Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"I discover as I grow older ...", Or, Buddhism as a youthful indiscretion (Buddhism Without Ironic Detachment, Part Two)

"Cool is not a way of resisting authority but rather a way of exercising it -- of leading people who cannot otherwise be forced to follow."
[Dave Hickey's review of Cool Rules]
2. "... seeking to find an identity outside that of my own culture."

This is part two of a series of posts critiquing Stephen Batchelor's various attempts to remake Buddhism in an image more to his liking. The Gentle Reader is strongly encouraged to at least take a glance at the first post in this series before continuing below.

In his Treatise on Toleration (1763), Voltaire wrote that "When men do not have healthy notions of the Divinity, false ideas supplant them." Voltaire never made a secret of the fact that at the top of his list of "false ideas" concerning the divine was one set of ideas in particular: Christianity.

In the entry for "Religion" in his Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire described a horrifying vision in which the bodies of all the victims of Christian violence (including millions of Native Americans) were piled up to form "abominable monuments to barbarism and fanaticism." Voltaire also included Judaism and Islam in his condemnation of faiths in which "zeal and religion [are] wretchedly transformed into fanaticism." But Voltaire was not opposed to religiosity altogether. He described himself as a Deist, and he asserted his own belief in a "supreme Intelligence", and he was an initiate in the mystical society of Freemasonry.

Some say that at the very end of his life, though, the author of the Philosophical Dictionary, and the Treatise on Toleration, relented and converted to Christianity at the last possible moment. It could be true. Who knows? However I prefer the version in which when the priest begged him to renounce the Devil, Voltaire responded, "This is no time to start making new enemies." There is also the theory that his deathbed conversion really did occur, but that Voltaire meant it as a joke.

Regardless of what really happened during the final moments of Voltaire's life, it is well-known that many people go through a phase of freethinking and rebelliousness in their youth, only to become much more conservative and accommodating toward convention with age (often long before they reach their deathbeds). For example, in his 1997 essay "Deep Agnosticism", Stephen Batchelor described how, in his teens and 20s, he had embraced Buddhism in a youthful "act of defiance", but by the time he had reached the ripe old age of forty-something, had already done some serious rethinking:
I discover as I grow older a reconnection with the roots of my own culture. Maybe many of us of my generation were drawn to Buddhism as a kind of act of defiance, a kind of rebelliousness against what we viscerally disliked—often for rather naive, adolescent, and idealistic reasons—in our own culture and we saw Buddhism, or at least I saw Buddhism, as a kind of vindication of that dissent.

But as the years have gone by I’ve found that this denial of one’s roots, this denial of one’s cultural upbringing, is not actually possible to sustain. If one seeks to sustain it, one often ends up as a kind of mock Tibetan or pseudo-Japanese. Although I have tried to do that on occasion, dressing up in all of the appropriate regalia, more than that I feel it to be still seeking to find an identity outside that of my own culture.

[From "Deep Agnosticism: A Secular Vision of Dharma Practice", but Stephen Batchelor]
There is nothing much to be found in the way of original thought in Batchelor's potted story of headstrong youthful rebellion followed, with advancing age, by contrite reconciliation with "one's own" culture. In fact, it is right out of the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. There isn't even anything original in the specific story line of a young Western intellectual who diffidently samples the spiritual offerings of the East only to be drawn safely back to the warm, familiar embrace of a culture that is his not by choice, but by mere happenstance of birth.

And there is, if possible, even less originality in Batchelor's pseudo-Nietzschean rationalizing in which he posits a crude racial/cultural determinism, according to which it is an impossibility for a person of European blood to "sustain" the "denial of one's roots," that Batchelor believes must be involved for a Westerner to "believe" in Buddhism. Nor is there anything fresh and new about insisting that those foolish enough to make the attempt to think outside "one's own" culture, can only accomplish a mawkish theatrical display that goes no further than "dressing up in all the appropriate regalia," because no force can change the immutable, essential characteristics of the silly self-denying white actor underneath the ridiculous Asiatic costume.

Western intellectuals, writers, artists -- indeed anyone of sufficiently adventurous spirit -- had already been exploring "the East" for centuries by the time the 60's came along. For example a complete English translation of the Bhagavad Gita was first published in 1785, over two centuries before the publication of Batchelor's Buddhism Without Beliefs (first pubished in 1998, and in which he attempted to more fully develop his agnostical, later secular, and then finally atheistical, New Buddhist Dipsensenation, first announced to the world in "Deep Agnosticism").

Charles Wilkins' (1749-1836) English translation of the Bhagavad Gita was just part of a much larger project, never completed, to translate the entire Mahabharata. During his 16 years in India, Wilkins not only came out with his historical translation of the Gita (which was very popular, and was in turn translated into French and German), he also created the first Devanagari typeface (he was a typesetter by profession), served as official translator of Persian and Bengali for the East India Company, and helped establish the Asiatic Society of Bengal.

In 1879, Edwin Arnold published his groundbreaking The Light of Asia, a book length epic poem recounting the life of the Buddha. Arnold's book was a great literary and commercial success, and is still in print today. But Arnold did not at all limit himself to writing about Buddhism, and he helped to found, along with Anagarika Dharmapala, the Maha Bodhi Society, perhaps most well known for its work to protect and preserve Buddhist historical sites in India.

It is important to emphasize that the Western encounter with Eastern religions has been active and ongoing since well before Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, ruled over half of Europe. All during this now centuries long process of Westerners exploring the East, a wide variety of positions and dispositions have been staked out. Some have simply chosen to, in essence, "go native", as one might say of Charles Henry Allan Bennett, who not only converted to Buddhism but ordained as a Buddhist monk (sometime around 1901) and lived out the remainder of his life as Ananda Metteyya (he died in 1923). Others have attempted to fully embrace Eastern teachings while also experimenting with new and different ways of presenting and applying these teachings in the West (for example Dennis Philip Edward Lingwood, aka Sangharakshita, and his Friends of the Western Buddhist Order). Still others have chosen to xenophobically exaggerate what they have seen as the indelible "foreignness" of Buddhism, Hinduism, and everything "Eastern", and these have, therefore, insisted on either the necessity of rejecting "Asian" ideas altogether, or possibly (as with Batchelor) of slapping together heavily redacted New Dispensations meticulously purged of anything that might be rejected by the metaphysical immune system of the European psyche.