the unreliability of doctrine as a foundation for action

What I’ve previously identified as the “indefinite malleability of doctrine” is evident in a report in the NYTimes “An ICE Raid Leaves an Iowa Town Divided Along Faith Lines” (here). As has happened elsewhere, when ICE raided a local cement factory, taking 32 people into custody, reactions in the community of Mount Pleasant were not simply divided, but divisive.

Although the headline refers to divisions along “faith lines,” the faith involved is different interpretations of Christian teachings—with those on both sides of the debate quoting different passages from the same scripture, the Bible that they claim to share.

Whether one asserts that Trump was chosen by God and that we have a duty to obey our government, or see kindness as a duty higher than that of obedience—doctrinal and textual supports can be offered. This has of course often been the case, as for example in the arguments both for and against slavery in Antebellum politics. (Readers are encouraged to insert their own additional examples here _____________________.)

Despite which, the intellectualist fallacy—that thought determines action—is so deeply ingrained in our social rhetoric, that the (obvious) consequences of doctrinal malleability are ignored. Since doctrine is indefinitely malleable, it can be warped to support positions committed to for other reasons, whether economic or social, racial or gender, psychological or familial. It cannot therefore be relied upon as a foundational guide for proper action.

This includes Buddhist doctrine and Buddhist morality. Discussions of contemporary social issues in Buddhist contexts seem to often have recourse to finding some doctrinal basis somewhere in the vast array of Buddhist texts, and then building an argument for the position one wants to promote from there.

Without making it a doctrinal claim, but rather simply an intuition about how the world works, the vision of all things as interconnected obviates any foundational approach to morality. Any doctrinal claim is indefinitely interconnected with everything else, and therefore cannot be employed as a foundation for action.

One of the facets of sailboats that fascinates me is that the mast and boom and sails are all in tension with one another. The boat is an interconnected whole, the mast connected to the keel, but in dynamic tension. It is the tension that allows the boat to sail, to move before the wind, not some foundational grounding—which would instead sink the boat or mire it in a single place. This is just an explanatory metaphor, not an argument by analogy. If it helps you to understand what I’m trying to say, that’s good enough.



Re-Thinking Buddhist Studies, a modest proposal

If the goal of Buddhist studies is to understand Buddhism, then the questions we should be asking are about what was/is important to Buddhists–instead of abstracting Buddhism out of its lived context, and treating it as a variation within a structure that is itself abstracted from liberal Protestant Christianity. How we formulate “Buddhism” as an object of study, both explicitly and implicitly, significantly predetermines what we can say about Buddhism. It is, therefore, necessary to avoid unreflectively adopting an anachronistic framework of understanding for our studies.

I recently encountered the idea that Christianity fetishizes doctrine (sorry don’t recall source). Thus, while there is some sense to focusing on doctrine in the study of Christianity, to presume the centrality of doctrine for the study of Buddhism is an argument based on the presumption that the analogy between Christianity and Buddhism is itself strong enough to make the following argument—

1. Christianity and Buddhism are similar in that they are both religions,

2. Christianity fetishizes doctrine,

Therefore Buddhism also fetishizes doctrine.

This argument is in fact a petitio principii fallacy, since the understanding of religion implicit in the first premise is itself an abstraction from Christianity, in other words it already includes the centrality of doctrine and smuggles that idea into Buddhism. Modernist claims that Buddhism is “really” a way of life, or “really” a philosophy, or “really” a psychology in no way avoid this presumption of doctrinal primacy. Such discursive shifts retain the doctrinal focus, while shifting from a religious frame to some other. These alternative discursive frames have their own presumptions and thereby simply introduce different sets of doctrinal commitments into the understanding of Buddhism.

While doctrine was important to many intellectuals within the Buddhist tradition, by analogy with our contemporary religious world, intellectuals make up a small proportion of adherents to any tradition. What has been important to a far larger group of Buddhist adherents has been practice. Again, the analogy with our current situation provides an argument by analogy for this view—the large proportion of, for example, mindfulness practitioners would seem to be only concerned with understanding that the practice is effective, that it will meet their needs. For the most part, reassurances that there is scientific evidence of its efficacy seem sufficient. This modern use of “science” displaces, but serves the same function of legitimation that traditional miracle tales served. There is an additional complication for Buddhist studies, however.

Many scholars working in Buddhist studies seem to implicitly identify textual studies (philology) with doctrinal studies. However, the issue that I am attempting to highlight here is not texts versus practice, but rather the primacy given to doctrine over practice. Textual studies apply to both subject matters, both questions about doctrine and questions about practice. Historically, however, the selection of texts to be studied appears to have been directed by an implicit assumption that doctrinal texts are the important ones, or alternatively, that the doctrinal content rather than, for example, the ritual use of texts is what is important.

