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Why are some Buddhists in the west hostile to academic analyses of the religion?

  • Are you hoping for answers based on references, or based on personal experience? – ChrisW Feb 4 at 23:23
  • why not both? i'm interested in any explanation @ChrisW i might just delete my account, i'm not sure stackexchange is a useful resource here – user2512 Feb 4 at 23:24
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    I'm not sure this hostility is any greater in the West than elsewhere, but one reason might be that in the West much of the analysis has been muddled and wrong. There is a lot of nonsense published in the academic world and Buddhism is not let off the hook. – user14119 Feb 5 at 10:28
  • (Meta:) Do you mean "some" or "so many" actually? Seems it is somehow arbitrary here? – Gottfried Helms Feb 8 at 15:46
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You have strayed from the direct path free from [reified concept of] intrinsic being, and wandered down the wrong path of strict rationalism. And as you apply yourself to the labors of your own imagination, the obstructions to the correct path mount ever higher. What do you derive from this constant accumulation of words?

~Candrakirti, as quoted in "The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Madhyamika" by C. W. Huntington & Geshe Namgyal Wangchen

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  • could that not mean the words of your teacher that are not about practice? "be a lamp unto yourself" – user2512 Feb 5 at 2:32
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Perhaps this question was inspired by my answer to another where I disparaged some western philosophical notions applied to Buddha Dharma. That was not helpful nor was it meaningful. I’m trying to sincerely answer these questions with a mind of generosity and the sincere wish to benefit others, but unfortunately I don’t always succeed.

As to this question I don’t know that there is a general pattern. My particular tradition - gelugpa - descends from Nalanda university which was a worldwide center of exactly what we might call “academic analysis” of Buddha Dharma. Moreover, the modern inheritors of my tradition study at monastic universities like Sera Je for literally decades in a rigorous academic environment to earn what is the equivalent of a PhD in the Buddha Dharma.

Many western academics have done invaluable work in translating the sutras and commentaries. Many more have invested heavy thought and years of study to trying to truly understand the subtlest aspects of Buddha Dharma and I have nothing but profound respect and gratitude for them.

All of this said... it is important to remember that Buddha Dharma is not just an academic exercise, but one with a profound and world shaking soteriological goal. And if I let my impatience and frustration get the better of me it is with those times when I perceive some western academics who do not give respect to this goal or to the depth of intellectual insight in the Buddha Dharma, but rather paper it over with somewhat lazy analogies and a cultural bias that regards western philosophy and logic to be superior. There have been times when I have read what appear to me to be cursory reviews of Buddha Dharma that do not respect the subject matter and the deep thinking that has generated it. It might just be my own karmic mis-perceptions though.

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  • do you not think, though, that evidence for karma (just think rebirth if my analysis is a struggle) would be insanely valuable? as good as any purported miracle etc. – user2512 Feb 5 at 2:43
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    Evidence for karma is readily available and can be seen in my own experience on a daily basis. It is obvious to me and I tried to express that with examples, but have apparently failed. It is not mystical or moral judgment or anything like that to me. It is simple cause and effect of the actions I take the repercussions I see in my own life. – Yeshe Tenley Feb 5 at 2:46
  • personal evidence is not what i meant. it never stands up to analysis for anyone else – user2512 Feb 5 at 2:48
  • If not empirical evidence, then I fail to understand what you after. Do you mean for rebirth? Or the ripening in this very life? If it is still about rebirth, then as I’ve said my belief in rebirth is founded by the logical inescapability of emptiness as expounded by Nagarjuna. – Yeshe Tenley Feb 5 at 2:51
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    Your last paragraph seems much too kind. Poor scholarship is common-place and it seems to be the name of the game in the typical philosophy department. . . . – user14119 Feb 5 at 10:31
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Thoughts dashed off before while waiting for the rice to cook -

Several particularly pernicious things happen when you try to investigate Buddhism intellectually or scholastically. For one, you short change yourself. Yeah, it's fun to ruminate about these things, but ultimately it's not going to get you anywhere. It is utterly impossible to make any kind of spiritual progress in this way (and don't even get me started on that "dry insight" hogwash). The more time you spent pondering these ideas, the less time you're spending on the cushion investigating your own obstacles.

