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Western neomythology vs actual Eastern POV

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  • Gene Poole
    From: An interesting discussion, which verges into my own advocacy that western sources have
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 6, 2003
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      From: <http://mailbox.univie.ac.at/~muehleb9/buddhismdisc.html>


      An interesting discussion, which verges into
      my own advocacy that western sources have
      grievously polluted original eastern ways and
      means of spirituality. Many of my past postings
      to Yahoo groups have been about this.

      ==GP==


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      Discussion: 20th Century Buddhism


      Editor :Sharf, an associate Professor of Buddhist Studies, debunks
      the myth that Eastern religions are the champions of contemplative
      practices, that privilege revealed mystical experience over the
      observance of scripture and ritual, as a means to attain spiritual
      authority. Rather these Eastern practices are thoroughly modern and
      are based on nineteenth century Western theologian's defences of the
      religious realm as intensely private, and therefore free from the
      demands of scientific proof in an age of industrialization. Eastern
      intellectuals educated in the Christian missionary schools were
      exposed to such theological ideas and used them to marshal defences
      against colonialism. Both Hindu nationalists, inspired by the ideas
      of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan in India, and Zen Buddhist nationalists
      inspired by D.T. Suzuki in Japan, aimed to redefine the East as more
      spiritually advanced, though technologically behind the West, to
      instil a sense of national pride and spiritual superiority in their
      followers. This would appear to undermine New Age perspectives that
      posit "ancient" Eastern spiritual practices as the true pathway to
      mystical enlightenment. In fact, argues the author, these
      contemplative practices are a product of modernity, and were
      popularized by Eastern intellectuals educated in the Western,
      Christian theological tradition, for political purposes.

      Tony :I've read that. I'm sure it's true, especially regarding
      Olcott, Blavatsky, and the Theosophical Society in general. Much of
      what we consider ancient Buddhism is really modern Western Buddhism,
      although seen as a return to the pure teachings of the past,
      especially the historical Buddha Gautama.

      Obviously there is a lot of Western naivety, as well as a
      condescending attitude towards cultures like Tibet, India, and
      indigenous tribes around the world (including in our own lands.)

      But remember, the current argument is that the only difference
      between the East and the West is the esotericism in the West went
      underground, especially with the rise of rationalism, which took
      dogmatic proportions and has lead to modern beliefs in scientism,
      complete materialistic reductionism. On the otherwise, while
      rationalism was present in the East, even before Western
      colonialization (something Western-centric scholars would not like to
      admit) the majority worldview of the East was not rationalism
      (whether in a Wilberian sense you call it "prerational" or
      "transrational") and thus there was no majority rejection of
      mysticism, whether understood or not. The lack of a majority
      rejection could be seen as implicit support, and at times there has
      apparently been mass approval and explicit support of mystical quests
      and ideas, again whether understood or not. Now this contention goes
      further. It seems to assert that either this mysticism NEVER existed,
      or if it did then there's no evidence that the majority ever
      supported it, implicitly or explicitly. Again, is there enough
      evidence to claim this?

      If so, it seems that perhaps Westerners have a right to feel
      superior, they must be more sophisticated and advanced -
      intellectually, technologically, AND spiritually. After all, it was
      only Western sophisticated interpretations of superstitious simple folk
      religions that only made it APPEAR deeply mystical. Mystical, at
      least, in the eyes of Westerners who wanted to prop up the East,
      perhaps as a way to not feel guilty over the past. But, really we
      Westerners must be more advanced because we were able to conquer the
      East, no? Not only that, but in our sophistication we made schools
      and gave them the tools to question us. How special are we?

