Corrosive impact of Buddhist exceptionalism

Religious doctrine is not the primary determinative factor for human action.

Okay, having made that clear, I feel better already.

The Buddhist exceptionalism in question is the modernist image of Buddhism as the exception to a general tendency of religions to be violent. The motivation for trying to formulate some coherent thoughts on this came during a discussion at a dinner party where good friends asked me to “justify” (I think they meant explain) Buddhist violence in Myanmar against the Rohingya.

The corrosive effects of that exceptionalism is that once shown as an artifice, a pretense, an empty claim of superiority, Buddhism generally becomes degraded. Just as when—confronted by historical issues such as slavery and the slaughter of Native Americans, and contemporary issues such as institutional racism and increasing income inequality (along with a hundred other ills our society is heir to)—American exceptionalism becomes corrosive of America generally, including those values worth upholding.

When asked by my friends about the violence in Myanmar, I made some to my memory unsatisfactory comments regarding the role of religious nationalism, and the problematic character of thinking that belief determines action, and the corollary that since religious beliefs claim ultimacy, they should be the ultimate determinants of action.

Much more adequately, Dan Arnold and Alicia Turner provide an understanding of the situation in their essay “Why are we surprised when Buddhists are violent?” (New York Times, Monday 5 March 2018, here). It is well worth reading.


review: Dessein & Teng, eds., Text, History, and Philosophy

Text, History, and Philosophy: Abhidharma across Buddhist Scholastic Traditions

Editor(s): Bart Dessein, Weijen Teng

Brill’s Indological Library


Review—posted on AAR’s Reading Religion (here)

Many people today consider the abhidharma (Pāli abhidhamma) to be both abstruse and irrelevant. As this volume demonstrates, this is unfortunate. Abhidharma thought constitutes the conceptual backbone of the entirety of the Buddhist tradition. An example that is probably familiar to many religious studies scholars is the Heart Sutra. In addition to finding its way into many religious studies textbooks, this is widely known and recited in many East Asian Buddhist traditions. Indeed it is chanted daily in some temples, or recited continuously by Buddhist adherents on pilgrimage. However, in addition to such ritual or devotional uses, it can be read as a concise Mahāyāna commentary on the ontological status of abhidharma categories. One of the perhaps most quoted lines from the Heart Sutra—“form is emptiness, emptiness is form”—is not an isolated assertion that can be addressed on its own. It is instead the first of a long list of abhidharma categories the independent existence of which is being denied. That context is key to understanding the significance of the line.

The extent to which abhidharma thought informs the Buddhist tradition as a whole is reflected by the range of studies included in this volume. As the editors note in their preface, contemporary research activities “concern different epochs of Buddhist history, spanning from the life time of the historical Buddha to the contemporary period; deal with Abhidharmic developments in different geographical regions, extending from India, over Southeast Asia, Central Asia, China, Mongolia, Japan, and Tibet; and concern different types of materials, with some researchers working on (recent) manuscript founds, and others working on edited editions of texts in Pāli, Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian or Tibetan” (ix).

The focus of the collection is not explicitly textual—that is, it is not concerned with the history of the body of texts known as the abhidharmapiṭaka/abhidhammapiṭaka, nor with the organization and structure of the texts themselves. While recognizing the importance of such studies, the intent of the collection’s editors is to enable the abhidharma to be understood as an exegetical system.

The editors have structured the collection into three sections. The first, “Mātṛkā and Abhidharma Terminologies,” comprises four essays that concern themselves with the foundational structures of abhidharma, that is, the creation of lists and terminological precision. Since this is where many students of the buddhadharma are introduced to abhidharma, and find being confronted with such details to be entirely disjunct from their own concerns, it is valuable to understand these in the context of exegesis.

The second section, “Intellectual History,” comprises six essays. These range from studies of the contributions of particular intellectual figures to interactions between abhidharma thought and other intellectual traditions in China and Tibet. The last section, “Philosophical Studies,” comprises three essays, which look at particular philosophical issues in the history of the abhidharma.

Weijen Teng, one of the editors, provides a metaphor for understanding the underlying integrity within such a diverse range of studies. He likens the abhidharma tradition to a riverine system: “surveying down the river system of the Abhidharma, an overall picture is produced that enables us to connect its remote sources with its ends, and to trace its turns and stops across regions” (17). This organic metaphor conveys both spatial and temporal relations, which stretch from contacts with Hellenistic thought in Gandhara, Brahmanical philosophies in south India and Sri Lanka, to contacts with Confucian thought in East Asia.

