"Unmasking Buddhism: Buddhism and Society I"

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“Buddhism is a tolerant religion”:
It is often said that Buddhism is a tolerant religion, if not the religion of tolerance. Buddhism does not strictly speak of dogma or orthodoxy; at most it speaks of “orthopraxy” or “correct practice”. It could be argued that there is not one Buddhism but rather several. This plurality is due, in part, to the absence of a central authority. It is also linked to the belief that the conventional truths of Buddhism are adapted to individual capabilities and that their value is therefore purely pragmatic. It is therefore rare to find a spirit of sectarianism or fanaticism in Buddhism. However, in practice the situation has not always been as harmonious as the theory would have us believe.

“Buddhism teaches compassion”:
Of all the values of Buddhism, compassion (karuna) is the one most admired by Westerners. It has even become the trademark image of Buddhism thanks to the image of the Dalai Lama as it has been promoted by the media. The question is to what extend this message represents Buddhism as a whole or even Tibetan Buddhism, given the number of times it has been repeated and exaggerated by the media – and not always without distortion.“Buddhism is a peaceful religion”:There is no shortage of sources to suggest that violence and warfare are permitted when the Buddhist Dharma is threatened by infidels. It is important to contrast the dream of a peaceful Buddhist tradition with this darker side. Buddhism is only guilty of not maintaining a sufficient distance from ideological or nationalistic policies or from the social setting from which it has evolved.


“Buddhism affirms that we are all equal”:
The early Buddhist community appears to have been relatively tolerant as regards the social origin of its members, yet the same was probably also true of other groups and renouncers within Brahmanism and Jainism. In principle, monks and nuns would leave behind their society and the caste system upon which it was based. In practice, however, social distinctions remained.


“Buddhism is compatible with science”:
In their efforts to modernize, Buddhists have sought to emphasize the compatibility of Buddhism with modern-day science, discreetly failing to comment on any areas of disagreement; some have even gone so far as to claim that some of the great scientific discoveries were predicted long ago by Buddhism. Concordism of this kind is more or less knowingly deluded since it refuses to admit that the supposed Buddhist ideal – Awakening – is resolutely supra-mundane and non-secular and that Buddhism can only comprehend modernity and the values it embodies as a collapse within material (and materialistic) sphere.


“Buddhism is a kind of therapy”:

The psychological interpretation of Buddhist meditation constitutes a fundamental aspect of modern-day Buddhism in the West. According to this viewpoint, Buddhist doctrine and art are forms of depth psychology.


“Buddhism advocates a strict vegetarianism”:

It should be noted that vegetarianism has often had unexpected social effects. Some sociologists have noted that vegetarianism has contributed to the “Sanskritization” of Indian society, acting as a means of facilitating social mobility within the Indian caste system. Abstaining from eating meat, considered to be an impure food, offers a means of increasing the ritual purity of the sangha. Thus, vegetarianism has become a means of expressing social and religious differences.


“Buddhism is a universalist teaching”:

Traditional Buddhism became an obstacle to progress and modernization, and as such was attacked as superstition. It therefore had to adapt so as to fit within the narrow framework of the modern nation-state, most notable to respond to the challenges presented by the rapid expansion of Christianity, from which it adopted certain missionary methods. Yet it is primarily by embracing nationalism in the name of modernization that Buddhists have been driven to take part in nationalist movements; Buddhism soon saw itself taken over by political agendas of an entirely different nature which had more in common with the values of the West.


“Buddhism is a religion of monks”:

The significance of the monastic community in traditional Buddhism cannot be denied. The monks have always sought to cut back on what they perceive to be the laypeople infringing on their privileges. The primacy of monks has often been undermined throughout the history of Buddhism.
Monasticism may well involve the pursuit of the Buddhist utopia, yet this does not mean that the monasteries are unaffected by social and political trends.


“Conclusion: Buddhism or Neo-Buddhism”:

It may be that the Western attraction to Buddhism represents a surge in the popularity of spirituality rather than a return to religion, with Buddhist spirituality offering a credible response to the anxieties of the modern world. The preoccupation with spiritual interiority is merely another form of the desire for fulfillment which characterizes the individual in contemporary society. This is being referred to as “Neo-Buddhism” – distinguished from the various forms of Buddhism whose tradition has been maintained, albeit with some difficulty, in Asia.
Various recent studies have shown that Asians who have recently immigrated into Europe and the United States, while emphasizing their cultural differences, tend to universalize their Buddhism, making it compatible with their Western values by focusing on its modernity, rationality, and spirituality. This voluntary acculturation seems to be motivated, in part, by a desire to succeed in the world of capitalism, and involves the abandonment of certain devotional and magical practices.
Only by adopting a critical and well-informed approach can we avoid the drift towards the Neo-Buddhism, or even “Neo-Tantrism”, which seems to be conquering the minds (and bodies) of many Western followers in the wake of the New Age trend. This is not meant as a rejection of all forms of Neo-Buddhism. However, the question remains as to why this spirituality still claims to represent Buddhism when it is perhaps instead a relatively moderate form of New Age spirituality.


Reference: Faure, B., (2009), ‘Unmasking Buddhism’: Part III, Buddhism and Society, 85-142.

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