Institute for Sociology and the History of Ideas

Discussion: Buddhism

Professor of Buddhist Studies debunks the myth that Eastern religions are the champions of contemplative practices, that privilege revealed mystical experience over the observance of scripture and ritual, as a means to attain spiritual authority. Rather these Eastern practices are thoroughly modern and are based on nineteenth-century Western theologian’s defenses of the religious realm as intensely private, and therefore free from the demands of scientific proof in an age of industrialization. Eastern intellectuals educated in the Christian missionary schools were exposed to such theological ideas and used them to marshal defenses against colonialism. Both Hindu nationalists, inspired by the ideas of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan in India, and Zen Buddhist nationalists inspired by D.T. Suzuki in Japan, aimed to redefine the East as more spiritually advanced, though technologically behind the West, to instill a sense of national pride and spiritual superiority in their followers. This would appear to undermine New Age perspectives that posit "ancient" Eastern spiritual practices as the true pathway to mystical enlightenment. In fact, argues the author, these contemplative practices are a product of modernity and were popularized by Eastern intellectuals educated in the Western, Christian theological tradition, for political purposes.

But remember, the current argument is that the only difference between the East and the West is the esotericism in the West went underground, especially with the rise of rationalism, which took dogmatic proportions and has led to modern beliefs in scientism, complete materialistic reductionism. On the otherwise, while rationalism was present in the East, even before Western colonialization (something Western-centric scholars would not like to admit) the majority worldview of the East was not rationalism (whether in a Wilberian since you call it "prerational" or "transrational") and thus there was no majority rejection of mysticism, whether understood or not. The lack of a majority rejection could be seen as implicit support, and at times there has apparently been mass approval and explicit support of mystical quests and ideas, again whether understood or not. 

While opinions in Europe and North America tend to view Buddhism as some sort of unified religion the origins and spreading of Buddhism tell a different story.

Whereas initially Buddhism remained confined to northern India for two hundred years it began to spread under King Asoka’s power (274–232 BC).

Over time, Buddhism developed into several distinct branches. Theravada Buddhism, the most conservative school, is prominent in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. Mahayana Buddhism, the more liberal, is practiced in East Asian and South Asian countries such as China and India. Vajrayana Buddhism is most prevalent in Tibet and other Himalayan countries.

In India, Buddhism began to wane in the sixth and seventh centuries CE when devotional Hinduism replaced Buddhism in the south and Hephthalite Huns invaded and sacked monasteries in the north. By the thirteenth century, repeated invasions by the Turks ensured that Buddhism had virtually disappeared. By this time, however, Buddhism was flourishing in many other parts of Asia.

As early as the first century CE, Buddhist monks made their way over the “Silk Road” through Central Asia to China. By the seventh century, Buddhism had made a significant impact in China, interacting with Confucian and Daoist cultures and ideas.

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It is also here that we see one of the examples of the syncretic nature of Buddhism. Thus were in the beginning Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism vied with one another for the hearts and minds of the populace, over time they began to blend together.

In the eighth century, Buddhism, shaped by the Tantric traditions of northeast India, spread to the high mountain plateau of Tibet. There, in interaction with the indigenous Bon religion, and with forms of Buddhism that had traveled to Tibet from East Asia, a distinctive and vibrant form of Mahayana Buddhism emerged known as Vajrayana, the “Diamond Vehicle.”

These streams of Buddhism are differentiated to some extent by their interpretations of the Buddha and the Buddha’s teachings, the scriptures they hold in special reverence, and the variety of cultural expressions they lend to Buddhist life and practice. It would be a mistake, however, to identify these streams of tradition too rigidly with either specific ideas or specific geographical areas.

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Western ideas also influenced other forms of syncretism. Thus, for example, the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth was read in terms of contemporary biological insights: humans are but one of many life-forms, they are not biologically privileged or different, as certain religious creation myths suggest, but are instead part of a more extensive web of life. Buddhist cosmologies, according to which there are multiple “world-systems” that are effectively similar to our own, were read in terms of the findings of modern astronomy, which posited the existence of innumerable planets orbiting innumerable stars throughout the universe. Buddhist ontological theories based on the idea that all phenomena are constituted of tiny, invisible particles were read as anticipating and according to the worldview of contemporary physics and chemistry.

