copyright Robert M. Ellis 2008

'The Trouble with Buddhism' Chapter 12 

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The door of wisdom is locked

Some Buddhist readers may be wondering how much of Buddhism is left standing after all the criticism of the tradition in the previous chapters. The answer is actually quite a lot. Not just the Middle Way, but the Noble Eightfold Path and many of the further formulae which develop limbs of that path, such as the Four Right Efforts. The interlocking Threefold Path of morality, meditation and wisdom is left, with a rich fund of meditation practices, wisdom reflections, and inspiring stories. A great deal of Buddhism, fortunately, is completely practical.


The trouble with Buddhism is predominantly one of presentation and language. Very often Buddhists just donít seem to realise, or perhaps donít care about, the hugely off-putting effect their language may be having on non-Buddhists, when the language has only been unthinkingly adopted out of tradition and they could perfectly well put things in a way which is both more acceptable and more coherent.


As an example of this lack of regard for presentation and language, I recently attended the funeral of a friend, a Buddhist and a member of the Western Buddhist Order who died prematurely, so that although the funeral was Buddhist, there were many non-Buddhist members of his family there as well. The words spoken about my friend by many, mainly Buddhists, were moving and sincere and obviously created a good impression on the non-Buddhists present. At the end, at the committal in the crematorium, however, all this goodwill may well have been thrown away at a stroke. The leader said that he didnít know where my friend was now, leaving an appropriate openness about afterlife beliefs that all present could probably share in. Then, finally, he announced a reading from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Suddenly, it seemed, not only did Buddhism know exactly where my friend would be, it knew exactly what he should be doing as well, as the text offered definite claims about his situation and definite advice for dealing with it. If this was intended to be taken symbolically (symbolically of what?), not a word was said on the subject. One was left with a strong impression both that Buddhists contradicted themselves, and that their regard for those who did not share their traditional ways of understanding things was less than one might have been led to expect.


This is an example of the blare of traditional Buddhism miscommunicating itself and putting people off from its insights in the modern world. In the sections of this chapter below, I am going to look at five particular aspects of the way traditional Buddhism miscommunicates itself and creates barriers to its wisdom.


Click on the section summaries below to view the full text of each section:


a) I haven't unpacked yet


Buddhist scriptures (both Pali Canon and Mahayana) contain huge amounts of irrelevance and hyper-rhetoric, yet the nuggets of insight they do contain are nevertheless often not unpacked properly, nor applied to the relative circumstances of our lives. Buddhist speakers also have a tendency to follow this pattern of irrelevance accompanied by over-compression. Buddhist texts need some savage editing for a modern audience.


b) I keep repeating myself


Buddhist texts, ritual, reflection, and even live teaching is full of repetition. This may assist memory, but much of this repetition seems to be based on the mistaken impression that merely repeating something judged to be profound enables us to understand it better. On the contrary, it is analysis rather than repetition which is required to make an abstract idea meaningful and practical.


c) I need an update


Many Buddhist teachings from scripture or tradition are simply out of date, formed in very different conditions and thus misleading in the modern context: traditional teachings about karma and about eternalism and nihilism are clear examples. Yet often these are unapologetically used by Buddhists without adaptation.


d) I've got culture-shock


Some Buddhist stories and teachings have a point which might (possibly) still work in less westernised parts of modern Asia, but will simply not be understood in the same way in the West. Again, though, Buddhists often use them without adaptation. Stories involving magic or extreme faith in gurus provide examples.


e) I'm quite familiar really


Some Buddhist teachings are also false friends to Westerners because they are likely to be interpreted in accordance with Western ways of thinking (for example, Romantic views of nature or Christian ideals of self-abnegating love). However, when these ways of thinking come into play the insights available from the Buddhist teaching are lost.



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