The next things that can happen (and these are going to be listed in order of danger), is that when you treat these things academically, you run the risk of convincing yourself that you've actually learned something. The thing about Buddhism is that it can make some degree of sense to us intellectually. That koan about the fox? On the surface, who wouldn't think that was about karma? There's another koan about two monks arguing over whether a flag blows in the wind or in their mind, or where ever. I forget which because, frankly, the flag, monks, wind, and the mind have nothing to do with that koan either. If you sit there spinning ideas about either of those two koans, or the nature of mindfulness, or what the Heart Sutra means, you're missing a chance to investigate your own shortcomings and even the very nature of reality. I don't think I need to add this, but it's like eating a picture of a cake instead of the actual thing.

Next, intellectualism gets in the way. Oh does it get in the way! Say you've finally made it to the cushion and are trying to reach jhana or some other useless state. You'll sit there plugging along shoving every experience and phenomenon into the little jhana box that you built with all of your reading. A little happiness? Oh that must be piti! I'm concentrated! Ekaggata! You sit there filling that little box with all of these fragments experience meanwhile missing the honest to goodness reality that just smacking you in the face trying you to get you to notice it. Things that are far more important, things that you would never have expected (that's key) that have nothing to do with the jhana factors or the four foundations of mindfulness. Worse yet, you may even try to create these phenomenon within your field of perception. Man, if you do that, you're just plain lost.

Worse yet, an academic Buddhism completely neglects the body. Meditation is a bodily practice. What we learn by sweating and aching on the cushion is infinitely more important than anything we can learn in the sutras. This is where you meet yourself face to face and really learn who you are. Are you a coward who runs away from a challenge? Do you get frustrated when you can't sit as long as the person on the mat next to you? Pissed off that you haven't slept enough? Can you lay yourself out on the edge of a sword, let yourself be cut in two, and give every iota of yourself completely over to your breath? Questions like that are the very basis of Buddhist practice. Questions like that never get answered through scholastic pursuits.

Lastly, academic Buddhism misrepresents the dharma. Unless what you're reading is firmly couched in a long enduring practice (and there are some pretty fine books out there, let's be clear), you are undermining what the Buddha was trying to teach. The Buddha's task to us was the complete transformation of our very being. Anything that doesn't aid in that pursuit is not Buddhism.

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  • i'm not sure about the last paragrpah (and it's why i asked the question). i guess it's horses for courses? personally, i don't see thoughts in zazen, including the ones you describe, as no different to any other. same as pleasant feelings. if i sit, it's because i felt the need to, for some reason -- often for my sanity -- and doing so does seem good for that (unlike, perhaps, reading). a token gesture? maybe we are just going different ways – user2512 Feb 5 at 2:31
  • You can sit to feel better. That’s fine, but it’s strictly palliative. When you can sit when you don’t need or want to, when you can sit when nothing is happening, when your legs hurt, and the whole matter seems futile, then you are no longer sitting on the closer shore. You’ve gone beyond the where the academic and personal can reach, where only the foaming billows wash the sky. In that maelstrom, you’ll meet the Buddha face to face. And that one, you don’t kill. ;-) – user17214 Feb 5 at 2:58
  • i don't mean sanity like "feeling better" what do you mean "strictly palliative"? isn't that all buddhism? – user2512 Feb 9 at 1:02
  • So the kind of meditation you are doing right now "keeps you sane" or "does [you] good". It's helping you cope with your life and deal with suffering. This kind of meditation is like taking a holiday from a stressful job or having a drink to calm your nerves. That's not what the Buddha is asking of us. Buddhism is about completely transforming your life, your relationship to suffering - even who this "you" is. It's about uprooting the deeper structures that keep us bound to our small minds. This takes work. This kind of practice is also often frustrating. – user17190 Feb 13 at 12:51
  • But it's the only kind of practice that leads to liberation. – user17190 Feb 13 at 12:51
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This answer (and question) might be a little off-topic -- "too subjective" and "a polling question".

