Causality and Rationality: not What do you say when a ritual doesn’t work? but Why do you ask?

At the recent (March 23, 24, 25) annual meeting of the Western Region of the American Academy of Religions, hosted by the Institute of Buddhist Studies, in Berkeley, I had the opportunity to present a paper under the title: Subduing Demons: The Shingon Yamāntaka Abhicāra Homa (forthcoming as “Lethal Fire” in the Journal of Religion and Violence).

At the end, an audience member asked, How did Shingon practitioners explain the failure of rituals? It was a question that caught me off-guard, having not encountered it for a long time. I honestly answered that I had no idea, but my ignorance was not sufficient for the questioner, who pursued with follow ups along the line of Well how might they have explained ritual failure?

Not only didn’t I know the answer, but I felt that I didn’t want  to make something up that I could put into the mouths of Shingon priests. But upon reflection the question revealed a deeper difficulty. As so often happens in instances like this, my difficulty ares from  seeing the question as comprising two levels. There was the surface level, which the questioner seemed to feel was perfectly reasonable—if your car doesn’t start when you turn the key, how do you explain it? if a ritual doesn’t work after you’ve done it, how do you explain it?

We of course all know the stock answers to questions about how others explain ritual failure, and we should therefore be suspicious of those answers: inadequate preparations, ritual impurity, breaches in performance, malevolent spirits, and so on.

There is, however, a more important, more foundational level. That is the unexamined presumption that there is a single, uniform reality to which our contemporary understandings of causality unproblematically adhere. In other words, our present understandings of how things work are taken as simply given, since (we presume) they are accurate reflections of reality. In other words, (we think) we actually understand how things work. The problem with this view is that we cannot simply assume that our present understandings are either (a) actually correct, or (b) shared by Shingon practitioners of any historical era. While our present understanding of causality as instrumental and mechanistic seems obvious, natural, just the way things are, it is in fact a modern understanding, one at the end of a long historical and cultural development. At the same time, our very understanding of rationality—still often deployed to distinguish us from them—depends in great part on our conception of causality.

In other words, to be rational is to understand causality, or perhaps better: to be rational like I am is to understand causality in the way I do. The issue of ritual “failure” is rooted in Reformation Era disputes over the Sacraments, and then in the predominantly Protestant formulations of religion in the nineteenth century, in which a key issue is the question of the rationality–viz. humanity–of the Other. This determination held important ethical and policy consequences (see David Chidester, Savage Systems, Univ. of Virginia, 1996). To be blunt, the importance of this complex of questions is rooted in Euro-American imperialism. If Native Americans, or sub-Saharan Africans, or whatever group was being encountered were not rational, then they were not human, and could therefore be displaced, confined to reservations or homelands, and slaughtered like animals if they resisted. In the present, the rhetoric of racism is rife with dehumanizing attributions of animality.

While perhaps not so blatantly dehumanizing, judgements regarding the lack of rationality have been employed to constrain the freedoms not just of racially and ethnically other persons, “primitives,” but also of women, children, and persons identified as insane. (Consider that only recently has the corporal punishment of wives by their husbands, and children by their parents become problematic—and remains so.)

The difficulties in comprehending the ritual practices of others, Shingon Buddhist practitioners in this case, is not unlike the difficulty some raise when learning about the ambiguities of post-mortem existence in Japanese Buddhist practice. Is Grandma in the Pure Land? or is she in the votive tablet on the home altar? or is she in the family temple? or is she in the graveyard? Which is it? They want to force more clarity and reduce ambiguity, perhaps to affirm their own rationality in the face of the seemingly quite evident irrationality of those others. In modern European conceptions of causality and rationality, Grandma is a singular entity, and there is only one place Grandma can be. In Aristotelian logic, the problem is referred to as the principle of non-contradiction–one is not supposed to assert two contradictory things at the same time: Grandma can’t both be in the Pure Land and in the votive tablet. (In an essay on relics Robert Sharf [“On the Allure of Buddhist Relics,” Representations, 1999] has pointed out, however, that modern conceptions of identity are not so clear cut after all.)

Thus, the “problem” regarding explaining ritual “failure” arises from the belief that I think I know causality (specifically, and “reality” in general) directly, and failing to recognize that it is my conception of causality that I know. Judgements of success or failure are not objective measures, but rather are themselves rooted in a particular mechanistic and instrumental conception of causality deriving from the Cartesian view of a purely mechanistic universe. While that particular conception is quite successful on its own terms (building steam engines, bridges, railways, and so on), there is no guarantee that it is the only right conception.

In other words, judgements of success and failure are necessarily grounded in a particular conception of causality, the judgements are not objective in themselves. Such judgements, therefore, are not criteria that can be applied to establish a rational grasp of causality. Judgements and conceptions of causality are themselves dialectically connected to one another.

Thus, asking the question of how are ritual failures explained entails a dualistic structure. If the “explanation” is adequate according to my conception of causality, then the explainer is rational, and human. If, however, the “explanation” is not adequate according to my conception of causality, then the explainer is irrational, and perhaps not fully human.

Instead then of attempting to answer the question, let me just say that I don’t know what those hypothetical Shingon practitioners might have said about ritual failure, especially since—not sharing the same presumptions about causality that we do—the question may have never come up. Indeed, asking the question that way might well have seemed irrational to them.

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