      As an aside, while I disagree with a lot of the New Age, I've never
      found that they say that the East is "more" spiritual. Usually, it's
      a combination of East, and the Hermetic traditions of the West that
      were secret, such as Kaballah, that are now explicit because of our
      new post-modern pluralistic freedom. But I've never found a New Age
      teaching that said "the East is more spiritual." Nor have I ever
      found a New Age teaching that said that the "ancient" Eastern
      spiritual practices as the true pathway to mystical enlightenment."
      Rather than saying the ancient Eastern pathways as "THE" pathway,
      it's that they are "A" pathway. Indeed, the extreme relativism of the
      New Age, which itself can take on absolutism, especially in the New
      Age glorification of the irrational, beliefs that well, pretty
      anything goes for reaching enlightenment. This is the complete
      opposite of believing that one must only follow the East in a strict
      sense. As a matter of fact, most New Age people I know strongly
      resist that idea, believing that discipline is only for those who
      need it, not the advanced "more spiritual" New Agers. To me, it's
      just a rejection of hard work and real meaningful change, so it's a
      manifestation of narcissism (one big problem with the New Age).

      But for New Age, it seems, just about anything goes. You can haphazardly
      mix Kaballah, Zen, a little dash of Tantric sex, some breath work,
      and aroma massage therapy, and some easy does it meditation for
      stress relief. No real sacrifice. Of course all those practices are
      valid, but there doesn't seem to be a vision of how or why they all
      fit together (such a vision is seen as violating the multiple
      relativistic pluralism with a single integral vision which is
      considered absolutist and marginalizing). Ever read Chopra? Rest my
      case. The point is, no matter what the pleasure seeking self does, it
      never has to adjust, it only must make all teachings, paths, goals,
      etc. conform to its little objections. Continually pleasing this
      pleasure principle and endlessly trying out little outlets of
      pleasure, "spiritual" or not, is the only valid way to approach
      spirituality. Real sacrifice is barbaric and cruel, such as
      committing to a rigorous discipline in a Japanese Zen monastery or a
      Trappist order in France.

      My point is that the New Age, at least current teachings referred to
      as "New Age," is the complete opposite of those Westerners who commit
      to a really disciplined contemplative order. Among contemplatives
      themselves, they are usually aware of their biases. Easterners are
      biased towards Eastern things, and generally with Westerners they
      feel that the Western paths are better (although some Westeners are
      naive and over glorify the East). But they generally display a lot of
      respect for each other. Sufis befriend Bikkhus, who befriend
      Kaballists, who befriend Christian Contemplatives. And it's not just
      a modern thing. St. Francis of Assissi was a good friend of Rumi,
      they used to play chess together if I'm not mistaken. How different
      from the fighting between most Christians and Muslims at that time!
      True, a lot of Westerners, not knowing that their own cultures have
      esoteric teachings, are looking East to find that which we apparently
      have lost, or completely lack. But if the motive is genuine and not
      based on the unrealistic, condescending attitude that all people from
      the East are automatically "more spiritual" than they'll outgrow
      that. Emptiness is still emptiness, East or West. Once people commit
      to a path, there will be biases. People might have those biases that
      they're on the best path for the rest of their lives, but if their
      practice matures they'll at least be aware of those biases. That
      itself is a huge step, probably why contemplatives in different
      religions generally don't fight wars. But let's not be naive, in East
      and West (and yes Buddhism too!) there have also been violent fanatic
      fundamentalists among the deep esoterics as well. It can happen, so
      it must be guarded.

      Kela :Admittedly, Sharf makes several good points. We do indeed find
      rather naive characterizations and comparisons between the "East" and
      the "West" in the apologetic writings of philosophers like
      Radhakrishnan and certain other Neo-Vedantins and Indian
      yogin/writers inspired by them. Halbfass has written on this. D.T.
      Suzuki falls in with this group in ways. We also find both Suzuki and
      Radhakrishnan saying things like all "true" religion is "Zen" or
      "Vedanta." Of course one may wish to simply redefine "Zen" or
      "Vedanta" as the "transcendent core" of religion and turn it into a
      philosophia perennis position. As Halbfass has shown this kind of
      universalizing is of very recent origin. I'm not going to debate this
      issue here. On the other hand there is also something in what Sharf
      says concerning anti-Chinese rhetoric in some Zen apologetics. Part
      of this has to do with the mythic notion that Japanese culture sprang
      fully formed out the head of Zeus, and has no relation to Chinese
      culture, a notion which is of course nonsense.

