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Barbara O'Brien

Buddhism or Buddhisms?

By August 22, 2012

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I've written in the past that I think it's silly to refer to the diversity of Buddhist sects as "Buddhisms," as some western academics do. I've also found that discussing this with these academics is an exercise in futility. They see Buddhism(s) primarily as loosely related socio-cultural phenomena with some philosophy on the side, and I see dharma. They see the bits and pieces; I see the flow and the patterns.

Justin Whitaker has a post up called "Buddhism or Buddhisms? The Hegemony of Postmodern Rhetoric," which is a response to an academic article by Dr. Richard Payne, Dean of the Institute of Buddhist Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, titled "Buddhism or Buddhisms? Lexical consequences of geo-political categories." This Buddhism or Buddhisms? argument, while silly on most levels, does illustrates something about Buddhism.

In brief, Professor Payne argues that the "geo-political categories commonly employed in both popular and academic representations of Buddhism are problematic." An excerpt --

"The term 'Buddhisms' may feel awkward when uttered or written (my spell check certainly doesn't like it). That very awkwardness points to the confusion that can result from failing to distinguish between mass nouns ('the gravel in that heap') and count nouns ('the cars in the parking lot'). One speaks of gravel in the singular for a heap of it because there is no significant reason to distinguish each individual piece from all the others; one speaks of cars in the plural because each one is identifiably different, and that is the kind of difference that makes a difference. Buddhism as a mass-noun (e.g., Buddhism in China) implicitly treats Buddhism as a kind of whole, of which each instance is a part indistinguishable from the whole. Buddhisms as a count-noun clearly says that there are a whole bunch of different kinds of Buddhisms that happen to be located in China. A further problem with the mass-noun Buddhism, is that it in turn supports the kind of essentializing -- 'Chinese Buddhism' -- discussed in the previous post."

The problem with the analogy is that Buddhism is not a heap of distinct, static, inorganic objects. It's more like an ecosystem, affected by conditions within and without, populated by species that are constantly adapting to changing conditions and to each other.

More critically, I think this relates to something I wrote in the recent Empty Your Cup post -- our habit of learning about things by classifying them sometimes creates conceptual distortion that clouds our understanding. And this is because sometimes we encounter things that really don't fit our predetermined designations, but 999 times out of a 1,000 we will edit the new thing in our minds to make it fit.

Take, for example, the article linked by Professor Payne to the anchor words "Chinese Buddhism." The article is actually titled "Chinese Buddhist Philosophy." And it begins by admitting that "philosophy" is a western construct, and continues by explaining the many ways that what might be called "Chinese Buddhist philosophy" is a relatively recent construct. And that's interesting, but I disagree that "Chinese Buddhist philosophy," whatever it is, is synonymous with "Chinese Buddhism."

I recently read some commentary by a Japanese Zen teacher who referred to "Chinese Buddhism." I'm sorry I didn't bookmark the link. But in context it was clear that the teacher was speaking of all the forms and schools of Buddhism that emerged in China. He was speaking of the White Lotus Society and the beginnings of Pure Land; of Chan and T'ien T'ai; of masters such as Chih-i (538-597), Tu-shun (557-640), and Hui Neng. These forms and schools were cultured in China, and while they are distinctive they also cross-pollinated each other; and infinite threads of history, tradition and practice run through them and connect them in many subtle ways, such that "Chinese Buddhism" is a useful designation in some contexts.

In this sense, most of Buddhism as practiced in Korea and Japan is Chinese Buddhism, and my own Soto Zen practice is Chinese Buddhism as well as Japanese Buddhism and also American Buddhism.

But I have no idea what "Chinese Buddhist philosophy" is supposed to be. If you're looking at Chinese Buddhism for some unifying philosophy -- other than Mahayana -- yeah, I can see why it might look like a pile of random pebbles. But that's using the wrong filter; that's trying to jam this grand and riotously complex entity into some tight little western conceptual box. When Buddhists speak of "Chinese Buddhism," I doubt we are ever talking about a philosophy.

I agree with Justin Whitaker's criticism that Professor Payne is identifying "problems" that are not problems within Buddhism. Yes; I can see that Professor Payne's arguments probably apply to a university Buddhist studies class, where national designations like "Chinese Buddhism" might create a wrong impression, but I'm not seeing that as a problem among Buddhists.

And this takes us to the difference between knowledge and intimacy. A person who has spent his life in Provence, who has walked the roads, eaten in its cafes, and listened to its bird songs, "knows" Provence in one way. And someone who has exhaustively studied the history, culture, geography, and commerce of Provence but never lived there "knows" Provence in another way. And if you were to speak to these two people about Provence, you would have two very different conversations. And in both cases, "Provence" is a creation of their own perceptions and experience.

Zen teacher Zoketsu Norman Fischer wrote,

In Buddhist thought the concept "emptiness" refers to deconstructed reality. The more closely you look at something the more you see that it is not there in any substantial way, it couldn't be. In the end everything is just a designation: things have a kind of reality in their being named and conceptualized, but otherwise they actually aren't present. Not to understand that our designations are designations, that they do not refer to anything in particular, is to mistake emptiness. ["A Few Words About Emptiness," PDF]

Designations are arbitrary; not reality. Neither Buddhism nor Buddhisms have a self-nature. It's just something we call it so we can talk about it.

The conceit of the academics is that they are sorting out the "truth" about Budddhism(s) by constructing a workable taxonomy for it, when in fact they are only constructing a kind of intellectual interface with Buddhism that helps them relate to it on their particular level. And that's not necessarily bad; sometimes academic analysis can reveal useful things that the practitioners might be overlooking. But most of the time, what they do seems beside any point I can even imagine.

And while they may have an argument in favor of "Buddhisms," I still think it's silly.

August 23, 2012 at 1:50 pm
(1) Hein says:

Barbara thank you for clarifying this position about Buddhism generally and Chinese Buddhism in particular. Amongst the Chinese whom i have practiced it appeared that they considered every aspect of Buddhism as integrated although at some times they might plqce more emphasise upon certain aspects thereof than other.
My view is that we westerners are conditiined to prefer labelling and categorising…that is not the Eastern way or the Buddha’s Way (the Dharma).

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