This 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?