Fundamentalisms, especially Buddhist ones

UU blogger CK asked some good questions about the last post. Here is a partial response to her issues.

We do see the emergence of phenomena that we could term “Buddhist fundamentalism,” but we have to be quite careful about how we use such a term. All of the Buddhisms that are engaging with modernity by producing fundamentalist versions are deeply implicated with post-colonial nationalism–this was not a driving force behind the rise of Protestant (American) Christian fundamentalism, the subject of the previous post, but it is the most important factor in understanding these seemingly fundamentalist new Buddhisms. Buddhism is replicated in a militant and intolerant mode in response to ethnic tensions related to struggles in post-colonial states, so this Buddhism fundamentalism arguably is not a particularly parallel phenomenon to the American Christian one. Not that American Protestantism lacks a nationalistic side–far from it–but the situation is considerably different and the degree to which various forces are driving change (versus just being “in the mix”) differs as well.

Just to highlight one of many implications of this difference, Buddhist fundamentalism seeks to secure a certain traditional area as strongly Buddhist (such as the island of Ceylon), against the threat of ethnic and religious others who (at least allegedly) seek to disrupt the practice of Buddhism. It is about retaining specific geographic places for Buddhism in the face of perceived non-Buddhist encroachment.

American Protestant fundamentalism, on the other hand, not only seeks to hold on to traditional privileges but in many incarnations actively seeks to spread to historically non-Christian places, displacing their current religions and becoming the dominant local power. Furthermore, it emerges out of tension with its close theological other–liberal Protestantism–not an ethnic other, and is most concerned (even beyond missionization) with the defeat of alternate nearby Christianities. Christian fundamentalism came to destroy Christian liberalism and to convert the world, in that order.

This helps us distinguish the two religious fundamentalisms. Buddhist fundamentalism does not emerge from theological debate and is not locked in a struggle to eliminate liberal Buddhism, nor does it have a missionary impulse–it seeks to retain homelands, not colonize new areas. For these reasons it is not in fact strongly theological–Buddhist fundamentalism does not stress Buddhist beliefs, but rather Buddhist forms of social organization, with the beliefs and practices that bolster these forms being only of secondary importance. It reads texts historically and often rather literally, yet does so not to prove theological points but instead in order to produce cohesive ethnic identity and strong claims toward land ownership.

On the matter of Abrahamic religions’ responses to modernity, this may not be a fully useful category. The emergence of Jewish fundamentalism differs significantly from that of Protestant fundamentalism. Protestant fundamentalism stresses a divinely given text in the rationale for its creation, but Jewish fundamentalism, while indeed yet another response to modernity, is considerably more tied to orthopraxy than orthodoxy when compared with Protestant Christianity. Not that divinely given texts are unimportant in Jewish fundamentalism, but they are in a way secondary to the concern for preservation of Jewish practice as a marker of identity, rather than Jewish belief as a marker of identity (whereas Christian belief is central Protestant fundamentalism, with Christian practice, while important, being of secondary consideration). This is because the concern that birthed Jewish fundamentalism wasn’t taint by theological heresy, but the threat of assimilation. Jewish fundamentalism locates Jewish distinctiveness in Jewish practice, not so much Jewish thought, so it is practices, not texts, that fuel it.

Islamic fundamentalism inhabits a middle-ground between the Protestant and Jewish fundamentalist approaches. It is about equal in stress on divinely given text and on sharia, the body of law that enforces practice. As with Buddhist fundamentalism it emerges not out of fear of close theological others but from the politics of the post-colonial world.

All of this means that any characterization of reliance on divinely given texts as distinctively “Abrahamic” is problematic–not because it also happens outside of this category, but because it doesn’t even happen as much as we might think within this category. “Abrahamic” isn’t that useful as a tool for understanding Christian, Jewish, and Islamic fundamentalisms (especially in comparison to Buddhist or Hindu fundamentalisms) because these three religions are arguably actually more different than similar to each other in their production of modern fundamentalisms.

As to the question of whether Protestantism has had an influence on the way Buddhists understand their origins, especially Protestant fundamentalism on Buddhism fundamentalism, we can see there has been some influence but that it is not especially strong. Protestant fundamentalism tends to provoke a greater degree of attention to texts in Buddhist fundamentalism, but where Protestant fundamentalism largely still wrestles with science as an enemy, Buddhist fundamentalism tends to appropriate scientific rhetoric to assert Buddhism as the most intelligent and transmodern of religions. The Christian influence on Buddhist nationalism, which subsumes Buddhist fundamentalism, has been mainly in forms of organization, education, and communication, rather than in approach to texts. And much of this influence is a 19th century colonial story, before the rise of fully-fledged Christian fundamentalism.

