Is Buddhism elitist?

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Is Buddhism elitist?

Postby viniketa » Sun Nov 04, 2012 7:41 pm

For some time now (perhaps 15 years), I've been contemplating the question of whether or not Buddhism is 'elitist'. I've been fighting this conclusion, but the evidence from things I've read or seen seems to indicate it is, and has been so since almost the beginning. As much as a prescription for suffering, the teachings of Buddhism seem to lend themselves to justifying one's own elitist leanings. This seems so not only in the teachings on karma (a convenient way of dismissing the suffering of 'others') and accumulating merit, but also so in the description of the qualities of a Buddha along with the almost racial implications of terms included in Nāgārjuna's Dharma-sāṃgraha.

I'm very interested in reading others' thoughts on this, especially thought that indicate this is a wrong-view of the teachings.

Thank you.
If they can sever like and dislike, along with greed, anger, and delusion, regardless of their difference in nature, they will all accomplish the Buddha Path.. ~ Sutra of Complete Enlightenment
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Re: Is Buddhism elitist?

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Sun Nov 04, 2012 9:00 pm

I'm somewhat unsure of what you mean by Elitist here.

I think that like any religion Buddhism has it's set of things you basically need to accept before everything else can make sense - to join the club so to speak, the four noble truths at a bare minimum! Unlike other religions though, you are encouraged (Kalama sutta etc) to actually test everything in the laboratory of your own heart before knowing it's truthfulness. At least we are encouraged to rely on something beyond doctrinaire answers to questions, which is certainly more than can be said of many "isms".

In the end if you accept the teachings you will believe that other people (most probably non-Buddhist) are a bit deluded, but this is the same for ANY worldview you accept, Marxism, Christianity, Judaism, American Exceptionalism/ any Nationalism, all viewpoints based on race and ethnicity, all of these views can to some degree make you an "elitist", I think this is why the Buddha himself cautioned so strongly against 'views'.

Bit of a conundrum, but I think the short answer would be that if anything, Buddhism has an argument for being less 'elitist' than most religions and philosophies out there.

I know this sounds contradictory but we have to be able to somewhat separate Buddhism from Buddhists, anytime you take a philosophy and judge it solely by your perception of the actions of it's adherents, I think there is a tendency to focus on the negative, and thus you judge the teaching by the actions of those doing the worse job of practicing them.

I guess I would also say that from my own limited exposure, Mahayana definitely has a much more egalitarian flavor in this regard than Theraveda does, the focus on Bodhicitta, and the focus on the idea of waking up to one's inherent Buddha Nature.
"Just as a lotus does not grow out of a well-levelled soil but from the mire, in the same way the awakening mind
is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
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Re: Is Buddhism elitist?

Postby Ayu » Sun Nov 04, 2012 9:14 pm

Yes.
There are many Buddhists who feel to be elitist. But that's because nobody is perfect and the egos are sticky in a subtle way.
The Dharma ist the opposite from elite because it is not negleting or excluding anyone. All beings have to become free from suffering, not only an elite.

And to be elitist means to think "I and they". It means to differ, to draw borders and to devide. This is against the principal of Anatta and Emptyness.

Not all the beings are on the same level at the same time. If you look only into a small period, then it seems to be that the teachings are only understandable for very less people. But if you look at the time in its vastness, you see that it is possible that all beings may reach enlightment sooner or later. This point of view is Buddhism, isn't it?
Because, if our mothers, who have been kind to us
From beginningless time, are suffering,
What can we do with (just) our own happiness?
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Re: Is Buddhism elitist?

Postby viniketa » Mon Nov 05, 2012 12:07 am

Thank you for your responses.

Johnny Dangerous wrote:In the end if you accept the teachings you will believe that other people (most probably non-Buddhist) are a bit deluded, but this is the same for ANY worldview you accept... Bit of a conundrum, but I think the short answer would be that if anything, Buddhism has an argument for being less 'elitist' than most religions and philosophies out there.


I should have made it clear that I am not referring to a simple Buddhist/non-Buddhist divide.

Johnny Dangerous wrote:I guess I would also say that from my own limited exposure, Mahayana definitely has a much more egalitarian flavor in this regard than Theraveda does, the focus on Bodhicitta, and the focus on the idea of waking up to one's inherent Buddha Nature.


