Sectarianism

Exploring Theravāda's connections to other paths - what can we learn from other traditions, religions and philosophies?
meindzai
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Sectarianism

Post by meindzai »

The word sectarianism is getting thrown around a little bit o the "Why I'm not a Theravadan" thread so I thought we could talk about it a bit.

I've been told that it's bad form to introduce a subject with a dictionary definition. But here goes:
World English Dictionary
sectarian (sɛkˈtɛərɪən)

— adj
1. of, belonging or relating to, or characteristic of sects or sectaries
2. adhering to a particular sect, faction, or doctrine
3. narrow-minded, esp as a result of rigid adherence to a particular sect

— n
4. a member of a sect or faction, esp one who is bigoted in his adherence to its doctrines or in his intolerance towards other sects, etc
It seems to me that the word has a range of meanings.

The problem with using the word "sectarian" on a Buddhist board is that we live in culture where the word is frequently used to indicate the more violent extreme that we see in theistic traditions. The thing about sectarianism is that it always looks silly to those who are not well versed in the tradition that has such divisions. For example, since I am pretty ignorant of Islam, I have a hard time understanding what "all the fuss is about." To me it all looks like they are worshipping a deity of some kind and squabbling over rather petty differences about what that means. To them it's clearly not so negligible, and it has lead to huge cultural and political divisions and even physical violence.

To non-Buddhists we our arguments probably look pretty weird. Like really weird. Buddha nature (Mahayana) vs no Buddha nature (Theravada). And I think that our differences manifest in pretty tame ways in comparison to the sectarianism that we are used to hearing about. The problem is that to a lot of us, these differences are not negligible because they actually have a direct influence on the way that we practice and behave.

So the second problem with the word "sectarian" is that it seems to imply that these differences are negligible and we shouldn't argue about them, or shouldn't discuss them. But which differences are a big deal? If differences aren't a big deal, and we shouldn't distinguish between Theravada, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Nicherin Buddhism, etc. then neither should we distinguish ourselves as Buddhists, and ignore the fact that we follow teachings rooted in intention/result (kamma/karma) rather that teachings rooted in the existence of an eternal and omnipotent deity.

And in fact there are people that do take this position, including again, some Buddhists. This is also the position of scholars who focus their attention on "Parallels" in mythology and religion while not quite studying the depths of any one particular tradition. This was also a position I held when I was reading such scholars and before I began to study the Pali Canon in any depth. (I think probably others of us have been there.)

I actually do not have any problems with the first two definitions of sectarianism above, but unfortunately that is not what most people mean when they use the word. They are usually implying something more sinister given by the second two definitions, and further implying that the differences between the sects is something that ought to be ignored and not squabbled about. I completely disagree with this position, and I think that the differences are something we should recognize, but also something we should argue and squabble about because many fruitful discussions can arise from it. I am reasonably certain that this can work in Buddhism without escalating to any of the extremes that we've seen elsewhere.

-M
Jhana4
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Re: Sectarianism

Post by Jhana4 »

I'm an atheist. To me the differences between two or more foreign religions all tend to sound like the bit out of Gulliver's Travels with people going to war over which end to open an egg from. I'm interested in meditation and the useful things I can extract out of Buddhist texts to enrich my life. I don't care whose stack of leaves it comes from.
In reading the scriptures, there are two kinds of mistakes:
One mistake is to cling to the literal text and miss the inner principles.
The second mistake is to recognize the principles but not apply them to your own mind, so that you waste time and just make them into causes of entanglement.
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tiltbillings
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Re: Sectarianism

Post by tiltbillings »

meindzai wrote:The word sectarianism is getting thrown around a little bit o the "Why I'm not a Theravadan" thread so I thought we could talk about it a bit.

