rhetorical consequences

“The general absence of discussion regarding contemporary geo-political divisions as the organizing principle for the field of Buddhist studies, much less its justification, suggests implicitly that dividing the field along these lines is unproblematic — that it is a simple reflection of things just as they are. Naturalized in this way, the categories become hegemonic, molding both decisions regarding research and the ways in which research is presented. The category system and its consequences need to be consciously evaluated, either so that they may be used with more nuance, or replaced with less problematic and (one hopes) more intellectually productive ones. [However,] essentializing rhetorics, in this case geo-political ones, mold the field of Buddhist studies in profound ways and shouldn’t be employed uncritically. It is through critical self-reflection on the established field that new research and insights become possible.”

Richard Payne, “Buddhism or Buddhisms? Rhetorical consequences of geo-political categories

Richard Payne’s short critique of the geo-political divisions of Buddhism in modern academia is a worthwhile read. It reminded me slightly of the continuous critique of the “Two Buddhisms” model often employed in discussions of American Buddhism/s, insofar as Payne is involved in a similar effort to nuance the over-simplified categories used to frame the study of Buddhism in Western academia. (See Charles Prebish, Shannon Hickey, and David Numrich for further discussion and critique of the “Two Buddhisms” model.)

Summarizing an already short article isn’t necessary, so to briefly restate what “geo-political categories” are, the examples of “Chinese Buddhism,” “Korean Buddhism,” “Indian Buddhism,” etc. are such categories. Of the five consequences of this “essentializing rhetoric” Payne lists, three in particular struck me:

1) The confusion of “the geographic boundaries of nations as they exist today with religious cultures[.]”

This is most evident in the misleading category of “Tibetan Buddhism,” when what is often meant in general discussion is the Buddhism found throughout Mongolia, Tibet, and the Himalayan region. That “Tibetan” Buddhism is distinct from what we mean when we are specifically discussing the prevalent form of Buddhism found in Tibet, but it is not limited to the traditional or modern geo-political entity we call Tibet. The same problematic dynamic is present in what we call “Chinese Buddhism.” The relationship between China and Korea, for example, was one of exchange and interchange throughout the Tang and Song dynasties; what we call “Chinese” and “Korean” Buddhism are neither as separate as the categories suggest, nor are they so indistinct that we can use a single term. Referring to the relationship between Buddhism in various Chinese and Korean dynasties with these terms, however, preemptively assumes a separation between the two, which cognitively limits the discussion of their interrelationship as something different from their categorical distinction, rather than something intrinsic to their development. This is a problematic arising from the basic assumption underlying the use of geo-political categories, which is that the development of a tradition happens along strictly geo-political lines and can/should be discussed as such.

2) “It feeds into the politicized rhetoric of ethnic identity at the expense of historical accuracy.”

Again, I would cite the case of Korea as an example of how the geo-political model fails in significant ways. What to do with the modern Korean (Buddhist) interest in both Vipassana and Tibetan Buddhism? What about the Korean Buddhist communities outside Korea that have different needs and concerns than a similar congregation on the peninsula, or the immigrant Buddhist communities in South Korea from Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, etc.? Or how would a nuanced and accurate discussion of the growing presence of non-Korean monastics and Koreans who grew up outside Korea within major Korean orders (both Jogye and Tae’go, for example) occur within this category? And what about when the discussion is pre-1900, which covers a number of Korean dynasties and states, a great deal of cultural exchange with both China and Japan, and a doubling of the physical nation, to include what we now call North Korea, an area we almost never discuss in contemporary considerations of Korean Buddhism? Within the category “Korean Buddhism,” since that term simultaneously suggests both a certain location (South Korea) and a certain linguistic and ethnic identity, there’s little room for these other Buddhisms. I actually see this point and Payne’s next, that this terminology privileges “some particular tradition [as] more authentically representative,” as interrelated, since “Korean Buddhism” as a term assumes the predominant Seon-oriented Buddhism that informs, but is not the sole shaper of, Buddhism as practiced on the Korean peninsula or in Korean communities throughout the world.

5) “It further distorts our understanding because it tends to treat particular forms of Buddhism hermeneutically. Why bother inquiring [into] possible influences of esoteric Buddhism in Zen Buddhism in Japan, when we supposedly already know that what is important for understanding Zen is only Zen itself?”

