Love of All Wisdom

Acknowledging newness

by on Mar.02, 2014, under Early and Theravāda, M.T.S.R., Natural Science, Yavanayāna

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.

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16 Comments for this entry

  • JimWilton

    Did you invent “Yavanayana”? It is an extraordinarily stupid name.

  • JimWilton

    I am sorry to be so blunt.

    The term yana is widely used in the Tibetan tradition — either in connection with the three yana path or the nine yana path (the nine yana path being from the older Nyingmapa tradition).

    In either case, the term is part of a 1,200 year old philosophical / religious system and describes a carefully articulated, progressive meditation path in which each successive yana corrects increasingly subtle obstacles arising from the previous yana. The atiyoga yana, in the Nyingmapa tradition, represents the pinnacle of the path. There is no path beyond this.

    For an academic to arbitrarily call something a new “yana” is arrogant — unless the usage is excused by simple ignorance. That is why I say that the name that you choose is extraordinarily inappropriate — whatever the merits of your observations about Western Buddhism.

    • Amod Lele

      Well, this actually gets us right back to some of the substantive issues in the post. The Tibetan usage of yāna was an innovation too, just like the Western one. The earliest texts to use the term Mahāyāna (like the Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra) would not have seen it in the way you described, as a progressive meditation path. It refers simply to the path of the bodhisattva – which, in those old texts, is an alternative to the valid if lesser path of the arhat.

      “There is no path beyond this”: well, that’s pretty much what Mahāyāna thinkers would have said to the idea of a Vajrayāna, and for that matter Theravādins to a Mahāyāna. It’s a sectarian claim, and while there’s nothing wrong with sectarian claims per se, they are not binding on those who do not accept the self-understanding of the sect.

  • JimWilton

    So, why would a scholar want to insert himself or herself in this debate by using this terminology?

    No Western buddhist sangha (be it Theravadin, Zen or Vajrayana) asserts that it has discovered a path or teachings that are higher or more developed than is known to holders of its lineage in Asia. The fact is that Yavanayana is not a vehicle or path. It is a misleading and unfortunate term.

    • Amod Lele

      To my mind, it is a path, or at least a set of paths that can be grouped together (the same can be said for Mahāyāna). It is a different way of seeking Buddhist liberation from those established hundreds or thousands of years ago, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

      As for higher or more developed? Well, in a manner of speaking, I would say they often are. Not in the traditional sense of being closer to liberation, but accepting the truth of modern physics and women’s equality is absolutely higher and more developed in my book. And I suspect most Western saṅghas would agree with that claim, if you can get them out of the illusion that what they’re teaching is exactly what the Buddha taught thousands of years ago.

  • Ted M

    I would say that the obstacle to acknowledging that the religion represents a break from prior tradition is less philosophical, and more sociological; religions gain credence and respectability by emphasizing a continuity of tradition and legacy.

    See Mormonism’s ‘golden tablets’, which attempt to establish the religion in antiquity, Bahai’s links back to Islam (even though their teachings represent a radical departure), and Wiccans’ attempts to tie their religion to various pre Christian pagan traditions for examples of this in practice.

    In some sense, it serves to replace the philosophical argument with an argument from authority (well, tradition), which is a fine shortcut for proselytizing, even as it does not hold up to logical scrutiny.

    • Amod Lele

      The thing is, sociological respectability is ultimately predicated on philosophical respectability, of a certain sort. When we say that people gain credence and respectability by claiming something is old, the next and more important question is why claiming something is old gets them credence and respectability. That’s what I’m interested in.

      I would argue there’s a certain sense in which everything is an argument from tradition, but that’s a longer discussion.

  • JimWilton

    This is a good example of a scholar distorting the subject he is studying.

    Buddhism is entirely based on the meditation practice path — as I use the word here, meditation refers both to practices aimed at developing insight and practices aimed at developing virtue or shaping the mind (including devotional practices and ritual). Because Buddhism is based on the idea that conventional ways of thinking (such as conceiving of, grasping onto, and acting on the idea of a “self”) are delusions, a realized teacher is required to engage in the path. These teachers look to their teachers, cultivate a level of independence in their students, and pass along accepted advice for students to use in selecting teachers to minimize the risk of charlatanism. But the point is that the path is always presented within the lineage of realized teachers to their students.

    For a scholar (who does not even accept many basic tenets of Buddhism — two and one half of the Four Noble Truths, for example) to posit a new practice path is arrogant.

    • Amod Lele

      Members of a tradition do not have exclusive access to terms describing that tradition. Most terms now in use to describe given traditions (including “Christian” and “Hindu”) were coined by those who were outside that tradition. Scholarship requires that one be able to speak of a tradition using the terms best suited to understanding it, whether or not one has been in its lineage. For nobody is a member of every lineage. If understanding multiple traditions is possible at all, it must be possible for outsiders; and if it isn’t, then one has effectively given up the project of understanding the world, since one’s own understanding is so completely limited by tradition that one is caught up in pure subjectivity.

      If it is arrogant to describe a tradition from outside using terms that those initiated in the tradition do not themselves use, then arrogance (in this sense) is the appropriate attitude to be taken not only by a scholar, but by the human race as a whole.

  • JimWilton

    I have never said that members of a tradition have exclusive access to terms used in the tradition.

    If for example, you were to write an article arguing that Tibetan texts using the image of a rhinoceros to refer to practitioners of the pratekyabuddhayana represent an unwarranted denigration of Theravadin linegaes, I might or might not agree with you — but I would have no quarrel with your use of terms.

    It is the cooptation of the term “yana” to refer to something entirely outside of any tradition that is unfortunate and potentially misleading to students who haven’t studied Buddhism.

    • Amod Lele

      As I’ve said, the Tibetan usage of yāna is an innovation too – as is the whole Vajrayāna tradition. I’m still not sure what is so arrogant about extending this term, used in the past to delineate different Buddhist traditions, to delineate a new Buddhist tradition that is coming to be. Unless the argument is not about the term after all, but about suggesting that the innovations of modernist and/or Western Buddhism do constitute a new tradition (which is something that I have argued for repeatedly).

  • Steven Schmidt

    If the Buddha were omniscient, how much women’s equality would he have taught, and how would that have come down through history? If the Buddha had taught molecular biology, would it have done anything but created confusion?

    • Amod Lele

      I would be comfortable saying that if the historical Buddha had been omniscient, he would have at least admitted women into the saṅgha without the “eight heavy rules” and without hesitation. The suttas record his disciple Ānanda as wanting to do just that; it was hardly without precedent at the time.

      No doubt one could say that the era was so backward that he knew he had to put these restrictions on women in order to get his tradition socially accepted, but at that point the special pleading starts to sound a lot less plausible.

  • Steven Schmidt

    A flaw in the word “Yavanayana” is that it suggests that all peculiarities in Western-influenced Buddhism come from a Greek heritage. The activism could be attributed to Jewish roots.
    On the other hand, a skepticism whose first spark was Greek dominates my approach:
    Buddha reached important realizations which may not have come down perfectly through history. What matters is how we can use the practices that have come down to us, and what we can realize today.

    • Amod Lele

      It’s my understanding that while yavana comes from “Ionian” it was applied eventually to all Europeans (who all, at least by the centuries CE, come to have a strong Hebrew influence). I may be misremembering that, though.

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