Comments on “Twilight of the isms”

Comments

-'ism'-dämmerung-- twilight or dawn?

Kate Gowen, Aro apprentice's picture

I've tried to be circumspect about popping off in your blog, David, so as not to be ubiquitous. (And have hereby rectified a misconstrued 'modesty' about claiming to be an Aro apprentice). But what you say is so frequently incorrigibly inviting! And then when I begin to organize my thoughts, interesting information comes my way-- like that bit from Wikipedia about 'dämmerung' referring to BOTH those ambiguous-light times of neither-day-nor-night. (Like 'twilight language,' another phrase that I love.)

I was going to say something about '-isms' having to do with belief systems and my personal lack of regret to see their passing. Then I thought I should see what Mr. Webster has to say about -ism; it's quite instructive, actually. Belief system-- or, in his words, 'doctrine; theory; cult' is #3 out of 4. More commonly denoted are 1) act; practice; process and 2) state; condition; property. I had intended to say that if one considered Buddhism as adherence to a list of beliefs/doctrines to be taken on faith in the way the 'religions of the book' seem to demand of their practitioners, then I don't care to be a Buddhist.

My interest in Buddhism generally, and Aro particularly, is based on the primacy given to explanation in terms of principle and function, and the yardstick for authenticity being my own lived experience. No need for Deus ex machina or 'scientific' a priori assumptions, either one. A religion based on practice seems an interesting and functional proposition; a religion based on clubbing together with a bunch of others who all say the same thing, believe the same thing, and claim to experience the same thing-- that kind of religion makes me nervous. The phrase 'popular delusions and the madness of crowds' comes to mind.

The other connotation of 'ism' that occurred to me was that to define oneself as an --ist is to stay tidily within the bounds of some particular frame story, and that all the interesting perceptions happen when I hop the fence and start asking how a belief or practice FUNCTIONS. I've been reading a really useful book called Life, Inc.; it's about the last 500 years of economic theory, with the culmination of 'developed' people thinking of themselves as consumers (as opposed to citizens, or tribe members, or any number of alternatives-- philosophers, or practitioners, say). I find it both sad and interesting to think that the state of culture to which we have arrived is to do unthinking obeisance to the market place in identifying ourselves. We could equally accurately think of ourselves as waste-makers. I guess in some circles, we do!

But here comes Buddhism (and by that term I mean a 2500-year old self-renewing, self-transforming meta-philosophy and praxis) with principles that can be applied at many levels. As a Buddhist, I can ask myself if my refuge is in postmodernism, or pop culture, or politics, or economics-- or Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Asking such a question tends to refresh my view, and change my experience.

So, to circle back around: Buddhism, if not dead, probably IS dying; long live Buddhist practice, as best as you or I or others can understand and attempt it!

Buddhism already Died

Wow, this started out a short comment but I kept going. I hope I have not missed your points or misunderstood your emphasis. I did enjoy your writing, as normal but have some concerns. I look forward to your correcting/challenging my misunderstandings or mistakes.

Vegetarianism -- a System
Let me start by agreeing. During my life, I have experimented radically with food: Vegetarian, Raw-Food, Macrobiotic and others. During those years I observed something that I think matches the principle theme of your post:

Often, when a young, enthusiastic American embraces vegetarianism, they do it mainly by taking meat out of their present diet. So they now eat more pizza without meat, more potato chips, more cereal and for a sacred meal, now and then they splurge and buy instant curry sauce to pour over some cheap white rice.

But countries where vegetarianism has had centuries to evolve has found great ways to get balanced protein, minerals, good fats and more. The new, proud American vegetarian instead has an incredibly unbalanced, unhealthy diet and would be far better eating the imperfect omnivore diet of her/his parents. But there is not identity thrill there, so they keep eating poorly, piecing together their idea of vegetarianism to match their own desires without the check of time and experience.

Eclecticism is Always with Us
There are many, many Buddhisms -- there is no unified Buddhism. And that is because eclecticism has always been a large human trait. Bön is part of Tibetan Vajra Buddhism, Confucianism & Taoism are parts of some Chinese Buddhisms, Shinto and Taoism color Japanese Buddhism. And more than that, the cultures of these countries influence their faith probably more than their homegrown ideologies. Islam in Indonesia is almost unrecognizable for that in Saudi, Pakistani Islam is radically different from Morocco's Islam. Italy's Catholicism is a stranger to South American magical Catholicism. All of these, not necessarily because of religious ideas but because of other aspects of culture.

Systems never spread intact but in order to spread, they inevitably change and often radically. The new believers never take on a religion because it offers a "complete, coherent, consistent system" -- they only take it on if they can alter it and use it for something else like overthrowing present authority or much more mundane things. The Jew's scripture lament the influence of Babylon, Palestine, Egypt while their religion kept changing. We have our variety of religions today exactly because no one really goes shopping for a package.

Born into Packages
But we are often born into packages: the diet of our parent, the religion of our neighborhood -- packages that may have been minimally changed over 100 years. Depending on personality traits, most people love the security of the packages and other types naturally love to discard and create their own. The mix of these tendencies vary as felt insecurity increases in a given community. This complex system of change then unravels like an unpredictable cellular automaton over time.

But these packages have changed over time in the exact way they are changing today albeit it is now faster, as you say, because of media and transportation and trade. But the phenomena has not changed. All we have is an accelerated version of a common process. And to resist this, fundamentalists set up walls -- stiff rules, vehement accusations. Those fundamentalist strategies thrive in most Muslim countries but also here in America, Africa, South America and more. Both strategies persist and with the acceleration of the eclectic (change) strategy, perhaps likewise the fundamentalist (conservative -- change-resistant) strategy gets exaggerated.

Will "Buddhism" survive?
Well, Buddhism is already dead, so is Christianity and other faiths in the sense that they have changed and multiplied beyond recognition from their founders. So the "Original" stuff ain't here no more. But I am not as apocalyptic in my view of the "isms" compared with you, perhaps. Nor am I as inclined to divide up human history into clear eras as I feel you are -- though I may misunderstand you. The processes seem the same, the human brain seems to do the same thing and everyone is tempted to see their era as different. Because anyone can call themselves a "Patriot", "a Marxist", "a Christian" or a "Buddhist", the term has will probably have a surprising longevity.

The end of Isms

Thank you very much for the long comment!

Yes, I agree that systems change over time, and are radically adapted when they move from culture to culture. (I've been reading the history of Buddhism, and see this as a dramatic phenomenon, which Buddhists have generally denied.) Also, most if not all religions are syncretic.

But these effects operate at the per-culture level, not the individual level. For most of human history, almost everyone has been born into a fixed set of systems. Obviously, for cultural change to occur, some individuals have to hybridize or alter systems; but this was rare.

Modernity accelerated this process, as you say. But then, I believe, the quantitative change became a qualitative one, during the 1980s. (I wrote about this in "Buddhism is for boomers".)

People born after about 1970 (in the U.S.) were not born into systems. They grew up in a fragmented, consumerist world that no longer had a mainstream; just endless subcultures, which mostly had given up on universalizing claims. This is a "post-systems" world.

My impression is that the way people born after 1970 think about meaningness is quite different from the way people born before 1960 do, as a result. (I was born in the early '60s, by the way.)

When I talk to people born before 1960 about this, very few understand. The way culture has changed seems to be invisible to Baby Boomers. They do not believe that the experience of Generations X and Y is significantly different from their own. After all, those generations do live in the same world as the Baby Boomers, and the same input is available to everyone. But it's the way that input is categorized by the individual that is different.

When I talk to people born after 1970, most seem to understand what I'm saying immediately, and agree. I admit I do not have a large sample size, so I may be out to lunch. But the point seems to be just obvious to many younger people.

For religions, the point is that many people born into a post-systems world do not want, and will not accept, grand unifying theories; they do not want to "belong to" anything. They don't want to "be" anything; not an anything-ist. They want things they can do, when they feel like doing them, briefly.

Most religions probably can't survive in that format. They can't work like a video game.

Buddhist meditation will probably survive because you can treat it like a video game: you play for half an hour or an hour when you feel like it. You enjoy it and get better at it. You can even go on a weekend binge and see if you can finish Halo: Reach (or get a glimpse of shunyata).

What else from Buddhism can be converted into "video game" format?

"However, is at least a

Anonymous's picture

"However, is at least a possibility we should prepare for. What, if anything, do we want to do if preserving traditions intact is impossible?"

All this work to get people to detach from their own limited self-conceptions... down the drain. We must protect the identity of Buddhism! We can't let Buddhism die! It must go on eternally! If Buddhism dies, all wisdom will die, because Buddhism is special and unique (hmm sounds familiar).

Super Buddha t-shirt anyone?

Matthew O'Connell's picture

It would be interesting to explore the possibility of selling Buddhism in experiential packages. This is already available in the form of weekend retreats, but I was thinking more along the lines of a marketing ploy for a mass-market 'Super Buddhism® .' You talked about needing a hero to reform on another page. How about getting some famous Buddhists to align with Marvel and invent a new Super Buddha® comic character who can extoll the miracle of sitting for hours. We need a Super Buddha® daily comic strip in the Time and New Yorker, a Super Buddha® sponsored LaCross team and a new Super Buddha® soft drink (like Virgin Cola)...Sorry, I got carried away.
Surely part of the issue is the dynamic between superficiality and depth. Authentic practice has to usually be self-motivated, or stimulated by a reality check or crisis, and is based on puttting in time into meaningful experience. Superficiality and quick-fix attention absorption is a central theme in post-modern, contemporary living. Depth is desired, yet feared and imagined to exist in what is fashionable as a facet of needing to belong. To play the game of post-modern contemporary society, Buddhism would need to roll through a continuous reimaging of itself in order to remain the 'in thing' and 'cutting edge.'
Some authors such as Brad warner are trying to reimage Buddhism. Others are still playing the nciey, nicey game by saying look how nice and scientific Buddhism is. That's fine of course. In fact, it's great that we can start to see scientific validation for long-term practice.
Somethign that has been goign through my mind of late is that Buddhists should be proud to be Buddhist and to stand for something. I think that eventually the refusal of -isms, of belonging, will fragment as individuals seek community again in an increasingly insecure and lonely world. People who refuse -isms are in part playing a game of searching and avoiding. To take a stance, to choose a position is a brave act in the face of ever-changing reimaging.
The key is for it to be a mature stance not based on 'us and them', or 'I'm right and others are wrong.' It's more about taking a risk, committing to a relationship, and seeing it through, knowing that a different sense of freedom comes through discipline and committment.
On another note I often have the sense that the internet allows people to garner a wealth of information, but perhaps little real knowledge. There are many exceptions of course. It's like there is a pursuit of the illusion of absolute freedom sought as freedom from constraint of the satisfaction of fickle desires that is void of responsibility.
I coudl explroe thsi further, but who will read this, and who cares :)
Not an Aro-Ter practitioner. Have attended several Aro-Ter retreats in the distant past. Currently practicing Mahamudra techniques with teacher 1:1. Going just fine thank you.