Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

August 12, 2012

The Lord Our God is not so special

Filed under: Buddhism,Conversion — Razib Khan @ 12:00 am

As per the comment below there is a perception by many that monotheistic and non-monotheistic religions are fundamentally different. This is not a totally unfounded position, there are broad familial differences. But, the reality is that the the differences are not nearly as great as people may think. One can see this evident in the fact that Chinese and Japanese routinely confused Christianity with Pure Land Buddhism, while Vasco da Gama paid homage to Hindu Brahmins when first encountering them, assuming them to Christian clerics.

But each in its own turn. Let’s tackle one item. It is clear that monotheism overturns old customs and traditions. How about the dharmic religions? The same can be said for them. We have a great deal of documentation of the conflict which Buddhism caused in early China and Japan, so I can point you to something concrete for further investigation, Bulssi Japbyeon:

The Bulssi Japbyeon (roughly translated as ‘Buddha’s Nonsense’) is a late 14th century Korean Neo-Confucian polemical critique of Buddhism by Jeong Dojeon. In this work he carried out his most comprehensive refutation of Buddhism, singling out Buddhist doctrines and practices for detailed criticism.

Jeong stated that this book was written with the objective of refuting Buddhism once and for all “lest it destroy morality and eventually humanity itself.” The charges leveled against Buddhism in the Bulssi japbyeon constitute a full inventory of the various arguments made by Confucians and Neo-Confucians from the time of the introduction of Buddhism into East Asia during the 2nd century CE. These arguments are arranged in eighteen sections, each of which criticises a particular aspect of Buddhist doctrine or practice.

The Confucian critique of Buddhism is an old one. In the Chinese context Buddhism introduced radical ideas, which destabilized society. Buddhists encouraged individuals to leave their families, and become celibates in monasteries. Buddhism also introduced very alien metaphysics, such as the concept of reincarnation, which was at variance with indigenous beliefs. In fact, Buddhism arguably introduced metaphysics in a philosophical rich manner to the Chinese! On an institutional level Buddhism popularized the idea of organized religion, which was imitated by religious Daoists. Customs such as vegetarianism were also introduced by Buddhists.

This cultural intrusion was the reason that the 9th century saw massive religious conflict in China. In particular, the Chinese state stripped away Buddhism of its independent temporal power, and defrocked hundreds of thousands of religious. After this period Buddhism was no longer an aggressive and assertive institution within Chinese society, but a secondary cult which was patronized by the Confucian rulers, only moderately above the station of rural superstition. The contemporary modus vivendi of Buddhism in China, seamlessly interleaved with other religious customs and folkways, is in part a function of the fact that as a vital and vigorous force the religion was crushed nearly 1,000 years ago. Many Chinese are Buddhist, but to be Chinese is not to be Buddhist (in contrast, to be Thai is close to being Buddhist, and to be Spanish is close to being Catholic).


June 19, 2011

In thrall to Abraham’s God

Filed under: Buddhism,Hinduism,History,Religion — Razib Khan @ 5:51 pm

In reading Strange Parallels I am struck by the broad cross-cultural tendencies in mainland Southeast Asia to transition from a Hindu sacral state to a Theravada Buddhist sacral state. Granted, the latter does not seem to be at great rupture with the former, as is evidenced by the “Hindu” aesthetic resonances of Thai and Khmer culture to this day. There are still two customarily explicitly Hindu ethnic groups in Southeast Asia, the Balinese and the Cham Balamon of Vietnam. But even in Muslim Javanese culture there is still a strong undercurrent of Hindu religious culture (e.g., the popularity of the Ramayana). In other words, very few Southeast Asians are Hindu in name, but a far greater proportion are Hindu in cultural patrimony.

