Monday, June 14, 2004

A Critique of My Critique of Buddhism

This was among this morning's cyberpost. I have interpolated some brief responses.

Hi, Bill. My name is John Perry and I'm a friend of John Gallagher's
in Northern California. I'm the teacher who is fighting like a badger
against grade inflation (which I view as narcissism and corruption in
a teacher).

>>Thanks very much for writing. John told me about you when I ran into him on Friday night. You are absolutely right to fight grade inflation. Bravo!<<

Your critique of Buddhism fails to see the breakthrough from Hinayana
to Mahayana Buddhism. The ancient Patriarch Hakuin saw that Buddhism
started to worship nothingness and was perilously close to nihilism
when he criticized it for being a "cave of ghosts". His breakthrough
slogan which put an end to Hinayana Buddhism was "One's thoughts should
not dwell anywhere -- especially in non-dwelling".

>>I assume you read my International Philosophical Quarterly article. My focus there and also in my Chariot paper was solely on early (Pali) Buddhism. Indeed, I focused on just two key arguments for the anatta doctrine, the Control argument in the Anattalakkhana Sutta, and the Chariot argument in the Milindapanha. It was not my intention to criticize the whole of Buddhism in one or two short papers.

I concede that what I say in my IPQ paper does not touch Mahayana Buddhism. I like your point about nihilism; part of my point was that early Buddhism is hard to distinguish from nihilism.<<

In a way this is like: "Moderation in all things, especially moderation". Hakuin saw that Buddhism was becoming a failed religion because it thought that mere lack of attachment *was* enlightenment. Hakuin thought that this made Buddhism torpid and antithetical to the normal impulses of life -- it *was* a "cave of ghosts". It was the birth of Mahayana Buddhism.

In Mahayana Buddhism, a man can be an ordinary householder with a wife and a job and still be "enlightened". In Mahayana, attachments to earthly things are still considered undesirable but the forceful rejection of such attachments is actually considered AN ATTACHMENT TO NON-ATTACHMENT. That is, "dwelling in non-dwelling".

In other words, the victory of Mahayana was its assertion that one could be just as deluded by an attachment to "emptiness" as one could via an attachment to "somethingness". I am not a Buddhist, but I do believe that the Hinayana-Mahayana transition represented a TRUE evolution in Buddhism which persists to this day.

>>I agree with this. But there are still plenty of Theravadins who would vehemently deny it. Indeed, some of the ones I met at the Institute for Comparative Philosophy at the University of Hawaii in the summer of 1986 actually lost their composure -- thereby proving that their egos were alive and well -- when I argued that a reasonable Buddhism must admit a metaphysical absolute.<<

Only one transition remained -- the Mahayana-Vajrayana transition which
is still an area of dispute in Buddhism. I'd be interested in your
take on my observations.

>>I'd have to know more about this latter transition before I could comment on it. Thanks for your stimulating comments.<<


John Perry