Buddhist Apologists

Inspired by: “The Making of Buddhist Modernism” by David L. McMahan, 2008. (see my Index post)

In chapter 2, “The Spectrum of Tradition and Modernism”, McMahan creates five fictional (yet typically realistic) portraits of very different types of Buddhist believers:

  • A Western Buddhist Sympathizer
  • A Thai Laywoman
  • An American Dharma Teacher
  • A Traditional Monk
  • An Asian Modernizer

The “Traditional Monk”, in his portrait, is from the same Tibetan Buddhist sect as the Dalai Lama called “Gelugpa”.  McMahan tells us how meditation is only a small part of the 20 years of training to obtain the sect’s Buddhist Ph.D. (“geshe”).  Instead of meditation, the monks train largely in philosophy, doctrinal debate and rituals.  Of that training he states [red emphasis is mine]:

“Although Tibetan Buddhism is modernizing in many ways, the curricula at its monastic training centers are still essentially traditional–that is, their purpose is to investigate, interpret, and reaffirm normative truths, in contrast to the liberal education model in the West, which is pluralistic and ideally encourages inquiry not directed to the predetermined conclusions of a specific tradition.    …..
His is not a pluralistic education that presents a wide variety of views and then encourages students to reason their way to their own conclusions.  Alternate view are presented mainly to be critiqued and dismissed.  Thus all the ideas and practices in his monastic training serve to construct a universe that appears unique, realistic, plausible, and coherent.” (pgs 39-40)

This is probably far from the idealized view held by Western Buddhists about their Tibetan monks teachers.  Western devotees can’t imagine the mysterious monks of the Orient being trained with the same blind, narrow training of Christian apologists.  Yet many Western Buddhist are drawn to the wonderful, categorical certainty preached in “Dharma talks” by these monk apologists (and their disciples) in a similar way many Christians are drawn to their apologists.  Certainty can be very comforting.

The apologetic training typified in McMahan’s paragraph above is pervasive not only in religion, but in sciences and nationalistic histories and much more.  Heck, I wonder if even some Atheists train themselves the same way.

The propaganda value due to the internal security of constructing a “unique” world which dismisses others as wholly other can not be underestimated.  The naivety of believing oneself to be wholly different and special than others, is blinding. The word “unique” in the above quote inspired this post and was pre-shadowed by my previous posts on “We aren’t a religion” and “Is your Religion Unique“.

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30 Comments

Filed under Philosophy & Religion

30 responses to “Buddhist Apologists

  1. johnl

    I doubt if meditation is ‘only a small part..’ and that ‘instead of meditation…’ I suspect that the monks only go on to the philosophy and all that after they have a very strong basis in meditation. Music students have to get the basic techniques before they learn the works of the great masters.

    Encouraging students to come to their own conclusions might be analogous to encouraging musicians in an orchestra to develop the theme however they want. They might find musically interesting ideas, but the whole orchestra won’t be able to play the piece. In the same way, lots of students coming to their own conclusions–valid as those conclusions might be–can’t be said to be in the Gelugpa tradition. You mention ‘propaganda value’ but it is also a bit like brand image. If an apprentice at Sushi X starts his own shop called Sushi X prime, using chocolate and limburger cheese, the owner of Sushi X might ask him/her to stop using the name.

  2. You seem to be rather concerned about appearances – how people see themselves and how they see others, particularly in relation to the groups they belong to and identify with – however I am not sure that some of the things you point to are actually valid. For instance, I have never heard a Christian claim that Christianity is not a religion.

    While there is no question some people will use their sense of the uniqueness of their religion as a way to proclaim its superiority to all others, I say once again that there is nothing wrong with simply feeling that your religion is unique. There are differences between religions, just as there are differences between people. I maintain that Buddhism is unique because unlike the other major religions it does not have a creator god or creation story. Just because I say this, it should not be assumed that I am saying Buddhism is superior. I am just stating a fact as I see it. In this sense, Buddhism is unique. Unique does not automatically mean superior.

    In this post, what both you and the person you quoted fail to take into consideration is the differences (uniqueness?) between the Eastern and Western mind. The difference is the same as the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning. The Eastern approach is to begin with a hypothesis and assume that it is true until something comes along to disprove it. The Western approach is the exact opposite. This applies to education as well. It is not productive, in my opinion, to expect Easterners to conform to the Western way of teaching or anything else.

