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.

bad penny: the return of “White Buddhism”

In a conversation with my friend Franz Metcalf last week, I found that I’d finally come to the conclusion to resuscitate the phrase “White Buddhism” as a label for a particular ideological interpretation of Buddhist thought. (see tangential aside #1 below) The relevant previous posts are here and here, once again open for public access. As Edwin Ng commented when the retraction was posted, people who are not white can be complicit in White Buddhism.

I’d made the two previous posts private in a reaction to the massive publicity attendant upon the Trump election some months ago. My fear at that time was that the phrase might be taken as warranting a sense of racialist ownership of Buddhism. That had, it seemed, certainly been the understanding of the phrase by many who rejected it when it was introduced. And, it seemed quite possible that instead of rejecting it on those grounds, there would be those who embraced it in a positive fashion.

My fear was not simply a panicked response to the continuing role of racism in American society. The history of fascist religiosities (for the category, see here and here) does include overtly racist understandings of Buddhism. (see #2 below) The emphases on the “Aryan” and symbolic use of the swastika were not accidental, but part of the attempt by British as well as German activists to build a conception of Western Civilization that excluded Jews. (see #3 below)

What finally convinced me to make the previous White Buddhism posts public again, however, was the realization that ownership is part of the White Buddhist ideology. The mythology (not in the sense of false, but in the sense of powerful narrative given the status of fact) regarding the founding looks almost exclusively to white people. From 19th and early 20th century figures such as the Rhys Davids, Col. Olcott and Evans-Wentz, to contemporary founding figures of mindfulness and insight. [Please NOTE: I’m not saying that there is anything wrong or bad about these people, or their teaching and propagation. I am rather pointing to a characteristic of the mythology of founders.] It is much easier to find information about any of those white people than it is, for example, about the missionaries who founded the Buddhist Churches of America, or the Shingon mission, or the many temples established more recently by Thai, or Vietnamese, or Sinhalese immigrants. In that sense, the ideology of White Buddhism does promote the notion that it is that Buddhism established by white people, and the ideology does therefore entail a sense of ownership within it.

[Three only slightly tangential asides:

(1) This terminology is not only in keeping with Whiteness studies generally, but with Christopher M. Driscoll’s White Lies: Race and Uncertainty in the Twilight of American Religion more specifically.

(2) There is an all-too-common and very unfortunate lack of historical perspective on the part of many proponents of mindfulness and Secular Buddhism. While I found Matthew O’Connell’s post on how the concept “spiritual” is a poor-fit for much of Buddhist praxis: “Against the Spiritual” to be a very insightful analysis of those problems, the idea that a spiritual interpretation of Buddhism can be lain at the feet of those of us active in the 60s and 70s overlooks the much lengthier history of that interpretation.

(3) In ongoing contemporary discourse this kind of anti-semitism is implicit in the Axial Age theory that the present world is formed from a transformation of society and thought around 500 BC +/- that took place in Greece, India, and China. No Jews, no Arabs, no Africans, no Native Americans, etc. and etc. The Axial Age theory is an ad hoc ideological formation that privileges certain peoples, not an empirically informed historical description—much less causally explanatory.]

Fascist Religiosities, II: Misogyny

In honor of International Women’s Day.

An additional characteristic of fascist religiosities is an enduring misogyny. This is one manifestation of the hierarchical, authoritarian and dualizing strains of fascist religiosity. And of course, conversely, misogyny is one of the sources of fascist religiosity. These constitute a dialectic, one is not the exclusive cause of the other.

Hierarchical: No matter what the rationale, and there are many that are given the aura of religious authority, men have claimed a status above women.

Authoritarian: No matter what the rationale, and there are many that are given the aura of religious authority, men have claimed control over women, especially women’s bodies.

Dualizing: No matter what the rationale, and there are many that are given the aura of religious authority, men have made a dichotomy between women and themselves.

Okay, some might say that there are real differences. Yes, of course, but there are real differences between all kinds of people. The issue at hand is the way that those differences are dichotomized (Venus/Mars). One side of the dichotomy is attributed to all women, or held as the standard for a proper woman. Being a woman is held to be the cause for those generalities, which in turn are used to justify hierarchical and authoritarian relations. The reality is not a sharp, and simplistic opposition between men and women, but rather ranges of any number of different characteristics.

Even when not deployed explicitly, the religious rationales also inform (give form to from inside—get it?) all kinds of misogynist inequalities.

The point of attending to the logic and diffusion of the rhetorics of fascist religiosities, one may then be enabled to stand back from simply accepting them as normative values and conceptions, reinforced by popular and religious culture.