I've been told that it's bad form to introduce a subject with a dictionary definition. But here goes:
World English Dictionary
sectarian (sɛkˈtɛərɪən)

3. narrow-minded, esp as a result of rigid adherence to a particular sect

— n
4. a member of a sect or faction, esp one who is bigoted in his adherence to its doctrines or in his intolerance towards other sects, etc
When I use the word sectarian, as I did in the referenced thread, meanings 3 and 4 are exactly what I have in mind. When we get some Mahayanists coming here, telling the poor Theravadins what is wrong with their point of view from the superssessionist point of view of the Mahayana, it is a problem. It has been something I have seen repeatedly on various forums overs years and years. The issue here is not that Theravadins and Mahayanists cannot or should not talk with each other. They should, and they do not have to agree with each other. They can certainly disagree, but there needs to be a willingness to listen to the other's points of view, but it is to the non-listener, supersessionists that I refer to as sectarian; the ones who filter the Theravada through their lens and never mind what the Theravada has to say about itself (because that does not count because we know what the real truth is from our Mahayana point of view). Their interest does not seem to be a genuine exchange of views; rather, the interest of these sort of folks is evangelical. They are here to preach, to witness - all of which is not a basis for dialogue, exchange, mutual understanding and all that sort of happy stuff.
>> Do you see a man wise [enlightened/ariya] in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.<< -- Proverbs 26:12

This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond. -- SN I, 38.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” HPatDH p.723
meindzai
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Re: Sectarianism

Post by meindzai »

Jhana4 wrote:I'm an atheist. To me the differences between two or more foreign religions all tend to sound like the bit out of Gulliver's Travels with people going to war over which end to open an egg from. I'm interested in meditation and the useful things I can extract out of Buddhist texts to enrich my life. I don't care whose stack of leaves it comes from.
In other words, you fall into the group I mentioned earlier of a person with a superficial understanding of the topic who fails to see why there can and needs to be a discussion about the differences.

-M
Jhana4
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Re: Sectarianism

Post by Jhana4 »

You can put it that way if you like. From my view, all of it is religion talking about things that likely don't exist.
In reading the scriptures, there are two kinds of mistakes:
One mistake is to cling to the literal text and miss the inner principles.
The second mistake is to recognize the principles but not apply them to your own mind, so that you waste time and just make them into causes of entanglement.
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tiltbillings
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Re: Sectarianism

Post by tiltbillings »

Jhana4 wrote: talking about things that likely don't exist.
Which is, of course, like saying that this sentence is false.
>> Do you see a man wise [enlightened/ariya] in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.<< -- Proverbs 26:12

This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond. -- SN I, 38.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” HPatDH p.723
Akuma
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Re: Sectarianism

Post by Akuma »

meindzai wrote:The word sectarianism is getting thrown around a little bit o the "Why I'm not a Theravadan" thread so I thought we could talk about it a bit.

It seems to me that the word has a range of meanings.

(...)

