“trained satisfaction”: self-limiting of inquiry

During my theory and methods class on Wednesday last, I was finally able to formulate a succinct phrase for something that I’ve been thinking for decades. The phrase, as you may have intuited by now, is “trained satisfaction.”

Discussing the relation between sociology of religion, psychology of religion, and anthropology of religion, I was trying to present the role of theoretical entities as explanatory. Although this is overly-simplistic, in relation to these approaches to the study of Buddhism, society, the unconscious, and culture are each have a boundary effect, (sometimes) bringing inquiry to an end, foreclosing on further inquiry. We are trained to be satisfied by an “explanation” that says “that’s a social factor,” or “the unconscious processes of mind work that way,” or “it is the effect of culture.”

It is of course the case that each of these three have themselves long been objects of critical inquiry within their respective fields. They are here intended to simply exemplify the dynamic of trained satisfaction in which an explanation that grounds itself on accepted theoretical commitments closes off further inquiry.

The same thing is found in folk use of mystificatory religious explanations—again, grossly simplifying:

Why did Grandma have to get cancer and go to that horrid hospital, Daddy? I love my grandma, but hated seeing her in that place. And why did she have to die?

It is all part of God’s plan, Bobby. We may not understand His will, His reasons, but we can be sure it is all for the best.

In contemporary Buddhist thought, it seems that one of the functions of the concept of karma is to serve as a limiting boundary to inquiry. Similarly, dharma, or perhaps better Dharma. And consider the trained satisfaction implicated by any interaction that includes claims of “the Buddha said…” or “Lama XYZ said…” or “Zen Master PQR said…” or “Ajahn JKL said…” or, most mind-numbingly (literally since the goal is to stop thinking) “Buddhism says…”

Trained satisfaction therefore also supports authority and power structures. It constitutes one dimension of the strategies by which obedience is instilled. And though my examples here draw from religious and social scientific examples, the dynamic is also at work in the so-called “hard” sciences as well.


voting is a Buddha-thing

Buddhists Help Get Out The Vote

“As long as followers of the Way gather together and meet in harmony can they be expected to prosper and not decline. As long as followers of the Way care for the vulnerable among them can they be expected to prosper and not decline. As long as followers of the Way tend the sacred places in their environment can they be expected to prosper and not decline.

~ MahaParinirvana Sutra


Dear Friends in the Dharma,

This is a critical time in American society. As Buddhist teachers and leaders we recognize the importance of all who are eligible to participate in decisions that affect the well being of the whole. A mutual caring community is one of the central teachings of the Buddha.

Many have wondered what you can do at this divisive time. Across the country, tens of millions of eligible voters do not cast their vote – often because they don’t believe their voice matters!

We are joining together with Faith In Action, a NON PARTISAN group of churches, mosques, synagogues and faith communities to help make sure all who are eligible are supported to vote.

We joyfully encourage all in our communities who can help in these weeks ahead to connect with Faith in Action by clicking this LINK. There you will find support and training so that in your area you can help get people out to vote.

Express your commitment and respect for the innate dignity and worth of all. Help to empower the voice of the whole community as a truly important contribution.

You can really make a difference! Please join us.

With loving kindness, compassion and blessings,

Yours in the Dharma,

Jack Kornfield                          Sharon Salzberg                      Joseph Goldstein

Zoketsu Norman Fischer           David Loy                                 Sayadaw U Vivekananda

Lama Surya Das                      Lama Palden Alioto                  Thanissara & Kittisaro

Trudy Goodman                       Bob Thurman                           William Aiken

Tara Brach                               Wendy Egyoku Nakao              Gil Fronsdal

Kenjitsu Nakagaki                    Bhante Katugastota Uparatana Nayaka Thera

Sylvia Boorstein                       Sojun Mel Weitsman                 Judy Lief

Hozen Alan Senauke               Gina Sharpe                            Konda Mason

Dharmacarani Vimalasara         Barbara Gates                                     Bhiksuni Thubten Chodron

Lama Willa Miller                       Chozen & Hogen Bays             Rev. Bup Hee

Oren Jay Sofer                         Marcia Rose                             Neesha Patel

