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Buddhists and the future of democratic space in Myanmar

A response to Melissa Crouch on “Muslims, NGOs, and the future of democratic space in Myanmar”

By Paul Fuller

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Muslims, NGOs, and the future of democratic space in Myanmar

Produced by R. Michael Feener

The critical situation of the Rohingyas has cast a shadow over Myanmar’s process of democratization and drawn attention to some aggressively un-civil sectors of this Buddhist majority country’s Muslim minority population. In this interview with Melissa Crouch, we will talk about her recent research on Myanmar’s Muslim population and about the role played by the international community – and by religious NGOs in particular – in relation to the escalation of violence targeting the Rohingyas.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for The Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices, and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how these engagements result in changes in our understanding of both ‘religion’ and ‘development’. These interviews with leading scholars working on the topic across diverse contexts in Asia (and beyond) have been conducted by Dr. Catherine Scheer & Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Our work on this has been generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Muslims, NGOs and the Future of Democratic Space in Myanmar

Podcast with Melissa Crouch (13 November 2017).

Interviewed by Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Crouch-_Muslims,_NGOs_and_the_Future_of_Democratic_Space_in_Myanmar

 

Catherine Scheer (CS): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We are Catherine Scheer

Giuseppe Bolotta (GB): And Giuseppe Bolotta

CS: And this is the third instalment of our series on religion and NGOS. Since the turn of the twenty-first century there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both policy makers and academics into the effect that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of religious NGOS or so-called faith-based organisations has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for the Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices and institutional forms – both of religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs – intersect, and how theses engagements result in changes in our understanding of both religion and development. The critical situation of the Rohingyas has cast a shadow over Myanmar’s process of democratisation and drawn attention to some aggressively uncivil sectors of the Buddhist majority country’s Muslim minority population. In this interview with Melissa Crouch we will talk about her research on Myanmar’s Muslim population, about the challenges of advocating for legal reform as a means of promoting religious tolerance and the future role of NGOs in Myanmar’s democratisation process. Before introducing our guest for today’s interview, we would like to thank the Henry Luce Foundation for supporting our research on this topic and the production of this series.

GB: So, speaking with us today is Dr Melissa Crouch. She’s senior lecturer at the law faculty at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Her research contributes to the field of Asian legal studies with a concentration on public law, Islamic law and rule of law in fragile states. Melissa is the author of: Law and Religion in Indonesia: Conflict and the Courts in West Java, published by Routledge in 2014; the editor of Islam and the State in Myanmar: Muslim Buddhist Relations and the Politics of Belonging, published by Oxford University Press in 2016; and the editor of The Business of Transition: Law, Reform, Development and Economics in Myanmar, which will be published by Cambridge University Press this autumn. An engaged legal scholar, among others a member of the Australia-Myanmar Constitutional Democracy Project, we are glad to have Dr Crouch with us today to talk more specifically about the influence of legal frameworks on religious organisations in Myanmar – especially Muslim organisations. Thank you very much for being here with us on the Religious Studies Project.

MC: Thank you.

GB: So, Catherine, would you like to start our questions for Melissa?

CS: Yes. Thanks for that and thank you Melissa. Your research was on religion, law and social conflicts in Muslim majority Indonesia, before you also started looking at comparative development in contemporary Myanmar. Can you tell us more about why you shifted your primary research focus and how, if at all, you see your earlier work in relation to the current events you now study?

MC: Thank you. I think, for myself, I see it more as a broadening rather than a shift. So my research, I would say, is inherently comparative. Although I started out focussing specifically on Indonesia, I have since sort-of expanded to look at South East Asia more broadly, but also a specific focus on Myanmar. And I think one of the most exciting things about the area of comparative law, and law and religion studies, is the strength of studying comparatively rather than in isolation. My own work is inspired by scholars such as Emeritus Professor MB Hooker and his formidable body of work on legal pluralism and Islamic law in South East Asia, scholars like the late Professor Andrew Huxley, who spent a lot of time looking at Burmese Buddhist law. And of course the late Professor Dan Lev who was the leading scholar on Indonesian Law of his generation. And among his work of course was seminal work such as on the Islamic court in Indonesia. (5:00) And so, really, I see my work as building on this kind of history of the field of social legal study in South East Asia. And in doing so, my research tries to focus on a number of core themes around constitutional change, law and development and law and religion. In relation to my research on Islam and Islamic law in Indonesia and Myanmar, I think there are fascinating parallels as well as some striking differences. And in my book on Islam and the State in Myanmar, I try and depict Muslims in Myanmar as at something of a crossroads between South East Asia and South Asia. I think there are similarities in the sense that in some of my work in Indonesia I was looking at the position of minorities within a Muslim majority state. Of course, in Myanmar you have a Buddhist majority country and Muslims as a minority, but, actually, some similar kinds of issues being faced by those minority groups. And I’ve expressed some of these ideas in an article that I wrote in the Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law, which tried to sort of review and summarise some of the key themes in Islamic law in society in South East Asia. And really, I was trying to emphasise the importance of continuing to write against Arabic or Middle Eastern bias in Islamic Studies. Sixty percent of the world’s Muslims live in Asia today, so I think that’s an exciting place and position from which to write about Islam. In addition, I think, South East Asia is important for the study of legal pluralism, and this is where religion comes in, as a key influence in the history and development of legal systems across South East Asia. And I think, also, South East Asia helps us to re-examine and perhaps challenge some of the assumptions that we have in the study of law and religion and Islam, more broadly.

GB: Thank you so much, Melissa. As a legal scholar, with a particular interest in law and religion, how do you see the role of the researcher – her or his ethical responsibilities – and how would you position the book you recently edited, Islam and the State in Myanmar in this context?

MC: Yes, this is a great question and I think this was a really good question to grapple with at the workshop that you both hosted previously at the Asian Research Institute in Singapore. For me, I guess, my own research is influenced by and grounded in a legal ethnography and, I guess, this idea of an ethnographic sensibility. That is, I see in ethnography a great concern for the ethical obligations that we have towards our participants, many of whom become close friends and colleagues. Many of our participants – particularly when we’re talking about religion and issues of religious conflict and aid – are vulnerable, a kind of vulnerable community. And this ethnographic sensibility I think also calls for a need for an awareness of our own subjectivity, an awareness of our own strengths and limitations and weaknesses as researchers. And I think that this helps to influence and inform the choice of what we study, when we study, and how we study, as well as the kind of audiences that we’re trying to reach. The book Islam and the State in Myanmar was really just a first attempt to try to bring together interdisciplinary research. But a lot of it was very much ethnographically based, or based on substantive field research interviews, participant observations, archival and historical research. And really, it was an effort to try and put forward the beginning of an academic enquiry in this area, while recognising that there has been a lot of advocacy reports or policy reports in the past, and there probably will be ongoing, but that academics can play a role in informing some of these debates.

CS: Thanks Melissa, I’m glad you underlined this important aspect of your research. In this context I would like to touch upon a sad event. This January the prominent Muslim lawyer, Ko Ni was assassinated in Myanmar. (10:00) A long-term advocate for the right for peaceful protest and against hate speech, Ko Ni played a key role in recent efforts towards constitutional reform, law reform and legislative reform in religion. In the context of increasing violence against Muslims he joined the Myanmar Muslim Lawyers Association. Can you tell us a bit more about Ko Ni’s work and about his support for, and participation in, law and development, and about his contribution to NGOs – particularly religious NGOS? What is the current situation of Muslim associations and NGOs in Myanmar? How might the position for Islamic organisations have been affected by the death of Ko Ni?

MC: Yes. Thank you. I could spend all day talking about the legacy of Ko Ni and I don’t think it would quite do him justice. But let me see if I can try and encapsulate what I think is at the core of some of his work and efforts and concerns. And particularly his contribution and collaboration with quite a number of international development organisations as well as local civil society organisations and religious organisations. The assassination of Ko Ni on the 29th of January of this year, 2017, was a significant tragedy and very much a wakeup call for Myanmar, for the National League for Democracy, but also for the Muslim community in Myanmar. Simply because of the fact that he was a Muslim, as well as the fact that he was a very prominent lawyer, his death had a significant impact and was felt very deeply by the Muslim community in Myanmar. You are right to say that Ko Ni was affiliated with and involved with an organisation called the Myanmar Muslim Lawyers Association, although in some of the tributes that I’ve written about Ko Ni since his death I really tried to emphasise that I think this was, in some sense, a last resort strategy. In many ways, Ko Ni was first and foremost a lawyer: his concern was with legal process, with justice, with the rule of law and the importance of constitutional reform and equal rights for everyone. But at the same time he was someone – in part because of his stature, his physical appearance – who was well known as a Muslim, and he really couldn’t escape that fact. And I guess, particularly since 2012, with the outbreak of conflict in Rakhine State and the serious displacement there, and then the subsequent conflicts arising in many major towns across Myanmar that particularly targeted Muslim communities – a wide range of Muslim communities – there was a real sense of urgency that the situation was deteriorating rapidly. And I think this really came to a head in the lead up to the 2015 elections, when it appeared that there were strategies, in particular, to try and undermine the National League for Democracy. And one way of doing that was to try and portray them as somehow pro-Muslim. And using that to try and deter people from voting for them. And so because Ko Ni was associated with the NLD, and he himself was Muslim, he was kind-of caught up in some of this controversy. Ko Ni himself was very vocal against some positions and decisions which the NLD took, which he disagreed with. So, this was things like the fact that the NLD did not field any Muslim candidates in the 2015 elections. He was very adamant that that was not an appropriate way to go about things, and that the NLD shouldn’t have caved in, on that issue, under the pressure that had been put on them. So I think, in joining this Myanmar Muslim layers association, this was a last resort for him. But something that he felt was necessary to ensure that they had a voice in many of the kind of legal issues that were coming up, that would have direct impact on his community. And this was particularly acute in relation to what was referred to as the Race and Religion Wars, in 2015. (15:00)This was a package of four laws that was generally known as the Race and Religion Laws, but it was very much championed by Nationalist, radical Buddhist groups who were very overt in their claims that these laws would be targeting the Muslim community in ways that would sort-of contain and control their influence in the country. And so again, Ko Ni was someone who spoke out against the need for these race and religion laws, and very much called them out for the kind of nonsense that they were. And so, in this way, he played a particularly prominent role in many of these debates. On the second part of your question – in terms of his contribution to kind-of law and development initiatives and organisations in Myanmar – I will say that Ko Ni was very much a valued partner for many organisations, including religious organisations, but also the broader international NGO community. He was very much sought-after and was the person to go to, to ask for legal advice on a range of different issues. He was not only someone who was an educator, giving public lectures and speeches to parliament, writing opinion pieces on various legal reforms, as well as providing advice to different non-government organisations about various advocacy campaigns that they were involved with. So his death is very much a loss for the country, and very much a loss for many of these NGOs who did rely on his advice and kind-of the state of gravitas that his presence and influence was able to bring to bear on these issues.

GB: Thanks Melissa. Well the death of Ko Ni was a huge tragedy. Myanmar lost a great protagonist of its contemporary history. So the question now is, what are the future prospects of Muslims in Myanmar – and of course the civil society organisations – to prevent conflict, promote harmony and appreciation of diversity? And what role do scholars have to play in this process?

MC: That’s a big question. And it’s something that a lot of people and actors are working on in this area. We certainly have seen more recently the emergence of some new organisations. Often ones that, in a sense, slide below the radar. That is, they try to keep a very low profile, they don’t engage with the media or have a public profile, but at the same time they are doing research. They are particularly doing the monitoring of potential religious conflicts or social conflicts that may occur, as well as monitoring issues such as hate speech – which has become quite a significant and serious issue in Myanmar. But I think it’s quite telling that they are quite low profile in their presence at the moment. And there are some very practical reasons, and very practical concerns, that if they were to be more prominent that they may, perhaps, in some way be targeted. I think that it is important for scholars to play a role in this process and really, that was one of the reasons that I tried to bring together scholars for the edited book on Islam and the State in Myanmar. As I’ve mentioned, there have been policy papers and advocacy or human rights reports in the past on the situation, particularly in Northern Rakhine State, for the Rohingya as well as for other Muslim communities that have been displaced by those conflicts that took place in 2013 and 2014. Often these policy papers don’t have time for the kind of sustained research that can help provide a more informed analysis. So I think scholars are in a good position to bring a new lens to some of these issues, a fresh analysis, deeper thinking and in particular, comparative thinking and perspectives. Muslims in Myanmar are of course not the first or the only minority in majority Buddhist contexts to face these issues. We only have to look to places like Sri Lanka, or perhaps in Southern Thailand, to see that there are minorities in other majority Buddhist contexts that face quite serious issues. (20:00)But I do think we need to continue to work at pushing the stereotype that presumes that majority Buddhist societies don’t have a problem in the way they treat certain minorities, particularly Muslims. And obviously we see that issue quite prominently in Myanmar.

CS: Thank you, Melissa. This leads to our last question. You have been writing about emergency powers put in place in Rakhine State in Myanmar, in a recent article entitled The Expansion of Emergency Powers, Social Conflict and the Military in Indonesia. You stressed the importance of checking on the exercise of power during times of emergency. In such times humanitarian organisations, including religious NGOs, could tend to play a very important role. What is your perspective on this controversial issue in Indonesia and also in Myanmar?

MC: Yes, you’re certainly right that it’s precisely in times of emergency when we often need humanitarian organisations, including religious NGOs, the most. But it’s somewhat ironic that sometimes the state may block or obstruct the provision of these humanitarian services. I guess my concern with this issue crosses both Indonesia and Myanmar. In the contest of Myanmar, there has been a state of emergency declared in Rakhine State since 2012 and that sort-of continued to be extended on an ongoing basis. And it doesn’t look like it will be lifted any time soon. So that includes things like: a curfew, limitations on people’s freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and things like that. And of course humanitarian organisations in Northern Rakhine State have faced very difficult issues in getting access; at some points being kicked out because of various controversies, or perceptions of controversies. And so I think it’s going to remain a very serious issue in Northern Rakhine State for some time. I guess the broader theme, or pattern, that I feel is emerging is the way in which states across South East Asia have abused emergency powers and sought to extend them. So, I guess, the traditional understanding of emergency powers is that they’re supposed to be in very exceptional circumstances and that, because of that, there should be very strict time limitations: limitations to ensure that there will be a return to normal rule of law, a constitutional law situation. And I guess, the concern is that, in places like the Northern Rakhine State, it’s simply an ongoing emergency – but it’s one that is conveniently used to restrict people’s freedom of movement. But the people in those situations are very often the ones who have been the victims in these conflict situations. And in Indonesia there’s also the role of the military, trying to come back in to gain some ground again in situations of conflict and take on a role that perhaps it’s been quietly pushed out of, due to the democratisation process. I think in Indonesia there’s still a bit of a wait-and-see as to how the laws there will be used. But I think there is, overall, a broader concern that states, rather than facilitating access for humanitarian organisations and religious organisations are actually using emergency powers to obstruct them.

GB: Thank you very much, Dr Crouch, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project. This was a very inspiring conversation. Thank you.

MC: Thank you.

Citation Info: Crouch, Melissa, Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer. 2017. “Muslims, NGOs and the Future of Democratic Space in Myanmar”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 13 November 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 10 November 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/muslims-ngos-and-the-future-of-democratic-space-in-myanmar/

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Religion and the Psy-Disciplines

Thank you Charles Schulz!

A therapist, a chaplain, a guru, a psychoanalyst, a missionary, a university counselor: how do these figures interact? In a milieu where meditations take place as part of church services and mental health services incorporate a spiritual dimension, the relationship between religion and the ‘psy’ disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy – bears thinking about.

In this podcast, Dr. Christopher Harding uses his research on psychoanalysis and Buddhism in modern Japan to tackle the two-way dialogue between religion and the psy-disciplines. How have these shaped each other, and what are tensions between them?

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, pickles, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Podcast with Christopher Harding (27 March 2017).

Interviewed by Krittika Bhattacharjee.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Krittika Bhattacharjee (KB): A therapist, a chaplain, a guru, a psychoanalyst, a missionary, a university councillor: how do these figures interact? In a milieu where meditations take place as part of church services and where mental health services incorporate a spiritual dimension, the relationship between religion and the psy-disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis – bears thinking about. Speaking to us today about the psy-disciplines we have Dr Christopher Harding, who is a lecturer in Asian History at the University of Edinburgh. Chris is a cultural historian, working primarily in Japan and India. He has most recently published a co-edited volume called Religion and Psychotherapy in Modern Japan, which was published in hardback in 2014 and comes out in paperback next month. Chris is also a journalist who has collaborated with the BBC and was one of BBC Radio 3’s “ New Generation Thinkers” . Thank you for being here with the Religious Studies Project, Chris.

Christopher Harding (CH): Thank you.

KB: Just to start us off, could you tell us a little bit about the psy-disciplines?

CH: Yes. So when we use the phrase “ the psy-disciplines”  I guess we’re normally thinking of psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy. So, psychiatry is often thought about as the poor relation of medicine. It’s the discipline of medicine which most people wouldn’t think of going into. Maybe now[they would], but a few years ago – certainly prior to the 1950s – it was the discipline associated with guesswork, with asylums heaving with people that were difficult to treat – really because their object of enquiry was so difficult: the human inner life.They were trying to guess at it, finding ways of examining it from the outside, or making some use of peoples’ own testimonies. It was very, very difficult to try to work out what was going on, to form theories and to form diagnoses. Things improved  in the 1950s and 1960s with new forms of drugs. And now, with new means of scanning and new sorts of theories, things are getting a little bit better. But, for a while, it was medicine’s poor relation. Psychology, most people will know of: working with experimental data, primarily, but also doing some work in the clinical setting. And then psychotherapy, I suppose really, from Freud, Jung onwards, and Carl Rogers – now we have any number of modalities. So, those three things working together, often we would call them the psy-disciplines. And each one has had its own relationship with different religious traditions in different parts of the world.

KB: How has this relationship traditionally been conceived?

CH: I suppose, early on. . . the period that I work on most is the end of the 19th century into the 20th century . . .  Early on there was a relationship of some hostility – especially, I suppose, with Sigmund Freud and with early Freudians. We know Sigmund Freud had his particular views on what religion is really all about,  but also, some would say that his views were actually more nuanced than he was often given credit for. But some of the people early on, who were attracted to psychoanalysis, were attracted to it as a way of fulfilling the good parts of religion – distilling and fulfilling the good parts of religion and getting rid of the rest – and helping people whose lives had been damaged very early on, often by religious upbringings. Particularly if there was harshness in the family background, a heavy emphasis on certain forms of behaviour, a moralising dynamic etc., lots of people would say, in that early generation of psychoanalysis, the kind of thing that Richard Dawkins says, which is that religion is child abuse. And so, from the religious side of things, people worried that that critique could become quite influential.They also worried that the human person was being reduced to a mere organism, or a mere machine, or that your personhood was really the outcome of your upbringing. So they thought that there were all sorts of reductions going on that really threatened the underpinnings of all sorts of different religious traditions .(5:00) But, I suppose, Christian religious traditions in the West were the ones who were initially objecting to people like Freud, but also psychology in general. Because the whole premise of psychology to them seemed wrong: that you can meaningfully study the human person purely in a natural scientific way.

KB: And so this is the context from which, in some ways, your own work departs.Is that right?

