Wednesday, July 11, 2018

mature exchanges are hard to find

I was strolling through YouTube when I stumbled upon a video of Jordan Peterson talking about the Buddha. Peterson offers some interesting insights, but the video concludes with Peterson essentially interpreting the Buddha's story through his (Peterson's) own psychological lens. But this isn't what interested me: what interested me was a brief exchange between two commenters (scroll down below the video to see the exchange) that highlights a major disconnect between academics (or the academically minded) and the more down-home hoi polloi. Before I say more, here's the exchange:

Appleblade: I give Prof Peterson a pass here. Some Buddhist purists don't like his Western interpretation of the lesson of the Buddha's story, but he's not doing anything wrong. Buddhists have their own interpretations of other religions and philosophies. They're not wrong to do that ... what else can religions and philosophies do other than espouse their own views, and say what's wrong with other views insofar as they disagree? It's part of having a mature, comprehensive worldview.

aboctock: Buddhists have interpretations of other religions and philosophies? Which Buddhists would that be? Some monks sitting somewhere? Your regular born-and-bred Buddhist person has barely any idea of the existence of other religions. And other PHILOSOPHIES? I wonder which Buddhists you've been hanging with.

Appleblade: Well, aboctok, The Buddha himself rejected Hinduism and said why. I'm sure there are Buddhists who 'don't get out much', and don't have opinions on other religions, but since Buddhism is a rejection of ordinary ways of thinking about things, I'm inclined to think almost all Buddhists know the more common ways of thinking about reality ... that there's a heaven where you go when you die (Muslims & Christians), or that there's nothing after you die (atheists, Jews, the non-religious), etc.). I've only personally known 2 Buddhists, but they both were originally Christians.

aboctock: I respect your frankness and don't doubt your intentions, but really, you're talking about a boutique brand of Buddhism, either: individuals in Buddhist populations who follow through on a deep interest in a wider spirituality (quite unusual), or more likely, westerners who have embraced Buddhism (entirely foreign mindset.) Spend a decade or two living among the regular village folk who make up the overwhelming economic weight throughout a Buddhist country, and you'll undoubtedly see what I mean. The brutal truth is that behind the face presented by ritual, they have barely any understanding of the philosophy of their own religion, never mind anybody else's. There is an enormous gulf between the set of ideas that have currency for a westerner who gravitates to some form of Buddhism, and the "precepts" handed down to the vast bulk of practising Buddhists—and that's hundreds of millions of people. This is where taking up Buddhism differs hugely from embracing Christianity or Islam, or probably anything. If you force your way well beyond the distorted cocoon of people who already have a professed interest in spirituality (e.g., converts), and make sustained contact with populations of people who grew up Buddhist, you will see that they are different worlds. Hehe, alternatively, since this idea is no doubt uncomfortable and awkward, just feel free to forget that we had this conversation, no hard feelings. But I live with them. Lol, there's no philosophy to speak of. Ever. It is the polar opposite of the ethic that characterises a westerner who puts up their hand and says, "Hey, I'm interested in Buddhism." If you are/were such a person, then you already know far more about Buddhism than nearly all Buddhists do. Which is not in itself a criticism of them; that's just how Buddhism—on the ground, as practised by many millions of actual Buddhists—works. Err, or should I say operates. But no, their understanding of the philosophy of other religions, not to mention philosophy (!) is not well-developed. It might be impressive in context, but that context is brutally simple. Sorry.

Appleblade: As everything you said here makes sense, I guess I think we were just talking past each other. lol! ... (I'm an academic, so when I speak of Buddhists or Christians, I have in mind people who are serious about their faith as a matter of truth ... my bad, no doubt.) The great bulk of Christians probably have no idea what they believe, and the Fundamentalist types who pride themselves on doctrine are in a grand minority. If you say so, I'm happy to accept that the great bulk of Buddhists simply practice rituals, and know little of the deep reasoning behind it all.

