Friday, March 16, 2012

Creationism, god, and Soyen Shaku

Barbara has more patience than I do, at least when it comes to reading the Huffington Post. They have become so woo-filled-for-the-purpose-of-executing-an-AOL-business-plan that I rarely read them anymore, even when they publish an insufferable creationist. But Barbara offers a pretty good reply here, so I don't have to, really. And I suspect you could go to my former posts about "intelligent" "design" to rebut the pseudo-scientific garbage Lurie is putting out regarding evolution. But I thought I'd get to the bit where the creationist, one Alan Lurie,invokes Soyen Shaku.  Barbara writes:

Rabbi Lurie supports his claim about Buddhism with a quotation from a Rinzai Zen teacher named Soyen Shaku -- "Let me state that Buddhism is not atheistic as the term is ordinarily understood. It has certainly a God, the highest reality and truth, through which and in which this universe exists."
So what about this? Soyen Shaku (1860-1919) became the first Zen teacher to set foot on North America when he traveled here to speak at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, 1893. He returned in 1905 to give some lectures. It appears he did not speak English and relied on translators, one of whom was D.T. Suzuki.
So it's possible something was lost in translation. It's also possible that Soyen Shaku believed he had to say something affirmative about God so that his audience didn't turn against him. Also, Soyen Shaku didn't say anything about a "guiding consciousness."

Now it turns out that one need not speculate too much about all of this, and Barbara's right that Soyen Shaku said nothing about a "guiding consciousness."  But in fact you can read then entire text of Soyen Shaku's Zen for Americans, in which the quote appears here, and it is pretty apparent from its style that D.T. Suzuki did in fact do the translation (or at least someone who was well versed with Suzuki's writing style did).  So I think the credit to Suzuki for translation is accurate, especially because it reveals the erudition of the scholar Suzuki was.  The chapter on "god" in Suzuki's book is here.  And this work went off-copyright decades ago, thankfully.  Suzuki translates Soyen Shaku as:

...Again, Buddhism is not pantheistic in the sense that it identifies the universe with God. On the other hand, the Buddhist God is absolute and transcendent; this world, being merely its manifestation, is necessarily fragmental and imperfect. To define more exactly the Buddhist notion of the highest being, it may be convenient to borrow the term very happily coined by a modern German scholar, "panentheism," according to which God is πᾶν καὶ ἕν (all and one) and more than the totality of existence.
One of the most fundamental beliefs of Buddhism is that all the multitudinous and multifarious phenomena in the universe start from, and have their being in, one reality which itself has "no fixed abode," being above spatial and temporal limitations. However different and separate and irreducible things may appear to the senses, the most profound law of the human mind declares that they are all one in their hidden nature. In this world of relativity, or nânâtva as Buddhists call it, subject and object, thought and nature, are separate and distinct, and as far as our sense-experience goes, there is an impassable chasm between the two which no amount of philosophizing can bridge. But the very constitution of the mind demands a unifying principle which is an indispensable hypothesis for our conception of phenomenality; and this hypothesis is called "the gate of sameness," samatâ, in contradistinction to "the gate of difference," nânâtva; and Buddhism declares that no philosophy or religion is satisfactory which does not recognize these two gates. In some measure the "gate of sameness" may be considered to correspond to "God" and the "gate of difference" to the world of individual existence.
Now, the question is, "How does Buddhism conceive the relation between these two entrances to the abode of Supreme Knowledge (sambodhi)?" And the answer to this decides the Buddhist attitude towards pantheism, theism, atheism, and what not.
To state it more comprehensively, Buddhism recognizes the coexistence and identity of the two principles, sameness and difference...
Thus, according to the proclamation of an enlightened mind, God or the principle of sameness is not transcendent, but immanent in the universe, and we sentient beings are manifesting the divine glory just as much as the lilies of the field. A God who, keeping aloof from his creations, sends down his words of command through specially favored personages, is rejected by Buddhists as against the constitution of human reason. God must be in us, who are made in his likeness. We cannot presume the duality of God and the world. Religion is not to go to God by forsaking the world, but to find him in it. Our faith is to believe in our essential oneness with him, and not in our sensual separateness. "God in us and we in him," must be made the most fundamental faith of all religion.

