I have long enjoyed David Loy's writing. In particular, I very much appreciate his willingness to apply Buddhist teachings to broad, social contexts and to point out how suffering and karma, for example, do not just reside in individuals, but also manifest in collective patterns as well.
This interview from Sweeping Zen takes some fascinating turns, and is worth reading in full. However, one of the turns the discussion took really grated on me, as it went into some of the very territory that a recent post by Arun questioned, and which I followed up on in a post over the weekend.
Today Buddhism has begun its most radical and challenging transformation of all in its encounter with the modern West. Again, we should expect transformation on both sides, which I see as necessary because each needs the other. I lived in Japan for many years and have traveled throughout most of Buddhist Asia, and it’s obvious that Asian Buddhism is stuck in various ways. The ways Buddhism has been institutionalized, and especially the way in which karma has degenerated into merit-making, is very problematical.
On the other side, the West is encountering Buddhism not a moment too soon. We are in a time of great crisis if not collapse. The globalization of the West has created enormous problems and much of it has to do with a basic worldview that is deluded and unsustainable. So Buddhism has something very important to offer the West. At the same time, Asian Buddhism brings with it a lot of cultural baggage that doesn’t work well in the West, where it tends to get in the way of Buddhism’s liberative potential. Buddhism needs to benefit from the best that the West has to offer, and not only scientifically. There are many magical and mythic elements in Asian Buddhism that we need to let go of. So it’s an exciting encounter on both sides. We are still in the early days but it’s started.
Let's pull a few issues out and consider them. First, the terms "Asian" and "Asian Buddhism." As Arun pointed out in his post "For one, there’s the issue of referring to “Asians.”The category “Asian” is simply too broad. Asia represents 60 percent of the world’s population and an untold diversity of cultures." So, I'd argue that a statement like "Asian Buddhism is stuck" is to broad to be accurate. It doesn't offer people an entry point into specific issues being faced, nor does it assign a clear enough location to where these issues are occurring. Furthermore, a statement like "Asian Buddhism is stuck" universalizes problems that are probably not universal. It's like accusations that American Buddhism is a self-help program for the bourgeois. This might be true in some locations, but certainly not in others. So, while it's clear to me (from readings, reports from other Buddhists, and discussions I have had) that issues like sexism and excessive institutionalization are playing out in many Buddhism communities in Asian nations, the specifics occurring within a given temple, Buddhist school or lineage aren't so clear.
There's also the problematic nature of the first half of the "stuck" statement. Loy says "I lived in Japan for many years and have traveled throughout most of Buddhist Asia..." What's concerning about this is the likelihood that Loy's experiences in Japan, which probably far outweigh the rest, color the whole story he's offering. He spent several years in Japan, and experienced some of the issues they are having. During that time, or afterward, he goes to several other Asian nations and sees or experiences some things that look similar, and thus returns to the U.S. and offers people the story that "Asian Buddhism is stuck." Differences between nations, between regions within a nation, or even from temple to temple, are totally glossed over. And given the experiences in Japan, there's also the question of whether something like confirmation bias is also operating here. You see too much emphasis on male dominated institutions, and merit making in Japan. You head to China or Burma or Thailand, and you locate more of the same. This isn't to say that these issues aren't a wide spread problem, but that the thinking behind the conclusions really needs to be examined.
Along those lines, it's interesting that Loy brings up science. Consider the ways in which scientists and other researchers set up experiments to test their theories. Any scientist worth a grain of salt will make a good faith effort to find opposing views, and allow conditions that might disprove their ideas to be included. Where do people like the Japanese "hip hop" monk and his followers fit into the "stuck" narrative, for example? Or what about the decided plugged in, hip, and modern Kenchara Buddhist center in Malaysia? It would be interesting to know how counter-examples of Buddhists doing creative, outside the box stuff in Asian countries are considered within the larger framework offered.
Finally, what grated on me most was the statement on "cultural baggage" and the sentence "There are many magical and mythic elements in Asian Buddhism that we need to let go of." Now, whenever a religious/spiritual tradition moves from one place to the next, there is a blending of the inherited with the ways of the new locale. And certainly, some elements associated with the previous cultural situation will be dropped in favor of the new locale's ways. This isn't a problem. However, the term "cultural baggage" itself imputes a negativity upon inherited cultural elements that is not only unnecessary, but is also insulting.
In addition, when we get into wanting to shed "magical and mythical elements," this implies a few things that need to be more carefully considered. First of all, there is clearly a privileging of reason and empirically comfirmable phenomenon here. Is that really wise? Second, given that Loy is speaking to a convert Buddhist audience - nearly all of whom have taken up Buddhism only in the past half century, it might be worth considering the question "Do we even understand why those mythical and magical elements are present in the tradition, or if they might be valuable to us in our practice?" It seems to me that even if the majority of convert American practitioners don't literally believe that Buddha was born from out of the side of his mother and that the earth shook upon his birth, there might still be something very important going on in that story for us to practice with.
Mostly, I point all of this out to get people thinking about the way in which board assumptions tend to miss the mark. Over the time I have been blogging, I have offered posts that done the same about different issues. One that comes to mind is a post I made a long while back about the lack of social outreach and social action projects amongst convert American Buddhist communities. In fact, the mistake I made there was to try to get specific based on the general view I had - which has some accuracy for sure, but for the example I brought up - San Francisco Zen Center - was terribly inaccurate. And I got quickly called out on that by a regular reader.
One of the challenges is that there are times when broad statements are helpful and/or necessary to convey a sense of what's occurring. And yet, the mind loves to take such statements and turn them into universalized truths, instead of seeing them as attempts to point in a certain direction. This is true in discussions about large scale social dynamics, and it's also true about more simple, deeply personal issues. Consider how often you make a mistake and then generalize that as meaning you're a screw up. Or for those with an overly strong sense of self cherishing, how often you do something well and think "I'm a bloody genius!"
It's a game we like to play. It's really just another effort to think we have some solid ground to hold on in this ever-changing world of ours. Somehow, it's easier to handle "being a complete screw up" than it is to just be, moment after moment. Just as it's easier to make statements like "Asian Buddhism is stuck," rather than spend the time parsing out all the patterns and manifestations occurring, and then pointing out ways in which they are similar across locales, and ways in which they are quite different.