Evan Thompson, existentialism, modernity, New Testament, Pali suttas, rebirth, Rudolf Bultmann, Walter Kaufmann
The world picture of the Buddhist Pali Canon is a mythical world picture. The world is made up of 31 planes of existence, divided into a formless realm, a fine material realm and a sensory realm. In the formless realm dwell purely mental beings; in the fine material realm dwell most of the devas (gods, angels). Some devas also inhabit the higher planes of the sensory realm; we humans live in the middle planes; and in the lower planes we find the hungry ghosts (pretas) and hell dwellers. Life is a cosmic cycle of death and rebirth between these planes, with movement upward and downward determined by the good or bad nature of one’s actions within each plane. The results of these actions affect not only the circumstances of our new birth, but also our actions and mental states in the new life, which reflect the previous ones. All of this takes place on a cyclical time scale of endless recurrence, of decline followed by renewal and more decline: once upon a time human beings lived for 80 000 years, and their lack of virtue slowly reduced this, so that now their lifespan is merely a hundred, and it will eventually decline to ten.
All of this is mythological talk, and the individual motifs may be traced to the contemporary mythology of Jainism and the Upaniṣads. Insofar as it is mythological talk it is incredible to men and women today because for them the mythical world picture is a thing of the past. Therefore, contemporary Buddhist proclamation is faced with the question of whether, when it invites faith from men and women, it expects them to acknowledge this mythical world picture of the past. If this is impossible, it then has to face the question whether the Pali Canon’s proclamation has a truth that is independent of the mythical world picture, in which case it would be the task of Buddhist theology to demythologize the Buddhist proclamation.
The words above are not mine. I have pulled these two paragraphs directly from the beginning of New Testament and Mythology, by the 20th-century German Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann, and simply replaced what is specifically Christian with Buddhist concepts. But I think Bultmann’s argument stands just as well when it is transposed into a Buddhist key.
I referred to Bultmann within my debate with Evan Thompson in order to explain why I am not a “Buddhist exceptionalist” (and Thompson accepted this explanation). I believe the core teachings of Buddhism to be truer than those of Christianity, but I do think that Buddhists face very similar issues to Christians in defending our tradition in the modern world. And, overall, I think the Christians have done a better job of this so far for the simple reason that they’ve had a lot longer to think about it, living in the places where modernity began. We Buddhists have a lot to learn from the Bultmanns of the world.
Specifically, if we are to be Buddhists with open eyes, we need to figure out how to deal with the elements in our tradition that are plainly unscientific. Those elements are what Bultmann means by “myth”. He says he uses the concept of myth “in the sense in which it is customarily used in the science of history and of religion.” (In my experience in the 21st century that is no longer the custom in religious studies, but perhaps that is to the field’s detriment.) That is, for Bultmann, “Mythical thinking is the opposite of scientific thinking”, for it is “the report of an occurrence or an event in which supernatural, superhuman forces are at work…” (“On the problem of demythologizing”, 95) But science, in Greek terms, replaces mythos with logos; science provides rational explanations, specifically explanations based on systematic examination of evidence, and those explanations give us reason to no longer take myths literally.
So what do we do about that? I don’t find as much to learn from in the details of Bultmann’s applying his method, which are much more specific to the New Testament and Christianity. And that’s probably a good thing; Buddhism and Christianity are very different from each other, and if we were going to say the same concrete things about each of their messages, we’d run the risk of losing what is most important in both. But I think there’s a lot to learn from in Bultmann’s method itself. Especially: Bultmann is concerned to remain a Christian theologian despite his commitment to scientific thinking. He wants to retain his faith, just as I do. (It is for that reason that I am happy to retain the terms “Buddhist theology” and “theologian”, as put forth in the 2000 book, even though the literal meaning of “theology” is obviously inappropriate for Buddhists.)
And so I find it valuable when Bultmann says his “criticism of the biblical writings lies not in eliminating mythological statements but in interpreting them; it is not a process of subtraction but a hermeneutical method.” (99) It is this approach, of not eliminating but interpreting, that is involved in the project of naturalizing karma. So I already cited Bultmann as a methodological exemplar in my debate with Evan Thompson on that subject, but I have wanted to make it clearer what I’m drawing from him. (Nishitani Keiji, whom Thompson proclaims his sympathy for, also explicitly takes Bultmann as an inspiration.)
