Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

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Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

Postby retrofuturist » Tue Oct 27, 2009 4:49 am

Greetings,

I just came across the following, which is a very interesting read... yet, bound to be controversial (hence its inclusion in the Dhammic Free For All).

It's Time - Ajahn Sujato

A call to arms for a reasoned and critical perspective on Buddhism.

Link: http://santipada.googlepages.com/it%27stime

The first paragraph gives you a good idea of what it is about.

It’s time. We need a new paradigm. Buddhism is suffering from schizophrenia; there is a split in consciousness between the historical and the mythic conceptions of the origin of the Dhamma. For 2500 years Buddhism has been constantly changing, adapting, evolving; yet the myths of the schools insist that the Dhamma remains the same. All existing schools of Buddhism justify their idiosyncratic doctrines mythologically; this is what all religions do. Thus the Theravada insists that the Abhidhamma was taught by the Buddha in Tavatimsa heaven during his seventh rains retreat. The Mahayana claims that the Mahayana sutras were written down in the time of the Buddha, preserved in the dragon world under the sea, then retreived by Nagarjuna 500 years later. Zen claims authority from an esoteric oral transmission outside the scriptures descended from Maha Kassapa, symbolized by the smile of Maha Kassapa when the Buddha held up a lotus. All of these are myths, and do not deserve serious consideration as explanations of historical truth. Their purpose, as myths, is not to elucidate facts, but to authorize religious convictions.


Any thoughts on Ajahn Sujato's thoughts, arguments and conclusions?

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

Postby mikenz66 » Tue Oct 27, 2009 4:54 am

Hi Retro,

In my view, it depends on whether your approach is "historical" or "religious". If it is "religious" (i.e. your aim is the liberation taught by the Buddha then history may not be the best way to approach it).

Mike

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Re: Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

Postby jcsuperstar » Tue Oct 27, 2009 4:59 am

i like sujato, and i dont see anything wrong with that quote you posted, but the big question is , so now what do you want to do about it?
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Re: Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

Postby zavk » Tue Oct 27, 2009 5:22 am

Hi Retro

As it turns out, there is an emerging mode of inquiry within the academy that has been described as Buddhist critical-constructive reflection. This is a mode of inquiry that is carried out by religiously committed Buddhists who, adopting the critical, historical and philosophical methods of the academy, aim to explicate the truth of Buddhist doctrine and practice in an open and public manner.

Buddhist critical-constructive critics are academics who are also Buddhist practitioners. They do not simply aim to study Buddhism in a detached manner but are also committed to making Buddhist doctrine and practice relevant to contemporary audiences and to using Buddhist resources to address modern issues.

José Ignacio Cabezón (a Mahayanist) has described this mode of inquiry as:

‘a form of normative discourse that situates itself explicitly and self-consciously within the Buddhist tradition, and that, abiding by accepted scholarly norms, critically plumbs the tradition with a view to making relevant in a public and open fashion the meaning and truth of Buddhist doctrine and practice.’


There is also a recent article by John Makransky in the Journal of Global Buddhism that explicates the idea of Buddhist critical-constructive reflection. The article touches on the issues raised by Ajahn Sujato. See http://www.globalbuddhism.org/9/Makransky08.pdf

--------------------

To respond to your OP.

Yes, I think it is very important to exercise a kind of historical reflexivity when engaging with Buddhism. All those traditions that Ajahn Sujato mentions have fashioned various ahistorical explanations to establish a kind of 'direct' lineage to the Buddha. But this is something that modern Buddhists do too. We modern Buddhists often slip into a kind of ahistoricism ourselves when we fail to recognise the historically and culturally specific methods of modern inquiry, and claim that we have discovered the 'right' way for engaging with the Dhamma--as if we have a kind of unmediated, 'direct' access to the teachings of the Buddha. This ahistoricism is a bad habit that has occurred throughout the history of Buddhism and that still occurs today.

As I see it, these 'myths' may not be rooted in historical truth, but they are nevertheless products of history. They emerge out of the very real historical efforts of people in different cultures and time who have attempted to make the Dhamma relevant to their circumstances.