CH: Yes, that’s right. I suppose it’s partly from a professional historical context, but it’s partly because I was coming across work in Christianity and Buddhism – contemporary Christianity and Buddhism in the US,  in Japan, the UK and elsewhere – where there seemed to be this mixing and mingling of what seemed to me to be psychological language to talk about the emotional life and theories of childhood on the one hand, and your kind of standard religious stories, theories, theologies, philosophies on the other. And I wasn’t really sure what people were doing when they were mixing these two languages. Often you would get a kind of an opening pitch from an apologist of a particular religious tradition where they would say, “Come on, surely your life is a mess? There must be more to this. You must be suffering stress. You’re angry hurt people!”  And then they kind of shift into the pitch – the religious pitch. You see that in plenty of Christian traditions and books ,and the Dalai Llama and Japanese organisations do the same sort of thing. And I was just wondering, what is exactly is their view of being human, that they’re mixing these two things together, these two, three or four registers of language together, in trying to make a pitch? Is the kind-of emotional-psychological [language] a facade? Is it just that initial pitch to get people interested? Or are these worlds actually doing business in a way that could be very interesting and very fruitful? And I wanted to find a way of almost taking them to task, piecing their language apart, and saying, “ Where are you getting these bits and pieces from? What do you actually mean when you talk about what the emotional life is; what the significance of the emotional life is; how we might lead it in a religious or spiritual way?” And I was really looking around for ways of doing that – digging away, really, at some of the language of contemporary religion and spirituality.

KB: While also seeing them as part of a larger. . .  “ market place”  might not be the right word, but certainly, all of them as part of this milieu together? So language is shared, but they’re also part of the same network – you used the word “business” –  doing business with each other?

CH: Yes, I think so. There was a great book, which came out about ten years or so ago,  by Richard King and Jeremy Carrette: Selling Spirituality – a wonderful book which really helped get me thinking about this. I think one of the things they were concerned about was  –  it was broader than the mental health dynamic, which interests me – but it was this critique of late capitalist culture that exploits religious traditions for techniques or ideas that kind-of keep people going as producers and consumers. So there is that element to it, I suppose, as well. And the sense of doing business again – I think we can get into the history of this a little bit later on – but my basic take on it is: there are very positive ways in which they can do business – the psy-disciplines and various religious traditions . And they have been since the 1940s and 1950s at least, once this kind of initial Freudian hump of Freudian coldness between them was overcome. But there were also ways in which they could be antagonistic, or confusing, possibly quite manipulative when they’re used together. I suppose a prime example, that some listeners may have heard of, would be the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attacks on Tokyo underground, in 1995. Aum Shinrikyo talks about its being the love-child of Buddhism and pop-psychology – that kind of all-encompassing embrace of the world, all-encompassing take on the human person, which really reeled in quite a few people. And you get into the territory of , some people might say, brainwashing, I suppose. But certainly, having such an all-encompassing explanation of the world that it’s hard to fight your way out of it again. That’s potentially what religion and the psy-disciplines do, when they work together, is that they give you no other interpretative options. Almost anything that you might think, or feel, or desire, or do can be quite convincingly interpreted by this uber-framework that together they seem to create. (10:00) And, for that reason, it can have negative as well as positive consequences.

KB: It’s also worth talking about the kind of tensions that you’ve brought up. But I thought, before we get to a more in-depth analysis of the tensions, I thought we could also talk about what you called the “ two-way dialogue”  that happens between the psy-disciplines and religion. What did you mean by two-way dialogue?

CH: I suppose, that they find useful things in one another. So some of the more positive bits of dialogue, in terms of a Buddhist tradition, let’s maybe talk about Japan in this regard: Buddhist traditions making use of the modern psy-discipline. You get this trend around Asia, certainly in India, certainly in Japan, in the late 19th century, where countries that have been very much affected by European colonialism – whether it’s, as it were, boots on the ground, or it’s more of a kind-of cultural imperialism – they’re looking for ways of pushing back against colonial knowledge, against the whole sort-of Western canon. And what some groups do – I’m thinking maybe Swami Vivekananda in India and Hinduism, and a guy called Inoue Enryo in Japan who’s what-you-might-call a Buddhist modernist – what they do is, they look back into their own traditions and they say, “ Well actually, in Hinduism or in Buddhism you will find insights that match and trump those of the Western world. And that one of the ways in which we can state that case clearly to people is by spring cleaning Buddhism, spring cleaning Hinduism: reviving our religious traditions, but in a viable modern format.”  And someone like Inoue Enryo finds the psy-disciplines really useful. Because what we can do is separate out “ true mystery”   – the true mysteries of life – from the false ones. Psychology will tell us what the false ones are because we can investigate people’s patterns of thought, and we can find out why they believe in silly things like ghosts or goblins, that then leaves them free to redirect human wonderment and awe and faith and trust to true mystery. So it’s good for people and it’s good for a Buddhist tradition, because a tradition that looks to be anti-modern in Japan can suddenly present itself as being definitively modern and being worthy of people’s trust and their taxes. And, at the same time, you can say that Buddhism actually, in its own right, is the world’s finest psychology and always has been. And you see, of course, lots of people now who engage with Buddhism will say first-and-foremost that it’s a very convincing picture of what it’s like to be a human being. “It’s first-and-foremost a psychology and then we’ll take it from there.” You might want to call it a religion, you might not, but it can borrow in those sorts of ways. Some examples of how the Christian tradition has borrowed from the psy-disciplines are forms of spiritual direction which are open to the influence of someone’s upbringing on the way they think about God, on the way they process guilt, on the way they worry about sin. It doesn’t mean that you’re jettisoning all the teaching of the Christian tradition, but it means you’re more aware of how human beings work and you can help people who might be stuck. So now lots of monks and nuns and priests will get a certain degree of basic counselling training, so that they can help people. Things might get to a point where they need to refer on, perhaps to a therapist or to a psychiatrist, but these basic learnings can actually be very, very useful in their work.

KB: On the Buddhism example specifically, I wanted to ask a little bit about Kosawa Heisaku, who you speak a bit about in your book, referring to him as the Father of Modern Psychoanalysis in Japan. Is that accurate?

CH: Yes, absolutely.

KB: And I was really interested to see an example in the flesh of mixing Shin Buddhism, in particular, with Freudian ideas of psychoanalysis and the way he used both of those traditions to create his own practice. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

CH: Yes, a very brief potted biography I suppose. Kosawa Heisaku was a student of psychiatry first, in Northern Japan, in the 1920s. He encountered psychoanalysis a little bit through one of his mentors who’d studied in the US. But Kosawa wasn’t really convinced with the way he was teaching it, so he actually went to Vienna, met Freud, worked with Freud and his circle in Vienna – only really for a year or so – and he had an analysis there and came back to Japan. He opened his own clinic in Tokyo and this is where he seems to have started to develop this kind of fusion of the two. It seems to have been the case with him that he saw Buddhism in Japan as being under threat. And he wanted to find a way – a little bit like Inoue Enryo I mentioned earlier –  he wanted to find a way of showing people what Buddhism really aimed at, what Buddhism was really about.(15:00) And on, an individual basis, he wanted to help his clients work towards, really, an experience that some people would say had a fair bit in common with enlightenment. His theory was basically that, if a client is in psychoanalysis for a certain period of time, they have a kind of releasing of all sorts of material from the unconscious, bit by bit, which gives them a certain amount of freedom. But what it also does is it shows them something which is absolutely key in Shin Buddhism, which is that human beings are, right down to the ground, corrupted; that we cannot really achieve anything useful, in terms of our own salvation, for ourselves and by ourselves,; that we need the help of – what Shin Buddhism talks about as “ other power” – Amida Buddha. It’s alright to discuss that in conceptual terms, in philosophical terms, but it doesn’t get you there. So Kosawa’s idea was that, actually, one of the things that does get you there, that goes beyond the philosophical conversation about things, is to be face to face with the therapist to tell them all the things you’ve done, all the things you’re thinking and all the things you secretly want. To get into all that material you suddenly see the reality of your corruptness and your helplessness. And by doing that, by seeing that, almost you can’t help yourself. By going through that process, then, you open yourself out onto realising that you need to rely completely upon other power, which is a key goal for Shin Buddhism.

KB: Almost like an involuntary confession?

CH: I think that’s absolutely right, that’s a lovely way of putting it. Because, while confession is voluntary, you’re still in control of the terms aren’t you? It’s only when you come face to face with things that you really don’t have any control over, that you finally feel helpless in the face of,  that’s the real moment of conversion for Kosawa and in Shin Buddhism. So that is how Kosawa sees the usefulness of psychoanalysis. He told one of his students,who I interviewed as part of my work, that unless psychoanalysis can bring people to that kind of an experience then it’ll never succeed in Japan, or anywhere else, actually. And now it’s a bit of a minority sport in Japan, so perhaps he was right! But I think the core of what he was getting at – this is back in the 1930 and early 1940s – is quite similar to some of the work that goes on now, trying to link up psychoanalysis with Buddhism: people like Mark Epstein, Jack Engler and others.I see quite a lot of what Kosawa was trying to get at being fulfilled and worked through in their writing.

KB: Was he seen to be religious at the time? Because of course, in Japan, religion itself would be a contested word. Was he seen to be religious, even at the time that he was practising in the 1930s and 40s?

CH: Some of his students. . . It’s often difficult to make a division – and its probably silly to try to make a division, actually – between the extent to which Kosawa was religious and the extent to which he was a man of his times. There were therapists like him and others working in Japan, in the early thirties and forties, who saw it as their role to be a kind-of kindly, but actually quite straightforwardly didactic father-figure for their clients. So, rather than being in the kind-of classic mirror as a therapist – where you simply reflect the client back to themselves and you don’t have much of your own input – Kosawa would give quite heavy advice. Some of his students described him as being quite motherly. There were other therapists around at the time: one of them I’m thinking of, another psychoanalyst, who would invite his clients – young male clients – out to his countryside home where he and his wife lived, spend the weekend with them and fulfil the father role that they’d never had. And so, after the war, lots of people would criticise Kosawa and others for having that kind-of really heavy paternalism in their work. Some of them said that was because he was a Buddhist, others said that was just because he was a man of his era. The theory behind therapy in Japan at this point – also the theory behind hypnosis, actually – was that it would only work if it was practised by a superior on an inferior. So women couldn’t be hypnotists or therapists for men, because they couldn’t give that kind of guiding element that a superior could give to an inferior. So Kosawa was a product of his time both in that kind of paternalistic sense, I think. . .  but also, his students would have recognised him, pretty straightforwardly, as a Buddhist. And they said, “ This is a disaster!”  Because psychoanalysis is supposed to be a science. You have to keep the two things separate. (20:00) Kosawa’s thing was that in the consulting room there would be no talk of Buddhism, but after your consultation you could come next door, have a cup of tea, and  he might unroll a couple of Buddhist Sutras and talk you through a bit of Buddhism if you were interested, as some of his young clients were. So, I think he would have identified as both. And his view was always that psychoanalysis was a proper science, and Buddhism – as it really should be understood – were really operating completely in tandem. And that if Freud had had a less narrow view of what religion meant – because Kosawa thought Freud was kind of shackled to a Judeo-Christian understanding of religion, and a very narrow one even at that – if Freud had had a wider understanding of what religion really was, he’d have seen that psychoanalysis and religion were really two sides of the same coin.

KB: That’s an interesting idea as well. Because, if we broaden our scope now from Japan to general understandings of the relationship between religion and the psy-disciplines, the question that this particular case raises for me is: how do we  isolate religion, then? For example, in palliative care and end-of-life care it’s quite common now, I think – especially in certain countries – to incorporate mindfulness or meditations as part of palliative care. We’ve already seen, in the Kosawa example, someone who seemed to walk between religiously prescribed rules. He’s also a father figure . . . and [there are] cultural constructions of gender there as well, with his paternalism that you talked about. So, how do we isolate what is religion here? If you were to see meditation as part of palliative care practice would you see that as religious, or a cultural formation, or a product of its time? Does the question make sense?

CH: Yes it does. I suppose people are thinking through this in Japan in the context of end-of-life care, and also in the context of disaster care, say after the Earthquake Tsunami and nuclear meltdown disasters in 2011, in Japan. In the aftermath of that there was quite a lot of work done by Buddhists. And they’d been thinking through, “How do we pursue this kind of work and not upset the people that we’re dealing with?”  I think their view would be that all the care they offer is religious, but it’s how they present it. What can seem like quite simple things: what are they going to wear while they go about this care ; whether its on a vihara ward – which is a Buddhist end-of-life care ward – or working in disaster care; are you going to come in civilian clothing or are you going to dress in your Buddhist robes; are you going to use Buddhist language, prayers , rituals or are you going to use the language of psychology and psycho therapy? What they’ve found is. . .  I think their key aim is that you meet people where they are. Some people want all the trappings of Buddhism. That’s what is going to make them feel comfortable because it’s what is familiar. They absolutely don’t want to be talked to after a disaster or towards the end-of-life, about their feelings. Not a conversation that they want to have. So for those sorts of people you can move more towards these familiar signs and symbols of classical religion, as it were. But for others, still really doing religious care, you can now call it spiritual care instead – in Japan they make a distinction – where you won’t have your Buddhist uniform on, and you won’t be using that sort of language. Instead you’ll shift more towards the language of psychotherapy and counselling, if that’s what you think people want. And in order to get onto some public hospital wards in Japan you have to do that. Because there’s a clear separation, in Japan, being made of religion and the state. But this coming-together of psy-disciplines in the training – you now have clinical chaplains being trained in Japan from all sorts of religious backgrounds – that coming-together allows them to gently shift the emphasis depending on who they’re dealing with. For them it’s religiously inspired, so it’s all religious care. But what it looks like to, as it were, the consumer or the receiver of it, it’s endlessly flexible. And, I think, that’s what they see as being so useful about it. I don’t think they would make any fundamental distinction between religious and non-religious there. It’s about the nuances of presentation and perception.

KB: But how about when you take the case in Japan and try and apply it elsewhere, try and apply it in the contemporary situation in the UK for example, or in countries that do not have that very specific set of circumstances that we’re speaking about there? How would you isolate religion in those cases? Is it an East-West divide?

CH: (25:00) No, I think something very similar goes on. I recently wrote a piece for Aeon magazine on end-of-life care at two hospices in Edinburgh, and the concept of spirituality and whether that’s useful or not to people. And I was surprised to find a lot the interviewees say that spirituality is actually not a useful concept at all, because it carries so much of the baggage of religion. And for a lot of people, if you are religious then you just want to see the chaplain, or whoever the representative might be. You’re fairly clear on who you want to go to. But, for the vast majority of other people, neither religion nor spirituality is something they want to hear about. But what you do instead is, you find ways of being with people, forms of care. So: listening; closeness; sometimes even physical forms of care, like a bed bath; whatever it might be that, from a certain perspective, yes, you could talk about it as being religious.There’s a focus there on being, on attentiveness to the person you’re with, as opposed to doing – doing for them – rushing around a hospice ward. But you’re not employing any of the traditional language of religion or spirituality. A lot of the workers I talked to said that people would just be put off by that kind of thing. Because they’d say, “ Look, it’s too late for me now to go on some big search for the meaning of life and the meaning of the world. I need something that goes beyond concepts, or that goes beyond a fundamental change in who I am and how I look at the world.” [They] need something that,  some people would argue , was actually closer to the core of religion or a religious tradition like Christianity, which is love and acceptance, and showing that kind of thing. So I think in some of end-of-life care, that is more what people are doing than getting bogged down in the language of religion and spirituality. Again, one of the professors I interviewed at St Columba’s hospice said “ It’s really about training nurses in how to “ be”  with their patients, rather than just “ do”  for them. Do you know what I mean? Just running around and changing sheets and whatnot. Actually learning how to be with them is what they want. And whether the language of spirituality helps or not, that’s really a secondary consideration.

KB: And that’s interesting because that also gives us a sense of something we spoke of at the beginning: the idea of tension between different ideas of religion, spirituality and the psy-disciplines. And it’s interesting here because we see for the first time that tension between those who receive the care as opposed to seeing the tensions at an institutional level, or how they’re being interpreted by practitioner,  if that makes sense. So that’s very interesting. I think there was also a previous Religious Studies Project Podcast by Dr Harold Koenig, from Duke, and he’s spoken about how – I think the talk was about religion and spirituality and health. Speaking about, particularly, coping and how religious belief helps in coping, which seems interesting. A final point of tension, then: can you think of a specific example when the idea of healing itself is defined differently from a religious standpoint and then from the psy-discipline standpoint? Because they might be working with different ideas of what is transgressive, or what is disorderly, and so their ideas of what health is, and what healing is, might also differ.

CH: I suppose that’s true, yes. There’s an interesting parallel between working on religion and the psy-disciplines on the one hand and working on what’s called trans-cultural psychiatry and psychotherapy on the other. Because, in that latter area, what you find is that any form of psychotherapy, almost any form of psychotherapy is based on assumptions about what a human being is, what’s ideal for them what’s good for them. I suppose a psychotherapist might respond by saying that that ideal is something which gets generated over time in the relationship between the therapist and the client. The therapist isn’t there to say at the outset: “Here is the kind of person I’m trying to turn you into.”  So I accept that possible objection. But I think there’s a deeper sense in which there are certain assumptions, at least, in play. And if you transfer that back over to religion and the psy-disciplines – one of the things I try to do – I have a framework I tried to put together to work out exactly what bothers me about this relationship and how I want to investigate it. And I think one is the nature of the human person. And so, what does it mean to be healed? Does it mean to go back out and be once again a kind of coping, productive member of your society?(30:00) Or does it mean to go back out into your society and have a more prophetic role, and say, “Actually this is wrong, and that’s wrong. And the reason why I suffer from stress or anxiety or depression isn’t just that I’m wrong, or I’m failing to cope, it’s that the world around me is disordered.”  Those sorts of judgements, which border on the moral, are the sorts of things that would be comfortable to people with what we might call a religious background and less so to people who perhaps have a more secular orientation.Social justice can cross both lines, obviously. But I think in forms of psychotherapy and healing which have more of an explicit religious orientation, that element of judgement, which I suppose now is more pushed out onto the outside world – because the danger of internalising that judgement has become much more clear – that kind of judgement has become much more common, you see it more often. But one final thing on healing, which is: one of the things that I think can undermine healing is the difficulty, when religion and the psy-disciplines come together, of people making the same mistakes about the kind of language that they’re using. So there’s a writer called Jack Engler who writes about Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. So there are all these key terms in Buddhism which can be really badly misinterpreted if you’re not careful, and if Buddhism and the psy-disciplines come together in the wrong way. For example, a Buddhist concept like “ no self”  can easily be taken up and used by someone who has very low self-esteem and finds the idea of there being a fundamental unreality about themselves comforting. But they’re using it counter-phobicly, they’re using it in the wrong way. And actually they’re digging themselves a deeper hole, by using the idea of no self to justify very, very low feelings about themselves and wallow in it. He has a really nice line which, I think, cuts across  a lot of what we’ve been talking about. He says, “ You have to be somebody before you can be nobody.”  So, in his scheme, there is a role for the psy-disciplines in clarifying a person’s sense of themselves, building up an ego in the sense of a healthy single subject – not being narcissistic and arrogant and self-obsessed  but being a healthy subject – who is then able to cope with what Buddhism would say is the ontological fact that there is no self. And it’s mistakes over language that can come up when religion and the psy-disciplines come together that I think can often be quite damaging, that can give people either false hope or the wrong sort of hope, or just confuse them worse than they were confused before. And, in turn, can either undermine healing in particular contexts or just undermine their growth in a bigger way. Which is why I think interrogating the use of language in this dialogue is such an important task.