Bultmann was criticized by Walter Kaufmann, the Nietzsche scholar whose translations are still used today. Kaufmann’s The Faith of a Heretic has a chapter entitled “Against theology”, which specifically takes Bultmann as its target. Kaufmann says, in italics, “Where the heretic would say No, the theologian interprets” (114); he urges us instead to “let one’s No be a No.” As I understand them, Thompson’s criticisms align quite closely with Kaufmann’s: in Thompson’s eyes, what I am advocating is not really karma, and therefore rather than claiming to interpret karma, I should just say no to it.
I’ve previously tried to explain the continuities I see between my approach to karma and the traditional ones – the reason why I do consider my approach an interpretation. But the point I want to make here is about the method, the reason why one would seek to interpret in such a continuous way – rather than taking the easier path of simply saying No to the tradition, which Kaufmann and (I think) Thompson urge. When one has reason to have faith – that is, when the tradition’s authority has proved trustworthy in the past – one extends that trust by trying to say No as little as possible. But one does not want to do so blindly, in the face of scientific evidence or of one’s other commitments. And so one interprets – one naturalizes.
I do suspect that the process of naturalizing may actually be somewhat easier for Buddhists than for Christians. This is because I think cosmology is overall much less important to Buddhism than to Christianity; Buddhism’s focus, rather, is on psychology. (Thompson might challenge me on that point, since it is indeed possible to view karma as a cosmological concept; but I think I’ve made my case for an alternative interpretation.) The psychological focus does generate problems of its own, when traditional Buddhist texts say things that contradict modern psychology, but it seems to me that those cases may still be easier to interpret in scientific terms than are the kinds of outlandish cosmological claims with which I began this post and with which Bultmann begins his book.
Relatedly, a significant concern about demythologizing should be that the sort of liberal Christianity in which Bultmann’s demythologizing figures has not done very well for itself. Once people have abandoned Christian myth, it seems, they are likely to abandon Christianity entirely. So the question is a live and important one: will the same thing happen to a demythologized, or naturalized, Buddhism? Time will tell, of course. But it seems to me that the signs for demythologized Buddhism might be more promising than they are for demythologized Christianity. The massive popularity of mindfulness meditation, in particular, indicates what a powerful chord Buddhist teachings have struck for people who have no inclination to believe in old Buddhist cosmology in any literal sense.
Above Amod said: “Buddhism’s focus, rather, is on psychology.” I’m glad to hear someone else say this, because I have found myself defending this idea against other Buddhists who have opposed it.
Granted, it’s important to be clear what “psychology” does and doesn’t mean when we say that Buddhism’s focus is on psychology. Richard K. Payne wrote in his chapter “Locating Buddhism, locating psychology” (2002):
“From my own perspective then to assert without qualification that ‘Buddhism is psychology’ would simply be anachronistic. This is even true of the school within Buddhism that was most explicitly concerned with developing theories of how the mind works, the Yogacara school. What the Yogacarins were doing is only analogous to what we call psychology. Psychology is our category, not theirs. Given the centrality of understanding how the mind works for the entire Buddhist tradition, there is a significant conceptual overlap between Buddhism and psychology. Thus, it may look to us like it is psychology, but it is important to remember that the similarity arises from the way in which elements are selectively highlighted for comparison. Such selective highlighting necessarily throws the balance of the tradition into shadow, obscuring aspects which may not be conducive to the cozy sense of familiarity created by fitting Buddhism into our own psychological world view.”
I imagine that anyone with enough familiarity with Buddhism and modern psychology could easily understand and agree with what Payne is saying in this passage. When we say that Buddhism’s focus is on psychology, our use of the word “psychology” is much more generic than the modern psychology that Payne says “we call psychology”; our use of the word is instead equivalent to what Payne called “understanding how the mind works”, which Payne admits is central “for the entire Buddhist tradition”.
What we call Buddhism is and should remain big enough and diverse enough to offer very different minds what they need (that’s one of the attributes of a Buddha, so I’ve heard: the ability to discern and give people what they need), so I don’t expect Buddhism’s rich mythology to disappear as long as there are many people who find something in it that they need, and Buddhist teachers should be well trained to use those mythic resources to the maximum to help others. Likewise, I fully expect other Buddhists to disagree on how important “study of mind” is to what we call Buddhism, but it’s always a delight to encounter someone who agrees about its importance.
I’m often a little uncomfortable with the line of argument that “Psychology is our category, not theirs.” I mean, yes, sure, it is – but so is cosmology, and so for that matter, is Buddhism. I’m not going to say “Buddhism is psychology”, full stop – but then I’m also not going to say “Buddhism is a religion”. That latter category is probably just as problematic here.