On a parenthetical side-note, I would encourage all readers of this weblog with a genuine interest in the intellectual aspects of human history to actually read broadly across various cultures, on not just their “own.” There’s a great deal of insight to be had, and you’ll sound a lot less like a moron. It seems that most people’s attitude toward history is like their attitude toward shit, they’re only interested in their own. That’s all fine if you’re a dull creature from whom rooting in your own dirt is bliss (that’s most humans, so I have no issues with that, but I don’t want to hear your bleating if you’re such a thing), but to understand the human condition one has to try and gain a sense of humans unlike oneself. Whenever I wade into new intellectual waters I’m struck by the startling generalities which become incredibly clear, as well as the melting of foolish visions enabled only by the narrowness of one’s lens.


My own preconception had been that the success of Buddhism outside of India proper, and the failure of Hinduism, had to do with the fact that the former was a fundamentally universal religion from its inception while the latter is suited only to a South Asian cultural frame. This was a stylized sketch, but even early on the legends of Ashoka imply the universal aims of the Buddhist sangha at that stage. If you can credit the veracity of these records then Buddhism was arguably the first universal creedal religion. Judaism shifted from henotheism to montheism at around this time, but its ambitions were not universal (arguably Christianity is the manifestation of Judaism’s universal ambitions, as it may be the heir to Hellenistic Judaism).

The standard history-of-religion sketch implies that Hinduism as we understand it today arose as a response to the shramanic sects which challenged the Hindu religion conceptualized as Veda oriented Brahmanical cults. Arguably the crystallization of Hinduism as we understand it today did not occur until after 1000 A.D., with the dominance of Vedanta at the elite levels, and the marginalization of Jainism and Buddhism in mainland South Asia, and the rise of Islam. Some historians suggest that there is a peculiarity of elite Hindu discourse during the period after the arrival of foreign Muslims as the elite political class across much of the subcontinent in that it operates as if the Muslims did not exist. I don’t think this is so exceptional actually, you can see the same tendency in much of pre-modern Judaism, which was embedded in a much more overpoweringly non-Jewish environment. Jewish thinkers created a world where naturally gentiles were marginal players, because their concern was their own people. Similarly, I see no reason why the same could not apply to Hindu intellectuals. A more explicit analogy might be St. John of Damascus, the last of the Church Fathers, who served in the administration of the Umayyads. Though there is some mention of Islam in his writings, his primary preoccupations are Christian, and interestingly his focus of energy after his retirement was a series of polemics against iconoclast Byzantine Emperors (in that that they sanctioned the destruction of icons).

And yet despite this neglect of the Other in the writings of Jews and Christians who were subject peoples, it would be foolish to deny that the milieu did not effect the Jews and Christians who lived under the rule and domination of the Other. On occasion this manifests explicitly, as Eastern Christians turned away from the sort of public pageantry which is still common in the Roman Catholic Church clearly to mollify the iconoclast sensibilities of their Muslim rulers. Similarly, the question of whether Christians are monotheists is handled with much more delicacy by rabbis who lived under Christian rule than amongst those who lived amongst Muslims (the point at issue is the Trinity, which both Jews and Muslims consider to be a violation of monotheism, and whether therefore Christians are pagans).

Even if Hindus “forgot” the power of Islam in the Indian subcontinent in the geographies of their minds, it seems implausible that over time they would not be influenced and shaped by the ideas of Muslims. Of course this is not a one way process, especially in light of the demographic heft of Hindus, or the collection of religious ideas which became Hinduism. In the earliest years of Islam there was a cross-fertilization between the two cultures, that of Islam and India, and there is some thought that the Sufi orders who arguably came to influence Indian devotional religion were themselves a product of the “Indian period” in early Islam, when Hindu and Buddhist monastic and ascetic traditions helped to shape the mystical sects of Muslims.

This sort of last dynamic, where it is “not even wrong” to tease apart the integrated whole of what history has become moves me back to Southeast Asia. My question frankly put is this: if Islam for some reason turned west and not east, would the world of South Asia look more like Southeast Asia, with a Buddhist elite ideology overlain atop a Hindu cultural substrate? The issue here is that terms like “Buddhist” and “Hindu” are old, but also only understood in a modern light. As noted by many Hindu was simply the generic term for Indians, before becoming imputed to the constellation of religious practices indigenous to India. In other words, India might be Hindu because all Indians would be Hindu, but the political structures of South Asia at the highest levels might have patronized a sort of Buddhism, which itself is an expression of Dharmic religious sensibilities.

