The world picture of the Buddhist Pali Canon is a mythical world picture. The world is made up of 31 planes of existence, divided into a formless realm, a fine material realm and a sensory realm. In the formless realm dwell purely mental beings; in the fine material realm dwell most of the devas (gods, angels). Some devas also inhabit the higher planes of the sensory realm; we humans live in the middle planes; and in the lower planes we find the hungry ghosts (pretas) and hell dwellers. Life is a cosmic cycle of death and rebirth between these planes, with movement upward and downward determined by the good or bad nature of one’s actions within each plane. The results of these actions affect not only the circumstances of our new birth, but also our actions and mental states in the new life, which reflect the previous ones. All of this takes place on a cyclical time scale of endless recurrence, of decline followed by renewal and more decline: once upon a time human beings lived for 80 000 years, and their lack of virtue slowly reduced this, so that now their lifespan is merely a hundred, and it will eventually decline to ten.
All of this is mythological talk, and the individual motifs may be traced to the contemporary mythology of Jainism and the Upaniṣads. Insofar as it is mythological talk it is incredible to men and women today because for them the mythical world picture is a thing of the past. Therefore, contemporary Buddhist proclamation is faced with the question of whether, when it invites faith from men and women, it expects them to acknowledge this mythical world picture of the past. If this is impossible, it then has to face the question whether the Pali Canon’s proclamation has a truth that is independent of the mythical world picture, in which case it would be the task of Buddhist theology to demythologize the Buddhist proclamation.
The words above are not mine. I have pulled these two paragraphs directly from the beginning of New Testament and Mythology, by the 20th-century German Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann, and simply replaced what is specifically Christian with Buddhist concepts. But I think Bultmann’s argument stands just as well when it is transposed into a Buddhist key.
I referred to Bultmann within my debate with Evan Thompson in order to explain why I am not a “Buddhist exceptionalist” (and Thompson accepted this explanation). I believe the core teachings of Buddhism to be truer than those of Christianity, but I do think that Buddhists face very similar issues to Christians in defending our tradition in the modern world. And, overall, I think the Christians have done a better job of this so far for the simple reason that they’ve had a lot longer to think about it, living in the places where modernity began. We Buddhists have a lot to learn from the Bultmanns of the world.
Specifically, if we are to be Buddhists with open eyes, we need to figure out how to deal with the elements in our tradition that are plainly unscientific. Those elements are what Bultmann means by “myth”. He says he uses the concept of myth “in the sense in which it is customarily used in the science of history and of religion.” (In my experience in the 21st century that is no longer the custom in religious studies, but perhaps that is to the field’s detriment.) That is, for Bultmann, “Mythical thinking is the opposite of scientific thinking”, for it is “the report of an occurrence or an event in which supernatural, superhuman forces are at work…” (“On the problem of demythologizing”, 95) But science, in Greek terms, replaces mythos with logos; science provides rational explanations, specifically explanations based on systematic examination of evidence, and those explanations give us reason to no longer take myths literally.
So what do we do about that? I don’t find as much to learn from in the details of Bultmann’s applying his method, which are much more specific to the New Testament and Christianity. And that’s probably a good thing; Buddhism and Christianity are very different from each other, and if we were going to say the same concrete things about each of their messages, we’d run the risk of losing what is most important in both. But I think there’s a lot to learn from in Bultmann’s method itself. Especially: Bultmann is concerned to remain a Christian theologian despite his commitment to scientific thinking. He wants to retain his faith, just as I do. (It is for that reason that I am happy to retain the terms “Buddhist theology” and “theologian”, as put forth in the 2000 book, even though the literal meaning of “theology” is obviously inappropriate for Buddhists.)
And so I find it valuable when Bultmann says his “criticism of the biblical writings lies not in eliminating mythological statements but in interpreting them; it is not a process of subtraction but a hermeneutical method.” (99) It is this approach, of not eliminating but interpreting, that is involved in the project of naturalizing karma. So I already cited Bultmann as a methodological exemplar in my debate with Evan Thompson on that subject, but I have wanted to make it clearer what I’m drawing from him. (Nishitani Keiji, whom Thompson proclaims his sympathy for, also explicitly takes Bultmann as an inspiration.)
Bultmann was criticized by Walter Kaufmann, the Nietzsche scholar whose translations are still used today. Kaufmann’s The Faith of a Heretic has a chapter entitled “Against theology”, which specifically takes Bultmann as its target. Kaufmann says, in italics, “Where the heretic would say No, the theologian interprets” (114); he urges us instead to “let one’s No be a No.” As I understand them, Thompson’s criticisms align quite closely with Kaufmann’s: in Thompson’s eyes, what I am advocating is not really karma, and therefore rather than claiming to interpret karma, I should just say no to it.
I’ve previously tried to explain the continuities I see between my approach to karma and the traditional ones – the reason why I do consider my approach an interpretation. But the point I want to make here is about the method, the reason why one would seek to interpret in such a continuous way – rather than taking the easier path of simply saying No to the tradition, which Kaufmann and (I think) Thompson urge. When one has reason to have faith – that is, when the tradition’s authority has proved trustworthy in the past – one extends that trust by trying to say No as little as possible. But one does not want to do so blindly, in the face of scientific evidence or of one’s other commitments. And so one interprets – one naturalizes.
I do suspect that the process of naturalizing may actually be somewhat easier for Buddhists than for Christians. This is because I think cosmology is overall much less important to Buddhism than to Christianity; Buddhism’s focus, rather, is on psychology. (Thompson might challenge me on that point, since it is indeed possible to view karma as a cosmological concept; but I think I’ve made my case for an alternative interpretation.) The psychological focus does generate problems of its own, when traditional Buddhist texts say things that contradict modern psychology, but it seems to me that those cases may still be easier to interpret in scientific terms than are the kinds of outlandish cosmological claims with which I began this post and with which Bultmann begins his book.
Relatedly, a significant concern about demythologizing should be that the sort of liberal Christianity in which Bultmann’s demythologizing figures has not done very well for itself. Once people have abandoned Christian myth, it seems, they are likely to abandon Christianity entirely. So the question is a live and important one: will the same thing happen to a demythologized, or naturalized, Buddhism? Time will tell, of course. But it seems to me that the signs for demythologized Buddhism might be more promising than they are for demythologized Christianity. The massive popularity of mindfulness meditation, in particular, indicates what a powerful chord Buddhist teachings have struck for people who have no inclination to believe in old Buddhist cosmology in any literal sense.