These relations are more than incidental historical ones. The focus on exegesis is directly linked to a theory regarding the development of systems of rational inquiry. This is the claim that contestation is the key motivating factor for such development. Only when confronted by challenges to the truth of one’s views is philosophical reflection necessary. According to Bart Dessein, the other editor, not only is contestation key to the origin and development of rational inquiry, it is also key to the possibility of movement across cultural boundaries. He says that it is “precisely because rational inquiry does not take convictions that are sanctioned by intuition, generally accepted truth, or revealed truth as granted, that systems of rational thinking have the possibility to cross the borders of the cultural context in which they originated and first developed” (2).

In my own evaluation, the most important aspect of this collection is that it addresses an absolutely central issue about the study of Buddhist rational inquiry. The collection examines Buddhist rational inquiry as such, rather than in a context in which the concerns, categories, and concepts of Euro-American philosophy (or psychology) are uncritically assumed as a universal structure into which Buddhist thought is expected to fit. Only since about the beginning of the twenty-first century (a symbolic marker rather than an exact historical one) has the study of Buddhist thought, or as Dessein says “Buddhist ‘philosophy’” (2) begun to move out of the colonialist mode of viewing Buddhist thought as a resource for pre-existing conversations in Euro-American philosophy. More directly relevant to scholars of religious studies, the same dynamic applies to the treatment of Buddhism as a “religion.”

About the Reviewer: 

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

Date of Review: February 21, 2018

About the Editors: 

Bart Dessein is full professor at the department of Chinese language and culture of Ghent University, and member of the Ghent Centre for Buddhist Studies. He has mainly published on Sarvāstivāda and Mahāsāṃghika history and philosophy.

Weijen Teng is assistant professor of religious studies at Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts. His research interests are Chinese Buddhist intellectual history, Sanskrit grammar study in Medieval China and Abhidharma.


“White Buddhism”: it’s not an insult, it’s an ideology

Stumbling around the webosphere, jumping through the magic doors of links, I came across a post by James Ford on his blog Monkey Mind on Patheos, titled “The Problem of Our Suffering: A (Modernist) Zen Buddhist Meditation.” (here) There is a great deal of information to be gleaned from the extensive citations he provides regarding the category of “modernist Buddhist.”

In the opening, however (you knew that a “but” was coming didn’t you?), we find this statement:

So, modernist Buddhism. Other terms that have been used in addition to modernist Buddhism are “liberal Buddhism,” “secular Buddhism,” “naturalist Buddhism,” (my personal favorite) and also generally as a pejorative, “western Buddhism,” and always as an insult, “white Buddhism.” But it is the term “modernist Buddhism” that appears to be settling as the term of art to describe this emergent school of Buddhism.

While I cannot be responsible for how others use the phrase “White Buddhism,” I do know that my usage was not intended to be an insult. I will grant that there was some heat motivating my original posts on the matter (first here, and follow up here); however, I did work to focus on describing White Buddhism as an ideology. The heat was generated by the condescension some converts to what Ford is calling “modernist Buddhism” manifest toward populations of people who have been born into and grown up in cultures where Buddhism is the norm, i.e., natal Buddhists. The history of religion is replete with instances of converts who claim to be more pure, more authentic, more true XYZ whatevers, than anyone who is a natal XYZ whatever. The dismissive attitude toward immigrant communities of Buddhists, or even moreso the nonchalant ignorance about those communities, is ample evidence of that condescension.

First, the phrase is not simply a synonym for all the other terms Ford lists. The phrase is intended to identify an ideology, a category that is not itself an insult:

Ideologies thrive in the imagination and in the desires of different social groups. Ideologies move in the space between thought and knowledge that every society generates. Ideologies reflect in oblique ways the standpoint of social groups and spring from the interests of those groups. They create opinions and dictate both mundane and ritual behaviours in order to validate those interests. They make these interests look real by turning assumptions into beliefs, transferring them into the taken for granted notions of everyday opinions, and reiterating them to reinforce them as an indispensable entity for social life and for its analysis. … ‘ideology’ is not a coherent sphere of collective thought that can be investigated like a landscape or group of material objects. Instead, it refers to a complex set of relations between people and their surroundings that is centred on power differentials. (Randall McGuire and Reinhard Bernbeck, “Ideology,” in The Oxford Handbook of Archaeology of Ritual and Religion, ed. Timothy Insoll, Oxford University Press, 2011, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199232444.013.0013)

As indicated, an ideology serves the interests of some group with power. Being an ideology, White Buddhism works to preserve the privilege of those who hold it and who repeat it by validating their views through the complex of mutually supporting ideas, claims, assertions, beliefs that network together to make up the system.

Here, rather than focusing on justifying the heat of my original posts, or explicating the content of White Buddhism as an ideology, I am more concerned with the act of dismissing the phrase as “an insult”—a designation that is no doubt comforting since it inoculates against thinking about race and class.