From our contemporary perspective and with our modern modes of historically-sensitive inquiry, we can learn much about our own efforts to translate Buddhism to contemporary circumstances by attending to these 'myths' skillfully. Learning about how other people and cultures have attempted to negotiate the Dhamma in different contexts can help us better negotiate the Dhamma in our current contexts.

'Myths' are not inherently bad. 'Myths' do not need to be 'true' for them to work. Think of the many stories and movies that we have heard/read/seen that have inspired us.... how many of them are 'factual'? Do they need to be 'factual' to be inspiring, to open up the space for us to seek 'truth'?

The article by John Makransky is well worth a read.

EDIT: While I do not think that there is anything wrong with 'myth', I just want to add that I agree with Ajahn Sujato that it is problematic when they are used to reinforce religious authoritarianism.
Last edited by zavk on Tue Oct 27, 2009 5:48 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

Postby pink_trike » Tue Oct 27, 2009 5:34 am

What a breathe of fresh air. It's way past the time to dissolve the arbitrary wall between those trained to read the texts from within the institution of Buddhism and those trained to read them within secular research institutions - and in addition, it's time to examine the texts in light of what we now know about the patterns and architecture of myth and oral tradition that are consistent among nearly all premodern cultures.

We live in the most amazing time...technology is erasing borders between disciplines. For example, mythology is being used to confirm findings in geology and climate, and the geological record is being used to confirm aspects of mythology. Sacred cows are crumbling in all fields of research and belief...and out of the rubble is emerging clarity. Why not hold Buddhism up to the light of research and scholarship also...there will be things that need to be let go of, but isn't that consistent with the Dharma? There may be bitter pills to take, but every other religion and discipline is having to swallow hard so let's go!
Last edited by pink_trike on Tue Oct 27, 2009 6:41 am, edited 8 times in total.
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Re: Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

Postby Dugu » Tue Oct 27, 2009 5:38 am

I agree with Ajahn Sujato. That's why I only study the Sutta Pitaka.

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Re: Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

Postby retrofuturist » Tue Oct 27, 2009 5:49 am

Greetings zavk,

zavk wrote:The article by John Makransky is well worth a read.


I read the first half... skimmed the second half... and agree with your assessment.

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


Dharma Wheel (Mahayana / Vajrayana forum) -- Open flower ~ Open book (blog)

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Re: Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

Postby Jechbi » Tue Oct 27, 2009 5:52 am

Thanks for the link, zavk. Very worthwhile article, though I can see how it might rub some Mahayana followers the wrong way, basically coming right out and saying the emperor has no clothes. Best thought of the thread:
zavk wrote:We modern Buddhists often slip into a kind of ahistoricism ourselves when we fail to recognise the historically and culturally specific methods of modern inquiry, and claim that we have discovered the 'right' way for engaging with the Dhamma. This ahistoricism is a bad habit that has occurred throughout the history of Buddhism and that still occurs today.

:clap:
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But never soddens what is open;
Uncover, then, what is concealed,
Lest it be soddened by the rain.

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Re: Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

Postby Ben » Tue Oct 27, 2009 5:53 am

Hi Dugu
I am reading an inference in your post which suggests you dismiss the Abhidhamma. My apologies if i have assumed wrong.
But if you are dismissing the Abhidhamma based on its contested provenance, then I think it would be a mistake.
metta

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Re: Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

Postby mikenz66 » Tue Oct 27, 2009 5:57 am

zavk wrote: We modern Buddhists often slip into a kind of ahistoricism ourselves when we fail to recognise the historically and culturally specific methods of modern inquiry, and claim that we have discovered the 'right' way for engaging with the Dhamma--as if we have a kind of unmediated, 'direct' access to the teachings of the Buddha.

Yes, this is the sort of thing I sometimes feel a little nervous about...

Scholarship and discernment is one thing. But dismissing the whole historical tradition and trying to "only read Suttas" seems to me an odd approach. Surely the Ahidhamma and ancient commentaries should at least be examined for their insights, not simply dismissed as inferior to modern commentators.