KB: I’m keeping an eye on the time, this will be the last question. It strikes me that this idea of being nuanced, being careful about how language is used. . .  would you say this is one direction in which you hope to see the field grow? And that’s the last question: what direction can this field, that you’re working in, grow? Specifically of course, in Religious Studies: where can we go next?

CH: I wouldn’t presume to tell Religious Studies where to go! I’m just a plain old historian. But in response to the question, which I think is a good one,  what I would probably like to see and encourage is more of a creative and honest focus on the antagonisms that arise when religion and the psy-disciplines get together. Because I think we hear a lot, both within academia but also the wider world of publishing, YouTube, everywhere else, of the complementarities. There’s a great book by Frances Spufford: Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can  Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. A beautiful, beautiful book – highly recommended . But that kind of talk about how religion and our understanding, via the psy-disciplines, about what a human person is; how these things work together so well; how one can be a great means of explanation for the other; how one can draw a person into the other . . . . I think all of that’s true, and all of it’s wonderful.But there needs to be more of a focus on where these things actually break down; where they’re offering views of the world which simply aren’t compatible and people shouldn’t be told that they are; or where mistakes and confusions can arise that actually cause people suffering. And by trying to investigate those better and clarifying them and trying to be honest about them, I think the field gets more interesting and less harm is done to people as a result. So that’s the one big area I’d like to see that happen.

KB: OK. So on that important note, thank you very much, Dr Chris Harding, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project.


Citation:  Harding, Christopher. and Krittika Bhattacharjee. 2017. “ Religion and the Psy-Disciplines”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27 March 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 30 March 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religion-and-the-psy-disciplines/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 30 August 2016

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Not In That Dead Body

 

“Who are you? What are you? Where is your soul or spirit? It’s not in that dead body…” – Dr. Robert White, Neurosurgeon and Bioethicist

Dr. Robert White

Interdisciplinary pioneers of otherwise uncharted territory in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) are apt to ask some of the most provocative yet fundamental questions of human existence. These questions extend not only across the lifespan, but also into the realm of continued existence after death. A religious notion traversing cultural boundaries, reincarnation in particular and the cognitive processes underlying reincarnation beliefs are arguably foundational to understanding how people reason about existence and identity. Whether addressing how reincarnation is conceptualized or how to go about identifying the reincarnated, such questions are not only religious in nature, but experimental researchers are also beginning to explore these subjects and their associated cognitive processes through controlled empirical studies. Dr. Claire White of the Cognitive Science of Religion Lab at Cal State-Northridge asks exactly these questions in her research, which she summarizes in a recent interview with the Religious Studies Project.

Dr. Claire White

Who are you?

Obviously, reincarnation invites inquiries around identity: What does it mean to be the same person or different people, either within or between lives? With the diversity of reincarnation beliefs in the world, there is no single consensus on the matter of identity, though converging streams exist.

Reincarnation beliefs are common throughout Buddhism and Hinduism as well as within several new age religious movements and among plenty of spiritual seekers in the west. Dr. C. White explains that other researchers of reincarnation have documented reincarnation beliefs in at least 30% of cultures, a figure that may actually be an underestimate on account of excluding ambiguous cases. Among those studying reincarnation, Dr. Tony Walter, Professor of Death Studies at the University of Bath and Dr. Helen Waterhouse, Visiting Honorary Associate in Religious Studies through the Open University have found that fewer people (of those surveyed in the UK) endorse the belief in reincarnation than those who find reincarnation plausible, which may include up to a quarter of all respondents [1].

In the interview, Dr. C. White points out this important distinction between 1) ontological commitment and 2) plausibility (on account of a belief being “cognitively sticky” or intriguing). Needless to say, significantly more people are willing to entertain the plausibility of reincarnation than are likely to wholeheartedly adopt reincarnation into their existing belief structure.

The prevalence of reincarnation beliefs cross-culturally and the appeal even to those who are not firm believers in reincarnation begs the question: why? Although there are several possible (and equally true) reasons for cultures and the individuals that comprise them to endorse reincarnation beliefs at some level, one possible function of reincarnation beliefs that deserves further attention is that they provide a means of circumventing one’s own mortality.

Talking to Death

To confront the inevitability of one’s own death from the perspectives of nihilism and annihilationism in which death is viewed as the ultimate end raises the crisis of meaninglessness, which according to existential psychiatrist Dr. Irvin Yalom, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University, “stems from the dilemma of a meaning-seeking creature who is thrown into a universe that has no meaning” [2]. In a world where the only certainty is death, the sense of having no meaning in life conjures existential terror. According to Terror Management Theory (TMT), this existential terror results from the desire to live while being forced to acknowledge the reality of death [3], creating unavoidable conflict in the mind of the mortal. Importantly, empirical research on TMT indicates that mortality salience, or bringing to mind thoughts of one’s own death, leads to self-esteem striving, which involves pursuit of positive self-evaluations as a means of buffering against the terror and anxiety evoked by the uniquely human awareness of mortality [4].

Looking at Death

Both traditional and modern accounts of reincarnation presume continued existence and the preservation of some form of identity across lives in spite of physical death. The belief that death is not the end of existence (whether through adoption of reincarnation beliefs or some other form of afterlife) is understandably comforting to many. In fact, according to Yalom, desire for psychological “immortality” is the default response to existential anxiety. However, immortality, whether real or imagined as a defense mechanism against existential anxiety, requires some-thing to be immortal, some kind of enduring feature(s) to maintain uninterrupted identity.

What are you?

Two types of features are typically taken as evidence of identity, Dr. C. White explains:

  1. Physical marks
  2. Memories

When seeking to identify a reincarnated person, one strategy entails looking for specific physical marks, especially distinctive marks that are unlikely to belong to many people. Congenital traits are preferred and considered more reliable, since what is present from birth is less likely to change, indicating some degree of underlying stability.

The other commonly employed strategy is to match a reincarnate-candidate to the previous incarnation on the basis of memories, specifically episodic memories. Recognition, whether of another person or a particular object that should otherwise be unfamiliar, is trusted as an indication of identity during reincarnation searches. This is largely on account of the commonly accepted reasoning that memories represent continuity of self and communicate ownership.

Dr. Ian Stevenson

Early research by the late Dr. Ian Stevenson, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in the 1960s also attempted to address questions of reincarnation, albeit through an overwhelmingly anecdotal approach. Documenting cases of children whose memories and birthmarks matched those of the deceased, Dr. Stevenson accumulated several thousands of pages worth of photographic “evidence” of reincarnation. While groundbreaking for its time, Dr. Stevenson’s reincarnation research was unfortunately lacking in the empiricism and scientific rigor necessary to procure sufficient evidence for what he was purporting to prove. Nonetheless, his was among the first research to suggest that memories and physical marks can be transferred from one lifetime to another, thus serving as identifying traits among the reincarnated.

Where is your soul or spirit?

Meditation on Mortality

Buddhists are one religious group to directly confront the inevitability of death through meditation on mortality (which may involve visualization of corpses) while proposing rebirth as a means of [not-]self-preservation. The not-self part here is crucial, for reasons that Dr. C. White also mentions in her interview. She notes that in Buddhism there is no such thing as a permanent and enduring self, yet in Tibetan Buddhism in particular, the belief that an individual (e.g., His Holiness the Dalai Lama) reincarnates and can be identified based on recognition of objects belonging to their previous incarnation implies continuity of identity, or at least episodic memory. Dr. C. White suggests these reincarnation beliefs contradict the official teachings of the Buddhist tradition within which they are embedded.

Aging and Death

As should be evident from any serious inquiry into the teachings of Buddhism, the Buddha rejected the existence of an enduring self that persists from life to life, like a soul or spirit, rendering the question “Where is your soul or spirit?” meaningless. Yet within Buddhism the notion of rebirth or reincarnation is widespread. A common question then raised by the uninitiated is, “if there’s no self, what gets reincarnated or reborn?” The question again becomes, “Who are you? What are you? Where is your soul or spirit? It’s not in that dead body…” Focus inevitably returns to that dead body… What once animated it and gave it life that is lacking in death?

As for the Buddha’s response, he discouraged needless speculation on the matter, deeming it unnecessary to the cessation of suffering [5]. Yet few find this silence satisfactory. Probing the annals of Buddhist philosophy, one finds that several schools of Buddhism purport that some subtle level of selfless consciousness is the culprit. Whether it is the bhavanga-sota/bhavanga-citta referenced by commentarial sources in Theravada Buddhism or the alaya-vijnana of Mahayana Buddhism, some form of sub-conscious life-continuum yokes together past, present, and future.

It’s not in that dead body.

Dr. Robert White - Monkey Head Transplant

The other Dr. White quoted at the beginning of this piece, while never explicitly endorsing reincarnation beliefs, nonetheless raised several questions regarding identity that called upon both science and religion. Pivotal in the field of neurosurgery, the late Dr. Robert White, Professor of Neurological Surgery at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine until his death in 2010, is best known as a prominent head transplant surgeon, operating on several species ranging from dogs to monkeys. Obviously concerned about the ethical dimensions of his bizarre operations, throughout his career, “Dr. Frankenstein,” as he is otherwise called, often questioned his own practices as a surgeon from a critically bioethical perspective. Dr. Robert White proposed that the brain (which he believed was responsible for housing the soul) plays a central role in identity preservation. In fact, he is quoted in Scene Magazine: “I believe the brain tissue is the physical repository for the human soul.” He is also quoted in Scene Magazine, remarking “We discovered that you can keep a human brain going without any circulation…It’s dead for all practical purpose – for over an hour – then bring it back to life. If you want something that’s a little bit science fiction, that is it, man, that is it!”

As far as what happens to “that dead body” once “the not-self” uninhabits it, that is a question no scientist can sufficiently answer, as its metaphysical assumptions lie outside the purview of physicalist science and cannot be encapsulated by any intellectual system aiming to quantify qualia. Understanding what the self is and is not, and that even conceiving of “the not-self” is problematic in its reification of substanceless phenomena, seem to take precedence yet pose obstacles to CSR. Yet with emerging interdisciplinary research within CSR, the reasoning processes behind these notions of identity, existence, and continuity can at least be illuminated, even if the metaphysics remain unscathed.

Dr. Robert White

Footnotes

[1] Walter, T., & Waterhouse, H. (2001). Lives-long learning: The effects of reincarnation belief on everyday life in England. Nova Religio, 5(1), 85-101.

[2] Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

[3] Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. Public Self and Private Self, 189-212.

[4] Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., & Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 435-468.

[5] “Sabbasava Sutta: All the Fermentations” (MN 2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition).

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 2 February 2016

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest and would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has submitted calls for papers, event notifications, job vacancies, etc. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

We thank you for your contribution.

Calls for papers

7th Queering Paradigms Conference

June 11–12, 2016

Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands

Deadline: April 4, 2016

More information

Undergraduate conference: “Faith and Power”

August 4–7, 2016

Central European University, Hungary

Deadline: April 1, 2016

More information

Law and Religion Scholars Network

Cardiff University, UK

Deadline: February 29, 2016

More information

Sacred stuff: Material culture and the geography of religion

August 30–September 2, 2016

London, UK

Deadline: February 8, 2016

More information

Religion, literature and culture: Lines in sand

September 9–11, 2016

University of Glasgow, UK

Deadline: April 18, 2016

More information

Historical Re-Enactment, Contemporary Paganism and Fantasy-Based Movements

May 20–21, 2016

Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania

Deadline: March 21, 2016

More information

Islam and Peaceful Relations

April 5, 2016

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: February 15, 2016

More information

Postgraduate Conference on Religion and Theology: “Perfection”

March 11–12, 2016

University of Bristol, UK

Deadline: February 19, 2016

More information

Time and Myth: The Temporal and the Eternal

May 26–28, 2016

Masaryk University, Czech Republic

Deadline: March 15, 2016

More information

Fetish Boots and Running Shoes: Indecent Theology Today into Tomorrow

July 8, 2016

University of Winchester, UK

Deadline: March 7, 2016

More information

AAR 2016: Religion and Public Schools: International Perspectives Group

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Fieldwork: Doing Ethnographic Research

June 24, 2016

Birmingham City University, UK

Deadline: March 25, 2016

More information

Events

Inform seminar: New Religious Radicalisms

May 21, 2016

London School of Economics, UK

More information

Arbeitskreis interdisdisziplinäre Hexenforschung

February 18–20, 2016

Stuttgart-Hohenheim, Germany

More information

Research Methods in the Study of Religion

University of Kent, UK

Deadline: February 5, 2016

More information

Jobs

2 PhD positions in sociology project: “Postsecular Conflicts”

University of Innsbruck, Austria

Deadline: February 15, 2016

More information

3 PhD studentships

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: February 19, 2016

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PhD position: “Multiple Secularities: Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities”

University of Leipzig, Germany

Deadline: February 5, 2016

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PhD studentship: Cognitive Science of Religion

Belfast, UK; Aarhus, Denmark

Deadline: April 29, 2016

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Visiting Fellowship

Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore

Deadline: March 31, 2016

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Associate Professor, Full Professor: Jewish History/Studies

Case Western Research University, OH, United States

Deadline: March 1, 2016

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Postdoctoral fellowship

University of Pennsylvania, USA

Deadline: February 15, 2016

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Instructor: Buddhist Studies

Antioch University, OH, USA

Deadline: April 15, 2016

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Postdoctoral Fellowship: Chinese Buddhism

Columbia University, NY, USA

Deadline: April 20, 2016

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Encounters Between Buddhism and the West

previously been interviewed for the RSP.

In this interview, entry to the discussion takes place through the subject of Laurence Carroll, an Irish emigrant to Burma and who was ordained Dhammaloka in Burma. Carroll, like many of his generation, emigrated to the US in the early part of the 20th century. On crossing the US, his trajectory onward to south Asia became entangled more deeply with the politics of empire and colonialism.

Dhammaloka’s story opens up a people’s history of the development of Buddhism in what we might call the West. The crossing of boundaries, which we see in the monk’s biography, points to a number of ideas around the identification of religion with nationalist projects. These are challenges to imperial authorities and is bound up in Dhammaloka’s conversion to, and acceptance by, everyday Buddhism in Burma.

In this story is a continuation of “dissident orientalism”, a conflict inherent within the colonial project wherein communities and personal trajectories become embedded within local religious contexts. A distinction made, both in Ireland and Burma, between native religion and the religion of the coloniser serves only to enhance the connection between nationalist movements and ethno-religious identity. Cox’s ideas focus on the conjunctions between race, religion and imperial power. How Buddhism becomes identified as Asian remains central to that.

**As mentioned in the interview, a slightly longer version of this interview (approx. five minutes) is available to download here**

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Sri Lankan Buddhism and Colonialism, and Immigrant Buddhism in the West, and of course in the website for the Dhammaloka Project.

We hope you enjoy the sound from our new microphone setup. Thanks for listening!

Learning to Unlearn “Religion”: Jason Ānanda Josephson on the Invention of Religion in Japan

One of the first Religious Studies courses in which I enrolled was titled “Japanese Religion.” There were several themes running through the course, but the one that stuck with me as the most important was something the professor asked during the first meeting of the class:

The course is called “Japanese Religion”; over the semester, think about that phrase – would it be better to say “Japanese Religions”? How about “religions of Japan”? Or, is “religion” the best word to use to describe the Japanese traditions we’re studying?1

The implications of the latter question are considered by Jason Ānanda Josephson, scholar of East Asian religions and religious studies theory, in this informative interview with the Religious Studies Project. Josephson and interviewer Brad Stoddard explore how the concept of “religion” was translated, discussed, and applied in 19th Century Japan.

Josephson’s book, The Invention of Religion in Japan (University of Chicago Press, 2012), forms the backbone of the conversation. Josephson explains that he has always had an interest in East Asian religion, as well as the theory of religion and religious studies, and in his doctoral research he put those pieces together. The result is a book that critiques the category of religion using the Japanese situation as a case study. Josephson relates how, in post-1853 Japan, there was a significant discussion taking place among the Japanese elite about what the European idea of “religion” meant, how it fit (or didn’t) with existing traditions in Japan, and also, how the concept of the “secular” applied to Japanese society at the time. Josephson’s primary case study involves Shinto, rather than Buddhism, although Josephson hopes to explore Buddhist traditions in Japan in a future work.

Josephson’s critique of the category “religion” as it relates to Japan is part of an on-going discussion among scholars as to the accuracy, relevance, and necessity of that concept. (Scholars such as Timothy Fitzgerald, Russell T. McCutcheon, Talal Asad, and Tomoku Masuzawa are mentioned in the interview as key figures participating in this critique.) While I would not describe myself as a theorist primarily, or consider my main interest to be theories of religion, I have come to realize that questions about the nature of “religion,” what scholars mean when they write about “religion,” and the categorization of “religious” traditions cannot be overlooked and must be grappled with prior to studying a “religious” tradition.

When I was a student in the Japanese Religion course, I had not yet been introduced in a meaningful way to the critiques of the concept of “religion.” What seemed problematic to my novice eyes was the disjunction between the different implications of the phrases “religion in Japan,” “Japanese religion,” and/or “Japanese religions.” By the end of the course, I decided that the least problematic way to think about the topic was as “religions in Japan.” This didn’t tackle the truly important piece – namely, the category of “religion” – but it did seem to be more neutral and inclusive than any of the other phrases. In my graduate work, these questions of naming and labeling recurred – my interests centered around one of the Buddhisms in Japan, not the monolithic idea of “Japanese Buddhism.” The latter implies that there is one Buddhism that can be described as Japanese. I can think of (at least) two traditions of Buddhism that flourished and took on a “Japanese” approach over time, as well as several of the New/Emergent Religious Movements which originated in Japan and claim a Buddhist lineage. Ultimately, the use of terms like “Buddhism” and “religion” in the singular seem to be neither specific nor descriptive enough to capture the richness and diversity of the actual world. Josephson’s perspective adds that necessary final dimension to anyone studying “religion” in Japan: since it is both an imported and manufactured category, can it be used reliably by scholars to discuss Japanese traditions?

In the interview, Josephson mentions in passing that the title of his work (The Invention of Religion in Japan) could have just as easily been either The Invention of Superstition in Japan or The Invention of Secularism in Japan. I find this a particularly fascinating comment, as those three words – religion, superstition, secularism – each have a distinct implication. However, as Josephson demonstrates throughout the interview, Japanese society had to come to terms with those three ideas as a package. Was Shinto a religion or superstition? What about Buddhism? Is Japan a secular nation? Is Japan a modern nation? Since one could not be both “modern” and “superstitious,” that meant that Shinto could not be a superstition if Japan wished to take its “place” among the nations of the modern world. However, Josephson also points out that while colonialism often imposed categories upon a colonized people, that was not entirely the case in Japan. Japanese scholars involved in the (literal and cultural) translation of the concepts of religion, superstition, and secularism investigated what these terms meant to Europeans and then negotiated the idea within Japanese society, demonstrating a degree of agency not often seen during interactions between Western and Asian societies in the 19th century.

