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Study of Religion, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Mar., 1992), pp. 47-61 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of Society for the Scientific Study of Religion Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1386831 Accessed: 24/07/2009 23:09
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Religion. "On Durkheim and Religion. to W. Such disregardis remarkablesince Durkheimreliedon his interpretationof Buddhism to support two crucial claims in his definition of religious phenomena: that gods or spirits are not essential to religion. and his discussions of totemic beliefs and of rituals. and Buddhism* MARCO ORRUt AMY WANGt Since its publicationin 1912. Pickering's definitive study. Instead. we show that Buddhism admits the existence of supra-mundane beings not as a secondary. and most studies of Durkheim's sociology of religion have centered on the ideas he presented in that book. 1992. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. we demonstrate that the distinction between sacred and profane is marginal to Buddhist thought. On the one hand. Cincinnati. The interest of other social scientists in Durkheim's writings on religion has equaled.) This article does not provide an overall assessment of Durkheim's sociology of religion. from his 1887 review of Jean Marie Guyau's L'Irreligion de l'avenir. and that the sacred-profane dichotomy is characteristicof all religions. but researchers have mostly neglected or accepted uncritically Durkheim's brief discussion of Buddhismat the beginning of Book One. ? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. INTRODUCTION study of religious phenomena was a lifelong.We examineDurkheim'sdiscussion to show that.on the other hand. to his 1912 masterwork. despite qualifications and caveats. and perhaps surpassed. 31 (1):47-61 47 . Universityof South Florida. but as a primarycomponent of its religion. tMarcoOrruis associate professorin the Departmentof Sociology. The *An earlier version of this paper was presented at the meetings of the American Sociological Association. S.Florida 336208100.Ohio. from Gustave Belot's "La Religion comme principe sociologique.Amy Wang is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology. Durkheim's most articulate discussion of religious phenomena is found in Elementary Forms.Tampa. In his bibliography. see Pickering 1984:parts II-IV. including his concept of the sacred and the sacred-profane dichotomy. Ilinois 60680. University of Illinois. abiding interest of Durkheim's sociology. nor does it deal with Durkheim's Elementary Forms in its entirety. Chicago. for Buddhism has no meaningfulgods or spirits. Durkheim's Sociology of Religion." published in 1900. since it is found even in an atheistic religionlike Buddhism. his claims regarding Buddhism are flawed on both counts. (For an analysis of the literature on these topics. Durkheim'sElementaryForms has been scrutinizedin great detail. F.Durkheim. 1984:544-62) listed about 400 publications which had appeared on the topic prior to 1982.The authorsaregrateful to the editorand the anonymousreviewersof thisjournal for their helpful comments and suggestions. published in 1984. Durkheim's own preoccupation with the topic." Pickering (1975:313-21.August 1991. our specific concern is with Durkheim's analysis of Buddhism in Elementary Forms and its relation to Durkheim's general definition of religious phenomena in that same book.
practices. Ourarticleproceedsin four steps. in this article we go beyond Spiro's preliminaryformulation and provide a detailed analysis of Buddhist doctrines as they developed historically. For Durkheim.. and that the sacred-profane dichotomy is characteristicof all religions. or accepted it uncritically (e.g. in a preliminary fashion. if not altogether misleading. religion combines four elements: beliefs. things set apart and forbidden. we show that Buddhism clearly posits the existence of supra-mundanebeings. we show that the sacred-profanedichotomy is not a central characteristic of Buddhism. we demonstrate that the distinction between the sacred and profane. Durkheimbegins Elementary Forms by addressing conceptual issues in the study of religions. Spiro (1966:91-96)has already raised similar objections regarding Durkheim's theses on Buddhism. First." There we find. However.Beliefs are sets of collective representations in a society. Second. on the other hand. italicized. we assess the implicationsof our findingsfor an improvedunderstandingof Buddhismin particular.48 JOURNAL FOR THE SCIENTIFIC STUDY OF RELIGION Despite the detailed scrutiny of Elementary Forms. and that such beings are essential to Buddhism as a religion. and a Church.Such neglect is remarkable since Durkheimrelied on his interpretation of Buddhism to support two crucial claims in his definitionof religious phenomena:that gods or spirits are not essential to religion. Durkheim's conceptualization of religion as follows: A religionis a unifiedsystem of beliefs and practices relative to sacredthings.is in no way a crucialcharacteristicof Buddhism. we present Durkheim'sdefinitionof religion and its philosophicalpresuppositions. Ling 1973:16-19). In this article we examine closely Durkheim's short discussion to show that his claims regarding Buddhism are ambiguous.In a cursory fashion.beliefs and practices whichunite into one single moralcommunitycalled a Church. we counter Durkheim'sclaim that Buddhism is atheistic at heart by showing that Buddhism posits the existence of suprahuman beings. On the one hand. Sections 2 and 3). DURKHETM'SDEFINITION OF RELIGION As is typical in much of his sociological work. the signless. on both counts. in Buddhism the dharma of both the physical and the transcendental worlds is similarlycharacterized by emptiness. On the basis of the evidence found in Buddhism we conclude.all those who adhere to them (Durkheim 1965:62). for early Buddhism had no meaningful gods or spirits. Chapter One of Book One is titled "Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion. not as an afterthought but as a central component of its belief system. since it is centraleven to an atheistic religion like Buddhism. and for a better sociological characterizationof religious phenomenain general. to evince some of the background factors which led to Durkheim'sown definition of religion. that the belief in supernaturalbeings is a better markerfor religious phenomenathan is the concept of the sacred. the sacred.althougharguable. researchers have mostly neglected Durkheim'sbrief discussion of Buddhism (in Book One. that is to say. practices are rituals . and the wishless. Melford E. to show Durkheim's ambiguous understanding of key features of Buddhism in particular and of the central characteristics of religious phenomena in general. rather. ChapterOne. Third. Fourth.