Mike

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Re: Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

Postby zavk » Tue Oct 27, 2009 6:07 am

Jechbi wrote:Thanks for the link, zavk. Very worthwhile article, though I can see how it might rub some Mahayana followers the wrong way, basically coming right out and saying the emperor has no clothes. Best thought of the thread:
zavk wrote:We modern Buddhists often slip into a kind of ahistoricism ourselves when we fail to recognise the historically and culturally specific methods of modern inquiry, and claim that we have discovered the 'right' way for engaging with the Dhamma. This ahistoricism is a bad habit that has occurred throughout the history of Buddhism and that still occurs today.

:clap:


I don't know if it is clear in the article but the author is a long time Mahayana practitioner. I really applaud his arguments about the need for critical self-reflexivity, and I think this applies to all of us, irregardless of the tradition we identify with.
With metta,
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Re: Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

Postby pink_trike » Tue Oct 27, 2009 6:13 am

There was, therefore, no question of the myths being taken as literal, objective truth – the tellers of the stories would not have understood what that meant. The myths were projections of the people’s fears, desires, hopes, joys, and anguishes into the world outside.


This, imo, shows a large misunderstanding regarding how myths were carefully constructed to include a mythic surface layer that reflected literal objective truths stored in discreet folders and underlays within the myth...the mythic layer being a _precise_ symbolic representation of actual events and theoretical conclusions, but told in a way that would most efficiently imprint on the collective consciousness for passage forward into future generations over vast stretches of time. This architectural function begins to fail at some point along the trajectory forward as people begin to forget that there is an underlay and the surface becomes a distorted broken version of the original message as the symbolic begins to be taken as literal truth.
Vision is Mind
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Union is Great Bliss

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Re: Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

Postby Dugu » Tue Oct 27, 2009 6:19 am

mikenz66 wrote:
zavk wrote: We modern Buddhists often slip into a kind of ahistoricism ourselves when we fail to recognise the historically and culturally specific methods of modern inquiry, and claim that we have discovered the 'right' way for engaging with the Dhamma--as if we have a kind of unmediated, 'direct' access to the teachings of the Buddha.

Yes, this is the sort of thing I sometimes feel a little nervous about...

Scholarship and discernment is one thing. But dismissing the whole historical tradition and trying to "only read Suttas" seems to me an odd approach. Surely the Ahidhamma and ancient commentaries should at least be examined for their insights, not simply dismissed as inferior to modern commentators.

Mike


Not odd at all, considering in the first Council, Vinaya and Sutta Pitaka were the only two text recognized. Abhidhamma was added much later. Not to mentioned we don't need to learn everything. I believe the Sutta Pitaka already has everything you need to lead a holy life and reach Enlightenment. I'm not against others wanting to explore deeper into Abhidhamma... I might tackle that one of these days as well but first I will only study the Suttas so I have a good foundation to built on.

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Re: Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

Postby Individual » Tue Oct 27, 2009 7:23 am

retrofuturist wrote:Greetings,

I just came across the following, which is a very interesting read... yet, bound to be controversial (hence its inclusion in the Dhammic Free For All).

It's Time - Ajahn Sujato

A call to arms for a reasoned and critical perspective on Buddhism.

Link: http://santipada.googlepages.com/it%27stime

The first paragraph gives you a good idea of what it is about.

It’s time. We need a new paradigm. Buddhism is suffering from schizophrenia; there is a split in consciousness between the historical and the mythic conceptions of the origin of the Dhamma. For 2500 years Buddhism has been constantly changing, adapting, evolving; yet the myths of the schools insist that the Dhamma remains the same. All existing schools of Buddhism justify their idiosyncratic doctrines mythologically; this is what all religions do. Thus the Theravada insists that the Abhidhamma was taught by the Buddha in Tavatimsa heaven during his seventh rains retreat. The Mahayana claims that the Mahayana sutras were written down in the time of the Buddha, preserved in the dragon world under the sea, then retreived by Nagarjuna 500 years later. Zen claims authority from an esoteric oral transmission outside the scriptures descended from Maha Kassapa, symbolized by the smile of Maha Kassapa when the Buddha held up a lotus. All of these are myths, and do not deserve serious consideration as explanations of historical truth. Their purpose, as myths, is not to elucidate facts, but to authorize religious convictions.


