Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

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Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby tobes » Fri Jan 07, 2011 2:52 am

To what extent does the Buddhist dharma present in the west as a critique of modernity?

Modernity is of course an extremely contested concept, but I think that we can broadly agree that it refers to the rise of industrial capitalism in the 17th century, and the respective technological, social and political changes embedded in that.

I'm particularly interested in two aspects here:

1/ Buddhism as a negation (escape from/critique of) the forms of instrumental rationality which (according to sociologists such as Weber) modernity demands of its subjects. Inclusive of this is a negation or critique of the ethics of utility and the individualism it presupposes.

2/ Turning to and drawing from Buddhism as a response to the economics or political economy of late capitalism. I.e. a rejection of the consumer lifestyle, the drive for profit, the premise of self-interest etc.

I suppose both of these refer to ideas of the European enlightenment, but let us leave that implicit for the time being, lest we bite off more than we can chew.

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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby Indrajala » Fri Jan 07, 2011 3:48 am

tobes wrote:To what extent does the Buddhist dharma present in the west as a critique of modernity?


I think you need to be more specific with your terms.

There is a lot of Buddhist dharma present in western countries.

Some of it was quite successfully transplanted from Asia with minimal modification. However, those forms are often referred to as "ethnic Buddhism" and not normally available or popular with the natives.

On the other hand there are plenty of heavily modified traditions that a lot of people in Asia would not recognize as Buddhism. For example titles such as this would not be recognized as Buddhism in Taiwan:

Image

Even in the transplanted organizations and traditions in western countries such things would not be recognized as legitimate. Rather, I imagine most would consider such works as misguided, immature and distasteful. However, a lot of younger people in the English speaking world at least find such works appealing.

Zen priest Brad Warner asserts that Buddhists are encouraged to jack off. Meanwhile the late Chan master Venerable Master Shengyan has written that masturbation is inappropriate.

Brad Warner would represent the typical values of a younger American generation. Anything he has to say would probably conform to the standards and values of present day American youth. Venerable Shengyan's words would be prone to be regarded as old fashioned, traditional and archaic, but then not many of his works are translated into English yet. I don't think they would sell well on Amazon either.

So, I would say the trendy forms of Zen in America are probably entirely compatible with modernity. However, more orthodox Asian traditions, with the exception of Japanese Buddhism at present, would come into conflict with many modern values and ideas.

Again, going back to Venerable Shengyan, in one of his Chinese works he points out the scriptural support that states when one takes refuge in the Triple Gem one comes under the protection of a number of guardian deities. If asked for scientific evidence of the existence of such deities I imagine he could not provide anything. However, in the Chinese speaking world science and Buddhism are generally not taken together. You would not walk into a temple and ask for physical proof of the existence of Guanyin.

On the other hand, in Europe or North America there is a continuing trend of demanding scientific proof for religious claims.

Now, American Zen, as far as I know, would never postulate the actual existence of Kannon (Guanyin) and guardian deities even though historically Japanese Zen actually did. However, American Zen conforms to the standards and values of the modern world as it is understood in Euro-American terms.

Again, Chinese Buddhism would not, but then they are not actively challenged by the scientific community.

Keep in mind Chinese Buddhism is in the west, but it is largely ignored by the natives. This is kind of ironic considering Chinese Buddhist organizations are probably the most wealthy and well organized.



1/ Buddhism as a negation (escape from/critique of) the forms of instrumental rationality which (according to sociologists such as Weber) modernity demands of its subjects. Inclusive of this is a negation or critique of the ethics of utility and the individualism it presupposes.


I think my analysis above relates to this. American Zen makes no demands contrary to the demands of modernity. In fact it tends to discourage people from taking the orthodox ideas and traditions seriously.

Tibetan Buddhism in North America and Europe is different, but then it is undergoing commodification. This indeed would be the influence of capitalism upon what was originally an isolated religion in Tibet and Mongolia. In other words, westernization.

Image

In that sense Tibetan Buddhism is not reforming the natives, but the natives are reforming it to suit their values.