and a Church)are functional to the sacred and depend on it for their existence. On the other hand. for Durkheim. as saying that gods do exist. Beliefs and rituals are religious insofar as they refer to the sacred. .Instead of providing operational markers for empiricallyobservable religious phenomena. On the one hand." The other three elements of religion (beliefs. the only social scientist to define religion in terms of the sacred (Marett 1914. the sacred had a reality which could not be denied (Pickering 1984:187-188). Durkheim'spreliminarydefinitionof religionin ElementaryForms was not a working . To admit that all religions display some form of belief in supernatural beings was. . at the heart of every religion stands the sacred . Durkheim's problematic definition of religion was partly a result of the realist philosophicalassumptions which led him to treat sociologicalconcepts commedes choses (as if they were things). and the Churchis the organization which structures religion socially. namely..] Durkheim openly denied that God or the gods existed. the sacred is undoubtedly the most important component in Durkheim's definition of religion. we can argue. By contrast. became central to Durkheim's definition of religion because it provided him with a substantive criterionfor religious phenomena. Scholars have often objected to Durkheim's definition of religion in Elementary Forms..Durkheimincorporatedin his definition of religion his own theory of religion: He included what he considered to be an essential requirementof all religions (and thus what he thought constituted religion itself). To include the belief in gods as a criterion for identifying religious phenomena could be construed. Radcliffe-Brown 1952.. Durkheim still thought it necessary that religions everywhere should display some real and universal characteristic.DURKHEIM AND BUDDHISM 49 enacted in a society to celebrate and reinforcebeliefs. equal to admitting that supernatural beings have a factual existence. Tylor 1874.but just as numeroushave been those social scientists who did define religion in terms of beliefs in superhuman beings (Spencer 1864. [Second. To be sure." Pickering has identified Durkheim's essentialist definition as resulting from several factors. but an essential definition (Pickering 1984:163-192). Malinowski 1925. the sacred is the referent matter of religious beliefs and practices. and has not been.. arguingthat it is not a scientificbut a metaphysicaldefinition. The concept of the sacred. the inclusion of such a criterion allowed him to characterize the belief in supernatural beings as non-essential to religious phenomena.. as he was firmly convinced. two factors are particularly significant: First. Pickering (1984:115)has said it best: "For Durkheim. and he identified this universal characteristic with the sacred.. Durkheim gives a priorplace to the sacred even over religion itself. Of these four elements. Firth 1959). practices. EvansPritchard 1956. he thought of social concepts and beliefs as partaking of the same facticity which characterizes natural objects. from a realist stance. There could thereforebe no alternative but to define religion in terms of that concept. For the purposeof our discussion here. Durkheim was not... during the period from approximately 1900 to 1906. the concept of the sacred rose to such prominencein Durkheim'sthought [that].Eliade 1959). the "sacred. The sacred easily replaced the supernatural. and the churchprovides the organizationalframeworkfor celebratingidentifiably sacred beliefs and rituals.it is not a nominal.
