Buddhism and Pragmatism–Part 1
See photo credits at end of article
Buddhism is a 2,500 plus year old religion that began in India. Pragmatism is a philosophical system that began in America in the late 19th century. Surprisingly enough, they have some core elements in common. The bottom line, Buddhism is consistent with the traditional aspirations of Americans (and among members of other cultures as well) and offers the means to attain them and more. If you search for the adjective “pragmatic,” you will get a definition describing a realistic or practical approach to ideas rather than a theoretical one. In other words, a pragmatic approach produces real world results or implies common sense. As you might expect, the adjective comes from the framework of the philosophy. Similarly, Buddhism (as practiced by the author) has a documentary and theoretical basis, but as noted in the background explanation to one of Nichiren Daishonin’s letters to a follower, written in 1275—quite a long time before the development of Pragmatism,
“[W]hile documentary and doctrinal evidence is important in considering the efficacy of a Buddhist teaching, far more important is ‘the proof of actual fact,’ that is, the power of a religion to positively affect the human condition.“
What Nichiren (a 13th century Japanese monk; more on him and this school of Buddhism later) is referring to is the value of the practicing a Buddhism with the tenets of faith he articulates—enlightenment and absolute happiness. This is a simplistic connection, but I will enlarge upon this in subsequent articles on Buddhism and Pragmatism.
First, a little more background. As a major world religion, Buddhism is the only one not associated with war, imperialism or violence in general. We all know of the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the conflicts between the Jewish state of Israel and Muslim-led states in the Middle East, the Crusades of centuries ago, conflicts between Hindus and Muslims along the Pakistan/India border, etc. You will find few examples of such conflict in the history of Buddhist-led states. Notably, however, there is the issue of the Chinese occupation and control of Tibet–an exploration of that topic is beyond the scope of this article. But it is fair to say that most people regard Buddhism as a religion of peace rather than one used as a justification for war. Peace is something which we could certainly use a little more of throughout the world from east to west and north to south. Not only that, but Buddhism is a religious philosophy focused on enabling individual happiness. If you don’t think so, perhaps it is due to some abundant misconceptions.
So let’s dispense with some of those notions. Buddhism is an accessible belief system practiced by millions of lay people throughout the world. What it’s not is Shaolin priests practicing martial arts as you will see in the movies. While you can find saffron robed monks with shaved heads living in monasteries or sitting along the street with beggar’s bowls, that’s not the predominant reality of modern Buddhism. It’s not all about the bald guy with a huge belly you frequently see in Chinese restaurants. It’s not just a meditative methodology for removing oneself from the vicissitudes of day to day life, although there are those whose practice is limited to that. What it actually is, at least among the fellow believers of the lay organization Soka Gakkai International (with over 12 million members in 192 countries and territories), is an active practice for achieving happiness, overcoming life’s obstacles and realizing one’s dreams by becoming a Buddha. That’s right, becoming a Buddha. A Buddha is not a supernatural being or some guru sitting on a mountaintop providing esoteric advice to supplicants who make a pilgrimage to visit him or her. Everyone has the ability to activate the Buddha nature within and to see things as they really are—to understand the workings of cause and effect, allowing him or her to make wiser choices in life and thereby achieve better results.
So what of Pragmatism? Like other philosophies, it attempts to explain reality, how human beings interact with it, how we think and how we interpret what we see. Unlike many other philosophies, it entails a process or methodology—not just a world view. The perspective of Pragmatism lies in examining the practical consequences of actions. William James, one of the prominent founders of Pragmatism is famously quoted as saying,
“You can say of it [an idea] then either that it is ‘useful because it is true’ or that it ‘it is true because it is useful.’ Both these phrases mean exactly the same thing, namely that here is an idea that gets fulfilled and can be verified.”
Without context, one will have difficulty with that, (and so did some critics from other philosophical perspectives) but we will provide that context in the next installment in this series. Pragmatism as a philosophy rejects determinism, the notion that while we may have free will, it is essentially irrelevant given that the options for choice presented to us are constrained by our prior actions. We won’t get into hard versus soft Determinism here, but suffice it to say that the latter is less constraining than the predestination of, for example, the Puritans. Pragmatism is more comfortable with empiricism than rationalism, as suggested by the quote above.
For a succinct description of Pragmatism, that is as accurate as we need for now, there is this from Wikipedia:
“Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that began in the United States around 1870.Pragmatism is a rejection of the idea that the function of thought is to describe, represent, or mirror reality. Instead, pragmatists develop their philosophy around the idea that the function of thought is as an instrument or tool for prediction, action, and problem solving. Pragmatists contend that most philosophical topics—such as the nature of knowledge, language, concepts, meaning, belief, and science—are all best viewed in terms of their practical uses and successes rather than in terms of representative accuracy.”
In the remainder of this segment, we provide a brief history and some core concepts of Buddhism. In August, we will do the same for Pragmatism. We won’t cover every facet of either—just offer a rationale for why Buddhism is actually a wholly American-style religion. For those of you elsewhere in the world, Buddhism is certainly an equally valuable practice, but its roots and connections with popular philosophies or histories will likely vary from those of American traditions.
The Beginnings of Buddhism
Shakyamuni (prince of the Shakya clan), given name Siddhartha and family name Gautama, was born into a royal family in India. Bored, inquisitive or just plain tired of being cooped up behind castle walls, he ventured out among the people without. There he saw the suffering of birth into poverty, sickness, old age and ultimately death. Shakyamuni wondered why such things occurred. So he left the protection of his family home and began a pursuit to understand what collectively became known as the four sufferings. He became an ascetic. He became a beggar. He tried a variety of meditations and practices in an effort to understand life amidst the chaotic world of human beings. Eventually, sitting under the proverbial Bodhi tree, he realized the meaning of it all, the impermanence of life, attaining his own enlightenment. For 40 years he preached the understanding he had attained, accumulating many followers.
