grumpy old man at work

please ignore last post, grumpy old man at work


charlatans? self-help Buddhism (repost)

REPOSTED–thanks for your patience: I find I’m okay with being a grumpy old man after all…

There are numerous variations on self-help Buddhism. Self-help itself constitutes a cultural modality into which Buddhism has been appropriated. Although sometimes difficult, such efforts should be distinguished from actual efforts at dialogical inquiries, which attempt to create by bridging. (my thanks to Ann Gleig for helping me to draw this distinction)

Such self-help Buddhisms are usually constituted from

(a) some small kernel of teaching, whether presented as authentic/original/pure or essence/heart/core,

padded out with

(b) extensive claims that it has been re-formulated for either the unique needs of our contemporary times, or alternatively, the eternal and timeless quest for wholeness, fulfillment, our true selves, and

(c) quasi-scientific sounding references to the latest research—popular ones being abstruse theories of cosmology (such as quantum or string theory), evolutionary psychology, and neuroscience.

This sounds very much like John Ganz’s discussion of charlatans in a column in the New York Times. Though his concern is more directed to the social and political discourse of our present moment, it applies as well to self-help Buddhism. Referencing the analysis of medieval charlatans by Grete de Francesco, Ganz points out that:

simplistic reductions of social ills function the same way as quack medicine: They seem to provide a cure, but since they only further inflame the underlying fears, they are just driving their own demand.

Like the clowns he shared the town square with, a good charlatan could often juggle, simultaneously keeping up pretensions to scientific rigor and mystical profundity. The most sophisticated mountebanks employed a hodgepodge drawn from science, alchemy, astrology, myth and philosophy.

Central to self-help Buddhism is the reduction of complex issues to simple ones, ones for which there are simple answers. The rhetorical presentation of mindfulness as a panacea exemplifies this dynamic. (see Jeff Wilson’s study of mindfulness for instances of this)

Under the influence of neoliberalism, that reduction of complex issues to simple ones includes making everything personal. By narrowly focusing on the individual’s issues, the social, political, economic, and cultural dimensions of suffering (dukkha) are kept out of awareness. In light of the half-truth that I can only deal with my own life—keep my little corner of the world clean, as my grandmother might have admonished—the truth that the personal is the political has been forgotten.

An extreme version of such individualization of suffering is the transmutation of the teaching of karma into a vehicle for blaming the victim. Blaming the victim is central to the present-day systemic cruelty of punishing immigrants, removing labor protections, eliminating health care, and all the other elements of the current politically dominant mind-set. Converse to blaming the victim, though equally prone to cruelty, is the image of the heroic individual.

Heroic individualism is another almost invisible dimension of popular religious culture. It is taken for granted whenever practice is described in phrases that employ terms like “quest.” The hero’s quest, for example, was treated as the single fundamental form of myth by Joseph Campbell, in his superficial reinterpretation of Jung’s thought. But, Jung was specifically critical of the misappropriation of the technologies of yoga in the service of heroic individualism.

The heroic individual is disconnected from the social and its obligations, and indeed is willing in some cases to sacrifice those for his/her own fulfillment. Charlatans play on the ideal of the heroic individual, or offer a simple cure for whatever ails you. Such motivations, however, are not conducive to living in the complex messiness of one’s actual life.