  3. I think some people are drawn to both the more mystical aspect of Buddhism as well as take comfort in the repetitive rituals. This is the certainty that you mentioned and this is far from unique when compared to other religions. However, as time goes on, students begin to dig past a lot of that window dressing. This also comes down to tradition, as say Zen fits more of the “find out for yourself” model rather than the “this is how things are, now go check it out” that say a Tibetan sect might teach. This is not to say that Theravada or Tibetan traditions don’t come back to the same direction as Zen, they do. And I know quite a few teachers and students of both traditions that I would sit with in a heartbeat.

    Yes, there are both teachers and students that hover in this grey area of ‘dharma talks’ and ritual. In the West, they are becoming the exception and not the rule. Thanks for the heads up on that book, it definitely sounds worth the read. Going to put it on my ‘to read’ list.

  4. @ johnl :
    I will have to read more carefully what sort of data McMahan used. But I must say, when I lived for 7 years in Japan and 1 year in West China, I did not see monks meditating as much as doing ceremonies. I am wagering to say McMahan has done his homework and that there is an important take home point he is making.

    I agree with you that there are advantages to coming to one’s own conclusions vs trusting tradition — this is a delicate balance. And to further complicate the matter, it seems we are all genetically predisposed to favor one disposition over the other.

    @ David (suggest you enlarge your name — I have other Davids here) :
    Of course I am concerned about appearances – they affect daily life. The question is, “am I unduly concerned about appearances.
    I am an ex-Christian and have heard Christians claim “Christianity is not really a religion” many times. Heck, just google and you will find sites claiming this. Go ahead, give it a try.

    I, of course, agree that uniqueness does not automatically mean superior.
    I am not sure you put this comment in the right post.
    I think the Orientalist stance that Eastern and Western thinking are very different is a naive generalization and far from accurate. You will find materialists, nihilist, deists, sadists, positivists and every other kind of “ist” in the Orient — there is nothing in their genes, their language or the drinking water that makes them hugely different from us — not to mention the huge difference between countries, subcultures, religious groups and much , much more.

    @ Kyle :
    Agree, there are lots of varieties that draw different personality types. Not necessarily because they are true but because they feel good.

  5. McMahan’s book is terrific, and I think really important in opening up new ways of thinking about what is happening with Buddhism now, and what may need to happen next.

    The chapter you refer to here is brilliant, and should shock the average American Buddhist. From my experience, his portraits of five different Buddhists are devastatingly accurate as “types.” They are so true they become funny. What is shocking is how differently they see Buddhism; how at cross-purposes their fundamental assumptions are.

    @johnl: My experience from traveling in the Himalayas is entirely consistent with what McMahan says about meditation. So is everything I’ve read in the scholarly (not popular) literature. Almost no one in the Tibetan world meditates.

    Ironically, the Western idea that Buddhism is mostly about meditation is probably more consistent with scripture than is the popular Tibetan understanding. Almost all Tibetans consider that the main point of Buddhism is to gain “merit” (good karma) in order to have a better rebirth, and its second function is to provide magical protection and power to improve one’s current life-circumstances.

  6. McMahan’s book is terrific, and I think really important in opening up new ways of thinking about what is happening with Buddhism now, and what may need to happen next.

    The chapter Sabio refers to here is brilliant, and should shock the average American Buddhist. From my experience, his portraits of five different Buddhists are devastatingly accurate as “types.” They are so true they become funny. What is shocking is how differently they see Buddhism; how at cross-purposes their fundamental assumptions are.

    @johnl: My experience from traveling in the Himalayas is entirely consistent with what McMahan says about meditation. So is everything I’ve read in the scholarly (not popular) literature. Almost no one in the Tibetan world meditates.

    Ironically, the Western idea that Buddhism is mostly about meditation is probably more consistent with scripture than is the popular Tibetan understanding. Almost all Tibetans consider that the main point of Buddhism is to gain “merit” (good karma) in order to have a better rebirth, and its second function is to provide magical protection and power to improve one’s current life-circumstances.

  7. Ah, what a great post my friend.

    Heck, I wonder if even some Atheists train themselves the same way.

    Heck, I wonder, too. I think fanaticism of any kind usually drives people to tunnel vision in which all reality is interpreted in favour of one’s world’s view.

    Ever talked to a fanatic runner?

  8. @ David :
    Thanx, well written. Thank you for more data.

