Monday, September 12, 2011

David Loy's "Buddhist" revanchism: five more counter-examples

"There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages."
Mark Twain, "Following the Equator"

"As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform. Prior to reading Gandhi I had about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationships."
Martin Luther King, "Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story"


According to David Loy, a yawning mental chasm divides humanity into two groups as follows (see his Why Buddhism Needs the West, in the Spring 2009 issue of Tricycle magazine):
  • Group A: On one side of the abyss stand those who are incapable (at least on their own) of recognizing the simple fact that social conventions are merely things that human beings ourselves have invented. Because of this mental deficiency, these poor souls are doomed to passively accept even the most egregious injustices as immutably ordained by Nature and/or the Divine. In other words, here we have superstitious simpletons incapable of applying even the most rudimentary reason and logic to matters of social organization.
  • Group B: On the other side of the mental divide are men and women with the intellectual capacity and also the bent of spirit to ask questions about and apply reason to the ways in which human societies function and are organized. Most especially, these people are capable of forming in their minds the question: "do things have to be this way?" Even more importantly, they are able to give to that question the answer: "No."
An important wrinkle is that while it is true that on their own members of Group A are unable to raise themselves out of their benighted state of "social mystification", they can, under the tutelage of members of Group B, be brought to an understanding, at least partially, of the truth of things with regard to "the social and political arrangements under which we live." In particular, according to Loy, members of Group A can be made to grasp the following: "if a political regime is unjust and oppressive it should be changed, because such systems are human constructs and can therefore be reconstructed." But this is possible only if they are fortunate enough to be "exposed to the ideas" that can only originate from the (presumably larger) brains of members of Group B.

Every thinking person knows that Loy's argument bears a very strong resemblance to reality. We all know people who are oblivious to, and/or passively accepting of, the gross inequalities and injustices that surround us, and who give every appearance of being congenitally enjoined to remain in that state of callous ignorance.

And despite how frustrating and thankless it is, those who are blessed/cursed with a "social conscience" inevitably must feel compelled to appeal to those others (in Group A), and attempt to kindle within their hearts and minds at least the faint beginnings of "a sense of responsibility or concern for the problems and injustices of society."

So far, none of this is news to anyone, at least not to anyone in Group B.

But David Loy has a curious twist on what is otherwise a rather obvious, even trivial, observation about humanity. Loy insists that Group B consists exclusively of people of European descent!

For some reason, David Loy's outrageous chauvinism has passed unnoticed and unremarked upon, or, what is far worse, is being taken seriously as a legitimate, even progressive, analysis of human cultures and their differences. This passive acceptance of a line of reasoning that could reasonably be characterized as nothing short of racist, is, in my opinion, far more remarkable and troubling than Loy's own Eurocentric revanchism.

It seems odd that, now that we are well into the 21st century, it should still be necessary to argue against the contention that the ability to recognize and understand social injustice is "distinctly Western". In a previous post on the same topic (David Loy and the White Buddhist's Burden), I have already cited five counter-examples, demonstrating the capacity for non-Europeans from several different Asian cultures to do what David Loy believes only Europeans can do. These examples were: (1) The Mauryan Emperor Aśoka (ca. 304-232 BC), whose social conscience led him to enact publicly subsidized medical care, improve conditions for prisoners, strongly advocate religious tolerance, etc.; (2) The Chinese Empress Wu Zetian (624-705 AD) who worked for improving the social position of women and of the lower classes; (3) Chinese Chan Masters Yuan-Wu, Ta-Hui, and Hung-Chih who championed equality for women in Buddhism in the 11th and 12th centuries; (4) Japanese Zen Masters Dogen and Keizan who also took clear positions for the equality of women in the 13th and 14th centuries; and (5) Korean Seon Master Sosan Taesa who led a guerilla army that helped liberate Korea from foreign military occupation in the 16th century.

But wait, there's more!

Five More Counter-examples

1. Yellow Turban Rebellion 184-205 AD (China)
Zhang Jue was a Taoist religious leader who founded a new sect based on the Way of Supreme Peace, which venerated Huang Lao, a divinized form of Lao Tzu. Zhang Jue practiced spiritual healing among the poor and advocated equal rights and equal distribution of land. His sect rose up in rebellion against the Han Dynasty Emperor Ling in 184 AD. The story of this popular uprising against imperial power was retold in 14th century classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Here are some sources: cultural-china.com, threekingdoms.wikia.com, chinahistoryforum.com, List of Rebellions in China (wikipedia).

