchanging.” Emptiness applies universally to all conditioned entities (and anything that actually exists is conditioned), but that does not make (the concept of) emptiness absolute, eternal, timeless, unchanging. The concept was thought up by someone, at some time, in response to a certain set of intellectual issues. As a concept it is an intellectual tool that is good from some things, such as understanding the conditioned nature of our views, and not for others, such as grocery shopping.
 This was an extrapolation to emptiness based on my long struggle to figure out an argument for a postmodern understanding of mathematics and logic, despite the fact that they both apply everywhere and always. In just that (limited) sense they are universal, but not absolute. They also have a history, were thought up by someone, at some time, in response to set of issues. In addition to intellectual, these can include practical issues, like allocating land following the flooding of the Nile basin. This is where the knowledge that a triangle with units of 3/4/5 per side always and everywhere forms a right-angle came into being, and which Pythagoras later generalized as applying to any triangle with sides in which the sum of the square of two sides equals the square of the third: particular issue with a universalizable solution.
The same argument applies to the relation between nature and culture. I once tried to work out that a fundamental (ontic) difference between the two could be claimed on the basis that physical laws are ahistorical, while everything else has a history. Then, recent understandings of the origin of physical laws themselves in the big bang convinced me that everything has a history. The “law” of gravity may be universal, but it is not eternal. The speed of light may be universal, but it is not eternal.
So here we are floating in midair, something that makes some people uncomfortable, and who then cling to some concept, some way of thinking in order to think they know which way is up. And part of that clinging is to forget their own agency in having chosen to cling to this concept whatever it is as absolute. The significance of the bumper sticker: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” is to locate responsibility for one’s own decision someplace other than oneself—which really only works if you manage to forget the choice to accept that “God said it.” Likewise, floating in midair, the advice to not cling to views is not to simply cling to the view that one should not cling to views. Nagarjuna talks about the emptiness of emptiness, that is, that clinging to the view of emptiness is, if I remember the metaphor correctly, like holding a snake by the tail—but even if you hold the snake (view) behind the head, it is still a snake (view). (I just made that up, not Nagarjuna, and I might be pushing the metaphor beyond the breaking point, sorry.)
So, the advice to not cling to views can be another view if it is clung to (emptiness as a view), or it can be a comment about the human tendency to cling to views (the emptiness of emptiness). It seems to me that the advice is more the latter than the former, and one needs to hold to that very gently, very loosely.


Markers of Buddhist Counseling

My friend Daijaku Kinst has highlighted the importance of asking the question “What makes Buddhist Chaplaincy Buddhist?” And, in doing so has helped to sharpen my own thinking about Buddhist praxis against the whetstone of practical consequence. Buddhist chaplaincy and Buddhist counseling operate in distinct contexts, however, and this reflection is more oriented toward the latter. 

Peter Wehner’s recent essay “After Great Pain, Where Is God?” (NYTimes, 25 March 2017) is a sensitive and self-revelatory reflection on theodicy, though he does not use the technical theological terminology. As indicated by the title of his piece, however, informally we can say that theodicy is the attempt to understand the apparent contradiction between the realities of suffering and the idea that God is both all powerful over and loving of His Creation. 

Wehner asserts that what Christianity offers those who suffer is consolation. First, the consolation of community. But (as discussed in an issue of Buddhist—Christian Studies), community is not an exclusvely Christian value.

Next, Wehner calls attention to the consoling quality of the transcedent, emphasizing its centrality for (contemporary) Christian thought:

• It is a core Christian doctrine that what is seen is temporary and what is unseen is eternal, and that what is eternal is more important than what is temporal.

(The qualifying parenthetical “contemporary” is needed because it was not always so. By one reading of the history of theology, pre-Reformation Christianity had a much more imminent understanding of the sacred, the sharp divide between mundane and transcendent being a consequence of Reformation era theological positioning.)

Wehner also highlights the consolations of a personal sense of meaning and purpose that derives from the cosmology of the Creation:

• There is also, for me at least, consolation in the conviction that we are part of an unfolding drama with a purpose. At any particular moment in time I may not have a clue as to what that precise purpose is, but I believe, as a matter of faith, that the story has an author, that difficult chapters need not be defining chapters and that even the broken areas of our lives can be redeemed.

