Buddhist fundamentalism


Fundamentalism happens whenever we take a story as true, and since we have a tendency to do that, we find fundamentalism in anything from “she should do the dishes” to politics and religion of any stripes.

So how does it show up in Buddhism?

It may show up in a relatively innocent way in how we see the founder of Buddhism. Do I really believe that Sakyamuni Buddha was a historical person? There is no historical data to support it, apart from Buddhism itself. He may well be a fictional person or a composite of several. At the very least, his life story is most likely changed and refined to function as a teaching story.

Just as with Jesus, the truth is that we don’t know if such a person existed. But we do know that in both cases, the stories about their lives are wonderful teaching stories. They reflect an inner truth. They are about us, when we embark on a spiritual journey.

The same is of course the case with the original teachings. According to Buddhism itself, they were transmitted orally for five hundred years before written down. How likely is it that they were transmitted accurately? Not very. Of course, whenever they were transmitted by someone where reality had awakened to itself, it means that there is a better chance of clarity in the teachings, and they may be very helpful. But it still doesn’t mean they reflect the original teachings very accurately.

And the same is the case with any of the Buddhist teachings. As soon as any of the maps, models, or pointers is taken as true, there is fundamentalism. They may be very helpful in a  limited and practical way – as a pointer for exploration – but that is about it. They are medicines, each one aimed at a particular condition, and have no value outside of that. (Apart from as entertainment, of course, as any story.)

The great thing about Buddhism is that it has a big fat exit sign built into it. From the very beginning, they said don’t take any of it as true. Use it only – and at most – as a pointer for your own exploration.

In a practical sense, I can then notice if and when I take any Buddhist story – or any story in general – as true. For instance, what expectations do I have about the path? Do I expect it to be slow or fast, gradual or sudden, difficult or easy? What happens when I take any of those stories as true? What am I hoping to get out of taking it as true? (A sense of security? Being a good student?) How would it be if I didn’t? What are the truths in the reversals of those stories?

I may find that whenever I take any story as true, even the most basic teaching stories in Buddhism, there is an identification with a story and an identity. A sense of a separate I – an I with an other – is automatically created. There is a view and identity to protect. (The “true teachings” of Buddhism! A “good” Buddhist student or teacher.) There is an identification firmly within content of experience. Everything is filtered through that story, and it may well become a self-fulfilling prophecy as well. I act as if it is true, so it becomes true to the extent possible.

Whenever there is a sense of stress or tension, I am most likely attaching to a story as true. What is my belief? Is it true? What happens when I take it as true? How would it be if I didn’t? What is the grain of truth in its reversals?

Initial outline…

  • buddhism
    • historical buddha
      • no historical data (outside of buddhism) that indicates that the historical buddha really existed (know from daily life how stories get changed over time, no different here)
      • a composite of many individuals
      • based on a historic individual, but refined/focused to function as a teaching story
      • historical interest only
      • practice value as a teaching story (independent of history)
    • teachings as medicine
      • only value as remedy for a specific condition (practical value in some situations, nothing more)
    • take any story as true
      • models, maps, processes
      • gradual/direct path, easy/difficult, slow/fast etc.
      • if take as truth, then identification with a story, a split, need to defend a story/identity, set up an expectation/self-fulfilling prophecy (act as if is true, so become true to the extent it can)
      • can also be taken as a pointer of temporary and limited practical value
        • a medicine
        • or statistics (says something about aggregates, but cannot predict individual cases – as with all statistics)
    • practical
      • notice stress/defend a story or identity
      • find the story, inquire into it, find what is more true (validity in reversals + don’t know)
    • built-in exit
      • buddhism, big fat arrow pointing out of stories

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