Friday, January 03, 2014

Thought through?

I'm starting to assemble the syllabus for my Spring course, a new one: Buddhism & Modern Thought. Like all my course titles, its constituent terms will be banged together in hopefully spark-producing ways until none looks the way it did at the start. (Recently banged: Religion, Secularism, Dialogue, Ethics, Liberal Arts.) The course description makes clear that now it's the turn of Buddhism and Modernity!

This course uses Buddhist traditions, ideas and questions to reimagine and renarrate the story of modern thought. After engaging debates about the "invention of Buddhism" in nineteenth century Europe, the class explores Buddhist influence in the history of western ideas, "Buddhist modernism" in Asia and the West, and Buddhist understandings of modernity and postmodernity in our own time. Students also conduct extended research on a figure or movement of their choice.

But just beneath the surface is another grand intention: challenging the idea that "modernity" is western and Buddhism not... and thus that "modern thought" is something that happened in the West except to the extent that Buddhist ideas affected it. "Renarrating the story of modern thought" promises a lot more. A global history of ideas, and Buddhist ways of understanding that history. Tall orders, both!

But what about "Thought"? What is Buddhist thought, or a Buddhist view of thought? Is Buddhism even interested in thought? Earlier generations of Buddhologists focused on the ideas, arguments and systems in Buddhism's voluminous corpus of texts, or the rankings, rules, rituals and lineages. Many of today's scholars see things a bit differently.
Once we begin to imagine Buddhists not as sravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas but as people with lives outside the representations of Buddhist normative texts, the value of these texts for reconstructing Buddhist practice becomes fairly problematic. To be sure they tell us that some Buddhists spent their time writing books.

That's Zen specialist Carl Bielefeld, on a tear. Fun, fun! He goes on
Some of these books clearly had a wide readership; others probably did not. Most Buddhists before modern times couldn't read, and even the literate were lucky if they had access to a manuscript or block print. The books themselves were used for practices beyond reading: they were copied out and illuminated; enshrined on altars and worshipped; entombed in stupas and circumambulated; left in the ground for the future Buddha, Maitreya, to dig up; stuffed into statues; carried as talismans; put into potions; and so on. Similarly, the content of the books served a variety of functions beyond intellectual edification and spiritual training: it was memorized and chanted in liturgy and prayer, depicted in art and iconography, cited as authority (or dismissed as heresy) in debate, invoked by kings as justification for their reigns, recited by children as proverbs and by storytellers as entertainment.

Given the varied ways that Buddhists have used their texts, one cannot help but wonder to what extent they also practiced what is preached in them. Even a relatively concrete text of instruction on, say, a ritual procedure is not in itself evidence that anyone ever performed the ritual. Even from the detailed rules of a a monastic code, we might as easily infer that the monks were not following the rules as that they were; by the same token, the actions proscribed by such rules may have more to do with the monks' imagination than with their behavior....
Carl Bielefeldt, "Practice," in Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism,
ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (Chicago, 2005), 240-41

Amen! But I'm not sure how this fits into the new course. The part "Buddhism" plays in the modern discourse of "religion" and the "lived religion" polemic which Bielefeldt's tirade parallels are "Theorizing Religion" topics more than "Buddhism & Modern Thought" topics. Perhaps "Thought" gives me permission to turn away from what people actually did, whatever it is? The history of thought, especially in the fraught area of cross-cultural encounter, is mostly imagination anyway. Hmmmm... I can think of some "Buddhist" ways of taking that and running with it!

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