Any thoughts on Ajahn Sujato's thoughts, arguments and conclusions?

Metta,
Retro. :)

I find it hard to make Buddhism "reasoned" while still called it "Buddhism". If you remove the religious myths, Buddhism ceases to be distinguished from secular Humanism. That's not a bad thing, but many people treasure the sense of identity that these myths bring, and I think that's largely why they cling to them. Just as with myths outside of Buddhism, who are we to challenge such a thing? It's confusing to me to oppose such myths on the one hand, but then still abide by the label "Buddhism". Why even bother using that label and let anybody use the word "Buddhism" for whatever they like. Wiser men don't argue over semantics (and wiser women too!).
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Re: Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

Postby pink_trike » Tue Oct 27, 2009 7:54 am

Individual wrote:
retrofuturist wrote:Greetings,

I just came across the following, which is a very interesting read... yet, bound to be controversial (hence its inclusion in the Dhammic Free For All).

It's Time - Ajahn Sujato

A call to arms for a reasoned and critical perspective on Buddhism.

Link: http://santipada.googlepages.com/it%27stime

The first paragraph gives you a good idea of what it is about.

It’s time. We need a new paradigm. Buddhism is suffering from schizophrenia; there is a split in consciousness between the historical and the mythic conceptions of the origin of the Dhamma. For 2500 years Buddhism has been constantly changing, adapting, evolving; yet the myths of the schools insist that the Dhamma remains the same. All existing schools of Buddhism justify their idiosyncratic doctrines mythologically; this is what all religions do. Thus the Theravada insists that the Abhidhamma was taught by the Buddha in Tavatimsa heaven during his seventh rains retreat. The Mahayana claims that the Mahayana sutras were written down in the time of the Buddha, preserved in the dragon world under the sea, then retreived by Nagarjuna 500 years later. Zen claims authority from an esoteric oral transmission outside the scriptures descended from Maha Kassapa, symbolized by the smile of Maha Kassapa when the Buddha held up a lotus. All of these are myths, and do not deserve serious consideration as explanations of historical truth. Their purpose, as myths, is not to elucidate facts, but to authorize religious convictions.


Any thoughts on Ajahn Sujato's thoughts, arguments and conclusions?

Metta,
Retro. :)

I find it hard to make Buddhism "reasoned" while still called it "Buddhism". If you remove the religious myths, Buddhism ceases to be distinguished from secular Humanism. That's not a bad thing, but many people treasure the sense of identity that these myths bring, and I think that's largely why they cling to them. Just as with myths outside of Buddhism, who are we to challenge such a thing? It's confusing to me to oppose such myths on the one hand, but then still abide by the label "Buddhism". Why even bother using that label and let anybody use the word "Buddhism" for whatever they like. Wiser men don't argue over semantics (and wiser women too!).

In one sense the debate boils down to "who owns Buddhism?"...those who believe that the mythical layer is the true Buddhism, or those who believe that the non-mythical underlay is the true Dharma? Take a very simple example: Buddhism is a guide to leading a holy life and becoming enlightened vs. the Dharma (The Way, The Law, The Truth, The Way Things Are) is how to wake up and lead a whole (integral) life. One is more reflective of the mythical level and one is more reflective of the non-mythical underlay...even though they are both looking at the same pineapple. "Holy" is just a frothier version of "whole".

Both teams think their perception is correct and think the other team is misguided. Neither grasp that the oral tradition was carefully constructed to carry both perceptions, as were nearly all premodern oral traditions. In the distant past, the underlay was a well-kept secret known only to the learned...in our modern age the secret is getting out and it's making the overlay devotees nervous. Just as God is dead in the Western world, religion is dying in the Eastern world...both deaths are making room for the underlay that lies buried in the myths of cultures from around the world to re-emerge. We're in an era of magnified transition...the snake is shaking off it's skin to reveal the essence...again. It's time to shake with it.
Vision is Mind
Mind is Empty
Emptiness is Clear Light
Clear Light is Union
Union is Great Bliss

- Dawa Gyaltsen

---

Disclaimer: I'm a non-religious practitioner of Theravada, Mahayana/Vajrayana, and Tibetan Bon Dzogchen mind-training.

