In my view, there is a widespread tendency at work in the process of introducing Buddhism to the West that is systematically distorting the Dharma message of Buddha.
This is occurring as well-meaning Westerners import into Buddhism ideas that they believe in that are no part of the original Buddhist message.
Sometimes this is done unwittingly. People believe that idea X is good. They also believe that Buddhism is good. They then assume that idea X must, therefore, be part of Buddhism. At other times, it is done knowingly. The person knows that idea Y is not part of Buddhism but believes that Buddhism therefore needs bringing up to date or “Westernising” and therefore thinks that they are improving upon the Buddha’s message by introducing their favourite ideas. In my opinion, the former is an innocent yet unfortunate mistake and the latter usually occurs in circumstances in which the person concerned has failed to deeply understand the Dharma message and, equipped with a shallow understanding, has found the Dharma lacking in some particular. Generally, it is the case that the Dharma does deal with the problem that idea Y is supposed to cope with, but does so in a completely different manner that the writer has failed to appreciate.
An area where these tendencies are rife is the field of socially engaged Buddhism. In this area there are many people who are deeply schooled in and committed to certain liberal or socialistic principles - what may generally be termed “progressive thinking” - derived ultimately from Hellenistic or Judeo-Christian sources. Where these people have become Buddhist they have brought many of these ideas with them. The prestige of Western thought is such that some of these ideas have now even fed back into contemporary Asian Buddhism.
A classic examples is the Western concern with a certain idea of justice which is partly derived from Plato and partly from the Old Testament, but which has no roots in Buddhism as far as I can see. Other examples include liberal ideas about tolerance, non-judgementalism, value relativism, non-dualism, interdependence, and deep ecology. In some of these cases it is possible to find a concept of similar name within Buddhism, but with different meaning.
In order to deal with this issue in a more concrete way I would like to focus upon David Chappell’s critique of Honen in his article “Engaged Buddhists in a Global Society: Who is Being Liberated?” which is an essay included in the book Socially Engaged Buddhism for the New Millennium (1999, Sathirakoses-Nagapradipa Foundation pp.76-85). The general drift of the article as a whole is that socially engaged ideas are liberating and up-dating Buddhism, so this is a clear example of the trend that I am worried about.
Now I can say that, in general, I do find many of Chappell’s ideas useful, interesting and stimulating, yet, at the same time, I feel critical in the way that I have explained above. So let’s have a look at what he says about Honen specifically.
Chappell prefaces his remarks by acknowledging that
“Honen is notable for challenging the limits of the traditional Buddhist institutions by bringing Buddhism out of the monastery and into the street, and … attracting commoners and disreputable people, the humble and the outcaste.”
He then goes on to list the ways in which Honen was very different from the socially engaged Buddhists of the twentieth century.
POINT ONE: Is Honen Reductionist?
Chappell claims that Honen was reductionistic and exclusivist in contrast to the New Buddhism that affirms interdependence, and aims for inclusivity including interfaith dialogue.
Of course, anybody who advances a proposition as more right than others, Chappell included, can be said to be reductionist and exclusive, but this is not the way that these terms are usually understood. Similarly, misguided followers of any creed or philosophy, be it socially engaged Buddhism or whatever, can make a dogma of it and assert it in an exclusionary manner, but, again, we would have to say that the misapplication of something should not be taken as a reflection upon the original idea. So is it true that Honen’s approach is reductionist and is it exclusive?
Literally, we can say that Honen “reduced” the whole of Buddhism to devotion to the Buddhas, especially Amitabha, and said that those who follow this path should make a selection of nembutsu as their practice, thus excluding other practices, but this does not imply a condemnation of those who follow other paths. It was simply a means of making the Dharma widely available. It is odd to accuse the person who made Buddhism available to the masses of being exclusivist. It was the fact that Buddhism prior to Honen was limited to an elite that stimulated him to find a way for the ordinary person to practise.
Honen does doubt that other methods actually work, but leaves it to others to make their own judgement. He based his teaching primarily upon a small number of Buddhist texts amongst which the Larger Pureland Sutra features prominently. The Larger Sutra is one of the few religious texts in the world that provides a grounding for and positive injunction toward paying respect to “other Buddhas” in ways that accord with their requirements.