of religionwas not an operationalconstruct for the purpose Durkheim'scharacterization of setting out to study religious phenomena. and evaluate Durkheim's claims concerning Buddhism. the section on "Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion"begins.50 JOURNAL FOR THE SCIENTIFIC STUDY OF RELIGION hypothesis or a tentative point of departure for empirical analysis. In the specific instance of ElementaryForms. the empirical evidence on which Durkheim builds his essentialist definitionof religionis itself highly questionable. Durkheimshows that not all religions concern themselves with the supernatural or with divinity. then we can claim that it constitutes the essence of all religions.Conversely. Book One. nor do we claim that we can provide definitive empiricalevidence to disprove Durkheim's theory of religion. it was a theory which he sought to support with relevant empirical evidence.Lukes 1973. revised definition is found at the end of Elementary Forms).Durkheimrejectedsupernatural beings as a feature of religious phenomena and instead proposed the sacred as central to all religions. titled "PreliminaryQuestions.However. more to the point for our purpose.by referringto the evidence foundin Buddhism. Within the limited framework of this article we cannot address the complex epistemology underlying Durkheim's work on religion in particular or his sociology in general. it was a definitive statement about religion which was not open to later discussion or reelaboration (no new. .rather. empiricalgeneralizations regardingreligious phenomena become the building blocks of his essentialist conceptualizationof religion. Rather. empirical generalizations regarding religious phenomena become the real essence of religion. Pickering 1984) "entirely misses Durkheim's point: namely. the crucial fact remains that Durkheim endeavored to demonstrate the validity of his definition of religion by citing the empirical evidence found in Buddhism. However. we analyze in detail the evidence regarding these two issues.Durkheimassumes that if a trait cannot be observed in every religion. In the next two sections. His assumption is that if a trait can be shown to characterize all observed religions. for the purpose of our limited discussion. the critical approachadoptedby several scholars (Jones 1986. For this reason. for Durkheim.Durkheim'sdefinitionof religionbecomesproblematic because the distinction between empirical generalizations and conceptual constructs becomes very thin or disappears altogether. As Mestrovic has argued in his reappraisal of Durkheim's Elementary Forms. In Durkheim'sdefinition. in a typically Durkheimianfashion." turns to the discussion of Buddhism in orderto demonstrate that the definition of religion Durkheim provides is a sound one. then it cannot be said to constitute a valid characteristicof any religion. that the conceptual distinction between the sacred and profane is all around us at all times" (Mektrovic 1989:267). with a methodical demonstration of how the criteria used by other scholars to identify and define religious phenomena are unsatisfactory. This is Durkheim's standard procedure of "argument by elimination" (Lukes1973:31-33). THE SUPRA-HUMAN IN BUDDHISM In Elementary Forms. Such an endeavor would likely fail if it chose to ignore Durkheim's underlying epistemology and sought to disprove his theory of the sacredprofane dichotomy simply on the basis of the empirical evidence marshalled by contemporary ethnographers.
.Yet Durkheim'swhole argumentregardingBuddhismtreads on equivocal evidence.. an atheistic religion.. Northern Buddhism.C. it is mostly due to the ambiguity created by a multiplicity of doctrines which accompanied the development of Buddhism starting with the life of Buddha (560-580 B. Then he is an atheist. Finally.. He resorts to narrow definitions of divinity to downplay its role in Buddhism. This is the case with Buddhism"(Durkheim1965:45).Durkheim (1965:43) argues that the idea of mystery "has a place only in a very small number of advanced religions.and if we have a right to make him into a god completely... Criticizing the emphasis on the supernaturalby scholars like Spencer and Muller. We may well ask if he [Buddha]has ever really divested himself completelyof all humancharacter. through the archaic period of Buddhism (the first 140 years after the Nirvana of the .). Agni and Varuna..He carefullyadmits that the evidence from Buddhism might not be univocal: To say that gods and spirits play a secondary and minorrole in Buddhism is one thing.. For instance. to claim that gods and spirits are absent is quite another. see von Glasenapp 1966. he strengthens his evidence from Buddhism by elaborating restrictive criteria on prayer.emphasis added). He cites Burnouf(1844).DURKHEIM AND BUDDHISM 51 accordingly. or to dimiss it altogether. (For a more recent defense of this thesis.) He begins his argument by stating: "In the first place. at least in some divisions of the Buddhist Church. the ambiguity apparentin Durkheim'sdescriptionof Buddhism's beliefs vis-a-vis divinity is not simply the product of his overzealous attempt to prove a point. The evidence Durkheim presents regarding the atheistic qualities of Buddhism is ambiguous. in the ordinarysense of the term . in any case. This is not saying "that he absolutely denies the existence of the beings called Indra. where it plays only a secondary and minorrole. atheism.. [but] this divinization of Buddha. it would have to be a god of a very particularcharacter. granting that the term is exact.but 'he believes that he owes them nothing and that he has nothing to do with them". neither feature can be essential to religious phenomena. an examinationof the availableevidenceconcerningthe role of divinity in Buddhismreveals a different picture from the one Durkheim provided.it remainsthat this is a conceptionwholly outside the essential part of Buddhism (46-47. thus... Later he comments: It is true that Buddha. he [the Buddhist] relies upon himself and meditates. in the sense that he does not concern himself with the question whether gods exist or not (Durkheim1965:46. is peculiarto . and consequently cannot be defined exclusively in relation to these latter" (50).to show that Buddhism is.and Oldenberg(1881).. It is impossible to make it the characteristic mark of religious phenomena without excluding from the definition the majority of the facts to be defined.. and to remedy such shortcomings he has to qualify his claims repeatedly.emphasis added). The specific evidence Durkheim marshals from Buddhism to demonstrate that it is a religion without gods or spiritual beings is ambiguous from the onset. he argues: Instead of praying. To be sure. and Buddhism itself. However. divinity. at heart.. or at least.Barth (1879).has sometimes been considered as a sort of god . whatever one may think of the divinity of Buddha." Concurrently. there are great religions from which the idea of gods and spirits is absent.he reproachesReville and Tylor for emphasizingthe belief in gods or spiritual beings: "Religion is more than the idea of gods or spirits..
