ON BEING LIBERALLY DOGMATIC (rather than dogmatically liberal)

Last night I had a conversation in a restaurant in which a person reported the view that the religion of the future would be Zen because Zen was a religion without dogmas. This statement struck me with particular force because at the moment I am in the middle of reviewing a draft chapter by another author on "Eastern Meditation Meets the West" for a future publication. This chapter highlights the cultural filters that ideas have to pass through in order to get a stamp of approval by our Western culture. One such filter must be the whole idea that a religion would be better for having no dogmas.

This idea of 'no dogma' is surely a product of our Western history in the course of which so many people have been assassinated for having supposedly wrong dogmas. It is surely not a universal truth, and seems to have very little if any basis in Eastern thought. This is not because the East has a different opinion about dogma, it is because the question does not arise in the East. In the East people assassinated each other mostly because of greed, jealousy, hatred, ethnic rivalry or power hunger. Dogma did not come into it - certainly not to an extent sufficient to establish a widespread cultural guilt and neurosis about the subject in the way that has happened here.

Zen, as practised in Japan, therefore, does not talk about dogma, but that does not mean that it is devoid of the kinds of things that would be considered to be dogmas if they were presented in the West. This is generally hidden in the Western presentation of Zen and of any other eastern religious approach that one wants to sell to Western people. Dogmas will be presented as 'teachings', a much softer word that can slip past the censor.

'Zen' as we know it in the West is, to a large extent, a western creation, made by passing Eastern material through many sieves of this kind until it is almost unrecognisable. Westerners call this stripping off the cultural accretions, but what generally happens is that it is the heart and guts that are removed and the cultural bits that are kept, so that one ends up with American or European ideas wrapped up in terminology and cultural forms derived from Asia yet redefined by Westerners. What one has in the end stands in relation to the genuine article much as a mummy in a pyramid does to the living pharaoh.

This is true of Buddhism generally, but Zen has achieved a particular cachet in this respect. This is partly because the phrase that Zen is a "direct transmission, not dependent upon words" has been made much of. However, one should not forget that Bodhidharma, to whom this quotation is attributed, was a lecturer on the Lankavatara Sutra, a text  that he passed on to his successors as the hallmark of his teaching. The Lankavatara is virtually a compendium of all the Buddhist dogmas that were current at the time.

The odd thing is that many of those who advocate such non-dogmatism, do so quite dogmatically, and tend to add a number of other dogmas such as non-duality, interdependence (or even interbeing), Buddhanature, realisation of the true self, oneness, and so on, which are mostly metaphysical doctrines that are not at all self-evident. This set of ideas has a lot more to do with Western popular spirituality than it has with Buddhism or Zen, though, increasingly, and unfortunately, as Western ideas colonise the world, Easterners now also begin to adopt them. If you want to make something popular, you divest it of anything that opposes and add in anything that supports values and ideas that are already established in (i.e. have become dogmas of) the dominant paradigm. This, however, does not constitute the path to true mental freedom. It is, rather, selling out and permitting the colonisation of one's own inner space.

Is there any way out? At least, it should be possible to reflect and think about the implications of what one is saying. At earlier stages of my life I have, at one time or another, taken on and even advocated a number of these Western non-dogma dogmas, but as life has gone on I have become more and more wary of them. They introduce into one's thought a cosy smugness that it is probably better to try to live without. In our search for self-perfection we want to equip ourselves with an irrefutable philosophy that will permit us to win every argument and always consider ourselves to be in the right. The problem is that such philosophies tend to be vacuous when examined more closely. They tell us zero about real life.

There is no religion that has no dogmas - never will be. There is no individual or group that has no dogmas. We all take certain things for granted - those are our dogmas. We have to. We could not make decisions or get through the day if we did not do so. We can say that we are always open to having our ideas refuted by new evidence and it is excellent if this really is the case, but, to tell the truth, mostly we are less flexible. We are not like jellyfish - we have some bones in our body, and religions, including Zen, also have some bones in their body.

What we have to get used to is that this is not a crime nor a disaster. Actually, in our terrible, blood soaked European history, dogmas were mostly a cover story. We also did most of our assassinations for reasons of greed, jealousy, hatred, ethnic rivalry or power hunger. We are no different. Dogma is a red herring, and dogma-hating is a neurosis that attempts to cover up our cultural guilt by convincing us that we can do better in future. We would do better to adopt some new dogmas, perhaps starting with the importance of accepting human limitations.

The religion of the future will not be non-dogmatic. It will be something that accommodates the human striving toward what is beyond us. It will make room for our frailty while inspiring us with something that transcends it. If it does its job well, it will not puff up our self-conceit, but will make it possible for us to be more accepting of how we find ourselves and one another to be, while yet receiving spiritual help and support from sources that we can never hope to fully understand. If it needs a few basic dogmas to achieve this, so be it.

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