Friday, November 15, 2019

Dr. V on Julius Evola on Buddhism-as-religion

Dr. Vallicella quotes and comments on some excerpts from Julius Evola's The Doctrine of Awakening as he [Evola] attacks the oft-posed question, "Is Buddhism a religion?"

I find the question itself, framed in a binary, yes/no way, to be misleading by its very nature. Buddhism, if we respect it, is a living phenomenon with many aspects and dimensions. Reducing it to a set of doctrines and/or principles merely allows one to assume what one is trying to prove: a person convinced that "true" or "pure" or "essential" Buddhism is only a philosophy can strip away all the sociological, folkloric, magical, and theistic components of the tradition and conclude, that, yes, when stripped down to its philosophies, Buddhism is only a philosophy. This move merely thrusts one into a circular, tautological loop because the person is assuming the very thing he wishes to prove. Of course Buddhism, seen purely as a philosophy, is a philosophy!

Reductive explanations of sociological phenomena are, in my opinion, not to be trusted. Given that they involve the illicitly tautological move described above, they end up saying nothing of any significance. Westerners who have appropriated Buddhism over the past century have long had a tendency—thanks to their rebellion against the magical nature of fundamentalist Christianity, which is what brought them to Buddhism in the first place—to view it naturalistically and non-magically; for them, Buddhism is little more than a thought-system that has something sensible and practical to say about human psychology and the nature of reality. As a vehicle for a social structure, as inspiration for art and food and other aspects of culture, Buddhism means little to nothing to these Westerners. What do they know about Buddhist temple food unless they do a "temple stay" excursion? What can they tell me about Buddhist art, or about how Asian Buddhists approach notions like "love" and "family" in their everyday lives? Generally, such Westerners know nothing. I've talked with Zen practitioners in the States who, when I show them the Chinese character for "Zen," have no idea what the character is or means. While I don't want to go down the essentialist rabbit hole and flatly declare that "real" Buddhism is only practiced in the East, in its magico-folkloric form, I also don't want to essentialize Buddhism as a rarefied philosophy, which is the impression I get from reading Vallicella's quotes of Evola.

It's funny, too, because Vallicella has long been partial to stripping religions down to their philosophical doctrines. He and I had a disagreement, years ago, about my praxis-oriented view that "religions are as they are practiced," i.e., they constitute dimensional, Habermasian "life-worlds" (Lebenswelten) that are so much more than their philosophical (or doctrinal) substrata. My contention, which is admittedly rooted in my bias toward empiricism, is that a religion is a religion when it's lived. Vallicella, perhaps revealing his own biases as a philosopher, is content to essentialize, to boil a religion down to its philosophical components and to explore those components' internal coherence. That's fine, as far as such exploration goes, but that path of inquiry also strips the humanity out of religion. You can tell only so much about an animal by studying its dried, chemical-bleached skeleton.

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