In all honesty I don't see many Buddhist thinkers, in the English speaking world at least, going against modernity. They tend to reinterpret Buddhist ideas to make them tasteful to modernity. Some toss in jargon from quantum physics in an attempt to validate their ideas. Others defer to accepted lineage masters of western psychology for validation of Buddhist ideas instead of the arguments and treatises of Buddhist masters.

I don't know why for the longest time people have deferred to Jung about Buddhist ideas. The modern intellectual needs validation from a thinker whose testimony is widely accepted.
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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby ground » Fri Jan 07, 2011 4:26 am

Difficult for me to identify what this is about. I cannot make sense of expressions like "Buddhism does this or that" because any valid statement in my view necessarily has to be reduced to the individual and generalisations are invalid in the first place.

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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby Heruka » Fri Jan 07, 2011 4:47 am

a system of realitive morality compatible with buddhism?
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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby ground » Fri Jan 07, 2011 5:22 am

tobes wrote:I suppose both of these refer to ideas of the European enlightenment, but let us leave that implicit for the time being, lest we bite off more than we can chew.

When "European enlightenment" comes to my mind I spontaneously think of "critical inquiry/analysis" which for me is also "in the heart of buddhism".

Heruka wrote:a system of realitive morality compatible with buddhism?

Well the ethics of Buddhism from my point of view also are relative. It is based on what is un-/wholesome "by nature" (conventional meaning) and what is un-/wholesome by commitment (vows, pledges).


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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby ground » Fri Jan 07, 2011 5:40 am

TMingyur wrote:
tobes wrote:I suppose both of these refer to ideas of the European enlightenment, but let us leave that implicit for the time being, lest we bite off more than we can chew.

When "European enlightenment" comes to my mind I spontaneously think of "critical inquiry/analysis" which for me is also "in the heart of buddhism".


"European enlightenment" has led to democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religions, separation of worldly power and religious institutions, science ... all these I endorse and I do find the appreciation of these to be necessarily a part of a buddhist view.

Freedom however has to be conjoined with ethics so that harm is avoided.


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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby tobes » Fri Jan 07, 2011 1:00 pm

TMingyur wrote:Difficult for me to identify what this is about. I cannot make sense of expressions like "Buddhism does this or that" because any valid statement in my view necessarily has to be reduced to the individual and generalisations are invalid in the first place.

Kind regards


I'm not sure about this. I think we can study cultures and societies, and not merely reduce everything to the level of the individual.

Can we do this here without making generalisations? Well, you're right in assuming we probably can't. But does that make it all invalid? I don't think so. It may not give us perfect epistemic precision, but it could well offer something fruitful.....

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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby tobes » Fri Jan 07, 2011 1:17 pm

Huseng wrote:
tobes wrote:To what extent does the Buddhist dharma present in the west as a critique of modernity?


I think you need to be more specific with your terms.

There is a lot of Buddhist dharma present in western countries.

Some of it was quite successfully transplanted from Asia with minimal modification. However, those forms are often referred to as "ethnic Buddhism" and not normally available or popular with the natives.

On the other hand there are plenty of heavily modified traditions that a lot of people in Asia would not recognize as Buddhism. For example titles such as this would not be recognized as Buddhism in Taiwan:

Image

Even in the transplanted organizations and traditions in western countries such things would not be recognized as legitimate. Rather, I imagine most would consider such works as misguided, immature and distasteful. However, a lot of younger people in the English speaking world at least find such works appealing.

Zen priest Brad Warner asserts that Buddhists are encouraged to jack off. Meanwhile the late Chan master Venerable Master Shengyan has written that masturbation is inappropriate.

Brad Warner would represent the typical values of a younger American generation. Anything he has to say would probably conform to the standards and values of present day American youth. Venerable Shengyan's words would be prone to be regarded as old fashioned, traditional and archaic, but then not many of his works are translated into English yet. I don't think they would sell well on Amazon either.

So, I would say the trendy forms of Zen in America are probably entirely compatible with modernity. However, more orthodox Asian traditions, with the exception of Japanese Buddhism at present, would come into conflict with many modern values and ideas.