Not only am I eager to read The Invention of Religion in Japan, but I am also looking forward to Josephson’s next project, discussed at the end of the interview. The project is currently titled “Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences”; Josephson describes this as a project to analyze European society, specifically those parts of Europe that did not match up to the claims of modernity made by European scholars. Josephson’s novel approach analyzes these claims of modernity – and the disjunction between scholarly claims and reality – through the lens of postcolonial theory, using the world outside of Europe to analyze Europe.

 

1 Or at least, that’s my recollection of the instructor’s remarks! I am paraphrasing, not quoting directly.

 

References

Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Ellwood, Robert S. Introducing Japanese Religion. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Masuzawa, Tomoku. The Invention of World Religions: or, How European Universalism was

Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

McCutcheon, Russell T. [See Dr. McCutcheon’s website for a list of his work]

Tanabe, George J. (ed). Religions Of Japan in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Of Demon Kings and Protestant Yakṣas

Let me begin by saying that this is not a critique, but an effort to contribute to a conversation about issues that have affected me personally as a scholar. In particular, I want to suggest a few approaches that might be straws for the fire in the evolving discourse regarding “Protestant Buddhism” and the general influence of colonialism on Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

My most personal experience in regard to the issues raised by the Religious Studies Project interview with Stephen Berkwitz came while doing research on warfare with Pāli scholars. Again and again, as I directed their attention to jātakas in which the Buddha was a warrior, they would tell me that no such jātaka could exist. Their impression of Buddhist pacifism was so strong that, even though their knowledge of Pāli literature was vastly superior to my own, it had created a blind spot for aspects of their own tradition. It is my impression, [one that might be fruitfully disputed], that that blind spot is a result of the war-weary West’s idealization of Buddhists as the perfect pacifist other. This idealization offered colonized peoples a new and highly attractive moral superiority, which they brilliantly wielded as an act of cultural self-defense. But the power of this naïve Euro-American projection also deprived Sri Lankan’s of the valuable cultural resources that it eclipsed. That blind spot does not obscure the “dark side of Buddhism,” as one recent scholar called the ethics of violence that seem to emerge when we look at Buddhist narrative literature, but rather obscures a richly nuanced and flexible ethic that might have provided rich resources for Sri Lanka’s civil war and postwar reconciliation. There could not be more at stake for the nation that gave the world the suicide-bomber. A similar kind of effect can be seen among young Tibetan refugees, many of whom reject Buddhism, generally blaming its pacifism, a pacifism that never existed, for the loss of their country. The disappointment of Western pacifists here is not unlike the reaction of early Orientalists who, disappointed by the ritualism and deity-worship they found in living Buddhist cultures, described a degenerate Buddhism.[1]

One of the uncomfortable aspects of these kinds of critiques, including my own, is that once again Western scholars seem to claim the high ground and reveal Sri Lankans as passive victims of false consciousness. However, we should remember that cultural heroes like Dharmapala and Walpola Rahula [whose What the Buddha Taught is still found in undergraduate syllabi and dharma-center curricula] knew our languages, culture, values, scriptures and scholarship, including everything ever written about Buddhism in the West, far better than we knew theirs. They exerted great influence on the presentation of their tradition and, along with Neo-Vedānta, powerfully influenced American and European thought. This was not a passive or even merely reactive endeavor. In my experience, Sri Lanka is extraordinary among post-colonial nations for the cosmopolitanism, power and sophistication of its intellectuals. Dharmapala was perfectly poised to open up a can of whoop-ass on naïve Americans at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Buddha taught evolution! Any image of colonials passively subjected to Western influence should be balanced by the embarrassing naiveté and false consciousness this whole discourse reveals among the colonizers and the powerful role seized by Sri Lankans in the representation of their own world.[2]

The whole issue of “Protestant Buddhism” needs to be considered from multiple dimensions that can get mixed up. Any reformulation of Buddhism tuned to Western sensibilities would by implication be tuned to Protestant and scientific biases. Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught is a brilliant adaptation to these biases. The reformulation of Buddhism that was tuned to Western needs, biases, and weaknesses, was also tuned to the needs of Westernized Sri Lankan intellectuals and helped draw them back to Buddhism. So, one dimension of the construction of “Protestant Buddhism” is the Protestantized, pacifist, and scientific image of Buddhism integral to dialogue with the West, including the indigenous Westernized intellectuals who were situated in between worlds. This construction was enhanced by the fact that Sri Lankan intellectuals, who were attracted to this image for many of the same reasons, presented themselves as representative of the tradition as such. These figures may have had more influence on the Western perception of Buddhism than they did on their own country’s.

Buddhists at a stūpa in Kandy worshipping the Hindu deity Kartikeya (photo by Stephen Jenkins)

Sometimes it seems that we mix up our own romantic Protestantized image of Buddhism with what we are pointing toward in Sri Lankan culture. There are useful and intelligent reasons to use the descriptor “Protestant” in describing modern changes in Theravāda Buddhism, but any observer expecting to find Rahula’s Buddhism in Sri Lanka is much more likely to be shocked by how un-Protestant, even un-Theravādin, Buddhism in Sri Lanka really is. It is hard to fit Avalokiteśvara, an obsession with yakṣas, the integral worship of “Hindu” deities, and so on into an image of the bare white New England church. On the other hand, the Theravāda Buddhism that became the stock in trade of every Introduction to Buddhism class strikes me as very Protestant indeed. I look forward to reading Stephen Berkwitz’s new book about the poet Alagiyavanna, who eventually converted to Catholicism and sounds like an early example of a Sri Lankan scholar caught between worlds.

Vibhishana Crowned by Rama at Kelaniya (Photo by Stephen Jenkins)

Vibhishana Crowned by Rama at Kelaniya (Photo by Stephen Jenkins)

One of the most salient things about Sri Lanka is that the dominant majority feels like a threatened minority. Perhaps this is a more recent phenomenon, but it reminds me of how important India has been in shaping Sinhala identity. Traveling in Sri Lanka, I was struck by the presence of Vibhīṣana, the brother of the demon King Rāvana, at Buddhist sacred sites. In the Rāmāyaṇa, Vibhīṣana is portrayed as the good Rākṣasa that advises his brother to surrender Sri Lanka to the ideal Hindu King, Rāma. Although the Rāmāyaṇa did not have great currency among Sinhalese Buddhists, Vibhīṣana was deliberately utilized by Buddhist Kings as a model for their submission to the imperial power of South India whose Kings modeled themselves on Rāma.[3] This response demonstrates a self-conscious and sophisticated approach to manipulating and utilizing the ideals of the outsider as a practical technique for moderating their negative impact. The story of Sri Lanka’s contention with destructive invasive violence and outside imperialist ambitions long precedes Western colonialism. So, I close by wondering whether it might be useful to consider whether the earlier relationship with the once expansive power of South India has anything to tell us, even by way of contrast, about the evolution of Sri Lanka’s adaptation to colonialist forces.

[1] For a more extended rant on these issues see Stephen Jenkins. “A Review Essay on The Range of the Bodhisattva, A Mahāyāna Sūtra,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 2014.

[2] For a longer discussion see Stephen Jenkins, “Black Ships, Blavatsky, and the Pizza Effect: Critical Self Consciousness as a Thematic Foundation,” in Teaching Buddhism in the West: From the Wheel to the Web, Curzon Press, ed., Victor Hori, 2002.

[3] I recently discovered the work of Jonathan Walters on Vibhīṣana and he was kind enough to forward a copy of this fascinating article. Walters, Jonathan S. 1990-1994. “Vibhisana and Vijayanagar: An Essay on Religion and Geopolitics in Medieval Sri Lanka.” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities 17 and 18, nos. 1 and 2 (Special Jubilee Issue): 129-142.

Sri Lankan Buddhism and Colonialism

Stephen Berkwitz doesn’t really speak of either. Instead, the interview focuses on Sri Lankan colonial past and how the presence of European rulers and Christian missionaries affected local Buddhism.

Pogacnik and Berkwitz discuss the effects of colonial missionaries on the solidification of a Buddhist religious identity in Sri Lanka and the far-reaching consequences of this turn on some contemporary Buddhist monks, who are turning to the Pali canon in search of ‘authentic Buddhism’. Berkwitz explores the connection of this turn to scripture with the presence of Protestant missionaries and the idea of ‘Protestant Buddhism’ in Sri Lanka, presenting some challenges to seeing the missionary influence as a straight-forward one. Exploring examples of the counter influences Buddhism had on Christian missionaries that came to Sri Lanka, Berkwitz concludes the interview by talking about the complex relationship and interplay of religion and power in the Sri Lankan context.

Listeners interested further in the authors Berkwitz mentioned in the interview can look into the works of Gananath Obeyesekere and Anne Blackburn. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, choral scores, lunchboxes and more.

Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond: Part 2

In October, RSP interviewer Paulina Kolata was able to sit down with Professor Ian Reader to discuss his publication ‘Pilgrimage in the Marketplace’ (October 2013), which explores the very ‘worldly’ conditions of development, popularisation, and ultimately, survival of pilgrimage centres in connection to the dynamics of the marketplace through which the ‘sacred’ as a category can be sustained. In this interview, Ian offers an insight into the meaning of pilgrimage, particularly in the Japanese context, and discusses the competitiveness of the pilgrimage market, the practice’s connection to tourism, playfulness of religion, and the survival of pilgrimage practice. After a fascinating conversation and a couple of cups of coffee later, we hope that listeners will enjoy this podcast as much as Paula and Ian enjoyed recording it, and we look forward to your discussions.

For ease of listening, we decided to split this week’s interview into two parts. For full podcast notes, and the first part, please click here. Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Eoin O’Mahony on “Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland“, and Alex Norman on “Spiritual Tourism“.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more.

Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond: Part 1

The practice of pilgrimage is generally held to be a core feature of religious traditions. Pilgrimage developed as a practice available to only a few. The danger of the road, the cost of travel, and restrictions of class and feudal systems made it impossible for the common people to travel to remote sacred places. Similar to the situation in Early Medieval Europe (Sumption 1975: 11-12), political instability in pre-Tokugawa Japan (pre-1603) and an overall hostility to travelling strangers discouraged even some willing pilgrims from visiting many famous sites.  Whether it was wandering Buddhist monks circuiting Medieval Japan and performing healing rituals or Heian-aristocracy visiting Buddhist sites famous for their wish-granting powers, the practice of pilgrimage, and the special benevolence of the deities that went along with it, was reserved for a handful of people who had time and wealth to spare in order to afford the travel and to secure their safety on the dangerous routes.

Since then, pilgrimage has undergone a number of transitions that have shaped and redefined the way it is practiced and perceived. Various socio-economic and political changes, as well as technological developments, the establishment of modern tourism, and the expansion of the media have changed the way individuals ‘do’ pilgrimage, and shaped scholars’ understandings of modern religious travel, facilitating the transition of pilgrimage from obscure ascetic practice to widely popular touristic activity.

The element of journey, the importance of material culture, the role of media and technology, as well as the commercialisation of the practice of pilgrimage are dictate the conditions of survival and the popularity of pilgrimage today. Pilgrimage is a vivid representation of the way religion interacts with tourism, as we have seen before in our interview with Alex Norman on ‘Spiritual Tourism’. However, the exposure of pilgrimage practice to the influences of tourism and commodification does not necessarily diminish the ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ character of the practice. The utilization of the technological advancements of ‘this world’ is an important element in the survival of pilgrimage in Japan and elsewhere, helping it to become a kind of religious ‘pop culture’.

Within Religious Studies, discussion has rarely focused on the so-called this-worldliness of pilgrimage. Yet,  in October, RSP interviewer Paulina Kolata was able to sit down with Professor Ian Reader to discuss his publication ‘Pilgrimage in the Marketplace’ (October 2013), which explores the very ‘worldly’ conditions of development, popularisation, and ultimately, survival of pilgrimage centres in connection to the dynamics of the marketplace through which the ‘sacred’ as a category can be sustained. In this interview, Ian offers an insight into the meaning of pilgrimage, particularly in the Japanese context, and discusses the competitiveness of the pilgrimage market, the practice’s connection to tourism, playfulness of religion, and the survival of pilgrimage practice. After a fascinating conversation and a couple of cups of coffee later, we hope that listeners will enjoy this podcast as much as Paula and Ian enjoyed recording it, and we look forward to your discussions.

For ease of listening, we decided to split this interview into two parts. The second part is available below, or at this link, where it was originally published.

 

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Eoin O’Mahony on “Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland“, and Alex Norman on “Spiritual Tourism“.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more.

References/Further Reading

  • Reader, Ian (2013) Pilgrimage in the Marketplace. New York and London: Routledge
  • Reader, Ian. and Swanson, Paul (1997) “Editors’ Introduction: Pilgrimage in the Japanese Religious Tradition”, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1997 24/3-4 pp.225-270
  • Sumption, Jonathan. (1975) Pilgrimage: an image of medieval religion. London: Faber & Faber

Concepts and Symbols, What Does It All Mean? Examining Immigrant Buddhists in Toronto

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 13 November 2013, in response to D. Mitra Barua’s interview on Immigrant Buddhism in the West  (11 November 2013).

Talal Asad, in Genealogies of Religion, sets out an argument by which he hopes to improve upon Clifford Geertz’s anthropological method of examining a culture’s symbols in an effort to analyze the meanings that these symbols hold “of” and “for” a culture’s religious character. He points out that although “[r]eligious symbols… cannot be understood independently of their historical relations with nonreligious symbols…” (53) “It does not follow that the meanings of religious practices and utterances are to be sought in social phenomena, but only that their possibility and their authoritative status are to be explained as products of historically distinctive disciplines and forces. (54) In short, any culture cannot be said to be a fixed point to be dissected as such, but rather, a stream or flow of histories whose “power” and influence received from prior discourse must be taken into account as a process of cultural, and therefore religious, creation.

Webb Keane takes Asad’s emphasis upon socio-historical discourse being a process through which meanings can be analysed and provides a term for this concept that he feels is better able to be wielded by the ethnographer, namely, the utilisation of “semiotic forms”. Semiotic forms, Keane argues, are “social categories” which are “recognizable as something knowable”. He continues, “they must, that is, have some material manifestation that makes them available to, interpretable by, and, in most cases, replicable by other people: bodily actions, speech, the treatment of objects, and so forth.” (114) Seeing as how, for Keane, “[s]emiotic forms are public entities…” they are “objects for the senses…” and “as such, they have distinctive temporal dimensions…” however, “[b]ecause they are repeatable, they have the potential to persist over time and across social contexts.” (114-115). In this specific context, Keane only examines one example of a semiotic form for the sake of illustration- speech; however, Mitra Barua hits upon this exact idea in his conversation with Chris Silver. We start to get an idea of Barua’s work when he tells us of his interest in how Buddhism has been transmitted into new locations (inter-cultural dimensions of Buddhist transmission) and between first- and second-generation immigrants living in diaspora (inter-generational dimensions).

Working with Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhists (presumably Sinhalese) who form a disaporic group in Toronto, Canada, Barua is able to link his work with that of Asad and Keane by adding to his two dimensions of Buddhist transmissions an overall sense of time, or discourse. He identifies three primary historical periods of migration within which he frames his work; namely, the Colonial, Post-Colonial and Diaspora periods. None of these have any ontological purchase independently; rather, only as a spectrum, each blending into the next (ignoring firm historical dates one must assume and only focusing on the state of transmission of teachings which does not generally change, or stop-start, with any firm temporal grounding). His interest lies in how Buddhism has been and continues to be transmitted from older, first-generation migrants who came from Ceylon to Canada, to their children who were raised in Canadian culture; or, inter-cultural and inter-generational dimensions of transmission and the problems that arise therefrom.

What he finds is perhaps a bit unsurprising; the younger generation who have grown up in a “secular”, Western culture have different views and emphases regarding how to balance their secular and their religious livesthan their parents. Additionally, Barua finds that there is a serious concern within the older members of the community regarding the “religiosity” of Buddhism being not only separated out, but also lost in favour of a more secular, functional usage of concepts like samatha/vipassana or group temple worship.

Concerning this worry surrounding the “dilution” of Buddhism that Barua identifies amongst the Buddhist immigrants in Toronto, some important questions arise for scholars of religion as a whole. Throughout the interview terms like “religion”, “faith”, “theology” are thrown about, ironically often in close proximity to discussions on how Buddhism is tied into not just the immigrants religious lives but also and perhaps most importantly their culture. During the first third of the interview, Dr. Barua even explains how these immigrants have changed the adjectives of the Buddhist Eight-fold Path, from “right” speech, thought, action, etc. to “harmonious”. Why does this bi-polarity seem to weigh so heavily on this group of immigrants, on the one hand being self-conscious enough to feel it necessary to change the language of one of their most fundamental principles, while at the same time wanting to save the “religiosity” of Buddhism from complete secularisation? Further, do Christo-centric terms like faith and theology even work within a Buddhist setting, and if not, why does this community feel it useful or indeed necessary to use them? Does the very act of using foreign, Christian terms contribute to the undermining of the very sense of importance and individuality that the Buddhist elders are trying to stave off; and most intriguingly, if religion (in this case Buddhism) is indeed not sui generis but rather, linked wholly with a society’s culture; are these immigrants not so much concerned with the loss of their religion, but instead and more disconcerting, with a loss of their culture and self-identity? In a response to a similar question from Chris Silver, Dr. Barua does give us a related answer when he affirms, that he found these Buddhists to self-identify as indeed in some ways more religious in Canada than they were in Sri Lanka.

By way of conclusion with the understanding that cultural (and therefore religious) symbols and concepts are intrinsically intertwined within the socio-temporal spectrum of a group of people, as scholars of religion some pressing questions now pop up for further inspection, perhaps most importantly are some that are self-reflexive: are we truly Post-Orientalist/Colonialist? Do we, living in primarily First and Second World countries, take for granted our contemporary cultural hegemony? What can we learn about immigrant groups who find their most effective recourse to be utilising OUR terminology to describe THEIR culture? Perhaps the era of colonisation is not quite over.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York. Basic Books
  • Keane, Webb. 2008. ‘The evidence of the senses and the materiality of religion’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Volume 14: 110-127.

D. Mitra Barua on Immigrant Buddhism in the West

D. Mitra BaruaDr. D. Mitra Barua is an instructor of Religious Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, and has a Masters in Buddhist Philosophy undertaken in Sri Lanka. His doctorate concerned several generations of Sri Lankan immigrants in Toronto, and how their Buddhist practices are affected by being transplanted to Canada.

In this in-depth interview with Chris Silver, Barua discusses the links between ethnic and religious identity, and how the relationship has changed over time. They discuss how traditional Buddhist teachings are reinterpreted in order to harmonise their Buddhism with the multicultural society in which they are embedded, although this has not been uncontroversial. Buddhism, of course, has historically been geographically and theologically diverse, and this has continued in a North American context. 

They also discuss how these affect our models of religion and culture. Are the appropriations of Buddhist traditions like meditation in therapeutic contexts to be considered ‘religious’? Dr Barua also describes some of the practical issues with carrying out fieldwork within a monastic community.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc. Remember… Christmas is on the way!

This interview marks the beginning of a short series of podcasts from the RSP on Religion, Migration and Diaspora, which began last week with Andrew Dawson discussing Sante Daime, and concludes next week with Monika Salzbrunn speaking to Hanna Lehtinen about Religion, Migration and Diaspora.

