Tuesday 16 October 2012

Buddhist Philosophy 02, The Methadone of Modernity

The recurrent theme of so much of my writing (on Buddhism) is that the ancient and the contemporary cannot be mixed; however, they can be juxtaposed.  The opposite assumption, that we can and should situate the past in the present, is an entrenched aspect of European Christianity; perhaps more broadly, we could say that it is one aspect of European "high culture" in general.  The entire dramatic interest of Bruegel's (above) 1566 treatment of "the massacre of the innocents" is created by the fact that it is situated in 1566.

The massacre alluded to is indeed a Biblical episode, but the painter makes no effort to depict Israel (in the snow!) --nor ancient Israel.  In its own time, this entire scene was just as contemporary as a photograph on the front page of the newspaper: this could be a moment from any massacre that the artist or the audience had witnessed (or participated in) themselves.

This is new, and yet old: compare Giotto, painting the same episode in 1320 (below).  Is he making any attempt to depict ancient Israel, or is he (similarly) depicting his own era, and his own society, with only the most tenuous (titular) connection to the scripture (and to that scripture's culture-of-origin)?

To some extent, this general cultural assumption (of situating the past in the present) includes every tacky attempt to stage the playwrights of ancient Greece in modern bluejeans, and to depict Shakespeare in 20th century New York.  West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet, and, believe it or not, Strange Brew is based on Hamlet --and the latter is probably a better film than Almereyda's version of Hamlet set in the year 2000.

You can't stage the tragedy of Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter as an ironical commentary on 21st century parenthood.  Situating the philosophy of the past in the banality of the present does a disservice to both.  We must be willing to look at the script from the perspective of the culture that first wrote it, in our various roles as interpreters, actors, and even as members of the audience.

The notion that a man might (as leader of an army) be expected to murder his own daughter in order to improve the weather (so that his boats could sail, etc.) was a deadly serious matter in that ancient (and culturally alien) context.  Trying to stage that scenario in the modern world would render the tragedy absurd: the fundamental tension requires that most of the people involved in the plot sincerely believe that the human sacrifice is necessary --even if the point of the drama (as a whole) is to make us doubt this very same belief.

Conversely, if everyone believed in the sacrifice as simply as they believed in the necessity of pouring water to extinguish a fire, there would be no drama whatsoever: no ethical dilemma would be raised by the events.  If neither the audience nor the authors had any doubts about such sacrifices and divine interventions, there would be no tension surrounding the action, and, indeed, there would be no tragedy (merely necessity).

Can the interpretation of oracles be trusted?  Would you be able to trust the oracle if the stakes were so high (and it was not a deer, but your own daughter, that you were asked to sacrifice to the gods)?  If the question is merely symbolic or psychological, it is meaningless: both the belief and the doubt must be real for the tragedy to mean anything at all to the players.  People both believed these things and doubted them: the drama presumes that both the doctrine and the dissonance are understood by the audience.

The ancient Greeks did not write or perform these stories as psychological allegories, nor to provide technical terms for (Freudian) neurotic disorders in future generations.  We have to read them with the understanding that the fear of the gods was real (and the fear of ghosts was real, etc.) even if we do not fear these gods (and ghosts) ourselves.

I see many, many attempts to mix the ancient and the modern in Buddhism (and, to be blunt, I see very few examples of sincere interest in what is ancient… simply appreciated as ancient).

The example that I would mention here is made sympathetic to me by the clear fact that (1) the people involved have good intentions, and (2) I know how difficult it must be for them to put together any kind of coherent message from the (misled and misleading) sources that are available in English.  However, while the specific example that I'm about to mention is sympathetic, it includes many recurring problems that have been haunting the European engagement with Buddhism since the bad old days (of C.A.F. Rhys-Davids, etc.).

There's a really interesting intersection of (i) the East, (ii) the West, (iii) the ancient, and (iv) the modern at Thailand's Wat Tham Krabok.  I am not writing this as an uncritical endorsement: I'm stating that it is very interesting, and that more research is needed.  I know a great deal about Buddhism, but I know nothing about the treatment of alcoholics and drug addicts: when I see ritualized vomiting being used to "cleanse" drug addicts in a Buddhist temple context, I'm skeptical --but not entirely disapproving-- by default.  I'm open to learning from their experience (and I'm open to hearing what it is that they think is effective about the process) although I can neither see a medical nor doctrinal reason for the practice.  The whole canon takes a dim view of purification rituals, including ablutions.

You can "see" the same thing I've seen, in a short documentary posted on Youtube (here).

[Vomiting at Tham Krabok; Rights for this photo = Getty Images, apparently]

If you've glanced at the Youtube video, you'll notice that one reason why this particular temple became an intersection for East and West was, simply, the clientele that showed up needing help: western addicts started enrolling to overcome their addictions.  The nature of that interaction is unique, and seems to have come about gradually: although Tham Krabok was founded in 1957, the number of foreign patients was about 4% during the 1980s. (Poshyachinda, 1993)

As such, Tham Krabok seems to be a rare example of a form of Buddhism that was developed by locals, for locals, but that was subsequently adopted by foreigners, who integrated themselves into the same system used by the locals (they all drink from the same cups, and vomit into the same non-metaphorical trough).

This is itself an interesting contrast to the "two solitudes" of Asian-vs.-White Buddhists (living in separate camps) that exists almost everywhere else.  The issue remains obvious in the "segregation" of temples within Thailand (examples of "white" temples include Wat Pa Nanachat) and it remains controversial (rightly or wrongly) in the work of Charles Prebish (on Buddhism in America).

[Monk unknown, date unknown; photo credited to Nanachat's website.]