Again, going back to Venerable Shengyan, in one of his Chinese works he points out the scriptural support that states when one takes refuge in the Triple Gem one comes under the protection of a number of guardian deities. If asked for scientific evidence of the existence of such deities I imagine he could not provide anything. However, in the Chinese speaking world science and Buddhism are generally not taken together. You would not walk into a temple and ask for physical proof of the existence of Guanyin.

On the other hand, in Europe or North America there is a continuing trend of demanding scientific proof for religious claims.

Now, American Zen, as far as I know, would never postulate the actual existence of Kannon (Guanyin) and guardian deities even though historically Japanese Zen actually did. However, American Zen conforms to the standards and values of the modern world as it is understood in Euro-American terms.

Again, Chinese Buddhism would not, but then they are not actively challenged by the scientific community.

Keep in mind Chinese Buddhism is in the west, but it is largely ignored by the natives. This is kind of ironic considering Chinese Buddhist organizations are probably the most wealthy and well organized.



1/ Buddhism as a negation (escape from/critique of) the forms of instrumental rationality which (according to sociologists such as Weber) modernity demands of its subjects. Inclusive of this is a negation or critique of the ethics of utility and the individualism it presupposes.


I think my analysis above relates to this. American Zen makes no demands contrary to the demands of modernity. In fact it tends to discourage people from taking the orthodox ideas and traditions seriously.

Tibetan Buddhism in North America and Europe is different, but then it is undergoing commodification. This indeed would be the influence of capitalism upon what was originally an isolated religion in Tibet and Mongolia. In other words, westernization.

Image

In that sense Tibetan Buddhism is not reforming the natives, but the natives are reforming it to suit their values.

In all honesty I don't see many Buddhist thinkers, in the English speaking world at least, going against modernity. They tend to reinterpret Buddhist ideas to make them tasteful to modernity. Some toss in jargon from quantum physics in an attempt to validate their ideas. Others defer to accepted lineage masters of western psychology for validation of Buddhist ideas instead of the arguments and treatises of Buddhist masters.

I don't know why for the longest time people have deferred to Jung about Buddhist ideas. The modern intellectual needs validation from a thinker whose testimony is widely accepted.


Well, I take some of your points.

I wonder what you make of the strong associations of Buddhism to counter culture in America in the 50's/60's and 70's? Seems to be that there was a very robust rejection of mainstream values, and I think to some extent that trajectory has been maintained.

And on a different tangent, how do you see the unfolding of Buddhism as it moved across different cultures in other epochs? The influence of Taoist and Confucian values when it encountered China for instance? Is that problematic for you in the same way as the influence of western values on Buddhism is? By that I mean, Buddhism seems to absorb the values of whatever cultures it encounters; should the encounter with the west be seen any differently from the encounter with Tibet, China, Japan et al??

I'm no great defender of the west (or modernity for that matter), but in these discourses, 'western' can be demonised pretty quickly.

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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby tobes » Fri Jan 07, 2011 1:25 pm

TMingyur wrote:
TMingyur wrote:
tobes wrote:I suppose both of these refer to ideas of the European enlightenment, but let us leave that implicit for the time being, lest we bite off more than we can chew.

When "European enlightenment" comes to my mind I spontaneously think of "critical inquiry/analysis" which for me is also "in the heart of buddhism".


"European enlightenment" has led to democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religions, separation of worldly power and religious institutions, science ... all these I endorse and I do find the appreciation of these to be necessarily a part of a buddhist view.

Freedom however has to be conjoined with ethics so that harm is avoided.


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I suppose, in the interests of a good dialectic, we should consider that the European enlightenment also led to two world wars, colonial exploitation, environmental destruction.....

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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby Indrajala » Fri Jan 07, 2011 4:43 pm

tobes wrote:I wonder what you make of the strong associations of Buddhism to counter culture in America in the 50's/60's and 70's? Seems to be that there was a very robust rejection of mainstream values, and I think to some extent that trajectory has been maintained.


I think that has to do with a lot of people taking an interest in certain interpretations of Buddhism among other Asian religions. It was a period when a lot of youth were challenging the status quo. My question would be how many of them who took an interest back then are still interested?

I believe that people are in reality rejecting mainstream values when the majority of major Buddhist authors and teachers are actual renunciates.

