Preventing holy wars, by consensus

Religious conflicts tend to be particularly nasty: whether holy wars that kill millions or flame wars on Buddhist internet forums.

When you have The One Whole Holy Truth, anyone with a different view must be absolutely wrong and wicked, and should be punished severely.

So, this is not news… The question is what to do about it.

One popular approach is to insist that all religions are essentially the same. To parody slightly:

“Religious differences are merely variations in cultural customs. Such differences are arbitrary and irrelevant; no one goes to war based on which side of the road you drive on. What really matters in all religions—their core values—are shared equally among all of them. When we recognize this, we can all join hands as one big happy family and sit in a circle singing Om Kumbaya.”

This is very nice. In fact, it is the essence of “niceness”: pretending that conflict does not exist, in order to pursue a hidden agenda.

Consensus Buddhism” is founded on this principle. According to the Consensus, all Buddhisms are essentially the same. Their seeming conflicts are merely differences in Asian cultural customs, which are irrelevant to the West.

“Therefore, there is no need for disagreement among Buddhists. This idea that we can, and should, and maybe have, achieved consensus about what all Buddhisms teach, is one of the reasons I describe the current Western mainstream as “Consensus Buddhism.”

Also, by consensus, we can mix Buddhism with other religions, because it is not essentially different from Christianity or Hinduism.

There are three problems here:

  1. It isn’t true. Different religions are not essentially the same. Different Buddhisms have incompatible principles, values, paths, and goals.
  2. It doesn’t work. Ignoring differences actually makes religious conflicts worse.
  3. It justifies totalitarianism. Whoever gets to say what is the “essential, shared core” of religions can define competitors out of existence—if that decree is accepted.

Recently, I described a better approach to religious conflict, which avoids these downfalls.

Here, I’ll expand on the problems with “all religions are essentially the same,” and show some ways they manifest in the Consensus view that “all Buddhisms are essentially the same.”

God is not One

If all religions are essentially the same, what is it that is the same about them?

This is a question advocates of the “brotherhood of all religions” would rather skate over. When pressed, they usually produce one of two answers:

  • All religions say everyone should be nice to everyone else.
  • The essence of all religions is the mystical insight that your True Self is the same as God.

Both of these are factually false.

All religions advocate violence

Most religions say you should be nice to some people. Some also say that you should be nice to everyone. But all of them also say you should slaughter the infidels, torture heretics, and enslave bad people. (No religion is ethically consistent.)

If the “essential core” of all religions were merely what they have in common, then violence against outsiders would be a good candidate.

Buddhism is no exception. There is some universal-love rhetoric in the scriptures. But Buddhism also justifies holy wars, judicial torture, and slavery. This is no rare aberration, but common all across Asia and through Buddhist history.

Nor is it ancient history. For instance, politically powerful Buddhist monks were primary advocates of 2007-2009 civil war in Sri Lanka, which was widely condemned by human rights organizations for indiscriminate slaughter of non-combatant civilians.

(Several recent books discuss Buddhist justifications for holy war and other forms of violence. One is Buddhist Warfare, edited by Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer.)

Almost no one agrees that your True Self is God

The only major religion that says your True Self is God is Hinduism—and only some Hindu sects.

Nevertheless, the idea that this is the essence of all religions—which are therefore all really the same—is increasingly popular in the West. This is called “Perennialism” by religious scholars.

Perennialism is rejected by most prominent spokespeople for most religions. Perennialists need to argue that all these authorities are deluded about the nature of their own religions. A Perennialist knows The Truth about Islam, that it is really one path among many to becoming God. Most imams consider that the worst idea imaginable, but they don’t really know anything about Islam. Since the essence of Islam is the mystical experience of becoming God, which the imams have lost, they are idiots and should be ignored.

In the case of Buddhism, nearly all Buddhist thinkers have explicitly rejected both the True Self and God, and have strongly differentiated their Buddhism from other religions. Perennialism has become popular in Buddhism recently, though, unfortunately. It’s a very nice idea…

What do all Buddhisms have in common?

It seems to me that the most important aspects of the different Buddhisms are quite different. In fact, I’m not sure all Buddhisms have anything in common; far less do they share their central features.

The various Buddhisms went their own ways a couple thousand years ago. They’ve developed mostly independently, in quite different cultural contexts, over many centuries. They seem now to me to be as different as (ultra-conservative) Wahhabi Islam, (ultra-liberal) Jewish Renewal, and Mormonism. Their common ancestor is equally distant.

Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha is sometimes said to be a shared core. But these three words are understood quite differently in different Buddhisms; and there are Buddhisms that have different objects of refuge.

To show the diversity of Buddhist opinion, here are examples that are currently influential, and disagree about pretty much everything:

  • In Sinhalese nationalist Theravada, monks take refuge in raṭa, jātiya, and āgama—“country, race, and religion”—rather than Buddha, dharma, and sangha.
  • Tibetan Buddhist Tantra teaches that sexual pleasure is the way to enlightenment, and takes refuge in the lama, yidam, and dakini.
  • Sokka Gakkai rejects meditation in favor of chanting the phrase nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Quoting Jan Nattier: “[Its] promise that chanting… will enhance one’s social, economic, and professional circumstances has drawn large numbers of less-than-affluent adherents. Meditative Buddhism, on the other hand—favored by the upper middle class—critiques the concern with material well-being as fundamentally un-Buddhist.”

All of these have been dismissed as “not really Buddhism.” But there is no generally-accepted definition for what is “really” Buddhist. Who gets to say?

If you say “all Buddhists must accept X,” some reply “We are Buddhists, and we reject X, so you are wrong.”

If you say “but scripture Y says X,” they say “Y is not definitive; scripture Z is more holy, and it says the opposite.” For example, militarist Sri Lankan monks point out passages in generally-accepted Theravada scriptures that justify holy war against supposed enemies of raṭa, jātiya, and āgama. (Namely, the Sri Lankan Tamil/Hindu race/religion minority group.)

Pretend unity doesn’t work

“All religions are essentially the same” works until two come into direct conflict. Then it makes things much worse. Conflict can only be resolved on the basis of understanding, and deliberately overlooking religious differences actively prevents understanding them.

“Why are they disagreeing with us? Their religion is the same as ours, so they shouldn’t disagree. They must be hung up on some trivial detail. Or else, they misunderstand their own religion, and wrongly think it is different from ours.

They are being hostile. Why are they hostile? We acknowledge that their religion is the same as ours, so we are very nice people. Why don’t they understand that their religion is the same as ours, so they must agree? They must not be nice people. We need to make them understand that their religion says they have to be nice to us. Or else we’ll have to kill them all.”

Stephen Prothero’s “A Dangerous Belief” is an eloquent call for religious tolerance based on recognizing religious differences. (It summarizes his book God Is Not One.) He writes:

Some people are convinced that the only foundation on which inter-religious civility can be constructed is the dogma that all religions are one. I am not one of them. In our most intimate human relationships, who is so naive as to imagine that partners or spouses must be essentially the same? What is required in any healthy relationship is knowing who the other person really is. Denying differences is a recipe for disaster. What works is understanding the differences and then coming to accept and, when appropriate, to respect them.

America’s various misadventures in the Middle East have been worsened by its unwillingness to learn about Islam. Of course, on the religious right, the attitude may be that Islam is simply evil, so the details are irrelevant. But the moderate or liberal assumption that Islam is essentially the same as Christianity is as much a problem. So is the assumption that there is one thing called “Islam,” and whatever is true for some Muslims must be true for all.

On the one hand, overlooking serious differences means that violent conflicts seem suddenly to pop out of nowhere, and to have no explanation or motivation beyond insane evil.

On the other hand, Americans who understand that there are moderate as well as extremist political Muslims may take agreement from moderates for granted. After all, their religion is essentially the same, so naturally they have all the same core values we do. This can lead to alienating allies, or feeling betrayed when moderate Muslims do not support all American actions.

Ignoring a Buddhist holy war

American Buddhists are usually quick to condemn racism, war, and human rights violations.

In American Buddhism, there was a nearly total lack of discussion of the bloody religious race war prosecuted just a couple years ago by Sri Lankan Buddhists. It was an ugly fact that did not fit the nice story: that all Buddhists—certainly all Theravadins—agree on core principles such as non-violence.

If American Buddhists had acknowledged that Buddhisms can be fundamentally different, we might have been an effective lobby for restraint in the Sri Lankan war. But, to criticize our fellow Buddhists might not have been nice. Mind you, they weren’t behaving in an entirely nice way. But, they were definitely Buddhists, and Buddhists are all definitely nice. (Especially Asian ones.) AAACK! HEAD ASPLODE! Too confusing! Make it stop!

Only avidya—deliberate blindness, ignore-ance—could cope with the cognitive dissonance. Only avidya could keep American Buddhism’s self-image intact.

I have found almost nothing about this war on Western Buddhist web sites. Where, for instance, was the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, a major Consensus Buddhist organization? On their site, I could find only one mild mention of “concern” in a single sentence buried at the end of a paragraph about other matters.

