September 12, 2014

#Buddhism is still a religion, folks (updated)

I've written a little bit about this at my secondary blog, where I usually delve in more depth into matters philosophical, as well as aesthetic and artistic. Specifically, I've talked about its metaphysical aspects and their religious overtones, in a way that shows what I think is a comfortable Western non-Buddhist's familiarity with it. I've discussed briefly the paradox involved at the core of making claims about ineffability. Related to that, I've written about how some of the Buddha's own observations lead to logical snares.

But, with a new post by Massimo Pigliucci bringing out all the first-generation converts who claim "Buddhism is just a philosophy" or even "Buddhism is just a psychology," I thought I'd jump into this in a bit more depth here. (Many of the same types of apparent first-generation converts to "secular Buddhism" as made statements on those blog posts above.)

(Update: Per a new guest post at Massimo's site, written in response to his own, I'm also addressing claims about the alleged rationality of Buddhism. See more on the detailed update, below.)

First, for those trying to claim otherwise, or hold up Stephen Batchelor or the likes of him as having a direct illuminative pipeline back to 2,500 years ago? Wrong!

The idea of "Buddhism is just a philosophy" (along with similar claims about Hinduism) was cooked up by Victorian-era Europeans and Americans, in some degree of cahoots with "Westernizing" Indians.

The reality is that Buddhism deals with two matters of "ultimate concern," even "ultimate metaphysical concern," namely karma and reincarnation.

Therefore, contra those who claim varieties of Buddhisms (and claim this is analogous to varieties of Christianities), I strongly disagree.

All major Buddhist traditions believe in karma and reincarnation. Major practices of how to "align" oneself for better karma and a better reincarnation may differ, indeed, but those two core elements do not.

Second, a sociology of religion observation, and a snarky one, too.

I think that most of the "just a philosophy" claimants come from one of two previous backgrounds. They're either old Reform Jews who like being able to paste meditation and Zen-type inscrutable phrases that sound like updated, Easternized versions of comments by medieval rabbis, all from folks in saffron robes with a hipster angle, on top of their denatured Reform Judaism, or else they're liberal Unitarian Christians or post-Unitarian New Agers who wish they had been born as Reform Jews, etc.

And, yes, that's a snarky comment. But, isn't snark itself an updated word for the psychology in which Zen masters often presented their observations?


And therefore, it's the best style of answer available to give to the "just a philosophy" folks. 

Third, in line with Massimo and contra his Buddhist friend who inspired his post, even if you trot out modal logic, multivalent logic or similar post-Aristotelean thought, Buddhism, if you try to sell it as a philosophy, is more illogical than anything that's come out of the West.

As for ideas that Buddhism is more rational about its metaphysical claims than other religions? If "Buddhism is just a philosophy" folks admit it makes metaphysical claims, this may be the next line of defense. Some people who bite the bit of admitting Buddhism as a religion use this to say it's different or better than other religions.

In a word, "bullshit."

The idea that a "no-self" can be reincarnated, based on karma from previous lives, but yet, there's not a "self" to be responsible for that karma, is probably the most irrational thing, but by no means, the only irrational thing, about Buddhism. (See second update for some specific insight for what I think the Buddha meant about "no-self," or "anatta.")

If you don't like that all above? Mu!

Yes, I know what the word means. I've used it here to "unask the question" or "unask the issue" of "free will versus determinism" to many people, including Massimo.

Today, though, I use it in Zen-snark mode to "unanswer the protests" by first-generation Buddhist converts. And, per one commenter on Massimo's post, and my observations above, that's exactly who you are. Aaron Shure observes:
The joke from the late ’60’s about the old Jewish lady who travels to the Buddhist monastery asking to speak the the Lama: after a long journey on donkey, finally talking her way into the inner sanctuary, she approaches the Lama, smacks him with her purse, and says, “Sheldon, come home.” Graham needs to Kimmen heim.

I don’t think it’s an accident that there are so many first generation Buddhists in America claiming it’s a philosophy and not a religion. Only if your parents aren’t Buddhists can you claim that Buddhism will do, unlike other religions, all that it promises. The first gen acolytes do all sorts of backbends to get around the obvious malarky of the dogma. Whether it’s the three card monty move of saying “there are many Buddhisms” so that any BS version of the doctrine you point out can be quickly pushed onto the wrong sect, or whether it’s the annoying “ineffable” dodge, or whether it’s the putting off until other lives the need for any sort of freaking evidence. 

Owan Flannagan did his best to come up with a naturalized Buddhism, and I find it unsatisfactory. Nagarjuna is no more a logician than Democritus and Leucippus were Physicists, which, with Massimo’s blessing, they were not. Still I’m going to read the book for the history of logic.
I agree with the joke. I also agree that Flanagan (correct) does a better job than Batchelor, at least in some ways, in trying to intellectually craft the idea of secular Buddhism, Buddhism is just a philosophy, etc. At least Flanagan, in the subtitle of his latest book, by saying "Buddhism Naturalized," seems to admit this is a conscious effort on his part. However, whether that's due to combatting what he sees as misinterpretations, or whether he's rewriting what he sees as the normal, historically-rooted understanding of Buddhism, I don't know.