It just seems like such a facade at the moment. Read Tricycle for example and half of it is just advertisements for "meditation furniture" and exclusive retreats with some self-proclaimed Roshi with a big R.


And on a different tangent, how do you see the unfolding of Buddhism as it moved across different cultures in other epochs? The influence of Taoist and Confucian values when it encountered China for instance?


In China when Buddhism first arrived there was no such thing as "Daoism" in reality. There were religious groups that would later be classified as "Daoist" but the term Daojia 道教, which could actually refer to Buddhism in some earlier texts, only came to be known as "Daoism" as we would understand it around the fifth century, perhaps a bit later.

I suspect an organized and self-identifying Daoist movement, seen as separate and unique from Buddhism and Confucianism, came to exist due to Buddhist influence. There were in the Han Dynasty that would later be called "Daoist" but they did not necessarily identify themselves as such at the time.

Now, that being said, when Buddhism first entered China from Central Asia the locals used vocabulary they were already familiar with when translating Buddhist texts. Much of the metaphysical lexicon was derived from texts like the Daodejing (Laozi) and Zhuangzi. Scholars like to call this "Daoist vocabulary" but that is an anachronism because the people at the time did not think of it as such.

In a similar fashion some have translated Ātman as "ego" and think nothing of it despite ego being a lexical item, jargon even, from western psychology. When Buddhist texts are translated a lot of the vocabulary does not really correspond to anything, so translators and interpreters often look for vocabulary items in somewhat related areas such as western philosophy and psychology.

Likewise, the Chinese appropriated lexical items from their native intellectual traditions until native Buddhists felt comfortable adopting the Indian terms in transliteration.

Hopefully in the west we can also use Sanskrit and Pali terms as much as possible rather than translating everything into terms not really appropriate to Buddhism.

One other thing that comes to mind in the case of Chinese Buddhism, and East Asia as a whole, was the Buddhist institution having to constantly justify its existence to the state and people in general. Buddhism was quite contrary to traditional common sense in many respects. Celibacy, vegetarianism and non-violence are completely contrary to the message conveyed in a classic like the Book of Rites (Liji 禮記) which demands childrearing, sacrifice of animals and militarism.

Even though later day Confucians did not really emulate the archaic system of feudalism to any great extent, the Buddhists still had to justify themselves.

One way they did this was by showing in the Buddhist canon instances of filial piety which was something their critics asserted Buddhism lacked. The result, it seems, was an emphasis on filial piety that one does not really find in the Indian canons and treatises.





Is that problematic for you in the same way as the influence of western values on Buddhism is? By that I mean, Buddhism seems to absorb the values of whatever cultures it encounters; should the encounter with the west be seen any differently from the encounter with Tibet, China, Japan et al??


Yes and no -- I mean look at Tibet. They went from being a bunch of mountain bandits to a nation with a quarter of their population as monastics. Historically, Buddhism modified cultures in no small way. Tibet went from being a warrior culture to a culture praising and worshipping yogis and saints. If Buddhism had absorbed the values of old Tibet, you would have had warlord rinpoches sacking the Chinese capital. Fortunately that did not happen. :smile:
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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby Jnana » Fri Jan 07, 2011 6:13 pm

tobes wrote:I suppose, in the interests of a good dialectic, we should consider that the European enlightenment also led to two world wars, colonial exploitation, environmental destruction.....

There was no shortage of atrocious wars, royal reigns of terror, exploitation of peasants, religious persecution, religious crusades, environmental destruction, etc., prior to the European enlightenment. The advances in production due to the industrial revolution just created the tools for engaging in atrocities, exploitation, destruction, etc., much more efficiently.

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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby Jnana » Fri Jan 07, 2011 6:32 pm

Huseng wrote:It just seems like such a facade at the moment. Read Tricycle for example and half of it is just advertisements for "meditation furniture" and exclusive retreats with some self-proclaimed Roshi with a big R.

Yeah, I almost felt nauseous when I saw Tricycle for the first time. That may represent pop Buddhism and consumerism, but that's about all.

On a somewhat different but related note, I've attended Zen retreats where the forms were all well preserved, but the Dharma talks weren't any different from what someone like Wayne Dyer might offer.

