Saturday, February 05, 2005

more on Buddhism-as-religion

Bill Keezer writes in with some interesting questions.

Q: If I understand your reply to BV, Buddha was a Hindu religious leader, but does that necessarily make him a Buddhist religious leader?

I was trying to be faithful to the original intent of Dr. Reppert's question, which was specifically about the Buddha himself and not about the movement (and subsequent tradition) that followed him. Just as Jesus wouldn't have called himself a Christian, the Buddha wasn't Buddhist. And since the Buddha's starting point was rooted in his Hindu practices, then he was certainly a religious teacher if we grant that Hinduism is a religion or set of religions (admittedly a big "if": Dr. Vallicella's point about defining religion is well taken).

If we widen Dr. Reppert's question and view Buddhism both synchronically and diachronically, I think it's obvious that the various Buddhisms through the centuries provide us with no single, clear answer to the problem of whether to classify Buddhism as a religion.

There's a fantastic meta-issue here as well: many adherents of the great traditions reject the claim that their tradition can be labeled a religion. I've heard Christians grouse at being lumped together with Buddhism and Islam under the "religion" rubric; I listened to one Korean Buddhist woman tell me that "Buddhism isn't a religion; it's a way of life." If we are to explore the question of Buddhism qua religion thoroughly, I submit we'll need to deal with this meta-issue as well, because it'd be wrong not to consider a tradition's self-understanding before applying a label to it.

Q: The Smith criteria are somewhat more general than I might have considered for the purpose.

Huston Smith isn't exactly beloved among scholars of religion. I think he's a great writer and has done a fantastic job of popularizing the field of religious studies, but I can see why others might not be so quick to praise him. For one thing, he tends to gloss over crucial differences between religious traditions. For another, he's arguably guilty of historical revisionism in his attempts to present all the great traditions in a charitable light.

In his defense, however, I can say that Smith, at least in The World's Religions, is open about his agenda. He knows he's glossing over major differences, conflating themes, ignoring details, and all the rest. His purpose is to present the religions in the least negative light possible. I haven't had the chance to read his more scholarly work, so I'll reserve judgement for a later time.

Q: I have trouble with the definition of #5, since in the Christian tradition it is a forgiveness, not a feeling that the reality is on our side.

I can't speak for Smith, but I imagine he'd reply thus: a Christian is aware of this forgiveness, whose source is that holy Reality which Christians name God. That awareness undergirds the feeling that the universe is, at bottom, congenial to our existence and desirous of our flourishing.

Q: I also wonder about the concept of religion without a god of some sort.

I have no problem conceiving of religion without a god, if for no other reason than that, academically speaking, an expansive re-conceptualization of the word "religion" was inevitable as scholars learned more about world traditions.

Buddhism, as a whole, is plenty theistic (check out those cosmologies!), though no Buddhist would assign ultimacy and/or aseity to any of the gods. All phenomena have the character of emptiness, the Heart Sutra says, and this would include the gods, if they exist.

Buddhism has its folkoric strands, as well as its relentlessly atheistic strands. Many Buddhists are simply agnostic about the whole God thing, believing God to be irrelevant to the question of (and solution to) the problem of suffering. The result is a kaleidoscope of thought-systems, all under the umbrella term "Buddhism."

Do all religions have some sort of god-element? Do they all have soteriologies? I would say no to both questions; and what's more, I'd say there's no definite boundary between philosophy (as traditionally conceived) and religion-- or between religion and anything else, for that matter. Wittgenstein's notion of "family resemblances" is useful here: just as an extended family includes members on opposite ends of the family tree who look nothing like each other, the family known as "religion" is a rough continuum containing members that don't necessarily resemble each other. This allows the term to cover theistic, atheistic, and nontheistic traditions and beliefs.


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