Podcasts

Buddhists and the future of democratic space in Myanmar

A response to Melissa Crouch on “Muslims, NGOs, and the future of democratic space in Myanmar”

By Paul Fuller

Read more

Muslims, NGOs, and the future of democratic space in Myanmar

Produced by R. Michael Feener

The critical situation of the Rohingyas has cast a shadow over Myanmar’s process of democratization and drawn attention to some aggressively un-civil sectors of this Buddhist majority country’s Muslim minority population. In this interview with Melissa Crouch, we will talk about her recent research on Myanmar’s Muslim population and about the role played by the international community – and by religious NGOs in particular – in relation to the escalation of violence targeting the Rohingyas.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for The Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices, and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how these engagements result in changes in our understanding of both ‘religion’ and ‘development’. These interviews with leading scholars working on the topic across diverse contexts in Asia (and beyond) have been conducted by Dr. Catherine Scheer & Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Our work on this has been generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, canned peas, apple juice, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Muslims, NGOs and the Future of Democratic Space in Myanmar

Podcast with Melissa Crouch (13 November 2017).

Interviewed by Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Crouch-_Muslims,_NGOs_and_the_Future_of_Democratic_Space_in_Myanmar

 

Catherine Scheer (CS): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We are Catherine Scheer

Giuseppe Bolotta (GB): And Giuseppe Bolotta

CS: And this is the third instalment of our series on religion and NGOS. Since the turn of the twenty-first century there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both policy makers and academics into the effect that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of religious NGOS or so-called faith-based organisations has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for the Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices and institutional forms – both of religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs – intersect, and how theses engagements result in changes in our understanding of both religion and development. The critical situation of the Rohingyas has cast a shadow over Myanmar’s process of democratisation and drawn attention to some aggressively uncivil sectors of the Buddhist majority country’s Muslim minority population. In this interview with Melissa Crouch we will talk about her research on Myanmar’s Muslim population, about the challenges of advocating for legal reform as a means of promoting religious tolerance and the future role of NGOs in Myanmar’s democratisation process. Before introducing our guest for today’s interview, we would like to thank the Henry Luce Foundation for supporting our research on this topic and the production of this series.

GB: So, speaking with us today is Dr Melissa Crouch. She’s senior lecturer at the law faculty at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Her research contributes to the field of Asian legal studies with a concentration on public law, Islamic law and rule of law in fragile states. Melissa is the author of: Law and Religion in Indonesia: Conflict and the Courts in West Java, published by Routledge in 2014; the editor of Islam and the State in Myanmar: Muslim Buddhist Relations and the Politics of Belonging, published by Oxford University Press in 2016; and the editor of The Business of Transition: Law, Reform, Development and Economics in Myanmar, which will be published by Cambridge University Press this autumn. An engaged legal scholar, among others a member of the Australia-Myanmar Constitutional Democracy Project, we are glad to have Dr Crouch with us today to talk more specifically about the influence of legal frameworks on religious organisations in Myanmar – especially Muslim organisations. Thank you very much for being here with us on the Religious Studies Project.

MC: Thank you.

GB: So, Catherine, would you like to start our questions for Melissa?

CS: Yes. Thanks for that and thank you Melissa. Your research was on religion, law and social conflicts in Muslim majority Indonesia, before you also started looking at comparative development in contemporary Myanmar. Can you tell us more about why you shifted your primary research focus and how, if at all, you see your earlier work in relation to the current events you now study?

MC: Thank you. I think, for myself, I see it more as a broadening rather than a shift. So my research, I would say, is inherently comparative. Although I started out focussing specifically on Indonesia, I have since sort-of expanded to look at South East Asia more broadly, but also a specific focus on Myanmar. And I think one of the most exciting things about the area of comparative law, and law and religion studies, is the strength of studying comparatively rather than in isolation. My own work is inspired by scholars such as Emeritus Professor MB Hooker and his formidable body of work on legal pluralism and Islamic law in South East Asia, scholars like the late Professor Andrew Huxley, who spent a lot of time looking at Burmese Buddhist law. And of course the late Professor Dan Lev who was the leading scholar on Indonesian Law of his generation. And among his work of course was seminal work such as on the Islamic court in Indonesia. (5:00) And so, really, I see my work as building on this kind of history of the field of social legal study in South East Asia. And in doing so, my research tries to focus on a number of core themes around constitutional change, law and development and law and religion. In relation to my research on Islam and Islamic law in Indonesia and Myanmar, I think there are fascinating parallels as well as some striking differences. And in my book on Islam and the State in Myanmar, I try and depict Muslims in Myanmar as at something of a crossroads between South East Asia and South Asia. I think there are similarities in the sense that in some of my work in Indonesia I was looking at the position of minorities within a Muslim majority state. Of course, in Myanmar you have a Buddhist majority country and Muslims as a minority, but, actually, some similar kinds of issues being faced by those minority groups. And I’ve expressed some of these ideas in an article that I wrote in the Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law, which tried to sort of review and summarise some of the key themes in Islamic law in society in South East Asia. And really, I was trying to emphasise the importance of continuing to write against Arabic or Middle Eastern bias in Islamic Studies. Sixty percent of the world’s Muslims live in Asia today, so I think that’s an exciting place and position from which to write about Islam. In addition, I think, South East Asia is important for the study of legal pluralism, and this is where religion comes in, as a key influence in the history and development of legal systems across South East Asia. And I think, also, South East Asia helps us to re-examine and perhaps challenge some of the assumptions that we have in the study of law and religion and Islam, more broadly.

GB: Thank you so much, Melissa. As a legal scholar, with a particular interest in law and religion, how do you see the role of the researcher – her or his ethical responsibilities – and how would you position the book you recently edited, Islam and the State in Myanmar in this context?

MC: Yes, this is a great question and I think this was a really good question to grapple with at the workshop that you both hosted previously at the Asian Research Institute in Singapore. For me, I guess, my own research is influenced by and grounded in a legal ethnography and, I guess, this idea of an ethnographic sensibility. That is, I see in ethnography a great concern for the ethical obligations that we have towards our participants, many of whom become close friends and colleagues. Many of our participants – particularly when we’re talking about religion and issues of religious conflict and aid – are vulnerable, a kind of vulnerable community. And this ethnographic sensibility I think also calls for a need for an awareness of our own subjectivity, an awareness of our own strengths and limitations and weaknesses as researchers. And I think that this helps to influence and inform the choice of what we study, when we study, and how we study, as well as the kind of audiences that we’re trying to reach. The book Islam and the State in Myanmar was really just a first attempt to try to bring together interdisciplinary research. But a lot of it was very much ethnographically based, or based on substantive field research interviews, participant observations, archival and historical research. And really, it was an effort to try and put forward the beginning of an academic enquiry in this area, while recognising that there has been a lot of advocacy reports or policy reports in the past, and there probably will be ongoing, but that academics can play a role in informing some of these debates.

CS: Thanks Melissa, I’m glad you underlined this important aspect of your research. In this context I would like to touch upon a sad event. This January the prominent Muslim lawyer, Ko Ni was assassinated in Myanmar. (10:00) A long-term advocate for the right for peaceful protest and against hate speech, Ko Ni played a key role in recent efforts towards constitutional reform, law reform and legislative reform in religion. In the context of increasing violence against Muslims he joined the Myanmar Muslim Lawyers Association. Can you tell us a bit more about Ko Ni’s work and about his support for, and participation in, law and development, and about his contribution to NGOs – particularly religious NGOS? What is the current situation of Muslim associations and NGOs in Myanmar? How might the position for Islamic organisations have been affected by the death of Ko Ni?

MC: Yes. Thank you. I could spend all day talking about the legacy of Ko Ni and I don’t think it would quite do him justice. But let me see if I can try and encapsulate what I think is at the core of some of his work and efforts and concerns. And particularly his contribution and collaboration with quite a number of international development organisations as well as local civil society organisations and religious organisations. The assassination of Ko Ni on the 29th of January of this year, 2017, was a significant tragedy and very much a wakeup call for Myanmar, for the National League for Democracy, but also for the Muslim community in Myanmar. Simply because of the fact that he was a Muslim, as well as the fact that he was a very prominent lawyer, his death had a significant impact and was felt very deeply by the Muslim community in Myanmar. You are right to say that Ko Ni was affiliated with and involved with an organisation called the Myanmar Muslim Lawyers Association, although in some of the tributes that I’ve written about Ko Ni since his death I really tried to emphasise that I think this was, in some sense, a last resort strategy. In many ways, Ko Ni was first and foremost a lawyer: his concern was with legal process, with justice, with the rule of law and the importance of constitutional reform and equal rights for everyone. But at the same time he was someone – in part because of his stature, his physical appearance – who was well known as a Muslim, and he really couldn’t escape that fact. And I guess, particularly since 2012, with the outbreak of conflict in Rakhine State and the serious displacement there, and then the subsequent conflicts arising in many major towns across Myanmar that particularly targeted Muslim communities – a wide range of Muslim communities – there was a real sense of urgency that the situation was deteriorating rapidly. And I think this really came to a head in the lead up to the 2015 elections, when it appeared that there were strategies, in particular, to try and undermine the National League for Democracy. And one way of doing that was to try and portray them as somehow pro-Muslim. And using that to try and deter people from voting for them. And so because Ko Ni was associated with the NLD, and he himself was Muslim, he was kind-of caught up in some of this controversy. Ko Ni himself was very vocal against some positions and decisions which the NLD took, which he disagreed with. So, this was things like the fact that the NLD did not field any Muslim candidates in the 2015 elections. He was very adamant that that was not an appropriate way to go about things, and that the NLD shouldn’t have caved in, on that issue, under the pressure that had been put on them. So I think, in joining this Myanmar Muslim layers association, this was a last resort for him. But something that he felt was necessary to ensure that they had a voice in many of the kind of legal issues that were coming up, that would have direct impact on his community. And this was particularly acute in relation to what was referred to as the Race and Religion Wars, in 2015. (15:00)This was a package of four laws that was generally known as the Race and Religion Laws, but it was very much championed by Nationalist, radical Buddhist groups who were very overt in their claims that these laws would be targeting the Muslim community in ways that would sort-of contain and control their influence in the country. And so again, Ko Ni was someone who spoke out against the need for these race and religion laws, and very much called them out for the kind of nonsense that they were. And so, in this way, he played a particularly prominent role in many of these debates. On the second part of your question – in terms of his contribution to kind-of law and development initiatives and organisations in Myanmar – I will say that Ko Ni was very much a valued partner for many organisations, including religious organisations, but also the broader international NGO community. He was very much sought-after and was the person to go to, to ask for legal advice on a range of different issues. He was not only someone who was an educator, giving public lectures and speeches to parliament, writing opinion pieces on various legal reforms, as well as providing advice to different non-government organisations about various advocacy campaigns that they were involved with. So his death is very much a loss for the country, and very much a loss for many of these NGOs who did rely on his advice and kind-of the state of gravitas that his presence and influence was able to bring to bear on these issues.

GB: Thanks Melissa. Well the death of Ko Ni was a huge tragedy. Myanmar lost a great protagonist of its contemporary history. So the question now is, what are the future prospects of Muslims in Myanmar – and of course the civil society organisations – to prevent conflict, promote harmony and appreciation of diversity? And what role do scholars have to play in this process?

MC: That’s a big question. And it’s something that a lot of people and actors are working on in this area. We certainly have seen more recently the emergence of some new organisations. Often ones that, in a sense, slide below the radar. That is, they try to keep a very low profile, they don’t engage with the media or have a public profile, but at the same time they are doing research. They are particularly doing the monitoring of potential religious conflicts or social conflicts that may occur, as well as monitoring issues such as hate speech – which has become quite a significant and serious issue in Myanmar. But I think it’s quite telling that they are quite low profile in their presence at the moment. And there are some very practical reasons, and very practical concerns, that if they were to be more prominent that they may, perhaps, in some way be targeted. I think that it is important for scholars to play a role in this process and really, that was one of the reasons that I tried to bring together scholars for the edited book on Islam and the State in Myanmar. As I’ve mentioned, there have been policy papers and advocacy or human rights reports in the past on the situation, particularly in Northern Rakhine State, for the Rohingya as well as for other Muslim communities that have been displaced by those conflicts that took place in 2013 and 2014. Often these policy papers don’t have time for the kind of sustained research that can help provide a more informed analysis. So I think scholars are in a good position to bring a new lens to some of these issues, a fresh analysis, deeper thinking and in particular, comparative thinking and perspectives. Muslims in Myanmar are of course not the first or the only minority in majority Buddhist contexts to face these issues. We only have to look to places like Sri Lanka, or perhaps in Southern Thailand, to see that there are minorities in other majority Buddhist contexts that face quite serious issues. (20:00)But I do think we need to continue to work at pushing the stereotype that presumes that majority Buddhist societies don’t have a problem in the way they treat certain minorities, particularly Muslims. And obviously we see that issue quite prominently in Myanmar.

CS: Thank you, Melissa. This leads to our last question. You have been writing about emergency powers put in place in Rakhine State in Myanmar, in a recent article entitled The Expansion of Emergency Powers, Social Conflict and the Military in Indonesia. You stressed the importance of checking on the exercise of power during times of emergency. In such times humanitarian organisations, including religious NGOs, could tend to play a very important role. What is your perspective on this controversial issue in Indonesia and also in Myanmar?

MC: Yes, you’re certainly right that it’s precisely in times of emergency when we often need humanitarian organisations, including religious NGOs, the most. But it’s somewhat ironic that sometimes the state may block or obstruct the provision of these humanitarian services. I guess my concern with this issue crosses both Indonesia and Myanmar. In the contest of Myanmar, there has been a state of emergency declared in Rakhine State since 2012 and that sort-of continued to be extended on an ongoing basis. And it doesn’t look like it will be lifted any time soon. So that includes things like: a curfew, limitations on people’s freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and things like that. And of course humanitarian organisations in Northern Rakhine State have faced very difficult issues in getting access; at some points being kicked out because of various controversies, or perceptions of controversies. And so I think it’s going to remain a very serious issue in Northern Rakhine State for some time. I guess the broader theme, or pattern, that I feel is emerging is the way in which states across South East Asia have abused emergency powers and sought to extend them. So, I guess, the traditional understanding of emergency powers is that they’re supposed to be in very exceptional circumstances and that, because of that, there should be very strict time limitations: limitations to ensure that there will be a return to normal rule of law, a constitutional law situation. And I guess, the concern is that, in places like the Northern Rakhine State, it’s simply an ongoing emergency – but it’s one that is conveniently used to restrict people’s freedom of movement. But the people in those situations are very often the ones who have been the victims in these conflict situations. And in Indonesia there’s also the role of the military, trying to come back in to gain some ground again in situations of conflict and take on a role that perhaps it’s been quietly pushed out of, due to the democratisation process. I think in Indonesia there’s still a bit of a wait-and-see as to how the laws there will be used. But I think there is, overall, a broader concern that states, rather than facilitating access for humanitarian organisations and religious organisations are actually using emergency powers to obstruct them.

GB: Thank you very much, Dr Crouch, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project. This was a very inspiring conversation. Thank you.

MC: Thank you.

Citation Info: Crouch, Melissa, Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer. 2017. “Muslims, NGOs and the Future of Democratic Space in Myanmar”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 13 November 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 10 November 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/muslims-ngos-and-the-future-of-democratic-space-in-myanmar/

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 28 March 2017

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Religion and the Psy-Disciplines

Thank you Charles Schulz!

A therapist, a chaplain, a guru, a psychoanalyst, a missionary, a university counselor: how do these figures interact? In a milieu where meditations take place as part of church services and mental health services incorporate a spiritual dimension, the relationship between religion and the ‘psy’ disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy – bears thinking about.

In this podcast, Dr. Christopher Harding uses his research on psychoanalysis and Buddhism in modern Japan to tackle the two-way dialogue between religion and the psy-disciplines. How have these shaped each other, and what are tensions between them?

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, pickles, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Podcast with Christopher Harding (27 March 2017).

Interviewed by Krittika Bhattacharjee.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Krittika Bhattacharjee (KB): A therapist, a chaplain, a guru, a psychoanalyst, a missionary, a university councillor: how do these figures interact? In a milieu where meditations take place as part of church services and where mental health services incorporate a spiritual dimension, the relationship between religion and the psy-disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis – bears thinking about. Speaking to us today about the psy-disciplines we have Dr Christopher Harding, who is a lecturer in Asian History at the University of Edinburgh. Chris is a cultural historian, working primarily in Japan and India. He has most recently published a co-edited volume called Religion and Psychotherapy in Modern Japan, which was published in hardback in 2014 and comes out in paperback next month. Chris is also a journalist who has collaborated with the BBC and was one of BBC Radio 3’s “ New Generation Thinkers” . Thank you for being here with the Religious Studies Project, Chris.

Christopher Harding (CH): Thank you.

KB: Just to start us off, could you tell us a little bit about the psy-disciplines?

CH: Yes. So when we use the phrase “ the psy-disciplines”  I guess we’re normally thinking of psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy. So, psychiatry is often thought about as the poor relation of medicine. It’s the discipline of medicine which most people wouldn’t think of going into. Maybe now[they would], but a few years ago – certainly prior to the 1950s – it was the discipline associated with guesswork, with asylums heaving with people that were difficult to treat – really because their object of enquiry was so difficult: the human inner life.They were trying to guess at it, finding ways of examining it from the outside, or making some use of peoples’ own testimonies. It was very, very difficult to try to work out what was going on, to form theories and to form diagnoses. Things improved  in the 1950s and 1960s with new forms of drugs. And now, with new means of scanning and new sorts of theories, things are getting a little bit better. But, for a while, it was medicine’s poor relation. Psychology, most people will know of: working with experimental data, primarily, but also doing some work in the clinical setting. And then psychotherapy, I suppose really, from Freud, Jung onwards, and Carl Rogers – now we have any number of modalities. So, those three things working together, often we would call them the psy-disciplines. And each one has had its own relationship with different religious traditions in different parts of the world.

KB: How has this relationship traditionally been conceived?

CH: I suppose, early on. . . the period that I work on most is the end of the 19th century into the 20th century . . .  Early on there was a relationship of some hostility – especially, I suppose, with Sigmund Freud and with early Freudians. We know Sigmund Freud had his particular views on what religion is really all about,  but also, some would say that his views were actually more nuanced than he was often given credit for. But some of the people early on, who were attracted to psychoanalysis, were attracted to it as a way of fulfilling the good parts of religion – distilling and fulfilling the good parts of religion and getting rid of the rest – and helping people whose lives had been damaged very early on, often by religious upbringings. Particularly if there was harshness in the family background, a heavy emphasis on certain forms of behaviour, a moralising dynamic etc., lots of people would say, in that early generation of psychoanalysis, the kind of thing that Richard Dawkins says, which is that religion is child abuse. And so, from the religious side of things, people worried that that critique could become quite influential.They also worried that the human person was being reduced to a mere organism, or a mere machine, or that your personhood was really the outcome of your upbringing. So they thought that there were all sorts of reductions going on that really threatened the underpinnings of all sorts of different religious traditions .(5:00) But, I suppose, Christian religious traditions in the West were the ones who were initially objecting to people like Freud, but also psychology in general. Because the whole premise of psychology to them seemed wrong: that you can meaningfully study the human person purely in a natural scientific way.

KB: And so this is the context from which, in some ways, your own work departs.Is that right?

