Monday, February 24, 2014

Idol speculation

In "Buddhism and Modern Thought" today we finished our section on the early Western encounter with Buddhism. We read the second chapter of Donald Lopez' The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life (a bridge between his Buddhism and Science and From Stone to Flesh), which illustrates the emergence of an image of the Buddha as a rational human being out of preconceptions about polytheism, idolatry, superstition and Eastern decadence. Lopez thinks this "scientific Buddha" has no precedent in Buddhist history and, as his subtitle suggests, hopes to help bury him with a richer and more complex picture of Buddhist histories. The "scientific Buddha" is in any case doomed to irrelevance, since he is constructed as proposing nothing which cannot and will not ultimately be confirmed by "science."

Lopez' pleasure in informing us what Buddhist traditions actually report (42) is matched only by his delight in quoting from the Great Discourse on the Lion's Roar something like a preemptive denunciation of the "scientific Buddha":

Should anyone say of me, 'The recluse Gotama does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. The recluse Gotama teaches a dhamma [merely] hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him' - unless he abandons that assertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, then [as surely as if he has been] carried off and put there, he will wind up in hell. (45-46)

(Of course, the very fact that this view had to be condemned suggests that it was around long before the modern West went out in search of a non-religion/religion like 'Buddhism'!) Lopez rules the roost of revisionist Buddhologists (well, Buddhologologolists), and left us with a helpful sense of exhaustion. However interesting it is (one student called it "fascinatingly depressing") to see how Western needs, blindnesses and methods shaped our images of Buddhism, it's not nourishing. It's time to move beyond the image of a proto-modern "primitive" Buddhism 19th century Western scholars concocted out of ancient texts and mute statues, and attend to what actual practitioners of the modern era have done and said in Buddhist lands.

All that was accomplished, I think, but we also had an awesome discussion about - of all things - idolatry. It wasn't entirely accidental, as Lopez' story starts when Europeans could imagine only four religious constellations: Christianity, Judaism, Islam and "idolatry." This last category includes everything else, from ancient Egypt to Mesoamerica to Asia by way of the Norse gods. All are decayed forms of the original monotheism. Their differences are insignificant - there can be nothing positive in them, just the fascinatingly depressing tedium of human beings sliming the sublime with our all-too-human vileness over and over again in new climes. Last week we tittered at 18th century etymological arguments (described in Philip Almond's The British Discovery of Buddhism) that Buda was one and the same as Thoth - and Wodin, too!

But today we lingered over "idolatry." What is it anyway, I was inspired to ask, and what's wrong with it? So we talked about the second commandment, and the travesty of the divine committed by human efforts to represent the unrepresentable. This is the mechanism which, for premodern Christians, covered the world with a tapestry of polytheisms. But is that all there is to say? I told of the unironic use of the word "idols" I saw in Hindu temples in India, and soon we (well, mainly yours truly) were exploring the ways in which visual representa- 
tions might be aids, even perhaps indispens- able aids, to a life of devotion - especially if known to be just repre- sentations. (Photo from last summer)

So, I asked finally, if you're looking at a statue of the Buddha, is the Buddha there? Trick question, of course: it depends what kind of Buddhist you are. If you think Gautama has entered final nirvana, there's no Buddha to be around; the statue is just a memorial. On the other hand, there might be a relic inside it, making the Buddha posthumously present in powerful ways Buddhologists have only recently started grappling with. If you think the Buddha omnipresent, on the other hand, then of course the Buddha is there, though probably not in the sense intended by the question. And if you think everyone already has the Buddha nature but wrongly supposes it resides outside them, then the statue can work as a representation of your truly enlightened state, though it may take this externalization (or related visualizations) to make you realize it: yes, the Buddha is there, but not the Buddha-as-opposed-to-you. It's more like a mirror! So many Buddhisms, and all of them more interesting than the "Scientific Buddha" - who turns out to be an "idol" in the bad all-too-human sense1

On Wednesday we turn to student presentations on Buddhism in modern Asian societies, starting with Sri Lanka and Japan. We'll have to confront the inconvenient fact that we first learned about the "Scientific Buddha" not from a Western scholar but from Sri Lankan Walpola Rahula. Oh my!

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