An exploration of the background assumptions of the modern age and the unique challenges they present.
Even among worldviews, which are all convincing to their adherents, secular humanism combined with scientific materialism has a particularly compelling normative force. The success of instrumental reason in producing vast wealth, status, and power combined with obvious scientific and technological advances allows us to believe that this style of thinking and its discipline of science are not just efficacious but also indubitably and solely true. By these standards, other worldviews and other modes of knowing are unable to justify themselves and therefore seem invalid. But failure to satisfy the criteria by which secular modernity measures success is not a shortcoming of other worldviews and other modes of knowing; it is simply a result of applying our own criteria outside their ken. For the past 100 years, scholars across fields ranging from philosophy and cultural anthropology to the history of science, sociology, literary studies, and linguistics have questioned the assumptions that constitute the immanent frame. Unpacking why the immanent frame’s subtraction story spin is so convincing has been and continues to be an urgent challenge for modern thinkers who are concerned about the ethical implications of unbridled individualism let loose in a value-neutral world.
The point here is not that a traditional Asian worldview (or some other) is right and ours is wrong, but that our secular and materialist convictions block us in certain critical ways from participating in what has always constituted a Buddhist form of life. Much of the meaning of a religion is conveyed in its symbols, rituals, and myths. Consider how our privileging of rational knowing gets in our way.
Reason is concerned with literal meaning—that is, “x is y.” Symbolic knowing is concerned with metaphorical meaning: “x is like y.” Thus, while reason hones in on facts, symbols explore relations. Reason demands one-to-one correspondence: either water is H20 or it isn’t. In contrast, symbols work with multifaceted meaning; the water offered on a Tibetan altar is at once flowers, incense, and light. Symbols govern intricate patterns of meaning. They condense many meanings into one. They expand one meaning into many. And they can even hold together discordant or contradictory meanings.
From the point of view of instrumental reason, ritual seems like purposeless action. But ritual too is working with another kind of knowing—the sense in which we know the floor is solid and the walls obstructive, which we discover by finding our way around—by walking on the floor or bumping into the wall. This type of knowledge is not theoretical in nature; it is how we live. And ritual can shape that level of meaning, articulate it in definite ways. Ritual doesn’t represent meaning like rational propositions do; it enacts it. Bowing to the Buddha, for example, isn’t just how you think about your faith; it is how you go about attaining it and how you live it.
Again, from the perspective of reason, myths are just bad theories or wrong propositions. But narratives can deeply shape our understanding—both intellectual and intuitive. They are deeply interwoven in our identities and can pull strings on our motivations—ask any psychotherapist, politician, or advertiser. Or ask yourself: Why do you practice Buddhism? Your answer will be a story.
Our Buddhist tradition is like a meaning-symphony in which symbols, rituals, myths, and beliefs harmonize and counterpoint. Reducing the dharma to a system of rational beliefs and associated meditative techniques and discarding the rest is like covering one’s ears so that only the percussion beats through. Listening to our tradition in that manner, we can’t even tell what piece is playing. If then, on top of that, we toss out Buddhist beliefs that don’t fit with materialism, it’s as if we are only hearing that percussion line as a beat we already know. Is this an authentic dialogue with tradition? In what way are we to learn something new?
Certainly we cannot turn the clock back. There is no returning to a presecular world. We must reckon with our secular scientific background. What, then, is the way forward?
There are no easy answers. We might begin, however, by confronting our biases—indeed, our chauvinisms: our presumption that science has got it all figured out; that the modern worldview is a triumph over all past forms of understanding; and that today we are closer to a truer understanding of ourselves and our world than people of any other place and time. We need to start examining the immanent frame’s background assumptions, which constrain our sense of the possible. As we hold each assumption up for examination—as we pull it from the background and into the foreground and subject it to analysis—something curious happens. In a certain sense it loses its power over us—its status as “the way things are”—and becomes one possible way among many ways that things could be.
Examining and even questioning the foundational assumptions of secular and scientific materialism doesn’t mean we stop doing science or stop living in a technological world. Rather, it means we begin to see our worldview as a worldview, to appreciate how it, too, came to be constituted on the basis of a number of sleights of hand and is, as a result, no more universal or final or resting on solid ground than the worldviews of our medieval Western or traditional Buddhist predecessors. Like their worldviews, ours is a set of conventions. We can then understand that this is what it means to have a worldview: the human form of life operates within a vast web of implicit background understandings that limit what can count as valid beliefs and experiences.
The distinction between explicit beliefs and their implicit background context has been a critical one in our own Western philosophical tradition for the last century. Many of our most prominent thinkers—from Wittgenstein to Kuhn up to Taylor— have called attention to its importance and the problems that arise when it is overlooked. Although the understanding of background context emerged in the West, its implications lead us back home to one of the core teachings of Buddhist tradition— the two truths. When we as Buddhists consider that all our experiences, along with the objects of our experiences—and even subjectivity and objectivity themselves—arise within the context of implicit background assumptions, we recognize what we call “conventional truth.” When we consider that therefore, as a consequence, no worldview can appeal to the objects of its own creation for its own validation—that no worldview rests on solid ground in this sense—we recognize “ultimate truth,” emptiness.
At some moment it could hit us that the liberative possibilities spoken of in Buddhist texts may not be superstitious fairy tales. They may be real possibilities. For the first time it may seem plausible, indeed credible, that just as our form of human life gave rise to the material accomplishments toward which it directed its aspirations—skyscrapers and Internet technology and the like—so too might another form of human life, operating within different background assumptions, with different aspirations and with an understanding of its own conventional nature, be capable of giving rise to spiritual accomplishments like liberation and enlightenment. Then with courage and genuine humility we might begin to look at our job as dharma pioneers differently. Our cutting-edge task is not to fit Buddhism into our world. Nor is it to adapt ourselves to fit a world that is no longer available to us as it might have been to our ancestors. It is to reach across a great chasm and to meet our tradition in a new place where it—and we—have never been before.
Of Related Interest:
Linda Heuman reviews Religion in Human Evolution, by sociologist of religion Robert N. Bellah.
"The Transcendent Imperative," by Tricycle features editor Andrew Cooper.
Linda Heuman, a Tricycle contributing editor, is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island.
Image 1: Central Tibet, 1700-1799, Gelug lineage. Ground mineral pigment, fine gold line, red background on cotton. Collection of Rubin Museum of Art, New York.
Image 2: Tibet, 1800-1899. Uncertain lineage. 93.98x64.77cm, ground mineral pigment on cotton. Collection of Rubin Museum of Art, New York.