Saturday, August 28, 2010

Traditionalist Representations of Buddhism

A 2008 article I have just found: Richard K. Payne, "Traditionalist Representations of Buddhism," Pacific World, Third Series, no. 10 (Fall 2008), pp. 177-223.

In this article, Payne introduces Tradiitonalism for those who do now know it, and then looks at representations of Buddhism by Frithjof Schuon, Julius Evola, Marco Pallis, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Mircea Eliade, and Huston Smith. He argues that their representations are inevitably dated--given that scholarship has moved on since they wrote--but that that their work should not be dismissed, because of "the depth of influence of the Traditionalist understandings of religion and of Buddhism" (p. 208). He understands Traditionalism as "a dogmatic core belief that provides a systematic hermeneutic" (p. 203), and concludes:
There are two important aspects of Buddhist doctrine that the Traditionalist interpretations overcode, recreating Buddhism in the model of Traditionalist presumptions regarding the nature of human existence, the world, and the path/goal. One is the interpretation of Buddhist ontology within a Neoplatonic framework as simply another instance of a hierarchy of truths. The other is the interpretation of awakening within a Perennialist framework as simply another instance of a single and universal category of mystical experience. Because both Neoplatonism and Perennialism function almost pre-reflectively in American popular religious culture these two acts of overcoding Buddhist doctrines are usually invisible (pp. 208-09).


Anonymous said...

Richard Payne's article needs refutation. Payne's major shortcoming as a critic of the Traditionalists is that he doesn't seem to have read them; for example, he characterizes them as "romantic individualists", as if he couldn't tell the difference between Frithjof Schuon and Lord Byron!

One more Traditionalist to add to the list of writers on Buddhism: John Paraskevopoulos, by virtue of his book, CALL OF THE INFINITE: THE WAY OF SHIN BUDDHISM.

Anonymous said...

Payne's article is interesting, but there are noticeable flaws in it. First of all, he states that an attribute of traditionalism is a nostalgic longing for the past. Though I've noticed traditionalists fall into this trap sometimes in their writings, nostalgia is not apart of its core. It has been made pretty explicit time and again in traditionalist writings that what they are concerned with is not the re-creation of past civilizations, but the principles those civilizations were based on. This hurts his claim that the body of their teachings is inherently romantic, rather than some of them falling into occasional romanticism.

Payne also doesn't seem to acknowledge that what he calls the traditionalist "reinterpretation" of the Buddha's position on the self/atman is also one that is held and been held by a great many Buddhist teachers and seems to be advocated in a number of Buddhist scriptures. The fact that the Buddha's words in the Sutta Pitaka when speaking of the Self were "this is not my self" and not "there is no self" don't exactly lend credence to the idea held by those (and it seems Payne) who believe the Buddha preached there was no self. In addition, Payne's idea that Buddhism speaks of no absolute can be countered by many teachings in some of the branches of Tibetan Vajrayan Buddhism and in all of its Japanese counterpart (Shingon) as well as a number of zen teachers who hold the Buddha-nature or the Dharma-body to be the absolute reality. The Sutta Pitaka provides a further rebuttal to Payne's and others belief of no absolute when the Buddha speaks of the un-caused unconditioned, nibbina, that is alternative to the conditioned existence of samsara. That the Buddha was silent as to the exact quality of the unconditioned in no way means that the Buddha did not teach that there is no timeless, unchangeable supreme reality.

Finally on the issue of Buddhism, Payne seems to imply that there is no metaphysical hierarchy, no hierarchy in Buddhist cosmology. To say that this would raise the eyebrow of a Buddhist teacher would be an understatement. In Buddhist cosmology, it has its heavens and its hells, better said its higher and lower states of consciousness and being, only they are not ever-lasting, as they are bound to samsara. Maybe I misread what Payne wrote, in a way I hope so, for his students' sake, since they'll be exposed to misinterpretations like the emptiness misinterpretation among westerners Payne speaks of in the paper.

Payne also doesn't give an example of what would be the opposite modernist scholarly view of who the Buddha was, or why viewing the Buddha as an extraordinary man is a typical modernist view (I'm guessing the entire Theravada sect is guilty of this in Payne's eyes). And he doesn't really explain how Evola's Yoga of Power has quasi-fascist implications. Recognizing metaphysical hierarchy in Hindu Tantra (which there is) doesn't necessarily result in a totalitarian political/social system for the society that accepts it (didn't for India in its history). Payne falls into the same error as others in thinking that because Evola associated with fascism and national socialsim for awhile, his writings on esoterica and religion are fascist reinterpretations and contain fascist ideas by necessity (does he feel the same about Heidegger). That by no means is a defense or an attempt to accuse Evola of his associations with those types, an example of an unsavory side to his character, but that doesn't mean that one should treat him like a bogeyman with anything he wrote as untouchable.

Anonymous said...

cont. There are a few other flaws in the paper that I won't waste up space to mention, but with that said, some of what Payne wrote is food for thought. He makes a good point that many traditionalists don't mention in their writings what certain a concept means from the voices of the doctrine it comes from (such as Buddhist voices). He makes a good criticism of the typical attribute in seen among western Buddhists to just ignore doctrine and focus on meditation, and he makes a good observation that many traditionalists (though he may believe all of them) don't consistently explain what makes a spiritual/religious doctrine traditional and how that all religious sects can be traditional (though he makes the mistake that all traditionalist writers think that).

