Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Philosophical grammar

We've finished McMahan's Making of Buddhist Modernism, our big book of the semester. For today's class I asked students to consider how they'd write a review of it, "sketching out how you'd characterize its main argument, material and methods, and how well McMahan succeeds at what he sets out to do: bring along (at least) one passage illustrating McMahan doing what he does best and (at least) one showing limits of his research, method or analytic categories." A fruitful discussion, by and large, but it's so unusual for students to take time over a whole book here that the experience was a little disappointing for some: nine chapters and still the same argument! And since he is scrupulous in writing as a historian - it's not his business to judge what is and what is not legitimate Buddhism - it seemed to one perceptive student like nine chapters without any argument, though she recognized this as a rare and difficult achievement.

Actually McMahan does make a broad argument for the legitimacy of "Buddhist modernism" by indirection. Buddhism has always been on the make, he argues, its manifold "potential" triggered by encounter with one culture after another. But he's aware, I think, that his fine-grained account of the way modern trends selected and shifted Buddhist legacies risks playing into the hands of critics like Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Thanissaro, you'll recall, derides modern forms as so many flavors of a "Buddhist Romanticism" so embedded in western modern delusions that it has no Buddhist edge - and no saving power.

The formations of Buddhist modernism I have been using as case studies ... have tended to draw Buddhism into the orbit of western thought, rather than vice versa. Their particular kind of hybridity is often like that of Henry Steel Olcott, which, in Stephen Prothero's interpretation, was a 'creolization' that assimilated Buddhism to largely Protestant categories, assumptions, and logic. Like a creole dialect, its lexicon was Buddhist, while its grammar was largely Protestant ... I have also hinted that other, often Asian, Buddhist modernisms, like other modernities, may reverse this situation, assimilating the lexicon of modernity to the grammar of Buddhism. (241-42)

I really like the idea of a modern lexicon creolized by a "grammar of Buddhism" (or grammars, surely). It's what I have long tried to do with my mantra that "religious studies is the discipline that reminds us there is no consensus on the real." In the coming weeks I'll be pushing students to consider that there are Buddhist alternatives to our easy ways of understanding agency, causality, virtue, meaning.

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