I don't think I'm hostile to academic analyses -- I am a bit indifferent to them, if that makes sense. I even think that an "academic" question can be helpful, in that it might help me to get an introductory or beginner's (student's) overview of a topic.

If I were hostile it might be for two reasons:

  • Not accurate
  • Not beneficial

I reckon "beneficial" is something to do with soteriology -- also ethics (sila) -- to whatever extent that's not the goal of academics, to that extent I'm maybe not so interested in academia.

As for "accurate", there's this quote from the suttas -- The Four Great References

Take a mendicant who says:

‘Reverend, I have heard and learned ...: this is the teaching, this is the training, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’

You should neither approve nor dismiss that mendicant’s statement. Instead, you should carefully memorize those words and phrases, then check if they’re included in the discourses and found in the texts on monastic training. If they’re not included in the discourses and found in the texts on monastic training, you should draw the conclusion:

‘Clearly this is not the word of the Blessed One, the perfected one, the fully awakened Buddha. It has been incorrectly memorized by that mendicant.’ And so you should reject it.

... If they are included in the discourses and found in the texts on monastic training, you should draw the conclusion: ‘Clearly this is the word of the Blessed One, the perfected one, the fully awakened Buddha. It has been correctly memorized by that mendicant.’ You should remember it.

When I read a sentence like the first one quoted in this question, i.e. ...

each action has its own specific consequence for the agent, the hedonic nature of which is determined in accordance with causal laws and in such a way as to require rebirth as long as action continues

... then that is a chore, maybe merely a chore -- to try to see how, where, whether that "clearly is the word of the Blessed One".

Instead of that chore (i.e. reading that analysis) then if I am reading I might prefer to read something closer to the original texts. Or prefer to read an analysis written by a monk (I don't know whether you'd call that "academic").

https://fakebuddhaquotes.com/ for example is full of paraphrases -- i.e. one-sentence summaries -- of the Buddhist doctrine.

Maybe you see a sentiment resembling this one in Yeshe Tenley's answer, i.e.:

Would encourage you to study Nagarjuna and trace his arguments if you can.

Plus I am interested in academic analyses.

  • There's this one for example which compares two versions of an early Buddhist text -- I find the scholarly argument interesting (my dad was a historian and academic, of roman history, which I'm not) -- plus the subject seems to me consequential (a matter of soteriology and ethics, where better-understanding e.g. as provided by the academic it might give better insight in the nature of early Buddhism).
  • Or for example I find Piya Tan's analyses helpful if I'm trying to understand a sutta -- it's sort of carefully referenced and footnoted. Piya Tan had been monk and is now a scholar.

But then again why would you be interested in "academic" anything -- no matter what the skill or discipline or "body of knowledge" you might want to learn, people typically learn that from the practitioners or professionals. There are ways to teach Buddhism -- curriculums and sequences -- but maybe reading encyclopedia articles isn't quite the thing.

I once had a boss who retired from the army and wanted to become an entrepreneur and sales-person. He went to university and I think took a degree in "economics" -- and was very disappointed in that, that wasn't useful to him at all!

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Why are some Buddhists in the west hostile to academic analyses of the religion?

What makes you think so ? If any Buddhist says that academic analysis of religion is prohibited then he or she is going against Dhamma. Buddha says come ,analyse and test the Dhamma by yourself and follow it only if you are convinced. Why does Buddha says so ? He says so out of deep compassion for well being of humanity. Some people try to absorb Dhamma selectively but that won’t help. One must walk the path as told by Buddha and undoubtedly it will involve some suffering.

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From reading the answers, I think it's about different conceptions of what "thinking" amounts to. No-one is saying that reading academic analysis is a substitute for seated meditation or chanting.

There is a long history of debate in Buddhism, both with other Buddhists and e.g. Hindus. Whether or not you think reading its history is helpful, probably depends on whether "you" are the sort of "person" (sorry for the quotes) are the sort to decide upon your beliefs (about points of controversy) based on the need for rational analysis or conformism to an accepted norm.

