That Dirty Word “Buddhism”

Nolotusflower“Fred,” a commenter on this blog, quoted an article by Sam Harris from 2006. In it Sam Harris said, “Worse still, the continued identification of Buddhists with Buddhism lends tacit support to the religious differences in our world. At this point in history, this is both morally and intellectually indefensible–especially among affluent, well-educated Westerners who bear the greatest responsibility for the spread of ideas. ”

A few paragraphs on in the same piece, Mr. Harris continues thus:

“What the world most needs at this moment is a means of convincing human beings to embrace the whole of the species as their moral community. For this we need to develop an utterly nonsectarian way of talking about the full spectrum of human experience and human aspiration. We need a discourse on ethics and spirituality that is every bit as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourse of science is. What we need, in fact, is a contemplative science, a modern approach to exploring the furthest reaches of psychological well-being. It should go without saying that we will not develop such a science by attempting to spread ‘American Buddhism,’ or ‘Western Buddhism,’ or ‘Engaged Buddhism.’

“If the methodology of Buddhism (ethical precepts and meditation) uncovers genuine truths about the mind and the phenomenal world–truths like emptiness, selflessness, and impermanence–these truths are not in the least ‘Buddhist.’ No doubt, most serious practitioners of meditation realize this, but most Buddhists do not. Consequently, even if a person is aware of the timeless and non-contingent nature of the meditative insights described in the Buddhist literature, his identity as a Buddhist will tend to confuse the matter for others.”

The article in full is worth reading. I found it here on Shambhala Sun’s website.

This is much like what my teacher, Nishijima Roshi, would say sometimes. He said, “Buddhism is just realism.” He said he believed eventually the word “Buddhism” would no longer be necessary. But he took it a different direction from Mr. Harris. When you’d ask Nishijima Roshi why he still used the word “Buddhism” himself, he would say that he had to call it something and that, currently, “Buddhism” was what it was called.

The very word “Buddhism” is a British invention (if you don’t want to buy the book somebody made a PDF of it). It came from people who researched the cultures of the Asian countries which they colonized and tried to define them in British terms. Thus the things that Indians and Tibetans and Chinese people did that resembled what British people did at church were a religion. That religion was founded by a guy called Buddha. So these British researchers called this religion “Buddhism,” just as they called Islam “Mohammedism.”

Whether Asian Buddhism is a religion or not is debatable. Certainly much of it is wrapped up in superstition and unfounded belief in supernatural forces just like our own religions. But much of it is not. Just like our own religions.

There are two big unanswered questions I see with Sam Harris’ points. They are, 1) What are you gonna call it then? and 2) Do you mean we have to get rid of all the rituals since rituals are too “religious?”

Question one is problematic but solvable. We have to have names for things in order to communicate with each other about them. If we were to call what is now called Buddhism “realism,” as Nishijima Roshi suggested would one day happen, this could be confusing. These days the word “realism” generally seems to be synonymous with “materialism.” And Buddhism isn’t materialism.

We could just make up a new word. But that has drawbacks. It’s like the people who are concerned about the grammatical necessity of using gendered pronouns in English who propose to use new words like zhe, ze or zir instead of he or she. It’s awkward and nobody knows what the hell you’re talking about.

Maybe eventually we’ll get a word that works. But not yet. So we’re stuck with “Buddhism” for now.

The second question is trickier. In order to create “an utterly nonsectarian way of talking about the full spectrum of human experience and human aspiration” a lot of folks these days have sought to create a ritual-free Buddhism, which doesn’t call itself Buddhism but pretty much is Buddhism anyhow. MBSR is like this as is lots of the philosophy of Ekhart Tolle.

In fact my own two teachers sort of did this themselves. They taught meditation only and avoided most of the other ritual stuff like chanting, prostrations, services and suchlike. Neither of them eliminated these things entirely. That’s significant. They both did some of the rituals. But they played them down considerably.

I only discovered the problem when I started going to Tassajara Zen Monastery in Northern California. There I was required to do a lot of rituals. At first I found this to be extremely problematic. Intellectually I saw these rituals the way I think Sam Harris does, as promoting sectarianism and ultimately religious warfare. A few years ago I probably would have agreed with Mr. Harris that promoting or even engaging in such nonsense was “morally and intellectually indefensible.” If I’d seen his piece six years ago when it was new and I’d only just started going to places where Buddhist rituals were regularly performed I might have written a very different response to it.

Harris never actually addresses the matter of ritual in this piece, nor in any of his other writings about this matter that I know of. I suspect he’s largely ignorant of the ritual aspects of Buddhism and would probably consider them, as I used to, as irrelevant or even damaging.

In Bendowa, Dogen seems – at least superficially – to agree. He says, “After the initial meeting with a [good] counselor we never again need to burn incense, to do prostrations, to recite Buddha’s name, to practice confession, or to read sutras. Just sit and get the state that is free of body and mind.Yet for the rest of his life Dogen burned lots of incense, did plenty of prostrations, recited Buddha’s name a whole bunch of times and read loads of sutras. I don’t really know what “practice confession” means. But I’ll be he did that too.

These rituals are an important part of the practice. They are part of its realistic approach to human life. They are necessary in order to experience the fullness of Buddhist practice.

