I've been driving a lot lately. I drove from New York to Akron, then from Akron to St. Louis, then from St. Louis to Lawrence, Kansas, then from Lawrence, Kansas to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, then from Cedar Rapids Iowa back to St. Louis, and then from St. Louis back to Akron. I've gone different ways with the problem of what to do to keep from nodding off while on long drives. For a while I was all "Buddhist" about it and refused to listen to the radio or any other form of audio entertainment. That was actually quite nice. You notice more of what's on the road that way.
But you can also get bored during long stretches of stuff that all looks the same. Another McDonald's, another Taco Bell, another billboard denouncing abortion... The brain works this way, no matter how many hours you've spent meditating. So I got an iPod and started downloading podcasts. One of the ones I've been enjoying lately is called Reasonable Doubts: Your Skeptical Guide to Religion. That's their blog, which I've never actually read (I looked it up for this article). You can download their podcasts here (although I get them from iTunes, myself).
It's a very informative show in which a group of nerdy atheists from Grand Rapids, Michigan discuss religion. The hosts are Jeremy Beahan, an Adjunct Professor teaching classes on Philosophy, World Religions, Biblical Literature, Aesthetics, and Critical Thinking through FSU, Luke Galen, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Grand Valley State University, and David Fletcher, the founder and former chair of CFI Aquinas College. One of the hosts (I forget which one) identifies himself as a lapsed evangelical Christian. When it comes to Christianity, they know their stuff.
But they don't know a whole lot about Buddhism, which is unfortunate. I recently listened to a podcast featuring an interview with Stephen Batchelor. The interview itself was really nice. I like Stephen Batchelor. But the long introduction to the interview contained a lot of really common misunderstandings about Buddhism. This really surprised me given the depth of knowledge about Christianity the hosts demonstrated.
Apparently one of the hosts has visited a temple. He made the statement that when playing to Western audiences the Buddhists tend to "hide the crazy" until said Westerners are hooked. None of the hosts seem ever to have attempted to practice any meditation beyond the very introductory stages. This may be the root of their confusion. Trying to explain Buddhism without having any background in meditation is like trying to explain baseball without ever having actually played. You can get some of the superficial stuff correct. But beyond that you're going to be indulging in pure speculation, drawing a lot of inferences from what you imagine things to be like.
I will not deny that there is a lot of crazy stuff out there that labels itself Buddhism. Genpo Roshi's Big Mind® nonsense is an obvious example. Even more traditional forms of Buddhism indulge in a certain degree of craziness. Like the obsession with reincarnation in certain sects, or various supernatural and superstitious elements present in others.
But the hosts made some statements that really annoyed me because they're common assumptions that appear to be accepted as solid fact by a large number of academics and intellectuals. But they are completely mistaken. One was that the only pure form of Buddhism out there is Theravada (pronounced tare-ah-vah-dah, the h after the t is silent). Theravada Buddhism presents itself as an unbroken lineage stemming from Buddha's earliest followers which preserves its original spirit.
In fact, though, the historical research I'm familiar with has it that Theravada, like Zen, was a reform movement started long after Buddha's death. And, like Zen, it was an attempt to get in touch with the original teachings of Buddhism. The difference between Theravada and Zen is that Theravada rejects all of the Mahayana sutras.
The Mahayana sutras, as I'm sure many readers know, were composed hundreds of years after Buddha's death, yet often contain sayings attributed to Buddha and to his original followers. I don't feel that this was any attempt at forgery in the way we understand the term today. Rather it was a literary device that was accepted at the time.
The Theravada folks decided that these inauthentic sutras should be ignored and that only what was written in the most ancient sources -- the Pali canon -- should be accepted. Unfortunately, even the most ancient sources we have for Buddha's words were composed at least 200 years after his death. Some of the Mahayana sutras date from around the same time. The Pali canon may be closer to what Buddha actually said. But we don't really know to what degree.
Zen, on the other hand, accepted certain of the Mahayana sutras based on their content. It rejected others. Most Zen teachers I know are a little ambivalent about the Pali canon, taking it much like they do the Mahayana sutras, according to its content.
Zen kind of looks upon Buddha the way scientists look upon Einstein. Science reveres Einstein as the originator of much of what we understand about physics today. But they don't consider him to be infallible. Furthermore, no scientist would reject new additions to our understanding of physics simply because Einstein himself had not actually come up with them.
If Buddhism were a religion it would be blasphemy to suggest that someone other than Buddha might have improved upon what Buddha taught. But Buddhism is not a religion and Zen does take the shocking view that it is possible that others have built upon Buddha's original findings and perhaps even - gasp! - improved upon them. Or it may be more comfortable to say that perhaps these later folks didn't so much improve upon Buddha's ideas as express them a bit more clearly or in a more accessible way.
The other thing the guys at Reasonable Doubts kept saying over and over and over that bugged the shit out of me was this. They said that Mahayana Buddhism, which they explained to their audiences as a bastardization of the pure Theravada tradition, had introduced irrationality into Buddhism with the concept of emptiness. This concept of emptiness, they said, implies that all statements are their opposites. This, they told us, violates the "law of identity A = A" (that's how they repeatedly said it). Therefore it is impossible to make any rational statement in Mahayana Buddhism.
The Reasonable Doubts podcast has a habit of degenerating into something like lessons in the art of debate for secular humanists. The focus seems to be on how to defeat religious people with logical argument. The hosts were frustrated because they believed that the concept of emptiness introduced unfalsifiable statements and prevented any rational argument. The hosts seemed at a loss for hints to their listeners on how to defeat Buddhists in debate.
Now, I'm not sure where exactly they got their information about the Mahayana doctrine of emptiness. Maybe there's a text book out there that explains it this way, or some authority on Buddhism who lectures like this. Or maybe it's just in the air somehow. But the idea that the doctrine of emptiness means Mahyana Buddhism is all about being illogical is very popular. I've encountered it a lot.
I believe that this conclusion about the doctrine of emptiness negating the law of identity (A=A) therefore no rational statement can be made runs something like this. I'm guessing here, because this is so foreign to my understanding of the doctrine of emptiness that I have a hard time getting my head around it. But here goes nothin'.
1) The doctrine of emptiness says everything is empty of self nature (so far so good).
2) If everything is empty of self nature then every thing in the universe is its exact opposite. White is black, war is peace, The Beatles are The Bee Gees. (This is already going wrong)
3) Since every thing is its opposite no rational statement can be made.
4) Therefore, Mahayana Buddhists are all crazy because they believe that good is evil, chocolate is peanut butter, and Charlie Sheen is the Dalai Lama*. You can't even argue with people like that!
The actual doctrine of emptiness bears no relation to this. Even if your buddy the Buddhist at the coffee shop down the street claims it does and even if he ought to know because he read a book by Alan Watts six year ago.
The biggest problem is that the doctrine of emptiness is not an intellectual supposition. It is not a theory arrived at by considering the problems of existence with the thinking mind. It is an attempt to explain in words the experience of Zen practice.
Buddhists do not think pink is orange, fish are elephants and Paris Hilton is the entire London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Things are what they are. Zen texts like the Sandokai (Harmony of Equality and Difference) are not trying to refute the law of identity. Things are different from each other. Yet ultimately all things are of one substance. And by "ultimately" I don't mean in some future realm where they have all melted into one another in preparation for the next expansion of the universe. All things are connected and inseparable from each other right now. This is clearly visible once you know how to look for it. But provisionally we can say that A does indeed equal A. And that is important.
Every concept the mind can create includes its opposite. No thought is ultimate because each idea depends on every other idea it might possibly contrast with for its apparent self existence. Our own existence as individuals is dependent upon all of creation. This does not negate our individual existence. It is an attempt to see our individual existence in a different light.
Oh man! Can you believe I have worked for something like four hours on this one silly blog piece? And I still haven't gotten anywhere near what I wanted to say.
I hope it was at least funny.
*A third irksome aspect of the podcast, which I'm not even addressing is how the presenters assume that the Dalai Lama is the #1 uber Buddhist of all time, the ultimate human expression of all of Buddhism.
(I’m still taking a break from reading the comments section of this blog. If you have something you feel you must say to me in response to this, write me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you just post something in the comments section, I will not see it.)