Here we see a different approach to a similar problem. Chappell advocates interfaith dialogue, but Honen’s Pureland advocates making offerings to other Buddhas in ways appropriate to them. In fact, in the Pureland, according to both the larger and smaller sutras, making offerings to other Buddhas appears to be the main occupation of inhabitants of the Pure Abodes - an ultimate validation of respect for other teachers. Arguably, this Pureland approach is actually more respectful of other faith communities than the dialogue approach. The latter preserves distance, whereas the former legitimises Pureland practitioners in participating with other faith communities so long as the practice in question is not blatantly unethical from a Buddhist point of view. A Buddhist practitioner should not participate in animal sacrifice, but can happily go and sing hymns and consider them to be simply other forms of nembutsu.
Pureland is not centred on the idea of interdependence. It is more conscious of simple dependence.
Interdependence implies that you need me as much as I need you. In many ways this philosophy over-estimates the human existential situation. Planet Earth does not need humans as much as humans need planet Earth. I suggest that the principle of dependence is a better basis for a correction of current human hubris than the idea of interdependence is. Buddha originally taught dependent origination and this is a valid principle that helps us to stay humble and grateful.
On the specific point about interfaith dialogue, when this does occur, and I personally have been involved in a good deal of it over the years, it is generally my impression that this comes much easier to Pureland practitioners than it does to followers of other forms of Buddhism. Pureland practitioners easily find common ground with other faiths because they do use terms like faith, grace, other power, that other Buddhists are rather shy of.
POINT TWO: Does Honen Undermine Confidence in Human Activity?
Chappell claims that “Honen rejected hope for salvation in this world and undermined confidence in any human activity” whereas leaders of the New Buddhism are “committed to working in this world to seek relief of suffering through compassion and enlightenment here-and-now.”
This criticism misreads Honen and confuses social action and salvation. Affirmation of salvation by faith does not entail passivity as the Protestant work ethic clearly demonstrates in our Western culture. In the West it is precisely those religious groups that rejected the idea of “salvation by works” who went on to generate the industrial revolution. Chappell here makes a mistake that is quite commonly encountered among people who make only a superficial reading of Honen. Honen himself was one of the most active missionaries for the Dharma in the history of Japan and his followers went on to be so active that by a few generations later the Japanese state was worrying that Pureland might displace the government. In China, at an earlier date, the Pureland White Lotus Societies had been one of he mainstays of the Ming Revolution which had displaced the Mongol dynasty and re-established Chinese rule of China. Empirically speaking, Honen’s approach tends to generate more social involvement not less and this is understandable from first principles. The picture aboce depicts Honen talking to the prime minister of his day, Kanezane.
All Buddhists, Honen no less, are in favour of compassionate action and Honen is an exemplar. However, most socially engaged Buddhists of the kind praised by Chappell follow a self-power path and believe that the first priority is to get oneself enlightened and that such quietistic practices as silent meditation are somehow the key to social reform all of which requires a good deal of time in retreat away from the world. On the other hand, followers of Honen, precisely because they do not expect to become enlightened in this lifetime, feel freed up to live socially engaged lives and feel empowered to do so by their faith, not believing that they need to achieve some personal advanced level of spirituality first.
The Pureland practitioner, believing him or herself already “seized by Amida” self-identifies in a different way.
Having already become, in effect, a citizen of the Pure Land, it is quite natural to try and make wherever one is into some reflection of that paradise.
At the same time, the recognition that one will never completely accomplish the creation of a Pure Land in this world by one’s own efforts is a strong prophylactic against disappointment. The self-power practitioner is inevitably looking for results and can easily lose heart. The Pureland practitioner simply does what comes naturally whether the results turn out to be great or meagre. Arguably, this latter is a more practical strategy and a more effective spiritual support. In any case, it is certainly the case that Pureland in Japan has given rise to educational systems and universities that are far from undermining confidence in human activity.
