Re: Religion and Buddhism

Adrian Tanner (atanner@MORGAN.UCS.MUN.CA)
Tue, 13 Aug 1996 14:26:34 -0230

At 12:44 PM 8/13/96 +0900, Clyde Davenport wrote:
>(much cut from discussion between Tanner and Read)
>Adrian Tanner writes:
>>I begin by asking what do the various cultural forms
>of belief and behaviour that are generally labelled 'religion'
>by anthropologists have in common. Since I am not going to
>assume in advance that they all must have something in
>common, I begin looking for what seems to be most
>widespread. As we all know, one of the common
>definitional items has to do with belief in supernatural
>or 'spiritual' entities. Both these terms give problems
>when looked at from a cross-cultural perspective which
>is sensitive to the specific context of particular beliefs.
>The significance of the fact that religious entities are
>called 'spirtual' or 'supernatural' (or however it is
>expressed) is to be understood in relation to other
>explanity principles or forces in the same culture. I
>am suggesting what they may have in common is that
>they (as believed-in entities with some kind of explanitory
>force) always seem to be 'hidden' or 'obscure', in relation to
>other, more 'ordinary' explanitory principles common used
>and acted upon by people of the culture in question.
>I comment:
>While this definition does have explanatory value, it
>suffers from two weaknesses. One is the extent to
>which people who inhabit a religious worldview separate
>the material and the natural from the spiritual and the
>supernatural. I would tend to suspect that they are
>able to inhabit such a universe because to them the
>spiritual and the "super"natural are not hidden or
>obscure but rather are apparent in daily life. We need
>not confine ourselves to shamanistic types of religion
>here either, but can see this phenomenon in medieval
>Christianity in Europe. There is not only the book of
>scripture, but there is also "the book of nature" from
>which we can see the workings of God.
>The second problem is again the problem of science
>vs. religion. Science is concerned precisely with hidden
>obscure forces in relation to the ordinary experience
>of people. Gravity is not a tangible force to us. We
>rather experience physical weight. We have no experience
>of atoms, molecues and genes. These hidden entities
>are only revealed through science. We could probably
>make the same point for many of the abstract theories
>of social science. In other words, in dividing the world
>into nature and supernature, the material and the spiritual,
>the apparent and the hidden are we not being influenced
>in part by the scientific worldview ourselves?
I anticipate both your caveats, both difficult problems. One depends on
whether, by empirical observation, we can confirm that behaviourally,if not
experientially, people keep these two levels separate in some sense. If they
do not, the definition is in difficulties. I do think science often strays
into making religious-like proclamations. However, these end being so when
reproducable empirical tests are devised to prove the existence and
consistency of the purported properties of sciences explanitory entities and

>Tanner commented:
>While I accept that many societies which profess
>themselves Bhuddist, because they stray from authodox
>behaviour, can be included as having 'religion', but I am
>not sure authodox Bhuddism, or the monastic societies
>which follow these beliefs, actually fits either your or
>my definition of a religion.
>Read replied:
>A brief clarification: I was not providing a "definition
>of a religion"--I am not sure what such a definition would
>look like.
>Tanner: Sorry, I was commenting here (as I have previously
>done in my discussions about the centrality or otherwise to
>religion of the problem of 'origins') on what you wrote on
>July 26:
>"I would disagree with Tanner about religion and genetics
>in the following sense. I would suggest that religion (and
>by religion I only mean some general notion of some kind of
>creative power or force extrinsic to us and ordinary
>phenomena) arises out of a problem that arises with a
>brain that is capable of consciousness (which itself must
>be genetic in origin if you assume that we are totally
>"natural phenomena"). Such a brain is capable of asking
>questions about origins, and if that same brain also insists
>upon an answer, then the invention of a "creative power"
>almost becomes (if not becomes) a necessity."
>While I accept that this passage does not constitute a
>full 'definition', I have been assuming that your notion of
>religion *minimally* requires that there be a belief in a
>"creative power or force". And I am saying that, for
>my taste, at least, this seems to be placing rather narrow
>limits on what we should be willing to include as religion.
>However, I do like part of your idea - that is, of religion as
>generally involving "power[s] or force[s] extrinsic to us
>and ordinary phenomena" - I just do not wish to limit
>these forces or powers to the 'creative' ones, however.
>But does this reference to forces or powers (whether
>creative or otherwise) exclude authodox Bhuddism from
>the concept of religion? If there are any Bhuddism experts
>out there, am I right in my impression that authodox Bhuddism
>has difficulties with any notion of powers or forces extrinsic
>to us and to ordinary phenomena? The last time I read about
>authodox Bhuddist thought, it sounded to me exactly like
>Oxford 'ordinary language' philosophy.
>I comment: While not an expert, perhaps I can offer a
>short summary of Buddhist ideas.
>Early Buddhism: In opposition to Vedic thought which
>sees the existence of an eternal self or *atman* in
>Buddhism there is no permanant self. Things come
>about through conditioned arising (*pratitya-samutpada*)
>which means that there can be no abiding self-nature.
>Liberation is achieved through attaining *nirvana* which
>is defined negatively. It is the cessation of the arising of
>things in the phenomenal world. In terms of spirits and/or
>God, the Buddha refused to comment on either their existence
>or non-existence.
>Mahayana Buddhism: Continues the basic ideas of early
>Buddhism, but views nirvana more positively. Since all
>things empty, the conditional world of *samsara* and the
>unconditioned world of *nirvana* can be viewed as unopposed.
>Life in the world of *samsara* (the ordinary world of
>suffering) can through the understanding of emptiness
>(*shunyata*) be liberating. The logic of *shunyata* allows
>Buddhism to become more syncretic: much of popular
>Hinduism is absorbed (i.e. rituals, gods, goddesses, etc.).
>In Tibet, China and Japan, Mahayana Buddhism also interacts
>with local religions.
>Tantric Buddhism: Continues the Mahayana process of
>syncretism based on the notion of emptiness. Comes
>close to positing a postive (permanent, eternal, existing)
>notion of the Godhead/ultimate reality, etc. In its more
>extreme versions, equates impurity with purity.
>Well, this is a rather oversimplified description. In
>general, it may be said that Buddhism is not concerned
>with "power[s] or force[s] extrinsic to us and ordinary
>phenomena." It is concerned with how the ordinary world
>is a realm of suffering. It does not substitute a realm of
>reality more real than our own in which some
>transcendental supernatural liberation may be
>achieved, but rather sees liberation as the loss of
>attachment to the world (*nirvana* is not a realm as
>much as it is an attitude towards experience). However,
>later Buddhism does come closer to positing some kind of
>ultimate reality extrinsic to the world of ordinary
>phenomenon, although even here it is only the logic of
>emptiness which enables them to make this move.
>A few caveats. Buddhism existed within the framework
>of Indian culture and so took for granted the idea of
>reincarnation. Nirvana is the cessation of rebirth.
>Buddhism also takes from Indian culture the idea that
>various gods/spirits exist but it sees them as subject
>to the same process of rebirth (albeit at a much longer
>time scale) and conditioned arising. The Buddhas have
>supernatural (i.e. magical) powers as can Buddhist
>Clyde Davenport

Thanks for such a clear explanation.

Adrian Tanner
Memorial University of Newfoundland