|Saint Young Men, by Hikaru Nakamura|
Here are some thoughts I had following my reading of Beyond Buddhist Exceptionalism by Evan Thompson. Actually I already wrote about my ideas after reading articles and books that follow a similar “anti-Orientalist” line and that point out “mistakes” in the way Westerners view Buddhism. Many observations in these publications are very much to the point, but there is an underlying idea that challenges me in that the ways Westerners work with Oriental religions and rework them to adopt them to their world view is merely seen as a form of Orientalism. Every culture in which Buddhism has been received had to rework "Buddhism" as well, for various and very similar reasons. After (colonialist) contacts with the West, some leaders of Eastern religions have made efforts themselves to “modernize” their respective religions. Not always in order to comply with the view of the colonialists. It seems to me that the opposition East-West plays sometimes too big a role in the assessment of the West’s reception of Buddhism. For clarity, I haven't read Evan Thompson's book "Why I am Not a Buddhist".
Buddhism as we know it is a religion. As a religion, Buddhism did get an exceptionally science-friendly treatment, in that it was considered as a “science of mind”. I am writing in the past tense, because I am not so sure this is still the case. I will use the terms “Buddhism” and “religion”, trying to keep in mind that these notions did not exist in “Buddhism”. There is no doubt that there are many misconceptions about “Buddhism”, but this is nothing new. As long as “Buddhism” has existed, there have been “misconceptions” about it, often resulting in schisms and new forms of “Buddhism”, pointing out in what way other forms of “Buddhism” were wrong and not “orthodox” (although “Buddhism” does not do dogmas...). This “Buddhism” does indeed share with other (Abrahamic) religions.
It is fashionable these days for academics to point out the lack of orthodoxy in “Buddhist modernism” and to accuse it of “Orientalism”, i.e. forcing Western points of view on Eastern religions. Evan Thompson writes :
“the dominant strand of modern Buddhism [is to] downplay the metaphysical and ritual elements of traditional Asian Buddhism, while emphasizing personal meditative experience and scientific rationality.”The first person to do so, if we may believe the Pāli canon, was the Buddha himself. Obviously, what he emphasized was not “scientific rationality”, but certainly rationality, thinking properly (yoniso manasikārā). Insight (vipassana) was considered to be his specific innovation. Compared to e.g. Jainism, the concept of “anatta” (non-essentialism) was also an innovation, although possibly shared with Cārvāka (“materialists”). The Buddhist non-essentialism expresses itself in the Three Characteristics (trilakṣaṇa): impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self. This doctrinal element is so important that it is used to determine whether a view is “unmistakingly” “Buddhist” or not.
For a long time, in India, "Buddhism" was not considered as a "religion", because of its unorthodox (regarding Veda or Revelations) or materialist views (nāstika). What made it stand out as a nāstika view? What was it lacking? “Buddhism” as a “religion” has developed metaphysical and ritual elements, it has developed or adopted essentialist elements, including a Self (tathāgatagarbha), deity cults, Yoga, Tantra, cults of indigenous deities, astrology, magic etc. During the long history of “Buddhism”, there have been several attempts to “reform” Buddhism, through emphasizing rationality (prajñā) and direct personal experience, long before the West discovered “Buddhism”. We can simply consider “Buddhism” as we know it now and conclude it is a “religion”, just like the Abrahamic religions, while ignoring all past (and more recent) efforts to “rationalize” it and to go “back” to direct experience (ehi passiko) and de-emphasizing Revelationary “Buddhist” content (Śruti).