    @ Lorena :
    Thanx. Indeed, fanaticism (as you and I know) tastes so good. You shouldn’t knock it until you try it! 😀

  9. When I stayed for a couple of weeks in a Buddhist Temple on Kyushu, the priest thought it was amusing that I had a meditation practice. When I asked to meditate in his temple he was nice enough to provide me a cushion and his company for a five minute sit.

    Meditation was clearly not part of his daily practice. But then, self-flagellation is not a part of mainstream American Christianity practice.

  10. johnl

    @David and Sabio: I haven’t been to the Himalayas, nor have I read the book in question. Does scholarly material actually report that (almost) no one in the world of Tibetan Buddhism meditates? That is a bit hard to swallow. Any references?

  11. Mahahaha

    “I maintain that Buddhism is unique because unlike the other major religions it does not have a creator god or creation story.”

    Incorrect. Taoism also does not have a creator god or creation story. So how is Buddhism then unique? And for that matter, how is it different from Taoism?

    There was a point in the Buddhist history where one of the most prominent Buddhist masters, Atisha, claimed that he is the only person in the world who can tell Buddhism from other religions.

    Confusion reigns supreme. Today, 99% of the practicing Buddhists are actually practicing something not only completely different, but actually diametrically opposed to the Buddha’s teaching. And yet, they freely call themselves Buddhists.

    Poor slobs…

  12. I didn’t say it was the only one w/o a creator or creation story. Nitpicking does little to promote discussion. I am not interested in perceived “types” or judging people by appearance. Buddhism teaches that sort of thing is trivial and superficial.

    You make a lot of statements about Buddhism which going by the background you’ve offered, it seems you are not really qualified to make. I understand you are practicing somewhere now, why don’t you just practice for a while, try to absorb the teachings, set aside your judgmental mind and your own preconceived notions and then later on see how you feel about things.

  13. @ Mahahaha :
    Please watch name calling. [comment policy and all-thanx] Let’s try to keep it productive.

    @ David (endless_further) :
    I am not sure to whom your comment is directed. But to whomever you directed it, avoiding discussion by claiming someone is “not really qualified” and should meditate/’practice” a bit more is not helpful and considered a fallacy (genetic) in civil debate circles. Thank you for your consideration.

  14. @ johnl,
    Well, McMahan appears a superb scholar. But I will have to defer to David CHAPMAN for the scholarly info. But I know David CHAPMAN knows lots of people who mingle intimately with many Tibetans. But your question is the right question, and your doubt, is the reason for this discussion so it is right on target.

  15. @ Dan Gurney
    Your note (and support of McMahan’s point) was fun.
    When I was visiting Monasteries in the mountains on the western border of Sichuan, China (ancient Tibet), I would rise early (4-5 am) to meditate with the monks but only two or threr monks would get up that in morning to meditate. And they were really just there to light candles, ring bells and chant. And I saw no other meditation during the day. But lots of young monks could be found mid-day when ping-pong tournaments were going.

  16. Well, tell me then Sabio do you really know what 99% of the practicing Buddhists are actually practicing? Or you really have so much experience wit Buddhism to back up some of the assumptions you make? All I’m saying is to try the teachings for a period of time with an open mind, without trying to analyze and pick them apart.

  17. @ David (-the endlessfuther)
    I will not do Buddhist-Arm-Wrestling with you to see who has practiced the longest. Facts are facts. I won’t argue percentage, but just let me say that you have heard from some pretty experienced Buddhists and scholarly people here (McMahan being one) in the comments that your image of Buddhists in Asia may be very different than you imagine.
    The idealized version you hold may be a bit of a fantasy.

    Concerning Analyzing: One can practice and doubt. Analyzing IS having an open mind. You sound like a Christian who may say, “Look, just invite Jesus in your heart. Stop doubting the gospels. Open your mind without trying to analyze and pick them apart.” History has shown us how far that sort of thinking and that sort of dialogue takes us.

  18. You’re misunderstanding what I am trying to communicate to you. But it seems to me that you are too busy typing people, categorizing them, analyzing why they do what they do, what they think about themselves, what they call themselves and so on. This is why you see no difference between Eastern and Western thinking. Westerners want to approach Buddhism through the thinking mind, with logic and reason, and while it’s not wrong to expect a certain amount of logic and reason, to the Eastern mind this approach, and thinking itself, is the problem. Thinking in a way is the enemy because you can become too busy thinking and analyzing to soak up the dharma, or to see reality as it really is. That’s one reason why we practice meditation, to learn how to let go of thoughts and just be in the presence of the moment, the dharma, the void.