Tara Mulay                               Rodney Smith                          Pamela Weiss

Sharda Rogell                          Kamala Masters                       Jill Shepherd

Bonnie Duran                           James Baraz                            Devin Berry

Anna Douglas                          Spring Washum                                    Carol Wilson

Larry Yang                               Kate Lila Wheeler                     Susie Harrington

Wes Nisker                               Eugene Cash                           Chris Crotty

Dawn Mauricio                          Gulwinder S. Singh                  Temple R. Smith

Parwan Bareja                         Phillip Moffitt                             Noliwe Alexander

Andrea Castillo                         Tere Abdala                             Andrea Fella

Jeff Haozous                            Mary Grace Orr                         Lama Döndrup

Howard Cohn                           Pat Berube, Lama Pat             Lama Stephen Gross

Leslie Booker                           Matthew Brensilver                   Kate Johnson

Diana Winston                          Debra Chamberlin Taylor          Lynn Weinberger

Erin Treat                                 Erin Selover, MS                      Shastri Nick Kranz

Madeline Klyne                        Daniel Rothberg                       Devon Hase

Chris Cullen                              Melvin McLeod                         Adin Strauss

Furyu Schroeder                      Annik Brunet                            Rev. Tenzen David Zimmerman

DaRa Williams                          Gregory Scharf                         Anne Cushman

Valorie Hutson                         Karen Maezen Miller                 Shaku Kengu Rev. Ronald Kobata

Ed Sattizahn                            Rev. James Ishmael Ford         Rev. Sumi Loundon Kim

Karma Lekshe Tsomo              Rev. Grace Schireson              Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison

Sensei Chodo Campbell                       Jisan Tova Green                     Rev. Rosan O. Yoshida, Ph.D.

Layla Smith Bockhorst              Eihei Peter Levitt                      Rebecca Li

Myogen Kathryn Stark              Narayan Helen Liebenson        Flint Sparks

Harrison Blum                           Sebene Selassie                      Ruth King

John Tarrant, Roshi                  Kanzan Bruce Fortin                Thanissara

Jundo Cohen                           Pamela Ayo Yetunde               Gyokuko Carlson

Jim Willems                               Mitchell Ratner                         Eiko Joshin Carolyn Atkinson

Karl Brunnholzl                                     Kate Johnson                          Melissa Myōzen Blacker, Rōshi

Arinna Weisman                       Jules Shuzen Harris Sensei      James Myosan Cordova, Sensei

Alexis Santos                           Ryushin Paul Haller                     Nakawe Cuebas

Rev. Edward Keido Sanshin Oberholtzer

Pyrrho vs. Nagārjuna?

