Religion and Buddhism

Clyde Davenport (clyde@BUS.HIROSHIMA-PU.AC.JP)
Tue, 13 Aug 1996 12:44:26 +0900

(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?

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