(If you’d like to learn more about this, a good starting point is Annewieke Vroom’s review and summary of Tessa J. Bartholomeusz’s In Defense of Dharma: Just-War Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka. There are several other scholarly books on Sri Lankan monastic militarism, plus of course many news reports from the war and statements from human rights organizations.)

Nice religion as a tool for totalitarianism

The third problem with “all religions are essentially the same” is that it has been, from its invention, a tool for totalitarian domination. Whoever gets to say what the “essence” is holds all religious power.

This has been the strategy of American Consensus Buddhism: to define all alternatives out of existence by insisting on sameness.

This is a big enough subject that I think I’ll postpone it to another post.

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

59 thoughts on “Preventing holy wars, by consensus”

  1. You write “In Sinhalese nationalist Theravada, monks take refuge in raṭa, jātiya, and āgama—“country, race, and religion”—rather than Buddha, dharma, and sangha.”

    Gosh. I knew there was ‘diversity’ in Buddhism, but that is just a stunningly original version of the Buddha way. For fun, I’ll have to check into how they back that up in their rhetoric.

  2. “all of them also say you should slaughter the infidels, torture heretics, and enslave bad people.”

    That’s a bit too strong. Most Buddhisms do not advocate such things. Buddhist Violence, Buddhist Warfare and similar titles are needed and welcome correctives to the pollyannish naivete that often prevails. But overall, the record of most of the many Buddhisms is pretty good, with exceptions of course.

  3. Bhutan has systematically persecuted Christians for years to “protect” Buddhism http://www.persecution.net/bhutan.htm

    A number of the ethnic minorities in Burma the Kachin, the Chin and the Karen ethnic groups have been mostly Evangelical christian for over a hundred years. The Burmese government is forcing Buddhism on them, often with the explicit support and help of monks. http://www.christiantoday.com/article/chin.launch.campaign.against.burmese.christian.persecution/2039.htm
    Early catholic converts in Tibet were flogged for refusing to give divine honors to the Dalai Lama. In the 1600’s tens of thousands of christians were martyred in Japan. In Sri Lanka Buddhist monks lead mobs against Christian churches. All religions have blood on their hands. Though I believe with New Testament Christianity and Buddhism this type of violence is not intrinsic to the religion but reflect the weakness and evil that all humans have to a greater or lesser degree.

  4. Hi, David – I agree with the gist of your post, but I have a question about a detail in it.

    I practice in a Sanbo Kyodan lineage (the Philip Kapleau branch), and this is the first time I’ve heard that it teaches that your True Self is unity with God, let alone that that’s the essence of all religions. I’ve certainly heard nothing remotely like that in the teishos or dharma talks I’ve attended. Quite the contrary; I’ve heard the notion of God explicitly rejected, and the teaching about the True Self appears to be more or less how Hakuin Ekaku puts it in Zazen wasan—the True Self is no-self.

    It could be that I’m missing something, or that my teacher is not a typical Sanbo Kyodan teacher, or that the notion hasn’t come up yet, of course. Of these, I think the third option is the least likely, since a great deal of stuff has come up, and there is very little all-religions-are-the-same new-agey consensus mushiness in evidence in the group.

    Would you mind clarifying how you arrived at this claim?

  5. The third problem with “all religions are essentially the same” is that it has been, from its invention, a tool for totalitarian domination. Whoever gets to say what the “essence” is holds all religious power.

    Not really. Who gets to say what the “essence” of all Buddhism, or of all religion is? In America we all do. And while we may not agree to disagree here, there’s not a darn thing that anyone can do about it that is both truly effective in suppressing dissent and not contrary to law. That is the essential difference between “religious toleration” [an ethical concept] and “religious freedom” [a political one]. As long as you successfully defend the political concept, the ethical one is moot. Have some Buddhists turned into closet Hindus? Probably. And do they attempt to convince themselves or others that closet Hinduism is the essence of all Buddhism. Also probably.

    But, so what? Religious freedom is embedded into law here and there is no reason for me or anyone else to pay serious attention to proto-Hindu Buddhists unless they start advocating the legal removal of “religious freedom”. As far as I can see from what you have written and linked to, consensus Buddhists has done little more than write in specialty magazines, hold conferences among themselves, and propagate their views on the Internet, just like everyone else.

    It seems to me that in an atmosphere of legal religious freedom several important things can be clearly discerned. First, religion is far less a matter of what we believe [or disbelieve] and far more about what we do about our beliefs. As long as nobody interferes with what we do, their opinions about what we think are irrelevant, as are ours about what they think.

    Second, what supports and preserves religion is monetary or in kind patronage. As long as patronage is not legally prevented, religious pluralism [which is by no means “religious toleration”–again this is the difference between what we think individually and what we do, by default, collectively] is pretty safe.

    Third, religious freedom itself is based on two things: legal protection of “free exercise” and legal prevention of direct government patronage or “establishment”. And without both of these embedded in law, religious pluralism is always in potential danger, if not immediate threat, no matter how “tolerant” the attitude of any or all of us happens to be. The UK still has an “established” church, just as much as Saudi Arabia or Bhutan, as do countries like France and China–there the Established Churches are “secularism” and “atheism” respectively, and these are just as religious in action, if not in words, as any other creed.

    As long as the conditions of religious freedom are present, allowing yourself to be “regulated by raised eyebrow” is a matter of personal choice.

    Now I apologize if this sounds too “didactic”. I have always been a fan of direct and simple declarative sentences as a literary style, but I don’t regulate very easily by raised eyebrow and have never made any claim to being “nice”. And what we claim about dissent in the abstract is far less important than what we do when we encounter it,

  6. David:

    1. Definitions: Anthropological vs. Prescriptive
    Love the gist of your writing which is seems to say, “All Religions are not the same, AND all Buddhisms are not the same “. You show use well the numbing danger of thinking all religions are the same or that all ‘real’ Buddhisms are the same.

    I think your claim works best if we use the anthropological definition of “Buddhist” — “A group which who calls themselves a Buddhist”.
    Shezer, in the previous post comment, instead suggested a Prescriptive Definition which tells us that people who don’t have certain traits [4 denials], are not really Buddhists. So to keep the conversation unconfused, I think it is important to understand the difference between Anthropological vs Prescriptive definitions and to declare which definition you are using.

    2. Separating Concepts
    Also, I am wondering if we need to keep distinguish more carefully between three concepts:
    (1) Your True Self is God
    (2) All Religions are One
    (3) All Religions come from the same Source

    From the wiki article:

    “Perennial philosophy asserts that there is a single divine foundation of all religious knowledge, referred to as the universal truth.”

    I thought “Perennialism” did not assert that “Your True Self is God”, but instead merely that “All Religions come from the same Source”, right?

    But then I broke open “The Perennial Philosophy” by Aldous Huxley (1945) and read in the Introduction:

    “Philosophia Perennis–the phrase was coined by Leibniz; but the thing–the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being–the thing is immemorial and universal.”

    So it seems it has both this broad sense and narrow sense according to Huxley — whose book was probably very influential.

    David, you said,

    “The only major religion that says your True Self is God is Hinduism—and only some Hindu sects.”

    But Huxley quotes many sources in addition to Hindu sources to prove his point and to try and counter yours (did he know you back then?):

    Muslim mystic–Kabir: “Behold but One in all things: it is the second that leads you astray.”(p10)

    Muslim mystic–Rumi: “The Beloved is all in all; the lover merely veils Him; The Beloved is all that lives, the lover a dead thing.”(p15)

    Christian mystic–St. Catherine of Genoa: “My Me is God, nor do I recognize any other Me except my God Himself.”(p11)

    Christian mystic–Eckhart: “The knower and the known are one.”(p13)

    Taoist- Chuang Tzu: ” All proceeds from It [the Principle] and is under its influence. It is in all things, but is not identical with beings, for it is neither differentiated nor limited.”

    Buddhist- Huang Po: “The Mind is no other than the Buddha, and Buddha is no other than sentient being. When Mind assumes the form of a sentient being, it has suffered no decrease; when it has become a Buddha, it has added nothing to itself.”

    Buddhist- Lankavatara Sutra: “The self realized in your inmost consciousness appears in its purity; this is the Tathagata-garbha (literally, Buddha-womb), which is not the realm of those given over to mere reasoning …. Pure in its own nature and free from the category of finite and infinite, Universal Mind is the undefiled Buddha-womb, which is wrongly apprehended by sentient beings.”

    Seems to me that many believers in many faiths have felt that “Your True Self is God” , but possibly not all those believers felt that “All Religions are One”.

    So perhaps we need to keep these ideas separate in the analysis:
    (1) Your True Self is God
    (2) All Religions are One
    (3) All Religions come from the same Source

  7. @Sabio [and perhaps David, if this is an accurate summary of his argument] This is as elegant a representation of the circular argument about God/True Self as I can imagine seeing made. What is implied here is that the nontheistic view of an immanent reality [Daoism and Buddhism] is not ‘really’ distinct from the theistic one. That to acknowledge any extraordinary grace, wisdom, spaciousness, order, freedom, clarity– as experiential qualities– is to be snarled into the argument of the ‘existence’ of *A* ‘Divine Being’ [for which the English word is ‘God’]

    But what strikes me about the quotations listed here is the effort of the Daoists and Buddhists– and Meister Eckhardt as well, for that matter– to avoid the error of concretizing, of being clumsily literal about the metaphors and analogies that have been used to allude to an extraordinary dimension of experience. This is something that poets avoid more skillfully than theologians, philosophers, and logicians– all of whom do well enough in their own sphere, if that limitation doesn’t irritate you.

