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Spiritual exercises

The question we try to address here is: do we really understand what Buddhism is?
detail from Head of Buddha (1943); Reijer Stolk - artvee.com

by Carlo Carnevale
One of the fathers of modern psychology, William James, wrote that "we keep as much as possible of our past knowledge, beliefs, and prejudices unchanged... it’s rare that the new is assimilated as it is. Much more often it is pre-processed, left to simmer in a stale sauce." We must be aware of the risks of distortion inherent in the assimilation of Buddhism in the West; we believe, with caution, that these distortions are not inevitable. But approaching the Buddhist tradition presupposes that some of our "old prejudices" are examined and questioned. The question we attempt to address here is: do we truly understand what Buddhism is?

The term "Buddhism" is a relatively recent invention of Enlightenment-era European thinkers in the 18th century, in their encyclopaedic attempts to graft the phenomenon of religion onto the broader domain of comparative sociology and secular history. The historicism and relativism of these perspectives lends itself to reducing Buddhist thought to contextual factors and does not really take its speculative claims seriously. Buddhists themselves have only recently adopted the term Buddhism; traditionally, they referred to their spiritual tradition as “Dharma,” or “the teachings of Buddha.”

The very notion of Buddhism implies that this tradition is a coherent philosophical system that proceeds from premises from which everything else logically follows, and that Buddha maintained these claims of systematicity in his reflection. This conception is not native to Buddhist traditions before their encounter with the West; Buddhism is rather a cumulative tradition with fundamentally different validation modes from those of Western globalizing and unifying systems. Practitioners do not follow Buddhism, a systematic ideology of belief and action, but the Way of the Buddha, his Path, if you will, prescribing modes of practice and life. More than a philosophical system, Buddha's teachings are events, sequences of dialectical responses pragmatically aimed at ending human suffering by freeing the mind from attachment to impermanent things.

Terminology issues are embedded in the very language in which traditional Buddhist texts are written and commonly read. To understand Buddhism from the inside — "through Buddhist eyes," to use a phrase Richard Robinson dedicated to Hinduism — we must necessarily approach its primary sources, its fundamental texts. However, rendering the original idiomatic expressions into dynamic equivalents in the target language is not always a straightforward task.

In addition to the classic semantic and philosophical difficulties linked to translation ("every translation is a betrayal"), we must consider the fact that the Buddha adheres to an active and teeming oral culture; his teachings are perfectly integrated with the intellectual and moral dispositions of his listeners. The Buddha himself had a conception of himself closer to that of a pragmatic healer of human suffering than to a religious one - a doctor of the mind whose remedies are related to a specific pathology of the soul. Thus a tradition of Buddhist texts must not only account for what these texts try to say, but also what they try to do.

Because the texts of Buddhism are the echo of oral teachings, they are perhaps better understood as a series of exercises intended to produce a specific mental effect. Buddhist scholar Edward Conze has argued that these primary sources would become nearly meaningless if not “reintegrated with meditative practice,” that they are “spiritual documents, and only the spirit can penetrate them.” The purpose of the teacher, and by extension of the text, is more to train than to provide knowledge - in other words, to stimulate the student to undertake a practice of spiritual involvement. Considering what a text asks us to do means asking ourselves how it is directing us in acting and feeling, in living in a certain way.

This ethical approach (from 'ethos', standard of life) to philosophy applies not only to ancient Buddhist texts, but to classical works more generally, including ancient Greek philosophy. The historian of philosophy, Pierre Hadot, in Philosophy as a Way of Life (1995) laments how philosophy as we conceive of it today, especially in academia, is deprived of one of its original purposes: therapy. These texts aimed to form and transform souls. Philosophy as a modus vivendi involves study, debate, existential challenge and spiritual exercises. These exercises were not intended to produce logically correct reasoning, right actions, and rigorous systematic theories but “consisted of speaking well, thinking well, acting well, being truly aware of one's place in the cosmos.” Spiritual exercises are exercises because they are practical, they require effort and training; they are spiritual because they concern the spirit, the entirety of one's way of life.

Even with these cautions and revisions to our understanding of Buddhism, we may run into enormous limitations. Ernst Wilhelm Benz, a religious scholar, discovered in his field research a Buddhism that was very different from the one he encountered while studying at home, in Marburg. Clearly different. The Buddhists he met face to face, who lived their tradition, had an intellectual and an emotional relationship to historical, philosophical and theological issues that was completely alien to Benz. The scholar talks to us about his attempt to approach Buddhism from the inside and how he found himself involuntarily falling back into his Western mentality. In Benz's perspective, some very deep cultural assumptions, specific to the West, are insidious and can hinder our understanding of Buddhism.

Let's take for example the mathematization of nature, an exquisitely Western structure of thought whereby we tend to assume that the quantifiable properties of objects and space are more real, or at least more objectively significant than the "confusing" contents of everyday experience. The problem is not simply that we have difficulty describing certain aspects of experience; rather, the point is that our descriptions are part of what shapes the experiences themselves. Science is not just a neutral tool of discovery, it is something that partly constitutes the very reality that it undertakes to describe, especially as regards the scientific approach to the study of the mind.

In an article published on the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, J. C. Clearly notes: “there may be basic questions about the human condition and potential not even contemplated by our modern Western civilization, despite its claims to universal scope and epistemological supremacy… there may be a direct form of perception of reality, a perception outside of cultural conditioning, which allows superior objectivity and operational efficiency in everyday life."

Sources & Further Readings:
J. C. Clearly, 2005, Buddhist Studies the Buddhist Way, Harvard Divinity Bulletin.
P. Hadot (1999), La filosofia come modo di vivere, Einaudi.

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