One of my personal areas of interest is the ways in which “tradition” as a self-referential method of authentication fails precisely because in order to define itself, any one “tradition” by necessity begins to limit what is allowed within the boundary of tradition to include only those things which support a particular claim to authenticity. Such claims to be “traditional” undermine themselves because the category of tradition becomes static. Growth, or at least continuance, is imperiled by a static model, since the social, economic, and political conditions that foster the development of a religious group do not remain the same, but change. A constant re-assertion of what constitutes the tradition becomes necessary for it to survive. Because the factors that gave rise to a particular definition of the tradition continuously shift, the idea of the tradition itself is forced to exclude enough new elements to maintain continuity with its previous self-definition while incorporating enough elements to remain connected to the new social, etc., landscape. While this particular dynamic, of a tradition’s self-definition, is not the exact same as the dynamic Payne discusses, that of those outside a particular tradition defining it, I think that the two are related and share enough in common as a rhetorical fallacy to make discussing the former useful as a way to explore the problems with the latter.

The modern Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, for example, by calling itself “the representative order of Korean Buddhism” explicitly yokes its particular practice lineage with “The advancement of the [Korean] people’s spiritual society.” Nor does Jogye Order simply affiliate itself with the Seon/Ch’an (禪 ) schools, but with the name “Jogye” (曹溪) reinforces its claims to an ultimate authenticity by tracing its lineage of Patriarchs and practice back to the Sixth Patriarch Huineng himself, who practiced at Borim-sa (寶林寺) on Jogye Mountain (曹溪山). (Korean-language source: Homepage of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.)

What Jogye Order’s definition of its own tradition does is elide, first and foremost, the immediate historical background of the modern Order’s emergence. In brief, following the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910, the Second World War and subsequent civil war, one of the consequences for Buddhism on the peninsula was a severe disruption of the celibate monastic community. The modern Jogye Order does not merely continue a “lineage” of celibate monastics practicing in the Imje Seon tradition, but implicitly stands in opposition to non-celibate orders or orders that are not based primarily in the teaching and practice of Seon. Nor, in this definition of Jogye Order, is admittance given to the complex relationships between various orders that existed during the Choseon dynasty. Thirdly, the name “Jogye” itself privileges Seon over doctrinal schools, despite the fact that the relationship between Seon and Gyo (doctrinal sects) is a dynamic one that has not always favored Seon over Gyo, which is what the use of the name Jogye implies. The Order’s definition of itself ends up struggling to make room for alternate practice methods (Vipassana and Tibetan Buddhism are obvious examples), either rejecting them or finding a way to subsume them under Seon rhetoric. It also finds itself defensive in the face of suggestions that the upheavals and difficulties Buddhism faced in the Choseon era might have caused breaks in either the monastic (Vinaya) lineages or the Dharma lineages, because both those suggestions challenge the presentation of Jogye Order as authentic via its direct connection to the Sixth Patriarch and an unbroken line of monastic ordination.

A facile acceptance of Jogye Order’s own definition limits the discussion as to what the Jogye Order is to what it says it is. To use Payne’s words, why bother inquiring into the other factors that shaped a response from within the Buddhist community, which is the modern Jogye Order, if Jogye Order is telling us these factors are not important for understanding its (self-defined) history and role in modern Korea? Furthermore, as anyone who has delved into Korean Buddhism in depth can tell you, the actual landscape of practices and communities within the modern Jogye Order is far more complex and multifaceted than the image presented by Jogye Order itself. I’ve deliberately chosen a recent and specific example, even though this is not an assumption made by Western academics about Korean Buddhism but an image Jogye Order itself actively promotes. It highlights the same problematic, however, which is why I bring it up.

Payne remarks:

“One of the legitimatizing rhetorics of the modern nation-state is continuity with historically pre-existing forms, no matter how tenuous that continuity may be. (Consider the claim of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavī: that he was heir to a continuous monarchy dating back 2,500 years to Cyrus the Great.) Religion has often been employed as part of that rhetoric of continuity.”

The example of the Jogye Order highlights this dynamic, especially its claims to be a direct continuation of the Seon lineage reaching back to the Sixth Patriarch. What I am not contesting is whether or not the Jogye Order, or Korean Seon practice on the whole, is authentic. Rather than trying to locate that authenticity in claims to an unbroken line of transmission—Payne’s “rhetoric of continuity”—I would suggest trying to locate it in the efficacy of its methods to achieve desired spiritual aims, namely, do the practices foster a lessening of delusion and attainment of awakening.

I would echo Payne’s suggestion that, even if we can’t find terms which more adequately reflect the complexities underlying the overly simple geo-political terms currently in use in Western academia, then we can at least be educated about those complexities. This is so that we use these categories with greater nuance and sensitivity, aware of their relative usefulness and rhetorical consequences. Terms and categories describe situations or provide “handles” by which we can begin to grasp the situations and realities they open into; what we need to be careful of is not allowing these categories to become definitive, as if they, and not the people, places, and communities they point to, were somehow more real.


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