Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Universal Religion Part 2: The limits of universalism

Religion of course can be very divisive. As Richard Dawkins says it can inspire people to murder others because they have a barely distinguishable belief system. I don't agree with Dawkins that religion itself is a primary cause of violence, it is simply one more label by which we define tribal in-groups and out-groups - any ideology or physical difference will do just as well. In religion, emphasising commonality can bring people together, while emphasising difference has a danger of increasing hostility. On the other hand, by lumping everything together and glibly saying that it is all the same, we can muddy the water and distort the meaning of religions. And even if we can help bring religions together we do so at the risk of defining an in-group of religious people and an out-group of non-religions people.

I recently went on an interfaith peace march. In the current climate it seemed like a worthwhile cause, even if Oxford isn't exactly a religions warzone. It's hardly the Gaza Strip. I must admit that I felt a bit awkward - I've never done anything like that before, because I've never thought of myself as a religious person. But hey, Zen is technically a religion and I thought it was worth showing my face. It was good that all these different faiths were able to march in unity for the same cause and the speeches that were given, of course encouraged unity by emphasising common ground. But, I wondered at the way in which it seemed to exclude anyone who didn't have religious beliefs.

"Ladies and Gentlemen. We all believe in the same God..."
(Damn it the Hindus!)
"...We all believe in a Creator God..."
(darn! - Buddhists !)
"...We all have Religious Belief..."
(What are those Zen bastards doing here?!)
"...Well, at least we're not atheists!"

To say that 'all religions are essentially the same' is all very well, but what about polytheistic religions? What about the fact that Buddhists don't have a belief in God or in any transcendent absolute? What about religions which emphasise the ego such as Laveyan Satanism? What about non-religious 'peak experiences'. What about secular philosophies? What about ordinary life? We are always creating a perimeter somewhere. Attempting to find the unity of religion, Universalists expand the terriritory of 'the sacred' - the 'in-group' - but always leave an 'out-group'. Instead of finding unity, they are merely moving the borders of duality. Instead of dividing the world into Islam, Christianity, Buddhism etc, it divides the world into believers and non-believers, divine and profane, good and evil. How can we transcend all in-groups and out-groups and find a sense of the truly universal?

And in finding this common religious ground, there is also a strong temptation to bend the meaning of other faiths so that they fit into our conceptual (and dualistic) framework. Now I have a lot of respect for Baha'i - if I was to be a theist of any sort I'd probably be a Baha'i. Similarly, I hope my perception of Pure Land Buddhism isn't offensive to anyone. And I don't want to generalise from a single case, but I came across Baha'i online recently who was interested in learning more about Buddhism. It was no surprise that the branch they were most interested in was Pure Land. Pure Land is a populist, non-monastic strand of Buddhism aimed at ordinary lay practitioners. It is very dualistic in it's teachings, and is remarkably similar to the Abrahamic religions in form - salvation is gained not through personal practice but in faith in higher powers. Nirvana is characterised as the 'Pure Land' - almost exactly the same as the celestial realms of Hinduism and the Abrahamic faiths - a great example of convergent memetic evolution methinks - Richard Dawkins and Susan Blackmore would be delighted.

Why Buddhism doesn't quite fit

The majority of religions teach some sort of substantialism, which is inevitably dualistic - the world is divided into mind/matter, man/God, Atman/Brahma, sacred/profane, good/evil and so forth. They posit a transcendent power which is utterly distinct from ourselves and with which possibly in moments of mystical union we somehow become merged or receive communion with. Belief in the existence of a 'cosmic other' is something that has to be maintained by faith. Mystical 'union with the absolute' (if the faith allows such a thing) is a metaphysical event - the union of the substances of the human soul and of 'God'. They posit an eternal soul substance which corresponds to our sense of continuing personal identity. They reject the message of materialism, that our identity is produced by temporary physical form which is extinguished on death. Buddhism rejects both of these views as being based on the mistake of taking a conventional truth (identity) for an ultimate one (an immortal soul or a real self somehow arising from a temporary brain state).

Buddhism differs from other religions - apart from Taoism I think - in that there is no transcendent power - the mundane and the divine are not two, mind and matter are not two. Nirvana is not a separate realm from samsara; Buddha Nature is not separate from ordinary life. Buddhism teaches sunyata, or emptiness rather than divine substantialism. Buddhism teaches, not only the unity of 'the Divine', but the unity of the Profane with the Divine; not only the unity of religion, but the unity of religion with non-religion; not only the unity of man, but the unity of man, animals and inanimate objects; even the unity of unity and non-unity. Unity itself is not separate from non-unity - form (the relative, mundane) is not different from emptiness (the ultimate or universal nature of reality).

The union of man with the transcendent or divine is not a metaphysical event in Buddhism, nor is it even the collapse of a real duality. It is just the realisation that there never was a separation between the ordinary and the universal in the first place. It is the dropping of mentally created distinctions which had been taken as real dualities. The very duality between relative (man) and ultimate (God) is a constructed convention of the human mind.

