[Buddha-l] Bourgeois Buddhism

Richard Nance richard.nance at gmail.com
Wed Sep 28 07:08:40 MDT 2011

Hi all,

I don't particularly favor jumping into the fray on these issues (I
have no deep desire to claim, or to deny, the privilege of deciding on
what Buddhism is and isn't to scholars or, for that matter, to anyone
else). But I'll jump in anyway, if only to highlight and query a few
points that have been raised.

Jack noted:

"It has been my experience, limited though it might be, that the Western
Buddhists I know follow the 8-Fold Path while ethnic Buddhists I know do not.
No  idea if this is true beyond the people I know."

Jack also noted, several posts later:

"I believe Buddhist communities of practitioners decide who is and who is
not Buddhist."

I'm going to assume here that the thrust of Jack's second point is
normative -- i.e., that in his opinion, it's not just that communities
of practitioners _do_ happen to decide who is and isn't Buddhist, but
that this is something that they _should_ do (if anyone should). At
the very least, if one wants to know what (or who) is and isn't
Buddhist, one should look to them before one looks to scholars (or at
least to those scholars who are not identified by a Buddhist community
of practitioners as Buddhist).

But juxtaposing these two remarks raises a question. Where two
Buddhist communities differ in their opinions on what should be
counted as admissible as Buddhist, what is the appropriate response
for those outside the relevant communities? Is it to say that they're
both right? (But what if neither community agrees with that claim?) Is
it to say that, because one is outside the community, one can't say?
If you find this view tempting, and you count yourself a Buddhist, you
may want to consider whether the view represents an appropriately
Buddhist stance. After all, Buddhist communities don't tend to say
that all the claims they make about how things are are claims that
apply only to members of Buddhist communities. It's not only
_Buddhists_ that cycle through rounds of rebirth. We all do that. Or
so it's claimed. And with this claim comes a corollary: if you think
that the claim doesn't apply to you, well, you're wrong.

That sounds very much like the dismissal of rival views. And this is
nothing unusual. There's an enormous body of evidence that suggests
that, historically, this has been a characteristically Buddhist move.
Buddhists routinely evaluate and dismiss claims made by those beyond
the bounds of their communities. If scholars were to busy themselves
with evaluating the claims of Buddhist communities to represent
Buddhism, they would not be doing anything that members of those
communities haven't been already doing for centuries.

Jack suggests, however, that scholars would do a poorer job of this. I
find that curious. Where does the assumption come from that a
card-carrying non-Buddhist scholar who happens to be able to read
Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, etc. is less qualified to undertake
this sort of assessment than a card-carrying Buddhist who happens to
read only English?

Let me be clear: I'm not claiming that knowledge of various languages
automatically renders one _more_ qualified. Nor am I claiming that
taking a prescriptivist line on what is and isn't "true Buddhism" is a
useful way for scholars to be spending their time. I'm just asking
what lies behind the suspicion of scholarship. It seems, well, not
terribly Buddhist to me. (But what do I know? I'm only a scholar.)

Best wishes,

R. Nance
Indiana University

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