Monday, 28 November 2016

Response from the Middle Way Society

Jack said in the previous post that it was "plucky of me to venture into the thorny arena of Buddhist hermeneutics: the way in which Buddhism has been, and is being, re-interpreted to suit contemporary western (American and European) social life, and precisely who claims authority to perform those acts of hermeneutics". How right he was, following quickly on from his comment came one from the chair of the Middle Way Society, Robert M. Ellis.

As I had to post Jack's contribution (it exceeded the character limit on comments) I think it only right to afford the same prominence to Mr Ellis' input to this debate.

If you seek to learn anything from the Buddha's teachings, presumably quite early on there will be anatta - the recognition that our ideas about 'essences' are our own construction. One's construction of 'Buddhism' is just as subject to this as anything else. If you want to follow the Buddha's experimental example in his early life as he discovered the Middle Way you will be similarly inclined to learn from but move beyond absolutised teachings that are no longer practically helpful, as the Buddha moved on from Alara Kalama and Udaka Ramaputta, the the 5 ascetics. Thus I find it very ironic when Buddhists try to essentialise Buddhism and write in dismissive terms about those who want to follow the spirit of the Middle Way wherever it leads.

The Middle Way Society is indeed independent of Buddhism, as I would have thought anyone who wants to make use of the Buddha's insights would want to be. That doesn't mean that one can't make use of what one can learn from the Buddhist or any other tradition, but that one is not subjected to the authority of a tradition. For a Buddhist to give absolute authority to that tradition and also to want to follow the Buddha's example seems contradictory. But you have made huge and inaccurate assumptions about our motives which presumably stem from a failure to investigate what we actually do. It has nothing to do with political correctness or secularism, nor is it 'watering down' the Buddha's insights, but rather seeking a universal practical method that the Buddha's insights share with those of other individuals and traditions to varying degrees. We can hardly be losing essential elements of Buddha's teaching' when Buddha's teaching involves there being no such essential elements to anything. Only critical investigation in the light of experience can help us to understand and apply what we learn from sources like the Buddha, and the uncritical adoption of tradition is antipathetic to that process of human investigation.

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