." as distinguished from worldly people. the Yogin can automatically make Nirvana into an object" (56). and not-self]to all worldlyevents.E. and the Buddha entered Nirvana "a deity. Tell me the objective support. concentration.. and wisdom]. the other schools. .. 0 All-seeing One. at its very threshold" (69-70). which later spread to China.. A careful examination of Buddhist thought in these three phases reveals that some idea of divinity and of supernatural beings is present throughout Buddhist thought.to the schism which saw the development of 18 orthodox schools (around140 B.He quotes from the Suttanipata (1069):"Alone. and the wishless]: "They are quite near to the true reality of Nirvana. 0 Shakyan.. The orthodox schools together are known as Theravada (or Hinayana) Buddhism. 1967:77).52 JOURNAL FOR THE SCIENTIFIC STUDY OF RELIGION Buddha). who tries to cause difficultiesto anyonewho wants by conqueringDeath (Mara). and Korea. Conze also argues: "Oncehe has achieved perfect indifferenceto all worldly things. Archaic Buddhism In his Buddhist Thoughtin India. and the Mahasinghikas in Northern India on the other side (for historical overviews. Japan. emphasis added). ill. This evidence shows that concepts of divinity and transcendenceare clearly present in early Buddhism. leaning on which I could cross that flood" (cited in Conze.the "worldly" andthe "supramnndene. vigor. see Conze 1980 and Kitagawa and Cummings 1989). without support. I am unable to cross the great flood. the "holyperson" and the ordinarypeople. at the moment of entering the first Path is said to "realize"Nirvana in the sense of "seeing" it (57. Conze(1967:56) has describedthe archaicBuddhist thought as follows: The progressive detachment from the world is accompaniedand facilitated by the constant application of the three marks [impermanent. The Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa (VM xxi 128) proclaims: "Now at last the supramundane Path will arise!" (cited in Conze 1967:77)." A person becomes"supramundane" on "entering the Path". to transcend death.This reference to entering the supramundanePath is crucial in its implications: At this point the Buddhists [distinguish]between two qualitatively different kinds of persons.. and it furtherpromotes in its turn the five cardinal virtues [faith. The "saint. mindfulness. Nirvana is reachedthrough the supramundanedoors to deliverance[emptiness. althoughit is strongerin MahayanaBuddhismthan in archaicand scholastic Buddhism. are collectively labeled Mahayana Buddhism. and who was defeated by the Buddha immediately before his enlightenment" (72). let us consider the available evidence.): with the Sthaviras schools in Ceylon and Southeast Asia on one side. Conzeclaims that "Nirvana is obviously transcendental" and can be reached only through the supramundanedoors to deliverance(76).Concludinghis descriptionof archaicBuddhist thought. However. Holy men and ordinarypeople occupy two distinct planes of existence.Nirvana itself is Deathless. the signless.
