Buddhist Conceits

Mike Slott, editor of the Secular Buddhist Network website, critiques Bikkhu Analayo’s new book, Superiority Conceit in Buddhist Traditions. I appreciate Mike’s argument that Bikkhu Analayo missed one of the most important of Buddhist conceits, monastic claims of superiority over lay people based on the ‘two truths’ doctrine, a doctrine apparently not present in the early Buddhist cannon. This is the distinction between “conventional truths which correspond to our everyday experiences and our need to function in the world; and absolute truths which correspond with the ultimate nature of reality.” Monastic leaders claim direct access to the true nature of reality, something they say is inaccessible to lay people. Because they base their claims of power over laity on this, sectarian doctrinal differences became a major embarrassment that called into question the whole basis of their religious and political power. What’s the point of a religion if you cannot control other people? No wonder Mike’s point would be considered heretical by mainstream Buddhist authorities.

Mike Slott is also critical of Bikkhu Analayo’s analysis of secular Buddhism’s supposed conceit that “it” is superior to other forms of Buddhism. He argues: Analayo falsely assumes all forms of secular Buddhism are based on Stephen Batchelor’s work; fails to understand how Batchelor’s approach to the early Buddhist cannon involves a contemporary creative reinterpretation which acknowledges other valid ways of interpreting it; and ignores how secular Buddhists have taken care to emphasize the importance of respecting other forms of Buddhism and to acknowledge their manifold movement is not superior to other forms of Buddhism.

I tried reading Analayo’s book because I had so appreciated a video he made on this subject years ago, On the Importance of Respecting the Different Buddhist Traditions, but I confess I got bogged down in the arcane Theravada Buddhist monastic complexities that interfere with fully ordaining women as monks. I was reminded of how the Buddha had left it to his followers to decide which of the monastic vows and rules were most important and which could be let go of as needed, but how, soon after his death, the order was reportedly unable to decide which rules were more important and which ones could be let go of, and so insisted on the necessity of holding onto them all for all time. To me, it sounds like the order had lost touch with something Gotama had assumed was basic, the ability to determine the relative importance of their own rules. He seemed to think they had a shared hermeneutical approach to determine this. They decided only he had the transcendental understanding to determine this. This laid the ground work for splits between the various schools based on dogmatic claims concerning what the Buddha actually taught. What a shame we humans have such difficulty valuing diversity and pluralism within our own traditions and fields and in our shared global cultural, religious and philosophical heritage.