clinging to the view that views are not to be clung to

Matthias Mauderer wrote a while back 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 obvious—that what follows is my answer and not Gil’s.)
This is an important and difficult question, and historically 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 actually argue 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 being updated. As a wheel, as one moves through each of the other seven, one eventually comes back to right view, which as I understand 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, for example, to the fact that actions do have consequences, is how I would understand the advice to not cling to views.
More abstractly, however, we might think of this by analogy with the difference between arithmetic and algebra. Arithmetic tells us, for example, that 2 + 3 = 5. Algebra, however, abstracts from that level and generates formulae such as a + b = c. While that in itself is not much use, a squared + b squared = c squared allows us to calculate the length of one side of any right angle triangle if we know the other two sides. If we “cling” to 9 + 16 = 25, that tells us the lengths of the sides of one right angle triangle, but only one.
So treating the advice to not cling to any view as itself a view is to confuse levels, like confusing the formula for one right angle triangle with the formula for any right angle triangle. It effectively reduces the advice to not cling to any view as just another view—as if one were being told to engage in a meditation practice in which one constantly reflected “that’s a view, don’t cling to it,” and mistook that as how one is supposed to live. (Actually, that seems to be the mistake made by people who extend the meditation practice of experiencing what is happening in this moment into a view that one is supposed to only live in the moment.)  This is the same problem as treating emptiness as just another absolute. Which, if I recall correctly, is described Nāgārjuna describes as grabbing a snake by its tail. Or, another analogy, continuing to take a medicine even after one is cured.
This is difficult to grasp (ho ho) because it involves a gestalt shift. It requires a shift of perspective, a relaxing of clinging to a views that reduces all claims to the same level.
While I’m afraid that some may find these reflections a bit mystificatory, metaphors and analogies seem to be the best I can do at this time.
UPDATE: trying again–the bit of advice about not clinging to views is not to be held to in the way that one might hold some view as absolutely true, it’s just a bit of advice about loosening one’s grip on concepts—or a concept’s grip on us.
An example: a committed patriot might say: America is the greatest country there is!
An interlocutor might say: Well, but wait a moment, what about…
Clinging to the former could create a sharp dualism, e.g. an interpretation of the latter as: America is the worst country there is!
Clinging to views in this strong form in which there is no room for nuance, for questioning, and so on, is unproductive. That last is an evaluation, not “another view to be clung to”
Concepts are just concepts, ideas are just ideas, views are just views—building one’s identity around any of them (“I’m a proud American!” or “I’m a practicing Buddhist!”) is where the dysfunction lies. It makes the identity-concept, the view, the driving force, rather than a descriptor, or an evaluation.
thank you for “listening” to me try to think through these things

Kannonji in Wakayama—aspects of Buddhism in contemporary Japan (& a belated memorial: Tokoro Teruyoshi)

Tokoro Teruyoshi born 14 Aug 1949, died 1 Aug 2016.

Tokoro san was a quiet man who I knew when I was studying on Koyasan in 1982–83. My late teacher encouraged the Tokoros to assist us, no doubt because both husband and wife spoke English well. His daughter, Keiko, and our daughter (known in Japanese as Hanako, that is, flower child) became friends quite naturally. Tokoro san was both kind and quite helpful to my family while we lived on Kōyasan, and continued to demonstrate those qualities long after as well.

Suddenly, three and a half decades have gone by. Like what, morning mist lingering between the giant cryptomeria on Kōyasan vanishing away in the sunshine? But that sounds too sweet, since I recently learned of Tokoro san’s death. Untimely in my mind, since one of those coincidences that helped to create a friendship is that we were born three days apart.

What then of the aspects of contemporary Buddhism in Japan of the title? Tokoro san’s daughter, Keiko, inherited a temple from him, Kannonji, which is located in Wakayama city, south of Osaka. She and her temple represent three aspects of the changing institutional nature of Japanese temples. First, she is the head priest, serving in that function rather than her husband. Second, Kannonji provides funeral services for pets. And, third, the temple is the location of Keiko’s restaurant, Otera de Dining Kannonji. From the photos on Facebook, she makes outrageously delicious pastries and desserts.

These sociological changes from the standard image of Japanese Buddhist temples have drawn the attention of several scholars, as for example John Nelson in Experimental Buddhism, Barbara Ambros in Bones of Contention, and Stephen Covell in Japanese Temple Buddhism.

I hope that I can visit Kannonji in Wakayama, visit Keiko, and see this temple that so fully instantiates the contemporary changes in Buddhist institutions in Japan.

Language in the Buddhist Tantra of Japan

Forthcoming this August from Bloomsbury:

Language in the Buddhist Tantra of Japan: Indic Roots of Mantra, Richard K. Payne

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

Causality and Rationality: not What do you say when a ritual doesn’t work? but Why do you ask?

At the recent (March 23, 24, 25) annual meeting of the Western Region of the American Academy of Religions, hosted by the Institute of Buddhist Studies, in Berkeley, I had the opportunity to present a paper under the title: Subduing Demons: The Shingon Yamāntaka Abhicāra Homa (forthcoming as “Lethal Fire” in the Journal of Religion and Violence).

At the end, an audience member asked, How did Shingon practitioners explain the failure of rituals? It was a question that caught me off-guard, having not encountered it for a long time. I honestly answered that I had no idea, but my ignorance was not sufficient for the questioner, who pursued with follow ups along the line of Well how might they have explained ritual failure?

