Something Old, Something New

Ordinary_bicycle02This weekend I had the pleasure of listening to Dr. Lancaster, the brilliant and pioneering professor of Buddhist Studies, who gave a lecture at Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights. The title of his talk was “How Religions Learn,” though in the same way as many of my favorite speakers he used the talk as an opportunity to weave together his most recent thoughts and questions.

But Dr. Lancaster’s topic is a point of interest for me. It points to an uneasy contradiction in any religion’s self-composed history: religions must learn and change to respond to the spiritual needs of the people, but one of these fundamental needs is to have an absolute and unchanging truth to anchor ourselves to.

I worry that this contradiction is becoming increasingly insurmountable, and that religion is entering a place where it can no longer learn.

The reason I say this is because the traditional way for religions to become new is for them to become old. The majority of religious change and reform, even if it is doing something new and radical, will typically construct itself as returning to the old, returning to the essence; to something more fundamental.

I don’t expect that listing examples from other religions will win me many friends, but this type of reform is common enough in Buddhism. The Theravada Abhidhamma, widely regarded by scholars as post-canonical, is legendarily explained as being conceived the night of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Similarly, the Avatamsaka Sutra, a vast compendium of Mahayana thought, is internally billed as being the first teaching spoken by the Buddha.

This process of making what is new into what is old does not seem to me too different from the declarations  ‘Western’ or ‘American’ Buddhism that we discuss so frequently. These groups, and there are many with quite differing visions, seek to make a new Buddhism by claiming it is old. That Buddhism remade as they would see fit is more true, and more fundamental than the Buddhism that these groups seek to differentiate themselves from.

This fails for two reasons. One is the racist implications of a bunch of white folks picking and choosing which parts of Buddhism they are comfortable with and tossing the rest. The parts of Buddhism which are seen as undesirable are labeled as Asian inventions apart from any insight into their doctrinal origins. Labeling these undesirable aspects is then treated as a permission slip to throw them away, as if that is just what one does with Asian religious history.

The second reason this fails is because we live at a time when telling everyone what is new is actually old is just not as believable anymore. In this age of information and communication the ideological motives of those who seek to recast history are more transparent than ever. It because harder to believe that a certain translation or interpretation means the Buddha didn’t teach rebirth after all when the materialist rationalist leanings of those involved are clear and accessable.

This is not to suggest that there can never be anything new under the sun, but I think the time when we can tell the story about the new being old is ending.

The other option for religions to grow and change is simply to call what’s new new. To change the way we practice because it fills a need, whether personal or societal. The only problem with the new being new is that it then operated on the periphery of what Buddhism is. Without a myth to explain how something is Buddhist, or even more Buddhist, than what is out there, people who practice in their own way and dance to the beat of a different drummer may not get lumped in with Buddhism at all.

If we are indeed entering an era in which it is becoming more difficult for religions to learn, I expect that eventually we will come to a choice: Which do we need more something to be new, or something to be Buddhist?

9 Replies to “Something Old, Something New”

  1. Please read in full.

    I practice currently in the Soto Zen tradition, and am very new to Buddhism ( minor reading over the years, much more devoted practice now).

    I am also quite American and quite the honkey (there’s a joke there i promise). I’m tatooed and while not as often as I used to am still prone to listening to harder music.

    Now that we got that covered, fuck off. We’re not all stupid.

    That’s like me making statements about how some asian may one day come eat my dog and kung-fu me if I try to stop them. It’s ignorant..plain and simple. Racism is dumb as hell. And frankly, even new to sitting and Practice I have to question how much of Buddhism you make a part of your life with something like that.

    One of the problems of the Westernization of Buddhism is in trying not to lose the message and wisdom of Buddhism while trying to more personalize it to make it easier for Westerners to appreciate and understand.

    For me, I see how that can go good and bad, and at this point couldn’t even begin to offer any form of assistance in that endeavor. I simply don’t know enough yet.

    Personally, I feel with any religion one should go back as far as possible to discover what the original teachings were. It helps us understand how the changes came about. Perhaps it is as simple as politics, sometimes it’s a language barrier that prevents direct translation. In Christianity that kind of change was a known fact.