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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby tobes » Sat Jan 08, 2011 2:14 am

Huseng wrote:
tobes wrote:I wonder what you make of the strong associations of Buddhism to counter culture in America in the 50's/60's and 70's? Seems to be that there was a very robust rejection of mainstream values, and I think to some extent that trajectory has been maintained.


I think that has to do with a lot of people taking an interest in certain interpretations of Buddhism among other Asian religions. It was a period when a lot of youth were challenging the status quo. My question would be how many of them who took an interest back then are still interested?

I believe that people are in reality rejecting mainstream values when the majority of major Buddhist authors and teachers are actual renunciates.

It just seems like such a facade at the moment. Read Tricycle for example and half of it is just advertisements for "meditation furniture" and exclusive retreats with some self-proclaimed Roshi with a big R.





I think I would agree that Buddhism in the west has gradually shifted from being genuinely counter cultural to being part of the fabric of the status quo. Although there are still clearly elements of both today.

The commodification of Buddhism is indeed a problem, but I think that this is symptomatic of a structural tendency in western economies: absolutely everything is now subject to commodification. A good example would be things like sport and education; once these were governed by a non-market logic, now they are 100% market oriented.

Is Buddhism a point of resistance to this tendency? Should it be?

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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby tobes » Sat Jan 08, 2011 2:33 am

Huseng wrote:In China when Buddhism first arrived there was no such thing as "Daoism" in reality. There were religious groups that would later be classified as "Daoist" but the term Daojia 道教, which could actually refer to Buddhism in some earlier texts, only came to be known as "Daoism" as we would understand it around the fifth century, perhaps a bit later.

I suspect an organized and self-identifying Daoist movement, seen as separate and unique from Buddhism and Confucianism, came to exist due to Buddhist influence. There were in the Han Dynasty that would later be called "Daoist" but they did not necessarily identify themselves as such at the time.

Now, that being said, when Buddhism first entered China from Central Asia the locals used vocabulary they were already familiar with when translating Buddhist texts. Much of the metaphysical lexicon was derived from texts like the Daodejing (Laozi) and Zhuangzi. Scholars like to call this "Daoist vocabulary" but that is an anachronism because the people at the time did not think of it as such.

In a similar fashion some have translated Ātman as "ego" and think nothing of it despite ego being a lexical item, jargon even, from western psychology. When Buddhist texts are translated a lot of the vocabulary does not really correspond to anything, so translators and interpreters often look for vocabulary items in somewhat related areas such as western philosophy and psychology.

Likewise, the Chinese appropriated lexical items from their native intellectual traditions until native Buddhists felt comfortable adopting the Indian terms in transliteration.

Hopefully in the west we can also use Sanskrit and Pali terms as much as possible rather than translating everything into terms not really appropriate to Buddhism.

One other thing that comes to mind in the case of Chinese Buddhism, and East Asia as a whole, was the Buddhist institution having to constantly justify its existence to the state and people in general. Buddhism was quite contrary to traditional common sense in many respects. Celibacy, vegetarianism and non-violence are completely contrary to the message conveyed in a classic like the Book of Rites (Liji 禮記) which demands childrearing, sacrifice of animals and militarism.

Even though later day Confucians did not really emulate the archaic system of feudalism to any great extent, the Buddhists still had to justify themselves.

One way they did this was by showing in the Buddhist canon instances of filial piety which was something their critics asserted Buddhism lacked. The result, it seems, was an emphasis on filial piety that one does not really find in the Indian canons and treatises.



Yes, I think you're dead right in pointing to filial piety as a very significant point of distinction between Indian and Sino forms of Buddhism. The story of the Buddha must have presented something of a monumental challenge to normative Confucian ideas: here is a fellow who leaves his wife and family, renounces his social and political position and wanders off to the forest to gain bodhi!!

But there was a certain assimilation with Confucian ideas rather than an outright rejection wasn't there? I think it is clear that there have been far greater tensions between Buddhist and Confucian values than Buddhist and Taoist ones, but it bears thinking about the way Buddhism both changes and is changed by other cultures and values.

