Secular Buddhism, III: Theoretical Background—the Matrix Model

In this set of posts we are attempting to examine the way in which rhetorical strategies about religious issues that originate in the Protestant separation from Catholicism have been employed in the construction of Secular Buddhism. As has already been mentioned, these rhetorical strategies are distinct from any kind of specific doctrinal claims made by the proponents of Secular Buddhism. The analysis being developed here is more akin to the preconceptions underlying the ways in which religion is conceived as a general category in the field of religious studies.

An enduring “textbook” model of religion reflects the structures of Christianity, but raised to the level of general characteristic of all religions. I have elsewhere referred to this as the “matrix model” of religions (not a pop-culture allusion to the series of movies, and predating those by several years). The matrix model presumes that all religions share the same basic set of characteristics, which we can abbreviate here to a short list of founder, originary teaching, text, and church. In this conception all religions have an identified founder, who had some transformative experience, which then becomes the basis of his—or rarely, her originary teaching, with the teaching then being recorded in a text that is considered foundational for the religion, and which is maintained by an institution, that is, a church.

Although our concern here is the rhetorical strategies employed in Secular Buddhism without awareness of their origins in the contestations of the Reformation, the matrix model is a useful introduction to the way in which such preconceptions have molded our understanding of Buddhism. Despite all of the resistance to “reductionism” voiced by many religious studies scholars, the matrix model that is at the basis of much of the work in the field is entirely reductive—in exactly the negative sense of that term, that is, by leveling out unique differences between traditions, they are all reduced to a kind of uniformity. The pat formulae that follow from the preconceptions inherent in the matrix model are familiar to most anyone who took an introduction to world religions course. In the case of Buddhism, then, one is expected to complete the course knowing that:

  • Buddhism was founded by Śākyamuni, a prince also known as Siddhartha Gautama, who experienced enlightenment after a period of austerities
  • the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path
  • the teaching of the Buddha is recorded in the texts of the Pāli canon
  • the Buddha established an order of monks and nuns, called the sangha.

Or some variant thereon. The list may be extended further, of course, depending on the inclinations of the textbook author. Despite such expansions, the underlying presumptions of the matrix model remain the same—all religions share the same basic set of characteristics. The origin of the matrix model as a universalizing of Christianity is evident when we look at an equally formulaic treatment under the same categories:

  • Christianity was founded by Jesus, who realized his status as the Son of God with the descent of the Holy Spirit at the time of his baptism
  • Christ taught a new doctrine of God’s mercy and forgiveness, freeing people from adherence to the rules of the Hebraic tradition
  • the four Gospels record the events of Christ’s life, including his teachings
  • Christ founded the Christian church, enjoining his disciples to propagate his teachings

My apologies to my Christian friends for riding roughshod over the details of Christian theology…This is, however, meant to highlight the reductive consequences of the category system widely employed in the teaching of religious studies.

Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with either tradition will find ways in which the representations given above are misleading or inadequate. The temptation at that point is to attempt to refine the basic picture with an additional nuance here, or greater detail within categories, or whatever so on, or whatever so forth. That has immediate appeal, in that the representation as such appears to be sound, but that appearance is simply the consequence of the use of elements from the Buddhist tradition in the construction of the representation—and to that extent it is “true.”

But let us recall Lévi-Strauss’s bricoleur.  If a bricoleur constructs a barn out of the stones that once made up a cathedral, is the barn a cathedral? That is obviously a rhetorical question, the obvious answer to which is no—but the point of the question is to emphasize the absolutely critical importance of the criteria for selection of elements and the pattern within which elements are then re-arranged. The matrix model of religion predetermines what kinds of elements are to be selected, and then further predetermines the arrangement that is to be made of them. Thus, in the formulaic reduction above, while the elements are from the Buddhist tradition, the criteria for selecting those elements and the pattern into which they are arranged is Christian.

(Tangential aside in the form of an internal dialogue: “This philosophically trivial point is apparently entirely obscure to a majority of people working in religious studies.” “Hah! I say, that is certainly a bold statement, young man! Can you back it up?” “Of course I can. With this analysis in mind, just go examine  a representative sample of textbooks of world religions, and works in comparative studies!” “But there are sophisticated instances in which this error is not made!” “Well, of course, would that the most excellent examples were the dominating ones in the discourse, but they’re not.”)