Nor do I refer to a divide between vehicles, per se.

Let us begin with teachings about karma and merit. True, generally non-Buddhists and those who take what are considered 'lesser' vehicles are assumed to have accumulated less 'positive' karma and less merit. However, let us posit a case of two practitioners both of the same 'vehicle'. One was born into a wealthy family which is very pious in its observance of the precepts and who has been reared in devotion. One was born into an impoverished family whose practice has been sporadic and limited, partially due to means, and who, while devoted, has strayed from the precepts, though always returning to the path. Which is the "better" Buddhist?

Ayu wrote:There are many Buddhists who feel to be elitist. But that's because nobody is perfect and the egos are sticky in a subtle way. The Dharma ist the opposite from elite because it is not negleting or excluding anyone. All beings have to become free from suffering, not only an elite.


Yes, I agree about egos. Yet, all beings become free from suffering due to the activities of an "elite" (bodhisattvas)?

Yet, the elitism can cut different ways. There is a sort of reverse-elitism, as well, in which only those who overcome great personal deprivation and hardship are considered "good" Buddhists.

Many of these ideas seem contrary to basic teachings in Buddhism, yet I see these ideas pop-up repeatedly among Buddhists, who often use some scripture or another, or some 'Dharma story', to justify the reasoning.

I find it very confusing.

:namaste:
If they can sever like and dislike, along with greed, anger, and delusion, regardless of their difference in nature, they will all accomplish the Buddha Path.. ~ Sutra of Complete Enlightenment
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Re: Is Buddhism elitist?

Postby lobster » Mon Nov 05, 2012 1:00 am

People are elitist.
We don't have to be those people. If you call yourself Buddhist, then you are badged. If you give up the badge then you are accepted by another 'elite'. The question is are we in ourselves leet or noob? Ultimately who cares?

Sociology has far more on this. :group:
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Re: Is Buddhism elitist?

Postby Indrajala » Mon Nov 05, 2012 1:04 am

Seeing someone born in a lowly profession like a butcher and unable to avoid killing for economic reasons, ideally one should view them with compassion and not ridicule and pity.

However, that's just the ideal.
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Re: Is Buddhism elitist?

Postby viniketa » Mon Nov 05, 2012 3:35 am

Huseng wrote:Seeing someone born in a lowly profession like a butcher and unable to avoid killing for economic reasons, ideally one should view them with compassion and not ridicule and pity.


And, equanimity?

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Re: Is Buddhism elitist?

Postby Indrajala » Mon Nov 05, 2012 3:49 am

viniketa wrote:
Huseng wrote:Seeing someone born in a lowly profession like a butcher and unable to avoid killing for economic reasons, ideally one should view them with compassion and not ridicule and pity.


And, equanimity?

:namaste:


Sure, that's important.

But let's be realistic. Flawed humans are prone to ethnic and institutional identities and all the pride that comes with it.

The Buddhadharma is free of this, but those self-identifying as Buddhists and their respective institutions may not be.
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Re: Is Buddhism elitist?

Postby Ayu » Mon Nov 05, 2012 6:57 am

Yes, I agree about egos. Yet, all beings become free from suffering due to the activities of an "elite" (bodhisattvas)?

To see it like this is a hindrance on the path - IMHO...
As long as the bodhisattva thinks 'I am the one who helps the beings' , there is something wrong still.
The thought should be 'I help the beings. Or maybe 'I help the beings.

The time-factor I mentioned is an important thing for me: everything is changing permanently. Those who think to be part of an elite today will be in very different circumstances tomorrow. Those who need help today will give help tomorrow. If one thinks in long termes, there is no scope for being "better".
The only way is to come out of samsara and dualism in the mind. Those who reached the realm beyond "You and I", "Better and low" are able to build this "elite", but they are not interested in such things anymore.
Because, if our mothers, who have been kind to us
From beginningless time, are suffering,
What can we do with (just) our own happiness?
From 10th of 37 Bodhisattva Practices
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Re: Is Buddhism elitist?

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Mon Nov 05, 2012 7:19 am

Isn't there a sutta that specifically talks about someone of low birth, who has less formal education, but more understanding of the 'spirit' of the teachings being (for lack of a better term) "a better Buddhist"?

