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Lions Roar : November 2019
greater knowledge and experience of the dharma, both for ease of administration and the spiritual advancement of sangha members. Indeed, as long as we distinguish between teachers and pupils in our larger society, we will do so in spiritual communities as well—since a sangha is, in the broadest sense, an educational institution. And if traditional Buddhism sometimes was ritu- ally and contemplatively oriented at the expense of political critique, so politically-engaged Buddhism may run the risk of drowning the inner life in a sea of outward engagement. Myth and Ritual Past Buddhists often took their myths to be exact representa- tions of the lives and deeds of enlightened beings and the origin and structure of the cosmos. As moderns informed by critical consciousness and the discoveries of science, we cannot easily summon such belief. What we can do is to retell the stories in our own idiom, seeing them as psychologically or existentially meaningful, even if not literally true. Similarly, traditional Buddhists typically ascribe real-world efficacy to their rituals, which often are intertwined with myths. Modern Buddhists sometimes reject rituals as ritualism: the mindless and pointless repetition of words and actions. When they do practice rituals, they often, and reasonably, perform them in their own language and interpret them as meaningful symbolic acts of body, speech, and mind, even though they may doubt the ritual’s effect in the world outside the ceremony. Many make ritual subservient to meditation, which they take to be the essential practice of Buddhism. Caveats: Traditional myths and rituals may have more truth and potency than we imagine. In any case, premodern Buddhists some- times had more critical conscious- ness than we give them credit for. They often took their myths not literally but as inspirational stories, and understood their rituals less as magical interventions in the operations of the cosmos than as significant ways to enrich their interior life while strengthening community bonds. And those who contrast meditation to ritual should remember that meditation itself is a ritual, consisting of repeated, pat- terned mental, verbal, and physical acts. This is so even in “formless” practices like Zen or Dzogchen. Cosmology and Metaphysics Traditional Buddhism describes a universe in which sentient beings wander from rebirth to suffering rebirth propelled by deluded deeds and actions, but ROGER R. JACKSON is emeritus professor of religion and Asian studies at Carleton College (Minnesota). He has published widely on Buddhism in South Asia, Tibet, and the modern world. adapted doctrines, myths, rituals, symbols, and institutions to meet their own historical situations, knowledge systems, and cultural values, while attempting to preserve the essential Bud- dhist message as they saw it. Contemporary Buddhist attempts to align Buddhist teachings with, say, feminism, science, or environmentalism, are thus no dif- ferent—and no less justified—than premodern Burmese efforts to integrate the Buddha into indigenous pantheons or Chinese efforts to read filial piety into Indian Buddhist sutras. They are all “updat- ing” the dharma to assure it continues to speak to the hearts and minds of suffering beings in their own place and time. Many aspects of the dharma have never been “updated” or changed—nor should they be. These include Buddhism’s empha- sis on the primacy of mind, its realistic account of suffering, its insight into impermanence, its detailed analysis of mind and emotions, its subtle exposition of psychological and moral causa- tion, its insight into no-self/emptiness, its stress on meditation, its vision of spiritual freedom, its inspiring artistic expressions, and its altruistic ethics. All these fundamentals have carried across generations and continents, and they need no revision. At the same time, like our forerunners, we modern Buddhists are justified in adapting certain elements of the tradition to our own setting, knowledge, and values. Most of these adaptations have already been set in motion, so nothing I mention here is new. These fall into three major areas: (1) social and political values, (2) myth and ritual, and (3) cosmology and metaphysics. In each case I will suggest certain updates, but also add caveats. Social and Political Values Buddhism developed within Asian societies that, with rare exceptions, took for granted various social hierarchies: ruler over subject, male over female, elder over younger, elite over common, teacher over pupil, religious over lay. The egalitarian ideals of our own society (far from fully real- ized, of course) resist most such hierarchies. In Buddhist con- texts, this means experimenting with more democratic forms of institutional organization and spiritual leadership, so that the role of teacher may devolve upon anyone who is suitably qualified, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, social class, or ordination status. It also means that discrimination on the basis of any of these factors within Buddhist communities must be resisted, and that abuses of power by those in authority must be exposed and punished—regardless of the status of the abuser or the casu- istry employed to justify the abuse. More broadly, this entails political engagement at the societal level, to help assure that institutions and policies are conducive to human flourishing in general and dharma practice in particular— not to mention the very survival of sentient life on our planet. Caveats: Pure democracy may be no more feasible—or advis- able—in a sangha than in modern nation-states. Hierarchies may not be as natural as assumed by traditionalists, but there is something to be said for vesting a degree of authority in those with PHOTOBYMARCSAKAMOTO LION’S ROAR | NOVEMBER 2019 63