There will eventually be a series of posts here about defining liberal religion in such a way that it contains liberal forms of Buddhism, especially in North America. Maybe this post is a sort of lead-in to that discussion.



Filed under Anti-Liberalism, Buddhism

7 responses to “Fundamentalisms, especially Buddhist ones

  1. ck

    Wow, thanks for the lengthy reply! I would be interested to see what sorts of parallels there are between the emerging Protestant fundamentalisms in South America and Africa and those in Buddhist post-colonial countries. There are groups in the US who are becoming drawn to African fundamentalists who are managing to “keep the faith” in the face of persecution. I think it is the Episcopal (Anglican?) church where much of this is going on.

    The role of science here is pretty interesting, too–although Protestant fundamentalisms are anti-science, to an extent, they also use pseudo-science to gain credibility among their followers. See the rise of the ex-gay movement and creationism, both of which are competing for space in public schools (Montgomery Country, MD is a recent example of the former). Personally, I find this a strange and subtle tension to watch.

    While the Dalai Lama (for one) has made much of his interest in quantum mechanics, neuroscience, etc., I don’t get the same sort of desperation in the outcome of the debates. I wonder how much this has to do with the epistemologies of the two. Fundamentalist Christianity’s truth stands or falls upon a sort of corresponence theory, it seems, between a revealed set of propositions and the external world, whereas (and here I’m going to totally overgeneralize out of my depth!) Buddhist epistemology can be anti-realist, has room for different sorts of truth, and is very focused upon experience.

    Anyway, just thinking out loud. Thanks as always!

  2. “Islamic fundamentalism inhabits a middle-ground between the Protestant and Jewish fundamentalist approaches. It is about equal in stress on divinely given text and on sharia, the body of law that enforces practice. As with Buddhist fundamentalism it emerges not out of fear of close theological others but from the politics of the post-colonial world.”

    The final part of statement is simply not accurate. The tensions WITHIN the Islamic world are far more heated than the tensions between it and other faiths. Wahhabism is an example of this.

    This is why the majority of Islamic terrorist attacks have taken place within Muslim majority countries.

    Militant, fundamentalist Islam takes a very similar view to what you allege fundamentalist Protestantism does. It seeks to first eliminate heresy within Islam, and then to spread to infidel countries and attain dominance there.

  3. Jeff

    Immy, I think you’re mixing timelines and confusing a couple of different phenomena. Of course, part of the problem here is that the original post only mentioned Islamic fundamentalism in a passing way, and therefore is quite vague itself about timelimes and different manifestations of Muslim fundamentalism.

    To clarify: what is being spoken of is modern Muslim fundamentalism, occupying the same period more or less as the Protestant, Jewish, and Buddhist fundamentalisms under discussion. Wahhabism originates well before this period and thus is not meant to be a direct part of the consideration. Also, Wahhabism did not emerge out of struggles between conservative and modernist forms of Islam–rather, this reform movement’s original concern was pre-modern folk Islam, with its mixing of popular “superstition” into Muslim practices.

    Some modern Muslim fundamentalist movements draw on Wahhabism. But they do not do so in the original context of eliminating folk traditions (though they do sometimes attempt such purges as one element of their activities). Modern Muslim fundamentalism, whether influenced by the 20th century revival of Wahhabism or not, emerged from the post-colonial Middle Eastern and Southern Asian milieu, with a combination of fears about foreign dominance and local ethnic tensions, quite similar in ways to the emergence of Buddhist fundamentalism.

    This is not meant to suggest that, once established, Muslim fundamentalism hasn’t targeted close theological others, whether for liberal or folk approaches to Islam (often, those liberal Muslims are perceived as agents of potentially imperialist powers). But the roots of the modern fundamentalism lie in post-colonial politics, as alleged earlier. We might say that this Muslim fundamentalism originates in political and ethnic issues, and then finds its expression in concerns over heresy. Not terribly surprising, since heresy/orthodoxy is one of the most important organizing principles of Islam, virtually the default setting through which all manner of tensions–whether originally connected with it or not–will end up channeled.

    This is much more than was intended to be said on the subject (which was mainly about Buddhist vs. Protestant fundamentalism), but hopefully it clarifies a little the topic. Thanks for your comments.

  4. You may want to check out this video clip that I highlighted on my blog comparing Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama on sexual ethics:

    Guess Who Said It — Pope vs. Dalai Lama on Sexual Ethics

    The video clip comes from the Australian TV series “John Safran vs. God.”

  5. Jeff

    Steve, your comment doesn’t seem to relate very clearly to this content of this post.

