Nov. 9, 2007

Is Buddhism Too Conservative?

Two people separately sent me a link to this Mark Morford column; Does your religion dance?

In it, Mr. Morford deplores the tendency of religions to become ossified, and he sees signs of this even in Buddhism (he is a Buddhist, by the way)

The idea is everywhere, and not just in the obvious, sour religious outhouses of evangelical Christianity and fundamentalist Islam and rigid Catholicism. It even popped up while I was in conversation with tattooed Buddhist and author of "Dharma Punx" Noah Levine at the Roxie theater during LitQuake '07, he and I chatting about the dangers of dogma and the problem of trying to adhere too closely, too severely, to classical Buddhist rules of behavior, concluding that even Buddhism has its dangers, its limits and its issues and general theological potholes.

Levine, a fairly conservative Theravadan Buddhist, admitted that even he had to seriously adjust some of those old rules to make them tolerable and digestible, particularly in regards to how poorly classical Buddhism valued women and the feminine principle (not to mention other rather impossible dietary and lifestyle restrictions), outmoded ideas that sort of make you wince and cringe and say no no no, Buddha couldn't really have meant that, could he?

I'm not sure what he means by "rather impossible dietary and lifestyle restrictions." True, some Mahayana sects require vegetarianism, but that is hardly "impossible" and Theravada Buddhism imposes no dietary restrictions on lay Buddhists at all. Even for the bhikkhus, the only practical restriction is to eat only between dawn and noon, which believe me, is quite possible. As for "lifestyle restrictions" could he be referring to the fifth precept? Certainly for lay Buddhists at least, there is very little of the regulation of the minutiae of daily life that can be found in, for example, orthodox Judaism.

The issue of gender bias in Buddhism is a more serious one, and the reader can follow Morford's link to an excellent summary by Mettanando Bhikkhu. I would add that in this regard, not unlike some other contentious points, we should separate at least four layers (possibly more) of teaching;

1. The actual Buddha-Vacana, "words of the Buddha." To a traditional Buddhist, Buddha-Vacana is equivalent to truth, because the Buddha was perfectly enlightened. There is no question of the Buddha being wrong, or misled by so-called cultural norms. Some modern Buddhists may differ on this point, but then they are changing the definition of Buddhahood and making the whole exercise rather trivial.

2. The canonical texts. This cannot always with certainty be equated with the first category. Scholarship by and large upholds the integrity of the scriptures pretty well for such ancient texts, but it is almost a given that some corruptions have crept in over the centuries. The passage most often cited as evidence of inherent sexism in Buddhism is the passage in the Vinaya texts concerning the founding of the nun's order. (This is discussed at some length in the article by Mettanando linked to above.) And this passage is also one which many textual scholars cite as a likely late addition, in other words, not Buddha-Vacana at all. (See also the study by Bhikkhu Gnanarama, "A Mission Accomplished.")

It should be noted that in the canonical texts we have ample evidence of the existence of female arahats, some of whom had male students. The spiritual potential of women is never stated to anything other than equal to that of men. Even in the troublesome Vinaya text cited above there is a categorical expression to this effect when Ananda asks the Buddha if women may become arahats and the Buddha answers in the affirmative.

A peripheral issue here; I don't think it is good enough to reject a text because of a feeling that the Buddha could not have said that. Who are we to judge the mind of a Tathagata? But we should be open to valid historical, linguistic and compartive studies.

3. The commentaries. In Theravada Buddhism, the orthodox position is defined by the commentaries. These texts have a complex provenance, which I won't go into here, but they are certainly several centuries later than the Buddha's time. They are best understood as the scholastic expression of mature institutional Buddhism. The commentaries tend to be rather more gender-biased than anything in the canon. (I would include the text portions of the Jatakas in the commentarial layer, and some of those are notoriously misogynist.)

4. The practice of actual living Buddhists at any given time and place. This has varied widely, and has not always been fully in accord with any of the above layers. It is important to remember always that Buddhism is not just a collection of old texts, but a living tradition. And as such it is not immune to the law of anicca (constant change.) In our own day, we are witnessing a great improvement in the role of women in the sangha, both in the West and in some parts of Asia.

Too often criticisms of some aspect of Buddhism fail to take these nuances into account, and take some point from one of the subsidiary layers to make a blanket statement.

This also bears on Mr. Morford's more general concern. Buddhism, or any other mature religion for that matter, is a constant interplay between various layers of teaching. There is the core expression, in our case the Buddha-Vacana, which may not be one hundred percent recoverable, there are all the various attempts to comment and explain the teachings, and there is the actual living expression. And Buddhism has always been in a state of change. A study of Buddhist history demonstrates this. For example, consider the twentieth century rise of the Forest Monk movement in Thailand. This is a good thing, but it can be taken too far, and westerners in particular are usually far too impatient. Useful, creative change must be cautious and guided by the core principles.

So, yes, Mr. Morford, my religion does dance, but it does so adagio.


POSTSCRIPT - (This is another comment from Morford's piece, but not related particularly to any of the above.)

Morford also says this;

A similar idea came up again as I was sharing the stage with the luminous Sera Beak, author of "The Red Book," a funky spirituality tome for fiery youngish women, she and I talking to the small crowd over at the Alameda Literati Festival about the hot ideological tongue baths that simply must take place between the divine feminine (her oeuvre) and the profane masculine (mine? Sort of?), the idea that you cannot have one without the other and they are both, in fact, required.....It's a decidedly Tantric principle
I'm not familiar with Sera Beak's work, and this paragraph may be an over-simplification, but I do object to the idea of a "divine feminine" set against a "profane masculine." In the attempt to give due place to the female, it is not necessary to slip over into a denigration of the male. Both the male and female principles have divine and profane aspects. Nor is the view stated above particularly tantric, which is all about a harmonious balance of the two sides. The tantric expression of transcendence is the lightning flash in the void. The flash alone is meaningless, and the void alone is barren.

Nov. 4, 2007

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

The Brits have an odd sense of fun. Someone tried to blow up Parliament four hundred years ago and it's still an occasion for merriment, bonfires and old-fashioned vandalism. And oh yes, religious bigotry;

Remember, remember, the 5th of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot ;
I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes,
'Twas his intent.
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below.
Poor old England to overthrow.

By God's providence he was catch'd,
With a dark lantern and burning match

Holloa boys, Holloa boys, let the bells ring
Holloa boys, Holloa boys, God save the King!

Hip hip Hoorah !
Hip hip Hoorah !

A penny loaf to feed ol'Pope,
A farthing cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down,
A faggot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar,'
Burn him like a blazing star.

Burn his body from his head,
Then we'll say: ol'Pope is dead.

traditional British Guy Fawkes Day rhyme

And now the whole thing has been given a new cachet because of the movie, V for Vendetta, which was based on a chillingly prophetic graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Wright published in 1989. Here's a relevant page from the text;

Click on the image to see a full-sized version.

Then there's this angle; there has long been the suspicion that the Gunpowder Plot was an inside job, orchestrated by Chief Minister Lord Cecil to discredit the Catholics. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Anyway, happy 5th Brits.