Contemplation and Tradition

    Table of contents
    1. 1. Homework
    2. 2. Sources
    3. 3. Quotes
    4. 4. Comments
    5. 5. Questions

    These are personal notes for Kira's Ways of Knowing workshop. 


    (from the Ways of Knowing home page this week)

    For this week's homework, we'll share perspectives "about how Buddhism has been dominated by the monastic ethos of the east, and needs to be re-conceptualized from the ground up for our own cultures."  We can open up the discussion to include all religious views, and consider ways we have (or have not) been able to accommodate these.


    Batchelor finds the basis within Buddhist philosophy to argue for a contemporary Buddhism whose practitioners do not look to "Buddhist tradition" as a source of ideological conviction and existential security, and do not emphasize withdrawal and transcendentalism as a way of life or define it as a central principle of a spiritual "path".

    "In accordance with the central Buddhist doctrine of "conditionality," the concept of Sangha and the role of the monastic in Buddhist societies arose in dependence upon the socio-economic conditions of former times. And in accordance with the equally central notion of "impermanence," they too are subject to change. There is, nonetheless, a trend to overlook the implications of these doctrines on Buddhism itself and its institutions. This may in part be due to the one-sided interpretation of impermanence as "subject to destruction." This negative connotation obscures how it is equally a pre-condition for creation, transformation and renewal. Change is neither good nor bad: it is simply the way things are."

    "The emptiness of self, for instance, is not the denial of individual uniqueness, but the denial of any permanent, partless and transcendent basis for individuality. The anguish and uncertainty of human existence are only exacerbated by the pre-conceptual, spasm-like grip in which such assumptions of transcendence hold us. While seeming to offer security in the midst of an unpredictable and transient world, paradoxically this grip generates an anxious alienation from the processes of life itself. The aim of Buddhist meditations on change, uncertainty and emptiness are to help one understand and accept these dimensions of existence and thus gently lead to releasing the grip.

    "By paying mindful attention to the sensory immediacy of experience, we realize how we are created, moulded, formed by a bewildering matrix of contingencies that continually arise and vanish.

    "Moreover, this gradual dissolution of a transcendental basis for self nurtures an empathetic relationship with others. The grip of self not only leads to alienation but numbs one to the anguish of others. Heartfelt appreciation of our own contingency enables us to recognize our inter-relatedness with other equally contingent forms of life. We find that we are not isolated units but participants in the creation of an ongoing, shared reality.

    "A postmodern perspective would question the mythic status of Buddhism and Agnosticism. In letting go of ‘Buddhism’ as a grand, totalizing narrative that explains everything, we are freed to embark on the unfolding of our own individuation in the context of specific local and global communities."


    I don't identify myself as "a Buddhist" so perhaps I'm uninformed or should not be allowed a "vote" on this topic.  However I do find a lot to agree with in Buddhism and a lot to value in it.  But I could say the same about many other wisdom traditions - as well as non-traditions ... simply milieus of human experience.  They're all grist for the mill of practice and learning.   I'm a multi-perspectivalist and non-idealist, and resist making ontological commitments based on ideologies and doctrinaire conceptual frameworks.  However, I see everyday life as inherently "spiritual" in nature.  If I were to "take up" Buddhism, I'd be attracted to the more tantric and pragmatic forms of it.   A couple of quotes from the poet Basho come to mind:

    There's nothing you can see that's not a flower;  nothing you can think that's not the moon.

    Seek not to follow in the footsteps of the men of old;  seek what they sought.