Doctrinally, theodicy is obviously not a Buddhist issue. It is tempting to say: No God, no Creation, no problem. But such a cavalier attitude fails to address the reality of suffering. Similarly cavalier is the idealist/mind science kind of interpretation of Buddhism that makes all suffering a matter of mistaken grasping. Such an interpretation easily leads to distancing oneself from another’s suffering by blaming the victim—and in exactly the same dynamic as an individualistic politics places the blame for poverty on an individual’s lack of initiative. If a person is viewed as suffering because of their own lack of initiative, then I am not responsible. One could construct a Buddhist version of this distancing based on the doctrine of karma. 

Such responses would be particularly inappropriate in the context of chaplaincy, which requires a sensitivity to the religious sensibilities of the client. But, they are I believe also inappropriate in the context of Buddhist counseling. The conslations of a supposedly hard-headed realism—everyone suffers, get over it—are perhaps more ego-sustaining to the speaker than the hearer. (And, no Buddhism is not all about eradicating the ego.) 

But, speaking personally, I do think that a cosmology that integrates suffering as a natural consequence of impermanence, one that is not constructed around the mundane—transcendent dichotomy, avoids entirely the problematics of a counseling based on consolation. Specifically, the necessity for faith, and the fear and anguish around its loss, which Wehner also discusses with sensitivity. 

Wehner closes by noting that an awareness of the universality of suffering, which in his theological reflection includes the suffering of God through the crucified Jesus, leads to mercy and compassion. Here we find an orthogonal point of convergence between the two traditions. While the two conceptual frameworks remain distinct—a dualistic cosmology as contrasted with a nondual one—sensitivity to the universality of suffering lead to a similarly human, rather than doctrinal, response of mercy and compassion. 

on naming an ideology: White Buddhism

The phrase “White Buddhism” is being used to identify a particular ideology, in just the same way that “free market capitalism” might be used to identify a particular ideology. This is why the orthography is “White” and not “white.”

As an ideological system it is not a well-bounded set, but rather a set of mutually supportive ideas with fuzzy boundaries. It is the consequence of the mutual support of the system that one specific idea can be replaced with another with little or no disruption to the system as a whole. The new idea is integrated into the place and function of the one displaced. (Okay, yes, if you’ve encountered it, do think “Indra’s Net.”)

As an ideological system, it is not identical with a social category, such as race: “White” is not “white.”

As an ideological system, it is not identical with a social category, such as class: “White” is not “upper middle class.”

And yes, reflexively, social categories are themselves social constructs and can serve in ideological systems.

As an ideological system it does not, and indeed cannot identify any particular individuals, or groups, or institutions. Individuals and groups and institutions may hold or embrace or promote the ideology. Just as individuals and groups and institutions may hold or embrace or promote “free market capitalism.”

Because they generally arise in the service of the interests of some particular group over those of another group, ideological systems—even those that declare equality a central tenet—can be used in an oppressive fashion.

The preceding paragraph is carefully worded so as to indicate that it is not the ideological system that is somehow inherently oppressive, but rather its deployment in social relations by individuals and groups. In this regard, however, one may wish to invoke the distinction between sins of omission and sins of commission. The source analogy is that white privilege is as much about omission as it is commission.

Although values and value judgements may be included within the system, ideological systems per se are value neutral. It is in their use and the consequences of that use that allow for value judgements, which are of course always comparative, the comparison being made against some other ideological system.

An example: an ideological system structured around karma and rebirth as central elements may be used either to promote universal love, compassion and kindness toward all living beings (“all living beings have been your mother and father in past lives”), or to promote exclusion and denial of the handicapped or diseased (“it is a consequence of the bad karma of their past lives and they need to suffer to work it off”). I have labeled this “the indefinite malleability of doctrine.”

And yes, the suggestion for this category name as a way of identifying and asserting the coherence of a particular ideological system arises out of my own experience and personal history. That, however, neither supports nor refutes the category as such. Considering it to do so is to engage in an ad hominem fallacy, whether positively or negatively.

Oh and finally, yes, I do know that I’m not able to issue deity-like mandates. This is a suggestion for what I believe to be a useful tool for thinking about a particular way that Buddhism is currently being thought about. And finally finally, yes, it’s neither a perfect nor universal tool.