Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Mahayana follies and interreligious dialgue

Ryan of Ryan's Lair pokes fun at the Mahayana method of "argument." To wit:

1. Make a really dumb assertion. For example, everything is Empty, or the universe is only Mind.

2. Prove your assertion by resorting to a dumb analogy. Suppose I say everything is Mind, and my opponent says "Well, why do I perceive different things if everything is only Mind?" I respond with an analogy: Mind is like the ocean, see. When the wind (objects) blows across it, it creates waves (sense-perceptions) in the ocean. But those sense perceptions are neither different nor not different than the ocean. So you can perceive things as different, but really it's all just Mind. Q.E.D.

3. When your opponent then rips your dumb analogy to shreds, congratulate them for attaining a deeper understanding of Buddhism. In the Lankavatara, the interlocutor challenges the ocean-waves analogy by saying, "Hey, we can all see the ocean, but we can't see this ubiquitous Mind in the same sense." To which the Buddha responds, "I just used that analogy to help stupid people along the path." Implication: Congratulations, you've progressed farther than the stupid people. Now shut up and believe my initial assertion regardless of my inability to prove it.

Two ways that Buddhist philosophy will benefit from its interaction with the West are

(1) a quick-and-dirty introduction to the harsh (but in my opinion necessary) realities of Western skepticism. For a wimpier, populist version of this type of encounter (wimpier in that the skeptical interlocutor doesn't trash Buddhist philosophy quite as thoroughly as Ryan's doing to the Lankavatara Sutra), read The Monk and the Philosopher (Le moine et le philosophe) by Jean-François Revel and Mathieu Ricard.

(2) a better understanding of how rigorous logic actually works. Let's face it: ancient scriptures in most cultures aren't exactly repositories of pure logic. This isn't post-Surak Vulcan we're talking about.

It should be noted that my points (1) and (2) hint at the complexity of so-called interreligious dialogue: to speak of a religious tradition is to speak of more than mere scripture and doctrine; there are philosophical and legal dimensions involved in these encounters. Ryan's sutra-thrash is part of a larger cultural cross-pollination that will produce beneficial results.

A lot of cross-pollination has already occurred. The Kyoto School of Zen derives much of itself from Western philosophy. Zennist Abe Masao (pronounce it "AH-bay") had a famous dialogue with process theologian John Cobb. Zoom backward in time, and you'll discover that Buddhism's entrance into China around the time of Christ (some say about 60 CE) led to an immediate interaction with native Taoism, Confucianism, and Chinese folk belief. Before Buddhism left India, much Mahayana philosophy had already formed through intense dialogue with (or perhaps more accurately, polemic against) preexistent strains of Hindu thought-- not to mention competing schools of Buddhist thought. Modern Buddhist-Christian dialogue, while perhaps not nearly as exciting or dangerous as, say, Jewish-Muslim or Christian-Muslim dialogue, has yielded some amazing new insights and perceptions on the ethical and metaphysical level, primarily as Christians are affected by what they learn. Jewish-Buddhist dialogue is also productive-- cf. R. Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus as a populist example of this.

Some people are of the conviction that dialogue should be about happy blokes sitting around the table and agreeing with each other. I personally think that, if dialogue is motivated by an ethical impulse, a will to peace, then of course it's important to find and/or build bridges between traditions, cultures, worldviews. This is why I consider myself a religious pluralist-- a position arrived at through external and internal dialogue. But at the same time, dialogue can't merely be this rootless, fuzzy, New Age-y attempt at papering over differences, sacrificing what makes traditions unique because we've declared, by professorial fiat, that only the Grand Themes matter, and all else is mere detail. "Seek simplicity, then mistrust it."

S. Mark Heim, who wrote the very provocative Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion, bases his pluralistic hypothesis on Nicholas Rescher's notion of "orientational pluralism." While I disagree with most of Salvations, I like the "travel analogy" he offers as a way of explaining why it's important not to chuck out "mere details." You never know when these details might prove to be constitutive, and therefore crucial for understanding a given tradition (phenomenon, etc.).

I don't have the book in front of me, so let me give you my own awkward version of the travel analogy. Heim is basically presenting a model that allows people of any tradition to make their truth claims (up to and including the exclusivistic claims of religious fundamentalists).

In the travel analogy, "salvation" is represented as a travel destination-- say, Paris or Toronto. Many destinations are possible; it's not as though everyone in the real world is being funneled to Paris. But how we reach a destination is also crucial. If I live in Nebraska and decide to go to Toronto, I can drive if I want. The driving option isn't open to me, however, if I'm in Nebraska and heading for Paris-- I have no choice but to fly.

This makes clear that there's an intimate link between vehicle and destination. Not all methods conduce to all ends. If we think in terms of "better" and "worse," some methods are objectively better for achieving certain ends.

I think there are major metaphysical problems with orientational pluralism and Heim's application of it, not least of which is the neat avoidance of the issue of hegemony-- religious truth claims have, throughout history, tended to be normative: when I make a religious claim, I generally mean for it to apply to you as much as to me: "Christ died for YOUR sins," you see. But to the extent that Heim is pointing out why we can't shove the specifics of religious traditions aside, I think his analogy, and his larger argument, deserve attention. It's far too simplistic to argue "we all believe in the same God" and leave it at that. Pluralists have to be cautious, and while plenty of religious thinkers do indeed make such bumper-sticker statements, there's a lot of history and philosophy that needs to be unpacked before we can really appreciate what the statement is actually saying. In such cases, it's wise to study the person who made the statement, and the circumstances leading up to the statement.

For the curious: if you look up Heim's book on Amazon.com, you'll see I've written a review of it. There are also some links on my sidebar devoted to issues in religious pluralism (cf. some of my essays in the "Sacred and Profane" section). Meanwhile, let me say I can only envy Ryan's ability to comment this incisively on the sutras; my own sutra knowledge is piss-poor. This will change in 2004. Promise.


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