Matthias Mauderer wrote to ask about an interpretation of Buddhist thought:
Maybe you are familiar with Adrian Kuzminski’s work titled Pyrrhonism: How the ancient Greeks reinvented Buddhism (Lexington Books, 2008).
Kuzminski writes:
“Far from seeing self-contradiction as a defining mark of incoherence and nonsense, or as some kind of mysterious referent, Pyrrhonism and the Madhyamaka use contradictions of this sort as performative acts that, by their very absurdity, occasion a logic defying liberation which cannot be characterized in any other way. The infinite regress of spiraling suspensions of belief into suspensions of suspensions of belief, and so on, may or may not be how things “really” are, may or may not be relevant, may or may not matter in any ultimate sense. Until and unless we are persuaded by some belief or other we remain free of belief or attachment; we simply notice that “things” appear this way or that way, and we go about our business, without having to worry about what it all “really” means.” (page 64).
Here is my question:
If the infinite regress of spiraling suspensions of belief may or may not be how things really are, does this mean that the suspension of any judgement followed by regarding only what appears without the judging could be how reality is? A reality that does not have any definite characteristics? So by suspending judgement on appearances, by suspending to attest some definite characteristics to the things that appear, this may be or may not be how reality could be? Have I got that?
Concerning the relevance of the regress of spiraling suspensions of belief, for me it would be important to know how ‘relevance’ is defined here and for whom in succession this definition would be relevant or not. For example the spiraling suspensions of belief is highly relevant for the Pyrrhonist for from these suspensions tranquility follows. For the realist it is not relevant, for he is searching for some definite characteristics of reality and not for a suspension of belief. So my question is what kind of relevance is meant here?
Thanks a lot in advance.
All the best, Matthias
I am hardly an expert on Pyrhonnism, and while I’ve browsed lightly through some sections of the work, I’ve only looked at the relevant section, and that a bit cursorily. That said here are some reflections:
1) although it is not the focus of your questions, a comment: as I understand Kuzminski’s thesis, it is that Pyrrho can be better understood by setting him in the context of Indic thought, than in the traditional one of later Skepticism; Kuzminski’s general argument in support of this thesis seems to be of two parts: similarity and historical contiguity. The first depends on how specifically or vaguely one describes the two positions, while the second is moderately speculative.
Beyond that, my question would be, So what? If Madhyamaka thought influenced Pyrrho, what difference does it make? Kuzminski seems to think it will help us to understand Pyrrho more accurately, which is apparently important for some community of discourse. There are, however, other consequences implicated by his presentation, such as those you have highlighted.
Even the philosophic point of understanding Pyrrho becomes retroflexively complicated, however, as it depends on the accuracy of Kusminski’s representation of Madhyamaka. The argument goes something like this:
1. We can better understand Pyrrho by seeing him in the proper context.
2. That context includes his time in India, where he was exposed to Madhyamaka.
3. Just like Pyrrho, Madhyamaka promotes a successive suspension of belief, “spiraling” toward the absence of any belief, which is then access to actual appearances, and a consequent tranquility.
In the third step, we can see how central Kuzminski’s representation of Madhyamaka is to the argument. If, as it appears, that representation is constructed—unconsciously no doubt—so as to maximize the rhetorical power of the argument to convince, then it is a petitio principii fallacy. I suggest this as a guidance for your own critical evaluation of Kuzminski’s argument, rather than as a final evaluation of his argument on my part.
From the quote you give, there is possibly a Perennialist presumption that both are different paths up the same mountain, but that they employ the same means (paradox) to a higher consciousness, one that is beyond thought, and which is not culturally conditioned. This presumption, if at work, would explain what I think is the error of attributing to Madhyamaka an “infinite regress of spiraling suspensions of belief or attachment.”
I don’t recall anything like that in the Mūlamadhyamikakārikās. Nor in any studies of Madhyamaka thought that are not already comparativist in orientation.
2) the “paradox interpretation”: interpreting Madhyamaka and the Perfection of Wisdom, and kōans, etc., as paradoxes designed to cause the rational mind to “lock up,” thereby allowing a direct perception of (higher) reality results from projecting neo-Platonic and neo-Romantic conceptions onto Buddhist thought. “Interpretation” in this case being more often an unreflective presumption based on apparent similarity. Not interpretation in the sense of explicit exegesis, but rather more an unconscious, or unintentional eisegesis.
And, at the same time, this interpretation is over-determined because there are elements in Buddhist thought that do seem to accord with this interpretation. And that leads to a selection of just those elements that do match up as representative, while those that don’t are marginalized in one way or another.
What appear to be paradoxes are found not only in the Perfection of Wisdom and Madhyamaka literature, but in some texts considered to be Yogācāra as well.