Do you not slander the sutras because no-one else does, or because the texts conform to what you already understand? The alternative, e.g. the divine eye, is of course preferable.

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  • Given there are four ways of answering questions, this medium may be suitable for only of these four. Trying to answer the other three on this site (i.e. using this Q&A format) may be an exercise in frustration -- although see also also this meta-topic. – ChrisW Feb 5 at 2:59
  • But debate isn't the norm. In my experience the kind of debate (conversation) some academics have for fun might start with a sweeping generalisation, to which the reply might be "What do you mean by that?" or "What about X counter-example?" and so on.. But that doesn't work in this Q&A format which was originally means to be "no chat" -- so instead someone has the burden to ask a lucid and self-explanatory question, about practice or doctrine. And if it's a question about doctrine IMO it should quote or reference the specific doctrine which it's questioning – ChrisW Feb 5 at 3:02
  • are you saying my answer is poor? i'm not feeling frustrated at all; only when i asked the question. i do not see what's wrong here? – user2512 Feb 5 at 3:03
  • No, I was treating the answer as a continuation of the question, and as a meta-question about this specific site -- i.e. that although, "There is a long history of debate in Buddhism", that's true to an extent. But there's also a history of people disengaging from (e.g. sectarian) argument. And there's question about the extent to which (two-way) "debate" is possible on this site. – ChrisW Feb 5 at 3:07
  • oh right well i wasn't trying to debate, only say what i've learnt @ChrisW – user2512 Feb 5 at 3:08
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It is said that the Buddha was a like a doctor, a soul healer, so to speak.

What do you think: when there is a certain person who is overwhelmed, burdened, ruined etc by stress, possibly to the extent of being categorized as a lunatic, psychiatrically ill, mentally disordered. Which is better: either a presumably noble being with an academic degree, with lots of students and published papers, and many formal references to his work by scholars and researchers and medical doctors? Or a presumably noble (possibly even enlightened) being, coming to rescue that certain person, with infinite selfless compassion, holding the hand of that certain person, being a caring mother to him for as long as he needs, without even the ability to attach any scientific or medicinal/psychiatric labels to the relationship? Without even the ability to view those without degrees as less educated or insightful, relying on the fact that they lack a degree?

So, Enlightened Doctrine being centered around the notions of infinite compassion and self sacrificing help and caring towards others, as well as completely self reliant wisdom, insight and knowledge, I would definitely go even as far as saying that an enlightened person with a degree in Buddhism/Religion/Psychiatry is less useful than an enlightened being without a degree. If the degree, however, were in some more "mundane" science such as physics or math or chemistry, how could it interfere with the purity of compassion, humility and wisdom of the helper as perceived by the "patient"?

Or layman's terms: a wise man with a pure heart and no self-interest, you know the kind that the modern world has mostly forgotten, is much more likely to bring light and solace into the minds of those with wounded hearts, than a professional shrink with his unshakable mountain of references, books full of diagnoses, and drawers full of pills. A wise man with a pure heart and no self-interest is more likely to spark self enlightenment in those who previously thought of themselves as uncapable, whereas a proper academic/scholar will never ever give up his formal "edge", will never admit that the patient is also a doctor in disguise, an equal waiting to be awakened to that truth, just as a rich person will never reach heaven, will never want to sleep on the same floor as the homeless man, will never invite to the board of directors one who is not addicted to gold like the rich man himself.

Here is something relevant from the Dhamma:

So, out of compassion, the Buddha visited the two bhikkhus to prevent the scholar from questioning the other bhikkhu. The Buddha himself did the questioning. He put questions on jhanas and maggas to the master of the Tipitaka; but he could not answer them because he had not practised what he had taught. The other bhikkhu, having practised the Dhamma and having attained arahatship, could answer all the questions. The Buddha praised the one who practised the Dhamma (i.e., a vipassaka), but not a single word of praise was spoken for the learned scholar (i.e., a ganthika).

reference: https://www.tipitaka.net/tipitaka/dhp/verseload.php?verse=019

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