I definitely agree that we should leave the Sanskrit/Pali words untranslated in many cases. And I also agree that the signifier "ego/non-ego" really distorts the meaning of atman/anatman. People are easily confused because 'ego' has so many different philosophic and ordinary language meanings in the western parlance: are we talking about the Cartesian Cogito, the Freudian intermediary between the ID and the superego, or the Benthamite sense of utility? The process of the skandha's and the lack of enduring substance is none of the above.

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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby tobes » Sat Jan 08, 2011 2:48 am

Yeshe D. wrote:
tobes wrote:I suppose, in the interests of a good dialectic, we should consider that the European enlightenment also led to two world wars, colonial exploitation, environmental destruction.....

There was no shortage of atrocious wars, royal reigns of terror, exploitation of peasants, religious persecution, religious crusades, environmental destruction, etc., prior to the European enlightenment. The advances in production due to the industrial revolution just created the tools for engaging in atrocities, exploitation, destruction, etc., much more efficiently.

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Yes, but the enlightenment is not merely about advances in production, it is also about *advances* in thinking.

And there is a question whether these advances represent a genuine progression or whether they represent a catastrophic hyper-rationalisation of life. Post-holocaust thinkers such as Adorno were pretty quick (too quick perhaps) to link the enlightenment privileging of rationality with a de-humanising tendency.

In fact one of the hallmarks of the enlightenment period, especially among the Germans, was a romantic yearning to go back to ancient Greeks, as a way out of the instrumental and consequentialist precision of enlightenment rationality.

This partly why I'm interested in this question in relation to western approaches to Buddhism. Is there a romantic drive at play in western encounters with and approaches to Buddhism?

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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby Jnana » Sat Jan 08, 2011 3:16 am

tobes wrote:Yes, but the enlightenment is not merely about advances in production, it is also about *advances* in thinking.

Indeed.

tobes wrote:And there is a question whether these advances represent a genuine progression or whether they represent a catastrophic hyper-rationalisation of life. Post-holocaust thinkers such as Adorno were pretty quick (too quick perhaps) to link the enlightenment privileging of rationality with a de-humanising tendency.

Well, rationalism was and is a necessary progression, but it isn't the end of development. People who rely exclusively on the rational faculty are often very unhappy human beings.

tobes wrote:In fact one of the hallmarks of the enlightenment period, especially among the Germans, was a romantic yearning to go back to ancient Greeks, as a way out of the instrumental and consequentialist precision of enlightenment rationality.

This partly why I'm interested in this question in relation to western approaches to Buddhism. Is there a romantic drive at play in western encounters with and approaches to Buddhism?

Excellent point. Some have suggested the Romantics were regressing to a pre-rational worldview. I don't know if that's accurate or not. I appreciate Goethe's poetry. Same goes for Rilke. I'm not going to accuse them of anything.

With regard to contemporary Buddhism, the longstanding trend is the rationalization of everything which doesn't fit the rationalist worldview. This is one extreme. The other extreme, which I alluded to yesterday on another thread, is to attempt to toss one's intellect out the window and unquestioningly replace it with a mythic worldview, and then assert that this mythic worldview is in fact the only "truth." Both of these extremes lack integration. What is necessary is to clearly see the visionary domain and the rational domain as equally valid in their own terms. They are not in conflict in any way. They are each valuable and each pertain to different fields of prajñā. There is only a perception of conflict between the two if these domains are mistakenly conflated in some fashion.


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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby catmoon » Sat Jan 08, 2011 10:26 am

tobes wrote:To what extent does the Buddhist dharma present in the west as a critique of modernity?


Buddhism is not inherently a critique of anything. Those who interpret it as such are in error. I have not noticed large numbers of Amish turning to Buddhism, or vice versa, so I conclude that Buddhism has nothing in common with anti-technological positions.


Modernity is of course an extremely contested concept, but I think that we can broadly agree that it refers to the rise of industrial capitalism in the 17th century, and the respective technological, social and political changes embedded in that.

I'm particularly interested in two aspects here:

1/ Buddhism as a negation (escape from/critique of) the forms of instrumental rationality which (according to sociologists such as Weber) modernity demands of its subjects. Inclusive of this is a negation or critique of the ethics of utility and the individualism it presupposes.