Why would “Buddhism” be the only “religion” that is not allowed to evolve, to adapt to modern society and become more rational like “Christian humanism” and “Liberal Judaism” amongst others ? Why is “Buddhist modernism” “mistaken” with regard to genuine (?) “Buddhism” (whatever that may be), and why are modern “Christian humanists” and “Liberal Jews”, who went through a similar rationalization process, still considered as Christians and Jews? Apart from integrists and fundamentalists, would anyone say “Christian humanists” and “Liberal Jews” are “mistaken” about their belief and are not genuine Christians and Jews? Why then does “Buddhism” deserve this exceptional treatment? “Buddhist modernism” has existed for more than a century, is “modernist” still its most defining characteristic? How long does it need for the “Buddhist” form of “Buddhist modernism” to become acknowledged as a form of “Buddhism”, like was the case for all the other metaphysical, ritualist, essentialist and ethnic forms of “Buddhism” in the past?
“Buddhism” as it exists now may well be a “religion”, but according to its own doctrine it’s not a Revelation (Śruti), unlike the Abrahamic religions. The Kālāma Sutta invites us to some form of critical thinking and judgement. ‘Whatever the Buddha said is well said’ is echoed by ‘whatever is well said has been said by the Buddha’. “Buddhism” offers some leeway in the form of expedients (upāya) and conditionally adopted positions (vyavasthā). In theory, if the awareness of “Buddhism” as expedients and conditionally adopted positions is lost, then “Buddhism” is no longer “Buddhism” and has turned into a full blown religion. The Dalaï-Lama certainly seems to be ready to make “Tibetan Buddhism” more rational and modern. Is he mistaken about “Buddhism”? Similarly should e.g. Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief be considered an expression of Christianity? Are Christian priests requiring the right to marry Christians, was Liberation theology an expression of Christianity?
In order to qualify “Buddhist modernism” as a “mistaken” view, we have to know the proper “Buddhist” views. We also have to determine whether the difference with the proper “Buddhist” view is intentional or not. If it is, then reformist is probably a better word than “mistaken”. It certainly would be "reformist" for someone like Buddhadasa who knew his “Buddhism”. Mistaken suggests “Buddhist modernists” correct their “mistakes” and go back to an earlier form or status quo of “Buddhism”. What form of “Buddhism” would that be? How far do we need to go back?
“Science” and “religion” used to go hand in hand. Astrology, theories about the four (or five) elements, divination techniques, alchemy, demonology and mythological frames (four, five or six Samsaric classes of beings) were “sciences” intrinsically linked with religion. Science has grown out of its religious and magical origins, but more conservatory religions have kept hanging on to the past form and status of their “religious sciences”. In its rejection of science and its anti-intellectualism, New Age sometimes has the tendency to turn back to the good old days of “religious sciences”. If “religious sciences” are considered an essential and orthodox part of a religion, then tensions between “religious sciences”/religions and science are unavoidable and can never be bridged.
As far as I see it, the problem is on the side of conservatory views of religions, for any reason at all (including “anti-Orientalism”). It is as if the limit of a religion is fixed somewhere before modernity (colonialism?) started to meddle with them. Otherwise, those religions, in their “purest” forms won’t be respected as they ought to. It is as if “Neo’s” were asked to let those religions live on as they were in an imaginary pre-Orientalist past. On the other hand, religious currents claiming to go back to Tradition, wanting to restore imaginary elder forms of religions are less often addressed on their “mistaken” views (except if they have links with terrorism) by the same academics.
I see the term “Buddhist Exceptionalism” and the reference to mistaken views on “Buddhism” as an invitation to love “Buddhism” as “it is” or to move on, and to no longer project Western modernist ideas onto it, including science. One may regret that anti-Orientalist academics weren’t writing in the days that a sect of Judaism was reformed (by Paul and others) to make it fit in with Hellenistic views, Roman culture, and eventually made into the official Roman state religion by Constantine.
We don’t know what the Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim youth will ultimately do with their religions. Will young Buddhists practice their “religion” in the “full religious” sens, or only spiritually, liberally, humanely, secularly, or in a science-compatible way? Could they still call themselves “Buddhists”? Many of us old converts will probably not live long enough to know.
 “Evan Thompson is professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He is the author of Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, among other books.”