PS, now that i've seen it, I think if someone ever asks me what kind of Buddhism i practice, i'm going to say "Leet Buddhism", maybe even L33t Buddhism.
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is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
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Re: Is Buddhism elitist?

Postby lobster » Mon Nov 05, 2012 10:14 am

. . . or MInD H4x0R . . . ('Mind hacker' for the non-leet) :tongue:
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Re: Is Buddhism elitist?

Postby Sherab Dorje » Mon Nov 05, 2012 11:24 am

"Perform no bad deeds,
perfect the practice of good actions
and tame your mind:
That is the teaching of the Buddha."
Dhammapada Verse 183

Doesn't sound elitist to me.
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Re: Is Buddhism elitist?

Postby joda » Mon Nov 05, 2012 12:12 pm

I think Elitist should be defined before trying to answer such a question.
For example, Buddhism does presuppose quite some things that not everyone has. It presupposes a certain amount of intelligence for example to understand the teachings and a certain amount of time and education to check which ones are true and which ones are not so true; it requires a certain societal freedom to get the relevant literature and / or practice the religion; it also requires lack of certain basic problems - you wont want to fill your life with an eastern religion for example if you are in an area where there is civil war - you also will have better things to do then discuss high topics on some "spiritual" forums if you dont have a full fridge and a home. So there is quite an amount of prerequisites that one needs to be able and / or willing to embark on some Buddhist path. To people who are in really bad situations most of what the Buddhists discuss might seem like stuff that only people can talk about who dont have real problems.
Of course then there are the secondary, maybe more obvious Elitisms, like the idea that Sravakayana is a lowly, shitty thing for dummies and only the highest tantric path is the right one. Or the other way around that the original teachings are of course the best and all that unbuddhist Vajrayana crarp is only for people who are stupid :P. And honestly I think its those kidns of thoughts that invade pretty quickly and silently, especially if you are somewhat proud that you found the "best possible religion" or if the path you are following does a good job of indoctrinating you with all sorts of mindcandy for your narcisissm.
Lastly even enlightenment itself can be viewed as Elitist in the sense that it can only be reached by very selected few in a very selected time; part of which might be the reason for the relatively quick appearance of pure-land doctrines in the Buddhist history.
But its really a matter of how you define the term what is applicable and what aint.
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Re: Is Buddhism elitist?

Postby Jikan » Mon Nov 05, 2012 12:21 pm

Elitist in a perjorative sense if you're doing it wrong. I think a better descriptor may be "vanguardist." Consider: you have a group of people who are committed to a particular set of practices and doctrines they claim have transformative power. They cultivate these practices and set themselves up to lead others in learning those practices, with an eye on the totality of all relations, vowing never to rest until the lot is revolutionized. That's vanguardism. It becomes elitism when you blow it, imagining yourself and your in-group to be superior to others inherently, using your practice as a way to bolster your social status or your ego.
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Re: Is Buddhism elitist?

Postby undefineable » Mon Nov 05, 2012 2:22 pm

joda wrote:it also requires lack of certain basic problems - you wont want to fill your life with an eastern religion for example if you are in an area where there is civil war - you also will have better things to do then discuss high topics on some "spiritual" forums if you dont have a full fridge and a home. So there is quite an amount of prerequisites that one needs to be able and / or willing to embark on some Buddhist path.

I don't mean to be rude, but isn't it the other way round - the way it clearly is for theistic religions? I understand about the level of education needed to understand a non-theistic religion (another of which is effectively scientism, of course), but isn't that level pretty common among adults in the west? Moreover, why would someone who felt [s]he had no problems be attracted to Buddhism? Even Gautama, because of his compassion, had a problem with the suffering he saw around him, and I don't believe he was just mentally 'falling back' on the security of his palace for long after he left it.

To sum up, I'd reverse the following statement:
joda wrote:To people who are in really bad situations most of what the Buddhists discuss might seem like stuff that only people can talk about who dont have real problems.

There's always time for thought, after all.
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Re: Is Buddhism elitist?

Postby viniketa » Mon Nov 05, 2012 2:38 pm

joda wrote:But its really a matter of how you define the term...