Historiographic aside: This discredits the oppositional relation that has been attributed to them, which I believe is (largely? mostly? in significant part?) the consequence of the Hegelian historiography of philosophy. It is (was?) not uncommon to write the history of (Western) philosophy in the form of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. A position is presented (thesis) which is determined to be in some way inadequate (antithesis), leading to a new formulation (synthesis). This dialectic is of course ongoing, moving Philosophy (capitalized) forward toward greater perfection.
One instance is found in the Samdhinirmocana sutra (using Powers’ translation, Dharma Press, 1995; pp. 11–13). At one point a preacher in the sutra is asked what it means when it is said that all phenomena are non-dual. The preacher replies:
“Son of good lineage, with respect to all phenomena, ‘all phenomena’ are of just two kinds: compounded and uncompounded. The compounded is not compounded, nor is it uncompounded. The uncompounded is not uncompounded nor is it compounded.”
Asked what this might mean, he goes on to explain:
“Son of good lineage, ‘compounded’ is a term designated by the Teacher. This term designated by the Teacher is a conventional expression arisen from mental construction. Because a conventional expression arisen from mental construction is a conventional expression of various mental constructions, it is not established. Therefore, it is [said to be] not compounded.”
3) there is no contradiction, no spiraling of suspension of belief—however, the languaging can be confusing if one operates under the assumption that it is irrational (either valorized positively or negatively), that it is just an (Aristotelian) contradiction. In other words, if one interprets in contravention of the principle of charity as framed by Quine (see Wikipedia entry “Principle of charity” here).
The tendency to interpret this kind of talk in Buddhist thought as self-contradictory, i.e., irrational, is heir to two very strong interpretive modes in Western philosophic thought.
The first is an imperialist orientation informed by Enlightenment valuing of the rational. Under this orientation those who are not northern European males are inherently irrational and therefore inferior, and further, in need of proper management through colonization, including violent suppression of any resistance to the obvious superiority and self-proclaimed good intentions of the colonizers. (On the lingering effects of such colonization, consider the Democratic Republic of Congo’s history as told in Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost.) These conceptions continue to play a very strong role in contemporary society, as is evident in the dehumanizing rhetoric of the current President of the United States.
The second tendency is the inverted valorization of irrationality by the Romantics, continued into the present by the neo-Romanticism of the 1960s and its entrenchment in contemporary understandings of religion as individual, emotional, and beyond reason. This assertion of the irrational, non-rational, a-rational as superior is very much what informs claims to spiritual superiority by those propagating a neo-Romantic version of Buddhism, or a generic spirituality.
What the quote from the Sandhinirmocana points to is that there is a shift of levels. The “contradiction interpretation” makes a category mistake of treating all usages of terms at the same level. The preacher of the sutra shifts the level from talking about the compounded and uncompounded, to talking about the concepts “compounded” and “uncompounded.” As concepts, the latter are themselves conventional constructs based on mental and verbal formulations. (I suspect this also explains the supposed “idealism” of Yogacara; this is, of course, my own understanding; for a complementary exposition see Reb Anderson’s Third Turning of the Wheel, Shambala 2012, here)
It is in other words a critique focused on the conventional, constructed, provisional, conditional nature of concepts. Not beliefs. One of the main ways of elucidating this status is by showing that concepts exist in relation to one another, and therefore are not “established” as independently existing. 
One category into which both Pyrrho and Madhyamaka might be grouped would be emphasizing their function as therapeutics. As for myself, I think that the practice of the abstention from judgements, as in various kinds of Buddhist contemplation, can be effective. However, the nature of the human mind is such that it integrates two dimensions, one that can be in a state of abstention of judgements and one that makes judgements. Again as I see it—it is not the goal to make abstaining from judgements a permanent state. As a practice, however, it is transformative, allowing us to see the relative, conditioned, etc., nature of our concepts and of our judgements.
As for your two sets of questions. It does seem to me that in your first paragraph–question you do have a correct understanding of Kuzminski’s claims.
Whether his claims are true or not, since I do not claim to any advanced mystical insight into the true nature of higher reality (note: this is intentional irony, I’m not claiming that there is such a thing, and I don’t have it), I can’t say. (that statement and aside involved a level shift of the kind described above; further note, this is I believe how authors who try to maintain that the Buddha taught the existence of an unknowable self [this is not me, this is not mine, this is not myself—drawing the conclusion that therefore myself must be something else {see for example Robert Wright’s chapter on nonself}] go wrong)