2. Nichiren (Japan, 1222-1282)
Among many other things, Nichiren is notable for his advocacy of equality for women. He taught, for example, “There should be no discrimination among those who propagate the five characters of Myoho-renge-kyo [representing the Lotus Sutra] in the Latter Day of the Law, be they men or women. Were they not Bodhisattvas of the Earth, they could not chant the daimoku.” Nichiren placed no limits whatsoever on the capacities of women, and taught that women could be the equal, or the better, of any men, and could attain enlightenment and Buddhahood. Nichiren also categorically rejected the notion of "ritual impurity" of menstruating women. For more, see Toshie Kurihara's 2003 article "A History of Women in Japanese Buddhism: Nichiren's Perspectives on the Enlightenment of Women": pdf.

3. White Lotus/Red Turban (13th century, China)
A new Buddhist sect began to appear among Han Chinese during the 13th century. The sect worshipped the Goddess "Unborn or Eternal Venerable Mother" (無生老母), and also looked forward to the imminent appearance of Maitreya Buddha. The White Lotus sect was also highly syncretic and taught the underlying unity of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. In 1355 a rebellion (often referred to as the Red Turban Rebellion) against Mongol rule broke out among Han Chinese. The revolutionaries were inspired by the White Lotus teachings, and a White Lotus monk named Zhu Yuanzhang (formerly a beggar) came to lead the revolutionary army. When the uprising succeeded, Zhu Yuanzhang became the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty (as Emperor he is known to history as Hongwu). The White Lotus uprising has served as an inspiration to subsequent peasant revolts and other movements for greater social, economic and political equality throughout Asia. Here are some places to look to learn more: chinahistoryforum.com, wikipedia, NewWorldEncyclopedia, history.cultural-china.com.

4. "All Men Are Brothers" (aka "Water Margin" aka "Outlaws of the Marsh")
Kenneth Rexroth wrote, in 1958, of this 14th century Chinese novel known by many titles: "All Men Are Brothers is the story of the adventures of a gang of quasi-revolutionary brigands of the type who have flourished during all the many periods when Chinese civilization fell on evil days. While they were out, the book was very popular with the Chinese Reds. After they came to power it was frowned on for a while. It is dangerous to an extreme." A reviewer at yellowbridge.com wrote that "this one is called a Robin Hood story because it tells the exploits of a group of outlaws who steals from corrupt officials to give to the poor. However, I find it more like the 'Justice League' of DC Comics. Except that there are 108 superheroes." Paul Halsall, a classicist with a strong interest in Chinese literature and culture, describes the novel as follows: "The work is a semihistorical collection of stories about a band of enlightened outlaws--social and political dissenters whose exploits were recorded in official dynastic history. This is one of the few traditional novels approved today by Chinese Communist authorities and critics." (link) And here is an excerpt from a modern forward to the novel written by Edwin Lowe (a China scholar Macquarie University in Sydney): "Beloved by ordinary people and feared by officials, the bandits sally forth from the marshes surrounding their base at Mount Liang, to restore justice and order to the land. Robbing from the rich and the corrupt and redistributing to the poor and the virtuous, the bandits of Lianshan Marsh act in the name of loyalty to the Emperor of the Song, whom they believe to be shielded to the injustices of his corrupt officials and the suffering of his subjects." (link)

5. MLK, Gandhi, Tolstoy, Schopenhauer, and the Dharma
While a seminarian Martin Luther King studied the ideas of numerous western philosophers and political thinkers, including Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Stewart Mill, Karl Marx, and A.J. Muste. Although he found much that resonated with him he felt that none of those authors managed to demonstrate that it was possible to apply "the love ethic of Jesus" to the problem of redressing social injustices. This changed only once King began to read the works of Gandhi. But there is far more to the story than that, for Gandhi, in turn, credited the Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy as the "teacher who furnished a reasoned basis for non-violence." Tolstoy, for his part, cited Schopenhauer as a major influence on his own ethical thinking, and also praised Schopenhauer as "the greatest genius of humankind." Finally, Arthur Schopenhauer was deeply influenced by his reading of Buddhist and Hindu literature, especially the Upanishads. Tolstoy specifically mentions Schopenhauer's own redactions of Buddhist and Hindu ideas as a major influence. For a slightly more thorough treatment of this "lineage" see: From the Vedas to MLK: Tracing Back the Radiance.

Further Reading: