View Full Version : Beyond Buddhist Exceptionalism

23 Jul 20, 15:06
This is an article by Evan Thompson, professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia.


Any thoughts?


24 Jul 20, 11:29
A fascinating article dealing with the interesting question of whether there is a difference between religion and spirituality. For Evan Thompson the answer is that the two are so intertwined that there is no possibility of separation. You may feel that you can take the religious aspects away from Buddhism and still be spiritual, her 'Buddhist modernism', but you will be still so influenced by religion that it will always be there.

I personally come from a background of research into forms of knowledge, an Open University module here in the UK, looking at similarities and fundamental differences between areas such as maths, science, art, history, and so on. What does each give us which is unique and essential to understanding the world around us? I spent some years after taking this course catching up where I thought I was personally lacking a full 'rounded' education, especially the arts and music, and then started to wonder about the spiritual aspect.

Which is why I started meditating as an attempt to change my state of consciousness, and see for myself what people had experienced as part of their spiritual life. Was there anything there which is as real as, say, encountering a Renoir for the first time, or a piece of music you knew was never going to leave you for the rest of your life? Of course there was, since I eventually became a Buddhist. In so doing I finally understood what was unique about the spiritual aspect of the human condition.

Back to the article, I think that Evan's arguments are pretty persuasive up to a point. Buddhism can be seen as so caught up in past overtly religious characteristics, such as shared understanding of how to interpret the world, that it might be better to say, "Fair cop guv" and start over again. On the other hand are we not reasoning human beings who can accept or reject certain aspects of something while retaining that which changes us as individuals without requiring us to either, "renounce the world and become a monastic religionist" or to become the kind of, "Buddhist modernist"?

I'm pretty sure now that I have some kind of a handle on the difference between spirituality and religiousness. For me spirituality is an inherent human characteristic, arising naturally when we just sit there for long periods not doing or thinking anything. A sense of wonder and belonging and understanding that, for good or bad, eventually became hijacked by those wishing to impose their own world understanding and who wished for a consistent world view from those they were living with. As societies grew in size this became the glue which allowed people to live together in successful communities, and we lost spiritual and replaced it with religion. Unlike Evan I think that we can safely return to the spiritual without being tainted by the religious.

24 Jul 20, 23:21
Here's Soto Zen teacher Brad Warner talking about the article in his video "Buddhist Exceptionalism and Buddhist Modernism" (approx 12 minutes)


25 Jul 20, 12:41
He raises some interesting points about the article. What, in essence, is Buddhism and can we ever get back to the essential Buddhism as taught by the Buddha? Do we need to? Do we want to? And is Buddhism about finding the 'right answer' as perhaps science is? Going back to the forms of knowledge I mentioned before, I could call them 'ways of looking at the world'. Tools, if you like, to investigate the world around us. Different tools for different jobs.

Mind you, knowledge is power, as is lack of knowledge in certain circumstances. Control of what is considered to be knowledge is the essence of controlling world views, so if people want to take or keep power it is essential to be in control of the world view. Which is of course being played out around the world at the present time. What is science, for example? To scientists it is one thing, to politicians another, to those wishing to push religion yet another. Here in the UK we have politicians choosing the science they see as being useful to their purposes and ignoring that which doesn't fit in with their plans.

In the same way different religions view science in different ways, and different variations of each religion can have a different view. Buddhism, when you look around the internet is no different. There are views accepting science, rejecting science or bending scientific understanding to Buddhist viewpoints. Does it matter? For me it depends what you want to do with the tool that is science. Want to fly to the moon? Something science based is pretty essential. Want to express how it feels to see the moonlight on the sea? Maybe art or poetry is a better tool.

Want a definitive explanation of the universe, or to find the meaning of life? Maybe what is needed is to explore using all the tools at your disposal. Insight experiences arising from meditation are certainly a tool to explore the spiritually with Buddhist meditation and path a tool developed, as Brad says, over a number of years. It may be that an enlightenment experience is a key to seeing the world in a different way, using all the tools already available rather than using new knowledge revealed at such a time.

26 Jul 20, 11:18
The article writer does not understand Buddhism. I replied on the article:

The following statement is wrong: “Buddhist modernism presents itself as if it were Buddhism’s original and essential core, when in fact it’s historically recent, originating in the nineteenth century”. Also, the causality in Buddhism about how suffering originates & ends is entirely “orderly and testable”. In fact, the entire basis of the Teachings (Dhamma) is expressed as follows, from the oldest scriptures: “The Dhamma is well declared by the Bhagavā: visible here and now, immediate, inviting to come and see, effective, to be individually verified by the wise”. About the natural law of how suffering arises & ceases, the oldest scriptures says: “whether Buddhas arise or not, this law of nature persists, this regularity of natural principles, this invariance of natural principles”. In summary, the core principles of the oldest Buddhism follows natural law & is testable and thus scientific.

27 Jul 20, 11:26
I always hold that part of the problem with Buddhism is that so many words used in translations by the Victorians were inextricably linked with the language of religion. The point that Thompson is trying to make is valid insofar as when people see such vocabulary they unknowingly take on board assumptions linked to such language. We used to spend many hours at the Buddhist centre trying to gain some kind of shared understanding of the Sanskrit and Pali terminology, but it always came back to doing so using a language developed within a religious society, in our case Christianity. Element has said that Thompson doesn't understand Buddhism, which is a valid point. Can anyone understand Buddhism using a language steeped in another religion? Can they escape the subconscious misunderstandings and misinterpretations?