As for your second–paragraph question, I find his use of the term “relevant” confusing as well, and have no idea what he means.
Last historical note: there are two strains of Madhyamaka thought, Prasangika and Svatantrika. Quoting Richard Hayes (“Madhyamaka,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, here)
Because Bhāvaviveka had advocated for producing independent (svatantra) arguments for the view that all phenomena are empty of inherent natures, the Tibetan scholastics dubbed his subschool the Svātantrika school; because Candrakīrti criticized this approach and advocated for being content to show the unwelcome consequences (prasaṅga) of all possible positions on any given philosophical issue, his subschool was named by Tibetans the Prāsaṅgika school of Madhyamaka.
Kuzminski’s interpretation of Madhyamaka seems to represent more closely the Prāsaṅgika view in which no position is itself asserted, only the logical incoherence of the opponent’s views demonstrated.

tantra at USC! two upcoming events

I am honored that Prof. Duncan Williams has extended an invitation to present the following two events at the University of Southern California’s Shinso Ito Center at the beginning of November:

Homa: Shingon Buddhist Tantric Fire Ritual <link> <rsvp>

public lecture, Friday, November 2, 2018, 4:15 PM to 6:00 PM

In many temples today in Japan, one can see a fire ritual performed the origin of which traces back some four thousand years or more to Vedic India and the ancient religious practices of Iran. The Shingon tradition maintains this ritual practice in which offerings are made into a fire built on an altar inside of a temple. This practice is known as goma in Japanese, and homa in Sanskrit. It is found almost everywhere that tantric practices—of all kinds—are performed, and throughout the tantric Buddhist tradition.

The Study of Ritual in Tantric Buddhism <link> <rsvp>

workshop, Saturday, November 3, 2018, 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM

Tantric Buddhism is largely informed by doctrines continuous with those of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and indeed there is no sharp line between the two, but the relation should be seen as extending over a large transitional zone. The more unique contribution of tantra is what has been called its “ritual technology.” Even here, most of the specific practices identified with tantric Buddhism are found in the Mahāyāna or even earlier. Some indeed, are effectively pan-Indian. Given the tendency to privilege doctrine in religious studies anyway, why should we care about ritual practices that are not so special after all? This workshop will explore the issues of how Buddhism is constructed as an object of study, the privileging of doctrine and “Buddhist philosophy,” the place of cult in Buddhist praxis, how ritual practices change over time, and methodological issues in the study of ritual and the formation of theoretical understandings of it.

Richard K. Payne. Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Berkeley; Ph.D. in the History and Phenomenology of Religion, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. Dissertation fieldwork on the Shingon (眞言) tradition in Kōyasan and Kyoto in the early 1980s included training and ordination as a Shingon priest (ācārya, ajari 阿闍梨). His dissertation on the fire ritual (homa, goma 護摩) grounds continuing research on tantric ritual studies, including the volume Homa Variations: The Study of Ritual Change Across the Longue Durée, jointly edited with Michael Witzel (Oxford University Press, 2015). He is chair of the editorial committees for the Pure Land Buddhist Studies series (University of Hawai‘i Press), and for Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, and is also Editor-in-Chief for Oxford Bibliographies/Buddhism, and Co-Editor-in-Chief for Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Religion/Buddhism.

Is Buddhism True?: Slouching toward a review, 2: Scholastic as spirit medium

In attempting to resolve the puzzle (or is it muddle) of whether “not-self means no self” (ch. 5) Wright engages in the scholastic bad faith so common in religion. Like any good nineteenth century spiritual medium, he not only makes the dead speak, but makes them answer our questions. (“Uncle Wally, now that you’ve crossed over to the other side, please tell us where you hid the box of Krugerrands?”) And often the spirits of the dead give answers so ambiguous as to be unfalsifiable.

Wright largely ignores the realities of the history of the textual tradition, talking instead about “what the Buddha said.”

In many casual usages, such expressions are simply convenient shorthand for “I was told by my teacher that what s/he says is backed up by the authority of the Awakened One.” Depending on how the teacher deploys the power of his/her authority that follows from such a claim, this may be relatively harmless—though while some/many teachers are well-intended, there have been abuses in Buddhism as in any other religious tradition. In most cases, however, such assertions are simply ordinary, daily, run of the mill instances of religious bad faith—deferring responsibility for what one is saying by claiming it comes from a source which not only should not be questioned, but cannot be questioned because absent.

And indeed many people have been taught that to think and question in terms of sources is oh so tiresome, and not for the ordinary person. (Aside for religious studies wonks: One of the truly revolutionary aspects of Luther is the insistence that ordinary believers grapple with the issues of textuality—a revolution betrayed by the Biblical literalism fostered by fundamentalists in defense of their power and authority from “the Higher Criticism.”) Or perhaps it is simply a matter of not being rude and asking awkward questions like “How do you know that this meditation is effective? And what do you mean by effective anyway?”