Not only didn’t I know the answer, but I felt that I didn’t want  to make something up that I could put into the mouths of Shingon priests. But upon reflection the question revealed a deeper difficulty. As so often happens in instances like this, my difficulty ares from  seeing the question as comprising two levels. There was the surface level, which the questioner seemed to feel was perfectly reasonable—if your car doesn’t start when you turn the key, how do you explain it? if a ritual doesn’t work after you’ve done it, how do you explain it?

We of course all know the stock answers to questions about how others explain ritual failure, and we should therefore be suspicious of those answers: inadequate preparations, ritual impurity, breaches in performance, malevolent spirits, and so on.

There is, however, a more important, more foundational level. That is the unexamined presumption that there is a single, uniform reality to which our contemporary understandings of causality unproblematically adhere. In other words, our present understandings of how things work are taken as simply given, since (we presume) they are accurate reflections of reality. In other words, (we think) we actually understand how things work. The problem with this view is that we cannot simply assume that our present understandings are either (a) actually correct, or (b) shared by Shingon practitioners of any historical era. While our present understanding of causality as instrumental and mechanistic seems obvious, natural, just the way things are, it is in fact a modern understanding, one at the end of a long historical and cultural development. At the same time, our very understanding of rationality—still often deployed to distinguish us from them—depends in great part on our conception of causality.

In other words, to be rational is to understand causality, or perhaps better: to be rational like I am is to understand causality in the way I do. The issue of ritual “failure” is rooted in Reformation Era disputes over the Sacraments, and then in the predominantly Protestant formulations of religion in the nineteenth century, in which a key issue is the question of the rationality–viz. humanity–of the Other. This determination held important ethical and policy consequences (see David Chidester, Savage Systems, Univ. of Virginia, 1996). To be blunt, the importance of this complex of questions is rooted in Euro-American imperialism. If Native Americans, or sub-Saharan Africans, or whatever group was being encountered were not rational, then they were not human, and could therefore be displaced, confined to reservations or homelands, and slaughtered like animals if they resisted. In the present, the rhetoric of racism is rife with dehumanizing attributions of animality.

While perhaps not so blatantly dehumanizing, judgements regarding the lack of rationality have been employed to constrain the freedoms not just of racially and ethnically other persons, “primitives,” but also of women, children, and persons identified as insane. (Consider that only recently has the corporal punishment of wives by their husbands, and children by their parents become problematic—and remains so.)

The difficulties in comprehending the ritual practices of others, Shingon Buddhist practitioners in this case, is not unlike the difficulty some raise when learning about the ambiguities of post-mortem existence in Japanese Buddhist practice. Is Grandma in the Pure Land? or is she in the votive tablet on the home altar? or is she in the family temple? or is she in the graveyard? Which is it? They want to force more clarity and reduce ambiguity, perhaps to affirm their own rationality in the face of the seemingly quite evident irrationality of those others. In modern European conceptions of causality and rationality, Grandma is a singular entity, and there is only one place Grandma can be. In Aristotelian logic, the problem is referred to as the principle of non-contradiction–one is not supposed to assert two contradictory things at the same time: Grandma can’t both be in the Pure Land and in the votive tablet. (In an essay on relics Robert Sharf [“On the Allure of Buddhist Relics,” Representations, 1999] has pointed out, however, that modern conceptions of identity are not so clear cut after all.)

Thus, the “problem” regarding explaining ritual “failure” arises from the belief that I think I know causality (specifically, and “reality” in general) directly, and failing to recognize that it is my conception of causality that I know. Judgements of success or failure are not objective measures, but rather are themselves rooted in a particular mechanistic and instrumental conception of causality deriving from the Cartesian view of a purely mechanistic universe. While that particular conception is quite successful on its own terms (building steam engines, bridges, railways, and so on), there is no guarantee that it is the only right conception.

In other words, judgements of success and failure are necessarily grounded in a particular conception of causality, the judgements are not objective in themselves. Such judgements, therefore, are not criteria that can be applied to establish a rational grasp of causality. Judgements and conceptions of causality are themselves dialectically connected to one another.

Thus, asking the question of how are ritual failures explained entails a dualistic structure. If the “explanation” is adequate according to my conception of causality, then the explainer is rational, and human. If, however, the “explanation” is not adequate according to my conception of causality, then the explainer is irrational, and perhaps not fully human.

Instead then of attempting to answer the question, let me just say that I don’t know what those hypothetical Shingon practitioners might have said about ritual failure, especially since—not sharing the same presumptions about causality that we do—the question may have never come up. Indeed, asking the question that way might well have seemed irrational to them.