(2) a supernatural potency.In the Sthaviras doctrines.. The Buddha's enlightenment. unlike the Arhat.. Conze (1967:159)has outlined the issue: "The Absolute occurs in an impersonal form as the 'Unconditioned'or 'Nirvana. of whom Conze (1967:167) writes: He is a Buddha for himself alone. does not proclaim the truth to others. but these same doctrinesare detailedin their classificationof those who achieve Nirvana... has . Conze has elaborated: The Abhidharmadefines the differenceof the Buddhafrom the other two adepts. forcesand metaphysical emphasis added). move through solid bodies. Thus. but who.DURKHEIM AND BUDDHISM 53 Scholastic Buddhism The schism between the Mahasanghikas and the Sthaviras led to the development of 18 schools of Buddhism.. such a point is related. and (3) a type" (171..MahayanaBuddhism resolutely clarifiedthis central issue." the "victor unvanquished.. The Buddha surpasses individually experienced enlightenment and is able to proclaimthe truth to the world. is "one who has eliminated all ill. who." the "King of Dharma... is vastly superiorto that of the Arhats or of the Pratyekabuddhas. the Pratyekabuddha..the "Conqueror of Mara. As for epithets. more broadly.. unlike the Buddhas. reduce the size of material bodies." At the next higher level is the Pratyekabuddha. The Sthaviras (literally. "It is. The significant doctrinalpoint of the Sthaviras for our purpose is the classification of those who have attained Nirvana. The first two "adepts" represent the ideals of the individualists.' " Attempts to characterizeNirvana are sporadicand equivocalin Sthaviras doctrines. he is called "the Lord"(Bhagavan). to Buddhism's envisioning of the Absolute. transform and conserve external objects. the Buddha can at will create.. travel rapidly for long distances through the air. Mahayana Buddhism If the Sthaviras schools were unclear about the ontology of the Absolute (the Unconditioned)."and so on (168-69). (Max Weber [(1923) 1958:244-56] detailed the sociological factors leading to the development of .' and in an apparently personal form as the 'Buddha' or 'Tathagata. the Elders) stood for tradition and orthodoxy in Buddhism. of course."the "superman." the "Tathagata. and the Buddha The Arhat. at the highest level. (170). shorten or extend his life-span. The Buddha also has power over the cosmos and is its sovereign: Possessing to a superior degree the miraculouspowers attributed to all saints. Scholastic Buddhism identifies three classes of increasinglyenlightenedindividuals:the Arhat.. one can conclude that. a fallacy to regard the Buddha as a 'person' in the ordinary sense of the term.ScholasticBuddhism'stheoriesof supernatural entities strengthens the earlier evidence from archaic Buddhism. won his enlightenmentby his own effort without instruction from others. Far more than a person he is (1) an impersonal metaphysical principle. at the lowest level.but one who can proclaim the truth.. the Buddhais not simply one who has achievedenlightenment.
His cult thus offers its devotees the advantage of theism and Buddhism combined (79-80). Robinson and Johnson have describedthe Maitreya cult: Maitreya. Section Three of The Elementary Forms.) The Buddha. In scholastic Buddhism.. Mara. Robinson and Johnson (1982:65-66)have argued: The Mahayanainnovation was to proclaimthat the bodhisattva [future Buddha]course is open to all. he willingly grants help. he has the power to do so. Therecouldbe no strongerevidencethat supernatural beings do in fact exist in Mahayana Buddhism. This division of the world into two domains. into two classes or opposed groups.We will elaborateon the implicationsof this finding later. identified with the absolute Dharma: "The true Buddha is transmundane . present one common characteristic:they presuppose a classification of all the things. real and ideal." and entering Nirvanarequirestranscending the god of death."a person becomessupramundane on enteringthe Path. in Mahayana doctrines. of which men think. The evidence presented throughout this section has shown clearly that Mahayana Buddhism qualifies as a theistic religion. whereas the Sthaviras schools had a more selective interpretation of who could achieve Buddhahood. Avalotikesvara. the historical Buddha is a mere apparition of him" (Robinson and Johnson 1982:65). is alive so he can respond to the prayers of worshippers.In archaicBuddhism. the Buddha is clearly described as a supernaturalbeing and a supernaturalforce with supernaturalpowers. to lay out a path for aspiringbodhisattvas to follow. Durkheim (1965:52)provides a sweeping definition concerning religions: All known religious beliefs.54 JOURNAL FOR THE SCIENTIFIC STUDY OF RELIGION Mahayana doctrines. Manjusri. the one containing all that is sacred. and to create a new pantheon and cult of superhumanbodhisattvas and cosmic Buddhas who respond to the pleas of devotees. Being compassionate . and that their help is actively sought by those who seek to achieve enlightenment. generally designated by two distinct terms which are translated well enough by the words profane and sacred.the Buddha is also the only one who can proclaimthe truth of Buddhism to others..unlike the Buddhas before him. cults of the great bodhisattvas (like Maitreya. it is nevertheless evident that the belief in supra-humanbeings is present throughoutBuddhist religion.. whether simple or complex.. . is the distinctive trait of religious thought. and Mahasthamaprapta) flourishedin MahayanaBuddhism. but next we must turn our attention to another issue: whether the sacred-profane dichotomy is a central feature of Buddhism. There is no doubt that supernaturalbeings exist in Mahayana Buddhism and that these beings are instrumental in the individual's path to Nirvana. Chapter One.it also shows that significant theistic elements are present as well in archaicand in scholastic Buddhism. the other all that is profane.The Mahayana broadenedthe access to enlightenment to include all individuals. is characterized as a metaphysical principle. SACRED AND PROFANE IN BUDDHISM In Book One. While one could identify a variation in the centrality of beliefs in supra-human beings in the three phases of Buddhism. and being a high god in his present birth.
we wish to demonstrate the opposite thesis: that supernatural beings are central.Buddhaannouncedthat the highest completeenlightenment(Nirvana) cannot be achieved unless one has a "well purified" insight into. the sacred is found in all societies and religions. brahmins. the Buddha can proclaim these truths as noble. In his sermon. Supernatural beings in Buddhism are clearly sacred in religious practice." The Four Noble Truths the fournobletruths The early scripturesof Buddhismshow that Buddhaproclaimed in his sermon at Benares. suffering philosophical What achieved. however. Phenomenologically speaking. We must emphasize here. monks. Mara. if not altogether rejected or denied. and the way that leads to the cessation of pain (Burtt 1982:30). they does it matter to proclaim that "existence is unhappiness" unless one has obtained . and men.gods. that it is not our aim to prove the absence of a concept of the sacred in Buddhism. where "the enlightened Lord" addressed the five monks. and in support of such clarification he resorts to the evidence obtained from Buddhism: "That is how Buddhism is a religion: in default of gods. then.DURKHEIM AND BUDDHISM 55 He also clarifies that "by sacred things one must not understand simply those personal beings which are called gods or spirits" (52). We saw in the previous section that Durkheim's evidence for claiming that spirits and supra-mundanebeings are not central to Buddhism was most ambiguous. namely. We now wish to show that the sacred-profanedichotomy Durkheim claims to be central to all religions is in fact at least marginal.its being with ascetics. in Buddhism. The Buddha himself is able to proclaimthe four noble truths because he has achieved enlightenment. and he is now the Lord (Bhagavan). Before presenting our evidence. and knowledge of the four noble truths. the four noble truths and the practices derived from them" (52). it admits the existence of sacred things.Brahma. and the sacred-profane dichotomy is marginal. as they are enshrined and worshippedby the believers. to Buddhism as a religion. these four truths are incomprehensible: They are such eliminate how to in this and statements about world. For those who have not achieved Nirvana. let us consider Durkheim's only example regarding the sacred in Buddhism: "the four noble truths and the practices derived from them. that what gives the four noble truths a central position in Buddhism is that. and the sacred-profanedichotomy is central to it.see Elisde 1959). the cause of pain. I had not attained the highest complete enlightenment (cited in Burtt 1982:31). the cessation of pain. is unless understood be cannot but enlightenment fully suffering. Buddha stated: As long as in these four noble truths my knowledge and insight with the three sections and twelve divisions was not well purified.Ouraim in this articleis instead to show that while Durkheim claimed that supernatural beings are marginal to Buddhism.even so long. The four noble truths concern pain. having attained complete enlightenment. and its identification cannot be settled through doctrinal religious disputes (for a phenomenological appreciationof the sacred and profane. It appears. Describing his path to enlightenment. in the world with its gods.
and future) and of the transcendental world (enlightenment). but that the dichotomy itself is unusable except at the cost of undue interference with the facts of observation" (229).since it displays the tension between the profane"this-worldly" "other-worldly. The Conditioned and the Unconditioned The four noble truths are not a fitting example of the centrality of the sacred in Buddhism. that a close scrutiny of the Conditionedand the Unconditionedin Buddhismshows that they do not partakeof the sacred-profane duality which Durkheim considered central to religious phenomena. that the four noble truths display some degree of sacredness (one could argue that the transition from the first truth to the second." which is at the root of much religious thought (Weber  1978:518-634). proclaims them as such. He argued "not only that 'the profane' is the weaker of the two categories.Stanner(1967:217-240) sought to refute Durkheim's dichotomy based on its logical inconsistencies and on contrary evidence found in aboriginal religions. Thus. third. Durkheim did not provide any illustration of the sacred-profanedichotomy in Buddhism.the two opposite realms of the physical world (past. directly underminingDurkheim's (1965:45)claim that "all that is essential to Buddhism is found in the four propositions which the faithful call the four noble truths. but the enlightenment of the Buddha.56 JOURNAL FOR THE SCIENTIFIC STUDY OF RELIGION Nirvana's purified knowledge? The four noble truths of Buddhism are not sacred in themselves.Buddhism partakes of this tension (Lopez 1988). Let us be clear that Durkheimhimself did not discuss the Conditionedand Unconditionedin Buddhism. it is Buddhism's treatment of the Conditioned (Pratitya-samutpadaor Samsara) and the Unconditioned (Nirvana). Durkheimwrites in ElementaryForms that "the sacredand the profanehave always and everywherebeen conceivedby the humanmind as two distinct classes. and fourth represents the shift from most profane to most sacred). if any. they derive their significance from the fact that the Buddha. but rather to make a more specific point: namely. having achieved enlightenment and having become the Lord. present. but if anything comes close.emphasis added). to be sure. as two worlds between which there is nothing in common" (Durkheim1965:54. but are there any other elements in Buddhism which would fit Durkheim's sacred-profanedichotomy? His central notion is that all religions divide the world into two distinct domains:the sacredand the profane.we have chosen these as the best examples.This is an importantissue in Buddhism. rather. the fact remains that whatever sacredness these four noble truths display is not an intrinsic quality of the truths themselves. as well as in other majorworld and the sacred religions. Here we will limit our observations to the evidence about the sacred and the profane found in Buddhism. We do not seek here to dismiss sacred-profanedistinctions altogether. Conze (1967:30) has explicitly argued such a point: "Buddhism bases itself first of all on the revelation of the Truth by an omniscient being. known as 'the Buddha. However.Yet ." We admit.' " This shows that supramundanebeings (and most importantly the Buddha) are central to Buddhism as a religion. but a quality the Buddha has given them. of a possible sacred-profanedichotomy in Buddhism. at the center of Buddhism we find not the four noble truths.
