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Post 4: On The Inscrutability Of Buddhist Reference

Does the sinister wordplay surrounding Buddhism in The West obscure the truth?

Having established by this point the rather modest premise that Buddhism isn’t perfect, I can now move on to the sort of complacent casuistry that is why I was motivated enough in my distaste of the rhetoric surrounding Buddhism to write this series. These criticisms are much more specific to Western commenters on Buddhism than on Buddhist societies themselves. I will leave it to you to decide if that makes it a more or less pointed critique. Anyway, be assured that I do not mean that this rhetoric is universal to those sympathetic to Buddhism, but also that it is a salient enough feature of the general conversation for me to have recorded the pattern and formed an aversion to it.

Too many times, I have had to sit and hear some self-styled enlighten-ee postulate, without any tolerance for rebuke, that Buddhism is a “way of life, rather than a faith position, and it necessarily promotes kindness.” Time and again, I have had to be sanctimoniously admonished against questioning the innate and yet vague and yet complete wisdom of the Ancients and Orientals, lest I (!) be the closed-minded one.

And god forbid that I ask somebody to elaborate on what they mean when they appeal to the word “spiritual” (or, even worse, “spiritual aspect/element”). Questioning them as to the meaning, much less the existence, of the “spiritual” superstition (as if it is not another name for The Darkness that Freud rightly predicted would assure the continuing survival of the religious) is treated as utter heresy.

If it marks my arrogance that I think people should be able to be clear about what they mean when they use a word out loud (and say that the reference of the word is of primal importance to leading a good life, no less!), then I accept the title of “arrogant” as a badge of honor.

Are you sensing a theme? By redefining the very word “Buddhism”, my interlocutors make it linguistically impossible to criticize, and also impossible not to complement. It’s like trying to insult the word “good”. But, this is simply verbal. It doesn’t have to do with any evidence or theorizing that Buddhism is actually good. (There is some such evidence, and I am swayed by some of it to believe that Buddhism is, relative to other religions, actually quite good.)

It is simply a bad (and therefore twisted) use of language if each person simply means “what seems to me to be a good, nice way to be” by the term “Buddhism.” If we let words be used that way, we resign ourselves to speaking to one another without knowing whether or not we actually understand what we are hearing. It’s my strong contention and primary complaint about Buddhism that the language surrounding it, whether that is language spoken by Eastern monks or lay Westerners, exploits this linguistic blurriness to communicate niceness without any content.

One of the primary examples of this sordid wordplay is to simply deny that any condemnable acts carried out by Buddhists are carried out by “true Buddhists”.

This Newspeak will be familiar to anyone who has tried to argue that, say Islam is guilty of wickedness to young women. “No, no,” comes the rebuke, “that is a distortion of the faith. The true faith promotes kindness and respect, not subjugation and abjection.”

By that (re)definition, sure, individuals who happen to be Islamic, not Islam itself, are guilty for the many modern atrocities against little girls in Northern Africa and The Middle East. But that definition was invented on the spot in order to purposefully obscure the truths that Islamic cultures do not respect the rights of women, Islamic theologians do not value the lives of women, and the holy texts of the religion involve The Prophet married to many young girls, one as young as nine!

So the real issue is whose definition is the real definition. It is obvious that the definition of Islam in quotes in the above paragraph is a white-washing of the facts and of the public use of the term. So is any Buddhist who resorts to violence or who acts greedily or unreservedly or otherwise like every other religious (and non-religious) homo sapiens simply not a Buddhist?

I think not.

Between my (forthcoming) commentary on The Dalai Lama, and the discussions from prior posts of the crimes of strictly Buddhist cultures in Japan, and in Burma, and in Sri Lanka etc., we can see that the malfeasance is simply too mainline and widespread to not be endemic.

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Though I stand by my phrasing, one of the people who responded to the draft of this series took issue with the use of the word “endemic”. He notes: “This is troublesome. Would you say violence is endemic to Christianity? To Islam? To America?”

Um… Yes, yes, and yes. I believe that all Granfalloonery is inherently irrational and nearly always precipitates violence.

But I’ll grant that perhaps he was more accurate when he suggested that what I might mean is that: “The point here is really that violence is present enough in the history of Buddhists in various countries that it is an aspect of Buddhist history not be overlooked or shrouded for the purposes of contemporary political gains [or rhetorical grandstanding]. (This is most obvious in the case of Tibet and the U.S.’s helping Tibet posture against China).”

To bring together the linguistic commentary in this post and the historical commentary in the preceding two, I offer this conclusion for your consideration:

Violence is not forbidden by the very parameters of the word “Buddhist”, unless you are willing to say that huge and important populations and chapters of Buddhist history are simply no longer a part of that history. In that latter case, you will find yourself guilty of another kind of moral blackmail, historical revisionism, which is so obviously evil that I need not elaborate on it further.


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