For their part, Asian Buddhist apologists who were subject to polemical arguments from Western Christians and from Asian modernists who embraced the new scientific theories and their related technologies and applications tended to resist those pressures by reinterpreting Buddhist teachings and worldviews according to the latest findings of science. Charges that Buddhism was unscientific, backward superstition were countered by Buddhist leaders who argued that Buddhism, properly understood, was a scientific tradition.

But with current book titles like "No Self, No Problem: How Neuropsychology Is Catching Up to Buddhism" (2019) it is the emerging field of psychology that Buddhism is believed to most closely resemble.


Enter the era of Nationalism and Zen Buddhism

Similarly the combination of Westerners seeking a religious tradition that accorded with their worldviews and values and of Asian Buddhists promoting a vision of Buddhism that was in line with those values resulted in the widespread perception that Buddhism is, among other things, a religious tradition that is essentially dedicated to peace and nonviolence. Whereby I have detailed how Buddhism very well lends itself to Nationalism and even war.

Another example of this is the Venerable Master Taixu (1890-1947) after the military conflict between Chinese and Japanese troops in Jinan in 1928, Taixu became a critic of Japanese Buddhists who, according to him, had detracted from the true Buddhist path by conniving with and supporting Japanese aggression against China, yet he spared no effort to persuade them against Japanese imperialistic policy. Meanwhile, he urged Chinese Buddhists to prepare themselves for and participate in resisting Japanese invasion, and justified his call as the way to revive Buddhism.

Following see also Taixu’s letter to Adolf Hitler:

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According to Buddhists scripture, only Buddhists count as human beings and there is no moral or karmic issue with killing non-Buddhists. Here, as in other Buddhist sources, the prohibition against violence is superseded by the imperative to disseminate and preserve Buddhism.

Beyond such rhetorical support for violence and warfare, there are also multiple examples of fighting Buddhist monks. The Buddhist monks of Shaolin Monastery are perhaps the most well-known examples of warrior monks. Depicted in numerous kung-fu movies, the Buddhist monks of Shaolin Monastery are renowned for their skill in the martial arts. Historically, the monks of Shaolin Monastery came to prominence in the seventh century when they fought on behalf of the Chinese emperor to defeat Wang Shichong (567–621), a claimant to the Chinese throne who was defeated by the founders of the Tang Dynasty (618–907). The fighting Buddhist monks of Shaolin are not an anomaly. The sōhei or “warrior monks” of Japan were effectively monastic troops that fought on behalf of their resident monasteries against other warrior monks. They also fought in the Genpei War (1180–1185), a civil war that resulted in the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate in Japan. In the massive Buddhist monasteries of traditional Tibet, monks called dap dop served as a police force and militia. The dap dop were recognized as monastic Buddhists, though they carried weapons and did not observe standard monastic discipline. Perhaps the most striking example of Buddhist involvement in violence and warfare is the role of the Japanese Buddhist establishment in the war efforts of imperial Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Buddhist monks in Japan supported the wars by providing justification for the invasion of East Asian nations and the slaughter of their people as an expression of benevolence and compassion, officers were trained in Zen Buddhist establishments in order to make them effective soldiers, and Buddhist monks even formed fighting units. Although Buddhism was presented and received in the West as an essentially peaceful tradition, several of the early and most important representatives of Japanese Buddhism in the United States had ties to the Japanese war effort; Shaku Sōen and D. T. Suzuki (the latter as we will see further below) had actively promoted a nationalistic, prowar version of Buddhism, for example.

Similar examples could recently be seen in Myanmar which is contrasted by the western syncretism of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh who was teaching comparative religions at Princeton University and went on to become a lecturer at Columbia University which led to another form of syncretism, that of Buddhist environmentalism.