Since the “historical” Buddha has been dead for two and a half millennia, and we are making up an image of the figure of the Buddha to talk about for our own purposes, we should perhaps refer not to “the Buddha” but to “the Ghost” (capitalizing out of pious respect). The historical process, speaking very loosely and only for the purposes of our critique here, looks something like this:

• (we imagine that) the Ghost said something (probably actually in Magadhi, not Pāli)

• (we imagine that) followers repeated what they’d heard to each other, some of them claiming to have directly heard and claiming the consequent authority and power of that “direct transmission” (itself of course a social construct)

• after a couple of centuries or so, these stories began to be written down, and somewhere along the way these recollections got expressed in other vernaculars as well

• after probably several more centuries, these writings began to be systematically collected and edited (nota bene: to edit also means to revise), and at this point rendered into “church languages” of (Buddhist Hybrid) Sanskrit and Pāli

• after many more centuries, those writings are “discovered” by Europeans, who with varying levels of skill and resources set about (re-)editing and (re-)translating them (nota bene: to translate also means to reconfigure in relation to one’s existing ideas, such as nineteenth century religious and psychological preconceptions in our case here)

• today we have a vast array of texts, some in multiple translations, to read and ponder over, and if we think that those texts might answer questions that we have, even ones arising from reading those texts, then there are three possible strategies (maybe more, but I can only think of three right now):

strategy one: declare one text (like maybe the Satipatṭhāna sutta) , or maybe one canon (like maybe the Pāli) as true/authoritative/original/authentic/pure, and that all others are to be ignored, discounted, considered lies and later creations (later than what?), and maybe burnt if you can get the patronage of some king or despot

strategy two: apply one’s present skills, preconceptions, and reasoning in order to determine “what the Ghost really said”; this allows you to claim the authority of the Ghost for what you have yourself constructed

strategy three: apply one’s present skills, preconceptions, and reasoning to determine what various texts say that is relevant to the question one is asking; this however only allows one to say this text says this, that text says that, this other text says this other thing; this one and that one make sense to me, but the other one doesn’t, so what I now think in light of all that is…

Note the centrality of “the question one is asking” in all of this—it is what is motivating, and needs to be seen as implicating a vast number of presumptions and preconceptions. Decent scholarship requires reflection on the presumptions and preconceptions, and how they are influencing one’s answers. Hence the importance of a clear question.

In lieu of a citation: the idea of the Ghost derives from Glenn Wallis’s unpublished thoughts on the Buddha as a literary trope, or convenient fall guy–my words, not Glenn’s.



Is Buddhism True? Slouching toward a review, 1: Subtraction & Bad Faith

Started this batch of notes just when Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment (Simon and Schuster, 2017) arrived in the mail—and now suddenly it’s more than halfway through 2018. Other stuff, like Language in the Buddhist Tantra of Japan, got in the way, but I’m now continuing to make notes…. Wright’s work seems to be an almost archetypal instance of secular Buddhism, and therefore reflecting on it seems to be a useful exercise.

Let me first therefore say that I am sympathetic when the author expresses the goal of his argument, saying “Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important” (xii). It is the urgent importance of Buddhist thought as a potential solvent that also makes critiquing Wright’s formulations a useful exercise.

Subtraction as bad faith

Even before describing his goal, however, he provides a brief summary of his “subtractive” method:

I’m not talking about the “supernatural” or more exotically metaphysical parts of Buddhism–reincarnation, for example–but rather about the naturalistic parts: ideas that fall squarely within modern psychology and philosophy (xi).