A major reason why the approach of Honen became popular and widespread was that the practice of nembutsu does not interfere with other activities. A sailor can say nembutsu while sailing his boat, a farmer while following his plough, a soldier, even, while marching. It was the very compatibility of Pureland with the active life that made it so appropriate to the lay population. Approaches based on silent contemplation needed time out and have an inherent tendency toward a life of non-engagement. Honey’s approach also could readily encompass the whole family. Walking and chanting does not exclude children in the way that silent contemplation generally does. I suggest, therefore, that Chappell has got hold of the wrong end of the stick.
POINT THREE: Is individual Buddha Nature the answer?
“Honen was impressed by the karmic debt that humans had incurred… that totally obstructed salvation by their own efforts” whereas New Buddhism emphasises people’s “inherent goodness” and seeks to “empower ordinary people by emphasising their Buddha Nature.”
What Chappell says is correct, but in taking the latter philosophy to be self-evidently superior, he is, surely, mistaken. The Critical Buddhism movement in Japan has convincingly demonstrated how the Buddha-Nature-of-individuals thesis easily leads to spiritual complacency and the turning of a blind eye to social oppression.
Honen, like Shakyamuni Buddha, emphasised the urgency and difficulty of the situation and thereby injected vigour into the spiritual life.
If people are all inherently good, what need is there for social engagement? Honen had great compassion for the ordinary person, often trapped in an invidious social situation, and showed each how to do whatever they can.
Philosophies of inherent goodness are dangerously close to the atma philosophy that Buddha rejected that culminates in an all’s-well-with-the-world-and-nothing-needs-to-be-done complacency. The individual Buddha Nature idea chimes with an aspect of popular philosophy that is found in spiritual systems all over the world and with some ideas in popular psychology. It is a humanistic principle that asserts that what it is to be human must be intrinsically good and right. Teachers like Shakyamuni come along and upset this smug idea. The Buddha pointed out that people in general are deluded in a great many ways, that ignorance is widespread, and that what is normal is not good enough. Popular culture - and contemporary medicine - sees the goal as being to make people normal, but great teachers ask more.
Honen, like most people of his time, was very conscious of the cruelty and greed that was everywhere apparent in the world around him. In this he was just the same as Shakyamuni Buddha. His heart-felt desire was to find a path for the ordinary person who is inevitably caught up in this world-on-fire. This surely is what all great teachers do. When Shakyamuni was confronted by the mad woman Patacara who had gone insane after losing both her children, her husband and both parents in the course of one disastrous week, he did not reassure her that she had Buddha Nature. He said the tears she had locked up inside her were only a small part of the ocean of tears she had shed in her many lives. In other words, he did not reassure her with comfortable wishful thinking but showed her that he appreciated the terrible karmic debt that humankind carries. He understood, but was not crushed, and she thus drew strength from him and regained her sanity.
In my view, the idea of individual Buddha Nature is a departure from proper Buddhist principles and is a form of human self-aggrandisement. Honen seems to have though so too.
POINT FOUR: Is progress inevitable? Is Honen pessimistic?
Chappell accuses Honen of pessimism due to his belief in mappo, the Dharma ending age. Chappell sees that there are individuals of evil tendency and that there is “institutional structural violence here-and-now” but still wants to believe in progress, thus “many examples of the improvement of knowledge, institutions, and technology provide encouragement to believe that the combination of mindfulness and work can reap some positive decrease in suffering.” In this section, Chappell sounds less than fully convinced by his own argument. He says, “even when there is no rational hope of improvement one should still try.”
Certainly there is a big gap between Honen’s idea of mappo and the modern belief in progress. This latter faith is not as widespread or as convincing as it used to seem, of course. It seems very wide of the mark, however, to call Honen a pessimist. He drew huge support from the population in his own time because he gave them hope in a time when signs of decay and disaster were all around. A philosophy made for bad times can still stand us in good stead in good ones, but a philosophy made for good times is not much use when the good times end.
Chappell seems to me here to suffer from the common tendency to believe that thinking makes it so. If you think times are good they will become so and vice versa. This is a fallacy. Chappell needs examples of progress to give him hope and faith, but Honen has hope and faith even in the complete absence of them. Chappell’s New Buddhism seems to be grounded in a result’s oriented approach, whereas the true spirit of Buddhism and any true religion, I suggest, is virtue for its own sake. Religion should be able to inspire us even and precisely in those dark times when there are no material profits to be had. Honen’s philosophy does that. Chappell’s does not. It needs external supports.
