Is Buddhism True?: Slouching toward a review, 2: Scholastic as spirit medium

In attempting to resolve the puzzle (or is it muddle) of whether “not-self means no self” (ch. 5) Wright engages in the scholastic bad faith so common in religion. Like any good nineteenth century spiritual medium, he not only makes the dead speak, but makes them answer our questions. (“Uncle Wally, now that you’ve crossed over to the other side, please tell us where you hid the box of Krugerrands?”) And often the spirits of the dead give answers so ambiguous as to be unfalsifiable.

Wright largely ignores the realities of the history of the textual tradition, talking instead about “what the Buddha said.”

In many casual usages, such expressions are simply convenient shorthand for “I was told by my teacher that what s/he says is backed up by the authority of the Awakened One.” Depending on how the teacher deploys the power of his/her authority that follows from such a claim, this may be relatively harmless—though while some/many teachers are well-intended, there have been abuses in Buddhism as in any other religious tradition. In most cases, however, such assertions are simply ordinary, daily, run of the mill instances of religious bad faith—deferring responsibility for what one is saying by claiming it comes from a source which not only should not be questioned, but cannot be questioned because absent.

And indeed many people have been taught that to think and question in terms of sources is oh so tiresome, and not for the ordinary person. (Aside for religious studies wonks: One of the truly revolutionary aspects of Luther is the insistence that ordinary believers grapple with the issues of textuality—a revolution betrayed by the Biblical literalism fostered by fundamentalists in defense of their power and authority from “the Higher Criticism.”) Or perhaps it is simply a matter of not being rude and asking awkward questions like “How do you know that this meditation is effective? And what do you mean by effective anyway?”

Since the “historical” Buddha has been dead for two and a half millennia, and we are making up an image of the figure of the Buddha to talk about for our own purposes, we should perhaps refer not to “the Buddha” but to “the Ghost” (capitalizing out of pious respect). The historical process, speaking very loosely and only for the purposes of our critique here, looks something like this:

• (we imagine that) the Ghost said something (probably actually in Magadhi, not Pāli)

• (we imagine that) followers repeated what they’d heard to each other, some of them claiming to have directly heard and claiming the consequent authority and power of that “direct transmission” (itself of course a social construct)

• after a couple of centuries or so, these stories began to be written down, and somewhere along the way these recollections got expressed in other vernaculars as well

• after probably several more centuries, these writings began to be systematically collected and edited (nota bene: to edit also means to revise), and at this point rendered into “church languages” of (Buddhist Hybrid) Sanskrit and Pāli

• after many more centuries, those writings are “discovered” by Europeans, who with varying levels of skill and resources set about (re-)editing and (re-)translating them (nota bene: to translate also means to reconfigure in relation to one’s existing ideas, such as nineteenth century religious and psychological preconceptions in our case here)

• today we have a vast array of texts, some in multiple translations, to read and ponder over, and if we think that those texts might answer questions that we have, even ones arising from reading those texts, then there are three possible strategies (maybe more, but I can only think of three right now):

strategy one: declare one text (like maybe the Satipatṭhāna sutta) , or maybe one canon (like maybe the Pāli) as true/authoritative/original/authentic/pure, and that all others are to be ignored, discounted, considered lies and later creations (later than what?), and maybe burnt if you can get the patronage of some king or despot

strategy two: apply one’s present skills, preconceptions, and reasoning in order to determine “what the Ghost really said”; this allows you to claim the authority of the Ghost for what you have yourself constructed

strategy three: apply one’s present skills, preconceptions, and reasoning to determine what various texts say that is relevant to the question one is asking; this however only allows one to say this text says this, that text says that, this other text says this other thing; this one and that one make sense to me, but the other one doesn’t, so what I now think in light of all that is…

Note the centrality of “the question one is asking” in all of this—it is what is motivating, and needs to be seen as implicating a vast number of presumptions and preconceptions. Decent scholarship requires reflection on the presumptions and preconceptions, and how they are influencing one’s answers. Hence the importance of a clear question.

In lieu of a citation: the idea of the Ghost derives from Glenn Wallis’s unpublished thoughts on the Buddha as a literary trope, or convenient fall guy–my words, not Glenn’s.



1 thought on “Is Buddhism True?: Slouching toward a review, 2: Scholastic as spirit medium

  1. Richard,

    What you say about Wright’s bad faith is obviously true—so obvioulsy, I would suggest, that it is disturbing that anyone would take the book seriously at all. Clearly even Wright cannot believe his own claims—if he did, he woudl have to admit that his book is just another example of a response to stimuli programmed by evolution to promote survival, and that it has not more truth value than, say, a Roman justification for slavery. In which case, why should we read it?

    I can sort of see why this is popular with some people among the affluent and privileged: they believe that this evolutionary psychology nonsense is true about most people, who therefore are not fully human and can be oppressed without qualm, but doesn’t apply to them, the elite, who has somehow risen above being mere automaton and so can enjoy their own lives of privilege without qualms.

    What I cannot grasp is exaclty why he needs to attach this to Buddhism. What does that add? Is it perhaps because those enamored of Buddhism in America are already (for the most part) trying hard to embrace their oppression? Has Buddhism become the religion of the resigned oppressed? If not, I cannot guess what he adds by inventing this bad-faith Buddhism that is really just his own evolutionary psychology in the guise of “anceint Chinese secrets,” as they used to say on the old detergent commercial. Although maybe this is the answer—it is just a marketing ploy, designed to target and audience prepared for poor thought and quietist ideology.

    This book kind of reminded me of Straw Dogs: specious arguments and sophistry in support of neoliberal ideology—and sadly, far too many people who should know better, think better, applaud it.

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