The ever-receding horizon of human exceptionalism

When I was younger, so much younger than today, what we were told made humans exceptions—that is, outside the natural order, different from animals—was that God made us in His image, no wait, it was opposable thumbs, no wait, it was tool-use, no wait, it was language, no wait…

The claim of human exceptionalism is a metaphysical and theological one. It is a radically dualist disjunction between the (putatively) natural and the supernatural realms, between the human body/mind and the spirit, between, as Descartes argued at what is considered by many to be the start of modern philosophy, humans who have a soul and animals which are mere mechanisms. The boundary markers of human exceptionalism have continued to be moved, however. Each time that one criteria or another is confidently declared as the sharp dividing line that justifies human dominion over the natural world, upon closer examination it becomes fuzzy, if not breaking down completely—sometimes simply as false, sometimes as only sharp by our own definition.

Claims of human exceptionalism are fundamentally arbitrary, despite their long basis in Western, i.e., theologically inflected thinking. They only seem natural because they are so habitual,  a point made by the old children’s rhyme about eating peas with honey: “I eat my peas with honey. I’ve done it all my life. I know it may sound funny, but it sticks ’em to the knife.”

All this is by way of comment on yet another step in the receding horizon of human exceptionalism to be found in this morning’s “The Stone” column by Roger Scruton “If We Are Not Just Animals, What Are We?” in the NYTimes.

We human beings do not see one another as animals see one another, as fellow members of a species. We relate to one another not as objects but as subjects, as creatures who address one another “I” to “you” — a point made central to the human condition by Martin Buber, in his celebrated mystical meditation “I and Thou.”

Aside from rather muddling up Buber’s mystical, i.e., religious and non-empirical, declaration of a distinction between the “I–you” relation and the “I-Thou” relation, and the all-too-human propensity for objectifying others as in tribalism, racism and war (oh, yes, and professional sports), there is a prejudice, literally a prejudgement,  made evident in the title by use of the phrase “just animals.” The point of the column is to show that we are not “just animals” but something else, something exceptional. And that claim is supported by reference not to evidence, but to Buber’s theological assertion (which I admit seemed very sweet and reassuring when I first read it some three and a half decades ago).

If we stop to ask, how does the author know that animals have no sense of individual selves in relation to one another?, it might seem rather obvious that he doesn’t. He is trying to move the goal post yet again in an effort to retain the privileged status bequeathed up on us by our exceptional status—as the especially beloved of God’s creatures, or who have opposable thumbs, or language, or tools, or now supposedly a unique sense of self-identity in relation to others.

Yesterday, while driving around doing errands, there was an article on KQED fm about language research with spotted dolphins. Each dolphin has its own unique “name-whistle.” And, not only does this suggest an analog to a sense of individual identity, but dolphins will use it when the named dolphin is not present, suggesting abstract thought processes. But, if we stop arguing from the presumption of human exceptionalism and the belief that it only needs to be properly located somewhere further away on the playing field, such analogs indicate that the distinction is one we make, not empirically based. And since they’re our convention-based goal-posts, we can move them wherever we want in order to make sure that we’re not just animals.

Huston Smith, one more time

A respondent to the post “Fascist Ideologies, I” asserts that Huston Smith provided a beneficial model of religion, one that for example proved inspirational to a “Midwestern Lutheran-raised Buddhist monk” by providing a useful representation of Buddhism.

The distortion of Buddhism resulting from Smith’s imposition of Traditionalist interpretations will require a fuller separate treatment, so please stay tuned.

However, in the short term, the inspirational character of Smith and his writings does not in my view justify his shoddy scholarship and plagiarism.

First, the shoddy scholarship. His Religions of Man, renamed The World’s Religions, was originally published in 1958. The Buddhism section of that work provided the bulk of his later Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. A careful review of the two versions (Religions of Man/World’s Religions) reveals that the only substantive change was the addition of a section on Tibetan Buddhism. In the last work (Buddhism: A Concise Introduction), Philip Novak added a section on Buddhism in the West, and Huston Smith added an Afterword on Pure Land Buddhism. Note the intentional use of the term “addition” here—it is used because despite more than half a century of new scholarship, the original material never underwent any substantive revision of its content.

Stop, take a breath and think about that. More than half a century of new scholarship completely ignored. This would be like an introductory survey of Christianity that failed to take into account the work on the Nag Hammadi library, and the results of the third quest for the historical Jesus, and the shift of Reformation studies to issues in popular religiosity, and Vatican II, and the spread of Evangelical Christianity to Latin America, and…well, perhaps that is enough for you to get the idea.