CH: Yes, that’s right. I suppose it’s partly from a professional historical context, but it’s partly because I was coming across work in Christianity and Buddhism – contemporary Christianity and Buddhism in the US,  in Japan, the UK and elsewhere – where there seemed to be this mixing and mingling of what seemed to me to be psychological language to talk about the emotional life and theories of childhood on the one hand, and your kind of standard religious stories, theories, theologies, philosophies on the other. And I wasn’t really sure what people were doing when they were mixing these two languages. Often you would get a kind of an opening pitch from an apologist of a particular religious tradition where they would say, “Come on, surely your life is a mess? There must be more to this. You must be suffering stress. You’re angry hurt people!”  And then they kind of shift into the pitch – the religious pitch. You see that in plenty of Christian traditions and books ,and the Dalai Llama and Japanese organisations do the same sort of thing. And I was just wondering, what is exactly is their view of being human, that they’re mixing these two things together, these two, three or four registers of language together, in trying to make a pitch? Is the kind-of emotional-psychological [language] a facade? Is it just that initial pitch to get people interested? Or are these worlds actually doing business in a way that could be very interesting and very fruitful? And I wanted to find a way of almost taking them to task, piecing their language apart, and saying, “ Where are you getting these bits and pieces from? What do you actually mean when you talk about what the emotional life is; what the significance of the emotional life is; how we might lead it in a religious or spiritual way?” And I was really looking around for ways of doing that – digging away, really, at some of the language of contemporary religion and spirituality.

KB: While also seeing them as part of a larger. . .  “ market place”  might not be the right word, but certainly, all of them as part of this milieu together? So language is shared, but they’re also part of the same network – you used the word “business” –  doing business with each other?

CH: Yes, I think so. There was a great book, which came out about ten years or so ago,  by Richard King and Jeremy Carrette: Selling Spirituality – a wonderful book which really helped get me thinking about this. I think one of the things they were concerned about was  –  it was broader than the mental health dynamic, which interests me – but it was this critique of late capitalist culture that exploits religious traditions for techniques or ideas that kind-of keep people going as producers and consumers. So there is that element to it, I suppose, as well. And the sense of doing business again – I think we can get into the history of this a little bit later on – but my basic take on it is: there are very positive ways in which they can do business – the psy-disciplines and various religious traditions . And they have been since the 1940s and 1950s at least, once this kind of initial Freudian hump of Freudian coldness between them was overcome. But there were also ways in which they could be antagonistic, or confusing, possibly quite manipulative when they’re used together. I suppose a prime example, that some listeners may have heard of, would be the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attacks on Tokyo underground, in 1995. Aum Shinrikyo talks about its being the love-child of Buddhism and pop-psychology – that kind of all-encompassing embrace of the world, all-encompassing take on the human person, which really reeled in quite a few people. And you get into the territory of , some people might say, brainwashing, I suppose. But certainly, having such an all-encompassing explanation of the world that it’s hard to fight your way out of it again. That’s potentially what religion and the psy-disciplines do, when they work together, is that they give you no other interpretative options. Almost anything that you might think, or feel, or desire, or do can be quite convincingly interpreted by this uber-framework that together they seem to create. (10:00) And, for that reason, it can have negative as well as positive consequences.

KB: It’s also worth talking about the kind of tensions that you’ve brought up. But I thought, before we get to a more in-depth analysis of the tensions, I thought we could also talk about what you called the “ two-way dialogue”  that happens between the psy-disciplines and religion. What did you mean by two-way dialogue?

CH: I suppose, that they find useful things in one another. So some of the more positive bits of dialogue, in terms of a Buddhist tradition, let’s maybe talk about Japan in this regard: Buddhist traditions making use of the modern psy-discipline. You get this trend around Asia, certainly in India, certainly in Japan, in the late 19th century, where countries that have been very much affected by European colonialism – whether it’s, as it were, boots on the ground, or it’s more of a kind-of cultural imperialism – they’re looking for ways of pushing back against colonial knowledge, against the whole sort-of Western canon. And what some groups do – I’m thinking maybe Swami Vivekananda in India and Hinduism, and a guy called Inoue Enryo in Japan who’s what-you-might-call a Buddhist modernist – what they do is, they look back into their own traditions and they say, “ Well actually, in Hinduism or in Buddhism you will find insights that match and trump those of the Western world. And that one of the ways in which we can state that case clearly to people is by spring cleaning Buddhism, spring cleaning Hinduism: reviving our religious traditions, but in a viable modern format.”  And someone like Inoue Enryo finds the psy-disciplines really useful. Because what we can do is separate out “ true mystery”   – the true mysteries of life – from the false ones. Psychology will tell us what the false ones are because we can investigate people’s patterns of thought, and we can find out why they believe in silly things like ghosts or goblins, that then leaves them free to redirect human wonderment and awe and faith and trust to true mystery. So it’s good for people and it’s good for a Buddhist tradition, because a tradition that looks to be anti-modern in Japan can suddenly present itself as being definitively modern and being worthy of people’s trust and their taxes. And, at the same time, you can say that Buddhism actually, in its own right, is the world’s finest psychology and always has been. And you see, of course, lots of people now who engage with Buddhism will say first-and-foremost that it’s a very convincing picture of what it’s like to be a human being. “It’s first-and-foremost a psychology and then we’ll take it from there.” You might want to call it a religion, you might not, but it can borrow in those sorts of ways. Some examples of how the Christian tradition has borrowed from the psy-disciplines are forms of spiritual direction which are open to the influence of someone’s upbringing on the way they think about God, on the way they process guilt, on the way they worry about sin. It doesn’t mean that you’re jettisoning all the teaching of the Christian tradition, but it means you’re more aware of how human beings work and you can help people who might be stuck. So now lots of monks and nuns and priests will get a certain degree of basic counselling training, so that they can help people. Things might get to a point where they need to refer on, perhaps to a therapist or to a psychiatrist, but these basic learnings can actually be very, very useful in their work.

KB: On the Buddhism example specifically, I wanted to ask a little bit about Kosawa Heisaku, who you speak a bit about in your book, referring to him as the Father of Modern Psychoanalysis in Japan. Is that accurate?

CH: Yes, absolutely.

KB: And I was really interested to see an example in the flesh of mixing Shin Buddhism, in particular, with Freudian ideas of psychoanalysis and the way he used both of those traditions to create his own practice. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

CH: Yes, a very brief potted biography I suppose. Kosawa Heisaku was a student of psychiatry first, in Northern Japan, in the 1920s. He encountered psychoanalysis a little bit through one of his mentors who’d studied in the US. But Kosawa wasn’t really convinced with the way he was teaching it, so he actually went to Vienna, met Freud, worked with Freud and his circle in Vienna – only really for a year or so – and he had an analysis there and came back to Japan. He opened his own clinic in Tokyo and this is where he seems to have started to develop this kind of fusion of the two. It seems to have been the case with him that he saw Buddhism in Japan as being under threat. And he wanted to find a way – a little bit like Inoue Enryo I mentioned earlier –  he wanted to find a way of showing people what Buddhism really aimed at, what Buddhism was really about.(15:00) And on, an individual basis, he wanted to help his clients work towards, really, an experience that some people would say had a fair bit in common with enlightenment. His theory was basically that, if a client is in psychoanalysis for a certain period of time, they have a kind of releasing of all sorts of material from the unconscious, bit by bit, which gives them a certain amount of freedom. But what it also does is it shows them something which is absolutely key in Shin Buddhism, which is that human beings are, right down to the ground, corrupted; that we cannot really achieve anything useful, in terms of our own salvation, for ourselves and by ourselves,; that we need the help of – what Shin Buddhism talks about as “ other power” – Amida Buddha. It’s alright to discuss that in conceptual terms, in philosophical terms, but it doesn’t get you there. So Kosawa’s idea was that, actually, one of the things that does get you there, that goes beyond the philosophical conversation about things, is to be face to face with the therapist to tell them all the things you’ve done, all the things you’re thinking and all the things you secretly want. To get into all that material you suddenly see the reality of your corruptness and your helplessness. And by doing that, by seeing that, almost you can’t help yourself. By going through that process, then, you open yourself out onto realising that you need to rely completely upon other power, which is a key goal for Shin Buddhism.

KB: Almost like an involuntary confession?

CH: I think that’s absolutely right, that’s a lovely way of putting it. Because, while confession is voluntary, you’re still in control of the terms aren’t you? It’s only when you come face to face with things that you really don’t have any control over, that you finally feel helpless in the face of,  that’s the real moment of conversion for Kosawa and in Shin Buddhism. So that is how Kosawa sees the usefulness of psychoanalysis. He told one of his students,who I interviewed as part of my work, that unless psychoanalysis can bring people to that kind of an experience then it’ll never succeed in Japan, or anywhere else, actually. And now it’s a bit of a minority sport in Japan, so perhaps he was right! But I think the core of what he was getting at – this is back in the 1930 and early 1940s – is quite similar to some of the work that goes on now, trying to link up psychoanalysis with Buddhism: people like Mark Epstein, Jack Engler and others.I see quite a lot of what Kosawa was trying to get at being fulfilled and worked through in their writing.

KB: Was he seen to be religious at the time? Because of course, in Japan, religion itself would be a contested word. Was he seen to be religious, even at the time that he was practising in the 1930s and 40s?

CH: Some of his students. . . It’s often difficult to make a division – and its probably silly to try to make a division, actually – between the extent to which Kosawa was religious and the extent to which he was a man of his times. There were therapists like him and others working in Japan, in the early thirties and forties, who saw it as their role to be a kind-of kindly, but actually quite straightforwardly didactic father-figure for their clients. So, rather than being in the kind-of classic mirror as a therapist – where you simply reflect the client back to themselves and you don’t have much of your own input – Kosawa would give quite heavy advice. Some of his students described him as being quite motherly. There were other therapists around at the time: one of them I’m thinking of, another psychoanalyst, who would invite his clients – young male clients – out to his countryside home where he and his wife lived, spend the weekend with them and fulfil the father role that they’d never had. And so, after the war, lots of people would criticise Kosawa and others for having that kind-of really heavy paternalism in their work. Some of them said that was because he was a Buddhist, others said that was just because he was a man of his era. The theory behind therapy in Japan at this point – also the theory behind hypnosis, actually – was that it would only work if it was practised by a superior on an inferior. So women couldn’t be hypnotists or therapists for men, because they couldn’t give that kind of guiding element that a superior could give to an inferior. So Kosawa was a product of his time both in that kind of paternalistic sense, I think. . .  but also, his students would have recognised him, pretty straightforwardly, as a Buddhist. And they said, “ This is a disaster!”  Because psychoanalysis is supposed to be a science. You have to keep the two things separate. (20:00) Kosawa’s thing was that in the consulting room there would be no talk of Buddhism, but after your consultation you could come next door, have a cup of tea, and  he might unroll a couple of Buddhist Sutras and talk you through a bit of Buddhism if you were interested, as some of his young clients were. So, I think he would have identified as both. And his view was always that psychoanalysis was a proper science, and Buddhism – as it really should be understood – were really operating completely in tandem. And that if Freud had had a less narrow view of what religion meant – because Kosawa thought Freud was kind of shackled to a Judeo-Christian understanding of religion, and a very narrow one even at that – if Freud had had a wider understanding of what religion really was, he’d have seen that psychoanalysis and religion were really two sides of the same coin.

KB: That’s an interesting idea as well. Because, if we broaden our scope now from Japan to general understandings of the relationship between religion and the psy-disciplines, the question that this particular case raises for me is: how do we  isolate religion, then? For example, in palliative care and end-of-life care it’s quite common now, I think – especially in certain countries – to incorporate mindfulness or meditations as part of palliative care. We’ve already seen, in the Kosawa example, someone who seemed to walk between religiously prescribed rules. He’s also a father figure . . . and [there are] cultural constructions of gender there as well, with his paternalism that you talked about. So, how do we isolate what is religion here? If you were to see meditation as part of palliative care practice would you see that as religious, or a cultural formation, or a product of its time? Does the question make sense?

CH: Yes it does. I suppose people are thinking through this in Japan in the context of end-of-life care, and also in the context of disaster care, say after the Earthquake Tsunami and nuclear meltdown disasters in 2011, in Japan. In the aftermath of that there was quite a lot of work done by Buddhists. And they’d been thinking through, “How do we pursue this kind of work and not upset the people that we’re dealing with?”  I think their view would be that all the care they offer is religious, but it’s how they present it. What can seem like quite simple things: what are they going to wear while they go about this care ; whether its on a vihara ward – which is a Buddhist end-of-life care ward – or working in disaster care; are you going to come in civilian clothing or are you going to dress in your Buddhist robes; are you going to use Buddhist language, prayers , rituals or are you going to use the language of psychology and psycho therapy? What they’ve found is. . .  I think their key aim is that you meet people where they are. Some people want all the trappings of Buddhism. That’s what is going to make them feel comfortable because it’s what is familiar. They absolutely don’t want to be talked to after a disaster or towards the end-of-life, about their feelings. Not a conversation that they want to have. So for those sorts of people you can move more towards these familiar signs and symbols of classical religion, as it were. But for others, still really doing religious care, you can now call it spiritual care instead – in Japan they make a distinction – where you won’t have your Buddhist uniform on, and you won’t be using that sort of language. Instead you’ll shift more towards the language of psychotherapy and counselling, if that’s what you think people want. And in order to get onto some public hospital wards in Japan you have to do that. Because there’s a clear separation, in Japan, being made of religion and the state. But this coming-together of psy-disciplines in the training – you now have clinical chaplains being trained in Japan from all sorts of religious backgrounds – that coming-together allows them to gently shift the emphasis depending on who they’re dealing with. For them it’s religiously inspired, so it’s all religious care. But what it looks like to, as it were, the consumer or the receiver of it, it’s endlessly flexible. And, I think, that’s what they see as being so useful about it. I don’t think they would make any fundamental distinction between religious and non-religious there. It’s about the nuances of presentation and perception.

KB: But how about when you take the case in Japan and try and apply it elsewhere, try and apply it in the contemporary situation in the UK for example, or in countries that do not have that very specific set of circumstances that we’re speaking about there? How would you isolate religion in those cases? Is it an East-West divide?

CH: (25:00) No, I think something very similar goes on. I recently wrote a piece for Aeon magazine on end-of-life care at two hospices in Edinburgh, and the concept of spirituality and whether that’s useful or not to people. And I was surprised to find a lot the interviewees say that spirituality is actually not a useful concept at all, because it carries so much of the baggage of religion. And for a lot of people, if you are religious then you just want to see the chaplain, or whoever the representative might be. You’re fairly clear on who you want to go to. But, for the vast majority of other people, neither religion nor spirituality is something they want to hear about. But what you do instead is, you find ways of being with people, forms of care. So: listening; closeness; sometimes even physical forms of care, like a bed bath; whatever it might be that, from a certain perspective, yes, you could talk about it as being religious.There’s a focus there on being, on attentiveness to the person you’re with, as opposed to doing – doing for them – rushing around a hospice ward. But you’re not employing any of the traditional language of religion or spirituality. A lot of the workers I talked to said that people would just be put off by that kind of thing. Because they’d say, “ Look, it’s too late for me now to go on some big search for the meaning of life and the meaning of the world. I need something that goes beyond concepts, or that goes beyond a fundamental change in who I am and how I look at the world.” [They] need something that,  some people would argue , was actually closer to the core of religion or a religious tradition like Christianity, which is love and acceptance, and showing that kind of thing. So I think in some of end-of-life care, that is more what people are doing than getting bogged down in the language of religion and spirituality. Again, one of the professors I interviewed at St Columba’s hospice said “ It’s really about training nurses in how to “ be”  with their patients, rather than just “ do”  for them. Do you know what I mean? Just running around and changing sheets and whatnot. Actually learning how to be with them is what they want. And whether the language of spirituality helps or not, that’s really a secondary consideration.

KB: And that’s interesting because that also gives us a sense of something we spoke of at the beginning: the idea of tension between different ideas of religion, spirituality and the psy-disciplines. And it’s interesting here because we see for the first time that tension between those who receive the care as opposed to seeing the tensions at an institutional level, or how they’re being interpreted by practitioner,  if that makes sense. So that’s very interesting. I think there was also a previous Religious Studies Project Podcast by Dr Harold Koenig, from Duke, and he’s spoken about how – I think the talk was about religion and spirituality and health. Speaking about, particularly, coping and how religious belief helps in coping, which seems interesting. A final point of tension, then: can you think of a specific example when the idea of healing itself is defined differently from a religious standpoint and then from the psy-discipline standpoint? Because they might be working with different ideas of what is transgressive, or what is disorderly, and so their ideas of what health is, and what healing is, might also differ.

CH: I suppose that’s true, yes. There’s an interesting parallel between working on religion and the psy-disciplines on the one hand and working on what’s called trans-cultural psychiatry and psychotherapy on the other. Because, in that latter area, what you find is that any form of psychotherapy, almost any form of psychotherapy is based on assumptions about what a human being is, what’s ideal for them what’s good for them. I suppose a psychotherapist might respond by saying that that ideal is something which gets generated over time in the relationship between the therapist and the client. The therapist isn’t there to say at the outset: “Here is the kind of person I’m trying to turn you into.”  So I accept that possible objection. But I think there’s a deeper sense in which there are certain assumptions, at least, in play. And if you transfer that back over to religion and the psy-disciplines – one of the things I try to do – I have a framework I tried to put together to work out exactly what bothers me about this relationship and how I want to investigate it. And I think one is the nature of the human person. And so, what does it mean to be healed? Does it mean to go back out and be once again a kind of coping, productive member of your society?(30:00) Or does it mean to go back out into your society and have a more prophetic role, and say, “Actually this is wrong, and that’s wrong. And the reason why I suffer from stress or anxiety or depression isn’t just that I’m wrong, or I’m failing to cope, it’s that the world around me is disordered.”  Those sorts of judgements, which border on the moral, are the sorts of things that would be comfortable to people with what we might call a religious background and less so to people who perhaps have a more secular orientation.Social justice can cross both lines, obviously. But I think in forms of psychotherapy and healing which have more of an explicit religious orientation, that element of judgement, which I suppose now is more pushed out onto the outside world – because the danger of internalising that judgement has become much more clear – that kind of judgement has become much more common, you see it more often. But one final thing on healing, which is: one of the things that I think can undermine healing is the difficulty, when religion and the psy-disciplines come together, of people making the same mistakes about the kind of language that they’re using. So there’s a writer called Jack Engler who writes about Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. So there are all these key terms in Buddhism which can be really badly misinterpreted if you’re not careful, and if Buddhism and the psy-disciplines come together in the wrong way. For example, a Buddhist concept like “ no self”  can easily be taken up and used by someone who has very low self-esteem and finds the idea of there being a fundamental unreality about themselves comforting. But they’re using it counter-phobicly, they’re using it in the wrong way. And actually they’re digging themselves a deeper hole, by using the idea of no self to justify very, very low feelings about themselves and wallow in it. He has a really nice line which, I think, cuts across  a lot of what we’ve been talking about. He says, “ You have to be somebody before you can be nobody.”  So, in his scheme, there is a role for the psy-disciplines in clarifying a person’s sense of themselves, building up an ego in the sense of a healthy single subject – not being narcissistic and arrogant and self-obsessed  but being a healthy subject – who is then able to cope with what Buddhism would say is the ontological fact that there is no self. And it’s mistakes over language that can come up when religion and the psy-disciplines come together that I think can often be quite damaging, that can give people either false hope or the wrong sort of hope, or just confuse them worse than they were confused before. And, in turn, can either undermine healing in particular contexts or just undermine their growth in a bigger way. Which is why I think interrogating the use of language in this dialogue is such an important task.

