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.
On the spiritual path both self power and Divine power are required to achieve liberation / salvation / illumination. Self power means relying on our own power, control, effort etc. Divine power means letting go, and relying on the blessings, grace and transformational properties of the Divine.
Tibetan (Vajrayana) Buddhist teachers tend to be exponents of Divine-power, emphasizing the role of the Divine (conceived as Buddha / Buddhas) in the development of virtue. A typical statement is “without the blessings of the Buddhas, it is impossible for a virtuous mind to arise.” (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Understanding The Mind).
Like the other great religious traditions, Buddhism is interesting because within it we can find a wide variety of practices and interpretations. There are exponents of Buddhism who strongly emphasize self power, and there are others such as Japanese Pure Land practitioners who rely completely on Divine power. The main practice of the Pure Land school is nien-fo (Jap. nembutsu), repeatly reciting the name of Buddha Amitābha (Jap. Amida) in order to recollect and call on him for protection. There is a striking similarity here with the Sufi practice of dhikr.
One of the founders of the Pure Land school was Shinran who, according to Paul Williams in Mahayana Buddhism, “felt incapable of attaining enlightenment by his own efforts, so his last resort was faith in Amida” . Shinran developed an extreme Divine power view, believing that “salvation comes from gratefully accepting Amida’s saving grace, not by any good works.” After a single recitation of the nembutsu with faith all other recitations are superfluous, and according to Shinran even faith comes from grace. Shinran closely analysed the nature of self power and Divine power, and came to believe that relying on Divine power is the truly difficult path, because it is too easy to slip into believing that we have the power to rescue ourselves and that our own actions might be sufficient for salvation.
Although it has many good qualities, Pure Land is an extreme interpretation of Buddhism, similar to Calvinism in Christianity. It certainly seems a long way from the Buddhism described in the early scriptures (Pali Canon), although the practice of ‘letting go’ is found there. I think the following paragraph from Lama Yeshe reveals the fine balance between self power and ‘letting go’ in healthy Buddhist meditation:
“Now, you might think that Buddhism emphasizes control too much and feel that the lamas are saying, “Your deluded mind is so full of negativities that you must restrict it tightly.” But this is not what we mean . . . In Tibet we say that directing the mind is “like bridling a fine horse to make him rideable.” A horse is a tremendously powerful animal and if you do not have the means to control him properly he may gallop off wildly, possibly destroying himself and others as well. If you can harness all that energy, however, the horse’s great strength can be used for accomplishing many difficult tasks. The same applies to yourself . . . So the control we are talking about is similar to that of a pilot who does not restrict but rather directs the power [my italics] of his aeroplane.” Wisdom Energy, p125-6
In this analogy, the conscious mind that is capable of control is self power, and the horse is the unconscious power of the mind and the inner energy winds (Skt. prana). Correct practice means finding the balance between self power and letting go, so that the horse is under control, but is still able to express its unbounded energy. Another analogy is sailing, where the wind is outside of our control, and the elements of the boat such as the sail are self power. By correctly orienting those elements which are under control to the wind, the sailor is able to use (or be used) by the other power to good effect.
As well as balanced teachings like these, within Tibetan Buddhism it is easy to find teachings which tend strongly to Divine power. The Dakini can be considered an archetypal manifestation of Divine power. She appears to Naropa as a hag in order to shock him into a new, more honest phase of spiritual practice:
“All that he had neglected and failed to develop was symbolically revealed to him as the vision of an old and ugly woman . . . she is a deity because all that is not incorporated in the conscious mental make-up of the individual and appears other-than and more-than himself is, traditionally, spoken of as the divine.” Herbert Guenther, The Life and Teachings of Naropa.
Also, Judith Simmer-Brown writes:
“the Dakini is the ‘other’. As an outside awakened reality that interrupts the workings of conventional mind, she is often perceived as dangerous because she threatens the ego structure and its conventions and serves as a constant reminder from the lineages of realized teachers. She acts outside the conventional, conceptual mind, and has therefore the haunting quality of a marginal, liminal figure.” (from Dakini’s Warm Breath).
As well as the Dakini, the major source of other-power in Vajrayana Buddhism is the Lama (spiritual guide). In The Single Decisive Path, Gampopa says: “mahamudra [great enlightenment] has no cause; faith and devotion are the cause of mahamudra. Mahamudra has no condition; The holy Lama is the condition for mahamudra.”
Although the great monotheist religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam emphasize the centrality of faith in God, most denominations assert the importance of self power too: “God helps the man who helps himself” neatly sums up this attitude, or “first tie your camel, then trust God”.