Interesting article, but if there was a peer review process involved in this it should have been a more rigorous one.

Anonymous said...

I agree completely with the aforementioned comments on Payne's essay - it full of factual, logical and ideological misrepresentations. he has not engaged with the Traditionalist writers in any serious manner and is guilty of exactly those features he accuses the Trad's of i.e. selective quotes, 'over-coding' their message. His essay should never have been published, it is not scholarly in any respect and only reflects his lightly veiled ideological positions which will not accept a Traditionalist understanding.

JesseM said...

Payne also doesn't seem to acknowledge that what he calls the traditionalist "reinterpretation" of the Buddha's position on the self/atman is also one that is held and been held by a great many Buddhist teachers and seems to be advocated in a number of Buddhist scriptures. The fact that the Buddha's words in the Sutta Pitaka when speaking of the Self were "this is not my self" and not "there is no self" don't exactly lend credence to the idea held by those (and it seems Payne) who believe the Buddha preached there was no self.

Well, in the Diamond Sutra Buddha says:

"Subhuti, any person who awakens faith upon hearing the words or phrases of this Sutra will accumulate countless blessings and merit."

"How do I know this? Because this person must have discarded all arbitrary notions of the existence of a personal self, of other people, or of a universal self. Otherwise their minds would still grasp after such relative conceptions. Furthermore, these people must have already discarded all arbitrary notions of the non-existence of a personal self, other people, or a universal self. Otherwise, their minds would still be grasping at such notions. Therefore anyone who seeks total Enlightenment should discard not only all conceptions of their own selfhood, of other selves, or of a universal self, but they should also discard all notions of the non-existence of such concepts."

Emphasis mine. So, according to this sutra Buddha would not have preached any definite doctrine that atman and Brahman are one (or that they are different!)--all such definite claims about the existence/nonexistence of any sort of "self" would be grasping at concepts. Of course there is some uncertainty about whether the Mahayana sutras represent the authentic teachings of Buddha, but the same is true of the Pali canon...

Anonymous said...


I am the poster you quoted from.

Your point is quite valid. I should have made my post a little more clearer on this. Just as much as the Buddha didn't affirm the non-existence of the self, he also, as you pointed out, did not affirm the existence of the self/atman. Its an example of the nature of The Buddha's doctrine, which you have alluded to in your post, of removing rational, discursive thought constructions (the demon of dialectics). In Buddhism, enlightenment is gained through direct experience, to be that which is known. Obviously, most people who don't understand this and get confused because they are used to rational/dualistic/discursive thinking.

Evola recognized this, and noted it in his book on Buddhism. He saw the Self in Buddhism the same way that Hajime Nakamura (one of the most respected scholars of Buddhism) did, as a latent possibility to be actualized by directly experiencing it. Without direct experience, it is futile to affirm or deny it with certainty. Its an example of why Payne's article is not really a good one and lacking a strong peer review. Though it isn't certain, but its rather apparent that Payne did not study in depth what he is criticizing.

With this, the quote of Evola's in Payne's article becomes clearer. Since the Self is not conditioned by samsara, nothing that can be said of it to the unenlightened for the unenlightened mind only experiences samsaric, conditioned existence and has nothing from its experience that can be accurately related to it, so explaining to someone without direct experience would be futile.

JB said...

Agree with the above reviewer, Payne does not seem to have spent much time or effort reading what traditionalist authors have actually written on the subject of Buddhism.

Take Evola for instance, the racialist undertones present in his “Doctrine of Awakening” must be placed in context, which Payne fails to do fully: Evola’s own racialism aside, the politico-historical context nuances his presentation of Buddhism considerably. Remember, he is writing a book of a practical nature for western readers, not a mere presentation. Contrast his positive assessment of Buddhism with that, say, of other racialist writers of the day such as Houston Chamberlain, or Revilo Oliver, who were extremely critical of Buddhism, as a foreign, asiatic, life-denying religion.

For what it’s worth, Payne could also have identified the translator H. E. Musson as none other than Nanavira Thera, by the way.

Incidentally, no mention of the reviews of the book at the time: I. B. Horner endorsed it, J. Filliozat wrote a scathing review, Conze mentions it in his memoirs - a back-handed compliment, but a compliment nonetheless given the tone of his memoirs, as we know. Tucci published a later article of Evola’s on Buddhism in his English language journal too, for that matter.

Furthermore, see also Evola’s other articles on Buddhism, and the prefaces he wrote for works on Zen, some of which have been published in English: the booklet on Zen, the commented excerpt from the Maha-sattipatthana Sutta in the first volume of 'Introduction to Magic', the articles published in 'East and West' etc.

As to Confucianism, while attracting much less attention than Daoism, it was not ignored: Guénon's mentor, Matgioi (De Pouvourville), wrote a study on the subject, last part of a trilogy on the Chinese tradition, ("La Voie Sociale") but it was never published, however it was mentioned on occasion. On the other hand, Guénon himself did publish one study on Confucianism and made references to it on a number of occasions elsewhere.