Wednesday, November 27, 2013

dharma + logos = dharmalogian...?

It's been a while since I wrote anything about religion. Perhaps my last major piece was The Tao of Chance, which covered a good bit of interreligious ground in its exploration of Christ-figures and notions of sainthood from various traditions. In recent years, I've felt as if I have nothing left to say about religion, religious diversity, or interreligious dialogue: I've shot my wad. Every once in a while, though, something will come along that piques my interest. In this case, I was—for whatever reason—roped into a Twitter conversation that began this way:

What do you all think about the term dharmalogian (as in Buddhist theologian) ? Term by @courtneybruntz

My off-the-cuff reply, in two tweets:

I'd rather stick w/nothing but Greek roots.

"Nomos" means "law," which is also one meaning of "dharma"... nomologian?

Other people disagreed. Seon Joon sunim wrote the following over two tweets:

Too restrictive. And a hybrid term (Sksrt/Greek) better exemplifies the hybrid nature of Western academic work in Buddhism.

If anything, dharmalogian is more restrictive, given the specificity inherent in cleaving to the Sanskrit: when a Westerner hears the word dharma, there can be no mistaking that the term refers almost exclusively to the Hindu or the Buddhist tradition. Nomos, by contrast, is a bit more open-ended. Seon Joon sunim's point about an etymological hybrid is well taken, but I squirm whenever I see such terms. There's a dude on Twitter who goes by the handle Lupus Anthropos, which strikes me as a clumsy fusion of Latin and Greek. (He should have called himself Lycos Anthropos; that, at least, would have been consistently Greek.)

Not that such hybrid terms don't already exist in Buddhist studies: a major example would be the noun Buddhology (capitalized or uncapitalized) and the adjective Buddhological, both of which take their cue from the older terms Christology (the study of the significance of Jesus as Christ) and Christological. Buddhology, then, is the study of the significance of Gautama as the Buddha; the analogy is fairly accurate.

But with dharmalogian, the word dharma is being used in such a way that an analogy is formed with theos (theos + logos, dharma + logos), and I'm just not seeing that. Theos is the undisputed core term in Christian theology, but in Buddhism, there are a few terms that are jockeying for that label: sunyata (emptiness) might be one; pratitya-samutpada (dependent origination/co-arising) might be another. Each of these terms—along with dharma—says something fundamental about the ontology of the cosmos.

Dharma is, of course, a hellishly tricky word to translate. There is a sense in which it means something like "fundamental nature," but I associate that particular meaning more with Hinduism than with Buddhism. Buddhists often use dharma to refer to the Buddha's teachings, which are a reflection of the cosmic law that is the engine of the universe. Dharma can also mean "phenomena," as in the Heart Sutra's famous formulation, jae beop gong sang (제법공상, 諸法空相): all-phenomena-empty-character, i.e., all phenomena (dharmas) have the character of emptiness. The Chinese "法" (beop in Korean pronunciation; fa in Chinese) means "law," but in a Buddhist context it means dharma and, by extension in the Heart Sutra and elsewhere, "phenomena."

So dharma might—might!—be a plausible analogue for theos, but there are major disanalogies, first among them being that dharma doesn't refer to a supreme being possessing personhood and a will. If theology is ordered discourse about a personalistic ultimate, is dharmaology (or dharmology) ordered discourse about an impersonalistic ultimate? The Buddhist takes a risk in saying yes because, if s/he is striving to establish an analogy between theology and dharmaology, it's important to recognize that, for Christian theologians, there are actually three Logoi: theology (about God), Christology (about the Christ), and pneumatology (about the Holy Spirit). Is dharmaology supposed to sit alongside Buddhology and some as-yet-unknown third term? When I think of John Hick's label impersonae, which Hick used to designate impersonal absolutes, my first thought, when it comes to Buddhism, is that the word dharma doesn't represent the impersonal ultimate reality: that would be sunyata.* Why not sunyatology and sunyatalogians, then? Probably because dharma is more widely known among laypeople... and besides, it sounds more charming.

Facetiousness aside, this is a fascinating terminological question, but an aging, crotchety, curmudgeonly part of my brain is wondering why a separate term is needed at all. What's wrong with "Buddhist theologian?" This term already exists, along with "Buddhist theology," and in both cases the word theos has been semantically stretched to accommodate more than the Christian notion of theos: in the Buddhist context, theos is re-understood as ultimate reality, be that dharma or sunyata or pratitya-samutpada or buddha-dhatu (bul seong, 불성, 佛性: Buddha-nature).

But that's just me being curmudgeonly. Dharmalogian sounds like a fine term, and while I still think it is, at best, a shaky analogue with theologian, it at least has the advantage of focusing the layman's attention on South Asian philosophy and religion (though it is, perhaps, not quite restrictive enough to denote Buddhism exclusively).

*This is in line with Hick's own thinking. Taken simply and literally, the word dharma has no clear ontological or metaphysical valence: it merely indicates that existence has a nature. A word like sunyata, by contrast, reveals what that nature is. The same goes for pratitya-samutpada and buddha-dhatu, both of which say more about the nature of existence than does the neutral term dharma.


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