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Readers may have noticed my expressing a certain ambiguity with respect to the new Buddhist movements I call Yavanayāna. I have often defended their value as legitimate traditions in their own right, but I have also repeatedly criticized them for their political activism, their embrace of “interdependence”, their reluctance to admit the significance of sectarian differences. Moreover, my ground for criticism in these cases is that they misrepresent traditional and especially early Buddhism. Some readers might well wonder whether there is a problem here: whether I am criticizing their innovation only when it is convenient to do so, which is to say only when I agree with it.

In response I would stress that I am not against innovation as such. My point in criticizing the new Buddhists has not been that anything disagreeing with the Buddha’s teaching must be invalid. Rather, what disagrees with the Buddha’s teaching must be justified on its own terms, rather than in the terms of that teaching. The Buddha did not discover modern physics, nor did he discover gender equality. (While he accepted women into the monastic order, the stories say, he did so reluctantly, and he added “eight heavy rules” that restricted their participation beyond men’s.) And we show an extraordinary naïveté if we expect him to have done so. He was a creature of his time. Even if we assume him to have been fully awakened, to have truly discovered the path that leads men and women out of worldly suffering, he did not also discover molecular biology, nor the recognition that women are fully equal human beings. But that’s okay. To have discovered the path to liberation is more than accomplishment enough for one man.

In saying this I am myself disputing a key conviction of historical Buddhists: namely, that buddhas are omniscient. And I accept this consequence. If the buddhas were omniscient, they would have discovered modern natural science and women’s equality. They did not. Therefore they were not omniscient. That claim alone is enough to indicate that I reject much that was proclaimed by the early Buddhists (and there’s plenty more where that came from). So is my position therefore any different from that of the Yavanayāna Buddhists?

It depends which ones. The important thing, it seems to me, is to acknowledge one’s difference from historical tradition. It is that acknowledgement that allows one to remain challenged by the tradition, to see the appeal of the unappealing. Without it, one remains trapped in one’s modern blinkers. One might as well not bother studying Buddhism, let alone calling from it; one can just do what one was already going to do anyway. So my criticism of Yavanayāna Buddhists is typically on the ground that they refuse to acknowledge this difference.

Now why is it so hard to acknowledge newness in this way? It is tempting to laugh at Yavanayāna or Tiantai Buddhists for pretending to be old when they are new. Why bother with all this innovation through conservatism? Why not just drop the façade, one wants to ask, and not bother calling yourselves Buddhist in the first place? Why not just let your ideas be justified on their own merits today, and stop trying to legitimate them by dressing them up in the clothes of the past? Marx in the Eighteenth Brumaire laughed at the revolutionaries of his day who took on the accoutrements of those who were not their real forebears.

But the revolutions that took place in Marx’s name should suggest to us what’s wrong with that. When the old was swept away entirely, what was new was much worse. This was true of Lenin and Mao then, and it seems to me likely to be true of the advocates of “disruptive innovation” in education today. The brightest minds of the past centuries were smarter than we want to give them credit for. They put ideas and institutions there for a reason. They weren’t always right, but we are likely to end up still more wrong if we treat them as fools. And so it is worth paying our respects to the old: innovate where it is important to do so, but be cautious about introducing innovation where it is not necessary.

When Yavanayāna Buddhists argue for gender equality or for modern biology, they have hard-won modern knowledge on their side. They do not have the scriptures or the tradition or anything we might know about the historical Buddha. Both matter. If you take the historical Buddha as omniscient, you’re going to end up with something that looks like historical Buddhism, and that’s going to mean rejecting many of our cherished modern beliefs – including a great deal of natural science, and probably even more importantly gender equality. Better not to take him as omniscient, but rather as an important participant in the quest for truth and happiness – someone who probably knew important things we don’t, but who also didn’t know important things we do. It is vital, to my mind, to give both of those sides due respect. The biggest barrier to that due respect is when we take the innovators – whether Yavanayāna or Tiantai – as authentic representatives of the historical Buddha. (Or, for that matter, take Yavanayāna innovators as representative of Tiantai innovators.) There is no perennial philosophy – or if there is, it too might be wrong, for it has certainly had its share of detractors, and they have had their good reasons.