I would like to compare attitudes to religion across three periods of history: the traditional period, the modern period, and the post-modern period. Religions are generally associated with the traditional period, when they held sway, whereas the modern period is characterised by religion’s loss of dominance. It should be noted that different people, countries and areas of the world are at different points in the cycle: even within the same city it is possible to find modern and even post-modern people living in close proximity with traditional people.
Religion has survived in the modern period, although it has lost its dominance. Modern religion has different characteristics from traditional religion. A good place to find a systematic characterisation of modern religion is Donald Lopez’ book “A Modern Buddhist Bible” where he writes:
“Certainly, modern Buddhism shares many of the characteristics of other projects of modernity, including the identification of the present as a standpoint from which to reflect upon previous periods in history and to identify their deficiencies in relation to the present. Modern Buddhism rejects many of the ritual and magical elements of previous forms of Buddhism, it stresses equality over hierarchy, the universal over the local, and often exalts the individual over the community. (p.ix)”
Lopez also points out that modern Buddhism, like other modern expressions of religion, seeks to associate itself with the ideals of the European ‘Enlightenment’ such as “reason, empiricism, science, universalism, individualism, tolerance, freedom and the rejection of religious orthodoxy” (p.x).
Regarding the modern notion of progress which identifies “the present as a standpoint from which to reflect upon previous periods in history and to identify their deficiencies”, this is in sharp contrast to the traditional religious notion of degeneration (found in both Islam and Buddhism), which views the original teaching / revelation period (via the Prophet Mohammed and the Buddha respectively) as the ‘Golden Age’ and all subsequent generations as degenerating, more or less steeply, in virtues and accomplishments. Modernism is enamoured with the idea of progress and views the present as the most progressive age, looking down upon the ‘backwardness’ of previous ages, even the times of Mohammed and the Buddha.
The trick with modernism, as with all ideological prisms, is to recognise it as such from within. It appears so neutral, so objective, yet it is anything but. For example, the project of presenting Ibn Arabi’s philosophy to a ‘modern’ audience presupposes that such an audience even exists – in fact ‘modern’ times may be over, and the assumptions of modernism may be as (ir)relevant as the assumptions of Victorian Christianity.
Unlike modernism, post-modernism is not opposed to traditional religion. Post-modernism is basically looking for good stories (texts) and religions provide these (though it is worth noting that post-modernism prefers to relativise rather than accept any one story’s claim to absolute truth). The real strength of post-modernism comes from inhabiting the text: only by immersing oneself in the text and appreciating it from its own perspective can the story exert its full weight and narrative drive. Modernism, weighed down by its positivist agenda and burden of ‘objectivity’, can never cross the threshold of the religious text – it can only view it as a ‘spectacle’, like a tourist visiting Westminster Abbey. That is why modernists cannot truly appreciate religion.
Like traditionalists, post-modernists can and do step over the threshold of participation, and experience the force of the religious text. In this respect both are the “blind followers” so derided by modernists. The difference is that, unlike traditionalists, post-modernists retain a ‘knowing’ attitude (almost like Orwellian double-think) which enables them to simultaneous immerse themselves in and retain distance from the text.
As many of us come from a Christian background, one of the main things we consciously or unconsciously expect from a religion is forgiveness. Christianity’s starting point is our imperfection, our inability to keep moral laws (mitzvah), the fact that we are ‘sinners’. Christ embodies God’s forgiveness. His role is to restore our relationship (Covenant) with God despite the fact that we are unable to keep moral discipline ourselves.
I think we can say with some confidence that some of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s disciples have trouble keeping moral discipline. Some of us are ‘sinners’ who need forgiveness. We need to forgive ourselves, and we would like to be forgiven by others. When forgiveness from others is in short supply it can be difficult to have the confidence to forgive yourself.
The opposite of forgiving yourself is blaming yourself. It took me a long time to stop blaming myself for my failure to keep my moral discipline and fulfil the mission my spiritual guide had given me, of setting up Dharma Centres in Mexico. Learning not to blame myself doesn’t mean ignoring the faults that led to my downfall. For me it means looking at the wider context, and understanding that my downfall was a dependent-arising, and my own faults were just part of the story.
Given the type of person I was, with the limited skills I had, it was almost inevitable that I would fail. But as Hazrat Ali said, “failure is my greatest teacher”. I have learned a lot about myself as a result, and I have been forced to look at some of the parts of myself that I least wanted to see.
I think that one of the real challenges for Buddhism in the West – not just the NKT – is whether it can incorporate forgiveness. If it cannot, then maybe it will not flourish here. As with all these things, we are the ones who have to make it happen, we can’t be waiting around expecting others to do it. We need to forgive ourselves and others. If we can truly practice forgiveness then us `sinners’ can make Buddhism in the West great. Christianity is a religion for sinners which has produced great saints. Can Buddhism be the same?
A few years after I disrobed I had a dream. The dream was set 500 years in the future (about 2500CE). Kadampa Buddhism was flourishing. A group of historians were reviewing the different phases of its development. They concluded that the first generation, the Old Kadampas, were saints. The second generation, the New Kadampas, were scholars and yogis, and the third generation, the New New Kadampas were criminals! They had succeeded BECAUSE they were able to come to terms with and deal with their impurity — they had not made the mistakes of denial and holier-than-thou pretence.
Wishful dreaming on my part, no doubt. And there are many New New Kadampas practising purely to whom the word criminal certainly doesn’t apply. But to those of us who are ‘criminals’ I think we have a great part to play if we can really learn to forgive ourselves and others.