KB: I’m keeping an eye on the time, this will be the last question. It strikes me that this idea of being nuanced, being careful about how language is used. . .  would you say this is one direction in which you hope to see the field grow? And that’s the last question: what direction can this field, that you’re working in, grow? Specifically of course, in Religious Studies: where can we go next?

CH: I wouldn’t presume to tell Religious Studies where to go! I’m just a plain old historian. But in response to the question, which I think is a good one,  what I would probably like to see and encourage is more of a creative and honest focus on the antagonisms that arise when religion and the psy-disciplines get together. Because I think we hear a lot, both within academia but also the wider world of publishing, YouTube, everywhere else, of the complementarities. There’s a great book by Frances Spufford: Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can  Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. A beautiful, beautiful book – highly recommended . But that kind of talk about how religion and our understanding, via the psy-disciplines, about what a human person is; how these things work together so well; how one can be a great means of explanation for the other; how one can draw a person into the other . . . . I think all of that’s true, and all of it’s wonderful.But there needs to be more of a focus on where these things actually break down; where they’re offering views of the world which simply aren’t compatible and people shouldn’t be told that they are; or where mistakes and confusions can arise that actually cause people suffering. And by trying to investigate those better and clarifying them and trying to be honest about them, I think the field gets more interesting and less harm is done to people as a result. So that’s the one big area I’d like to see that happen.

KB: OK. So on that important note, thank you very much, Dr Chris Harding, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project.


Citation:  Harding, Christopher. and Krittika Bhattacharjee. 2017. “ Religion and the Psy-Disciplines”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27 March 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 30 March 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religion-and-the-psy-disciplines/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Not In That Dead Body

 

“Who are you? What are you? Where is your soul or spirit? It’s not in that dead body…” – Dr. Robert White, Neurosurgeon and Bioethicist

Dr. Robert White

Interdisciplinary pioneers of otherwise uncharted territory in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) are apt to ask some of the most provocative yet fundamental questions of human existence. These questions extend not only across the lifespan, but also into the realm of continued existence after death. A religious notion traversing cultural boundaries, reincarnation in particular and the cognitive processes underlying reincarnation beliefs are arguably foundational to understanding how people reason about existence and identity. Whether addressing how reincarnation is conceptualized or how to go about identifying the reincarnated, such questions are not only religious in nature, but experimental researchers are also beginning to explore these subjects and their associated cognitive processes through controlled empirical studies. Dr. Claire White of the Cognitive Science of Religion Lab at Cal State-Northridge asks exactly these questions in her research, which she summarizes in a recent interview with the Religious Studies Project.

Dr. Claire White

Who are you?

Obviously, reincarnation invites inquiries around identity: What does it mean to be the same person or different people, either within or between lives? With the diversity of reincarnation beliefs in the world, there is no single consensus on the matter of identity, though converging streams exist.

Reincarnation beliefs are common throughout Buddhism and Hinduism as well as within several new age religious movements and among plenty of spiritual seekers in the west. Dr. C. White explains that other researchers of reincarnation have documented reincarnation beliefs in at least 30% of cultures, a figure that may actually be an underestimate on account of excluding ambiguous cases. Among those studying reincarnation, Dr. Tony Walter, Professor of Death Studies at the University of Bath and Dr. Helen Waterhouse, Visiting Honorary Associate in Religious Studies through the Open University have found that fewer people (of those surveyed in the UK) endorse the belief in reincarnation than those who find reincarnation plausible, which may include up to a quarter of all respondents [1].

In the interview, Dr. C. White points out this important distinction between 1) ontological commitment and 2) plausibility (on account of a belief being “cognitively sticky” or intriguing). Needless to say, significantly more people are willing to entertain the plausibility of reincarnation than are likely to wholeheartedly adopt reincarnation into their existing belief structure.

The prevalence of reincarnation beliefs cross-culturally and the appeal even to those who are not firm believers in reincarnation begs the question: why? Although there are several possible (and equally true) reasons for cultures and the individuals that comprise them to endorse reincarnation beliefs at some level, one possible function of reincarnation beliefs that deserves further attention is that they provide a means of circumventing one’s own mortality.

Talking to Death

To confront the inevitability of one’s own death from the perspectives of nihilism and annihilationism in which death is viewed as the ultimate end raises the crisis of meaninglessness, which according to existential psychiatrist Dr. Irvin Yalom, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University, “stems from the dilemma of a meaning-seeking creature who is thrown into a universe that has no meaning” [2]. In a world where the only certainty is death, the sense of having no meaning in life conjures existential terror. According to Terror Management Theory (TMT), this existential terror results from the desire to live while being forced to acknowledge the reality of death [3], creating unavoidable conflict in the mind of the mortal. Importantly, empirical research on TMT indicates that mortality salience, or bringing to mind thoughts of one’s own death, leads to self-esteem striving, which involves pursuit of positive self-evaluations as a means of buffering against the terror and anxiety evoked by the uniquely human awareness of mortality [4].

Looking at Death

Both traditional and modern accounts of reincarnation presume continued existence and the preservation of some form of identity across lives in spite of physical death. The belief that death is not the end of existence (whether through adoption of reincarnation beliefs or some other form of afterlife) is understandably comforting to many. In fact, according to Yalom, desire for psychological “immortality” is the default response to existential anxiety. However, immortality, whether real or imagined as a defense mechanism against existential anxiety, requires some-thing to be immortal, some kind of enduring feature(s) to maintain uninterrupted identity.

What are you?

Two types of features are typically taken as evidence of identity, Dr. C. White explains:

  1. Physical marks
  2. Memories

When seeking to identify a reincarnated person, one strategy entails looking for specific physical marks, especially distinctive marks that are unlikely to belong to many people. Congenital traits are preferred and considered more reliable, since what is present from birth is less likely to change, indicating some degree of underlying stability.

The other commonly employed strategy is to match a reincarnate-candidate to the previous incarnation on the basis of memories, specifically episodic memories. Recognition, whether of another person or a particular object that should otherwise be unfamiliar, is trusted as an indication of identity during reincarnation searches. This is largely on account of the commonly accepted reasoning that memories represent continuity of self and communicate ownership.

Dr. Ian Stevenson

Early research by the late Dr. Ian Stevenson, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in the 1960s also attempted to address questions of reincarnation, albeit through an overwhelmingly anecdotal approach. Documenting cases of children whose memories and birthmarks matched those of the deceased, Dr. Stevenson accumulated several thousands of pages worth of photographic “evidence” of reincarnation. While groundbreaking for its time, Dr. Stevenson’s reincarnation research was unfortunately lacking in the empiricism and scientific rigor necessary to procure sufficient evidence for what he was purporting to prove. Nonetheless, his was among the first research to suggest that memories and physical marks can be transferred from one lifetime to another, thus serving as identifying traits among the reincarnated.

Where is your soul or spirit?

Meditation on Mortality

Buddhists are one religious group to directly confront the inevitability of death through meditation on mortality (which may involve visualization of corpses) while proposing rebirth as a means of [not-]self-preservation. The not-self part here is crucial, for reasons that Dr. C. White also mentions in her interview. She notes that in Buddhism there is no such thing as a permanent and enduring self, yet in Tibetan Buddhism in particular, the belief that an individual (e.g., His Holiness the Dalai Lama) reincarnates and can be identified based on recognition of objects belonging to their previous incarnation implies continuity of identity, or at least episodic memory. Dr. C. White suggests these reincarnation beliefs contradict the official teachings of the Buddhist tradition within which they are embedded.

Aging and Death

As should be evident from any serious inquiry into the teachings of Buddhism, the Buddha rejected the existence of an enduring self that persists from life to life, like a soul or spirit, rendering the question “Where is your soul or spirit?” meaningless. Yet within Buddhism the notion of rebirth or reincarnation is widespread. A common question then raised by the uninitiated is, “if there’s no self, what gets reincarnated or reborn?” The question again becomes, “Who are you? What are you? Where is your soul or spirit? It’s not in that dead body…” Focus inevitably returns to that dead body… What once animated it and gave it life that is lacking in death?

As for the Buddha’s response, he discouraged needless speculation on the matter, deeming it unnecessary to the cessation of suffering [5]. Yet few find this silence satisfactory. Probing the annals of Buddhist philosophy, one finds that several schools of Buddhism purport that some subtle level of selfless consciousness is the culprit. Whether it is the bhavanga-sota/bhavanga-citta referenced by commentarial sources in Theravada Buddhism or the alaya-vijnana of Mahayana Buddhism, some form of sub-conscious life-continuum yokes together past, present, and future.

It’s not in that dead body.

Dr. Robert White - Monkey Head Transplant

The other Dr. White quoted at the beginning of this piece, while never explicitly endorsing reincarnation beliefs, nonetheless raised several questions regarding identity that called upon both science and religion. Pivotal in the field of neurosurgery, the late Dr. Robert White, Professor of Neurological Surgery at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine until his death in 2010, is best known as a prominent head transplant surgeon, operating on several species ranging from dogs to monkeys. Obviously concerned about the ethical dimensions of his bizarre operations, throughout his career, “Dr. Frankenstein,” as he is otherwise called, often questioned his own practices as a surgeon from a critically bioethical perspective. Dr. Robert White proposed that the brain (which he believed was responsible for housing the soul) plays a central role in identity preservation. In fact, he is quoted in Scene Magazine: “I believe the brain tissue is the physical repository for the human soul.” He is also quoted in Scene Magazine, remarking “We discovered that you can keep a human brain going without any circulation…It’s dead for all practical purpose – for over an hour – then bring it back to life. If you want something that’s a little bit science fiction, that is it, man, that is it!”

As far as what happens to “that dead body” once “the not-self” uninhabits it, that is a question no scientist can sufficiently answer, as its metaphysical assumptions lie outside the purview of physicalist science and cannot be encapsulated by any intellectual system aiming to quantify qualia. Understanding what the self is and is not, and that even conceiving of “the not-self” is problematic in its reification of substanceless phenomena, seem to take precedence yet pose obstacles to CSR. Yet with emerging interdisciplinary research within CSR, the reasoning processes behind these notions of identity, existence, and continuity can at least be illuminated, even if the metaphysics remain unscathed.

Dr. Robert White

Footnotes

[1] Walter, T., & Waterhouse, H. (2001). Lives-long learning: The effects of reincarnation belief on everyday life in England. Nova Religio, 5(1), 85-101.

[2] Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

[3] Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. Public Self and Private Self, 189-212.

[4] Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., & Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 435-468.

[5] “Sabbasava Sutta: All the Fermentations” (MN 2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition).

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 2 February 2016

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest and would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has submitted calls for papers, event notifications, job vacancies, etc. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

We thank you for your contribution.

Calls for papers

7th Queering Paradigms Conference

June 11–12, 2016

Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands

Deadline: April 4, 2016

More information

Undergraduate conference: “Faith and Power”

August 4–7, 2016

Central European University, Hungary

Deadline: April 1, 2016

More information

Law and Religion Scholars Network

Cardiff University, UK

Deadline: February 29, 2016

More information

Sacred stuff: Material culture and the geography of religion

August 30–September 2, 2016

London, UK

Deadline: February 8, 2016

More information

Religion, literature and culture: Lines in sand

September 9–11, 2016

University of Glasgow, UK

Deadline: April 18, 2016

More information

Historical Re-Enactment, Contemporary Paganism and Fantasy-Based Movements

May 20–21, 2016

Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania

Deadline: March 21, 2016

More information

Islam and Peaceful Relations

April 5, 2016

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: February 15, 2016

More information

Postgraduate Conference on Religion and Theology: “Perfection”

March 11–12, 2016

University of Bristol, UK

Deadline: February 19, 2016

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Time and Myth: The Temporal and the Eternal

May 26–28, 2016

Masaryk University, Czech Republic

Deadline: March 15, 2016

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Fetish Boots and Running Shoes: Indecent Theology Today into Tomorrow

July 8, 2016

University of Winchester, UK

Deadline: March 7, 2016

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AAR 2016: Religion and Public Schools: International Perspectives Group

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

Deadline: March 1, 2016

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Fieldwork: Doing Ethnographic Research

June 24, 2016

Birmingham City University, UK

Deadline: March 25, 2016

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Events

Inform seminar: New Religious Radicalisms

May 21, 2016

London School of Economics, UK

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Arbeitskreis interdisdisziplinäre Hexenforschung

February 18–20, 2016

Stuttgart-Hohenheim, Germany

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Research Methods in the Study of Religion

University of Kent, UK

Deadline: February 5, 2016

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Jobs

2 PhD positions in sociology project: “Postsecular Conflicts”

University of Innsbruck, Austria

Deadline: February 15, 2016

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3 PhD studentships

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: February 19, 2016

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PhD position: “Multiple Secularities: Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities”

University of Leipzig, Germany

Deadline: February 5, 2016

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PhD studentship: Cognitive Science of Religion

Belfast, UK; Aarhus, Denmark

Deadline: April 29, 2016

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Visiting Fellowship

Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore

Deadline: March 31, 2016

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Associate Professor, Full Professor: Jewish History/Studies

Case Western Research University, OH, United States

Deadline: March 1, 2016

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Postdoctoral fellowship

University of Pennsylvania, USA

Deadline: February 15, 2016

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Instructor: Buddhist Studies

Antioch University, OH, USA

Deadline: April 15, 2016

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Postdoctoral Fellowship: Chinese Buddhism

Columbia University, NY, USA

Deadline: April 20, 2016

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Encounters Between Buddhism and the West

previously been interviewed for the RSP.

In this interview, entry to the discussion takes place through the subject of Laurence Carroll, an Irish emigrant to Burma and who was ordained Dhammaloka in Burma. Carroll, like many of his generation, emigrated to the US in the early part of the 20th century. On crossing the US, his trajectory onward to south Asia became entangled more deeply with the politics of empire and colonialism.

Dhammaloka’s story opens up a people’s history of the development of Buddhism in what we might call the West. The crossing of boundaries, which we see in the monk’s biography, points to a number of ideas around the identification of religion with nationalist projects. These are challenges to imperial authorities and is bound up in Dhammaloka’s conversion to, and acceptance by, everyday Buddhism in Burma.

In this story is a continuation of “dissident orientalism”, a conflict inherent within the colonial project wherein communities and personal trajectories become embedded within local religious contexts. A distinction made, both in Ireland and Burma, between native religion and the religion of the coloniser serves only to enhance the connection between nationalist movements and ethno-religious identity. Cox’s ideas focus on the conjunctions between race, religion and imperial power. How Buddhism becomes identified as Asian remains central to that.

**As mentioned in the interview, a slightly longer version of this interview (approx. five minutes) is available to download here**

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Sri Lankan Buddhism and Colonialism, and Immigrant Buddhism in the West, and of course in the website for the Dhammaloka Project.

We hope you enjoy the sound from our new microphone setup. Thanks for listening!

Learning to Unlearn “Religion”: Jason Ānanda Josephson on the Invention of Religion in Japan

One of the first Religious Studies courses in which I enrolled was titled “Japanese Religion.” There were several themes running through the course, but the one that stuck with me as the most important was something the professor asked during the first meeting of the class:

The course is called “Japanese Religion”; over the semester, think about that phrase – would it be better to say “Japanese Religions”? How about “religions of Japan”? Or, is “religion” the best word to use to describe the Japanese traditions we’re studying?1

The implications of the latter question are considered by Jason Ānanda Josephson, scholar of East Asian religions and religious studies theory, in this informative interview with the Religious Studies Project. Josephson and interviewer Brad Stoddard explore how the concept of “religion” was translated, discussed, and applied in 19th Century Japan.

Josephson’s book, The Invention of Religion in Japan (University of Chicago Press, 2012), forms the backbone of the conversation. Josephson explains that he has always had an interest in East Asian religion, as well as the theory of religion and religious studies, and in his doctoral research he put those pieces together. The result is a book that critiques the category of religion using the Japanese situation as a case study. Josephson relates how, in post-1853 Japan, there was a significant discussion taking place among the Japanese elite about what the European idea of “religion” meant, how it fit (or didn’t) with existing traditions in Japan, and also, how the concept of the “secular” applied to Japanese society at the time. Josephson’s primary case study involves Shinto, rather than Buddhism, although Josephson hopes to explore Buddhist traditions in Japan in a future work.

Josephson’s critique of the category “religion” as it relates to Japan is part of an on-going discussion among scholars as to the accuracy, relevance, and necessity of that concept. (Scholars such as Timothy Fitzgerald, Russell T. McCutcheon, Talal Asad, and Tomoku Masuzawa are mentioned in the interview as key figures participating in this critique.) While I would not describe myself as a theorist primarily, or consider my main interest to be theories of religion, I have come to realize that questions about the nature of “religion,” what scholars mean when they write about “religion,” and the categorization of “religious” traditions cannot be overlooked and must be grappled with prior to studying a “religious” tradition.

When I was a student in the Japanese Religion course, I had not yet been introduced in a meaningful way to the critiques of the concept of “religion.” What seemed problematic to my novice eyes was the disjunction between the different implications of the phrases “religion in Japan,” “Japanese religion,” and/or “Japanese religions.” By the end of the course, I decided that the least problematic way to think about the topic was as “religions in Japan.” This didn’t tackle the truly important piece – namely, the category of “religion” – but it did seem to be more neutral and inclusive than any of the other phrases. In my graduate work, these questions of naming and labeling recurred – my interests centered around one of the Buddhisms in Japan, not the monolithic idea of “Japanese Buddhism.” The latter implies that there is one Buddhism that can be described as Japanese. I can think of (at least) two traditions of Buddhism that flourished and took on a “Japanese” approach over time, as well as several of the New/Emergent Religious Movements which originated in Japan and claim a Buddhist lineage. Ultimately, the use of terms like “Buddhism” and “religion” in the singular seem to be neither specific nor descriptive enough to capture the richness and diversity of the actual world. Josephson’s perspective adds that necessary final dimension to anyone studying “religion” in Japan: since it is both an imported and manufactured category, can it be used reliably by scholars to discuss Japanese traditions?

In the interview, Josephson mentions in passing that the title of his work (The Invention of Religion in Japan) could have just as easily been either The Invention of Superstition in Japan or The Invention of Secularism in Japan. I find this a particularly fascinating comment, as those three words – religion, superstition, secularism – each have a distinct implication. However, as Josephson demonstrates throughout the interview, Japanese society had to come to terms with those three ideas as a package. Was Shinto a religion or superstition? What about Buddhism? Is Japan a secular nation? Is Japan a modern nation? Since one could not be both “modern” and “superstitious,” that meant that Shinto could not be a superstition if Japan wished to take its “place” among the nations of the modern world. However, Josephson also points out that while colonialism often imposed categories upon a colonized people, that was not entirely the case in Japan. Japanese scholars involved in the (literal and cultural) translation of the concepts of religion, superstition, and secularism investigated what these terms meant to Europeans and then negotiated the idea within Japanese society, demonstrating a degree of agency not often seen during interactions between Western and Asian societies in the 19th century.