And, also, I found this quote from him:
What they make of the hocus pocus about karma and rebirth is another matter.
In light of that quote, how many Buddhist arhats, etc., would accept him as a legitimate expostulator of Buddhism? I know it's primarily directed at Americans (many of them commenting on Massimo's blog?) who largely equate meditation with Buddhism, and putting thoughts into their heads, but what does he think of Buddhism's core doctrines — yes, doctrines — himself?

Anyway, folks, per Aaron and myself, I can make the same claim about Judaism. If I make the right readings of scriptures I choose versus ones I neglect and other things, hell, I can make the same claim about Christianity.

Which, after all, is what many Unitarians essentially do.

And, "back in the day"? First-generation Christian apologist Justin Martyr tried to sell Roman emperor Antoninus Pius and members of the Senate on the idea that Christianity was just a philosophy, after all!

So, to the degree anyone claims Buddhism is "just a philosophy," it's true, but not unique, and it is essentially trivial.

Back to the philosophy angle. If, as did someone on Massimo's blog, you make claims that because David Hume came up with observations about human psychology that parallel those of the Buddha, this is "proof" that either  Buddhism is just a philosophy, or worse, that metaphysical doctrines and all, Buddhism is still just a philosophy, you just kneecapped yourself in my court.

And, if prose for philosophical statements doesn't totally float your boat, well, this short poem of mine, and this other one, point out some of Buddhism's conundrums in verse.


Update, Aug. 20: Well, I'm considered "full of myself," I've found out.

I'm not crushed. Not at all.

I've said before that I can find things to like about Buddhism without signing off on the idea that it's "just a philosophy." I've also said that about Judaism (Ecclesiastes) and Christianity (selected portions of the Sermon on the Mount, but not the full thing).

If I am "full of myself," I'm far, far from alone in seeing Buddhism as a religion.

With a graduate divinity class on world religions, while I'm not a practitioner, I'm not totally ignorant.

With graduate and undergraduate philosophy classes, I'm quasi-semi-professional, at least, as a philosopher. And, between the two, I, along with many others, can definitely tell you Buddhism is not "just a philosophy."

I can also reject the "spiritual but not religious" ideas of 12-Steppers and New Agers along with Buddhists. (And have federal district and appellate courts support me on 12-Steppers.)

That said, per the photo-poster of mine at left? I have no problems with getting enlightening ideas from Buddhism. And, from Judeo-Christian thought, too, like, the "hymn to time" from Ecclesiastes made famous by the Byrds.

But, I "de-baptize" them and remove them from their metaphysical context as small slivers. Buddhist mental disciplines, like Hindu yoga (in all four types, not just the "exercise") are designed with metaphysical ends in mind.

Back to my "complainants." I'm OK with blogging about, and making pronouncements on, a fair variety of classical liberal arts/humanists issues. And, without boasting too much, I'm OK with having a fair degree of confidence in those pronouncements.

I'm with the one commenter at Massimo's blog: I think this is in part the general "fervor of the convert" with an extra spice from the "otherness" of Buddhism or whatever.

Specifically to on point related to secular Buddhism, and Buddhism vis-a-vis other religions, namely, the issue of Bu-Jews: why go chasing after Buddhism for a secular or quasi-secular philosophy when you can mine Job and Ecclesiastes for plenty, and Song of Songs and Proverbs to some degree, and throw away the metaphysics, just like secular Buddhists of all stripes do with Buddhism? Per a commenter to (I think) Massimo's article, it's part of a first-generation of converts fad, in my opinion.

And, per what Bu-Jews could find in their own tradition (and Bu-Xns too), in reference to said fad: "There is nothing new under the sun."


Second update, Sept. 12: Per that "guest post" link above from Massimo's site:

Conversations with Johsh, especially, and somewhat with Ezwinner and others, have made me come to the conclusion that:

Achieving Buddhahood is the same as becoming a …

A p-zombie! 

As I also said there, I’m being “puckish.” But, that’s only about 25 percent or so. I’m 75 percent or more serious. “P-zombie” is a reasonable “handle” within ideas in modern Western philosophy for what I understand the Buddha to be saying.

And that is an idea that I totally reject, which should make it clear that I reject the idea of “anatta,” too. That said, I think, as I also said at Massimo’s site, that I think most “Bu-Jews” and other “philosophical” or “psychological” Buddhists don’t take what I see as a radical idea by the Buddha seriously enough.

Again, if that’s too radical for some, well, it’s too radical for some. It reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s quote about Christianity and nobody following it but the founder.

Meanwhile, rather than extinguishing my sense of self as the goal of enlightenment, instead, per sci-fi writer John Shirley, I'd rather enlighten myself with a mental flashlight:
“If you have to walk along a dark mountain path, don’t you prefer to have a flashlight to shine on the path ahead? I would suggest that it is possible to have that flashlight in life all the time. What does a flashlight give us? Light.
 That is, a flashlight sheds light. It is like the faculty of attention—if we turn our full attention to something, we learn more about that thing. We are seeing it with more light. Our attention is our ‘flashlight.’ So it’s all about how much and how fun an attention we consciously bring to life. This quality of attention doesn’t make us hesitant, or slow to decide, particularly—just as the flashlight doesn’t make us hang back on the trail. So, how do we get to the better quality of attention? With attention!”

This, in turn, brings me to another "paradox," to be polite, of "philosophical Buddhists."

"Intentional meditation" is supposed to work like this flashlight. But, how does that lead to anatta?

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