Isn't there any Buddhist Sunday School where you live? ;)

Commenter "aboctock" starts off a bit aggressively, but "Appleblade," a self-professed academic, remains civil. While I wish aboctock's tone were less arrogantly assertive, I can see that he (I assume aboctock is a he) is at least willing to engage in discussion and argument by offering substantive reasons and examples for his point of view. Both interlocutors make very good points—points that are relevant to those of us in religious studies. One of the major problems, as Appleblade points out at the end, is the danger of "talking past each other" when discussing religious traditions at the macro level (e.g., by referring only to "Buddhism" without further qualifiers): it's quite true that there are sophisticated, rarefied, philosophical strains of a religious tradition while, at the same time, there are simpler/simplistic, folkloric, superstitious strains. A professor can expound on Buddhism to an audience full of folkloric Buddhists, and those Buddhists won't recognize any Buddhism in what the professor is talking about. This gives rise, in some circles, to a perceived contrast between "nightstand Buddhism"—a philosophically tinged understanding of Buddhism based almost solely on the reading of books and stripped entirely of communal religious practice, history, and tradition—and so-called "real" Buddhism, i.e., the unsophisticated, ceremonial, god- and legend-filled Buddhism as it's actually lived by the regular folk, which is more about chanting and magic and ritual than it is about philosophy. (Christians run this same gamut; so do Jews, Hindus, Muslims, etc.) My problem, though, with the "nightstand versus real" dichotomy is that it essentializes folkloric Buddhism and is too quickly dismissive of other approaches to the Buddha and to Buddhist belief and practice. I, too, am often tempted to knock philosophical and nightstand Buddhists off their pedestal by contrasting their often-naive perception of Buddhism with Buddhism as it's actually lived in Asia. But it's not wise to give in to that temptation because that road leads to essentialism—which is ironic, given Buddhism's native anti-essentialism.

Anyway, it was refreshing to find some intelligent comments on YouTube for once. YouTube comment threads are so clogged with intellectual sludge that it's often an exercise in futility to dip into them. I'm glad I stumbled across this.


Charles said...

When I saw this was going to be a post on a YouTube comment exchange, my first thought was: "WHY?!" But then I read the exchange and was quite surprised to see that it was actually worth reading. This is rare indeed.

I agree with you on the need to avoid essentialism. It is very easy for someone to say, "The version of this thing that I know is the only valid version of this thing." In fact, the thing is made up of the entirety of all its variations. There are no doubt a large number of Buddhists who have no idea about the doctrines of Buddhism (witness the "prayer wheels" in Tibetan Buddhism, which, to the best of my knowledge, are imprinted/embossed with sutra texts to be spun by illiterate believers, thus somehow absorbing the knowledge of those texts; I admit my understanding of this tradition may be a little lacking), but there are also plenty of Buddhists (who are not Westerners) who know quite a bit about the doctrines--and who is to say that the Westerners are not true Buddhists?

This becomes a little more uncomfortable for me personally when I start to think about Christianity. There are plenty of people out there who identify as Christians, as I do, but whose beliefs I find problematic, if not downright abhorrent. Religion is a very messy thing, a deep, deep lake on whose surface I swim around as a folklorist. Occasionally I will attempt to dive into the depths, but I generally find more questions there than answers.

Kevin Kim said...

"There are no doubt a large number of Buddhists who have no idea about the doctrines of Buddhism (witness the "prayer wheels" in Tibetan Buddhism, which, to the best of my knowledge, are imprinted/embossed with sutra texts to be spun by illiterate believers, thus somehow absorbing the knowledge of those texts..."

You're right: the spinning prayer wheels are a way of turning/churning out the dharma (which is a literal interpretation of an image from the Buddha's life: when he gained enlightenment, the Buddha is said to have begun turning the wheel of the dharma, which is why you see eight-spoked wheel imagery at Korean Buddhist temples: this is the wheel of the cosmic Law), and because this strain of Buddhism riffs off the Hindu idea that the sutras contain inherent power, it's not necessary for the average wheel-spinner to understand this fact: the power is evoked in the spinning, no matter who you are. I'd say this is a form of magical thinking, and I'd say further that it's likely pancultural: witness how the Church in Europe, for centuries, conducted mass in Latin on the assumption that the sacred Word carried an inherent holiness that would spread to the masses, even if the masses knew no Latin. Modern Muslim madrassas today will make students memorize and recite sections of the Koran (which means "recitation") even if the students come from non-Arabic-speaking countries and have no idea what it is they're reciting. When you assume the written or spoken word has inherent power, the need for literacy goes out the window. Zooming back a bit further to a more abstract level: you're familiar with the anthropological term "performative utterance," which doubtless has very primitive roots: sometimes, in a ritual context, merely saying the thing makes it so: "I now pronounce you man and wife." Poof! The word has inherent power.

Charles said...

I am definitely more familiar with ritual from an anthropological perspective, and it is indeed interesting to see how, almost universally, it is the ritual itself that often has more power rather than the content of the ritual.