Of shopping carts and cherry-picking

Evan Thompson has continued our dialogue with a new reply, and I am now ready to respond to it. This response will be seven posts long, so I will follow the practice from my last round of replies of posting them three days a week (Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday) over the course of the coming two weeks. When they’re all up I will update the index so readers have a convenient record of the whole thing.

To begin with, I’m glad to see that Thompson and I have come to some significant points of agreement. We can agree now that a eudaimonistic Buddhism does not have to suffer many of the flaws that Thompson identifies in Buddhist modernism, such as Buddhist exceptionalism or pretending our innovations are those of the historical Buddha. But as Thompson correctly notes, points of disagreement remain.

Our core disagreement is on the idea of eudaimonic karma. This has two aspects, which each bear examination though they are not separate from each other. The substantive aspect is about the workings of karma and rebirth. The methodological or hermeneutic aspect has to do with the claim that I am cherry-picking. They are not separate because the accusation of cherry-picking depends on the closeness (or lack thereof) of the relationship between the naturalized eudaimonic karma I advocate and earlier Buddhist conceptions that involve rebirth. I want to first approach the methodological issue, on which I think Thompson and I may find some further agreement, and then start moving to the substantive claims where I think we do still largely disagree.

Thompson says:

Buddhist modernists need to face facts. Are you cherry picking what you like and rejecting what you don’t like? Then don’t claim to be congruous with your sources. Or do you want your revisionist project to be congruous with the tradition? Then don’t cherry pick. Trying to have it both ways is another example (among the many others detailed in my book) of how Buddhist modernists want to have their cake and eat it too.

I think Thompson and I share a critique of the shopping-cart view of traditions, which is indeed close to the cherry-picking he describes – where we are not allowing ourselves to be challenged by those aspects of the tradition that are uncomfortable to us. Thompson previously urged us not to “miss (and miss out on) the radical and challenging aspects of the Buddhist tradition”, and I expressed my agreement with this. I’ve even gone a step further to say it’s important to have faith.

The question is what this faith and fidelity to the tradition then imply. What they do not and should not imply is a blind faith, where one accepts everything that is in the tradition. And the accusation of cherry-picking – or of the shopping cart – can run the danger of urging us into exactly that. The only clear alternative to “cherry picking what you like and rejecting what you don’t like” in a tradition is to try to accept everything, the entire tradition, whether you like it or not – supernaturalism, sexism, killing unbelievers, and all. I don’t think I need to justify my reasons for rejecting that approach. (I think it’s obvious why I reject it – but I could spell it out if readers, including Thompson, think that would be helpful.) But to reject the approach of blind faith is, pretty much by definition, to reject at least some of the things you don’t like while accepting the things you do, and therefore necessarily to leave yourself open to the accusation of cherry-picking (or the shopping cart) to at least some extent.

This is a reason that the accusation of cherry-picking is much easier to make for someone who does not identify with the tradition. Whenever someone within the tradition modifies it in any way, however small, it’s easy to snipe at them from outside and say they’re cherry-picking and not really congruous. That move is much harder to make from inside the tradition, because it will always be vulnerable to a tu quoque response. When Insider 1 claims Insider 2 has modified the tradition, Insider 2 can respond that Insider 1 has done the same, because that will always be the case: it is the nature of traditions to adapt and change, even when the changes are innovation through conservatism, changes made in order to preserve the old tradition as pristinely as possible. Since outsiders are not vulnerable to that response, they can happily stand on the edge, taking as many pot-shots as they like.

So the cherry-picking accusation is a favourite move of outsider Buddhist-studies scholars like Donald Lopez, or more generally unaffiliated religionists like Herman Tull. These folks love showing how much smarter they are than all those Buddhist or Hindu fools who think they can show that the tradition is compatible with science, when these scholars, with their eminently superior knowledge and erudition, can point to all the ways it’s been different. They can make such a gotcha easily because they have no stake in the game, no interest in identifying with Buddhism, so they can simply stand on the sidelines and laugh at people who do –they can snark, while thinking constructively with the tradition requires smarm. They stack the deck against Buddhism: a real Buddhist believes every incorrect idea that other Buddhists have ever believed, you believe some true things they disagree with, therefore you’re not a real Buddhist. Yet the ironic thing is that this variety of critique inevitably turns out to indulge in its own distinct form of cherry-picking. For while these writers condemn the innovators they don’t like (i.e. contemporary and especially Western Buddhists) for their cherry-picking, they are never (in my experience) willing to say the same thing about premodern Asian Buddhist innovators – in Tiantai or Chan or other traditions – who had made other large changes to the tradition, sometimes far more blatantly. (I don’t think you’ll find a Tiantai teacher being as ready to admit they reject key teachings of the tradition as I am.)

None of this is to say, though, that anything goes or that all innovations are legitimate. I’ve been critical plenty of times of that opposite extreme, especially from Engaged Buddhists. If Donald Trump were to declare himself a Buddhist tomorrow that would not make him one; to say that he would be, is to make a mockery of all of us who see in Buddhism a normative ideal. So I don’t actually think Thompson and I have a disagreement in principle here. The question is what counts something as a legitimate innovation within the tradition and what doesn’t. That’s not an easy question and I don’t think a cut-and-dried answer to it is forthcoming.

Thompson puts the question in terms of whether the innovations are “congruous”, or “congruent”, with “the tradition” or “your sources”. He doesn’t define these terms; a dictionary definition of them says “in agreement or harmony”. I have argued above that it is inappropriate to expect Buddhist innovators (whether modernist or tantric to Pure Land) to be in complete agreement with their earlier sources. I also nevertheless think that it is reasonable to expect them to be in some sort of harmony, for reasons discussed above. But what does that mean exactly? Again, hard to answer in the general case. But perhaps we can shed some more light by turning to the substantive issues of karma and rebirth, which I will do in the posts to come.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

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