It’s true that these rituals are more-or-less arbitrary. Yet part of what makes them work is that they connect us not only to the community with whom we perform them. They connect us to a tradition and to our human past, to the wider community of humans who lived and died long before us. A tradition takes a very long time to come together. The rituals have to be old and established. So we have to look to our past to find them.

Still, we are free to understand these received rituals in our own way. In fact we have to, since there is no other way to understand them. The way this works best for me is to understand the rituals as arbitrary and fairly flexible.

I often tell the story of being at Tassajara one morning in which a whole lot of things went wrong with the daily chanting service. Bells were rung at the wrong time, incense wasn’t lit when it should have been, we even had to stop one chant and start it over again because it was such a train wreck.

Afterwards, Leslie James, the abiding teacher (like The Dude, she abides) said, “That’s OK. It shouldn’t be too perfect.” That’s when I started to feel OK about the whole thing and eventually started to actually like it.

What Sam Harris says here is important and relevant. But I think it really leaves these two very crucial matters unresolved. To me it seems like we have no real choice but to keep calling it “Buddhism” and hope that the word itself gets redefined by subsequent generations and to keep on doing the rituals the way they’ve been done before, while defining them in ways that don’t involve superstition or worship of the supernatural.

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Registration is now open for our Zen & Yoga Retreat at Mt. Baldy Zen Center May 9-11, 2014

The events page is now updated! Take a look at where I’m gonna be!

You can see the documentary about me,  Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen, at the following locations:

– April 17, 2014 Los Angeles, CA

– April 20, 2014 San Francisco, CA

ZERO DEFEX will play on May 16, 2014 in Akron, OH


Sometimes a movie is made to tour.

Are you interested in seeing HARDCORE ZEN with your local community? Would you like Brad Warner to speak at your university, meditation group, or personal guests?

Now you can have both. The film will screen at a location at your discretion. Simply contact with the following specifics: your location, contact info, and potential date for the event.

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83 Responses

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  1. CosmicBrainz
    CosmicBrainz April 19, 2014 at 7:39 pm |

    The best Western explanation of consciousness and emptiness is from Denis Diderot. His panpsychism is very interesting.

    Diderot made specific arguments regarding the issue of alive and dead matter, and ultimately comes to a position where everything is alive in some sense, but its stronger, more overt emotional and intellectual capabilities can only come to the fore in specific structural interplay between “atoms” of matter – basically a nuanced panpsychist-materialist position. Christof Koch argues for a similar form of Panpsychism in his book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist.

    Also, don’t mock me, Andy.

  2. Mumbles
    Mumbles April 20, 2014 at 6:19 am |

    Thanks for the tip on the flick, Brad. I saw another father/son film a few years back that was really really good, exploring the dynamic between a well respected Tibetan Dzogchen teacher (his books were v. important to me when I first encountered Dzogchen) and his reluctant-to-buy-into-it son who is believed to be a reincarnation of a previous spiritual master.

    Its streaming on Netflix, too, I think:

  3. Mumbles
    Mumbles April 20, 2014 at 6:50 am |

    Its interesting to me to think how most politicians want to be president, and most interested in any form of spirituality want to be the teacher and/or some form of the “ultimate” -whatever that is- call it God, Enlightenment, whatever, that something extra, other than human, etc.

    Deepok Chopra, and many many other teachers (Brad? -he teases and has out and out said he is “enlightened” here in so many words, I’m thinking of the “bridge experience” that so impressed Fred) are the latest version of a long-held tradition of wanna-be-God-men and women /or “realized God-like-men and women that again (in this sense) transcend particular traditions. You can throw Buddha in there with Jesus in this gross oversimplification.

    One of the most fascinating accounts I’ve run across is THE DEEDS OF GOD IN RDDHIPUR (trans. by)- Anne Feldhaus.

    In India (and elsewhere) there is recognition of the dark side of the equation as well in respectable terms, a kind of yin yang rationalization. See Alf Hiltebeitel’s CRIMINAL GODS AND DEMON DEVOTEES for ex.

    What exactly is going on? Do years of practice (sometimes) bring about profound changes in the nervous system? How about Ramana Maharshi, who was recognized as “enlightened” at age 16 or so after a hardcore near-death experience?

    And/or does “God” come in human form and rise from the dead?

    What is it we are doing here (on this blog, on any spiritual “search”), and what motivates it? Questions that can never be answered? Big watery brains with nothing else to do? When I stopped the search and dropped body and mind over all of this I found a lot of peace.

    I liked what Brad said about his teacher’s teeth…I had the opposite thing happen w/a Sufi master (who looked like Moses come down from the mountain w/the Law) once: I was delighted to find out that he liked to chain smoke cigarettes and watch The Price Is Right. I’d be walking by outside his room and hear the TV on and him roaring with laughter.

    Sometimes “Gods” are just “humans,” too.

  4. CosmicBrainz
    CosmicBrainz April 22, 2014 at 12:50 pm |

    “A man without religion or spiritual vision is like a captain who finds himself in the midst of an uncharted sea, without compass, rudder and steering wheel. He never knows where he is, which way he is going and where he is going to land.”
    — William J.H. Boetcker

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