From such a basis, no amount of additional nuance or finer discrimination within categories corrects for the fundamental distortions created by the criteria for selection and the patterning imposed. (“Distortion” is being used here as an analytic concept, and in that usage does not mean falsification, but rather the torsions created when elements are taken out of their context and juxtaposed with other elements equally decontextualized to form a new construct. That there are similar distortions created in the history of Buddhist thought is obvious, and not relevant to the point being made here—to try to make that argument against the analysis here would be a fallacy. In other words, distortion is not being used here in contrast to some mistaken notion of an original, authentic, pure, undistorted conception of Buddhism.)

This analysis of the matrix model of religion applies quite widely. In relation to our studies of Secular Buddhism, it constitutes an example of a different kind of analysis from the one that we will be pursuing in subsequent posts examining Secular Buddhism. While the matrix model may be seen as a structural analysis, and therefore a static one, the examination of the rhetorics of Secular Buddhism will follow along a different dimension, and in a sense provide an analysis of the dynamics of Secular Buddhist discourse.

5 thoughts on “Secular Buddhism, III: Theoretical Background—the Matrix Model

  1. Hello Dr. Payne! A circuitous route found me delightedly reading your essays. I’m looking forward to the series. A Protestant/puritanical streak colors so much of modern American discourse, and it’s interesting to see it examined in this context.

  2. Pingback: General Update | The Non-Buddhist

    • Hi, Linda. Thank you for the inquiry. At a brief glace to Brazier’s post:
      1) the rhetoric of crisis seems overblown and distracting—at least for me.
      2) I think that treating “the dharma” as something precious, special and fragile is rather, well, precious. Dharma is just the way things actually are, and that’s what the Buddha was talking about (i.e., buddhadharma). Otherwise you’re likely to become involved in power and authority games over who gets to interpret the teachings. (Obviously, I do…)
      3) another comment re. the rhetoric: he leaves a lot of his terms undefined so that it is easy to assume that one is in agreement with him, but without actually knowing what he means; for example:
      reductionism: what kind of reductionism, reduction of what to what?
      what Buddhism actually consists of: well, what?
      4) the point seems to be to appropriate the social prestige attaching to the category of religion, consider for example his use of the phrase “Buddha’s dispensation”—a theological term referring to a divinely instituted order, or in the case of Jesus, a new order (grace) that dispenses with the old legalistic order
      but what in the history of Buddhism makes such a phrase credible? the Buddha did not establish divine orders, nor did he dispense with them, replacing them with new ones–using religious language carrying meanings radically divergent from ideas found in Buddhism is not helpful
      5) “In Buddhism, the spiritual is primary and the physical is a domain in which spirit acts.” Here we see the depths to which the uncritical use of popular religious concepts leads. It seems to me that there is a very consistent thread of interpretation in Buddhism that is appropriately called non-dual, rather than this dualistic opposition of spirit and matter. Indeed, it seems to me that the contemporary problem for Buddhists in the West is how to develop ways of talking about the teachings that avoid just this kind of pious, dualistic blathering. He accuses Secular Buddhists of pandering to “contemporary prejudice,” while doing the same vis-à-vis contemporary religious prejudices.
      6) I thought I couldn’t take any more, but one last: the confusion over ego: “Each deepening of refuge is a lessening of ego. More faith, less ego. Thus Buddhism finds salvation beyond self.” This is not what anātman means. This is itself a psychologized version of the teaching, which is fundamentally ontological and epistemological. That is, there is no permanent, eternal, absolute or unchanging essence of either people or things, and it is a mistake to think there is.

      Perhaps there are other things, but one thing I do agree with is that Buddhist practice (meditative but all the other kinds too) is not reducible to stress reduction. But that doesn’t mean that there’s anything inherently wrong with stress reduction.

      All that said about Brazier’s post, let me then appear totally self-contradictory and say that I do agree with Buswell and Lopez’s claims regarding Buddhism being a religion as found here:

      They don’t gag me with piety.

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