    Because I'm not committed to Buddhism or identified with "being" a Buddhist, it's easy for me to say, Yes, I'd like to see Buddhism be reconceptualized to the needs and life-world of contemporary society and to be reconciled with current scientific understanding.  I'd say the same thing for Christianity and other religions.  I'd also like to see modern scientific understanding influenced by Buddhist ideas.  My own beliefs are something like the following:

    • Knowledge, wisdom, and consciousness exist outside and surrounding every wisdom tradition. None have it "right" or have a superior franchise on correct understanding and practice.
    • Contemplation refers to the process of intentional inquiry into the nature of reality in and through consciousness and study of the nature of mind and knowledge.
    • The phrase "ways of knowing" refers generically to the full gamut of how we humans interact with and make sense of our world.
    • Buddhism is valuable as a counter to the consumerist ethos of contemporary culture;  monastic Buddhism probably played that role for eastern cultures.  I'm not in favor of the commoditization of Buddhist ideas into "spiritual capitalism". 
    • I'd like to see a native western contemplative practice be established; and think ideas from Buddhism can play a role in that.

    What is the "Ways Of Knowing" group about and what is its scope of concern?  Is it essentially a Buddhist study group?   Or a trans-religious study group?  Or transdisciplinary, including (in principle) current scientific knowledge (such as evolutionary biology and neurophilosophy)?

    • There seems to be a tendency to take Buddhist texts, koans, or other artifacts as a starting point for discussion.  I think this does include a transcendentalist and monastic ethos, to the extent that those sources (perhaps excepting Lojong) are biased in that direction.   It might be worth considering to what extent this ethos is imbued with value assumptions about what it means to be "spiritual", and what the ultimate "purpose" is for following a Buddhist "path".
    • I'd like to see "Ways of Knowing" continue to include themes from traditional and contemporary western traditions, including (but not limited to) art, poetry, mythology, Christianity, human behavioral and evolutionary biology, self-model theory, and neuro-philosophy.  I believe these can be given experiential correlates and connected with personal practice.


    I see the question (regarding Buddhism, tradition, and contemporary culture) within a more general framework.  It's not Buddhism per se that interests me, but the more general questions regarding human knowing.  I prefer to focus on questions more than answers.  The practice of asking and pursuing them with an open mind is of value (that is, contemplative inquiry).

    • What is your personal commitment to or investment in Buddhism -- what's at stake?  How do you rely on it?  To define reality?  To define the nature of mind and "self"?  As an analysis of human consciousness and psychology?  As a source of practical techniques for working with mind?
    • How much do you trust yourself (possibly including your social network and culture) and your own experience and lifeworld as a locus for the development of wisdom through original inquiry, as contrasted with "following" an idealized established tradition?  I don't think this is an either/or choice.
    • What is Buddhism?  Is it defined by lineage?  By concepts and beliefs?  By being a member of a particular culture?  The noun "Buddhism" was invented by western scholars.  In its 2500 year history, the set of ideas identified as Buddhism has varied and changed tremendously.  The radical simplicity of Zen Buddhism couldn't be more different than the elaborate practice and iconography of Tibetan Buddhism.  Can any of these be said to be an essential formulation?
    • Is there an "essence" of Buddhism?   If so, in what sense is it "constant"... versus contingent on its contemporary setting?  What forms are essential to keep, for it to be Buddhism?  Can it evolve?
    • What are the "values" of traditional Buddhism?  What is its program and purpose?   Does it tend to be monastic and transcendental in its aims?  To what extent has it been integrated into everyday life in other cultures, and in the present in countries with a lot of Buddhists?  Is it equally possible for it to be integrated into the contemporary culture of the western countries?
    • Should Buddhism be reconceptualized in the context of contemporary culture?  Would this develop it or dilute it?  If it "changed" would that be a degeneration?
    • Does Buddhism have a privileged status with respect to representing contemplation in contemporary society?  Does it "own" the concept of "mindfulness" in the public eye?  Should it?
    • What does Buddhism have to offer contemporary society?  What does contemporary society have to offer Buddhism?  What does Buddhism "say" about the human nature, mind, and consciousness, and does it square with modern scientific understanding (or could it be reconciled)? 
    • What is the scope of "contemplation"?  Can it be studied and practiced outside the framework of religions and wisdom traditions, and embedded in the beliefs and values of contemporary society?  Is contemplation compatible with scientific understanding (if not narrow scientism)?
    • Does Buddhism lose something by being "applied" in the context of an active life?
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