  8. @Greg – The more I read, the less I believe that Buddhisms have a good track record on violence and human rights. A balanced evaluation is difficult, but everywhere in Buddhist history there are ghastly atrocities. Nor is this unambiguously in violation of scripture.

    @Sabio – Yes, I am using “Buddhism” here descriptively, not prescriptively.

    Perennialism is two propositions, that all religions are essentially the same, and that the essential feature is that your True Self is God. “All religions are essentially the same, and the essence is that you should be nice to everyone” is not Perennialism. As far as I know, no one advocates “all religions come from the same source, but are not essentially the same.”

    Perennialists (such as Huxley, the standard 20th-century example) have to argue that (1) all those mystics are saying the same thing and (2) it is the mystics in each religion who express the essence of it, and the non-mystics are just wrong about what their own religion means.

    I think both of those are false (and most theologians in most sects of most religions agree). Mystics in different religions say different things, which only sound similar when taken out of context. And mystics are a small minority in most religions, and their supposed insights are rejected or ignored by both most regular members and the leaders.

    To take one example, Eckhart. As far as I know, his stuff is not regarded as accurate, much less authoritative, by any Christian denomination. He’s influenced a lot of individual Christians, but he established no lineage, and it’s absurd to claim that he expresses the essence of Christianity when no Christian sect definitely accepts what he said.

    20th-century export Zen claims that Eckhart expresses the same essential truths as Zen, but as far as I can see this is based on systematic (and probably deliberate) misreading of both Eckhart and Zen. There are similarities of language, and perhaps of meaning, but most people would agree that it’s hard to know quite what Eckhart meant, and hard to know quite what the canonical Zen texts mean, which leaves a lot of room for creative (mis)interpretation.

    @Karmakshanti – Hooray for the First Amendment!

    That said, freedom of the press is limited to those who own the presses. The Consensus largely controls the Buddhist dead-tree press (Tricycle, Shambhala Sun, the major book publishers). I think one reason it is losing its grip is that the blogosphere has allowed for greater diversity of voices, and for discussion unmoderated by Consensus propriety.

    Another way of looking at this is in terms of Foucault’s key insight that contemporary political power inheres in control of discourse—ways of talking—rather than institutions.

  9. @Petteri – Thank you for challenging me on this. It’s possible that I’m wrong; the issues seem somewhat ambiguous and uncertain (particularly due to the diversity of descendants in the lineage), and maybe that’s reason enough to retract what I said. For now I’ve temporarily removed it, and I’ve started writing a long reply, but it will have to wait while I work on something else. I hope to clarify within the next few days.

    In the mean time, maybe you can read this and tell me what you think: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Buddhism/2002/02/God-And-Zen.aspx?p=1

    @Kate – I really like what you said here:

    What is implied here is that the nontheistic view of an immanent reality is not ‘really’ distinct from the theistic one. That to acknowledge any extraordinary grace, wisdom, spaciousness, order, freedom, clarity– as experiential qualities– is to be snarled into the argument of the ‘existence’ of *A* ‘Divine Being’ [for which the English word is ‘God’]

    I also agree strongly with your second paragraph. In using technical language, there is always a danger of premature conceptualization, of pinning inchoate intuitions and so killing them, of rigidifying felt truths into dubious abstract generalizations. Poetic expressions avoid that, and can communicate important things that we cannot (yet, or maybe ever) make precise in ordinary or technical language.

    And, we need also to recognize that poetic expressions are easily misunderstood, or deliberately misinterpreted by people with an agenda (as I think Huxley did). And poetic language risks becoming an end in itself, or deluding you into thinking you are saying something profound when actually you are talking utter nonsense (as I think the Romantic Idealists often did).

  10. Mystics
    Yes, I agree that:
    a. Mystics are often rejected (excommunicated) from Christianity, Islam and Judaism. It is not their main trait in Christianity (for instance), but it is a trait. Just as Dzochen is not a main trait, but it is a trait within Buddhism. You don’t want to deny this We-are-God thinking in Monotheisms any more than you would want Buddhists to say All-Buddhisms-are-One, right?
    b. Mystics that use the similar languages may be having very different experiences
    c. (as Kate says), people using different languages may have similar experiences

    I was just saying that I don’t think it has not only been Hindus that say the “True Self is God”. Besides, (as Kate points out), “God” can be a very huge, fuzzy term.

    Descriptive vs Prescriptive Conflict?
    I see your language sometimes hinting at conflicting desires:
    1. You want Buddhism (descriptive) to not be limited by those who are trying to say “all Buddhism is the same”. In particular, you don’t want to see Vajrayana squashed, no?
    2. You want Buddhism (prescriptive) to not have Monism, Eternalism, Nihilism nor Dualism. (Yet there are some Buddhisms that have these traits — as you ably point out). Just as some Buddhism have nationalism and exclusivism even though you rightly don’t want those to continue.

    Maybe these aren’t really conflicting — but I feel the conversation gets unnecessarily complex when these terms aren’t kept clear.

  11. Clearly there are We-Are-God thinkers in the West, and some consider themselves Christians (even if nearly all Christian theologians disagree). I don’t know any other religions well enough to say whether that is really what Sufis (e.g.) advocate. I suspect not, but that’s beside the point. The point is, We-Are-God is not the essence of any of the Religions of The Book (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), even if they may contain some few advocates of that idea. It may be the essence of Advaita Hinduism, but as far as I know that is the only major religion in which there is mainstream agreement with We-Are-God.

    Regarding descriptive vs. prescriptive: as recently as 2-3 years ago, I might have said “X is incompatible with Buddhism”. But I take an increasingly “etic” perspective on “Buddhism”, which leads me to reject any essential definition.

    I think the Four Extremes (eternalism, nihilism, monism, dualism) are all wrong, for reasons that have nothing to do with “Buddhism”. I think “Buddhism” is unique among major religions and philosophies in that its mainstream generally denies all four. That is part of why I think “Buddhism” is important, despite being ill-defined and having many dubious aspects.

    I think that Zhentong and export Zen, both of which seem to advocate monist eternalism, have mistaken metaphysics; but that doesn’t mean they aren’t “Buddhism”. If “Buddhism” means anything, it is a matter of historical descent, and both clearly descend from earlier “Buddhisms”. Likewise, I am opposed to nationalism, racism, and militarism, but that doesn’t make Jathika Hela Urumaya or Yasutani Roshi non-Buddhist.

  12. I essentially agree with you.

    But maybe this is why I am questioning:

    In your post you rightly say:

    In fact, I’m not sure all Buddhisms have anything in common; far less do they share their central features.

    But here in your comment (and hinted on in your post) you say:

    The point is, We-Are-God is not the essence of any of the Religions of The Book

    .

    I get your point, but I don’t want anyone saying what the essence of Christianity is any less that what the essence of Buddhism is. Keeping with your post, I want the varieties emphasized. I guess this is just that descriptive vs. prescriptive confusion bugging me a bit.

  13. We agree violently… I am not saying what the essence of Christianity is! Rather, I am suggesting that We-Are-All-God isn’t the essence, because it isn’t even accepted by any major sect. That doesn’t imply that there is an essence. I doubt there is one, but I’m not a Christian, or a scholar of Christianity, so that’s not for me to say.

  14. There are some good points here, but I feel that the general thrust over-simplifies in a rather dualistic way:
    “1.It isn’t true. Different religions are not essentially the same. Different Buddhisms have incompatible principles, values, paths, and goals.”
    Different religions and different Buddhisms obviously have both similarities and differences. You choose to dwell on the differences here, but it would be just as easy to dwell on the similarities. If you want to help people move forward I think you should offer more of a balanced emphasis, i.e. pointing out that different religions and different Buddhisms are not essentially the same, but not essentially different either. That clears the way for a toolbox approach.
    “2.It doesn’t work. Ignoring differences actually makes religious conflicts worse.”
    On this point I generally agree with you. Essentialism stops us addressing conditions. But then so does anti-essentialism. Religious conflicts can also, rather obviously, be made worse by emphasising differences that don’t necessarily exist.
    “3.It justifies totalitarianism. Whoever gets to say what is the “essential, shared core” of religions can define competitors out of existence—if that decree is accepted.”
    I know you haven’t given the details on this one yet, but the way you phrase it in your initial summary makes this seem like a weak point reminiscent of Isaiah Berlin and his attacks on positive freedom. This view CAN define competitors out of existence, but it CAN also no doubt be instrumental in positive ways, depending on the circumstances. Pointing out the possibility of abuse, by itself, is not going to convince anyone to give up a view, any more than pointing out that cars can kill people stops people using them for transport. I do think there is an underlying point to be made here about the links between metaphysical views and psychological states that tend to produce conflict, but you can’t helpfully jump straight from the philosophy to the politics without explaining the psychology along the way.
    For my take on much of this material, see http://www.moralobjectivity.net/TwB_Chapter8.html , especially http://www.moralobjectivity.net/TwB_oversold_tolerance.html.