But even to create a duality between dualism and non-dualism is more dualism. Experiences of the emptiness or unity of all things, which is seen in contrast to the ordinary dualistic world are regarded in Buddhism as incomplete because a non-dualism which exists in contrast to dualism is itself a dualistic viewpoint. Genuine non-dualism includes dualism, non-dualism, sacred, profane, God and non-God - nothing is excluded. Nirvana is the opposite samsara only from the perspective of those in samsara. Nothing is excluded. The point is that distinctions are real but only conventionally real, ultimately nothing is separate. To create a distinction between the conventional and the ultimate is again, conventional truth, ultimately there is no distinction. Nothing can be stated which is not conventional truth. This is why many Buddhist teachings appear dualistic in a way similar to other religions.

The barrier between self and cosmos in Buddhism is not a real physical or metaphysical separation or wall, it is a mental fabrication maintained by ourselves. At the moment of satori we fully realise its fabricated nature, we realise that there is no barrier to cross, nothing to attain.

8 Comments:

At September 05, 2007, Blogger MikeDoe said...

Interesting post.

" To create a distinction between the conventional and the ultimate is again, conventional truth, ultimately there is no distinction."

That's not entirely accurate.

Both attempt to describe the same reality but from different viewpoints.

The difference in viewpoint gives rise to a distinction.

 
At September 05, 2007, Blogger Shonin said...

OK but the ultimate 'viewpoint', being the viewpoint of emptiness finds no distinctions between ultimate and conventional surely? Any duality or distinction is necessarily a conventional designation surely?

 
At September 05, 2007, Blogger MikeDoe said...

Shonin (Justin?):

I think I'd say that you can recognise a distinction without going further.

If I look at a mountain from the summit my view is different to that from the valley.

Both are viewing the same mountain. I can recognise that both views are valid. I can also recognise that both views are different.

You cannot say that the mountain looks the same from both places but you can say that both places can see the same mountain.

A distinction has been made that is valid and is non-dual.

The mountain does look different from both places, that is a function of from where the mountain is viewed and of the observer.

If you then go on and say that one viewpoint is 'right' or one viewpoint is more 'accurate' or the 'only' viewpoint or to confuse the viewpoint with the mountain THEN you are falling into duality.

[I've used Mountain and Valley as an easy analogy for wildly differing perspectives and am not saying anything deeper.

The viewpoint gives rise to the distinction, the distinction is not inherrent in the thing being viewed.

I give you a cup of coffee. Is it hot or cold? If you say either or neither then you are comparing the coffee with some absolute standard and attributing something to the coffee which is not inherrent. If you say the coffee is 97.2°C then you are offering a view in which there is no relationship between you and the coffee. All views are equally valid - but they are not the same. If the Coffee was
in fact only 96.4°C; it might still be too hot.

The coffee may in fact be too hot to drink. Recognition of that fact is enclosed in the viewpoint that says "this coffee is too hot".

[I feel like I have struggled for words on this one so apologies]

 
At September 05, 2007, Blogger MikeDoe said...

A little clearer perhaps....

I can say "this coffee is too hot" and I can also say "this coffee is 96.3°C" without falling into duality by simply recognising the fact that the first statement is saying something about me-and-the-coffee-together and teh second statement is saying something about the coffee but in a different way.

If I were to not recognise that when I describe the coffee I am also in some way describing myself and my relationship then I have fallen into duality. If I recognise that when I describe the coffee I am also describing my relationship with the coffee then I am perhaps staying in non-duality.

Maybe

 
At September 05, 2007, Blogger Shonin said...

Thanks Mike. I'll have to meditate on that.

:)

 
At September 05, 2007, Blogger Shonin said...

Well, this discussion is quite abstract and is at the edge of my insight.

A few weeks ago I asked a closely related question of Godo Jean-Pierre Taiun Faure (abbot of Kanshoji).

His answer is that the teaching of 'two truths' is a provisional understanding until we reach Buddhahood. This ties in with my earlier point which is that defining a difference between conventional and ultimate is a conventional distinction.

I don't mean to imply that from the ultimate perspective 'everything is the same' (this, by the way would be another conventional statement). There is of course recognition of what we call 'difference'. 'variation, 'change', but it is seen from the perspective of non-duality. Perhaps we are in agreement?

 
At September 05, 2007, Blogger MikeDoe said...

Yes from what you say I think we agree.

 
At September 10, 2007, Blogger me said...

Nice post Shonin!

To create a distinction between the conventional and the ultimate is again, conventional truth, ultimately there is no distinction. Nothing can be stated which is not conventional truth.

I like especially - in science they say "all models are wrong, but some are more useful than others" - by wrong they mean 'simplifications'. All use of words are simplifications and thus not 'ultlimate' truth because they try to represent ultimate truth.

Of course there is an ultimate truth to the use of words and thought itself - these are not separate either. But if you talk or think about words and thoughts you are again removed.
Nice...

 

Post a Comment

<< Home