One feature distinguishing neo Western Buddhisms from the mainstream traditions of Asia is sectarianism. By and large, traditional Buddhism’s divisions are rooted in differing teachings regarding meta-praxis, or practices aimed at moving beyond ordinary, socially conditioned ways of thinking, judging, and understanding self and world. In Japanese, the word ryuu is used; if translated literally, ryuu means ‘stream.’
Not that something akin to sectarian differences aren’t found in Asia, but when they exist one must look beneath the surface to comprehend their origins. For example, in the Tokunaga period of Japanese history it’s military dictatorship (the Shogunate) imposed a divide and conquer policy with respect to Buddhist institutions. That policy was implemented by turning temples into census collecting points, mandating individuals register as members of Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines (in Tokugawa jidai, the word Shinto had not yet been invented – it was known as Shindo (the way of spirits)). As such, sectarianism’s origins lay outside of Buddhism.
Our Western sense of sectarianism is very different. Rooted in monotheism, it points to the subtext of monopoly inherent in religions of that mythological complex: their image of God as ultimate judge and authority is that of both law maker and law enforcer. Monotheistic religions require making a choice to be on t he side of their God, and that’s a moral choice with eternal consequences. As such, each individual sectarian teaching holds itself out to be the sole, exclusive correct one while all others are not only false but lead to eternal damnation! When Dante composed his Inferno, based on Sufi notions of hells, he included all persons prior to the advent of Christianity in the outer rings of hell, realms of least suffering.
Buddhism function is that of waking up from forces of ignorance fostering dissociative, emotional unstable patterns of knee jerk reactions to life, resulting in inner peace and outer compassionate understanding of others. While many continue mistranslating the Eightfold Path as a series of “right” behaviors, both the Sanskrit and Chinese texts make it abundantly clear those steps aim at making one whole and complete rather than fragmented and chaotic. Enlightenment is possible only within our endarkened condition!
An ancient metaphor established the Buddhist outlook regarding it’s varying teachings – it claims 86,000 of them. Once an emperor called together the 8 most profound sages of his day. All were blind! And all were asked to examine an elephant, then to describe it’s essence. On described it’s tail, another it’s truck, and still others the immense leg, ears, penis, giantic cavity of an anus, and so on. All those parts don’t add up to an elephant. And addition of all the teachings of Buddhism don’t sum up the matter.
Streams are ways of talking about Buddhism. The ultimate experience of transcending the paired opposites composing our socially constructed dualisms is beyond the pale ken of language: ordinary language is for ordinary experience. While various Buddhisms present themselves in meta-languages, most quickly add that their unique descriptions should no be confused with the experience to which they point.
Sectarianism is one force that weighs down Western neo-Buddhisms, resulting often in rude, arrogant, downright bigotted behavior. Among Asian peoples, it’s common to witness persons giving encouragement and support to those on the Way, with no concern for what Way that might be for the moment. Furthermore, it’s traditional in the East to master one teaching, and then go on to others in order to round oneself out.
December 7, 2009
©2009 ,2012, Ken O’Neill. Any reprinting in any type of media, including electronic and foreign is expressly prohibited.