  15. Hallo David

    As a general remark to this discussion.

    You mention that „The Consensus“ might loose its control of the public opinion via the Buddhist dead-tree press because of the blogosphere allowing for greater diversity of voices.

    As you mention the Sri Lankan civil war and Theravada Buddhism taking an aggressive stance there, let me point to another myth of so called ,peaceful buddhism‘ which is tabu to scrutinize for the righteous consensus buddhist. It‘s the myth is about „The Great Fifth“.

    Bob Thurman, calls Tibet the land of „blissful vacation“. „Since 1409, [the Tibetans] where on a blissful vacation […]. They where on a vacation, the whole country – I mean it.“ (in his „Infinite Life“, p. xxi) 1409 is the year of the establishment of the Ganden Monastery by Tsongkhapa. From this monastery the power of the Gelugpa developed until they became the rulers of Tibet by the time of The Great Fifth.

    What Thurman is saying about Tibetan Buddhism is that with the establishment of the Gelugpa as rulers peace was established in Tibet – blissful vacation. The present Dalai Lama is generally backing this view, although he seems to be more differentiating and critical then Thurman. One can have a telling look at the view of the 14th Dalai Lama in Thomas Lairds book „The story of Tibet. Conversations with His Holiness the Dalai Lama“. His argumentation is mainly that there has been a „master plan“ by the Tibetan titulary deity (Chenrezig) for the country by which the power of the Gelugpas was build up and that this struggle for power was by no way something „political“. He also dismisses „western academics“ in a generalizing attitude and accuses them of having „only one perspective, for example the political one from which they draw their conclusions“. (p. 23 in german language edition)

    Now, you mention the book „Buddhist Warfare“ and you mention Foucault‘s insight regarding discourse and power. In the book you mention is a text by Derek Maher, „Sacralized Warfare: The Fifth Dalai Lama and the Discourse of Religious Violence“. This text analyzes the rewriting and reinterpretation of the history of the cruel civil war in Tibet at the time of The Great Fifth – for indeed the was a civil war at this time in the land of blissful vacation – in terms of a grand religious unification.

    What the present Dalai Lama calls the „master plan of Chenrezig for Tibet“ can be seen as such a controlled discourse which in unison with very influential voices like the one from the Bob Thurman formate a certain very very peaceful picture of Tibet which in the end is also influential on all consensus buddhists.

    As we need a greater diversity of voices regarding Consensus Buddhism I would strongly recommend to challenge views like the mentioned ones. It would be good to compare the view of the Dalai Lama, presented by Laird, with, for example, the presentation of Matthew Kapstein in his book „The Tibetans.“ In his discussion in the chapter „The Rule of the Dalai Lamas“ he formulates the view that „it is one of the unfortunate illusions of the Tibetan history that religious tension has too often been taken as the cause , rather than as a symptomatic ideological projection, of the underlying fissures that often afflicted Tibetan society“. (p. 128)

    There is a lot of academic work about tibetan buddhist and general buddhist political, social and economic history – including a discussion of the history of this historiography in itself. The problem is the glossy buddhist magazines seem to have no journalists to break down these academic works to digestible chunks for the general reader – or they have no interest. Either way it is in my opinion a function of the developed consensus buddhist discourse control to not let the peaceful picture get disturbed.

    In my opinion it is a liberating move to challenge such discourses. Maybe the blogosphere is of help here indeed.

    Excuse me for being so long, Matthias

  16. @ David
    I am glad we agree violently! (LOL). The logical issue you put forward confused me a bit, but I think we essentially agree.

    David, one last point (kind of in the vain of Robert Ellis, perhaps). You said,

    It doesn’t work. Ignoring differences actually makes religious conflicts worse.

    I agree that the “All-Religions-Are-One” strategy/view can make matters worse, but it doesn’t have to. I have also seen “ignoring differences” can often help engender tolerance. Like you, I don’t like the strategy, but then, it doesn’t serve me.

    Tom Rees at Epiphenom just reviewed an article that beautifully illustrated a J-curve effect of religiosity in relation to well-being. The “All-Religion-Is-One” stance may help some people crank up their well-being but it may not take their religiosity to an unstable position — at a cost. It all depends which side of the “J” you feel offers more stability or survivability. So there is much more to consider than just the truth of the issue — unfortunately.

  17. The vast majority of Christians Protestant, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic, Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox accept or at least respect the Apostle’s and Nicene creeds as being reflective of their essential beliefs. There are small off shoots or branches, small as compared to the size of the majority that don’t accept parts of those creeds. These are groups like Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Oneness Pentecostals. The include millions of members however. Even liberal Christians technically retain those two creeds on paper.

  18. Well-written, good points, lots of holy cow slaughter, which I love.

    So what conclusion did you draw? Or am I reading your last sentence correctly as a cliff-hanger?

    Cheers,
    Florian

  19. “Clearly there are We-Are-God thinkers in the West, and some consider themselves Christians (even if nearly all Christian theologians disagree). I don’t know any other religions well enough to say whether that is really what Sufis (e.g.) advocate.”

    Sidetrack factoid alert: Al Hallaj was one of the foundational Sufi (martyred) saints. People more familiar than I with the Christian particulars can no doubt elaborate on the general statement: among the traditional religions of the Book, the name for practitioners claiming to be God was ‘heretic’ and the fate was to be murdered, often in imaginatively hideous ways, by orthodox clergy.

  20. Hello Kate,
    From my rather extensive knowledge of Christian history I can say very few if any pantheists were executed by Christians for they weren’t available to be killed.The victims were some of the unconverted polytheists among European pagans. The Saxons in Germany and some Eastern European peoples were objects of crusades and forced conversions. Other pagan peoples converted voluntarily as they decided that Christianity was a better deal than their native religions – eternal life was offered – These included the Celts of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, the Anglo Saxons of England, some of the Nordic groups, the Franks, Magyars and others. The Jews were hit hard, along with Christian sects during the Middle Ages that rebelled against Papl authority were hunted down. Supposed and real witches suffered greatly. The final big push was in the 1500s and 1600s in the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Even the Russian Orthodox did in orthodox believers who refused to accept church ritual changes in the 1600’s. Pantheism simply wasn’t part of the religious thought in that era. I can’t think of any mystics and contemplative types who were killed for having inappropriate pantheistic experiences. Theists who went off the reservation were the ones who got nailed. Perhaps some stubborn atheists died, but I don’t know of any. Rejecting the Trinity was a real no, no. Michael Servetus did so and died in the flames shouting, “Jesus Son of the Eternal God have pity on me”. Spinoza, an out and out pantheist appeared in the 1600s, but he lived in the Netherlands, a more tolerant area. After that pantheism cropped up more and more, but death for religious reasons in Christian areas was subsiding. And there was the mutual slaighter between Moslem and Christian as jihad and crusades went back and forth. The last Moslem attempt to conquer into Europe was stopped at the gates of Vienna in the 1680s. After that the European countries outpaced the Turks in warfare and jihad had to end.
    The Moslems were geographically in a better position to kill pantheist types and did so with Buddhist and Hindus in Asia. There is something called the Hindu Holocaust which took place I believe in the 1500s as Moslems conquered India. Christian and Jews in classic Koranic teaching if they submit and behave themselves are allowed to exist as second class citizens with limited rights under Moslem rule. This is the celebrated historical Moslem tolerance. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have long lists of martyred co-religionists who were slain under Moslem rule for stepping out of line in the eyes of their rulers. The same type of thing happened to Jews. Unrepentant pantheists and polytheists were to be killed, though in practice it wasn’t carried out thoroughly.

  21. David, I think one of the things you are grappling with is the dispute between modernity and postmodernity concerning universals and relativity–for modernism (many perennialists) it is about universals, but for postmodernists there are no universals, just relativity or particularities. But isn’t there truth to both these views?

    One thing I think we need to be careful about is mistaking teachers’ metaphors for their ultimate or formal view. Many people claim that Vedanta is “monistic,” but in truth it is only monistic metaphorically. The earliest, pre-Buddhist Upanishads made this clear, saying things like, “The mind cannot grasp it” and “Through ignorance people identify it with intellect.”

    Shankara, Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta, and many others made it clear that what they were referring to was not literally “oneness,” but simply that the “Self,” “oneness,” and “emptiness” are metaphors or pointers for the absolute truth. Vedanta is in agreement with Buddhism that traditional enlightenment isn’t “oneness” or anything that can be grasped by the mind. This is not one of the differences between Buddhism and Vedanta, as much as some people would like to believe it is.

  22. Some more history. The root of religious freedom in the US isn’t enlightened deists and secularists straightening out benighted Christians. It came from Christian sects and individuals who had been persecuted by the State/Church union in England and Massachusaetts anjd went on to found colonies where they extended the freedom they had been denied to other sects. This was based on their understanding of the New Testament’s teaching to love and respect their neighbors. Roger Williams and Baptists in Rhode Island and William Penn and the Quakers in Pennsylvania are examples. Roger Williams even said he would welcome Muslims if they would live in peace – this was before their final attempt to conquer Vienna. The Quakers of that time would be considered a strain of Evangelicalism now as they were were much more Jesus and Bible oriented than most present day Quakers are.

