Uncertain Minds: How The West Misunderstands Buddhism
Interfaith Series at St-Paul’s Cathedral , Dr. Stephen Batchelor and Dr. John Peacock
On March 21st 2011, St-Paul’s Cathedral in London hosted a conference on the misunderstanding of Buddhism in the West. Its keynote speakers, Professors Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock, both explored how the word Buddhism itself had become since the 19th century misinterpreted as a religion in terms very similar to Christianity. They both argued that Buddhism inherently and historically cannot be understood and in fact loses much of its core dynamisms when it is interpreted as a religion.
For Professor Batchelor, Buddhism in terms of what Buddhists themselves have understood it is in fact anything further from a religion but what they call Dharma or a “teaching”. Buddhism like the Dharma is in fact irreducible, anti-dogmatic and anti-definitional; it is instead best thought as an “appropriate statement” — one that indeed applies differently and is subject to the concrete unique situations one finds oneself personally, socially and culturally every day. Buddhism is “a living response to our time”, and therefore inappropriately understood in terms of the religious recital and repetition of classical beliefs, doctrines even from a particular school of thought. In the age of modernity and in particular its characteristic self-awareness of its own historical contingency and evolution, Buddhism lends itself particularly well to understanding of the impermanence, imperfect and the contingent, of not only itself but of our concrete world.
Professor Peacock concurs that indeed Buddhism is often seen as a religion in the West because it is often associated with monks, monasteries, enlightenment, and indeed meditation — something that Buddhist not only do not practice but for which they have no equivalent word. In fact, it is a mistake that is not unique to the West; the earlier we read into the early texts and the sayings of the Buddha the more misunderstandings there are we uncover. One of the key aspects often forgotten about Buddhism is its ethics — in particular its very anti-absolutist form of ethical thought. In the early texts, we actually see the Buddha very much engaged and critical of his own culture, undermining it by using anything and everything he can in his own time. The Buddha is actually anti-traditional and anti-religious — such that a religious ritual interpretation of Buddhism misses its core teachings.
In fact, both Professor Batchelor and Peacock agree that the intrigue and fascination of early texts, while framed by constrained by contemporary training in the basic philosophical concepts of Buddhism and methodological approaches, is fundamentally vital to exploring the teachings of the Dharma not only for grasping its historically contingent developments apart from its evolutionary contexts and original beginnings, but to modern need to grasp “what kinds of expressions slip back into dogmatism, religiosity” itself. Our conversations with the past are mediated with our longstanding engagement with them.
From this perspective, Professor Batchelor confidently states that we can say there are in fact four points that are genuinely attributable to the Buddha and not merely to his own or a subsequent development of a later historical age. The first point in the Buddhist teaching is exploring the “principle of contingency” or “condition arising” which refers to the awakening of the processional, flowing and interconnection of life. The second is exploring the four ennobling truths understood as descriptions rather than injunctions. First truth is to embrace the suffering of one’s own self and others in this life. Second truth is the difficulty in surrendering the grasping and craving that inhibit us from fully embracing reality — the element in us that tends to reduce everything to our own personal desires and fears. Third truth is the effort to find in our own experiences a moment where we are no longer pulled by fear, attachment, hatred, jealousy and pride. And the fourth truth is to “embark on a way of life” that allows the flourishing of your humanity “in all of its aspects in the way we see things, think about them, act, work, apply ourselves, pay attention and focus our minds”. The third point in the Buddhist teaching is the cultivation of what is called mindfulness of the “specificity of experience”, that is the self-awareness of the concrete now from attention to your own breath toward feelings, mental states, to everything and others in the totality of now. The fourth point in Buddhist teach is the exploration of “self-reliance” or “autonomous” in the sense of that finding your Buddha moment you realize an independence from others, including those in the Buddhist teaching. Buddhism is not an attainment but always an “appropriate response”. Every insight is in the moment, it is in fact always an insight that is not only contingent and passing away and comes back with the proper teaching.
Even in nirvana — the moment of humanity — there is never an escape; unlike religion, absolution in the Christian sense is not possible for Buddhists. While even nirvana is replete with dukkha or suffering, the Buddha or those on the path are better able to deal with the suffering of this life. The teachings are strategies to force us to introspect and confront our lives. Like the Epicureans, the Stoics and Aristotle, Buddhism like philosophia is a cure for something in us, not an academic or theological discipline. The Buddha helps you get better.
In future entries, I hope to further explore Buddhism through these lenses.