Honen’s message gave people confidence in the midst of disaster, famine, earthquake and war. Chappell wants to ground his philosophy in evidence of progress in this material world. However in this world of conditions, things can go down as well as up, backwards as well as forwards.
Buddhism does not assume that progress is inevitable. Things change according to conditions.
This is what makes the Buddhist philosophy one of freedom. The Buddha reinterpreted karma to mean that anything is possible, intentional action has consequences. Good intentions bring good consequences sooner or later and bad bad. We do not need to import faith in progress into Buddhism, it is better without it. Nonetheless, by embracing the metaphysical aspect of Buddhism, Honen was able to give people hope that transcended material circumstance.
POINT FIVE: Was Honen Backward because He Did Not Have Wifi?
Chappell says that “today’s Buddhist leaders can seek reform of their institutions by collaborating with more diverse and inclusive institutions, such as education, democracy, and the internet to ensure diversification, maximum participation and fulfilment of one’s potential” whereas Honen lived in a society that “was institutionally impoverished by having very few options”.
This criticism bundles together a great many prejudices into a small space and there is hardly room here to unpick them all. In general, it seems to continue the drift of Point Four to the effect that progress is a good thing and therefore modern times are superior to historical ones. This is a dubious claim. Modern times may have more wherewithal, but whether we use it better or worse is a very open question. Certainly our modern society has some options, like the internet, that Honen did not have, but the internet is just as much a highway for spam and corruption as for enlightenment and spiritual uplift. All technical innovations are ethically neutral in themselves - it all depends upon how people use them.
Does modern education make people more spiritual, liberated and enlightened? Honen gave a message that uplifted people whether they were educated or not. Chappell himself seems to recognise that the increasing complexity of modern institutions is not an unmitigatedly good thing since he sees them as one of the main targets for socially engaged reform. I don’t think one can have it both ways.
The modern progressive person is committed to democracy, diversification, maximum participation and fulfilment of one’s potential, but arguably these goals are often incompatible one with another. There is no fundamental reason to see them as ultimate or self-evident goods or as the highest things that humans are capable of. They are ideals of a particular phase of late industrial culture in economically developed countries. Honen lived in a society in which ideals of loyalty, piety, family cohesion, duty, self-sacrifice, courage, altruism, and modesty carried more weight than they do today. Is it immediately self-evident that that society was always wrong in these particulars and our always right? I don’t think so.
Indeed, I think that by implicitly over-valuing our own (or, at least, American) culture Chappell offends against his own supposed principles of tolerance and inclusivity. If he cannot see the virtues of the society that Honen lived in how can he claim to have a philosophy that “affirms interdependence, and aims for inclusivity”? In his rhetoric, he seems to be saying that he values all societies and all cultures, but this is not borne out by his judgements that value one particular culture above all others. In fact, Honen’s philosophy is really more culturally neutral than Chappell’s is.
On the question of democracy and participation, Honen’s reform did, in fact, make for widespread local forms of co-operation. Nembutsu practitioners met fortnightly all over Japan to practise nembutsu together and these meetings became community gatherings that were a great support to country people, not just in their spiritual lives, but in many practical ways too. When we look at the history of Buddhism we see that it has often been very successful at community development and Pureland Buddhism particularly so. One of the reasons that Honen’s approach has this characteristic is that he placed such emphasis upon the ordinary, bombu, vulnerable nature of people.
In the atmosphere of Honen's philosophy it is easier for people to appreciate one another and feel sympathy for one another’s misfortunes.
These sentiments are natural building blocks of community. It is not that Honen or Buddhism in general tries to impose a rational ideology of democracy or socialism or anything of the kind. It is rather that it cultivates the kinds of attitude that help people to help and appreciate one another. They may find a multitude of different ways to do so and many of these ways do not conform to any particular ideological correctness, but they do touch the heart.