If rather than protecting oneself from these dangerous thoughts by dismissing White Buddhism as an insult, one chooses to look at the location of Buddhism in Euro-America in terms of race and class, as many sanghas and teachers (Ruth King, here) are doing, there are additional resources. Predominant among these is Joseph Cheah’s Race and Religion in American Buddhism, White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation (Oxford, here). Since the phrase “White Buddhism” was created by analogy with other racially coded designations, such as Black Christianity and White Christianity, the topic may be pursued by reading Christopher Driscoll’s White Lies: Race and Uncertainty in the Twilight of American Religion (Routledge, review here).  And, importantly, Wakoh Shannon Hickey’s “Two Buddhisms, Three Buddhisms, and Racism” (Journal of Global Buddhism, here).

Addendum: also quite valuable in this regard–

Scott Mitchell, “‘Christianity is for rubes; Buddhism is for actors’: U.S. media representations of Buddhism in the wake of the Tiger Woods’ scandal” (Journal of Global Buddhism, here), and

Donald S. Lopez, Jr., “Foreigner at the Lama’s Feet,” in his Curators of the Buddha: Buddhism Under Colonialism (Chicago, here), and indeed the entire collection of essays.

Economics and Capitalism in the Study of Buddhism: AAR seminar, 2018/Denver

AAR has opened submissions for proposals for its 2018 meeting in Denver. This will be the fourth of five years of meetings for the seminar.

The seminar has announced the following topic (go here for online information from AAR: <;) and for links to submission process.

Statement of Purpose:

The seminar will allow an extended and focused examination of the historical background of Buddhism in networks of exchange, under colonialism—the previous global socio-economic system—and the present-day effects of global, or late, capitalism with its ability to transcend traditional national boundaries. In the same way that previous eras saw transcontinental and transoceanic patterns of trade as agencies in the transmission and transformation of Buddhism, there is an integral connection between the ability of contemporary consumer capitalism to make a presence in societies over the entirety of the globe and the technological changes that have contributed to increasingly globalized systems of communication and travel. There are two major areas of inquiry that the seminar explores. The first is the economic formation of Buddhism as an institution, such as the ways that Buddhism is represented, commodified, and marketed in capitalist society. The second area of inquiry is the ways that economic relations and capitalism have influenced the conception of Buddhism as an object of academic study.

Call for Papers:

The seminar in Economics and Capitalism in the Study of Buddhism has developed three themes for paper topics for 2018:

• Economics of Buddhist Utopias: Then and Now

• Creative Imaginations in Asia’s Past, Present, and Future

• How Buddhists Have Responded to Capitalist Situations, Realities of Wealth and Excess, and Altering Institutions

These represent a wide range of possible topics for study, reflecting the multidimensional character of the seminar’s topic. We solicit submissions from a wide range of scholarly specializations.

PAPERS (this is AAR code for the online submission system, a secret teaching)
Proposals are anonymous to chairs and steering committee members until after final acceptance/rejection


  • Fabio Rambelli,
  • Richard K. Payne,

Steering Committee

  • Charles D. Orzech, Colby College
  • Courtney Bruntz,
  • James Mark Shields,
  • Kin Cheung, Moravian College
  • Megan Bryson, University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Subjectivity in Shin Buddhism: Pacific World

The first of two special sections for the 2017 issue of Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies has now been posted on the Pacific World site: The special section is titled “Subjectivity in Shin Buddhism,” and is guest edited by Dr. Gordon Bermant, University of Pennsylvania and Institute of Buddhist Studies. The section comprises seven essays and an introduction by Dr. Bermant. The essays are:

Introduction to the Special Section on Subjectivity in Shin Buddhism
Gordon Bermant, University of Pennsylvania

The Subjective View of the Student: Aṅgulimāla and Myōhōbō
Patti Nakai, Buddhist Temple of Chicago

Subjectivity at the Heart of Jōdo Shinshū Spirituality and Doctrine: Defining the Meaning of Subjectivity
Kenneth K. Tanaka, Musashino University

The Nature and Importance of Subjectivity in Shin Buddhism
Gordon Bermant, University of Pennsylvania

Cross-Cultural Contributions to Psychology and Neuroscience: Self, Mind, and Mindfulness in
David Bryce Yaden, University of Pennsylvania
Mostafa Meleis, University of Pennsylvania
Andrew B. Newberg, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital
Dave R. Vago, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and
Justin McDaniel, University of Pennsylvania

Constructing the Self in Pure Land Buddhism: The Role of Ritualized, Embodied Activity in a Social Context
Richard K. Payne, Institute of Buddhist Studies

The Stories We Tell: The Study and Practice of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism
Scott A. Mitchell, Institute of Buddhist Studies

Subjectivities, Fish Stories, Toxic Beauties: Turning the Wheel Beyond “Buddhism?”
Galen Amstutz, Independent scholar and Institute of Buddhist Studies instructor

A second special section on Recent Research on Tantric Buddhism will be appearing in the near future.