    I think that film clip is rather deceptive. All of the quotes are offered without even a vestige of context–and context is _very_ important for understanding each of those quotes.

    The comparison to the Pope is disingenuous, since the Dalai Lama doesn’t hold anything analogous to the position of the Pope in Roman Catholicism–he is not inerrant, has far more limited powers within his own denomination, and his denomination is a minority tradition within Buddhism. He isn’t even the actual head of his lineage. Nor is what the Dalai Lama characterizes as sexual “misconduct” nearly as dire as sexual “sins” condemned by the Pope–such misconduct is a “misdemeanor,” not a “felony,” to use legal parlance.

    In short, John Safran strikes me as a hack. If he’d bothered to fact-check with even one scholar of Buddhism, he never would have produced that lame excuse for an “expose.”

    Nor is the Dalai Lama a fundamentalist, which is the topic under discussion here. Sexual misconduct is not a priority matter in his religion. His comments weren’t based on “scripture,” but on secondary philosophical works that do not hold permanent authority–and are primarily intended for consumption by monks, who are to avoid all sexuality (gay or straight) except in particular circumstances. Challenged by gays and others who felt his views were uninformed, he invited their perspectives and allowed that his traditional ideas about these matters might be outdated, ill-informed, or not applicable in modern situations.

    John Safran can comb through the hundreds of public teachings and thousands of published pages offered by the Dalai Lama and find a handful of seemingly off-base comments, especially if he chooses to not look at their context and not to check and see if the Dalai Lama followed them with later reconsiderations. He could also comb through these sources and pick out the far larger body of teachings wherein the Dalai Lama strongly advocates that people must make up their own minds on religion, says that religion must take into account new scientific discoveries, stresses that each individual has their own path (the Buddhist idea of infinite Dharma doors), tells non-Buddhists that they should stick to their own religions rather than converting, and offers non-literal readings of sacred texts.

    I happen to disagree with the Dalai Lama on any number of issues, and certainly wouldn’t seek advice on sexual matters from a guy whose never even gotten to first base. But nonetheless the Dalai Lama can’t really be labeled a fundamentalist. Therefore, I think hauling him in to this particular thread is not appropriate.

  6. Jeff … did you go beyond the video clip and check out the Ontario Consultants for Religious Tolerance article and the Wikipedia article that I listed on my blog in the replies:

    Buddhism and homosexuality

    Homosexuality and Buddhism

    Both address the presence of sexuality-negative and anti-gay attitudes within some schools of Buddhism that is rarely acknowledged in North America.

    This difference is apparent when one compares Buddhism as it’s practiced in Asia with Buddhism as it’s practiced in North America by converts.

    The convert demographic is described as follows:

    “In contrast to Buddhism in Asia, modern Buddhism in the Western world is typically associated with liberal politics and a concern for social equality — partly as a result of its largely middle-class intellectual membership base, and its philosophical roots in freethought and secular humanism. When applying buddhist philosophy to the question of homosexuality, western Buddhists often emphasize the importance the Buddha placed on tolerance, compassion, and seeking answers within one’s self. They stress these over-arching values rather than examining specific passages or texts. As a result, western Buddhism is often relatively gay-friendly, especially since the 1990s.”

    Of course, this same demographic that we find in North American Buddhism (middle-class, educated, freethought-affirming, liberal) is the same demographic that one finds in UU, UCC, Quaker, and Reform Jewish faith communities. So there is no surprise for me that they have similar attitudes on sexual ethics and use a similar interpretative model for religious writings that we find in UU and UCC communities.

    The John Safran video clip is meant to be entertaining and irreverent — after all, his Australian TV show is called “John Safran vs. God.” But he does point out the Western tendency to uncritically objectify non-Western religions like Buddhism. And this tendency is often seen in UU faith communities.

  7. Jeff

    I didn’t follow the links–I’m a trained scholar of American Buddhism and didn’t feel the need to do so, I’m already well informed about Western Buddhist demographics and contrasting attitudes and practices in Asia. I have read those links in the past, though not very recently.

    I still don’t see how any of this relates to Buddhist fundamentalism, i.e. the topic of this post. Being sex-negative or anti-gay doesn’t make you a fundamentalist; besides, these are Western liberal modes of interrogation that aren’t very relevant to Buddhism and don’t fit it very well. Buddhist attitudes toward sex do not arise from scriptural fundamentalism and have virtually no political implications (certainly nothing on the order of such attitudes in relation to Christianity). Sexual misconduct won’t result in eternal damnation or excommunication.

    I certainly won’t argue with you about Western tendencies to objectify Buddhism, especially among UUs, however. But facile or ill-informed critiques of Buddhism are hardly better than starry-eyed idolizations.

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