One of the problems of the modern world has been the attempt to replace virtue with rationality. In a perfectly communistic or socialistic society, generosity would be redundant. In a Buddhistic society, and especially one that followed Honen’s style of Buddhism, generosity is fundamental. In the modern world we are constantly substituting form for substance. In a faith based community the opposite occurs.
The advance of technology certainly gives us opportunities, but the message of Shakyamuni and Honen stands up with or without such conveniences.
POINT SIX: Should Buddhism Get With It and Become Postmodern?
Chappell says that “today’s [New Buddhist] leaders have a wealth of information… [and] postmodern awareness that no single source is adequate or authoritative” and are “returning to the scepticism of Gautama Buddha who pointed up the relativity of all words and concepts (Sutta Nipata VIII)” whereas, apparently, Honen had total confidence in the authority of the Buddhist scriptures.
Again, even if this were correct, it is not clear that Honen’s position would for that reason be inferior. The postmodern sceptic may be paralysed by indecision and lost in a morass of relativistic considerations that lack any power to move the heart. It is not at all clear that postmodern thinking is conducive to social action. It tends rather to the kind of relativism that makes decisive action always suspect.
There is something a bit strange about this section of Chappell’s argument. It is the section in which he throws doubt upon the reliability of texts, yet it is the one and only section in which he has reference to a Buddhist text to back up his argument, citing Sutta Nipata 8. However, my translation of the Sutta Nipata has only five sections and none of them speak about the “relativity of words and concepts” so I am not sure what Chappell is relying upon here. In any case,
Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching has very little in common with postmodernism.
He uses words in a very clear and defined manner, makes precise distinctions and makes it quite apparent what he favours and what he rejects. I can see no basis for Chappell’s contention that his view is a return to the teaching of the great sage.
Honen had confidence in the teachings that he received from the scriptures and from the writings of former sages such as Shan Tao. However, this was not a reliance upon a narrow literalism so much as upon the spiritual meaning. It was his genius in bringing out and demonstrating this meaning that made him an inspiring teacher. The same is true of Shakyamuni who also interpreted perennial wisdom in vibrant ways relevant to his audience.
Again, it is very difficult to see how anybody can think that Honen took the texts uncritically. An obvious and salient feature of his message was the fact that he indicated that even though the texts might speak great wisdom, most of them were not capable of implementation in his time and culture. It was because he was critical that he was persecuted. It is true that he was not a sceptic in the modern sense, but modern scepticism largely just leaves people alienated and directionless.
Now I do appreciate modern scholarship and I do value having a great range of sources and comment available. I enjoy scholarly activity. In my lifetime the internet has come along and it is often convenient to be able to google a Buddhist text and find it pop up quite quickly. I imagine Honen would have enjoyed this too. He also was a scholar and had the good fortune to live for much of his life on Mount Hiei where there was probably the best Buddhist library in his country. He had a reputation for being extremely learned. There were times when he was visiting leading people from other schools of Buddhism when he demonstrated a better understanding of their own texts than they themselves possessed. It was the fact that he was so learned that made his adoption of such a simple approach so striking. So I think Honen would have valued some modern equipment, but a postmodern attitude would not have enhanced his philosophy, his appeal or the quality of his life.
POINT SEVEN: Was Honen in Need of Multiculturalism?
Finally, Chappell claims that “Today’s leaders recognise… cultural differences not as barriers or failures but as sources of diversity and enrichment. Rather than hoping to copy another culture and its mode of enlightenment that led to… Honen’s despair of duplicating Indian Buddhism, today’s leaders accept the differences and work interactively for mutual enhancement as a source to stimulate new creativity.”
It is difficult to understand how Chappell got hold of this idea of Honen, who himself had disciples who followed several different schools of Buddhism and whose success must have been largely due to his ability to take Chinese wisdom and reshape it into a form that spoke eloquently to the ordinary Japanese people of his own day, people from many different strata of society. He was an adapter of culture. It does not seem accurate to say that he despaired of making Japan like India; what he despaired of was finding anybody who could live up to the super-human standard of perfection required by so many Buddhist texts.
Although Buddhism does adapt as it goes from one culture to another, it does not give up its essence.
