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.