To non-Buddhists we our arguments probably look pretty weird. Like really weird. Buddha nature (Mahayana) vs no Buddha nature (Theravada). And I think that our differences manifest in pretty tame ways in comparison to the sectarianism that we are used to hearing about. The problem is that to a lot of us, these differences are not negligible because they actually have a direct influence on the way that we practice and behave.
Well me - as a non-Buddhist - I find it both weird and not weird. On the one hand side its weird to see both sides fight over whose view is true while at the same time both should know - especially as Buddhists - that views are conditioned. There is no absolute truth that would be unconditioned whatsoever. On the other hand side it if you look for reasons is pretty normal, because its not robots fighting over programmed data but humans. Now - as also the buddhist schools all tell us - humans are stained by ignorance and desire. This not only distorts the way they perceive themselves or their surroundings (as having selves etc) but also their own religion as being special, needed, for-them-to-be-enjoyed and (absolutely) true. All connected with the wish to use or abuse the religion to gain happiness which again foots on specific views how this happiness shall be obtained. Other views then might be perceived as "enemy" merely because they seem in a state of incompatibility to their own wishes and goals; or in other words because the other school can either not lead to happiness, is not so special after all, or is not true. In addition especialyl on the side of Mahayana ppl believe that they are to save all living beings. This also gives the whole thing more momentum as now its not only myself that needs to have the "best possible view" but also all others, which I must protect from harm.
The whole discussion / fight I would see in this regard - and that includes later polemics of "Mahayana against Hinayana" and vice versa - as purely human and not rooted in the philosophical systems at all. Williams f.e. pointed out, that searches by scholars for Anti-Mahayana polemics or arguments have not born any fruit at all, which could be, as he writes, because they [the Mahayanis] "were a bit weird but harmless".
So the second problem with the word "sectarian" is that it seems to imply that these differences are negligible and we shouldn't argue about them, or shouldn't discuss them. But which differences are a big deal? If differences aren't a big deal, and we shouldn't distinguish between Theravada, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Nicherin Buddhism, etc. then neither should we distinguish ourselves as Buddhists, and ignore the fact that we follow teachings rooted in intention/result (kamma/karma) rather that teachings rooted in the existence of an eternal and omnipotent deity.
This also an interesting aspect but I am unsure if "believers" can really go into this at all. It seems to me from what I've seen with Buddhists so far that once they decide for a specific lineage / school they become automatically attached to that. They are attached to the hope of sudden enlightenment, of the unfailability of their teachers, of the originality of their teachings. All in all most seem kind of incapable of stepping back a bit and looking at all of this with objective distance; distance that would be needed to really check which kinds of aspects of other schools (which not necessarily have to be later schools) might even work better than the ones one has in one's own - not to speak of the "heresy" to fall from orthodoxy / orthopraxy and suddenly declaring that the information in lets say the Pali Canon is incomplete.
On the other hand side since most Buddhists think his is the best school and the most quickest school why should you bother anyways? You have the best already, why even care about "the others"?
PeterB
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Re: Sectarianism

Post by PeterB »

The Theravada does not teach the possibilty of " sudden enlightenment ". Neither does it accept the concept of infallable teachers.
Neither does it accept the possibilty of a "quicker" school.

The answer to your final question is that I dont.
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Lazy_eye
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Re: Sectarianism

Post by Lazy_eye »

People sometimes draw a distinction between "descriptive" and "prescriptive" forms of discourse -- in the first, we are trying to say what is there, with an eye to critical examination, and in the second we are trying to say how things should be, usually with the goal of convincing others.

Though easier said than done, I think when we are having a cross-sectarian discussion -- or seeking to recognize and understand differences -- it can be helpful to aim for the first and steer clear of the second. Provided we aren't just looking for an echo chamber or picking a fight, that is.

Of course, this post is a prescriptive statement...! :)
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tobes
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Re: Sectarianism

Post by tobes »

tiltbillings wrote:When I use the word sectarian, as I did in the referenced thread, meanings 3 and 4 are exactly what I have in mind. When we get some Mahayanists coming here, telling the poor Theravadins what is wrong with their point of view from the superssessionist point of view of the Mahayana, it is a problem. It has been something I have seen repeatedly on various forums overs years and years. The issue here is not that Theravadins and Mahayanists cannot or should not talk with each other. They should, and they do not have to agree with each other. They can certainly disagree, but there needs to be a willingness to listen to the other's points of view, but it is to the non-listener, supersessionists that I refer to as sectarian; the ones who filter the Theravada through their lens and never mind what the Theravada has to say about itself (because that does not count because we know what the real truth is from our Mahayana point of view). Their interest does not seem to be a genuine exchange of views; rather, the interest of these sort of folks is evangelical. They are here to preach, to witness - all of which is not a basis for dialogue, exchange, mutual understanding and all that sort of happy stuff.

I agree with this. Although I think it goes the other way too (i.e. Theravadins telling Mahayanists that they're not practicing the real Buddhism etc).

Sectarianism in the Buddhist context for me implies the reification of difference, generally based on the subjective identification with one group at the exclusion of another.

This does mean that there is not difference, or that we cannot talk about differences. Of course there are many interesting distinctions, most of which should prove to be quite fruitful to investigate and consider.

It's more that when sectarianism occurs, the differences become so reified that they tend to exclude all the manifest resonances and continuties. I think that when that happens it is quite perverse; invariably it occurs without an adequate philological, philosophical or historical basis for comparison.