Not only am I eager to read The Invention of Religion in Japan, but I am also looking forward to Josephson’s next project, discussed at the end of the interview. The project is currently titled “Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences”; Josephson describes this as a project to analyze European society, specifically those parts of Europe that did not match up to the claims of modernity made by European scholars. Josephson’s novel approach analyzes these claims of modernity – and the disjunction between scholarly claims and reality – through the lens of postcolonial theory, using the world outside of Europe to analyze Europe.

 

1 Or at least, that’s my recollection of the instructor’s remarks! I am paraphrasing, not quoting directly.

 

References

Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Ellwood, Robert S. Introducing Japanese Religion. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Masuzawa, Tomoku. The Invention of World Religions: or, How European Universalism was

Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

McCutcheon, Russell T. [See Dr. McCutcheon’s website for a list of his work]

Tanabe, George J. (ed). Religions Of Japan in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Of Demon Kings and Protestant Yakṣas

Let me begin by saying that this is not a critique, but an effort to contribute to a conversation about issues that have affected me personally as a scholar. In particular, I want to suggest a few approaches that might be straws for the fire in the evolving discourse regarding “Protestant Buddhism” and the general influence of colonialism on Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

My most personal experience in regard to the issues raised by the Religious Studies Project interview with Stephen Berkwitz came while doing research on warfare with Pāli scholars. Again and again, as I directed their attention to jātakas in which the Buddha was a warrior, they would tell me that no such jātaka could exist. Their impression of Buddhist pacifism was so strong that, even though their knowledge of Pāli literature was vastly superior to my own, it had created a blind spot for aspects of their own tradition. It is my impression, [one that might be fruitfully disputed], that that blind spot is a result of the war-weary West’s idealization of Buddhists as the perfect pacifist other. This idealization offered colonized peoples a new and highly attractive moral superiority, which they brilliantly wielded as an act of cultural self-defense. But the power of this naïve Euro-American projection also deprived Sri Lankan’s of the valuable cultural resources that it eclipsed. That blind spot does not obscure the “dark side of Buddhism,” as one recent scholar called the ethics of violence that seem to emerge when we look at Buddhist narrative literature, but rather obscures a richly nuanced and flexible ethic that might have provided rich resources for Sri Lanka’s civil war and postwar reconciliation. There could not be more at stake for the nation that gave the world the suicide-bomber. A similar kind of effect can be seen among young Tibetan refugees, many of whom reject Buddhism, generally blaming its pacifism, a pacifism that never existed, for the loss of their country. The disappointment of Western pacifists here is not unlike the reaction of early Orientalists who, disappointed by the ritualism and deity-worship they found in living Buddhist cultures, described a degenerate Buddhism.[1]

One of the uncomfortable aspects of these kinds of critiques, including my own, is that once again Western scholars seem to claim the high ground and reveal Sri Lankans as passive victims of false consciousness. However, we should remember that cultural heroes like Dharmapala and Walpola Rahula [whose What the Buddha Taught is still found in undergraduate syllabi and dharma-center curricula] knew our languages, culture, values, scriptures and scholarship, including everything ever written about Buddhism in the West, far better than we knew theirs. They exerted great influence on the presentation of their tradition and, along with Neo-Vedānta, powerfully influenced American and European thought. This was not a passive or even merely reactive endeavor. In my experience, Sri Lanka is extraordinary among post-colonial nations for the cosmopolitanism, power and sophistication of its intellectuals. Dharmapala was perfectly poised to open up a can of whoop-ass on naïve Americans at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Buddha taught evolution! Any image of colonials passively subjected to Western influence should be balanced by the embarrassing naiveté and false consciousness this whole discourse reveals among the colonizers and the powerful role seized by Sri Lankans in the representation of their own world.[2]

The whole issue of “Protestant Buddhism” needs to be considered from multiple dimensions that can get mixed up. Any reformulation of Buddhism tuned to Western sensibilities would by implication be tuned to Protestant and scientific biases. Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught is a brilliant adaptation to these biases. The reformulation of Buddhism that was tuned to Western needs, biases, and weaknesses, was also tuned to the needs of Westernized Sri Lankan intellectuals and helped draw them back to Buddhism. So, one dimension of the construction of “Protestant Buddhism” is the Protestantized, pacifist, and scientific image of Buddhism integral to dialogue with the West, including the indigenous Westernized intellectuals who were situated in between worlds. This construction was enhanced by the fact that Sri Lankan intellectuals, who were attracted to this image for many of the same reasons, presented themselves as representative of the tradition as such. These figures may have had more influence on the Western perception of Buddhism than they did on their own country’s.

Buddhists at a stūpa in Kandy worshipping the Hindu deity Kartikeya (photo by Stephen Jenkins)

Sometimes it seems that we mix up our own romantic Protestantized image of Buddhism with what we are pointing toward in Sri Lankan culture. There are useful and intelligent reasons to use the descriptor “Protestant” in describing modern changes in Theravāda Buddhism, but any observer expecting to find Rahula’s Buddhism in Sri Lanka is much more likely to be shocked by how un-Protestant, even un-Theravādin, Buddhism in Sri Lanka really is. It is hard to fit Avalokiteśvara, an obsession with yakṣas, the integral worship of “Hindu” deities, and so on into an image of the bare white New England church. On the other hand, the Theravāda Buddhism that became the stock in trade of every Introduction to Buddhism class strikes me as very Protestant indeed. I look forward to reading Stephen Berkwitz’s new book about the poet Alagiyavanna, who eventually converted to Catholicism and sounds like an early example of a Sri Lankan scholar caught between worlds.

Vibhishana Crowned by Rama at Kelaniya (Photo by Stephen Jenkins)

Vibhishana Crowned by Rama at Kelaniya (Photo by Stephen Jenkins)

One of the most salient things about Sri Lanka is that the dominant majority feels like a threatened minority. Perhaps this is a more recent phenomenon, but it reminds me of how important India has been in shaping Sinhala identity. Traveling in Sri Lanka, I was struck by the presence of Vibhīṣana, the brother of the demon King Rāvana, at Buddhist sacred sites. In the Rāmāyaṇa, Vibhīṣana is portrayed as the good Rākṣasa that advises his brother to surrender Sri Lanka to the ideal Hindu King, Rāma. Although the Rāmāyaṇa did not have great currency among Sinhalese Buddhists, Vibhīṣana was deliberately utilized by Buddhist Kings as a model for their submission to the imperial power of South India whose Kings modeled themselves on Rāma.[3] This response demonstrates a self-conscious and sophisticated approach to manipulating and utilizing the ideals of the outsider as a practical technique for moderating their negative impact. The story of Sri Lanka’s contention with destructive invasive violence and outside imperialist ambitions long precedes Western colonialism. So, I close by wondering whether it might be useful to consider whether the earlier relationship with the once expansive power of South India has anything to tell us, even by way of contrast, about the evolution of Sri Lanka’s adaptation to colonialist forces.

[1] For a more extended rant on these issues see Stephen Jenkins. “A Review Essay on The Range of the Bodhisattva, A Mahāyāna Sūtra,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 2014.

[2] For a longer discussion see Stephen Jenkins, “Black Ships, Blavatsky, and the Pizza Effect: Critical Self Consciousness as a Thematic Foundation,” in Teaching Buddhism in the West: From the Wheel to the Web, Curzon Press, ed., Victor Hori, 2002.

[3] I recently discovered the work of Jonathan Walters on Vibhīṣana and he was kind enough to forward a copy of this fascinating article. Walters, Jonathan S. 1990-1994. “Vibhisana and Vijayanagar: An Essay on Religion and Geopolitics in Medieval Sri Lanka.” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities 17 and 18, nos. 1 and 2 (Special Jubilee Issue): 129-142.

Sri Lankan Buddhism and Colonialism

Stephen Berkwitz doesn’t really speak of either. Instead, the interview focuses on Sri Lankan colonial past and how the presence of European rulers and Christian missionaries affected local Buddhism.

Pogacnik and Berkwitz discuss the effects of colonial missionaries on the solidification of a Buddhist religious identity in Sri Lanka and the far-reaching consequences of this turn on some contemporary Buddhist monks, who are turning to the Pali canon in search of ‘authentic Buddhism’. Berkwitz explores the connection of this turn to scripture with the presence of Protestant missionaries and the idea of ‘Protestant Buddhism’ in Sri Lanka, presenting some challenges to seeing the missionary influence as a straight-forward one. Exploring examples of the counter influences Buddhism had on Christian missionaries that came to Sri Lanka, Berkwitz concludes the interview by talking about the complex relationship and interplay of religion and power in the Sri Lankan context.

Listeners interested further in the authors Berkwitz mentioned in the interview can look into the works of Gananath Obeyesekere and Anne Blackburn. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, choral scores, lunchboxes and more.

Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond: Part 2

In October, RSP interviewer Paulina Kolata was able to sit down with Professor Ian Reader to discuss his publication ‘Pilgrimage in the Marketplace’ (October 2013), which explores the very ‘worldly’ conditions of development, popularisation, and ultimately, survival of pilgrimage centres in connection to the dynamics of the marketplace through which the ‘sacred’ as a category can be sustained. In this interview, Ian offers an insight into the meaning of pilgrimage, particularly in the Japanese context, and discusses the competitiveness of the pilgrimage market, the practice’s connection to tourism, playfulness of religion, and the survival of pilgrimage practice. After a fascinating conversation and a couple of cups of coffee later, we hope that listeners will enjoy this podcast as much as Paula and Ian enjoyed recording it, and we look forward to your discussions.

For ease of listening, we decided to split this week’s interview into two parts. For full podcast notes, and the first part, please click here. Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Eoin O’Mahony on “Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland“, and Alex Norman on “Spiritual Tourism“.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more.

Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond: Part 1

The practice of pilgrimage is generally held to be a core feature of religious traditions. Pilgrimage developed as a practice available to only a few. The danger of the road, the cost of travel, and restrictions of class and feudal systems made it impossible for the common people to travel to remote sacred places. Similar to the situation in Early Medieval Europe (Sumption 1975: 11-12), political instability in pre-Tokugawa Japan (pre-1603) and an overall hostility to travelling strangers discouraged even some willing pilgrims from visiting many famous sites.  Whether it was wandering Buddhist monks circuiting Medieval Japan and performing healing rituals or Heian-aristocracy visiting Buddhist sites famous for their wish-granting powers, the practice of pilgrimage, and the special benevolence of the deities that went along with it, was reserved for a handful of people who had time and wealth to spare in order to afford the travel and to secure their safety on the dangerous routes.

Since then, pilgrimage has undergone a number of transitions that have shaped and redefined the way it is practiced and perceived. Various socio-economic and political changes, as well as technological developments, the establishment of modern tourism, and the expansion of the media have changed the way individuals ‘do’ pilgrimage, and shaped scholars’ understandings of modern religious travel, facilitating the transition of pilgrimage from obscure ascetic practice to widely popular touristic activity.

The element of journey, the importance of material culture, the role of media and technology, as well as the commercialisation of the practice of pilgrimage are dictate the conditions of survival and the popularity of pilgrimage today. Pilgrimage is a vivid representation of the way religion interacts with tourism, as we have seen before in our interview with Alex Norman on ‘Spiritual Tourism’. However, the exposure of pilgrimage practice to the influences of tourism and commodification does not necessarily diminish the ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ character of the practice. The utilization of the technological advancements of ‘this world’ is an important element in the survival of pilgrimage in Japan and elsewhere, helping it to become a kind of religious ‘pop culture’.

Within Religious Studies, discussion has rarely focused on the so-called this-worldliness of pilgrimage. Yet,  in October, RSP interviewer Paulina Kolata was able to sit down with Professor Ian Reader to discuss his publication ‘Pilgrimage in the Marketplace’ (October 2013), which explores the very ‘worldly’ conditions of development, popularisation, and ultimately, survival of pilgrimage centres in connection to the dynamics of the marketplace through which the ‘sacred’ as a category can be sustained. In this interview, Ian offers an insight into the meaning of pilgrimage, particularly in the Japanese context, and discusses the competitiveness of the pilgrimage market, the practice’s connection to tourism, playfulness of religion, and the survival of pilgrimage practice. After a fascinating conversation and a couple of cups of coffee later, we hope that listeners will enjoy this podcast as much as Paula and Ian enjoyed recording it, and we look forward to your discussions.

For ease of listening, we decided to split this interview into two parts. The second part is available below, or at this link, where it was originally published.

 

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Eoin O’Mahony on “Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland“, and Alex Norman on “Spiritual Tourism“.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more.

References/Further Reading

  • Reader, Ian (2013) Pilgrimage in the Marketplace. New York and London: Routledge
  • Reader, Ian. and Swanson, Paul (1997) “Editors’ Introduction: Pilgrimage in the Japanese Religious Tradition”, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1997 24/3-4 pp.225-270
  • Sumption, Jonathan. (1975) Pilgrimage: an image of medieval religion. London: Faber & Faber

Concepts and Symbols, What Does It All Mean? Examining Immigrant Buddhists in Toronto

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 13 November 2013, in response to D. Mitra Barua’s interview on Immigrant Buddhism in the West  (11 November 2013).

Talal Asad, in Genealogies of Religion, sets out an argument by which he hopes to improve upon Clifford Geertz’s anthropological method of examining a culture’s symbols in an effort to analyze the meanings that these symbols hold “of” and “for” a culture’s religious character. He points out that although “[r]eligious symbols… cannot be understood independently of their historical relations with nonreligious symbols…” (53) “It does not follow that the meanings of religious practices and utterances are to be sought in social phenomena, but only that their possibility and their authoritative status are to be explained as products of historically distinctive disciplines and forces. (54) In short, any culture cannot be said to be a fixed point to be dissected as such, but rather, a stream or flow of histories whose “power” and influence received from prior discourse must be taken into account as a process of cultural, and therefore religious, creation.

Webb Keane takes Asad’s emphasis upon socio-historical discourse being a process through which meanings can be analysed and provides a term for this concept that he feels is better able to be wielded by the ethnographer, namely, the utilisation of “semiotic forms”. Semiotic forms, Keane argues, are “social categories” which are “recognizable as something knowable”. He continues, “they must, that is, have some material manifestation that makes them available to, interpretable by, and, in most cases, replicable by other people: bodily actions, speech, the treatment of objects, and so forth.” (114) Seeing as how, for Keane, “[s]emiotic forms are public entities…” they are “objects for the senses…” and “as such, they have distinctive temporal dimensions…” however, “[b]ecause they are repeatable, they have the potential to persist over time and across social contexts.” (114-115). In this specific context, Keane only examines one example of a semiotic form for the sake of illustration- speech; however, Mitra Barua hits upon this exact idea in his conversation with Chris Silver. We start to get an idea of Barua’s work when he tells us of his interest in how Buddhism has been transmitted into new locations (inter-cultural dimensions of Buddhist transmission) and between first- and second-generation immigrants living in diaspora (inter-generational dimensions).

Working with Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhists (presumably Sinhalese) who form a disaporic group in Toronto, Canada, Barua is able to link his work with that of Asad and Keane by adding to his two dimensions of Buddhist transmissions an overall sense of time, or discourse. He identifies three primary historical periods of migration within which he frames his work; namely, the Colonial, Post-Colonial and Diaspora periods. None of these have any ontological purchase independently; rather, only as a spectrum, each blending into the next (ignoring firm historical dates one must assume and only focusing on the state of transmission of teachings which does not generally change, or stop-start, with any firm temporal grounding). His interest lies in how Buddhism has been and continues to be transmitted from older, first-generation migrants who came from Ceylon to Canada, to their children who were raised in Canadian culture; or, inter-cultural and inter-generational dimensions of transmission and the problems that arise therefrom.

What he finds is perhaps a bit unsurprising; the younger generation who have grown up in a “secular”, Western culture have different views and emphases regarding how to balance their secular and their religious livesthan their parents. Additionally, Barua finds that there is a serious concern within the older members of the community regarding the “religiosity” of Buddhism being not only separated out, but also lost in favour of a more secular, functional usage of concepts like samatha/vipassana or group temple worship.

Concerning this worry surrounding the “dilution” of Buddhism that Barua identifies amongst the Buddhist immigrants in Toronto, some important questions arise for scholars of religion as a whole. Throughout the interview terms like “religion”, “faith”, “theology” are thrown about, ironically often in close proximity to discussions on how Buddhism is tied into not just the immigrants religious lives but also and perhaps most importantly their culture. During the first third of the interview, Dr. Barua even explains how these immigrants have changed the adjectives of the Buddhist Eight-fold Path, from “right” speech, thought, action, etc. to “harmonious”. Why does this bi-polarity seem to weigh so heavily on this group of immigrants, on the one hand being self-conscious enough to feel it necessary to change the language of one of their most fundamental principles, while at the same time wanting to save the “religiosity” of Buddhism from complete secularisation? Further, do Christo-centric terms like faith and theology even work within a Buddhist setting, and if not, why does this community feel it useful or indeed necessary to use them? Does the very act of using foreign, Christian terms contribute to the undermining of the very sense of importance and individuality that the Buddhist elders are trying to stave off; and most intriguingly, if religion (in this case Buddhism) is indeed not sui generis but rather, linked wholly with a society’s culture; are these immigrants not so much concerned with the loss of their religion, but instead and more disconcerting, with a loss of their culture and self-identity? In a response to a similar question from Chris Silver, Dr. Barua does give us a related answer when he affirms, that he found these Buddhists to self-identify as indeed in some ways more religious in Canada than they were in Sri Lanka.

By way of conclusion with the understanding that cultural (and therefore religious) symbols and concepts are intrinsically intertwined within the socio-temporal spectrum of a group of people, as scholars of religion some pressing questions now pop up for further inspection, perhaps most importantly are some that are self-reflexive: are we truly Post-Orientalist/Colonialist? Do we, living in primarily First and Second World countries, take for granted our contemporary cultural hegemony? What can we learn about immigrant groups who find their most effective recourse to be utilising OUR terminology to describe THEIR culture? Perhaps the era of colonisation is not quite over.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York. Basic Books
  • Keane, Webb. 2008. ‘The evidence of the senses and the materiality of religion’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Volume 14: 110-127.

D. Mitra Barua on Immigrant Buddhism in the West

D. Mitra BaruaDr. D. Mitra Barua is an instructor of Religious Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, and has a Masters in Buddhist Philosophy undertaken in Sri Lanka. His doctorate concerned several generations of Sri Lankan immigrants in Toronto, and how their Buddhist practices are affected by being transplanted to Canada.

In this in-depth interview with Chris Silver, Barua discusses the links between ethnic and religious identity, and how the relationship has changed over time. They discuss how traditional Buddhist teachings are reinterpreted in order to harmonise their Buddhism with the multicultural society in which they are embedded, although this has not been uncontroversial. Buddhism, of course, has historically been geographically and theologically diverse, and this has continued in a North American context. 

They also discuss how these affect our models of religion and culture. Are the appropriations of Buddhist traditions like meditation in therapeutic contexts to be considered ‘religious’? Dr Barua also describes some of the practical issues with carrying out fieldwork within a monastic community.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc. Remember… Christmas is on the way!

This interview marks the beginning of a short series of podcasts from the RSP on Religion, Migration and Diaspora, which began last week with Andrew Dawson discussing Sante Daime, and concludes next week with Monika Salzbrunn speaking to Hanna Lehtinen about Religion, Migration and Diaspora.