    I believe prejudices should be set aside. I believe any newfound information should closely examined. From what is said here it seems like what you want is to just keep doing what you’re doing the way you’ve always done it, even if it can be seriously, undisputably proven that the current or traditional view is different from the original Source view.

    Even if at times I fall prey to it myself. I don’t believe in spiritual laziness. We get out what we put in to anything.
    If i’m being lazy about my Practice I don’t lie or hide it. It’s a choice I make. I do not ask or wish for Buddhism or any other spiritual Way to be dummied down or made more convenient. If anything, I try to be more disciplined to meet the higher standards and improve myself.

    As far as I’m concerned if someone ( western or eastern is irrelevant…we’re all part of the Worldwide Sangha even if a bit dysfunctional and not in line with the Way at times) wants it to be made easy for them, then they don’t get it. Perhaps Buddhism is not for them. The point is that it can be a struggle, it can be tough.

    Don’t act like there aren’t fat lazy asians.Or Asian businessmen buying kidnapped slave girls. Or prostitution, or homelessness or drug use ( umm helloo heroin…not from america..sorry) rape, murder, abusive spouses and child molestation/emotional abuse Pleasssseee.*rolls eyes*

    These are world problems.

    Also keep in mind, we face societal pressures in regards to religions outside of the norm. Our struggle is a bit different than you may think. also buddhism is much much much newer to the West without any system not taken from Asia, based on Asian lifestyles. Alot of that simply does not have support in the West. Of course I’m also speaking of specificaly of America. I can’t say what it’s like everywhere else in the West because I don’t live there.

    There is value in both Eastern and Western cultures. There is also much that can be discarded for better lives in both hemispheres.

    Frankly, I don’t believe everything Asian can be stripped of Buddhism. Personally I have no problems with that. I do recite things such as the Heart Sutra in my native language. Why? Because I don’t speak any other. I could chant in any one or several asian languages. But then the point doesn’t really hit home.

    Honestly, I think Chinese and Japanese specifically sound better than English. Damn sure much more skillful and artistic to look at than our plain lettering.

    Instead of pushing us away. why not accept us, teach us, help us in our endeavors as Western Buddhists. Let us learn from each other.

    Isn’t that an aspect of what Buddha taught? Community, Love, Compassion?

    And to say I said it, yes i’m not being the best in following the Dharma at the moment either. But I have the courage to admit the fault. Perhaps it’s an excuse, perhaps it’s just part of being human.

    Open minds and open hearts..That’s the path we’re gonna benefit from. Not ill informed offhand racist remarks while acting sooo much more realized than other races.

    Also keep in mind, everywhere Buddhism has travelled it has gone through some form of adaptation to be more specific to the cultures where it has found it’s way. so what if the West does the same. As long as it’s done mindfully and skillfully with care and precision then it is no different than what has already occurred throughout Buddhist hstory.

    In metta ( even if it appears different I mean well)

    Dave _/_

  2. Wow, Dave, I think you’re being a bit too harsh toward John here. When he says a religion (re)constructs itself by “returning to the old, returning to the essence; to something more fundamental,” he’s NOT saying, “Kill all the white people.” I mean, really!

    Some people do make stuff up and then claim it is the original teaching — or what the original really meant. Christians have done this. Asian Buddhists have done this (think about medieval Japan — there were big political struggles, and Buddhist monastics were smack in the middle of them). It’s not racist to say some Western or white Buddhists have done it too.

  3. Zensquared, perhaps i did misunderstand. Perhaps something in the wording hit a nerve.

    I will say this, I came to a link to this post from another blog. Before reading the entire post there, I quickly followed the link to look at the source material.

    This person was under the same impression I was.

    I’d be happy to apologize were John to kindly explain so i would no longer feel it racist or at the very least bigotted in tone. not that I demand or require it. But perhaps a deeper explanation of the statements would help me change my view.

    Nor am I suggesting a “kill all white people” form of hate or at least disdain. But for at least some of us caucasians ( i’m not snobby so white is fine with me) the words can be considered a bit offensive in parts.

    To me there is no need to have brought the mention of another specific race in this at all. It could have been left as Western or American, which still seems a bit bigotted

    But let’s look at some of this here:

    “This process of making what is new into what is old does not seem to me too different from the declarations ‘Western’ or ‘American’ Buddhism that we discuss so frequently.”

