The Gift of Western Buddhism

So is Pragmatic Buddhism really Buddhism? Is any Western Buddhism? Is any “Secular” Buddhism? To me the answer to all of these is not only a resounding ‘YES’ but an emphatic ‘and they are precious gifts to the heritage of Buddhism.’ I’m going to talk specifically about Pragmatic Buddhism but much of what I’m going to say is applicable to many strains of Western and Secular Buddhism.

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes about the differences be what he defines as Classical and Secular Buddhism in an article on the website by saying:

The contrast between Classical Buddhism and Secular Buddhism stems primarily from different ways of understanding the human condition. Classical Buddhism seeks light on the human condition from the canonical texts of Buddhism, particularly from the Buddha’s discourses. Secular Buddhism looks for illumination to modern science and the value systems of secular society. These different perspectives govern their distinctive ways of understanding the Three Jewels of Buddhism – the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. They also determine their assessments of the nature and purpose of Buddhist practice…

Classical Buddhism sees human existence as embedded in the condition called samsāra, understood literally as the beginningless chain of rebirths...

Secular Buddhism, in contrast, starts from our immediate existential situation, understood without bringing in non-naturalistic assumptions.

I am - I think with justification - taking his name Secular Buddhism to encompass all of the Western Buddhist schools (although honestly much of what he applies to Secular Buddhism could also be applied to Chan, Zen and their descendants).

He goes on in the article to discuss what he sees as both the strengths and weaknesses of both traditions, but to me much of what he points out as weakness in Secular Buddhism is its very strength and gift. After pointing out the strength of Classical Buddhism as lying in its fidelity to the Buddha’s words and the “heritage of the Dharma”, he gives this weakness as:

The principal weakness of Secular Buddhism may be overconfidence in the naturalistic premises with which is starts. This can lead to a disregard, even disdain, for principles that clearly spring from the Buddha’s own realisation. This is particularly the case with the principles of rebirth and karma.

So what does it mean to stay true to the Buddha’ words? We know that the actual words used by the Buddha to convey his teachings were not written down until some centuries after his death, but this isn’t an issue to me. Modern research has shown that cultures with a strong oral tradition - such as 6th century CE India - can transmit words and teachings virtually unchanged for generations. What I would like to focus on is the skillful means that he used to teach those who came to learn from him.

In the ‘Discourse to the Two Brahmans’ the Buddha replies thus to two Brahmans who ask if he knows the way to union with Brahma (the goal of Hindu enlightenment), "’Thus,’ replied the Buddha, ‘the Tathagata knows the straight path that leads to a union with Brahma. He knows it as one who has entered the world of Brahma and has been born in it. There can be no doubt in the Tathagata.’". The problem with this is that the Brahmanic concept of ‘union with Brahma’ requires an acknowledgement of ‘atman’ or the eternal soul which can be unified with the eternal god concept of Brahma; and yet the Buddha, who teaches ‘anatman’ or non-soul is here saying he knows the way to union with Brahma. Is he saying that mankind does in fact have an eternal soul which can be unified with an eternal god? No, of course not, and it is generally understood that this is a teaching using ‘skillful means’ - or talking to a person from within their paradigm to guide them to an eventual position outside that paradigm.

I know that Theravadan scholars say that what he was saying is that in a previous life he was born into the Realm of Gods and met Brahma there, but that still doesn’t address the point of saying that he knows how an eternal soul can unite with an eternal god (the question that the Brahmans were asking) and yet still teach the non-existence of an eternal soul. There is a definite internal inconsistency if we don’t view this as a teaching using skillful means.

Either we must accept that the Buddha taught using paradigms that were different from those of his own or we have to accept that his teaching - the Dharma itself - is inconsistent and self-contradictory. Once we accept the use of skillful means in teaching, if we are to learn the truth of the Dharma, we have to ignore the trappings around the message - for who can say which are true statements of the Buddha’s conviction (or realization to use Bhikkhu Bodhi’s word) and which are simply skillful means. After all, he was teaching in a milieu with a certain common paradigm, and the use of terms from that paradigm cannot be easily separated from skillful means. I’m looking forward with great anticipation to Stephen Batchelor’s newest book, “Beyond Buddhism” where he tackles just this task. He is looking back at the Dharma within the context of the cultural milieu and stripping out all the trappings of that paradigm to leave the message at their heart.

This is the gift of Western Buddhism - and indeed in previous centuries was the gift of Chan, Zen and their descendants. We are not steeped in the milieu of early CE India nor do we cling to it as any more real a paradigm than our own. We are able therefore to undertake this task of discovering the message underneath the trappings and in doing so are able to free the ‘heritage of the Dharma’ from bondage in a certain time and place to its true place as a guiding light to all people in all places. Are we going to make mistakes in this task? Of course we are; but if we don’t undertake it we are limiting the universality of the Dharma to being nothing more than a textbook of early Indian philosophy.

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