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Re: Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

Postby Dan74 » Tue Oct 27, 2009 8:13 am

It sounds sensible enough.

I must say that in my experience all the myths have been simply irrelevant. My teacher has never appealed to them, nor used them as any sort of justification for Zen. Rather all the teachings have been concerned with practice (sila, samadhi, pana in everyday life, workings of the mind and its habitual tendencies, the Unconditioned, etc). I do not recall her use the Mahakasyapa story more than once and that was to illustrate a point rather than provide some sort of lineage backing.

Similarly with reading other Zen teachers - I haven't seen them make much mileage out of the myths at all.

As for Mahayana justification of its sutras, I think that for quite a while the common story was that they were not spoken by the historical Buddha in his physical emanation as Siddhartha Gotama anyway. In simple terms, realized masters "channeled" Buddhahood that is not separate nor ultimately different from Gotama. Besides Mahayana sutras are likely composite documents with "forewords" often added later.

So I am all for being brutally honest about the history and all that, but hopefully not to get hung up on it. That would be a waste of energy that is best spent on practice.

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Re: Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

Postby mikenz66 » Tue Oct 27, 2009 9:31 am

Hi Dugu,
Dugu wrote: I believe the Sutta Pitaka already has everything you need to lead a holy life and reach Enlightenment.

Yes, but I was also talking about the Commentary to those Suttas. To be consistent I presume you ignore the commentary of Ajahn Sujato and other modern teachers?

Metta
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Re: Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

Postby Paññāsikhara » Tue Oct 27, 2009 9:55 am

mikenz66 wrote:Hi Dugu,
Dugu wrote: I believe the Sutta Pitaka already has everything you need to lead a holy life and reach Enlightenment.

Yes, but I was also talking about the Commentary to those Suttas. To be consistent I presume you ignore the commentary of Ajahn Sujato and other modern teachers?

Metta
Mike


Not to mention that these are also translations - there is a saying, "translation is interpretation". Very seldom do two words in two languages correspond identically in semantic field, let alone when the two languages are Pali and English.
And those translations are made through the help of the commentaries, and also dictionaries based a lot upon the commentaries, compiled by modern writers.
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Re: Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

Postby tiltbillings » Tue Oct 27, 2009 10:26 am

Paññāsikhara wrote:
mikenz66 wrote:Hi Dugu,
Dugu wrote: I believe the Sutta Pitaka already has everything you need to lead a holy life and reach Enlightenment.

Yes, but I was also talking about the Commentary to those Suttas. To be consistent I presume you ignore the commentary of Ajahn Sujato and other modern teachers?

Metta
Mike


Not to mention that these are also translations - there is a saying, "translation is interpretation". Very seldom do two words in two languages correspond identically in semantic field, let alone when the two languages are Pali and English.
And those translations are made through the help of the commentaries, and also dictionaries based a lot upon the commentaries, compiled by modern writers.


It is commentaries all around. Can't get away from them.
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People live in one another’s shelter.

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Re: Call to arms for reasoned & critical perspective on Buddhism

Postby PeterB » Tue Oct 27, 2009 2:06 pm

I think to some extent the apparent split between myth and history is not altogether relevant when talking about a spritual tradition. Something can be true without being historical, just as something can be historical but not directly shed light on what is true. Poetry is true, but does not correspond with scientific fact necessarily. A poetic description of a sunset is no less true than an analysis of the refraction of light through water droplets and atmospheric particles..
My own questioning of the Mahayana is not due to its relability as history or myth. Its to do with whether its myths tell the same story as does the Theravada.
My faith in the Theravada stems from it's narrative about what it is to be a human being whose existence is coloured by Dukkha, and its narrative of the way to be free of Dukkha by clear and practical means.
Some of the commentaries are poetic, some of them are analogous to science. Some are both. Instead of junking the commentaries I think which should learn to read them aright.


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