    This is saying John doesn’t see much of a difference between Western and/or American Buddhism and an idea he just shit on as getting old and unbelievable. that in and of itself doesn’t say ” fond view of Western Buddhism” to me.

    Next we have :

    “This fails for two reasons. One is the racist implications of a bunch of white folks picking and choosing which parts of Buddhism they are comfortable with and tossing the rest”.

    To me there is no need to have brought the mention of another specific race in this at all. It could have been left as Western or American, which still seems a bit bigotted.

    But alot of close-minded , culturally ignorant people aren’t really drawn to Buddhism because they don’t know much about it. Which isn’t to say there aren’t dumbass ego maniacs that are drawn to it. Why would anyone with racial prejudices towards a specific race be interested in adopting anything from that race?

    Maybe not thought out, maybe a statement white people are lazy and racist?

    Frankly ,I worry about what dumbasses in positions of power ( in my case this grouping normally pertain more to those blessed morons known collectively as the U.S. Gov’t.) all over the world are gonna do next. It’s not about which country or race they are. It’s just about the fact an ignoramous shouldn’t be allowed to make critical decisions.

    The specific wording used as taken in context does , to me , suggest white people are racist, lazy and ignorant.

    Again, perhaps a longer, deeper discussion would set my mind at ease in regards to the racism aspect. But the wording does set a tone.

    And again if I feel it neccessary I’m not opposed in anyway to coming right and and saying ” hey, john, i totallly didn’t understand your point. forgive my ignorance and rudeness.”

    Dave _/_

    1. I tried to use very compact language in the above blog so that it didn’t end up being too long, perhaps at the sacrifice of clarity, but I don’t actually think that we disagree too much.

      I was writing about the necessity for religions to change. This is a requirement because people change, and the needs of people change.

      The only problem is that built into most religions is the idea that they are unchanging, that they participate in some kind of absolute truth. For this reason the vehicle by which most religions change is by telling a story about how the way that the religion is changing is not something new, but is actually old. New things are permitted by making a story about how they are more orthodox.

      I did not want to use examples from other religions, because I thought it would be more fair if we stuck to Buddhism, but the most recognizable example is the protestant reformation. Martin Luther had specific changes that he wanted to make to the way that Christianity was being practiced The way that he chose to introduce reform is by appealing to the Bible, and saying that since indulgences were not found in the Bible removing them was actually more orthodox.

      Now, let’s think about that for a second, for what reason should the Bible be considered more orthodox than thousands of years of received Church history? The Bible is not subject to change, as you mentioned yourself. The content of the Bible has changed through translation and through manipulation.

      The story that getting rid of indulgences is more like real or original Christianity is just that: a story.

      This practice of making what is new into something old has been going on in Buddhism as long time, likely since the time of the Buddha.

      What my post was about is that, in this modern age, it seems like we are no longer able to make up stories like that.

      One of the reasons is because, right now, Buddhism is coming to America. Buddhism must change when it makes this journey, because the spiritual needs of Americans [this includes Asian Americans, European Americans, and all other Americans] may be different from those of where Buddhism is coming from. However, there are problems with using the same old tactics to adapt Buddhism for America.

      If you use the “make the new old” strategy with American Buddhism, it takes the form of “American Buddhism is getting back to what original Buddhism is supposed to be, what is no longer present in Asian Buddhism.” And that seems racist. I don’t actually think that the people who are making these claims are racists. I think they are just doing the same thing that people have done for thousands of years: changing the religion to suit their needs by saying they their reforms are actually more orthodox. The racial dynamic is just what makes these claims hard to take seriously.

      The other problem, as I wrote, is that we are living in an age where we have a lot more information and that people around the world can more easily communicate with each other. The stories that people told in the past about how the changes they wanted were not actually changes, but the way things have been forever, were always dishonest. People readily believed them because there was a lack of information, and a lack of access to that information. But this is no longer the case.

      Of course, I think this strategy of saying that what is new is old is not a good thing at all. I don’t think it has been a good thing in the past, and I don’t think it is a good thing now. It is intellectually dishonest. None of us really have any idea what the Buddha really taught, so any claims about ‘going back to original Buddhism’ or ‘what the Buddha really taught’ cannot be based in fact.