Just as interesting, the Tham Krabok method is now being exported to the West, in English translation, presumably building on the English translations already used for foreign patients within the original temple.  See the website: www.5th-precept.org

I've used the word "interesting" too many times already, but this is partly because I hesitate to use any other adjective: in reading the (English) materials produced by the 5th Precept group, I feel that I'm looking at someone trying to do the impossible.

What's impossible about it?  They're trying to be simultaneously orthodox and innovative, strictly canonical and yet radical --and I'm sure they're attempting it all with the best of intentions, and (apparently) with some palpable results (in terms of the reported rates of people overcoming their addictions).  Of course, all of the usual caveats about alternative medicine apply --and, frankly, all of the usual caveats about religion apply, too.  Nevertheless, there seems to be a great deal about this that would appeal to a Pali scholar (and it is a rare example of Pali texts really being mustered and applied as a living philosophy in the 21st century) --so why is it that I can't join in a chorus of approval?

Sadly, it seems to me that the project is struggling with exactly the same problems that I've pointed out in prior articles: the well-illustrated booklet From Hungry Ghost to Being Human repeats the same error about the 12 links of "dependent origination" that I've already discussed at length (and that is neither ancient nor Asian in its origins).  This is not a minor error: it is pretty much the doctrinal core of their teaching.

The same booklet opens by stating that the references to ghosts and hell in (canonical) Buddhism are merely depictions of "mind-state[s]".  The cosmology is presented as psychology, and the supernatural elements of Buddhism are asserted to be merely allegorical.  That isn't true: it never has been true, and, sadly, I don't think that the European scholars who advanced this interpretation have had such pious motives as the people running these rehabilitation programs.

Although I can't ignore what's wrong with it, I really do sympathize with the struggle of the people producing the "literature" for Tham Krabok and 5th Precept groups: they have an impossible task, burdened by the lousy scholarship of the last 150 years, and with no real alternative to those (misled and misleading) sources.  The people writing this stuff are generally volunteers (many of them recovered drug addicts, as they state themselves), and I doubt that the Thais or the English speakers have any Pali scholars among them.  I really do assume that (1) they repeat the common misconception about the 12 links because they believe it to be true, and also (2) that they support the "psychological" view of ghosts because they believe it to be true.

However, all of this is starkly incompatible with the letter and the spirit of the canon itself.  We need to be able to read the ancient view of incarnation, ghosts, hells, and so on, with the same sense as the authors who believed those things to be true instead --and who were evidently managing real fears of things that we may consider to be unreal.

 [A Scene at Tham Krabok, rights to the photo = Morgan Hagar]

The fear of ghosts was very real in ancient India; the fear of vengeful gods was very real in ancient Greece.  Rituals to appease ghosts and gods were taken very, very seriously --and were certainly not part of some kind of psychological allegory in pageant form.  The fear was real; so too was the attempt to address that fear through magical means.  This doesn't mean that everyone in India believed in ghosts: the Pali canon itself contains both skepticism and debates on these issues.  To be blunt, if everyone believed in ghosts nobody would be preaching about them: the reason why these religious debates are recorded in the Pali canon is precisely because of the type of ethical tension I've tried to describe (indirectly) through the example of Agamemnon.

In Theravāda Buddhism, unlike the religion(s) of ancient Greece, this isn't an entirely dead tradition: I was thrilled to discover, recently, a Sri Lankan expatriate temple presenting an English translation of the Petavatthu (a collection of ancient "ghost stories") with no attempt to dissemble the intent of the authors in the introduction.  Many, many Sri Lankan publications open with an apologia, to dismiss  supernatural elements that will be found in the pages that follow, and many Sinhalese Buddhists think that this is (at least) an important part of packaging Buddhism for the Western audience --if not part of "modernizing" the religion for themselves (yes, a prolix academic literature exists on this subject, but let's not digress here).

What was refreshing to me was that the entire presentation of this particular text (including the cover, depicting "hungry ghosts") simply lacked the excuses: ghosts are a part of ancient Buddhist literature, and they don't represent "mental states" of anguish that we endure "from moment to moment".  They really do represent an ancient belief about your own dead relatives, suffering in hell, and so on and so forth.  There has never been any ambiguity in the ancient texts, there has merely been a paucity of people reading those texts, and a rather convoluted game of Europeans interpreting and misinterpreting them.

The Petavatthu contains blunt accounts of all kinds of stuff that makes Europeans uncomfortable about Buddhism: gory images of supernatural retribution, ghosts in misery for their past misdeeds, and so on.  You can find similar images depicted on temple walls around Thailand; it seems to cause some consternation for those who want to offer a sanitized version of Buddhism as some type of "Cognitive behavioral therapy".  Well, guess what: the tragedy of Agamemnon wasn't written as "therapy", either.

[Another non-allegorical image from Nong Khai's "Buddha Park"
presumably depicting Rahu and the eclipse]

Part of the problem is the over-arching aesthetic assumption common to Bruegel and Giotto, above: the notion that we can and should situate the past in the present (whereas I am suggesting that we can't or at least shouldn't --even if Bruegel is pretty good at it).

Unlike Bruegel and Giotto, however, interpreters of Buddhism do not leave the original "bible" intact when they re-interpret it, and apply it to modern conditions: they are, in effect, obfuscating and misrepresenting the original sources (and not merely "illustrating" them, for an audience who can easily access the originals, if they wish to).  I don't think that there is any legitimate role for an interpreter in "re-inventing" Buddhism to suit a Western audience: either we're reading the ancient texts for what they are, or else we're writing new ones.  The legacy of lousy scholarship (of the last 150 years or more) hampers projects that have even the best of intentions --and, of course, it creates the conditions for things still worse to emerge from projects that have bad intentions.