Buddhism Does Not Exist

NOTE: This is a comment I posted on this post at feministe, by guest blogger Kloncke. I thought I’d like to save it, because reading it again, I liked parts of it. Especially the first sentence. 🙂

Buddhism does not exist. Buddhism is a figment of our individual and collective imaginations. The “Buddhism” that we know in the “West” has little to do with Early Indian Buddhism, much in the same way that Early Indian Buddhism has little to do with Chinese Buddhism. What Buddhism has become a repository for–since its construction by Europeans as “Buddhism” (say as opposed to buddhasasana or some such), some unitary “world religion”–is all of our desires and dreams. In the early 20th century Early Buddhism was the religion of ‘rationality’ that could replace a corrupt, institutionalized, superstitious, oppressive Christianity. Then it suited our desires for mysticism and existential angst with Zen. Now Tibetan Buddhism is popular for whatever reason. Ironically, in Korea, Buddhism is seen as decadent, and Christianity is a vital, rational religion. So, why Buddhism? I guess the point I am trying to make here, is that all this discussion about what “Buddhism” is, has little to do with Buddhism and everything to do with our own conceits.

Is Buddhism about meditation? Is it a philosophy or a religion? Is it about mindfulness, etc. etc.? The answers to these questions betray our own interests and desires. Why do we get upset when one person says Buddhism is X and another says it is not X? Why take sides?

I think what could be useful is to step back a bit and ask: “are we not becoming problematically attached to ‘Buddhism’ when we want to think Buddhism is a certain way and to argue against the idea that it is another way?” Buddhism is a vast religion, with too many iterations to count. For most ‘buddhists’ throughout history, Buddhism was a complex of gods, rituals, social norms, and platitudes to get through their daily life. Indeed, even meditation was a minority practice among monks! Much of what we think is Buddhism has been a haphazardly constructed Orientalist stereotype that meets the needs and desires of Western audiences. We are spoon-fed a Buddhism that meets certain of our desires. Ironic.

Given all this, the question should not be “what is Buddhism” or even “what does Buddhism say about X”? Rather, the question should be, “since every invocation of Buddhism is used for a certain end, is an appropriation, to what end am I appropriating Buddhism–and what are the consequences of that appropriation?”

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6 Responses to “Buddhism Does Not Exist”

  1. worthfiveseconds Says:

    I like this- it’s an important recognition of the need to be fully aware of what we use Buddhism for. When I was younger, it was a way to escape pain, but of course, this attitude is fairly counter-productive =]

  2. John Cannon Says:

    My first experience with Buddhism and the ideals of Buddha came with Siddhartha and Herman Hesse. I’ve adored the teachings of inner peace since, as a Vietnam vet, inner peace was hard to come by. I’ve read a few of the various authors here on Word Press and even opened my own blog, Buddha’s Gifts, and web store in hopes of both learning more about Buddha and Buddhism as well as gently sharing what little I know. Thanks for what you do.

  3. buddhawithlove Says:

    Never thought like that before

  4. missnarcissist Says:

    This is a very interesting post! I came from a family of Buddhists, and I have to say, I completely agree with you. That being said, it doesn’t only apply to Buddhism, I think these kinds of societal constructs and norms applies to every religion.

    I just wrote a post on religion as well, and I’m curious to see whether you agree or not.

    Lily

  5. Fuzzytheory Roundup « fuzzytheory Says:

    […] those who come here with an interest in Buddhism, try Buddhism Does Not Exist, or Foucault and Buddhism: […]

  6. peter Says:

    I think that to locate the origin of Buddhism, you have to practice Buddhist meditation in a rigorous and systematic manner, not in a fake way. I understand the message of Buddhism, you have to read sutras treated by historians and academia.

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