  23. @ Gottheo
    You said:

    This was based on their understanding of the New Testament’s teaching to love and respect their neighbors.

    I agree that persecuted Christians realized that a government which allowed religious freedom played a large role in securing it in the US government. But it wasn’t based on their understanding of the NT but instead justified using their scriptures. It was based on simple shared common sense insights of both deists, secularists and theists with each of them justifying these insights by whatever they had on hand.

    Just like those trying to secure power in Buddhist circles will use whatever Buddho-lingo or sutras they have on hand to justify their political propensities. I think such moves are based not on trying to follow any scripture but using scriptures to justify their desires.

  24. David – I’m not quite sure what to make of Father Robert Kennedy Roshi. His thinking seems self-contradictory to me, but then again so does a great deal of Christian theology. I happen to be currently engaged in a friendly discussion of Buddhism with a bunch of pretty well-informed Christians, including a Lutheran pastor, and I keep being struck both by the commonalities and by stark differences. You really have to twist your mind into a pretzel to reconcile the notion of an eternal, indivisible, God-created personal soul with anatta, anicca, or sunyata, never even mind the (IMO somewhat irrelevant) idea of a creator-God. Father Kennedy Roshi seems to be just equating sunyata with theosis without explaining how he gets from the one to the other. It makes no sense to me.

    But then people are pretty good at twisting their minds into pretzels. Including yours truly, no doubt.

    As to the bigger picture, I think we’re looking at a stack of different things here. There’s the human need to make sense of our existence, which is, I think, universal across cultures, although it certainly varies between individuals. There are meditative/contemplative techniques, which are somewhat similar in all traditions that practice them, at least at the basic “sit down and shut up” level. Then there are the experiences people get when they practice these techniques, and I think there’s some overlap there too—although there are already pretty big differences as far as I can tell; descriptions of the jhanas and ñanas don’t appear to have all that much in common with descriptions of kensho, or Christian descriptions of theosis, nor do the latter two seem all that similar. There are the interpretations people give these experiences, and the conceptual structures they use to direct them, which are radically divergent, so much so that it’s a bit of a stretch to claim there are any commonalities at all, other than can be accounted for by coincidence or borrowing. And finally there’s the importance given to these experiences in the first place, which varies from “not important at all” or “dangerous and wrong” to “the whole point of the exercise.”

    Many Christians do seem to believe that Zen is pantheistic, and I’ve no doubt some Zennies put it that way too, especially to a Christian audience. I have read some stuff from e.g. Charlotte Joko Beck that comes pretty close to that, as well as Father Kennedy Roshi; but then again I’ve seen it pop up among teachers from other lineages as well, not all of them Zen lineages. For example, it seems the notion of Tathagatagarbha can slide into pantheism fairly easily if you’re not careful, and there’s only a very short leap from pantheism to panentheism, and from that to perennialism. The problem is that when discussing these kinds of concepts, the concepts themselves start to break down at the edges: what do you really mean by ‘God’ or ‘the Ground of all being’ or even a basic notion like ‘awareness’ anyway? (Is a bee aware? A tree? A paramecium? A thermostat?) It’s often not at all easy to understand what, exactly, a teacher is attempting to teach.

    So there’s a huge risk of misunderstanding—of assuming that concept A in Buddhism is ‘the same’ as concept B in Christianity, because of some superficial similarity. And, conversely, it’s possible to communicate some ideas—partially, imperfectly, but when is it ever complete and perfect?—by borrowing a definition from another conceptual structure and using it as a simile or metaphor. So from some point of view and in some context, perhaps ‘God’ is like the ‘Ground of all being,’ although when you look more closely, not really. And perhaps someone who says that ‘God’ is the same as the ‘Ground of all being’ doesn’t quite think so, but is saying so to try to communicate some related idea. Slippery.

    I do think some Buddhist teachers have carried along way too much of their previous baggage, taking a Christian, Judaic, or even scientist/atheist world-view (Stephen Batchelor much?) relabeling the things in it, with perhaps some exotic stuff thrown in for color, and calling that ‘Buddhism’. But I’m not so sure if you can pin that down to a particular tradition or lineage rather than particular teachers. I seem to come across that sort of thing from all over the place every once in a while. Especially in ‘Consensus Buddhism,’ which is admirably ecumenical.

    Zen has the additional complication that it isn’t very doctrinal compared to most other Buddhist traditions, and there’s a great deal of diversity between teachers even within lineages. This makes it very hard to pin down exactly what one lineage teaches as doctrine as opposed to another lineage. Differences between practices are easier to point out—Rinzai does koan practice, Soto does not, that sort of thing. I think this is at the same time a strength and a weakness of Zen—a strength because it lets teachers speak to different students from within whatever conceptual framework the student happens to be in and gives them the freedom to teach in whatever way suits them best, and a weakness because it makes it that much more difficult to call bullshit.

    This got a bit long. Sorry about that.

  25. @Robert – In this piece I’m concentrating on differences rather than similarities because I’m arguing against a movement that does the opposite. If instead it were a general discussion of the diversity of Buddhisms, then I agree it would be right to consider both.

    Re point 3, in my next post I suggest that “all Buddhisms are essentially the same” has been used to define competitors out of existence; so this is not a weak hypothetical.

    I liked your “oversold tolerance” piece a lot. Regarding your Chapter 8 precis: I haven’t had a chance to read beyond that summary page, but I have become skeptical about “universal Buddhism”. Maybe my upcoming post on Joseph Goldstein’s One Dharma will start to show why.

    @Matthias – Yes, Robert Thurman has perpetrated some highly misleading propaganda. The Great Fifth’s civil war was notable; and there were several other large-scale violent conflicts in Tibet in the past few centuries, plus systematic oppressive violence against ordinary people by the elite (including the religious elite).

    @Sabio – In the OP, I wrote ” ‘All religions are essentially the same’ works until two come into direct conflict.”

    Interesting J-curve article. I think I personally manage to hit the minimum pretty nicely!

    @Florian / Monkey Mind – My conclusion is that “all religions are essentially the same” is untrue and counter-productive and should be abandoned in favor of “all religions may have something of value, but to avoid conflict we need to understand how the specifics of their principles and functions.”

    @David – can you give a reference for this non-monist interpretation of Advaita? I’m not familiar with it.

    @Petteri – Thanks for a thoughtful reply. Probably we’re thinking along similar lines here.

    “Father Kennedy Roshi seems to be just equating sunyata with theosis without explaining how he gets from the one to the other. It makes no sense to me.”

    Nor to me! But he is an authorized Sanbo Kyodan teacher. And this line seems to be taken by quite a few Sanbo Kyodan folks. He’s probably at one end of a slippery slope that you sketch, from Tathagatagarbha to pantheism to panentheism to perennialism to a generic personal God to just plain Christianity. My impression is that Sanbo Kyodan teachers are all along that spectrum. Now, that might not be what Yasutani intended, and it might not be the current official position of Sanbo Kyodan headquarters, but in the lineage (an unusually diffuse one), it seems that all these things are taught.

    Also, I do suspect that this was at least tacitly encouraged by the lineage founders, who I suspect drew on the perennialism of D.T. Suzuki and the Kyoto School, and who particularly sought to teach Christian ministers.

  26. David – Thanks, that sounds quite plausible to me. Truth be told, I haven’t been paying particular attention to what’s being taught by other Sanbo Kyodan teachers or lineages than the one I’m involved with; as you certainly know, Philip Kapleau broke with Yasutani Roshi before receiving full transmission, and that branch has been going its own way since then. Plus it has changed a good deal from the time Kapleau Roshi got Rochester Zen Center going, too. Less kensho-centric, for one thing. Less picky about who they agree to teach, for another.

    I honestly don’t know if Sanbo Kyodan HQ—or even Rochester Zen Center—has an official position about this. Zen lineages don’t seem to work that way. They just recognize a teacher and then let them run loose. Sometimes it doesn’t work out very well, sometimes it does. There aren’t any mechanisms around to bring rogue teachers back in line AFAICT, whether it’s on matters of behavior or of teaching. Therefore all the grief about Genpo Roshi and Eido Tai Shimano, for example.

    It just occurred to me that Father Kennedy Roshi is a Catholic priest, which means that he must be comfortable with the mental gymnastics involved in getting to grips with transubstantiation. If you’re able to do that, getting from sunyata to theosis ought to be small potatoes!

  27. David, while I appreciate the intention of your effort here, I’m not sure much progress is possible toward a goal of tolerance based on the acceptance of religious differences. For most believers, religious difference is intolerable. If I believe we all worship the same God, only in different ways, I can forgive other religionists their apparent peccedillos. This is the basis of the rough ecumenism that has prevailed in the US over most of the last century. If I don’t believe this, then other religions are wrong, even dangerous. At best your religion is leading you to disfavor with God, and I should do whatever I can to convert you; at worst you are an enemy of God and his true religion (mine), and pretty much anything I might do to you in defence of the Truth is justified. “All religions are really the same” isn’t meant to stand up to intellectual scrutiny — it’s a mental fig leaf that allows believers to avoid examining religious differences and thus avoid their intolerability.