Objects ... Conze (1967:60-70)has described how these three concepts apply to each of the two classes of dharmas: In one sense 'emptiness' designates deprivation..The Mahayanaclaim that if all dharmas are non-different.... Yet the identity of Conditionedand Unconditioned is also proclaimed at the level of non-individual entities. without predilectionor desires for the objects of perception. as one achieves enlightenment... In the Mahayana doctrine of sameness (or "suchness")..DURKHEIM AND BUDDHISM 57 Buddhism's Conditioned and Unconditioned are two classes of dharmas. the conditioned individual becomes unconditioned. The Mahayanapoints out that once someone has given up everything for the Absolute.They argue: "Nothing in Samsara is different from Nirvana.This pure and eternal factor is the basis of the entire world of appearance.. since its inception.he simply is the Absolute. in Mahayana Buddhism.. Nirvanais an object of craving only in so far as one forms a mistaken idea of it. Dharma-elementor the Buddha-element. the Conditioned and the Unconditioned appear to have significant commonalities which prevent us from considering them as a mutually exclusive dichotomy in the sense Durkheim envisioned... in another fulfillment.. Both the Conditionedand the Unconditionedare dharmas.... With the development of Mahayana Buddhism.. forsakes the 'sign. but they most clearly do not meet Durkheim's requirement of a sacred and profane dichotomy which he considered to be the universal characteristic of all religions.and in the absence of any limitations it is the omnipresentgerm of Buddhahoodwhich indwells all beings (Conze 1967:229). they are by that very fact all the same (Conze 1967:228." and they share a number of similarities. In Buddhist religion. the Signless. and he claimed inaccurately to have identified and ..'. Thus. cited in Conze 1967:228). Conditioned and Unconditioned dharmas are both characterized as Emptiness. the Conditioned and the Unconditioned thoroughly merge and become indistinguishable. In Buddhism.. and aspires in resolute faith towards that which is without a 'sign.. Robinson 1978:184-90). The identity of the contemplatorwith the Absolute seems to have a value of a self-evidentimmediatefact of experience (Conze 1967:227-28).. we have shown that Durkheim's arguments regarding Buddhism were defective on two counts: He argued ambiguously that Buddhism does not really admit of suprahuman beings or spirits.and nothingin himis any longerdifferentfromit. 19-29. have no relevanceto anything that is worth knowing or doing [they are signless] . They are central to Buddhist doctrine.'. two classes of "truly existing objects."The relationship between the Conditionedand the Unconditionedwas one such topic of contradictoryarguments: The most startling innovation of the Mahayanais . the identificationof the Unconditionedwith the conditioned...... The Absolute in this system is defined as . there is not even the subtlest something separating the two" (Madhyamakakarika 25. The Wishless [is]. and the Wishless. Thus far. that is. one is the Absolute. the supremelyreal Element.. has commentedthat the Mahayanadevelopedthe method of "proclaimConze(1967:160) ing the truth by boldly self-contradictorypronouncements. nothing in Nirvana is different from Samsara. The yogin. The limit of Nirvana is the limit of Samsara. the blurring of the two realms becomes even greater.
