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…

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.

Fascist Religiosities, I

My friend Glenn Wallis called my attention to Jason Horowitz’s NYTimes article “Bannon Cited Italian Thinker Who Inspired Fascists” (Friday  10 February 2017). This is connected with Patricia Miller’s article “Will ‘Church Militants’ Be Marching for Trump?” (10 January 2017, Religion Dispatches), which I’d been thinking about since reading it a month ago.

What Horowitz adds is an analysis of Julius Evola, the Italian religious thinker active from around the 1920s to the 1960s, and who is part of the Traditionalist movement (see Mark Sedgwick, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century, a book everyone in religious studies should read). Evola promoted what can reasonably be called a fascist religiosity, one characterized by hierarchical authoritarianism, an obsession with purity, racism, patriarchy, and a dualistic apocalypticism. Previous discussions of Bannon’s worldview have tended to focus on one or another of those characteristics, while the Evola reference helps us to understand the integration of these elements into a vision of the present that is actually Gnostic in character—a teaching the Roman church long ago judged to be a heresy and which it is therefore surprising to find being embraced by hardline Catholic prelates today.

Bannon and others, such as the Christian dominionists discussed here previously, see the West (yes, that hoary old West of the Western civ courses and Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations) as weak, decadent, effete, undermined by the very principles of liberal democracy—a view shared with Osama bin Laden. This is why the principles of liberal democracy, such as rule of law equally, sanctity of the vote, the equality of all persons under the law, and so on, are now under attack by the present administration. In this view, Islam stands as the great enemy of Western civilization (Christian, white, heterosexual, English-speaking), poised for a…well, you can read the articles yourself—and think about Bannon whispering aggrandizing apocalyptic fantasies in Trump’s ear.

So, what you ask does this have to do with Buddhism? Buddhism has not been immune to being devoured by Traditionalist interpretation. Those interested in understanding this can see my essay “Traditionalist Representations of Buddhism” (here).

Traditionalist conceptions have been integrated into religious studies, and into college level courses on religion via such works as Huston Smith’s The Worlds Religions, and into courses on Buddhism via his derivative work Buddhism a Concise Introduction. In fact Smith, who once proudly claimed the label Traditionalist, has been perhaps the most effective promoter of an incipient fascist religiosity by means of such seemingly liberal and innocuous notions as that all religions are ultimately the same—many paths, one mountain. This idea has been so integrated into American popular religious culture that many people either don’t notice or don’t think about what it means when a dharma teacher uses a Rumi story, or an Hasidic anecdote. While I enjoy a Rumi story or an Hasidic anecdote as much as the next person, in the context of a dharma talk, where it implies that all religions are ultimately the same (a truly incoherent concept to begin with), I find my teeth grinding.

Let me close with an almost Zen-koan like question for you to ponder: If all religions are ultimately the same, why be a Buddhist?

Bishop Umezu’s Statement Regarding President Trump’s Immigration Ban

Statement on the Executive Order

The Executive Order signed by President Trump on January 27, 2017 has been causing serious concerns and suffering for many people, especially Muslims and immigrants. It has brought back memories of the unlawful mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Even if the intent of the Executive Order is to protect our citizens from terrorist attacks, we strongly oppose any actions that lead to discrimination against certain groups just because of their ethnicity or faith.

We should remind ourselves that all people deserve to be respected and treated equally under the law. Each faith group should encourage and promote peace and harmony based on its beliefs and principles, and help create a better nation that we can be proud of.

Reverend Kodo Umezu,
Bishop, Buddhist Churches of America

Religious Identity is Killing America

update: the degradation of the separation of church and state seems to be increasing under the Trump administration, see NYTimes article on religious conservatives having increased access to the White House here. See especially the notation regarding Jeff Sessions questioning the separation of church and state:

Mr. Trump’s cabinet is filled with deeply religious people who hold conservative views on religion, morality and social policy.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Methodist, has questioned the wisdom of separating church and state.


Several years ago, I was disturbed by a discussion that took place in a national level church meeting. Some very well-intentioned members were advocating for the church to produce official statements on current issues, and to publish a series of pamphlets for distribution to local churches and temples. While I in large part agreed with the specific positions for which they were advocating, what I found disturbing was the logic of saying “Because I’m an x-Buddhist, I hold y-opinion.” Or, as an all-too-easy slide into more active social control, “If you are a good x-Buddhist, then you will hold y-opinion.”

Religious identity has become a corrosive factor in American society. This is a problem that has been on the rise for decades and which we have seen in the recent election, when Christian fundamentalists supported Trump because of the litmus test of abortion. The separation of church and state as we know it today is an artifice, created by such Enlightenment figures as John Locke as part of the development of the modern nation-state. Under our system, religion is held as a private matter, as distinct from politics, which is held as a public matter. Religion is a matter of individual choice, and is held privately. Citizenship is the domain of one’s public identity, and one’s commitments within the social order.

Since the 1960s some Christian theologians have developed the idea of “dominion theology,” which is the teaching that the United States should be governed by Christians following Biblical law. (No wonder the contemporary discourse against Islam often focuses on the questionable belief that Muslims will attempt to institute Shariah law in the US—they project the negative aspect of their own desires for supremacy onto Muslims.) It is this socio-political goal that has led to the placement of one’s religious identity as primary over one’s identity as a citizen. The assertions that religious “liberty” is being infringed by government regulations, such as those that require equal treatment of minorities by private business, depends upon the idea that religious identity is more important than civic identity. (On the rhetorics of religious liberty vs. religious freedom, see Stephanie Russell-Kraft’s essay in Religious Dispatches here.)

Any rhetoric that asserts that a religious identity, whether Christian or Buddhist, Muslim or Hindu, determines one’s social values and that one should act in the public sphere by asserting the primacy of their religious identity over their identity as a citizen undermines the basis of shared civil responsibility. It in fact points toward undermining the protections of religious freedom for all minority religions as a religious majority seeks to impose its religious beliefs on everyone. The different versions of Protestantism that informed the American colonies had to come to some agreement to put up with one another in order to form the United States. (My Quaker ancestors who saw their co-religionists hanged in Boston in 1659, 1660, and 1661, understood what was at stake.)

I am both a citizen and a Buddhist, but I make my civil decisions in relation to my values informed by Buddhist thought along with several other sources of value, not determined by Buddhist thought, much less exclusively determined by some partisan interpretation of Buddhist ideology.

Although the system of separation of church and state as we have come to know it in the United States is an artifice, it is an artifice much preferable to the domination of civil society by religious ideologues willing to impose their beliefs on others.