A Buddhist needs to understand and be loyal to that essence or they cease to be Buddhist. If Chappell’s suggestion is that one should embrace an unlimited degree of creativity and cultural cross fertilisation then he ceases to be Buddhist and while what he advocates might still be interesting it would not warrant the name of engaged Buddhism. It would simply be Western progressive thinking - which, perhaps, is what it actually is. At the same time, there is something ingenuous in this precisely because it does all smack of Western progressive thinking and, therefore, of a bias in favour of one particular culture, and at that, not a Buddhist one. This is my fundamental point. Writings of this kind are not really doing a service to Buddhism, kindly correcting the Buddha’s errors and showing how postmodern leftist thinking is superior, but are, in a rather biassed way, undermining a profound and noble religion in unjustifiable ways rooted in cultural prejudice.
Now I am confident that Chappell and many others like him sincerely believe that a good dose of postmodernism and so on is just what Buddhism needs in order to bring it up to date. They think that there can be no sound basis for social engagement other than the set of ideas that they have inherited from Western culture. However, in this they are wrong. There are many ways of being socially engaged and if one’s aim in being so is to make the world as much like America as possible one would be well advised to think again and consider whether a society that has an unsustainable energy footprint is really what the planet needs at the moment.
Through the ages Buddhism has been socially engaged by building community (rather than the fragmentation of postmodern alienation), by inculcating love and compassion (rather than rights and justice), by giving people confidence in goodness (rather than relativism), by fostering faith (rather than scepticism) and by humanising (rather than institutionalising) society.
Chappell finally advocates that all religious texts should be “interpreted in the light of the Declaration of Human Rights.” Leaving aside the fact that Chappell has already declared himself to be against relying on any one text particularly, I think that there is a good deal of scope for questioning whether this particular text should really be considered an ultimate source of wisdom. Surely it is the human insistence upon “rights” rather than responsibility that has contributed massively to the ecological plight that we find ourselves in, one in which the country that holds that text most dear must figure as one of the most blameworthy culprits.
Rights is not a Buddhist concept. Kindness is a Buddhist concept.
Wisdom is a Buddhist concept. Compassion, patience, energy, and restraint are all Buddhist concepts, but “rights” is a modern, Western legal fiction. The way to be socially engaged from a Buddhist perspective is not to fight for rights but to cultivate communities that embody love, compassion, joy and equanimity. It should not be a matter of campaigning for justice and equality, concepts that can be twisted in a thousand ways to support almost any political agenda, but rather of fostering trust, understanding and co-operation.
If we have a genuinely Buddhist form of social engagement of this kind, then I suggest that both the philosophy and the example of Honen will stand us in good stead. We shall then accept the failings of others, not from a principle of tolerance (a word that does not occur in Buddhist texts) but out of fellow feeling rooted in Honen’s fundamental principle of bombu nature. We shall accept the limitations of human achievement and the vulnerability of ourselves and others for similar reasons. Yet, nonetheless, because we have faith that we are recipients of grace, and because our faith is not dependent upon factors like technological progress, we shall naturally contribute to the building of compassionate community that does not even attempt to treat everybody equally, but rather makes allowance for each frail person in the best way it can as circumstances unfold.
Buddhism is not trying to reorganise the world on rational principles, as though people were machines. It is concerned with cultivating living community that is ever evolving in organic ways, guided by principles of kindness, patience and goodness. Sages such as Honen are revered precisely because they embodied this spirit.
So, to return to my original theme, whether we are talking about Honen or any other Buddhist sage, or about Pureland, or any other Buddhist school, I am concerned that there is a tendency as Buddhism comes to the West for it to be reconstructed according to principles that are quite alien to the spirit of Shakyamuni. Mostly this distortion comes about through the actions of people who believe they are doing something good and constructive. I cannot blame them, but I lament the effect of what they are doing. We now see in the West a widespread consensus across many different schools about what Buddhism is that in many particulars owes more to the Western religious tradition and the preoccupations of Western philosophy than to the Eastern one or to the founder’s original principles. I hope that this is merely a phase, just as Buddhism entering China was initially greatly infiltrated by Taoist ideas yet later emerged in its own right, I hope that something similar will occur in the West, even if it does not happen in my time.