The important thing in the present context is that Buddhists have overall been much more concerned with questions that we would call psychology, than with questions that we would call cosmology – and that in that regard Buddhism is in sharp contrast to Christianity, where questions-we-would-call-cosmology are much more at the heart of their concern. (I dedicated a whole previous post to that comparison.)
“The important thing in the present context is that Buddhists have overall been much more concerned with questions that we would call psychology, than with questions that we would call cosmology”: Right, I agree with that, which is what I was trying to affirm in my comment. But I have had conversations with people who are authorized to teach within a 501(c)3 Buddhist religious organization in the USA (which may be as close to a legally recognized “religion” as one can find around here, though I am not a lawyer), and my impression was that they unequivocally refused to endorse the idea that Buddhism’s focus is on psychology. I can’t give much more detail about their views since unfortunately my conversation with them about this issue did not go very far. Richard K. Payne is standing in for them in my comment above, since I imagine their views to be closer to Payne’s than to mine.
But, echoing my last paragraph above: Whatever words we use to describe what me and the aforementioned authorized teachers were doing in that “Buddhist” “religious” “organization”, it was fortunately big enough and diverse enough to include their views and mine, whatever variations in emphasis differentiated us.
Seth Zuiho Segall said:
These discussions of definitional categories always leave me wanting to say “yes, but…” I’ve been having a discussion with Winton Higgins on the Secular Buddhist Network on why a eudaimonic interpretation of Buddhism is not necessarily identical to a secular one. There are aspects to my Buddhist practice that can be described as secular, but others that seem to be better described as religious. We need to invent new categories that transcend these kinds of binaries.
The psychological nature of Buddhism is another one of these categorical issues. I would say that, according to how we in the West now understand such things, Buddhism includes a psychology, but it also includes many other things including a cosmology, a metaphysics, an ethics, a soteriology, and sets of rites, rituals, relics, practices, etc. On the other hand, Buddhism necessarily has more of a psychological emphasis than other organized sets of practices and beliefs that we call religions because it is not concerned with our relationship to an Other, but exclusively with how our thoughts, intentions, desires, emotions, states of mind, and behaviors determine our future existence, both in terms of our psychogical state and the psychological states of others we have an impact on, but also in terms of our longer-terms cosmological destinations.
Of course, for us moderns, once we no longer believe in cosmological destinations, the psychology becomes even more prominent. Even the rites and rituals, the most religious aspects of Buddhism, become valued for how they affect our states of mind and psychological outcomes.
I like what Seth said about how Buddhism “includes many other things”. I would add, thinking about my experiences with the previously mentioned Buddhist religious organization, that many Buddhist traditions include significant “non-Buddhist” features. At this point perhaps it’s worth mentioning that the Buddhist religious organization that I mentioned was a Sōtō Zen temple. When I once looked through the large multivolume Standard Observances of the Sōtō Zen School, I was struck by how syncretic it is. In incredible breadth and detail it describes a vast variety of ceremonies and other practices, much of them rooted in Buddhism but also rooted in what I would take to be non-Buddhist East Asian cultural features: for example, “Sutra Chanting for Arhats” but also “Procedure for Offerings to Spirits of Those Who Sacrificed Themselves in War”.
I’m also reminded of a passage from Bernard Faure’s The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism that very much reflected my experience of life at that temple:
“Dōgen, on the other hand, offers an apology for karma that is perhaps a return, beyond the early Buddhist tradition, to the Hindu conception of karma as ritual act. For Linji, the point is to avoid ‘creating acts’ and to realize the essential emptiness of karma, while karmic retribution is for Dōgen an essential part of an individual practice sustaining the cosmos. Linji vilifies those false masters whom he calls ‘blind shavepates’ and ‘fox spirits’, those who, on pretext of exhorting their disciples to practice, push them to ‘create karma’. For Dōgen, however, it is precisely Linji’s ‘naturalism’ that makes him a ‘wild fox spirit’. In the Hindu tradition, the ‘act’ (karman) is above all the ritual act, understood as a way to maintain or restore the cosmic balance…”
I imagine part of the resistance by that temple’s authorized teachers to my conception of Buddhism as focused on psychology is precisely what Faure called their “Hindu-like” emphasis on the ritual act, which has, as Seth said, what we would call a psychological aspect, but also what we would call a cosmological aspect, as well as other aspects such as the social. The teachers’ resistance to my conception of Buddhism as focused on psychology was certainly not based in anti-intellectualism, since they were highly educated in Buddhist traditions.