Friday, June 04, 2010

And yet more on Barbara O'Brien's "Buddhism without Buddhism" & Stephen Batchelor

I seem to be getting a great deal of mileage out of Barbara O'Brien's post here.  It's helping to clarify my views, and I would say,  points of how I would critique "Western Buddhism"

In her latest comment; she mentions Stephen Batchelor, and points to her review of his latest book..  Thanks to her, assuming her review's right, I have learned that I  too have my points of disagreement with him, and thank her  for sparing me the time going though his book.  I would agree, from a "Four Dharma Seals" criterion, that he's stepped out of Buddhism, if that is the criterion for who's a Buddhist and who isn't a Buddhist.  On the other hand, is the "Four Dharma Seals" a gate that admits those who are Buddhists and keeps out those who aren't?

From her latest comment on "Buddhism without Buddhism:"

These days many of us are struggling to maintain the integrity of undiluted Buddhism in the West in spite of the push by people like Stephen Batchelor to take all the power out of it and repackage it as McDharma. Hey, it sells books, right?

 In her hyperlink here on Batchelor she points out:

For example, on page 34 of Confessions Batchelor writes about the 7th-century philosopher Dharmakirti -- "His philosophy gave me an excellent conceptual framework for interpreting my practice of mindfulness as well as the other experiences I had had in Dharamsala." However, "Emptiness of inherent existence, by contrast, is just a conceptual and linguistic abstraction."
"Emptiness of inherent existence" -- shunyata -- is the key to understanding Mahayana Buddhism. Without some appreciation for shunyata, you will misunderstand everything else. Realization of shunyata is the perfection of great wisdom evoked by the Heart Sutra. And it's a "conceptual and intellectual abstraction" only until one learns how to reach beyond the limits of conceptual thought to understand it.

I think her hyperlink to Batchelor is spot on, but I think her implication that he's trying merely to sell books misses the mark.  For whatever reason, "Emptiness of inherent existence, by contrast, is just a conceptual and linguistic abstraction" is no doubt a belief sincerely held by him.  I have no idea now an intelligent, learned man can have that as a sincerely  held belief these days, but, as my grandma would have said, there you are. 

What I mean by that is  to me, everything from the cosmology of the universe to Treblinka and Rwanda and 9/11 to Big Horizon to the prevalence of deconstruction as an explanation for what we communicate manifests the voidness of essence.

But I think Batchelor came to his conclusions after careful thought, just as I would say I came to Buddhism after careful thought.  I just think, (ah, think) that like Newt Gingrich, he has made a rather odd choice of paths, and I would suspect that - as his book title - Batchelor still considers himself a Buddhist.

O'Brien's distinctions here, even the "Four Dharma Seals" criterion, I would say, are somewhat arbitrary insofar as these are things that were decided by people, hence their validity is ultimately negotiable .(See "Zen master" Herb Cohen's books on negotiation as to why this is so.  It is simply amazing to me that when the book linked here came out in the 70s, Cohen, a corporate lawyer of some kind, was using the skills in this book to negotiate deals with clients, using the very underlying ideas of emptiness as Nagarjuna and Sartre and Derrida,  the latter of whom was also in his prime.  Cohen just put these concepts in a very user-friendly mass market paperback, having nothing whatsoever to do with Buddhism or a spiritual path..  But I digress.)
Barbara continues in her comment on "Buddhism without Buddhism:"
When I say “undiluted” Buddhism I don’t mean slavish copying of Asian forms just because it’s traditional. Rather, right now we’re all going through a process of discovering what will best function as upaya in western culture. Buddhism has always gone through some re-tooling as it has spread into new cultures. But what many of us have found is that bowing chanting, rituals — work. The litrugy works. The old commentaries and sutras work. They are transformative. They are a powerful skillful means. So we’re adapting and retooling, but not in a way that dilutes what the dharma ancestors have given us. 

The bowing and chanting etc. are, in my experience, far more powerful in some forms than others, and some "adaptations of the Asian forms for Westerners" are simply dreadful, esthetically speaking, and for whatever reason, much of the impetus for why Asian forms are the way they are is strained out of the Westernization..

The White Plum Asanga has 延 命 十 句 觀 音 經  in their liturgy,  but they completely miss the lineage and provenance of this chant when they do chant it, based on my experiences in more than one of the temples in their lineage.  Even though this chant comes down from the Rinzai line via Hakuin, they have "anti-adpated" it to the West; they've drained it of all its power (literally doing so, I'm certain Hakuin would insist).  But heck, Soto guys like Brad Warner probably don't even chant this, so what am I complaining about? Besides, I would submit that all, all are Buddhists.  But it does trigger the thought in me that perhaps a post explaining how it's done in the Rinzai tradition might be helpful at some point.  Just don't do it that way at 3 in the morning in a house full of non-Buddhists on a clear warm summer night with the windows wide open or you might get arrested for a domestic disturbance...but I digress again.

However, with the world the way it is, with Kentucky Fried Chicken popular in China (go figure!), and Tabasco sauce ubiquitous in Japan, much of the idea that "Buddhism must be adapted for Westerners" seems much like cultural chauvinism.  To each their own on this, but always be on the lookout for the genuine article.  To make a (no-no!) meat eating analogy, it's the difference between real Japanese teppan and Benihana.


SlowZen said...

I Like Brad, but I do not think he is a representation of the Soto Zen Community at all, quite the opposite in fact. As he has said, he is just some guy who likes to sit Zazen.

Most Soto affiliated temples/ Lineages I have visited do rituals and chant, or in the case of the OBC (with whom I maintained a good friendship with the priory down there in Portland [you might check them out sometime and say hi just to see how they roll, they are really nice and don't bite at all] just be careful of the dog.) they do rituals and chant in a kind of Gregorian style, which while not really to my aesthetic tastes, is really quite beautiful.

I totally forgot where I was going with this comment. I think I just wanted to say hi!


Mumon K said...

Hi Jordan,
The Dharma Rain center, to which I've been, is an offshoot of the OBC. They do what I'd call "Gregorian-lite,

I actually agree with your characterization somewhat regarding Brad, but he knows more than he's telling about all the nuts and bolts of this in his persona, that's for sure.

You're right most Soto affiliated temples and lineages have rituals and do chant; it's just that in their lineage the chanting is different than Rinzai which was revived by Hakuin, and in reading the translations of Hakuin I figured out why Rinzai's that way and Soto's not. I would like to someday spend some more time in a Chinese temple to see if the Lin Chi folks are more Soto or Rinai; should be the latter, but Hakuin had a big influence in Japan.

I've been meaning to check out the OBC temple there though.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

you two make a lovely couple............................................................