This blog is a critique of what I term x-buddhism. Why don’t I just say “Buddhism”? Here’s my thinking.
“Buddhism” suggests an abstract, and abstractly static, One. A study of this One would show it to be of the (abstract) type of cultural-doctrinal systems (religion, philosophy, mythology) that claim grand authority concerning human knowledge. “X-buddhism” means to capture a crucial fact about “Buddhism,” the abstract One: it loops incessantly.
We could study the x. Such a study would be historical and comparative. We could compile a descriptive catalogue of Buddhist schools from a (atheist) through m (Mahayana) to z (Zen), graphing their relations and tracing their divergences. In so doing, we would discover differences concerning, for instance, each x‘s version of the means and end of the One’s grand authority. From such a study we would begin to see that the One, Buddhism, breeds infinite interpretation not only of the world, but of itself. Hence, Buddhism splinters into unending modifiers, x.
Yet, this same study of protean variation would inhabit clues as to the function producing such difference-of-the-same. (After all, each modifier indicates membership in a single set: Buddhism.) My critique stems from the function of the same—from the identifying mark of the set as a whole. “X-buddhism” thus intends to capture the fact that the One is indeed a unity, but a splintered unity, a pluralized singular. Abstract and inert “Buddhism” devolves to the concrete and spirited interpretive communities of limitless “x-buddhisms.”
Devolvement ensures replication. And, indeed, what we find in each and every x is the sign of the One. Following the work of François Laruelle, I call this sign decision. My contention is that we can trace the authority of each x back to a simple yet powerful syntactic operation, an operation that is embedded in, indeed, constitutes, the abstract One. In short, decision functions as an algorithm of infinite iterations (x) of the One (“The Dharma;” “Buddhism”). That is the general sense of the term “x-buddhism.”
X-buddhism runs the alphabet, and includes classical and contemporary forms. Commonly known forms include the Zens/Chans/Sons, Tibetan this-and-that, the Nichirens, the Pure Landers, the Theravadins, madhyamakas, foresters, and, more recently, atheist, agnostic, secular, The Mindful Ones, progressive, progressive, and the posts-. You get the idea. So rather than categorize x-buddhism by name, I use the following designations throughout the blog. Here’s a rough run-down.
- Accommodationists. Writers, teachers, etc., in this vein know better, but let be. That is, their rhetoric suggests avenues of critique or even contradiction; yet, they leave these pathways unexplored. Why? In order to preserve the x-buddhist status quo.
- Apologists. For whatever reasons, these figures seek to have x-buddhist teachings, theories, practices, etc., come out on top—always. Thus, they act in defense of x-buddhism. Quite often, they must resort to logical contortions and, more seriously, omission of contrary evidence. But not always, of course; sometimes they do indeed correct misunderstandings and misrepresentations.
- Comparativists. They have proficient knowledge of other teachings and systems, as well as a robust interest in the x-buddhist versions of whatever it is they are treating. And they use this knowledge to illuminate via contrasts and comparisons.
- Conservatives. They are disposed toward the status quo—of whatever school/text/practice/community/ institution/teacher, etc., they hold sacred. And they do tend to hold it all sacred. Everything in the universe changes except, of course, whatever the conservative x-buddhist holds dear.
- Constructivists. They seek effective application of x-buddhist teachings and practices, yet often recognize the need for adaptation and innovation. Such writers and teachers are less concerned with upholding tradition than with finding new applications of tradition.
- Critics. They offer insightful queries, which, given the nature of criticism, often threaten fissure. They are not concerned with ameliorating this fissure.
- Fundamentalists. They are the gardes suisses at x-buddhism’s holy vallation. Their reasoning for, say, the truth of rebirth, is hyper-precise. They are master exemplifiers. Scripture, after all, is always on their side, even when it isn’t. And how they know their scripture! Thumpers here to put Stomp! to shame. Sutta-thumpers, sutra-thumpers, Shobogenzo-thumpers, Lotus-sutra-thumpers–thumpin’ their way to certainty—messy reality be damned!
- Interpreters. They explain, clarify, expound on the teachings of the literary conceit known as “the Buddha.” They make it all make sense, even when it doesn’t. They tend to be benign. They value description over analysis, since the latter, done well, veers toward the dark depths of critique.
- Post-traditionalists. Like traditionalists, they uphold the values gleaned from the Asian dispensation of x-buddhism. However, they seek a renovation of the archaisms and (certain) superstitions favored by their Asian patriarchs. They do not want a new house, only a freshly painted one with, perhaps, a modern kitchen.
- Secularists. They claim the values of modern scientific methodology, such as evidence-based claims, critical thinking, rigorous debate, and the light of reason. But they hesitate to test their cherished beliefs against these values. They do do so; but not too robustly, lest the house collapse. While respecting tradition, they seek a contemporary application. Yet, what they have produced is just the same old thing.
- Traditionalists. They are committed to the forms—doctrines, practices, beliefs, etc.— that are preserved in Asian institutional structures. Some of these structures are of ancient or medieval origin, some are modern. They espouse pre-scientific worldviews. They axiomatically adhere to archaic cosmologies. They often believe in a world animated by spirits and hidden forces. They know no other possibility.
- True Believers. They raise the (western) x-buddhist banner. They heart Buddhism, though “Buddhism” is always proscribed by their particular school. Some true believers, of course, literally love all things Buddhists. This person, I think, is a peculiarly recent, North American type. They subscribe to some version of “One Dharma,” and are desirous of finding unity in diversity.
Each of these categories is easily coupled with others. For instance, comparative work may be done with an apologetic intent; interpretive work, in the search for new constructions. Someone may be doing three or four things at once. An awareness of variegated strategies and intentions will prevent us from too quickly pigeonholing an author, teacher, etc.