Buddhism as the opium of the people

My piece is now up at the Guardian’s Cif belief. After the Žižek opener, much as on my previous blog, it continues…

Western Buddhism is undergoing its Protestant reformation, Batchelor observed. It is about two centuries behind western Christianity in terms of its critical engagement with its canonical texts. The quest for the historical Buddha – an exercise that parallels the 19th-century quest for the historical Jesus – is only just under way. An essentially medieval Buddhism has been catapulted into modernity. It’s hardly surprising that it will take two, perhaps three centuries for an authentically western form to emerge – by which is meant, in part, one that resists, not supplements, consumerism. For if Buddhism is to live in the modern world, it must be treated as a living tradition, not a preformed import. As the reformation leaders of the 16th century knew, this is a profoundly unsettling project – though it is also compelling for its promise is new life.

An important task is dismantling the common assumptions about Buddhism that do the rounds, assumptions that are made within Buddhist circles as frequently as without. For example, Peacock noted, there is no word for meditation in the early Buddhist lexicon, though it is often taken to be the defining Buddhist practice. Instead, the Buddha encouraged his followers to “cultivate”, to “grow”, to “bring something into being”. He deployed a host of agricultural, not existential, metaphors.

What is also missed in the focus on meditation is the ethical challenge implicit in his call. Any practice must concern your whole stance towards the world, and it’s a stance that is intensely, relentlessly critical. The aim is to enquire into all aspects of your form of life. A meditation class on a Friday evening that makes no impact upon your work on a Monday morning is an exercise in Žižek’s decoupling.

Or take the commonly cited Buddhist truism that everything should be questioned and nothing should be taken on faith. Lip-service is paid to it, Peacock continued, but Buddhists typically adhere to all manner of doctrines, from the law of karma and reincarnation, to the truth of suffering and no-self. The result is that Buddhism becomes a religion, even as it’s insisted it is no such thing. Western categories of thought are being deployed at the same time as they are presumed to be being subverted. The very word “Buddhism” is a western neologism, in fact.

And yet, it’s mistaken to think that the western categories that shape us can be circumvented. You can’t chose the gods that you worship. To hope you can, by adopting someone else’s gods or a cluster of eastern ideas, is the fundamental error.

Instead, the individual who seeks to continue in the Buddha’s way must “enter the stream”, must continue along the ever-changing flow that is the living tradition. It’s a tough calling. Peacock and Batchelor attract as much opprobrium as praise. And as Albert Schweitzer concluded after his quest for the historical Jesus, it can often be a misguided and dispiriting process.

But then again, and as the great reformer Martin Luther might have said: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” This is the choice: genuine reform, or a tawdry golden statue in the corner of your living room.