:anjali:
Nyana
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Re: Sectarianism

Post by Nyana »

tobes wrote:It's more that when sectarianism occurs, the differences become so reified that they tend to exclude all the manifest resonances and continuties. I think that when that happens it is quite perverse; invariably it occurs without an adequate philological, philosophical or historical basis for comparison.
Indeed. Of course, when individuals have sufficient understanding of the philological, philosophical and historical basis for comparison we have informative dialogues and not the pointless and uninformed diatribes which so often seem to occur when this understanding is lacking.

All the best,

Geoff
meindzai
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Re: Sectarianism

Post by meindzai »

Akuma wrote:
This also an interesting aspect but I am unsure if "believers" can really go into this at all. It seems to me from what I've seen with Buddhists so far that once they decide for a specific lineage / school they become automatically attached to that. They are attached to the hope of sudden enlightenment, of the unfailability of their teachers, of the originality of their teachings. All in all most seem kind of incapable of stepping back a bit and looking at all of this with objective distance; distance that would be needed to really check which kinds of aspects of other schools (which not necessarily have to be later schools) might even work better than the ones one has in one's own - not to speak of the "heresy" to fall from orthodoxy / orthopraxy and suddenly declaring that the information in lets say the Pali Canon is incomplete.
On the other hand side since most Buddhists think his is the best school and the most quickest school why should you bother anyways? You have the best already, why even care about "the others"?
I haven't found the case you've mentioned to be very true at all. I bet there isn't a Theravadan here who doesn't own a Zen book or something of Mahayana, and vice versa. Some of us are even straddling schools and not necessarily committed to any one. I spent a month in residency at a Zen monastery in May of last year (my "bachelor party") , then took my 5 precepts from a Theravada monk the day of my wedding in August. My grounding in Theravada makes me especially choosy in which Zen places I will visit, and makes me more ready to spot the phonies. I certainly don't think that Theravada is the best and only school, or that Zen is the quickest. I recognize how both schools feed certain parts of my spiritual life while at the same time recognizing that there are some major differences that need to be acknowledged. I use myself as an example but I think there are a lot of this in this position. I don't think that the "sectarian friction" we see on the internet is anything representing what goes on out there in meat-world.

-M
PeterB
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Re: Sectarianism

Post by PeterB »

I am not dogging you meindzi, but there are not many people posting at the moment.... :anjali: :smile:


Its true, the meat world is much more free of such squabbles, there are several possible reasons for this imo.
One is that the anonymity of the cyber world is disinhibiting, and another is that in the meat world the only meetings that happen regularly between followers of different schools are formal and regulated.
Behind the scenes things are not quite so collegiate and fraternal. Which we can either be in denial about or remain unbothered by. or mind terribly.
meindzai
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Re: Sectarianism

Post by meindzai »

PeterB wrote:I am not dogging you meindzi, but there are not many people posting at the moment.... :anjali: :smile:
I hadn't noticed, so I'll hold off on the restraining order for now. :)

Its true, the meat world is much more free of such squabbles, there are several possible reasons for this imo.
One is that the anonymity of the cyber world is disinhibiting, and another is that in the meat world the only meetings that happen regularly between followers of different schools are formal and regulated.
Behind the scenes things are not quite so collegiate and fraternal. Which we can either be in denial about or remain unbothered by. or mind terribly.
I'm not sure where "behind the scenes" is, to be honest. I tend to challenge teachers on this stuff and so far I've been very impressed with the attitudes I've encountered from the ones who are genuine practitioners. The last Zen teacher I had face to face teaching with was very well versed in Theravada. We talked about it a lot in our Dokusans, and then it started showing up in his talks over the month I was there. I found his perspective to be pretty healthy, acknowledging both the differences and the similarities, without at the same time pretending it was any sort of hug-fest.

What I've found "out there" has been more of a "to each his own" attitude, whereas the internet attitude has more of the sectarian "you should be doing it this way" ring to it.

-M
PeterB
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Re: Sectarianism

Post by PeterB »

I think each to his own is perfectly fine...
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