That is what I would call shoddy scholarship. What relatively little was known about Buddhism in the mid-50s, has long been surpassed in many important ways—but the undergraduate reading either World’s Religions or Buddhism: A Concise Introduction as a textbook, or the uncritical lay reader taking either at face value as an authoritative source, will not be exposed to those changes in our understanding of Buddhism. And these changes in Buddhist studies scholarship are not minor revisions or little tweaks, but radical changes to the groundwork of our knowledge of Buddhist thought, history and practice.

Would you trust your doctor to work on your appendix if you knew that he was referring to the same medical text that he’d studied in the mid-50s? Why trust your brain to someone who is effectively doing the same?

Second, the plagiarism. This is a serious accusation in academic circles such that standards of proof are high. Accidentally repeating a memorable phrase would not be probative. In Smith’s case, however, the acts of plagiarism were substantial in the two cases that I’m aware of.

In the first, describing a novel that he found offensively representative of the postmodern (William H. Gass, The Tunnel), he quoted almost verbatim a full paragraph from a review of the work. There have been cases where a block of text had been added as a quote and then the fact that it was a quote lost track of, getting edited in as original text. That is not the case here, however, as the text was changed slightly to flow smoothly in the frame of Smith’s own writing. See full treatment in note 9 to review of Does Religion Matter? (here) The serious quality of accusations of plagiarism is such that in that review, my much younger and professionally more vulnerable self gave Smith an out, suggesting that the act was probably unintentional. No doubt Smith did not intend to plagiarize, but that’s rather like saying that I didn’t intend to break the law when I went through a red light while rushing to a meeting. Breaking the law was not my intent, however…

More relevantly to our topic in this blog, though, is the plagiarisms embedded in the afterword on Pure Land Buddhism in Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. He takes a large section from the work of Tetsuo Unno’s introduction to Kenryo Kanamatsu’s Naturalness: A Classic of Shin Buddhism, and presents it with minor editorial changes as his own. [Unfortunately, the copy editor “corrected” Tetsuo to Taitetsu, a change that I did not catch prior to publication.] Smith similarly plagiarizes a short paragraph from Hiroyuki Itsuki’s Tariki: Embracing Despair, Discovering Peace. The details of the plagiarism are in the Appendix to my essay “how-not-to-talk-about-the-pure-land.” These being the second and third instances that I’d myself encountered, I was no longer so tentative in identifying these as acts of plagiarism. Any instructor faced with similar instances in a term paper would know that they were looking at plagiarism.

Shoddy scholarship and plagiarism seem like issues that should disqualify an author from serious consideration. Apparently, however, there are those who feel that despite these shortcomings, if an author provides something pragmatically useful, or something inspirational, then those latter are justification enough. To my eyes this shows the extent to which Buddhism has been integrated into the culture of self-help, where pragmatic utility and inspiration—not to mention sales in the millions of copies—are considered important criteria. Smith’s work, however, is presented and treated as a work of scholarship in the field of religious studies, where criteria of intellectual integrity should take priority.

Against the Stream Statement

My daughter forwarded this to me, and I want to share it as a powerful statement regarding adhering to values…

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A Statement of Commitment

For nine years Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society has used the Buddha’s teachings to uncover greed, hatred and delusion wherever it is found and to cultivate the wisdom and compassion necessary to alleviate suffering. We are dedicated to maintaining an ethical framework for all of our actions and to live in a way that does not cause harm to any beings.

Since the inauguration we have disagreed with the actions of the new administration and the threat it has posed to the civil liberties of the citizens and residents of the United States and to our neighbors around the world. ATS is not content to sit quietly as we see these abuses unfold but we are stating our commitment to help change what we think are deluded and harmful actions and to support others in their work.
We stand with the LGBTQ community and oppose any rollback to their rights.
We support immigrant’s rights and oppose the attack on sanctuary cities.
We support religious tolerance for all and vehemently oppose any Muslim ban.
We support women’s rights and oppose the attacks on their reproductive freedom.
We believe in transparency in government and the freedom of the press.
We are committed to calling out white supremacy in all its forms and to put an end to systemic and institutionalized racism.
We are opposed to the weakening of the EPA, the denial of climate change and the degradation of the environment.
We believe in the right to affordable health care and a social safety net to support the most vulnerable in our society.
We believe in the right to a free and equal education for all.
The Buddha’s teachings on wise speech exhort us to speak what is necessary and we are committed to speaking up and supporting those who work for justice and ending intolerance. Many of our community members are working hard towards this goal and we will serve as a clearinghouse for their work and to foster actions that seem appropriate. We encourage you to get involved.

We also believe deeply in the teaching that hatred never ceases through hatred, but only through love will it cease. Using the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path as our foundation and bulwark, we will say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done with wisdom and compassion for all beings.

In this time of national turmoil Against the Stream is committed to be a place of refuge and sacred resistance. We believe in the equality of all beings and to end suffering wherever we see it.