Classical Indian Buddhist texts rely a great deal on two concepts: puṇya (Pali puñña) and pāpa. The former is good, something to pursue; the latter is bad, something to avoid. They have something to do with our actions and their results: punya comes out of our good actions and brings good results for us, pāpa comes out of our bad actions and brings bad results. We find these concepts all over the place in pretty much any Indian Buddhist text we might pick up. Next week I’ll explore in more detail what they are and how we might best think about them. This week I want to start with something more basic: how should we translate them into English? Absolutely not, I would argue, with the two words that Buddhism scholars most commonly use for them: namely “merit” and “sin” respectively. Continue reading
I’ve been wanting to follow up on an earlier post and ask just what science, natural science, really is. I realize that the concept “science” has two separate and distinguishable, though related, meanings. On one hand, “science” has a normative meaning – it names an ideal, of how our investigations into the empirical world should be conducted. On the other, it has a descriptive meaning – it names a set of institutions with a history, inhabited by fallible human beings who, often as not, fail to live up to that ideal even though they are supposed to live up to it.
The first, normative meaning is the one with the most philosophical significance. This is the one with normative weight; it is in this sense that, if we call something unscientific, we are saying something bad about it. I haven’t pinned down the details of this normative sense as much as I’d like yet, but I think it involves testing falsifiable hypotheses, making controlled experiments, controlling for variables, and above all rejecting hypotheses that turn out to be falsified. I expect to say more about this normative sense of science in the near future.
Overall I think it is that first (normative) sense of science that’s most relevant to philosophical inquiry, inquiry about the nature of reality and how we should live in it. But the second sense also matters, if only because we need to isolate it as a way of understanding the first. In this descriptive sense, science is what scientists do, and scientists are people who have been trained in academic science departments. This is the realm where scientists fudge data to fit their own political agenda or that of their corporate funders. It is also what Thomas Kuhn famously catalogued in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where the consensus among scientists moves much more randomly and haphazardly than the normative ideal should indicate. There is something about science in the first sense that is (I would argue) inherently good; this is not the case about science in the second sense. A man who has a PhD in biology but regularly falsifies data to fit his preconceptions is a scientist in only the second (descriptive) sense, not the first (normative) sense.
What strikes me about this distinction, though, is that much the same distinction could be made about any given “religion.” Continue reading
The anti-Protestant view of religious studies has come out particularly strongly in the study of Buddhism. By most accounts of the field, one of the leading scholars of contemporary Buddhism is Gregory Schopen. Most of Schopen’s work criticizes scholars’ emphasis on Buddhist texts, advocating a turn instead to archaeological and epigraphic data. Schopen claims that nineteenth- and twentieth-century Buddhist scholarship focused on texts because of “Protestant presuppositions” about what religion really consisted of. He advocates instead for a scholarship of Buddhism in which “texts would have been judged significant only if they could be shown to be related to what religious people actually did.” What Schopen never considers, to my knowledge, is the idea that scholarship in Buddhism might be seeking the truth found in Buddhist ideas, rather than “what religion was” in remote and hoary periods of human history. Perhaps, in other words, we think about texts not because we have been trained to think as Protestants, but because we are trying to think as Buddhists.
Anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere took methodological anti-Protestantism a step further, effectively labelling not merely scholars of Buddhism but Buddhists themselves as regrettably Protestant. Obeyesekere coined the unfortunately widespread term “Protestant Buddhism” to describe what I have called Yavanayāna, the new modernist and rationalist form of Western-influenced Buddhism whose roots go back to nineteenth-century Sri Lanka and the reformers Henry Steel Olcott and Anagarika Dharmapala.
What’s wrong with calling this modernized Buddhism Protestant? First of all, neither Olcott nor Dharmapala were Protestants themselves. Dharmapala was born and raised a Sri Lankan Buddhist. While born and raised a Protestant family, Olcott had converted away from Protestantism to “spiritualism” well before calling himself a Buddhist. Moreover, as Stephen Prothero has rightly argued, Protestantism was only one influence on Olcott’s thought; secular modernism was at least as important. For example, Olcott was a firm believer in the theory of evolution, rejected roundly by the Protestants of his time, and was enthusiastic about Buddhism partially because he took it – unlike Protestantism – to be compatible with evolutionary theory.
But beyond that historical point, one must also ask: what’s wrong with Protestantism? The term “Protestant Buddhism” carries the whiff of an accusation that there’s something wrong with this Buddhism, that these Buddhists are not really Buddhists but Protestants in Buddhist disguise. In a class I took from him, Robert Gimello once criticized Yavanayāna Buddhists who would make claims like “??kyamuni and I have got it right, and 2500 years of Buddhist tradition has got it wrong.” The class laughed, and Gimello added “I think that’s extremely arrogant.” Looking back on that experience, I sorely wish I had raised my and and asked the following question: “So may I clarify, Prof. Gimello? You are, in fact, telling us that the Protestant Reformation should never have happened?”
For after all, what was Martin Luther doing except to say “Jesus, Paul and I have got it right, and 1500 years of Catholic tradition has got it wrong”? To make a claim like Gimello’s is effectively to claim that Protestantism is a tradition founded on illegitimate arrogance. And one can reasonably make that claim – as a matter of anti-Protestant apologetics. Indeed Gimello – always a devout Catholic – has since moved to the University of Notre Dame to help develop “robustly Catholic” theological views of Buddhism. I believe in the value of apologetics, of theological or sectarian claims aimed at persuading members of one tradition to move to another. I only have a problem with apologetics when it poses as neutral, disinterested scholarship, as Gimello had once claimed his class to be. It may well be that a “robustly Catholic” sectarian apologetic helps us understand Buddhism better – but only if we acknowledge that that is what it is.