Friday, March 14, 2014

A hunch

Reading about "Buddhism Modernism" at the same time as I'm learning more about "religion" in China in the last century is giving me some interesting ideas. David McMahan, whose Making of Buddhist Modernism is our current text in "Buddhism and Modern Thought," makes clear that the bookstore is an important locus.

What could be more commonplace than a Buddhist - or perhaps someone simply "into" Buddhism - going to a good bookstore, browsing a bit, purchasing a translation of a classic primary text, then going home and reading it? Besides meditation, most western Buddhists would consider reading Buddhist books one of their primary activities as Buddhists, and many have come to Buddhism through books. ([Oxford University Press, 2008] 16-17)

I've regaled you with Carl Bielefeld's hilarious account of what role texts actually play in traditional Buddhist societies of the past - reading them, especially as a lay person, is so rare as to be nonexistent. And we all know about how Buddhism is "invented" as a textual construct by western Orientalist scholars in the 19th century, and how this textual Buddhism, privileging a pure primitive teaching over later elaborations and practice, affected Buddhist modernizers in Asia. But the way these texts now reside in bookstores all over the place, where anyone can leaf through them (along with Rumi, The I Ching, The Gnostic Gospels and of course The Varieties of Religious Experience) and perhaps take them home to read, is worth thinking about on its own. The Orientalists were seeking a sure foundation in the oldest texts, but the denizen of the Religion-Philosophy-Spirituality-New Age section of her local bookstore has other interests. McMahan stresses the importance of "perennialism," the idea that all traditions articulate the same unchanging Truth, in making Buddhist ideas accessible to the West (71f). But nowadays people may be looking for something specifically "Eastern."

Like other large-scale religions ... Buddhism has become detraditionalized among many adherents, including the rapidly emerging affluent and educated middle-class populations of various Asian countries, as well as in the West among converts. Among western converts, detraditionalization occurs in part because most of them learn about Buddhism from books that portray it as part of an amorphous "Eastern mysticism" that is considered largely independent of institutional structures. Popular literature in the West often presents the "essence" of Buddhism as primarily about inner experience rather than its institutional and social realities. This approach has created a new kind of quasi-lay community of Buddhist sympathizers [a term from Thomas Tweed] who read popular Buddhist books and do some meditation and an occasional retreat but do not necessarily identify themselves exclusively as Buddhist. These sympathizers ... may not be committed to Buddhism in any institutional form, may reject or simply be unaware of doctrines unpalatable to late modern sensibilities, and may also be "Hindu sympathizers," "Daoist sympathizers," and "neo-pagan sympathizers." It is not just their eclecticism, though, that makes them particularly modern - the religious lives of many, if not most, traditional East Asians throughout history has been constituted by an amalgam of beliefs and practices from a variety of traditions. What marks such contemporary spiritually eclectic Buddhist sympathizers as embodying detraditionalized Buddhism is the fact that they quite consciously feel free as individuals to adopt or reject whatever bits and pieces they choose from Buddhism, as well as mixing and matching them with fragments from other traditions, thus creating their own personal religious bricolage. Autonomous reason, freedom of choice, and intuitive insight are implicitly considered superior to external authority, even though part of that freedom may include placing oneself under the guidance of a spiritual teacher. (43-44)

A few months ago I would have dwelt on how this conforms with the picture "lived religion" gives us of contemporary life, which of course it does (along with questions about its historical and cultural specificity). Now what strikes me here is a possible parallel with the unfolding religious world in China, and especially what I understand are called "cultural Christians" (wenhua jidutu 文化基督徒). Largely based at universities - professors and students - these are apparently people who have developed a keen interest in Christianity and embrace some of its teachings but don't choose to be baptized or join an actual church community. They learn about Christianity as part of "western culture" from books, and integrate elements of what they find into their lives without feeling the need to connect to the legacies of interpretation and practice of actual churches and denominations. Yang Fenggang, in the first book I read on the subject, stressed that this "religion as culture" sector - independent both of the state and religious authority - plays a distinctive and significant part in the story of religion in China.

It sounds like - for a few of the same and many different reasons - Christian traditions could be as textualized, dismembered, reassembled and hybridized in China as "Buddhist" ones are in the modern West. Especially in the context of a society which doesn't expect people to (at least claim to) belong to one or another faith tradition or community, there's no reason necessarily to expect that cultural Christians will wind up in what we would recognize as church traditions. It'll be fascinating to learn more about this in situ, to see how far the analogy goes...

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