As for Zen Hundreds of books have been written that apply the principles of Zen Buddhism to a wide range of activities. These “Zen and the Art of . . .” or “Zen in the Art of . . .” books seemingly cover every possible human endeavor like Lawrence M. Kahn  Zen and the Art of Hiring a Personal Injury Lawyer (2010),Cary Black and Don Black  Zen and the Art of Cooking Beer-Can Chicken (2007), with other titles like “Zen in the Art of Slaying Vampires”, or “Zen and the Art of Public School Teaching”, just to name a few. These books reflect the fact that the principles of Zen may be applied to any activity—from traditional flower arranging and the preparation, serving, and drinking of tea to archery, small engine repair, and, evidently, cooking beer-can chicken. Phil Jackson (1945–), the former coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, applied the principles of Zen to professional basketball and won a record eleven NBA titles as a coach (Jackson 2014).  Along with books applying the principles of Zen to any action, the market is saturated with “Zen” products. These include shoes, lamps and lights, vacuum cleaners, guitars, ceiling fans, furniture, bassinets, makeup and beauty products, toothpaste, energy drinks, herbal supplements (for both humans and dogs), e-cigarettes, and liqueur.

As has been described in William Theodore De Bary, Donald Keene, George Tanabe, and Paul Varley, eds. Sources of Japanese Tradition. Vol. 1, From Earliest Times to 1600. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press 2001,this perception of Zen may be traced in part to the creation of “New Buddhism” (Shin Bukkyō 新佛教) in Japan in the second half of the nineteenth century.

This New Buddhism emerged in response to political and social changes attending the Meiji Restoration. This period of time in Japanese history was initiated in 1868 when Emperor Meiji (1852–1912) reestablished actual imperial rule and Japan was rapidly modernized. These moves toward rapid modernization were included in the so-called Charter Oath (Gokajō no Goseimon 五箇条の御誓文) that was issued upon Emperor Meiji’s enthronement. Consisting of five articles, the Charter Oath outlines a new direction for the Japanese government and society. The final two articles of the Charter Oath articulate the new emphasis on modern science, technology, and worldviews and the intended abandonment of practices, views, and institutions that were not in accord with modern, scientific models. Article 4 states that “Evil customs of the past shall be broken off and everything based upon the just laws of Nature.” Article 5 reads: “Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundation of imperial rule” (De Bary et al. 2001, p. 672). Effectively, these articles of the Charter Oath announced a withdrawal of political and economic support for traditional religious institutions and a new emphasis on pursuing foreign knowledge, chiefly scientific and technological knowledge. In response, Japanese Buddhists reframed their religion in order to argue that Buddhism made important contributions to Japanese society, supported imperial rule, and was consistent with modern Western science and technology. Domestically, Japanese Buddhists began to argue that Buddhism was an essential aspect of Japanese culture, that Japanese Buddhism was, in fact, the only “true” Buddhism in the world.

Not unlike as was the case with the above mentioned Venerable Master Taixu a book by Brian Daizen Victoria titled “Zen at War”(2006) traces Zen Buddhism’s support of Japanese militarism from the time of the Meiji Restoration through the World War II and the post-War period.

One of the most influential person in establishing Zen Buddhism in the Western imagination was Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki (1870–1966), or D. T. Suzuki as he is commonly known who along with his popularizer, Alan Watts, first really brought the West’s attention to Zen. Published in 1934, Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism is still in print and widely read today. Therein, he presents Zen Buddhism as a “unique order claiming to transmit the essence and spirit of Buddhism directly from its author” (Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. New York,1964, p.2). But also here Ichikawa Hakugen, a Rinzai-priest and a scholar who taught at Hanazono University in Tokyo, saw D. T. Suzuki as “most responsible for the development of imperial-way Zen”, but in no way standing alone in this development. Hakugen traces this development to pre-meiji developments. (Victoria, Zen at War, 2006, p. 167.) Or as Suzuki himself wrote: A good fighter is generally an ascetic or stoic, which means he has an iron will. This, when needed, Zen can supply. (As quoted from Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture, 1938, p. 62.)


A priest named Mindar

And at least one possible future of Buddhist syncretism can be seen in the priest named Mindar holding forth at Kodaiji, a 400-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. Like other clergy members, this priest can deliver sermons and move around to interface with worshippers. But Mindar comes with some ... unusual traits. A body made of aluminum and silicone, for starters. Mindar is a robot who is predicted he could one day acquire unlimited wisdom.


For related subjects see: 

Tantra in China P.1

Buddhist Dream-Yoga in Tibet, P.1

Buddhist Dream-Yoga in Tibet, P.2

Buddhist Dream-Yoga in Tibet, P.3

The Dance of Lives: The Tulku Game

Chan Buddhism








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