This demonstrates a substractive strategy something like:

Buddhism as a whole – superstition/cultural accretions/exotic metaphysics = core/true/essential/denatured/original/pure Buddhism

Such a strategy is all too often convincing because the remainder matches so neatly the understandings of the audience. However, it is an act of bad faith for two reasons:

first, the pristine appearance of the remainder conceals the fact that it is just as much a cultural construct as any other version of Buddhism, despite now claiming the authority of being what the Buddha really meant—this is the deferral of authority that is central to bad faith, turning what the author thinks into what the Buddha says

second, it is a decision as to what is superstition, exotic metaphysics, or merely cultural accretion–these are not neutral categories, but rather ones that have their own cultural history and content, often unconsciously imperial and informed by white privilege (what we believe is religion, what they believe is superstition); naturalizing those contents as unproblematically superstition or mere cultural accretion obscures the role of the author in determining what should be deleted

thus these categories allow the author to take what he wants, and leave behind what he doesn’t, and the formula should therefore be written as:

Buddhism as a whole – what I don’t like = Buddhism I do like.

But the rhetoric cloaking the decisions involved give the authority of true/original/pure/authentic to what remains after the subtraction.

We should note that the process is no different from those subtractive practices of those who claim that the remainder has the status of being “the direct expression of an awakened being.”

So much bad faith, so little time.

Note: the idea of a subtractive method is borrowed/adapted from Charles Taylor who uses it in his A Secular Age.


Language in the Buddhist Tantra of Japan: Indic Roots of Mantra


I’m very happy to announce that Language in the Buddhist Tantra of Japan is now a thing. Published by Bloomsbury Academic (here). This is a project that has stretched across three decades, from the early 90s to last year. My thanks to my friends and colleagues who have encouraged me during that time, and to all those who made it possible for me to devote time to reworking all that material into this present form.

From the website:

About Language in the Buddhist Tantra of Japan

Language in the Buddhist Tantra of Japan dismantles the preconception that Buddhism is a religion of mystical silence, arguing that language is in fact central to the Buddhist tradition. By examining the use of ‘extraordinary language’—evocations calling on the power of the Buddha—in Japanese Buddhist Tantra, Richard K. Payne shows that such language was not simply cultural baggage carried by Buddhist practitioners from South to East Asia. Rather, such language was a key element in the propagation of new forms of belief and practice.In contrast to Western approaches to the philosophy of language, which are grounded in viewing language as a form of communication, this book argues that it is the Indian and East Asian philosophies of language that shed light on the use of language in meditative and ritual practices in Japan. It also illuminates why language was conceived as an effective means of progress on the path from delusion to awakening.

Table of contents

1. Extraordinary Language Use
2. Is Language Communication?: Extraordinary Language in the face of Philosophy of Language
3. Indic Understandings of Language-from Vedas to Tantra
4. East Asian Understandings of Language
5. Emptiness and Cosmogenesis in the Tantric Buddhism of Japan
6. The Clear Light Mantra Homa- Religious Agency in Medieval Japanese Buddhist Ritual
7. The Authority of the Speech of the Buddha: Aural Dimensions of Epistemology
8. Dharaṇi in the Lotus Sutra: Indic Context for the Power of Words
9. Ajikan: Visualizing the Syllable A
10. Concluding Reflections


“This is a magisterial work that brilliantly distils and presents decades of exploring and encountering the nuances and profundity of the “extraordinary language” of Japanese Buddhism. Beautifully and clearly written, this book leads us through a sophisticated and innovative methodology that demonstrates the many dimensions and, above all, uses, of religious language. Richard Payne has provided us with a landmark contribution to Tantric Studies, Buddhist Studies, and Japanese Religion.” –  Glen Alexander Hayes, Professor of Religion, Bloomfield College, USA“This volume on ‘extraordinary language’ in different traditions of East Asian Buddhism, with its richly textured case-studies and its theoretical depth, is a brilliant contribution to the study of Buddhist philosophy and practice of language.” –  Fabio Rambelli, Professor of Japanese Religions and ISF Endowed Chair in Shinto Studies, University of California, USA

“Payne’s project is an extended meditation on “the transmission of certain ways of thinking about language from India through China to Japan.” Examining mantra, dharaṇi, Daimoku, Komyō shingon, and ajikan in light of European and Asian theories of language, Payne rejects simplistic reductions of such “extraordinary language” to an apophatic rejection of language and argues that linguistic efficacy is “central to the Buddhist tradition transmitted from South to East Asia.” –  Charles D. Orzech, Professor of Religious Studies, Colby College, USA