    It’s not about who has practiced longer. It’s about whether someone has the experience behind them and the depth of understanding to know what they are talking about when they make certain statements. I don’t know about your other commenters or anything about McMahan, I am mainly reacting to what you have written. If you want to call this arm wrestling or compare my approach to that of a fundamentalist Christian or say that I have some idealized version, that’s your prerogative. But to me it is just more typing and categorizing. And with that, my participation in this thread comes to an end.

  19. @ Endless_Further David
    I guess we will just have to let it rest. You have me classified as having less depth of understanding, too analytical, too busy typing people and just not qualified.
    I guess we can all now rest assured that your view of how much meditation makes up the practice of Buddhists around the world, is ground in a deeper reality than I could imagine approaching without a lot more work.
    Thank you for the analysis.

  20. Mahahaha

    David, you wrote: “I didn’t say it was the only one w/o a creator or creation story.”

    However, you actually wrote this: “I maintain that Buddhism is unique because unlike the other major religions it does not have a creator god or creation story.”

    Do you see the flaws in your logic? You must observe at least minimum coherency in your communication with others, unless you wish to be seen as a crackpot.

  21. If you guys think Taoism is a “Major” religion, more power to ya.

  22. @johnl – the standard reference on this would be Geoffrey Samuel’s _Civilized Shamans_. That’s another terrific book; arguably it’s best overview there is of Tibetan Buddhism. Unfortunately it’s out of print, and it’s academic enough that you have be motivated to get through it.

    Samuel’s main theme is that most Tibetan Buddhists (including most monks) have no aspiration to enlightenment. They consider it out of reach. Their involvement with the religion is pragmatic. Meditation points in the direction of enlightenment, and you would have to consider yourself very fancy to attempt it. (The idea that you would practice enlightenment to relax, improve your relationships, feel connected to nature, lower your blood pressure, etc., is not part of traditional practice.)

    In most Tibetan Schools, silent sitting meditation – letting go of thought to find emptiness – is something only the most elite monks do, and typically only on their _second_ three-year retreat. The _first_ three year retreat is devoted to Tantric ritual practice. And they spend twelve years memorizing theoretical doctrine before the first retreat. (The Nyingma lineage, to which I belong, is somewhat more liberal.)

    McMahan’s book has a whole chapter on how meditation recently came to be seen as something ordinary people could do – an idea that is alien to almost all of Buddhist history. He’s got only one footnote (that I found in a quick scan) to document the “traditionally, practically no one meditated” point. I don’t have my copy of Samuel with me at the moment; I’m not sure what “evidence” he brings to bear. (He is one of the most respected Western Tibetologists, for whatever that’s worth.)

    I doubt anyone has ever collected actual hard statistics, because the point is uncontroversial. If you travel in the Himalayas—outside the places Westerners regularly visit like Kathmandu—it’s just obvious. Silent sitting meditation is often viewed as highly secret and holy, and even to speak of it upsets people in power. No one you talk to will have any idea what the practice actually is. Monks spend their time chanting texts. The religious practice of non-monks is mostly making offerings (to gain merit), plus the mani mantra (which is protective). My impression is that this is true also in most of the rest of Buddhist Asia (again with the exceptions of places Westerners go, where meditation instruction can be a productive local industry).

  23. johnl

    @David Chapman
    Thanks for the info! I still feel like taking it with a grain of salt. For example, in Japanese Shingon, which includes vajrayana practices related to those in Tibetan Buddhism, they will teach meditation to anyone, but you must be ordained to receive the tantric practices.
    David wrote ‘My impression is that this is true also in most of the rest of Buddhist Asia (again with the exceptions of places Westerners go, where meditation instruction can be a productive local industry).’ Coincidentally, the Koyasan Shingon Tokyo branch temple gives meditation classes for free. They are getting to the point where they are kinda running out of room in the main hall. 99% are Japanese. Not a money making proposition, although the Japanese also are big on putting an offering in the box as their main practice. It is not directly related to the situation in Tibet, but I just wanted to get this exceptional case on the record 🙂

  24. @jonl – yes, of course if you want to be sure, you should do your own research.

    Japanese Buddhism was forcibly modernized by state decree in the late 19th Century. That makes it somewhat exceptional. Some other Buddhist lineages modernized elsewhere for various reasons – notably some strains of Theravada, whose early-20th-Century modernized forms are the basis of Western vipassana Buddhism.