Rigorous rationality has been around for a very long time. It is an integral part of at least some Buddhist traditions, such as Tibetan and Zen. I would think that Buddhism would be the last place an anti-rationalist would go. Buddhist ethics are strikingly utilitarian. If it leads to enlightenment, good, if not, bad. And doing the hard work of realizing the emptiness of self is about the last thing an escapist would want to do.


2/ Turning to and drawing from Buddhism as a response to the economics or political economy of late capitalism. I.e. a rejection of the consumer lifestyle, the drive for profit, the premise of self-interest etc.



This second point seems more likely to be true. But only the most fanatical of ideologues would select a religion consciously on the basis you describe. Rather, people seek healing for the pyschological wounds inflicted by a ruthlessly capitalist, profit oriented society. They know when they are lonely, they know they are not valued for their humanity,they notice when opportunities for joy are snatched away. And they seek solutions of every kind.
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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby tobes » Sun Jan 09, 2011 1:46 am

catmoon wrote:
tobes wrote:To what extent does the Buddhist dharma present in the west as a critique of modernity?


Buddhism is not inherently a critique of anything. Those who interpret it as such are in error. I have not noticed large numbers of Amish turning to Buddhism, or vice versa, so I conclude that Buddhism has nothing in common with anti-technological positions.



Well, I suppose I must in error then. I think the Buddha presented a way which was both a metaphysical and social critique of the Vedic traditions which preceded him.

Later traditions have also been premised on a methodology of critique: the Prasangika Madhyamakins exemplify a relentlessly critical approach.

Can one accept the first noble truth and not be involved in critique?

I agree that many forms of Buddhism do not (or have no basis to) assume an anti-technological posture. But some do. There are strong ascetic traditions such as the Thai Forest tradition which are unlikely to be celebrating the iPod anytime soon....


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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby tobes » Sun Jan 09, 2011 2:05 am

catmoon wrote:
Rigorous rationality has been around for a very long time. It is an integral part of at least some Buddhist traditions, such as Tibetan and Zen. I would think that Buddhism would be the last place an anti-rationalist would go. Buddhist ethics are strikingly utilitarian. If it leads to enlightenment, good, if not, bad. And doing the hard work of realizing the emptiness of self is about the last thing an escapist would want to do.



Yes, I agree that rationality plays an important role in most Buddhist traditions. I guess it depends on how we define rationality. I think that the development of prajna is in many respects quite distinct from the more abstracted and mathematical forms of rationality which developed through the Enlightenment period.

But nonetheless, I often encounter western Buddhists who have a particular disdain for either form of rationality. In fact, if I'm honest, I was one such character when I was younger, so I understand the position well: an anti-intellectual ethos, the privileging of experience over reflection, the rejection of logic for aesthetics or intuition.......

How often does one hear the line: "thinking/concepts/philosophy is the problem not the solution"? I think, a very common position among practitioners, sometimes with good grounding in dharma, often without.

I do not think that Buddhist ethics can be characterised as utilitarian. It certainly has consequentialist dimensions, as you point out, but it also has deontological dimensions (vows, precepts) and virtue-ethics dimensions (the cultivation of moral character over time). Many scholars tend to see Buddhist ethics as ostensibly a kind of virtue-ethic.

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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby tobes » Sun Jan 09, 2011 2:13 am

catmoon wrote:

2/ Turning to and drawing from Buddhism as a response to the economics or political economy of late capitalism. I.e. a rejection of the consumer lifestyle, the drive for profit, the premise of self-interest etc.



This second point seems more likely to be true. But only the most fanatical of ideologues would select a religion consciously on the basis you describe. Rather, people seek healing for the pyschological wounds inflicted by a ruthlessly capitalist, profit oriented society. They know when they are lonely, they know they are not valued for their humanity,they notice when opportunities for joy are snatched away. And they seek solutions of every kind.


Yes, I suppose I was alluding more to the unconscious rejection of capitalism rather than someone turning to Buddhism on the basis of an overt and deliberate atunement to political economy.

But if this latter form were to happen, and I'm sure it does, I'm not sure why you would conceive this as an act of fanatical ideology and not reflexive understanding?

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