Underlying the impermanence of life is causation. We continually make choices; some are trivial while others are of major import: what to have for breakfast, which route to follow to work, which person to attach ourselves to and perhaps marry. Those choices have consequences or effects. Getting healthier or less so. More traffic or less. Happiness or conflict in a relationship—depending on subsequent interactions. We expect happy times to endure, but the winds of change ensure they will not. We will all get older. We will all get sick. We will all die. We attach ourselves to things and people, hoping and expecting their present state will remain as it always is. Then the flood, the fire or disaster claims our dream home. We lose the job or the boss becomes a jerk. The prince turns back into a frog. The sufferings we all endure are a consequence of being born into the world. Because we crave things we do not have, we suffer. To eliminate the suffering and get off the wheel of birth and death Shakyamuni initially taught that one must extinguish all desires—a seriously difficult (really impossible) task, thereby achieving nirvana. To extinguish all desires, at best, would require lifetime after lifetime of a strict regimen of practice (the Eightfold Path, which we will not go into here) to elevate one’s life condition a little bit at a time. Over the course of the decades, Shakyamuni expounded the practices essential for enlightenment. But the practices he expounded were not accessible to or attainable by more than a few, who could abandon ordinary workaday life for a community of monastic believers dependent on others for food and support.
Eventually, his “84,000 teachings,” as they became known, spread from west to east along the Silk Road, into China and Japan as well as down into Southeast Asia. As they did, adherents grabbed onto varying elements of his teachings. As the centuries wore on, many schools of Buddhism developed, as has occurred within most other major religions of the world as seen in the doctrinal schisms they have endured. Thus, the Buddhist schools diverged in practice and belief. There is the introspective and meditative Zen, which some movies associate with martial arts. There is the Tibetan Buddhism, led by the Dalai Lama; with movies and celebrity supporters influencing much of its popular image. Then there are Pure Land, Shingon, and many others most people outside Asia have never heard of. As our purpose here is not to provide a comparative religion analysis, we will not go further down that path. But the two major steams to be noted are Mahayana (greater vehicle), which is concerned with attaining enlightenment via the practice of a Bodhisattva (assisting others in achieving enlightenment) and Theravada (Teaching of the Elders, pejoratively referred to as Hinayana or Lesser Vehicle by adherents of Mahayana) which is focused on strict regimens and discipline to purify one’s own life in order to attain individual enlightenment. Although not restricted to that part of the world, Theravada believers predominate in Southeast Asia.
Chih-I, a Chinese monk, known in Japan as T’ien-T’ai, systematized Shakyamuni’s teachings in the fifth century. T’ien-T’ai, among other things, emphasized Shakyamuni’s penultimate teaching, known as the Lotus Sutra (sutra means teaching). This teaching, for the first time, indicated that one could attain Buddhahood in one’s current life—not be required to be reborn over and over again to attain enlightenment. Moreover, men and women were equally able to attain enlightenment without any distinction. T’ien-T-ai and Dengyo, a Japanese scholar following him left unclear, however, a means for ordinary people to get to that level of understanding. If you had the money and or time to retreat from life in order to pursue this goal, fine. If you wished to be a beggar sitting on a street that could possibly work as well. Otherwise you were basically out of luck. It remained for Nichiren Daishonin, a man born in 1222 in Japan to reveal a practice accessible to anyone.
Shakyamuni predicted a time would come when his teachings were distorted and no longer effective. At that time, a votary would appear who would reveal the essential practice for the “latter day of the law.” Nichiren asserted that he had fulfilled all of the characteristics and conditions associated with being the votary of the Lotus Sutra. That law, or the dharma, is the universal law of life to which all of us are connected. In order to activate our innate Buddha nature, see things as they really are and make use of our connection to that law Nichiren explained, entails the practice of daimoku reciting the title of the Lotus Sutra, which in Japanese is Myoho-Renge-Kyo. By chanting the words Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, one becomes a Buddha. Nam is a Sanskrit word meaning devotion. Myoho refers to the mystic law of life and death (mystic because it is not commonly known and comprehended) which entails the eternity of life—we live, we die and we do it all over again. Renge literally refers to the lotus blossom. The lotus is unusual in bearing both a flower and seed at the same time and as renge is used here, it is a metaphorical reference to the simultaneity of cause and effect. In other words, having made a cause through our actions, words or thoughts, we are immediately inscribing an effect in our lives—whether that effect becomes manifest presently or only much later. Kyo refers to sound or teaching. So Nam-myoho-renge-kyo means devotion to the mystic law of cause and effect. Only by a rather large leap of faith can one accept the notion that by chanting these words, one can somehow manifest wisdom, activate an innate Buddha nature and become absolutely (not relatively) happy through this practice. We will pick this up again in the context of Pragmatism. For now, note the simple analogy that should your name be Sally or Fred; while walking down the street you hear someone call out, “Hey Sally” (or Fred), you are likely to at least turn around to see if you should respond—but not, of course, if they called out the name Mary or Bob. So it is with calling upon the Buddha within.
Coming in August 2015—Part 2, The Beginnings of Pragmatism
 William James, Pragmatism, page 575, reprinted in William James Writings, 1902-1910, volume compilation copyright 1987 by Literary Classics of the United States, New York, New York
Lotus image:[link is broken; perhaps it will return in the future]