      What we do know is what the spiritual needs of the people are. So, when religions need to change, as they must and should change, I believe we should just called our reforms reforms. We should say that, “Here in the United States we want to have sermon-like teachings where a head monk or nun speaks each week rather than only teaching the Dharma at major holidays.”

      I don’t think we need to invent a story about how this is getting back to the essence of Buddhism in order for it to be a good thing. Reform should happen just because there needs to be reform, and we don’t need to degrade any other tradition by making claims that they have strayed from what Buddhism is really supposed to be about to do so.

      If you’d like to continue this conversation further, I think it is best that we do it off the comments section, so that we can talk to each other more directly, as I imagine this post above must be supremely boring for most people! If you would like, you can e-mail me at fulgore123 at

  4. Thank you for this post John, and your follow-up clarification. (I don’t find it boring in the least!) I think you’re on to something important here, especially when you mention that “we don’t need to degrade any other tradition by making claims that they have strayed from what Buddhism is really supposed to be about.” That’s hitting the nail pretty squarely on the head in my opinion, and seems to me to be nothing more than common sense. Respect our Buddhist brothers and sisters rather than dismissing them as “degraded” or “backward.” How simple.

    These vulgar screams of reverse racism are getting tired. How I wish people would stop screaming at folks for simply expressing an opinion. (Or, in most cases, obvious facts. What? Racism still exists? Get out!)

    At any rate, keep up the good work!

  5. OK, dude, you’re on. American Buddhism is new. Here’s proof:

    Buddhism in America.

    As I stated in this, Lewis Lancaster was my academic advisoa when I took a BA in Chinese language at UC Berkeley in the early ’70’s.

    Namu Amida Butsu
    Xing PIng

  6. Dave,

    Well posted!. The raw energy of a true seeker tends towards impatience with pretensions.

    John, thank you for moderating your original post, as the originally stated premise was totally off-beam. Thank you also for putting your points so coherently. It makes it possible to respond.

    One could derive an interpretation that religions learn, but that is actually a horrible fallacy, based on playing games with concepts.

    People learn, Religions accrete. A group of people may adopt ideas and approaches that seem more consistent with their social view, but this is generally adaptation, rather than learning.

    Learning comes from spiritual practice, from vision and insight, which is then disseminated, but it is always a new perception of an eternal truth that arises in the context of that person and their society.

    That is where the unchanging anchor of truth lies.

    This anchor is comprised of many revelations, including the fundamental ethics found in our humanity.

    Everyone seeks it in their own way, but given that the majority (each for their own reason and situation) are not active seekers of eternal truth, that majority invariably ends up with someone’s interpretation of an interpretation, which many mistakenly believe they can enshrine as an anchor through force of will and application. Those that dont, find disillusionment in the transparently self defeating efforts of those we now refer to as fundamentalists.

    We should not be talking about strategies, and we should not be declaring that we know what the spiritual needs of people are, unless we are happy playing with intellectual conceit.

    At best, we can encourage as many as possible to take up an earnest search, so that through investigating, trashing, honouring, and all manner of stress testing, they and we, can freshly uncover eternal truths over and over, and in this way LEARN; both individually, and socially.

  7. I think this was a fantastic article about change in religion and I totally agree with John when he says:

    “I don’t think we need to invent a story about how this is getting back to the essence of Buddhism in order for it to be a good thing. Reform should happen just because there needs to be reform, and we don’t need to degrade any other tradition by making claims that they have strayed from what Buddhism is really supposed to be about to do so.”

    I am (relatively) new at this much like Dave, and still learning. But my question is isn’t Buddhism supposed to be as individual as the practicioner?

    That may be an over simplification. I realize there are schools and traditions.

    But we all have our own path to walk. None of us are in the same spot on the road to enlightenment or even Bodhisatvva-ness (for lack of a better word.) What concern is it of mine if a fellow Buddhist doesn’t perfrom the exact same rituals or meditate the same way? How can I say what is right for them?

    That is one of the things I appreciate the most about Buddhism, I am allowed to question and think for myself. To find my own path. I dont have to blindly follow everything I am told.

    Or did I miss the point entirely?


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