Encouraging an "I am (or we are) more X than thou" attitude. Fill in X with pious, accomplished, liberated, etc.

Thanks to all for their replies. Jikan - I am most appreciative of your "vanguard" explanation for bodhisattvas. That is a very good way to think of and explain it.

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Re: Is Buddhism elitist?

Postby Lhug-Pa » Mon Nov 05, 2012 6:03 pm

viniketa wrote:Is Buddhism elitist?

....also so in the description of the qualities of a Buddha along with the almost racial implications of terms included in Nāgārjuna's Dharma-sāṃgraha.
Huseng wrote:Seeing someone born in a lowly profession like a butcher and unable to avoid killing for economic reasons, ideally one should view them with compassion and not ridicule and pity.

However, that's just the ideal.



Longchen Rabjam wrote:The Array of Inlaid Gems states:

They have powerful limbs, a dark complexion,
even, white, rounded teeth, slightly bloodshot eyes,
and hair of great quality, dark brown and curling clockwise.
They show little concern for their appearance,
and outwardly their conduct is quite ordinary.
These people speak forthrightly,
or else they echo all the words that others speak to them.
It is said that they are to be instructed in the Great Perfection.
If all these qualities are complete in anyone,
regardless of how low that person's status may be
even if a butcher, a prostitute, a sweeper, or a hunter
this vital essence of the secret pith instructions should
be conferred.
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Re: Is Buddhism elitist?

Postby joda » Mon Nov 05, 2012 6:49 pm

I don't mean to be rude, but isn't it the other way round - the way it clearly is for theistic religions? I understand about the level of education needed to understand a non-theistic religion (another of which is effectively scientism, of course), but isn't that level pretty common among adults in the west?


Check how many people in the USA believe that the earth was created in a few thousand years. ;-)

undefineable wrote:Moreover, why would someone who felt [s]he had no problems be attracted to Buddhism?


What I mean is that you select a religion usually out of an inner impulse which normally derives from a feeling of something lacking, which can not show when you are in danger for your life, or suffer hunger, or are sick. Its kind of a luxury problem.
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Re: Is Buddhism elitist?

Postby undefineable » Mon Nov 05, 2012 9:57 pm

joda wrote:
I don't mean to be rude, but isn't it the other way round - the way it clearly is for theistic religions? I understand about the level of education needed to understand a non-theistic religion (another of which is effectively scientism, of course), but isn't that level pretty common among adults in the west?

Check how many people in the USA believe that the earth was created in a few thousand years. ;-)

Many of them in spite of their education rather than due to a lack of it :roll:
joda wrote:
undefineable wrote:Moreover, why would someone who felt [s]he had no problems be attracted to Buddhism?

What I mean is that you select a religion usually out of an inner impulse which normally derives from a feeling of something lacking, which can not show when you are in danger for your life, or suffer hunger, or are sick. Its kind of a luxury problem.

I think the 'feeling of something lacking' (dukkha) often not only feels like a longer-term 'danger for your life', but also demotivates many who lack a religious/spiritual path from doing whatever is needed to prevent such concrete problems from appearing - hence alcohol abuse and so forth. More materially-successful -as well as less-sensitive- people are likely to have already filled that 'lack' with provisional/stop-gap distractions such as status, fulfilling work, and so on; therefore they are less in need of anything 'deeper'.

Certainly, though, most of the world's poor do not 'select' a religion, such phenomena being merely passed down the generations on an "it's there if you need it" basis - or worse.
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Re: Is Buddhism elitist?

Postby tomamundsen » Mon Nov 05, 2012 10:31 pm

Lhug-Pa wrote:
Longchen Rabjam wrote:The Array of Inlaid Gems states:

They have powerful limbs, a dark complexion,
even, white, rounded teeth, slightly bloodshot eyes,
and hair of great quality, dark brown and curling clockwise.
They show little concern for their appearance,
and outwardly their conduct is quite ordinary.
These people speak forthrightly,
or else they echo all the words that others speak to them.
It is said that they are to be instructed in the Great Perfection.
If all these qualities are complete in anyone,
regardless of how low that person's status may be
even if a butcher, a prostitute, a sweeper, or a hunter
this vital essence of the secret pith instructions should
be conferred.

What race of people is he even describing here? Tibetans?
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