  28. mknick wrote what I was trying to say, but much better. Yet David rightly points out that his OP admits that the ” ‘All religions are essentially the same’ works until two come into direct conflict.”

    So it seems mknick and I misse that “It Works” aspect in the OP. But if it works sometimes and not others, and as mknick says “They are all different” works sometimes and not others. How are we to know which view to cheer for?

  29. The Dalai Lama said something astute about combining Christianity and Buddhism. He said something like it was putting a yak’s head on a sheep or vice versa.

  30. A New Testament based Christian believes it’s God’s prerogative to judge and the believer’s responsibility is to love and live in peace with those who don’t see things the way he or she does, and that all issues and differences will be resolved in the end by God. The Christian is free to respectively express his viewpoint and opinions. At times verbal rebuke is appropriate and separation in friendship and fellowship may have to happen, but anything beyond that is going over the line, except when one is physically defending himself or others from attack. If Christians had held to these simple principles as they did in the first three centuries of Christianity history would be very different, but political and social power went to their heads as is common to humanity.

  31. David C.: “@David – can you give a reference for this non-monist interpretation of Advaita? I’m not familiar with it.”

    R. V. Murti goes into it at length in his book The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of the Madhyamika System. The best one-stop, in-a-nut-shell source is probably footnote 1 of Chapter 14 in Wilber’s Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, in which he quotes Murti at length. I will quote a passage from Murti, glossing (in brackets) some of the same things that Wilber glossed in the footnote:

    “Both [Advaita Vedanta and Yogachara/Vijnanavada] reach advaitism [nondualism]–the advaita of Pure Being (Brahman) and the advayata of Pure Consciousness (vijnapti-matrata) by rejecting appearance through dialectical methods–through negation. Their Absolutes partake of the form of the Madhyamika Sunyata in being transcendent to thought and being accessible only to non-empirical Intuition [prajna, jana]. They also have recourse to the two truths [absolute and relative]. . . .

    “[Thus] in the Madhyamika, Vijnanavada, (Consciousness-only), and Vedanta systems, the absolute is non-conceptual and non-empirical (perceived with the eye of contemplation, not merely with the eye of the mind or the eye of the flesh). It is realized in a transcendent, non-dual experience, variously called by them prajna-paramita, lokotarra-jnana, and aporoksanubhuti respectively. All emphasize the inapplicability of empirical determinations to the absolute, and employ the language of negation. They are all agreed on the formal aspect of the Absolute (i.e. it’s strict unqualifialibility with merely phenomenal categories).

    “However, the Vedanta and Vijnannavada identify the absolute with something that is experienced in some form even empirically–the Vedanta with Pure Being which is Atman and the Vijnanavada with Consciousness. Taking these as real, they try to remove the wrong ascriptions which make the absolute appear as a limited thing. When, however, the atman or vijnana is absolute, it is a misuse of words to continue to call it by such terms; for there is no other from which it could be distinguished. They are also [at this point] reduced to [and agree with] the Madhyamika position of the Absolute as utterly inexpressible. Words can only be used metaphorically to indicate it.’ ” (SES, p. 724-5, Murti, p. 59 and 236)

    The keys are really: 1) the beginning of the last paragraph, when he explains how in Vedanta and Yogacharra/Vijnannavada they use a metaphor like “Being” as the *path* but not to describe the ultimate realization; and 2) the very end, when he says, “Words can only be used metaphorically to indicate it.”

    The Upanishads made it clear that it had nothing to do with an intellectual idea, and you can also see it in the teachings of people like Ramana Maharshi, who said things like:

    “Dvaita [duality] and advaita [nonduality] are relative terms. . . . They are based on the sense of duality.”

    And:

    “There is neither dvaita nor advaita.”

    And:

    That it is neither “sat [being] nor asat [nonbeing].” But then he would explain why he preferred “sat” as a metaphor.

    http://bhagavan-ramana.org/ramana_maharshi/books/tw/tw433.html

  32. Gotheo, you wrote: “If Christians had held to these simple principles as they did in the first three centuries of Christianity history would be very different, but political and social power went to their heads as is common to humanity.”

    I think that’s a good point. My suspicion is that something very similar happened in the transformation of Buddhism in Tibet during the New Translation period when the temporal power shifted from Kings to Monastic lineages. I’m not a scholar but my impression is that, perhaps similar to pre-Imperial Christianity, in which there seems to have been many Christian sects with a huge variety of creeds and practices, the early phase of Buddhism in Tibet was characterized by loose, decentralized lineages of Tantric practice including proto-dzogchen as an esoteric trump of Tantra, probably with a lot of overlap with indigenous shamanisms, and perhaps other things as well.

    My sense is that this heterogeneous expanse of Buddhist and para-Buddhist lineages were often embodied in family lines (common to shamanism, now that I think of it, including adoption perhaps? “Heart sons and daughters”?) since the Dzogchen-Mahayoga-Shamanic synthesis had no monastic (or for that matter, Sutric) element involved, while the later transmission brought a (generally more conventional) Tantric-Sutric hybrid that had evolved in the intervening centuries in India, embodied in large monastic orders.

    It’s interesting to consider the effect of different forms of social structure on doctrine and practice. It seems like many religions start with the idea that the new doctrine, experience or method will transform social structures (and that does happen), but causality seems to flow inexorably in the other direction when a sect achieves a certain degree of centralized politico-economic power.

    Maybe I’m just an anarchist, but I suspect the problem is less with some essential “human nature” and the supposed failings thereof and more with certain systemic distortions of experience, communication and power which arise with social structures of a certain scope. Perhaps a soft form of these distortions is what the Consensus is slowly waking up to in itself?

  33. @Sabio

    With Roger Williams and Rhode Island,1642 I believe, deists and secularists hadn’t come yet on the scene to “share common sense insights with”. The Quakers appeared around the same time, along with the original English Baptists. Their advocacy of individual conscience and religious freedom came about from their understanding and application of the New Testament. They took to a logical conclusion what Luther had started in the Reformation. Luther had drawn back from these conclusions and backed have only one controlling protestant church in an area for the sake of order. Yes, by the 1700s with the arrival of deists and secularists like Jefferson it was a common sense shared insight.

  34. @ mknick & Sabio – Well… there are no guarantees. There is no method that will definitely avoid a holy war if people really, really want to slaughter each other. Generally, pretending to be nice is probably effective if both sides don’t really want to slaughter each other. If there’s a serious conflict, trying to understand the other side might avert war.

    But, I’m not actually trying to develop a detailed, empirically-grounded, generalized theory here. I’m developing the point as background for analyzing the specific case of Consensus Buddhism pretending that all Asian Buddhisms are essentially the same.

    @ David – Ah, I see, thank you… Wilber is explicitly a perennialist, and I believe he distorts Buddhism accordingly. I haven’t read Murti. Scholars I respect say that he misunderstood Madhyamaka, coming from an Advaita background. Vijñanavada/Yogacara/Cittamatra is clearly monist, and is rejected by all Tibetan Buddhists (including me).

    This stuff is so abstract, obscure, and difficult that arguing about it on the web is unlikely to clarify anything.

    @ jake – Yes, I have thought along similar lines, both with regards to the First Spread vs. Second Spread in Tibet and contemporary Buddhist developments in America. With regard to Tibet, Naljorpa Ögyen Dorje and I have been writing about this at http://ngakpa-update.org/ . Interestingly, there’s a new flowering of Tantra in Tibet now as a direct result of the destruction of monastic institutional power by the Chinese, and this is being referred to there as the Third Spread!

  35. @David: you wrote “Interestingly, there’s a new flowering of Tantra in Tibet now as a direct result of the destruction of monastic institutional power by the Chinese, and this is being referred to there as the Third Spread!”

    Fascinating! I hadn’t heard that, but it certainly bolsters the hypothesis. I’ll check out your link, thanks– and thanks for your work here generally. I think it’s important to really engage these kinds of issues and mainstream Dharma scenes can be very anti-intellectual (at least in America, as I’ve encountered them)— which in itself is a good trick for suppressing dissent.

  36. Antonio Terrone’s recent PhD thesis about contemporary ngakpa tertons in Amdo is fascinating on that. Ögyen Dorje and I both want to write reviews of it, and unfortunately neither of us has had time.

    Anti-intellectual: yes; but also the opposite tendency can be found, usually in the more traditionally Tibetan circles. I.e. the valuing of esoteric conceptual trivia over real-world application.

  37. Hi David, thanks for the clarification.

    Here’s the thing: how are you going to get the rabid fundamentalists and the jaded masses to make the effort of seeing the other fellow’s perspective? Preventing holy wars must involve these parties.

    What you are proposing requires a huge amount of maturity, from both the individuals and the societies in question, and frankly, I don’t think you can count on that at all, it’s simply not there. I’m not seeing the internet trolls and popes and tv pastors and settler rabbis and chauvinist monks and literalist imams of this world reading your blog and agreeing to walk a few miles in their enemy’s shoes. Much less their followers, for that matter.

    Your essay is good theoretical groundwork, I grant you that. So, what’s the next step? How to make it real?

