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Pruning the Bodhi Tree: The Storm Over Critical Buddhism

Book by Hubbard, Karen. Ed, Swanson, MD Jan

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Tags: Bodhi, Tree, Storm, Critical, Pruning, Buddhism, over

3 comments to Pruning the Bodhi Tree: The Storm Over Critical Buddhism

  • Hakuyu

    Cut the weeds, but not the root! This is a difficult book to review, because the primary issue at stake – the abuse or misuse of Buddhist doctrine does need to be addressed (viz. the substitution of nationalist or dubious self-serving agendas) – but, I question the wisdom of locating the problem in Buddhist doctrine per se, as Hakamaya Noriaki and Matsumoto Shiro would have it. Messrs Hakamaya and Matsumoto – have found a ready body of supporters in the halls of academia – and, the essays in this book are an attempt to put the issue in clearer perspective. I would be happy if the problematic issue central to this book were simply an academic one – but, it isn’t. If Hakayama and Matsumoto are right in their assumptions, there is a serious flaw running through our received perception of Mahayana and Zen Buddhism etc. – arguably the Buddhist schools which have been the most influencial in the West. In short, if Hakamaya and Matsumoto are correct, we have embodied a fallacious distortion of Buddhism. Needless to say, this is a strong claim to make, and not everyone agrees with it. The essays by Sallie B. King, Peter Gregory, Yamabe Nobuyoshi et al. – go some way to revise the rather harsh strictures delivered by the ‘Critical Buddhist’ fraternity. Regrettably, the case made by Hakamaya, Matsumoto -amplified again by their supporters in this book, seems to have been based on generalisations – even a dogmatic refusal to see that the key terms in question (e.g. Dharmadhatu, Dhatu-vada, Tathagata-garbha, Hongaku etc.) – admit of alternative interpretations. Peter Gregory’s carefully written chapter – ‘Is Critical Buddhism Really Critical’? – fairly turns the tables on Hakamaya and Matsumoto, pointing out that their arguments are – paradoxically, a kind of ‘substantialism’ and thus self-defeating. Thankfully, Peter took the trouble to reappraise what is actually stated in the sources, deemed so questionable by the ‘Critical’ Buddhist fraternity. That said, it is undeniably true that terms such as ‘inherent enlightenment’ (hongaku) are open to misunderstanding, and may even have been exploited to produce results running counter to their authentic context. When it comes to the context of Japanese Buddhism, this has clearly been the case. The whole thing about ‘Imperal Way Buddhism’ has been put in fresh perspective by Brian Victoria (cf. ‘Zen at War.’ Zen to Senso). Yanagida Seizan, Ichikawa Hakugen et al, have also stated the problem. In their case, they touched on the moral or ethical failings which led to disaster. What worries me about the arguments of Hakamaya and Matsumoto – is that by locating the blame in abstract doctrinal positions and historically remote sources, they have conveniently avoided the contemporary moral or ethical issues raised by Japan’s Imperialist aspirations in the 20th c. Let’s face it, when thousands of Buddhists were busy copying out the Hannya-haramita Shingyo in war-time Japan, to generate merit for the military, they were deceiving themselves. To be objective here, this is no more (or less) bizarre than ‘Christian’ prayers for victory, as thousands of tons of bombs rained down on innocent non-combatants in cities. This is the madness of modern war. It is ourselves we should blame, not the religions we have exploited to justify it. Hence, there is an irony to this book. When even the Hua-yen Ching (Jpn. Kegon Kyo) has been cited as a latent source of ‘totalitarian’ thinking, something has gone seriously wrong with the Buddhist scholarship. Not Buddhism – or Buddhist scriptures, but human delusion and duplicity have been responsible for the evils of concern to Messrs Hakamaya and Matsumoto. We all know that during the rise of the Third Reich, the Pope tacitly supported Adolf Hitler, but in post-war Europe, people did not try to place the blame on Thomas Aquinas or Augustine. If half the arguments in this book were true, that is exactly what people in Europe should have done. If the doctrines singled out by ‘Critical Buddhist’ fraternity are as pernicious as they say, why have they not given rise to similar, totalitarian tendencies – in other Mahayana lands? The Chinese Buddhists under Mao were very reluctant to embrace the totaliarian communist doctrine, expressly because it went against their spiritual sensitivities. They were persecuted for their reluctance. Tibetan Buddhists, now under Chinese occupation, have also had the thin end of the wedge, for appearing less than amenable to a totalitarian doctrine. Petty Nationalism and doctrinaire attitudes do not fit in that well with Mahayana Buddhism. If it has been ‘squeezed’ in, then that has been by way of coercion and human weakness, not by virtue of anything explicitly stated in Mahayana Buddhism. It strikes the reviewer that the primary problem here, stems from mixing up the claims of samvrti-satya and paramartha-satya. It has always been incumbent upon Buddhists to recognise the difference, but if the…

  • jiko

    A must-read for students of Buddhist philosophy.

  • Anonymous

    now I get it

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