Suzuki/Soyen gets a bit too anthropomorphic in the succeeding text, and I am pretty certain that this is done to introduce Buddhism to an audience that "knows about" a western god.  Suzuki/Soyen's emphasis improves a bit here:

As I mentioned before, Buddhists do not make use of the term God, which characteristically belongs to Christian terminology. An equivalent most commonly used is Dharmakâya, which word has been explained in one of the sermons herein collected, and it will not be necessary to enter again upon the discussion of its signification. Let us only see what other equivalents have been adopted.
When the Dharmakâya is most concretely conceived it becomes the Buddha, or Tathâgata, or Vairochana, or Amitâbha. Buddha means "the enlightened," and this may be understood to correspond to "God is wisdom." Vairochana is "coming from the sun," and Amitâbha, "infinite light," which reminds us of the Christian notion, "God is light." As to the correct meaning of Tathâgata, Buddhists do not give any definite and satisfactory explanation, and it is usually considered to be the combination of tathâ = "thus" and gata = "gone," but it is difficult to find out how "Thus Gone" came to be an appellation of the supreme being. There are, some scholars, however, who understand gata in the sense of "being in" or "situated in." If this be correct, Tathâgata meaning "being thus," or "being such," can be interpreted in the same sense as Tathâtâ or Bhûtatathâtâ or Tattva, as explained below. But in this case Tathâgata will lose its personification and become a metaphysical term like the others, though it has been so persistently used by Buddhists in connection with the historical Buddha that it always awakens in their minds something more concrete and personal than a mere ontological abstraction.
 It should be understood that this concrete realization of the Dharmakâya only happens when difference and sameness, or co-realized to invent a term - but they are already, sort of.  But as Suzuki notes here, this ontological abstracting is distracting.  But read the whole of Suzuki/Soyen, it's well worth the time.  However, it should be clear that this "god" of Suzuki/Soyen is not a monotheistic creater deity: the identity of sameness/difference, is dependently originated.  The most problematic text in Soyen/Suzuki then is:

We must not, however, suppose that God is no more than the sum-total of individual existences. God exists even when all creations have been destroyed and reduced to a state of chaotic barrenness. God exists eternally, and he will create another universe out of the ruins of this one. To our limited intelligence there may be a beginning and an end of the worlds, but as God surveys them, being and becoming are one selfsame process. To him nothing changes, or, to state it rather paradoxically, he sees no change whatever in all the changes we have around us; all things are absolutely quiet in their eternal cycle of birth and death, growth and decay, combination and disintegration. This universe cannot exist outside of God, but God is more than the totality of individual existences; God is here as well as there, God is not only this but also that. As far as he is manifested in nature and mind, they glorify him, and we can have a glimpse of his image and feel, however imperfectly, his inner life. But it will be a grievous error, let us repeat, to think that he has exhausted his being in the manifestation of this universe, that he is absolutely identical with his creations, and that with the annihilation of the world he vanishes into eternal emptiness.
The best way I can reconcile this text with what I know about Buddhism, though is that Dharmakâya, being co-existent with the difference world, as it were, (or Absolute and Relative), have the relation that Relative disappearing with Absolute remaining is kind of like considering the number A, and dividing A by 0. That is, the concept of whatever the Absolute is without the Relative is pretty much outside the discourse of things in Buddhism, just as A/0 is not within the discourse of finite mathematics.  We can use identifiers to connote a sequence of numbers leading to "A/0" but the term "A/0" itself is not usefully defined in finite mathematics.

To put it another way, this is why I'm a largely atheist Buddhist: the notion of "god" in the sense that Suzuki/Soyen writes here just isn't useful for everyday operations - and within Buddhism the point is the realization and effective execution of the identity of Absolute and Relative for all beings right here.

And so Barbara's right: Suzuki/Soyen's notion of "god" isn't what theists call god.  I think in our day and age the term "god" is not very useful to apply to Buddhism, for at least the reason that using "god" here means that Buddhism can be extracted by theists for their own purposes (and I think Brad Warner's book is going to be similarly problematic, but I hope to enter things there.)

I think it is unfortunate that Suzuki/Soyen did not see that there would be people who would misuse his text here, but that happens.  One other quote from Zen for Americans I might throw in here, where Soyen/Suzuki is replying to a Christian critic, comparing the Christian Jesus Christ to the Buddha:

Nor has Jesus Christ attained to the calmness and dignity of Buddha, for the passion of anger overtook him in the temple, when he drove out with rope in hand those that bargained in the holy place.

How different would Buddha have behaved under similar conditions in the same place! Instead of whipping the evil-doers he would have converted them, for kind words strike deeper than the whip.

The same could be said for other monotheistic characters as well.

I have more useful things with which to blog, namely how the practice of Wing Chun really is developing, at least in myself, improved abilities for dealing with people that I didn't even know I needed. And how does that square with the NY Times discovering that mixed martial arts is the "Yoga for Young Men?" I hope to get to that stuff over the weekend.

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