      I would take issue with Sharf on three points.

      1. a.) First, he clearly has an issue with the discourse of
      "non-duality" and with absolutism in general. He seems to want to
      make an essential link between absolutism and totalizing hegemonic
      discourse when he mentions a "politically ominous 'nonduality'."
      There may be something to this in so far as there is the possibility
      of a link to totalitarian thinking and absolutism. But I remain
      unconvinced of any hard causal nexus between the two, between a
      particular philosophical notion and a particular politics. The same
      goes for the supposed link between Nazism and "German mysticism."
      b.) What is more, he seems to be merely making use of a reversal in
      his preference for "difference" and heterogeneity. That is he has
      merely favored the other end of the pole: difference over against
      sameness.

      2. Second, though he makes use of an argument that modern Buddhism
      and modern Buddhist scholarship tend to inject modern and "Western"
      values and presuppositions into traditional Asian thought, and while
      there is value in this idea in that it is basically an argument that
      Asian traditions are to be understood in emic terms, he tends to go
      overboard at times. Sharf would prefer it that we not discuss, for
      example, the Mind-Only school in Cartesian terms, that we dump the
      comparisons with Berkeley and so on. This is probably a good thing.
      Yes, it's time to drop the sophomoric and simplistic comparisons that
      ignore historical and cultural contexts, contexts that at a pragmatic
      level would probably prove more illuminating. But where Sharf goes
      too far is in saying things like "classical Asian thought did not
      have a concept of private experience." While they did not share our
      epistemic notions and problems concerning methodological solipsism
      and subjectivity, i find it ludicrous to say that they had no notion
      of private experience. A trace of this flaw in his thinking leaves
      its mark on page 44 where he seems to imply that the notion of
      "essence" is a "product" of reformation theology. This is a thinly
      veiled reference to the problem of 'protestant' Buddhism. He gives it
      a bit of a twist here: the Protestant search for "original
      Christianity" parallels that of the zen apologist. While there may be
      something to this, Sharf also seems to be saying that this kind of
      move is a modern one. I think that this is potentially problematic in
      so far as it may be denying, for the sake of defending a
      methodological assumption about "incommensurable" world views, the
      possibility that perhaps the thought of other cultures or times did
      make use of "essentializing" arguments, of looking for "original
      sources." G.E.R. Lloyd, for example has argued that the ancient
      Greeks shared certain epistemic concerns with us "moderns." The issue
      is broader than can be handled here as it entails looking at the
      entirety of Sharf's work. In any case that is another possible point
      of contention.

      3. Third and most importantly, Sharf seems to be completely unaware
      that his own exposition is an example of the kind of discourse he is
      criticizing. He uses telling phrases in this regard. He says,
      "intellectualized Zen is often held in suspicion by Zen
      traditionalists" (p.43). And: "I would remind the reader that this
      Zen is not Zen at all, at least not the Zen practised by the 'masters
      of old' (p. 51)." Then he says, "historical efforts to reconstruct
      the life of 'the founder' his disciples and his teachings for example
      often contribute to an academic discourse that tacitly deprecates or
      disenfranchises later doctrinal or institutional developments" (p.45)
      !! He couldn't have brought to the fore the very contradiction I have
      pointed out before. There are two issues here. On the one hand, it is
      clearly contradictory to harp on about the evils of "essentializing"
      and the search for "original sources" and then to do a bit of it one's
      self. Sharf posits a kind of "traditional" zen, a zen of the "old
      masters" -- classical zen, in other words -- and then contrasts it
      with the corrupted, 'impure' modern zen, the zen of "outsiders" (p.
      43). It is not enough that some forms of Japanese zen, or thinking
      claiming to be derived from zen, had associations with Nihonjiron and
      Japanese nationalism; no the implication seems to be that modern zen
      and modern interpretations of zen and by definition corrupt. Zen
      nationalism is just something thrown in to bolster the argument. Now
      Sharf's own background is in the exposition of classical Chinese
      Ch'an. This would appear to be his own bias.

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