What I’m getting at here is that many Hindus assert, somewhat hegemonically, that Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism, are simply variants of Hinduism. This is not a universal assertion amongst Hindus, and even those who would bracket these religions under the umbrella of Hinduism would likely acknowledge the differences between them and mainstream Hindu thought (dominated at the elite level by Vedanta). But if we grant that the difference between Buddhism and Hinduism is quantitative, and not qualitative (as it is between the Dharmic and Abrahamic and Chinese religions), then I think we might imagine a world without a dominant Abrahamic reference where a Hindu religious ideology never develops in a coherent sense as it did under Islam. Rather, like Bon-po, Shinto, or the Hindu cultural substrate in all Theravada societies, Buddhism and Hinduism-that-never-was may have operated as two different cultural tracks within South Asia, ultimately in complementation and not conflict (the “defeat” of pre-Buddhist religious thought in Tibet, Japan, and Southeast Asia, often resolves itself in terms of assimilation and integration, not extinction and extermination).

I am not confident of this model, and need to read up more on the religious literature of medieval India, Hindu and non-Hindu, as well as the history of mainland Southeast Asia. Unfortunately the textual evidence is going to be a bit on the thin side, but I am sure there is much more to mine.

Book recommendations are welcome!

November 19, 2010

Asian Buddhists are not atheists

Filed under: atheism,Buddhism,Data Analysis,Religion,Statistics — Razib Khan @ 3:10 pm

In response to my two posts below on atheism statistics, people in the comments and around the web (e.g., Facebook) have pointed out that Buddhism is necessarily/can be atheistic, and that Buddhism, is not/not necessarily a religion, and therefore that explains the statistics. Some of these people are lazy/stupid judging by the way the argument is delivered, but they are clearly grounded in a reality which is expressed in books and documentaries which introduce people to Buddhism. There is a small issue which confounds this analysis of the atheism statistics: most East Asians do not identify as Buddhist. This is mostly because most citizens of the People’s Republic of China do not identify with Buddhism. That being said, Buddhism is clearly the dominant organized religion historically in many East Asian nations (though that has not been true in South Korea for the past generation). I reject the equivalence between the role of Catholicism in much of Europe and that of Buddhism in East Asia (the Church was a much more powerful, prestigious, and influential institution than the Buddhist sangha with only a few exceptional periods), but it can be argued that these are Buddhist cultures, just as they are Confucian societies.

But there’s a bigger issue with this objection: most Asians who identify as Buddhist are themselves theists. This is also the case for American Buddhists. Some people have objected that theism in a Buddhist context is not equivalent to theism in a Hindu, and especially Abrahamic sense. There is no creator god obviously. That is fine, but I think it is important to point out that no matter the theological details of their beliefs, most Buddhists do seem to accept the existence of supernatural entities which we would term “gods.” I was aware of this personally because I’ve encountered several people of Chinese origin who tell me that they’re Buddhist, they believe in god, when I tell them I’m an atheist (usually in response to the question about whether I am Muslim).

The previous question as to whether someone was a “Religious person,” “Not a religious person,” or a “Convinced atheist,” can be broken down by religion. I did so. Below are the data for Buddhists alone. I also provided the sample size for Buddhists. The overall N’s were on the order of 1,000-2,000. So you can see that only a small minority (5% actually) of Chinese in the People’s Republic identify as Buddhists. The other values are obviously percentages.

Country N Religious Not A Religious Person A Convinced Atheist
Japan 319 37 60 3
S Korea 298 37 61 3
China 70 91 9 0
Taiwan 224 50 41 8
Vietnam 226 62 15 23
Hong Kong 160 100 0 0
Thailand 1484 34 66 0
Malaysia 240 78 20 2

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