As has been well documented by several scholars, this understanding of the project of Buddhist studies can be traced back to its origins in Euro-America in the mid- to late-19th century, when Buddhist studies was modeled on the new and then-exciting field of Biblical studies. The value seen in the study of Biblical texts was exactly doctrinal, however, and this has led to a covert selectivity of doctrinal texts or doctrinal contents of texts as defining the study of Buddhism. And while texts of that kind may be of interest to us as modern intellectuals, our interests do not define the historical realities of Buddhism. And, while our interests—whether philosophy, psychology, or neurosciences, for example—have their own kind of validity, we need to recognize that serving those interests by appropriating from Buddhism is a project separate from the study of Buddhism. For example, the economics of Buddhism is different from a Buddhist economics.

Just as tools for the study of doctrine—what I have alliteratively identified as concepts, categories and concerns—have been developed, so also do we need tools for the study of practices. However, just as the tools for the study of doctrine deriving from the Western intellectual tradition are problematic for the study of Buddhist thought, the tools for the study of practices developed in Western intellectual history need to be held as potentially problematic as well.

Instead, for example, such emic categories as those by which tantric rituals are organized provide one way of approaching practices in a Buddhist context. And tools such as syntactic analyses that are abstract enough to apply to any form of practice can be of use in thinking through the nature of practices as systematically organized activities.

This is not to say that the intellectual frameworks developed by Buddhist thinkers over two and a half millenia are not important—far from it. However, exclusive attention to doctrine without a comparable attention to practice distorts our perception of the tradition. The broader concern that I think needs to be the unifying theme of Buddhist studies is praxis, that is, the creative interaction between doctrine and practice. Understanding Buddhism—not as some abstract, ahistorical system, but rather as a living, historical continuity—requires that we understand both doctrine and practice exactly in their relation to one another, instead of in isolation from one another.

Statement from the Spirit Rock Teachers Council—on the separation of children from their families

The following statement is reposted with permission from Ruth King’s Wise Talk Blog, thank you.

As Buddhist meditation leaders, teachers and practitioners, we are concerned with the welfare and safety of everyone in our society. These commitments are based upon an understanding of our shared vulnerability in this life. Separating migrant children from their families unambiguously harms children and their families – this harm is immediate and severe and endures across generations through the lingering effects of trauma. Under no circumstances can we as contemplative practitioners, spiritual leaders, or moral human beings imagine circumstances in which it is acceptable to engage in acts that harm children. We cannot forget that we belong to each other. We feel deeply the heartbreak of families being torn apart.

We, as teachers for Spirit Rock Meditation Center and for tens of thousands of Buddhist practitioners around the country, reaffirm the Spirit Rock Statement of Values and stand with many other secular and religious organizations – organizations spanning the political and theological spectrum – in condemning these acts. These acts represent a dramatic deviation from the standards of morality and basic human decency that form the fabric of civilized society. Unraveling that fabric has a corrosive effect on our capacity to live and thrive together.

The Executive Order issued June 20th represents a hopeful signal, but we must remain engaged to ensure that this policy change is implemented and family reunifications are expedited. We encourage you to contact your representatives to voice your concern, to connect with organized efforts to express your values, and to support reputable advocacy organizations.

We must also pause to consider how this depth of moral confusion was enacted and tolerated and take steps to nurture the values that make such depravity unthinkable.


Sally Armstrong

James Baraz

Matthew Brensilver

Eugene Cash

Howard Cohn

Mark Coleman

Anne Cushman

Anna Douglas

Andrea Fella

Anushka Fernandopulle

Gil Fronsdal

JoAnna Hardy

Susie Harrington

Will Kabat-Zinn

Ruth King

Jack Kornfield

Brian Lesage

John Martin


Nikki Mirghafori

Phillip Moffitt


Kate Munding

Wes Nisker

Mary Grace Orr

Sharda Rogell

Donald Rothberg

Erin Selover

Gina Sharpe

Oren Jay Sofer

Tempel Smith

Heather Sundberg


Erin Treat
Diana Winston

Kate Lila Wheeler

Larry Yang


* Note: certain Teachers Council members are on retreat and may not have had the opportunity to sign this statement as of yet. 


A country is only as strong as the people who make it up, and the country turns into what people want it to become. We made the world we’re living in, and we have to make it over. ~ James Baldwin

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.