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Paul Fuller’s thoughtful and well researched new introduction to Engaged Buddhism cites my Disengaged Buddhism article together with an article I hadn’t heard of before, Victor Temprano’s 2013 “Defining engaged Buddhism” (Buddhist Studies Review 30.2). (Fuller has very kind words for both Temprano and myself.) I proceeded to read Temprano’s article and was quite struck by it – and by the fact that Fuller had listed our two articles together, as making complementary critiques. Fuller’s putting our two articles together is striking to me because, while Temprano and I do both make a critique of Western engaged Buddhist scholars like Sallie King and David Loy, we do so for entirely different reasons – reasons that are actually opposed to one another. And indeed, I think my differences from Temprano are larger than my differences from King and Loy.

Temprano directs his critique against the kinds of claims that I made in my article’s section on method. Temprano and I both note that engaged Buddhist scholarship has a strong normative dimension, as for example when King says “it is easy to take expressions of contempt and acts of violence as criteria for discerning what is not a valid expression of the Dharma” (Socially Engaged Buddhism 25-6, her emphasis). But Temprano takes this normative dimension to be a problem, something wrong with scholarship like King’s. I do not.

Temprano correctly claims that “Loy’s and King’s definitions are, after all, not merely different ways of accounting for the origins of engaged Buddhism, but ways of defining what true Buddhism really should be.” Where he goes wrong in his followup:

The resulting denunciation, judgment, and exclusion of threatening Buddhisms expresses the deep sense of authority that academics can feel in regards to their ability to concretely define who is and who is not a Buddhist. Yet Buddhists are practicing diverse traditions already; there is no need to present certain forms as somehow more ideal than others. (268, his emphasis)

Isn’t there, though? Consider the Burmese monk Wirathu. When lynch mobs composed of Burmese Buddhists were killing hundreds of Muslims and driving hundreds of thousands more from their homes, Wirathu called the Muslims “troublemakers” and said “You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog.” He added that “Muslims are like the African carp. They breed quickly and they are very violent and they eat their own kind.” As riots grew worse he proclaimed to his followers that “Now is the time to rise up, to make your blood boil.”

Wirathu preaching against Rohingya Muslims

Wirathu is a self-identified Buddhist, and one who has gone through all the traditional and institutional requirements necessary to become a monk. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Wirathu is not a Buddhist. (I don’t feel a strong need to take a position on whether he counts as an engaged Buddhist; Fuller reasonably argues that he does.) But I would agree with King, contra Temprano, that Wirathu is a bad Buddhist – that his form of Buddhism is indeed less ideal than others. His preaching of anger, hate and violence goes against all the normative ideals that King and I have learned, as Buddhists, from Buddhist tradition. We believe in Buddhist ideals that say what Wirathu is doing is wrong, pāpa.

And so, we would argue, there is a need to present Wirathu’s Buddhism as bad Buddhism. Temprano makes no argument for his claim that there isn’t; it is a non sequitur to move from the existence of different Buddhist traditions to the claim that none is better than others, unless one is going to make the a priori assumption that nothing is ever better than anything else. (Indeed, the way Temprano puts his argument, one could just as easily turn it around against him: “Buddhologists are practising diverse methods already, including normative ones; there is no need to present a non-normative Buddhology as somehow more ideal than the normative kind.”) If one were already committed to a position of strict neutrality, then that would imply that one should not say one person’s Buddhism is better than another’s. But King clearly is not so committed, and neither am I.

Should we be? Temprano never makes a convincing case for such neutrality. (Few ever have.) At several points in his article Temprano recognizes that King and Loy are both scholars and practitioners, but at other points he bifurcates these two identities such that they can or should never meet: “The question of whether or not a practice is truly Buddhist is largely a question for practitioners to debate, not for scholars to determine.” (269) Or, “The condemnation of violence as not simply bad, but as un-Buddhist, is a judgment that Buddhists must make, not a judgment for scholars to disseminate to a global society through the academy.” (273) Temprano has already admitted that we are both Buddhists and scholars. Why should it not be the case that the two inform each other?

