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Adaptation and Caution: A response to Oscar Tang’s “Spiritual Autarky”

By Raymond Lam
Buddhistdoor Global | 2010-05-01 |
The Buddha once decreed that the Dharma be spoken in one’s own language. The doctrine of skilful means (up?ya) indicates that “language” does not literally mean one’s native tongue alone: the Dharma must be spoken in a way that is sensitive and accommodating to different cultures, diverse inclinations, and contemporary sensibilities. In the UK, or in London where I write this, we are concerned with sharing the Buddha’s compassion, in the most helpful and humble way possible, by speaking not just English, French, or German, but real British. We seek to do what the English do wonderfully: reflect on past wrongs and rights, debate openly on some of the fundamental foundations of our opinions, say daring things that challenge popular thought, and most importantly, be good sports about it all.
As the title of this piece suggests, Buddhism had to cautiously adapt if it was to diffuse into a once-foreign society. Now in the modern age, we have turned our attention to Europe, where Buddhism’s audiences, not to say converts, are small yet increasing slightly as the years go by. We should not worry about this – in the first place quality takes precedence over quantity. Better a small but strong fourfold community that holds together like the one flavour of Dharma than a huge fourfold community wracked by internal bickering, politics and uncertainty. Furthermore, Europe’s strong history of Buddhist Studies, particularly in the Anglo-German, Franco-Belgian, and Leningrad schools guarantee that sources of authority on the letter of Buddhism (but not necessarily the spirit) will not run dry for a long time.
So time and resources are not the issue here on the Continent; we can and should be patient. We have endured for two thousand, five hundred years, a few hundred more hardly makes a difference. The truly urgent question, as Oscar posed in his article “Spiritual Autarky,” is whether the  ??sana should compromise its standards for what many postmodern Westerners now see as Dharma (and that is often simply scientific meditation, psychology, and a vague notion of enlightenment enfolded in Indian robes). Many of my own concerns overlapped with Oscar’s thoughts on the contemporary discourse between Buddhism and science, especially in regard to scientific language “subordinating” Buddhist praxis to the standards of science. This manifests in the form of meditators being hooked to nodes and wires to neuroscanners, and the validation of meditation via MRI scanning, which accords scientists the authority to validate in the first place. As Oscar noted astutely:
Superficially, this [neurological measurements of meditation’s efficacy] might appear to be supportive of Buddhism, in that the effectiveness of Buddhist meditation techniques has been validated by MRI scanning. On a deeper level, however, this is nothing if not a strengthening of materialism. In the relation between Buddhism and materialism, it reinforces the dominant position of the latter, for it is invariably the giver of endorsement, not the receiver, who is implicitly recognized as the authority. Therefore, the more effort we invest into gaining endorsement from materialism, the more authority we relinquish to it, and the more we indenture Buddhism into servitude underneath it.
How can we strike the Middle Way in our endeavour to ease tradition into modernity? How can we allow for a Buddhist modernism, as McMahan phrases it, that is a “modern Buddhism” and not simply “modernism with Buddhist terminology”?
One of Buddhism’s strengths is adapting to the sensibilities and beliefs of different societies, hence its cultural diversity across the globe. This is clear evidence of adaptation. Ancient Indian society was always relatively conservative, and though it was doctrinally unique Buddhism remained only one out of many religious choices under the shadow of Vedic, Dharma?astric norms. Buddhism grew from Indian soil and hence had to converse and exchange with other Indian faiths. A perfect example is Indian Tantric Buddhism, which in both ritual and symbology shared many similarities with Tantric ??ivism. A cross-cultural instance would be the Confucian, worldly body politic of Imperial China, where Buddhist masters reframed the language of emptiness (??nyat?) into that of interdependence and interpenetration (culminating in Fazang’s teachings to Empress Wu). Buddhism’s denial of the phenomenal world was accompanied by the simultaneous affirmation of its sacrality, in a manner that did not compromise no-self (anatta) or the illusory nature of sa?s?ra.
Adaptation was therefore constantly required, at least after the Buddha entered Parinirv??a and the wheels of history continued turning. And while we all ought to be grateful for modern science (there are even fragments of philosophical truth in science), Oscar’s cautionary words are extremely timely for those of us who are lured into the trap of believing science the only valid means to knowledge:
That is all that science is: the popular standard of the modern, secular era, which – just like Brahmanism before it, indeed like every establishment of its time – tends to claim intellectual monopoly. The English word science is derived from the Latin word scientia, which means knowledge, as if it were the only means for anyone to know anything. The Sanskrit word Veda (which refers to the Brahmanist canon) also means knowledge. Do we see a pattern?
Buddhist spirituality cannot be reduced to a mere branch of health science. Indeed, even speaking of Buddhism as “science” or “scientific” contains a danger of subordinating Buddhist discourse to the standards of empiricism. There is something to be said for maintaining Buddhism’s missionary advantage over other religions as involving more philosophy than dogmatics, more self-reflection than outward display, more rational inquiry than blind faith. But it is crucial to emphasize Buddhism’s component of faith, as well as its soteriological plan for all beings. Only then can this religion (for that is what Buddhism is) be appreciated for what the Buddha intended it to be. Buddhism may have some empirical and doctrinal elements compatible with modern science. But when one chooses to go deeper than the shallows, one finds that it is more devotion than scepticism, more transcendence than empiricism, and certainly more bodhicitta than materialism.
Oscar’s eloquent and candid article reminded us that the Buddha is not Alexander Fleming, or a Marie Curie, or a Thomas Edison (incredible as these titans were). He is the Lover of all beings, the Body of Truth (dharmak?ya) suffusing the world-systems of the cosmos and Nirv??a. He is no mere scientist, but the Blessed Lord (bhagava).

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