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Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience

Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience

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Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative ExperienceAuthor(s): Robert H. SharfSource:
Numen,
Vol. 42, No. 3 (Oct., 1995), pp. 228-283Published by: BRILLStable URL:
Accessed: 19/04/2010 01:33
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BUDDHISTMODERNISMAND THERHETORIC OFMEDITATIVE EXPERIENCE*
ROBERTH. SHARF
Whatwe cantsaywe can'tsayand we can't whistle either.FrankRamsey
SummaryThecategory "experience"hasplayeda cardinal roleinmodern studies of Bud-dhism.Few scholars seem toquestionthe notionthat Buddhistmonasticpractice,particularlymeditation,isintended first and foremost to inculcatespecificreligiousor"mystical" experiencesinthe mindsofpractitioners. Accordingly,awidevarietyof Buddhist technicaltermspertainingto the"stagesonthepath"aresubjectto aphenomenological hermeneutic-theyareinterpretedas iftheydesignateddiscrete "states of consciousness"experienced byhistorical individualsin the course of their meditativepractice.Thispaperarguesthat the roleofexperienceinthehistoryof Buddhism hasbeengreatly exaggeratedincontemporary scholarship.Both historicalandethnographicevidencesuggeststhat theprivilegingofexperience maywellbetraced to certaintwentieth-centuryAsian reformmovements,notablythose thaturgea "return" to zazen orvipassanameditation,and these reforms werepro-foundlyinfluencedby religious developmentsinthe West.Even in thecase ofthosecontemporaryBuddhist schools that dounambiguouslyexaltmeditativeexperience, ethnographicdatabelies the notion that the rhetoricofmeditativestates functionsostensively.While someadeptsmayindeedexperience"alteredstates"inthe course of theirtraining,criticalanalysisshows that such states donot constitute the referencepointsfor the elaborate Buddhist discoursepertainingto the"path."Rather,such discourse turns out to functionideologicallyandperformatively-wieldedmore often than not in theinterestsoflegitimationandinstitutionalauthority.
Few wouldquestionthepivotalrole thecategory"experience"hasplayedinthe modernstudyofreligion.There wouldappeartobewidespreadagreement amongbothphenomenologistsandhistorians ofreligionthat themeaningofmany religiousdoctrines,symbols,and rituals is to besoughtintheexperiences theyevokeinthe minds ofpractitioners.Moreover,aparticularmode(ormodes)ofexperience,characterized as"religious,""spiritual,"or"mystical,"is seenby manyto constitute theveryessence ofreligion;indeed,thegreattraditionsareoften traced back to the
NUMEN,Vol.42(1995)?E.J.Brill,Leiden
 
BuddhistModernismand theRhetoricofMeditativeExperience229"originaryexperiences"of their founders. Itmightthen seem sur-prisingthat somanyof the scholars whoprivilegethecategory"experience"inthestudyofreligionareapparentlyhesitanttosubjectthis term torigorouscriticalanalysis.Even those whoseinterests lieintheinvestigationofso-calledreligiousormysticalexperiencetypicallydevotetheir effortstotheelucidationof thequalifiers "religious"and/or"mystical," evincinglittle interest intheanalysisoftheepistemiccommitments entailedin therhetoricofexperience perse.The notion that the referent oftheterm"experience"isself-evidentbetraysaset ofspecificallyCartesianassumptions,accord-ingtowhichexperienceis heldto beimmediatelypresenttocon-sciousness. It wouldappearthat thephenomenologicaltransparencyofconsciousness-whatRichardRortyhas called the"glassyessence" or"mirrorof nature"pictureof mind(Rorty1979)-isreproducedintheconceptual transparencyof thecategory"experience,"obviatingthe need for definitionalpreci-sionorcriticalanalysis.Thestrategyofprivilegingexperienceontheonehand,whileleavingthe termunexaminedontheother,hasprovenparticularlyopportuneto those who envision their missionasoneofcombatingtheperniciousandever-presentthreat of reductionisminthestudyofreligion.Bysituatingthelocusofreligioussignificationinphenomenological"innerspace," religionissecurely sequesteredbeyondthecompassofempiricalor social-scientific modesofinquiry. WayneProudfoot,who has undertakenan extensiveanalysisof thisparticular exegetical strategy,hasarguedthatthecategory "religious experience"isofrelativelyrecentprovenance,and that itwas "motivatedinlargemeasurebyan interestin free-ingreligiousdoctrine andpracticefromdependenceonmetaphysicalbeliefs and ecclesiastical institutions"(Proudfoot1985:xiii).Asaconsequenceofthe desire to shieldreligionfromsecularcritique,the modernstudyofreligionwasthoughttorequirethedevelopmentofspecializedhermeneutical tools sensitivetothe irreducibleexperientialfoundationofreligiousphenomena.(Thisargumenthasproven particularlypopularwhenlegitimizingthe existence ofdepartmentsofreligioninpubliclyfunded univer-sities andcolleges.)

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