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Does it matter whether something is or isn’t Buddhist? Or whether it is “distinctively” Buddhist? I was asked these related questions in two blog discussions from last year, both involving Justin Whitaker. Justin raised the latter question here in response to my replies to David Chapman; Jayarava Attwood raised the former on Justin’s blog.

Regarding what is “distinctively” Buddhist I want to start with what I said to Chapman himself: I don’t think there’s much value in looking for that which is found in Buddhism and nowhere else. Many Buddhist tenets (including the rejection of righteous anger, at issue there) can be found in Jainism too, for example. But that wasn’t what I meant when I had asked, at the beginning of that post, “what might be distinctively Buddhist about a modern Buddhist ethics.”

Rather, I was asking: what difference does it make (within a modern context) that your ethics, or for that matter your way of life, is Buddhist? In Chapman’s context this meant “not already understood by (say) a non-Buddhist college-educated left-leaning Californian.” Suppose you already are a college-educated left-leaning Californian or Bostonian or New Yorker or Vancouverite. Does it then mean anything if you add the descriptor Buddhist? If we describe a person as a Buddhist college-educated left-leaning Bostonian, are we saying anything whatsoever that is different about that person than if we describe the same person as a college-educated left-leaning Bostonian and we leave out the adjective Buddhist?

Putting my question in that way ties it back to my discussion with Jayarava. I had said to Justin, “I’m a little sick of people pretending that anything that calls itself Buddhist is Buddhist…” The comment thread that followed is long and (in my view) interesting. I’ll try to be brief in summarizing, since it remains up on Justin’s blog. The big questions Jayarava raised in the discussion were: “what is a stake when we define Buddhism? Who benefits from the definition we value?” I agreed that these questions are significant, but noted that they apply just as much to the “anything that calls itself Buddhist is Buddhist” definition as any other: that definition “benefits the shallowest of Buddhists for whom being a Buddhist means nothing, as well as academic social scientists who see Buddhism as something stupid they want to criticize. I do not wish to benefit either of these groups.”

In response, Jayarava reasonably asked: “Would you like to elaborate on that? What makes a Buddhist shallow? Why is it important that social scientists don’t think Buddhism is stupid?”

I had little time to elaborate then, and will do so now. I may as well start with my own self-identification as a Buddhist. Readers may recall that I came to describe myself as a Buddhist when I realized that in a hospital, I would want my guidance and advice to come from a Buddhist chaplain.

That was what was at stake in the identification for me. Why then should I care what is at stake in the identification for anyone else? Well, for one, I would care very much what’s at stake for the chaplain! If a hospital’s designated Buddhist chaplain didn’t care about suffering or emptiness or ignorance but instead talked merely about social justice or a divine plan for the world, I would object, and have reason to object, for exactly the same reason a Muslim would justly object if the designated Muslim chaplain started telling her to believe in Jesus.

Words mean something, and not merely something individual or arbitrary. In the postmodern age, far too many scholars have been uncritically enamoured of the words of Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, from Through the Looking Glass:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

As with so much else from the Alice series, the quote is charming, funny and thought-provoking. What it isn’t, is true; I don’t think Carroll himself believed it to be. The theory of meaning it advances is a falsely individualistic one: it pretends that language is not a social phenomenon, that concepts have no history, that words have no audience. If I publicly call someone a murderer, it doesn’t matter if I say to myself that I am inwardly defining “murderer” as meaning “lover of flower arrangements”. Others are not going to react to my accusation by providing the person with a flower arrangement. They are going to react as if I have said he has intentionally killed someone – because that is what I have done. They are going to react, that is, based on what the word actually means – what it has meant and continues to mean in the context of the history of the English language.

The meanings of words can change, of course, but they do not change by arbitrary fiat. They can also, of course, be contested. The definition of Buddhism (and other traditions) is at least as contested as the definition of murder; the fact that we are having this conversation is testament to that.

But one of the things that makes the word “Buddhism” contested is that it is normative. The word “Buddhism”, like the word “science”, names not merely an aggregation of people but an ideal, or at least a complex of related ideals. If a self-proclaimed scientist regularly falsifies data to fit his preconceptions and ignores evidence to the contrary, we are correct to tell him: it doesn’t matter what you call yourself, you are no scientist.

I hope it is already clear that Justin’s and Jayarava’s questions touch on just this point. To identify as a Buddhist, especially when one was not raised as such, is at least partially to affirm some set of normative ideals that one associates with Buddhism: to say that there are certain ideals that one both a) takes as important to the historical complex of traditions that one calls “Buddhist”, and b) takes to be genuinely good ideals which one aspires to follow. And ideals require their opposite, the non-ideal that they try to transcend: there are certain things that a good scientist qua good scientist does not do, and that a good Buddhist qua good Buddhist does not do either.

It matters whether something is or is not scientific because science is good. If we consider ourselves Buddhists, it matters whether we consider something genuinely Buddhist, because other things being equal, we take there to be something good about being genuinely Buddhist. If we didn’t think that, we wouldn’t consider ourselves Buddhists – or at least, we would have no good reason to do so.