    Tibet didn’t have significant cultural contact with modernism until after the 1959 Chinese occupation, and for various reasons has mostly remained unusually traditional and less willing to compromise with modernity than other Buddhist strains. Of course there are exceptions; HH the Dalai Lama, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, and Dzogchen Ponlop are three examples.

  25. Mahahaha

    “Samuel’s main theme is that most Tibetan Buddhists (including most monks) have no aspiration to enlightenment. They consider it out of reach.”

    2,500 years ago, when the historical Buddha Shakyamuni introduced his teaching, he predicted that the teaching will decline and that it will unavoidably get perverted. Was he right?

    Consider this: in the Buddha’s time, there were many recorded incidents where mere passers by, upon hearing the Buddha’s teaching, attained unexcelled enlightenment on the spot. Later on, after the Buddha’s passing, more intricate and more elaborate practices (a.k.a. Mahayana) had to be introduced in an effort to guide practitioners toward the enlightenment.

    After a while, these altruistic practices had degenerated into Vajrayana practices, whereby civilized shamanism and all kinds of superstitious beliefs and other mumbo-jumbo were allowed to soil the original teaching.

    Today, utter confusion reigns supreme (and what better proof for that than this very blog, which is perhaps the high pitch note in the sea of deafening confusion surrounding the Buddhist teaching and practice).

  26. @ Johnl and David Chapman :
    That was a fun exchange, I learned a lot, thanks.

    @ Mahahaha :
    Three questions/points:

    (1) So tell us where you are coming from. To me it sort of sounded like you are making a standard Nichiren or Shin argument. Is that your stance? What is your faith? Do you have any favorite unconfused blogs?

    (2) Tell me what you think of this:
    In the New Testament, lots of miracles are performed by the early disciples, lot of speaking in tongues and more. When these stopped happening, certain fundamentalist Christians explained that God was working in dispensations and now the Church is in a new dispensation where his holy Word means tongues and prophecy are not needed. Other groups like the Pentecostals explained that miracles are alive and try to get God to wrought miracles all over the place.

    Well, my take: the miracles never happened but were part of the myth. All the various theologies to deal with the discrepancy are based on the error of taking the miracles literally. Likewise, the miraculous enlightenment stories were just that, perhaps, “stories” — myths that evolved in tell the story hundreds of years later. Idealizing the days of the teacher.

    (3) I don’t understand your last paragraph, were you calling my writing the epitome of confusion? Just trying to clarify. I don’t deny, btw, that I am highly confused and I love being shown how.

  27. I think what David L. McMahan refers to is this type of debate/questioning: Tibetan Monks Debating-YouTube with set answers, not a free, personal enquiry.

  28. @ Roni
    Right! They train for that. Here is another video on one of my posts.

  29. Mahahaha

    Sabio,

    1: I am your garden variety Buddhist, non-sectarian, non-nominational. Been like that my whole adult life, since I turned 19. I tend to view Buddhist sects and various schools as merely a string of sad and unnecessary power struggles, a means for exerting control. In reality, all one needs is access to the Buddha’s own words — the man himself instructed us the best. Only feeble minded individuals need Dogen or some other mumbo-jumbo to set their minds at ease and tell them that words are overrated and that just sitting there is all there is to it.

    Try this for an unconfused blog: http://choosenot.blogspot.com

    2: there are no Christian-like miracles in the Buddha’s teaching (i.e. the Buddha didn’t rise from the dead and all that other farcical stuff). Others have tried to promote the Buddha into the god of gods, but I think such minds are merely caught in the game of being over-competitive.

    3: By being extremely, intensely open minded you may have painted yourself into becoming close minded. It happens to people all the time. Freedom does not mean winning more options and following them all, it merely means freedom to choose.

  30. Hey Maha,
    There are many varieties of Buddhists — sure, you may not hold to any given sect or ‘denomination’ but you have a set of particular beliefs that make you a particular kind of Buddhist too — just like everyone else. For instance, knowing the “Buddha’s own words” is rather tough since they are mixed over the years with many overlays and editings. Meaning that somehow you think you own the hermeneutic key to true understanding. Well good for you.

    The gentleman’s site you sent me to is also clearly a certain flavor of Buddhism.

    I must say, your repeated accusations of everyone but you as being “feeble minded”, “close minded”, or “poor slobs” makes me suspect that whatever set of teachings you embrace they have yet to deeply affect your way of communicating or relating to others in a way that would draw me to inspect your insights much further.

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