Sunday, February 06, 2005

postal scrotum: more on the Buddha

Sperwer, tenacious:


A couple of points.

First, your approach to the issue of whether the buddha was a [specifically] "Hindu religious leader" seems to me an argument to the effect that, to deploy a rather imprecise analogy, since water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, it's not in a very significant sense categorically different from them.

It boils down to a simple set of questions: what practices did Gautama deem ineffective? Were they Hindu or not? Did he discover their ineffectiveness through practice or not? If he practiced, did he practice these methods deeply or not?

If he deeply practiced Hindu techniques and discovered them to be ineffective, then he was a Hindu practitioner. Since the stories about his life describe this practice as years-long (and beyond his late teens), I see no reason to adjust my original claim, which was never a claim that he died a confirmed Hindu.

Of course, Shakyamuni came from a hindu matrix of belief and praxis - although it's probably more accurate to describe it as brahmanical, rather than hindi, since most of the elements that we associate with hinduism (including the caste system) didn't themselves arise until long after the time of the buddha - some of them as an adaptation of hinduism to the buddhist challenge. And he used a lot of terms, which because of linguistic necessity, also were hallmarks of hindu discourse, notably "dharma". In the case of "dharma", like so much else, though, he effected a sort of transvaluation (cf. Nietzsche) of the term, the end result of which is the claim that the buddhist conception of what constitutes the dharma is objectively true, whereas the brahmanical one is simply wrong as a description of both reality (atman and brahma) and the appropriate human praxis (propitiatory sacrifice) to eradicate dukkha. Shakyamuni similarly demolished a lot of other elements of the brahamanical faith or just brushed them off as beside the point (eg., his strictures on metaphysical speculation) once one had achieved an accurate view of reality. [I mean and meant by "demoliton" and "destruction" of core Hindu beliefs, his having shown them to be false and ineffective; the fact that hinduism eventually outlasted buddhism in India is profoundly besides the point].

I didn't seriously think this is where you were going with that.

As for the age of the caste system-- this is news to me. I'm pretty sure it predates the Buddha by a long while. The Aryan invasion (based on evidence from the past few decades, many scholars now debate the term "invasion"), which introduced the caste system and gave rise to the Vedic Period, would have been well before 1500BCE. The caste system was firmly in place by the Buddha's time; if I'm not mistaken, he was himself a ksatriya.

[See, for example, Reese, WL. Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1980-- especially the short entry on Buddhism, p.72.]

Perhaps you're basing your claim on the probable dates for the dharmasastra literature, most (or all) elements of which are, I think, post-Gautama, or at least contemporary with him. But the received wisdom is that, as with Judaism, the literature is a reflection of a long-standing oral tradition, implying that the texts are describing social and religious phenomena that are significantly older than the texts themselves. Couple this with the scholarly trend toward believing that the Buddha was born much later than 550BCE, and it's hard to argue that the caste system developed after the Buddha.

A good source on this is Gavin Flood's excellent An Introduction to Hinduism, especially the chapter titled "Ancient origins."

Hence, despite his roots and the sharing of many [problems] and points of reference with hinduism, I think it borders on the incoherent to describe the buddha as a "hindu religious leader", because what's characteristic of him is precisely the ways in which he moved radically and dramatically away from the hindu paradigm of his time in all its many manifestations. Similarly, although more accurate, I think that to assert that the buddha was a great [religious] leader who was or started out as a hindu is so say something that is trivial at best.

I'd have no problem with that last description. I never described the Buddha as a Hindu religious leader, but have made the case-- a solid one, I think-- that he was a Hindu practitioner. If we want to quibble over "Hindu" versus "brahmanical," that's fine with me. The plasticity of the term "Hindu" gives us plenty of conceptual wiggle room. "Brahmanical" probably is a more accurate descriptor, but on a Venn diagram it could easily fall inside the larger circle, "Hindu."

Re: buddhist fundamentalism, I described myself so with tongue in cheek - although I've had that label pinned on me with great rhetorical violence by people on a couple of buddhist email fora who apparently felt threatened by the questions I asked about some of their beliefs and the compatibility thereof with some of the positions attributed to shakyamuni in the early Pali sutras. And while I currently do believe that a lot of later buddhism is a mistake or collection of mistakes, since I don't have any particular missionary propensity let alone zeal I'm content to tolerate it all so long as e.g., people who want to pour thimblefulls of sweet tea over statues of the baby buddha gotten up in silly little dresses like the infant Jesus of Prague don't insist on my joining in. As far as it goes, I would agree with Wild Bill Vallicella's comment that "Early Buddhism, the Buddhism of the Pali canon, is not a religion strictly speaking, but more of a technology for achieving an Eastern equivalent of ataraxia. (Later Buddhism is a different story.)", and it's that "technology" that most interests me.


I'm glad you were being tongue-in-cheek. Some of the Buddhists I encountered on the Beliefnet message boards were positively scary in their fundamentalism. Their dogmatic conviction that "real religion equates to original teaching" indicates a mindset unwilling to consider even the possibility of evolution. That's sad, especially from the standpoint of Buddhist process ontology.

The Buddha sought a middle way between two poles. One pole was nihilism; the other pole-- and this is what those Beliefnetizens don't grasp-- was eternalism.


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