    Cheers,
    Florian

  38. Gottheo,
    You wrote that it is God’s perogative to judge. God is not doing that job. We humans have a collective life here on earth. That means lots of decisions have to be made. Not all of them are as important as others. But some are red button issues for lots of people. These issues are different depending where in the world you live.
    Like it or not there are people everywhere in the world that think that some issues are so damned imporant that they are worth risking your life for, and killing for. God does not step in the settle these human conflicts. God does not do so for a very good reason. Which ever side God ruled against would have the leadership of that side saying that this ruling proves that the person who made is a Satanic Demon not God and the ruling is not valid.
    A braver soul might say, “And who the fuck elected you God?”
    Now of course Christians would point out that God is not an elected position. But what makes Gods judgements any more valid than say Tom Fontana’s or the Cohen Brothers or Sabio’s?
    If the aledged answer is that becasue God is the Creator a answer has been given that still depends on value judgements. I say that because God is the Creator he is prohibited from passing judgement because he is not an independent judger. Can God be all knowing and all Good because God says so? To me the answer is that God and Satan are one in the same only wearing different costumns. That is what the story of Abraham preparing to sacrific his son teaches me. Now God could come and say, Well fuck you that is not what lessons that I meant to impart by that story you ungrateful idiot. But then as God he would know that I am telling the truth so God is screwed not me.
    Everyone should figure out what line that they will not cross for God because in the end God will ask them to cross it. Sadly by then they may be boxed in to a corner and believe that the only way forward is to cross that line. Or perhaps happily they will figure out that they should have crossed that line long ago because the way that they had been thinking was vastly outdated.
    Is it Satan tempting me? Is it God leading me? Do I do what I think is best for me, my immediate family, my extended family, my clan, my tribe, my race, my nation, my planet?
    All this before we even get to the problem of whether or not free will is real or an illusion.
    In the end how can we live peacefully in a world with 7 billion people in which so many of them are idiots and criminals? Governments and large NGOs, mostly corporations have the power to take actions which threaten the lives of vast numbers of people. Prudent preemptive action is sometimes a neccessary action. Yet the fact that preemptive action is sometimes neccessary will be used by powerful people to justify reckless selfserving action. The heads of most people will be spinning because they will not be able to tell the difference. More than likely they will give THEIR governmental leaders the benifit of the doubt. Gods Kingdom will never reign here on earth. Normal humans might be able to do a better job anyways with the right leadership.
    The trinity Me, Myself and I.

  39. DC: “I haven’t read Murti. Scholars I respect say that he misunderstood Madhyamaka, coming from an Advaita background. ”

    Murti argues in his book that Madhyamika could “serve as a possible basis for a world-culture,” so he didn’t strike me as having a bias against Buddhism. I think, at any rate, we would need more than a Hindu background to dismiss him. If not, we would likewise be able to dismiss anyone with a background in any religion from commenting on another, wouldn’t we? I think in order to dismiss someone or an idea, we need strong evidence to back up that dismissal.

    DC: “Vijñanavada/Yogacara/Cittamatra is clearly monist, and is rejected by all Tibetan Buddhists (including me).”

    It’s only monistic metaphorically. Only their signifiers are monistic. But we need to understand that ALL signifiers are dualistic, including “emptiness.” That is the point of the Middle Way–that emptiness is beyond all words, beyond all descriptions. including that of emptiness.

    This is from the Yogacara treatise Madyantavibagha:

    “Therefore it is stated that all entities are neither empty nor non-empty
    Because of existence, because of non-existence, and again because of existence. And this is the Middle Path.” (M.V.I.2

    So, “neither empty nor non-empty”–beyond all descriptions or signifiers; that is the Middle Way. I think what some people see as reification in Yogacara is the way they take pains to differentiate their view from nihilism.

    The following quotation from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains how the Yogacaran Vasabundha was not really an idealist or a monist using similar reasoning as Murti:

    “Behind both of these levels, however, there is an important sense in which Vasubandhu is not really an idealist. Like all Mahāyāna Buddhists, Vasubandhu believes that whatever can be stated in language is only conventional, and therefore, from an ultimate perspective, it is mistaken. Ultimate reality is an inconceivable “thusness” (tathatā) that is perceived and known only by enlightened beings. Ultimately, therefore, the idea of “mind” is just as mistaken as are ordinary “external objects.” For this reason, we can say that Vasubandhu is an idealist, but only in the realm of conventions. Ultimately, he affirms ineffability. . . .

    “We can take two important lessons from this. First, representation-only cannot be the ultimate truth. If Vasubandhu were affirming the ultimate reality of the “mind-only” causal story that brings about appearances, or the appearances themselves (levels 2 and 1, respectively), then he would surely have said so in response to the charge of self-referential, nihilistic incoherence. Instead, his argument adverts to another level for ultimate reality. Madhyamaka critics of Yogācāra have made much of the notion that the latter have reified the mind and made it a new “ultimate.”[46] Yet Vasubandhu’s position is clearly intended to elude such a critique.”

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/vasubandhu/#ConOveVasIde

    DC: “Wilber is explicitly a perennialist, and I believe he distorts Buddhism accordingly.”

    In what way does he distort Buddhism? I don’t think calling him a “perennialist” is accurate. His book Integral Spirituality was written in large part to differentiate his view from the perennialist view. It is different in a number of ways.

    I think your objection seems to be that he wants to include modernist views on spirituality to a degree, or say that we can’t bracket out the idea of universals entirely. Modernism (such as perennialism) wants to say there are nothing but universal phenomena; postmodernism wants to say there is nothing but relativity or cultural construction; Wilber says they both have some validity.

  40. Hey everybody – are you commenting on the same blog post as I am?

    Remember? The post about not getting all excited and personal about the fact that religious doctrines tend to differ on fundamental levels?

    Monkey Mind (delighted at the intricacies under scrutiny in the comments)
    Florian (almost speechless)

  41. I think David-plain (not David-Chapman) is illustrating two important points in relation to this post, whether he is right or wrong.

    (1) Sometimes, what appears different, may not be as different as we imagine. Just because someone states a philosophical point a certain way, may not reflect how it fits in their system as a whole or how they are actually using it.

    (2) Declaring religions to different can be used just as devisively as declaring them to be the same.

    Further, I think David-plain is rightfully calling David Chapman on perhaps being a bit too quick of a dismisal of Murti — again, irrespective of being correct or not.

  42. @ Florian (8:30 a.m. post) – Hmm. I haven’t promised to solve the problem of religious conflict! In this post, I only suggest that pretending it doesn’t exist, doesn’t help. In an earlier post, I suggested that using debate to understand religious differences may help.

    I doubt there is any “solution” in the sense of “if we do X, then there won’t be any more conflict”. There’s lots of things that can be done to lessen conflict; but generally they are outside the scope of this series.

    @ David & Sabio – Generally, perennialists believe that Advaita is essentially the same as Madhyamaka. Generally, Buddhists believe that they are entirely different.

    I don’t want to have a substantive argument about that here, because it’s off-topic, and a big job, and you can find it elsewhere on the net, and I’ve not seen it clarify the matter for the participants.

  43. Hi David,

    Apologies if I came across as an all-or-nothing kind of guy. I’m perfectly at ease with the idea that religious conflicts won’t vanish once and for all, and I’m very happy for even small decreases in religiously motivated conflict.

    I also see your point about the differences between religions, and how glossing over them doesn’t help at all.

    I’m just not getting the connection between the two. And the comments so far don’t exhibit it either to any great extent: Instead of an open flame war about doctrinal differences, I now see a silent struggle for “best understanding of the doctrinal differences”. It seems that the conflict can be had at any level of abstraction here. But it’s a slight improvement, so I’m happy for that.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

    Cheers,
    Florian

  44. Hi, David.

    Well, I don’t think it was off-topic–there was much in the blog about the similarity or non similarity between different Buddhist schools and other mystical traditions–but I agree we’ve milked it for all it’s worth now.

    One thing I will just say in closing is that I think it would be helpful to have an interpretive frame with which to understand better and differentiate better among all the different phenomena we are studying.

    It doesn’t have to be Wilber’s model, but I will just mention that to illustrate the point. He differentiates between levels, lines, quadrants, states, types. This can be illuminating because I have often seen people, discussing the same topic, think they are seeing differences in states or levels when really they are seeing differences in type or line or quadrant.

    I think there sometimes are differences in states and levels, but it would be helpful to be able to pin point just what those differences are. In order to do that we need to see what isn’t state specific; that is, what is merely cultural, cognitive or interpretive, a perspectival difference, a level difference, etc.

  45. http://www.skeptiko.com/buddhist-meditation-teacher-shinzen-young-on-god/

    Here’s a clip of Shinzen Young having a go at wading through the murk of God/Buddhism/atheism. One of the things that caught my ear was that Buddhism is not ‘atheist’ in the way that someone whose cultural reference was theistic can become oppositionally atheist. There’s not the same sense of being embattled. Something about that makes sense to me, even as I feel uneasy about hearing teachers say. “No self, true self; God, Nirvana– same thing.”

    Shinzen is admirably methodical, as well as unruffled.

  46. @ Kate,
    Thank you for pointing to the Shinzen interview (done by Alex Tsakiris):

    Alex Tsakiris is palatably, deeply woo. However, I found great resonance with Shinzen Young.