Here Temprano claims:

When scholastic and secular authority, embodied in the symbolic capital accrued by King and Loy upon completing Ph.Ds and becoming widely published, is directed towards supporting and authorizing one Buddhist tradition and towards denigrating and delegitimizing others, it is entirely a different beast than squabbles between religious traditions themselves. Evaluations of religious traditions end up relying mostly on personal prejudices, and ignore entirely the reality that Buddhists of different traditions legitimately practice in a vast variety of different, and even opposing, ways. (273, emphasis in original)

In the first sentence, Temprano says that King and Loy “delegitimize” views and practices like Wirathu’s. In the last, he is effectively claiming that Wirathu practices “legitimately”. Since this latter claim directly contradicts the statement that his opponents are making, one would expect to find an argument for it, but there is none. As far as I can tell, Temprano’s only ground for believing groups like Wirathu’s “legitimate” is that they exist. But anti-vaxxers and flat earthers also exist. The existence of false beliefs is well documented. The mere existence of such beliefs does not make them legitimate! Are we delegitimizing Wirathu? Damn right we’re delegitimizing Wirathu. Why aren’t you?

Among far too many religion scholars, it is an article of faith – in the most pejorative sense of that term – that all traditions and all sides of a tradition are legitimate; the illegitimate thing, supposedly, is to arbitrate between them. This article of faith is self-contradicting, and the house of cards on which it is built rapidly falls. For the claim itself delegitimizes those of us within the tradition who do believe that one side of a “squabble” is better than another and that there are good reasons to take that side over the other. In so delegitimizing us, it takes a side, and thus does exactly what it claims to reject. As a result, this article of faith is incoherent nonsense, and should be expunged from the field of religious studies wherever it appears (which is all too frequently).

Temprano really gives that game away when he claims that “Evaluations of religious traditions end up relying mostly on personal prejudices.” In saying this, as far as I can tell, all he is doing is revealing a personal prejudice of his own. For he provides not the slightest bit of argument of evidence for this claim. It is a claim dripping with implicit contempt for us Buddhist practitioners, whether Western, Asian or otherwise: the beliefs we take as central to our traditions are so disconnected from objective reality that objective scholarly claims cannot even be made about them; our belief comes down to mere personal prejudice, and must remain so. And it does not take much examination to reveal this claim of Temprano’s to be false.

Is our consciousness reborn after death? Ian Stevenson provided some empirical evidence to suggest objectively that it is. Evan Thompson critically examined Stevenson’s evidence and found it insufficient to prove the point. Both Stevenson’s and Thompson’s claims are claims about the objective truth of a key Buddhist doctrine, made with the standards of scholarly rigour that are our best route to objective truth in any field.

Likewise, the theory of evolution, if true, logically implies that the literal interpretation of Genesis is objectively false; fundamentalists and biologists both rightly agree on that much, which is why the former reject the theory. Scholarly methods establish that theory of evolution is objectively true, as far as we can tell, and the literal interpretation of Genesis therefore false. One would have to be a truly extreme die-hard postmodern relativist to say that that point relies “mostly on personal prejudices”, and Temprano provides no indication that he swings in such a direction.

My objection to engaged Buddhist scholars is that so far their scholarship has not adequately lived up to standards of scholarly rigour; I wrote my article to encourage them to do so. Temprano, however, is telling them the opposite! He is telling them to abandon any attempt at objective truth and the rigour that leads to it, when it comes to normative claims made within Buddhist tradition. Instead he wants them to shut up and impose a radical bifurcation between their Buddhist selves and their scholar selves – in a way that reveals a patronizing contempt for the Buddhist part. And he does so for reasons that lack rigour themselves. Between all that and the engaged Buddhists, I’ll take the engaged Buddhists any day.

(As a final note on questions of authority: I would have felt bad about writing a piece this harsh, and would therefore have toned it down, if Temprano’s academic title was still “assistant to Arvind Sharma”, as it appears in the article. I would not want to punch down at a junior academic in a position that precarious. Fortunately for both of us, it appears that in the ensuing years Temprano, like me, has found gainful employment outside his academic specialty. I’m happy for him that that’s the case – and I also think he is therefore fair game for a lateral punch.)

Cross-posted on the Indian Philosophy Blog.