a pebble. in Durkheim'stheory. we must conclude that it simply does not do justice to Buddhism as a religion. This is the thrust of his argument.any kind of everyday profane activity (singing. regardless of its pertinence to transcendental matters. Arguing against Durkheim's criterion regarding superhumanbeings in Buddhism. Yet the profaneis. or to most sociologically observed religious phenomena.neither the four noble truths. LESSONS FROM BUDDHISM In his definition of religious phenomena and in his presentation of supporting evidence from Buddhism. unassisted. Durkheimposited the sacred as anything a collectivity deems sacred. a tree. Again. the Buddhais certainly a superhumanbeing.As an example. anything can be sacred" (52). The four noble truths of Buddhism. a spring. Spiro has claimed that "religious and secular beliefs alike may have reference either to sacred or to profane phenomena"(96). civic values we consider sacred like liberty. Durkheimarguedthat only those beings which directly intervene in human affairs and are actively instrumental in achieving salvation meet his definition of what gods are. Without his teachings. a house. in a word. could be identified with the four noble truths.. eating) can assume a religious character if it relates to beliefs in transcendental powers. but the Buddhist "believes that he owes them nothing and that he has nothing to do with them. Agni. he showed others the means for its attainment. tion of the super-human and he chose a broad characterization of the sacred which. have discovered the way to Enlightenment and to final release.On the other hand. We believe the evidence we provided from Buddhism warrants such a claim. Durkheimused two strategies: He opted for a narrow definiwhich allowedhim to show Buddhismto be essentially atheistic.he himself acquiredthe powerto attain Enlightenment and hence Buddhahood. Spiro (1966:95)has also criticized Durkheim for his unwarrantedconclusion "that religionuniquely refers to the 'sacred'while secularconcerns are necessarily 'profane. bathing. taken . and Varunado exist.. On the one hand. or patriotism. Buddhism provides exemplary evidence in this respect. Plainly. natural man could not. Spiro (1966:92) has contended: With respect to supermundane goals. a piece of wood. a residualcategory for what is not sacred (Stanner 1967:230). thus constructing the sacred as an undeterminedcategory whose only criterion is its opposition to the profane. Conversely. nor the Dharma.their endorsementor acceptancedoes not rest on a belief in transcendentalspirits. or the pursuit of happiness are not commonly understood to be attributes of a religion (but see Bellah 1970. Buddha is central to Buddhism as an observed religious phenomenon. since he claims that the gods Indra.'" Instead. What are the implications of our findings for characterizing Buddhism in particular and religious phenomena in general? We turn next to these questions. He claims that "a rock. Then [the Buddhist] is an atheist" (Durkheim1965:46).Moreover. in Buddhism. nor the Samgha. Unlike ordinary humans. nor the Unconditioned would have any meaning without the Buddha. Given the shortcomings of Durkheim's two-pronged approach.58 JOURNAL FOR THE SCIENTIFIC STUDY OF RELIGION characterized the sacred in Buddhism. Bellah and Hammond 1980)..
Stoic philosphersin classical Greece and ancient Rome.Moreextensive. are characterizedby culturally patterned interaction (Berger and Luckmann 1966). The differencebetween Buddhismand stoicism.as observedempiricallyin social groups. stoicism. claimed as much as the four noble truths claim concerningsuffering in this world and how to become indifferent to it (Polhlenzet al. Rejecting Durkheim's definition of religion. the Lord. religion can be differentiated from other culturally constituted institutions by virtue only of its reference to superhuman beings. All we claim to have shown here is that Durkheim's analysis of Buddhism is seriously defective. Spiro (1966:98)has concludedthat "viewed systematically. is that the formerrests on the teachings of the Buddha.DURKHEIM AND BUDDHISM 59 by themselves. Spiro (1966:96)has provided his own working definition of religion as "an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturallypostulated superhumanbeings. Capes 1909). instead. then. The evidence we found in Buddhism greatly underminesDurkheim's broader definition of religion but it does not. and even science and technology. postulate the belief in supra-mundanebeings as their distinguishing characteristic. by itself.it is also outside its scope to discuss the desirability of identifying some modern ideologies as "varities of civil religion" (Bellah and Hammond 1980). as Durkheim did in his Elementary Forms. and it is geared toward achieving transcendental Enlightenment. All social institutions. have no sacred quality. without any reference to supernatural beings. cross-cultural to make such a conclusive claim.is clearly located not in the sacredness of the phenomenonitself (as Durkheimclaimed)but rather in the phenomenon's relation to the suprahuman and the transcendental. The singing of a national anthem can elicit the same strong collective emotions as does the singing of religious hymns. proposes itself as a philosophy of life in this world. but the distinguishing element of religion as an institution is its collective belief in transcendental spirits (Goody 1961. we hope our analysis of Buddhism has achieved broadersignificance by raising serious questions about past characterizations of religion and by providing some preliminaryhypotheses toward a better social scientific definition of religious phenomena. essentially undistinguishable social phenomena. Strong collective sentiments can accompany Darwin's theory of evolution as much as they can accompany Buddhism's Eightfold Path to Enlightenment. for instance. makes religion and philosophy. To conclude." We also subscribeto such a definition. The religious characterof a phenomenon. provide final proof that such a definition researchon religiousphenomenawouldbe needed is wrong. 1987. . Horton 1960). and their relationship. we want to explore the broader consequences of Durkheim's misreadings and propose ways to overcomethem.however. We have shown throughout this article that Durkheimwas exceedingly ambiguous in describingthe corebeliefs of Buddhismconcerningthe existence of suprahuman beings and concerning the sacred and profane. Eliminating this requirement. of course." It is outside the scope of this article to engage in an extensive demonstration of how Spiro's definition of religion does better justice than Durkheim's definition to religious phenomena. Religiousphenomena. However. but we do not commonly consider stoicism's pronouncements to be religious truths.
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