    Tsakiris clearly wanted to attack atheism, Young tenderly showed Tsakiris that his simple woo mission was mistaken. He did that by discussing the goals of Buddhism, and the classical Buddhist denials of the common usages of the word “God”. But he didn’t go all the way to spelling out for Tsakiris. But it was clear that Young felt that he felt that simple attacks on Atheism are mistaken.

    But, Young did say things which may contradict David Chapman’s claims: different mystical experiences may be similar though they use completely different philosophical models to discuss them. Indeed, some of what Young said, sounded close to what David-no-name, said above in the comments. This aspect is still fuzzy for me.

    Young kept telling Tsakiris that paradox is clearer when we point back to experience instead of cognating. Tsakiris said his goal to do it intellectually and not experientially. I thought that tension was informative.

    Tsakiris closing podcast wrap-up was again to put down Atheism, and I am not sure if he understood Shinzen’s attempts to correct his views.

    I think Shinzen made an important mistake when he said, “And when a person contacts it [“the Source”], it fulfills all the things that people would want from God.”

    I think we have lots of evidence of that people do lots of things with their “God” and some of them destructive and horrific. They want their “God” to give them identity, good health, material success, victory for their country, separation from other groups, and a flag to say “I am a good person”. Sure, there are many more benign uses of “God”: Some use their “God” to try and make themselves a better person. Some use their “God” to have mystical experiences. There is not ONE thing people want from “God” (as Shinzen implied — and David’s theme may be applied here too perhaps). I think Shinzen would agree agree with me on this objection thought his words spoke differently. However, his conversation with Tsakiris did not go that way because Shinzen was not trying to have that interaction. We have to choose our battles, eh?

    Just my thoughts.

  47. Since we’re on the subject of God. Is Theism a primal intuition of humanity to be properly developed and deepened or a primal delusion to be left behind? Below is part of an interview done by Science and Spirit with Olivera Petrovich, an experimental psychologist at Oxford. It concerns a study she did on the development of spirituality in children.

    Olivera Petrovich: I am currently with the Experimental Psychology Department at Oxford University, where I research and tutor in developmental psychologist. I also lecture in psychology of religion at Oxford — my course is open to theology, philosophy, and psychology students.
    S&S: Your research interests lie in the psychology of religion, focusing especially on the development of spirituality in children. How do you go about it?
    Petrovich: My approach to this is very strictly empirical. It begins with children’s accounts of the physical world — notably their causal explanations and the way they categorize objects and events around them. I’m interested in children’s spirituality as it develops in their encounter with the physical world, not through the teaching they may receive in bible classes and so on. I’m not at all looking at the cultural transmission of spirituality.
    S&S: You recently conducted cross-cultural studies involving British and Japanese children. What were the aims — and the findings — of this research?
    Petrovich: I was really interested in children’s ability to offer both scientific causal explanations and metaphysical explanations, which go beyond the scientific. Japanese culture is very different from Western culture with a very different history of science and religious tradition. So I thought I should be able to get some interesting comparisons between Japanese and Western children.
    I tested both the Japanese and British children on the same tasks, showing them very accurate, detailed photographs of selected natural and man-made objects and then asking them questions about the causal origins of the various natural objects at both the scientific level (e.g. how did this particular dog become a dog?) and at the metaphysical level (e.g. how did the first ever dog come into being?). With the Japanese children, it was important to establish whether they even distinguished the two levels of explanation because, as a culture, Japan discourages speculation into the metaphysical, simply because it’s something we can never know, so we shouldn’t attempt it. But the Japanese children did speculate, quite willingly, and in the same way as British children. On forced choice questions, consisting of three possible explanations of primary origin, they would predominantly go for the word “God,” instead of either an agnostic response (e.g., “nobody knows”) or an incorrect response (e.g., “by people”). This is absolutely extraordinary when you think that Japanese religion — Shinto — doesn’t include creation as an aspect of God’s activity at all. So where do these children get the idea that creation is in God’s hands? It’s an example of a natural inference that they form on the basis of their own experience. My Japanese research assistants kept telling me, “We Japanese don’t think about God as creator — it’s just not part of Japanese philosophy.” So it was wonderful when these children said, “Kamisama! God! God made it!” That was probably the most significant finding.
    I’ve also established that children’s natural concepts of God aren’t purely anthropomorphic. They certainly acquire a conception of God-as-man through their religious education, but no child actually links the representation of, for example, God-as-Jesus with the creator of the world. Rather, their images of God the creator correspond to abstract notions like gas, air, and person without a body.

  48. @ Gottheo
    Getting back to David Chapman’s theme: I think it is clear that, though using a similar word “God”, people could mean completely different things. Thus it is often important to illustrate their differences, rather than assume similarity. “Kami” in Japanese culture is no where close to Judeo-Islamo-Christiano notions of “God” and thus I feel the translation is very misleading.

  49. How does proving or believing God created something change anything for anyone?
    God created it. That is like adding a Zero to any equation. That is something I learned
    when I was attending Unitarian Universalist meetings many years ago and it still seems
    spot on.

    What is the implication, that we are all suppised to bow down in awe because God created it?
    Is the implication that we have to follow the 10 commandments becasue God said so?
    These are questions that are obvious to even a Private E1 Buddhist. Yet such questions do not even seem to occur to the Generals of Christianity. That is why I have a
    special fondness for Buddhism.

    It seems to me in the end that all of the liberal interpretations of Judism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism leave one with no moral certianities. There is a palate of vague moral rules that one can pick an chose from to address any situation.

    People have a clear and unambiguous choice. They can choose to follow liberal ethical guidelines that are vague and uncertain or they can chose conservative guidelines which are very specific about what should be done and are also usually just plain wrong.

    Wrong!! How in the hell can any conservative guidline be called wrong when there is no independent criteria on what is right?

    Ok allow me to restate it this way:
    People have a clear an unambiguous choice. They can chose to follow lberal ethical guidlelines which are vague and uncertian or they can choose conservative guidlines which I seldom like because they are inconvient and do not provide me with any benifits as far as I can tell. Conservative ethics may help some people but often at the (greater) expense of others.*

    Hey I just figured out that is a long way of saying that prople can choose to be like me or they can chose not to be like me, Can they…….can we, live with the consequences of that choice?
    :) :( :
    *I do not think that I need to document that to the audiance that reads David Chapman’s blogs.

  50. To David writing:

    I think the Four Extremes (eternalism, nihilism, monism, dualism) are all wrong, for reasons that have nothing to do with “Buddhism”. I think “Buddhism” is unique among major religions and philosophies in that its mainstream generally denies all four. That is part of why I think “Buddhism” is important, despite being ill-defined and having many dubious aspects.

    It’s a little simplistic calling each of the extremes “all wrong”. In fact, the extremes exist with such evident principle and function because of perfectly valid experiences that can and do justify their sometimes being “right”, being an experience you can actually have. What makes them isms is actually what makes them wrong, that is – being held, any one of them, to the exclusion and rejection of the others. So if I’m eternalistic, then no matter how you relate to me an experience of meaninglessness, I simply can’t see that, and I feel compelled to project some cosmic meaning onto that.

    So I wouldn’t exactly say that buddhism denies all four, as if there were a fifth option which is looking pretty good around now. It’s more like buddhism doesn’t deny that each extreme is a perfectly valid experience that one can have, *and* it doesn’t deny the paradox that this creates, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel – that paradox, with our neurotic reaction to it and all, is seen as a portal to the enlightened state, which is dissappointingly (to many of us) remarkably like this very moment including it’s paradoxically coemergent non-dual experiences, and however we feel about that (whatever we add to the core wordless experience of all that).

  51. I get the gist of what you are saying here, and also in the post on the alleged ‘universal experiences’ of enlightenment or mystical awakening. I am familiar with other criticisms of perennialism and universalism, from Steven Katz and R C Zaehner, both of whom were very critical of such ideas, for slightly different reasons.

    But I still maintain there is a sense in which there is a universal truth both in religious and mystical experiences. The difficulty is that it is extremely simple, or even primitive, and does not lend itself to explication or analysis. So why say anything? you might reply. Well, The Buddha is said to have deliberated long and hard before deciding to say anything. Maybe this is because he foresaw that whatever he said would be ‘turned into a religion’, or used as a topographic map of the elephant, to mangle a metaphor. Similarly with Ramana Maharishi, great sage of the last century. He was completely silent for 20 years before teaching anything to anyone, and even after he started to speak he often insisted that his main teaching method was silence, a fact to which many of his disciples would testify. Hence also the frequent antipathy between mystics and ‘organized religions’ which has been especially antagonistic in Islam and Christianity, but I would guess is also one of the conflicts behind ‘monasticism v tantrism’ in Tibet.

    At the end of the day, this is why studying these things, as distinct from engaging with them for one’s own edification, can become another tarpit, to use one of your own expressions! Life is only so long, and as the Buddha is reported to have said, the opportunity to glimpse the truth that he spoke of does not come around often.

  52. Yes, I think it is important to maintain a balance between practice and study.

    At different times, I’ve leaned too far one way or the other, both of which can be problematic.

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