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Land of No Buddha: reflections of a sceptical buddhist

by Richard P Hayes
Windhorse Publications, 1998
pp 276 including Notes, Bibliography and Index
reviewed by Vladimir K. November, 2004


There is little doubt that as we slowly advance into this new millennium we are in dire need of dissenting voices, whatever the field. The extraordinary (and somewhat surprising) popularity of the film-making polemicist Michael Moore, tackling government, big corporations and the gun madness of America, bares witness to this need. While Moore does not present a reasoned, well-argued case for his position, there is also no expectation for him to do so as he is an unashamedly self-avowed populist. Noam Chomsky or even John Pilger present more thoughtful arguments for their positions as the bar is book cover imagehigher for academics and, generally, trained journalists. Therefore, it is disappointing to read a book by a professor of Buddhist studies at a respected tertiary institution present such a poorly argued case for a critique of Buddhism's engagement with the West. In much of the book the critique falls much more on Western culture than on Buddhism or its involvement in Western society.

Richard P Hayes is Professor of Buddhist Studies at Canada's McGill University, was introduced to Buddhism in 1967 and in the same year fled America to Canada to avoid the military draft and the war in Vietnam. These essays now bound into book form were originally written in the mid-1980's and most were published in the magazine of Toronto's Zen Buddhist Temple, Spring Wind: Buddhist Cultural Forum. Perhaps it would have been better for all concerned had they stayed there, gathering dust on a shelf.

The collected ten essays were circulated unsuccessfully to book publishers in 1989 but were finally published in 1998 with two additional essays added to bring the reader up-to-date with Hayes’s thinking. One of the reasons I question why these essays were published in book form is that Hayes himself confirms that his viewpoints have generally changed and he goes on to state that “even when my views have remained more or less as they were, I would now strive to find different ways of expressing them.” (p.2) If this is so, then what is the purpose of publishing these essays? Either Hayes believes they are valuable enough to the reader to purchase and spend time reading them or they should be immortalized in book form for the wisdom they contain. Neither seems true to this reader.

The essays, from the first, On Being Dharma-Centric, “a ‘spiritual autobiography’ at the tender age of forty-one” (p.14), through to topics such as A Dialogue on Rebirth, Christianity and Buddhism, Does a Logician have Buddha Nature? and What is a Friend?, are intensely personal reflections of Hayes’s understanding of not only his Buddhist practice but the society in which he finds himself. And for a middle-aged man who at this point in his life had studied Indian philosophy for ten years, earned a PhD from the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies at the University of Toronto and was teaching Sanskrit language and Indian Buddhist philosophy, this is one angry, strident writer who seems to have missed some important points about Buddhist practice, such as compassion and understanding for one’s fellow humans and their frailties. For example, in the Introduction, written in 1989, we find an ungainly sentence such as:

It is hoped that the autobiographical material will not be obtrusive but will be heard as just one more indistinguishable voice in the choir made up of those who have watched in dismay as the human race has accelerated the destruction of an entire planet through individual and collective forms of greed, through ideological blindness, through national and ethnic arrogance and individualistic complacency, and through a genetic and inescapable short-sightedness that predisposes all of us to experience the vast problems of life as a series of stereotypical images to which we can only react by gluing stickers on the bumpers of our cars, croaking shallow slogans, and raising our fists against the many demons that we ourselves invent to blame for all that goes wrong. (p.10)

A sentence of such anger and bile makes one wonder what it is that Hayes has learned about being a Buddhist. Furthermore, the hand of an editor is needed here. Only the finest of writers can get away with a one-hundred twenty-five word sentence (Tom Wolf wrote an even longer one in “The Right Stuff” but Hayes is no Wolf). In the next paragraph Hayes denies that there are any solutions (“.resist being led astray by the hysterical spiritual leaders, demagogues, despots, and totalitarians who would have us believe that there are simple solutions or any solutions at all.” Perhaps the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path had slipped his mind. He goes on to say that he wishes to face “the horror of humanity” with humour and cheerful dignity and “an unimpaired sense of beauty and justice” but there is little of that in this book, as the examples above show.

Throughout his essays, Hayes has the unfortunate habit of making broad generalisations as if they are truths. This is a fault of thinking and writing worthy of a first-year university student, not a professor. In his essay, Bodhisattvas in Blue Jeans, Hayes claims that a feature of North American society is its gullibility, “North Americans, I maintain, are on the whole very gullible and not very open-minded”; not “some” North Americans, or even “many” North Americans, but “on the whole”. Sweeping judgements such as this weaken any argument. Certainly there are gullible people in North America. With a population of over three hundred million, it would be surprising to not to find gullible people amongst the people but this hardly means that all, or even most, North Americans are gullible. Some claim that North Americans are far too cynical for their own good and cynicism and gullibility make strange bedfellows.

In Farewell to the Raft, Hayes attacks the use of rituals in Buddhist practice. His lengthy argument is based on rituals being “nothing but an action, so one can think about a ritual in the same way that one can think about any other action.” (p.230) The bonding that rituals create among a community is seen as making “an individual a member of a community . who are united into a whole by little more than the fact that they perform the same set of ritual actions.” (p.223) The core of the argument asks questions such as what is the purpose of the ritual, whether any particular ritual purpose can be achieved by another course of action and what beliefs are taken for granted. All of these questions are valid and need careful thought but in Zen practice, people do not come together because of the rituals. It is not the rituals that the community has in common but the desire to understand one’s life. The rituals can promote harmony within the community and challenge one’s assumptions about actions. Furthermore, a mindfully performed ritual is not just another action like any other, but often a way an individual can express their faith in a structured environment. Done properly, a ritual can point directly at the mind, directly at the self, filling the whole universe. Mindful action of a ritual is much easier than mindful action in our daily activities as the ritual is a set piece, an action performed over and over again where the focus is not on the actual action itself, but how thoughtfully it is carried out and who it is that is doing this. This can build a habit of mindfulness which can carry over into our daily life. Hayes may be right when pointing out that we can never know whether a particular ritual leads to the desired result (would another do just as well?) but I think that line of argument is fruitless. If any ritual action has an unknown result, why change one for another? Hayes presents what appear to be logical arguments, but the logic doesn't stand up to close scrutiny.

The strongest and, in my mind, the most interesting of Hayes’s essays is the one on Dr Ambedkar, whom I had never heard of but should have. Ambedkar fought against the British colonial rule in India, went on to help draw up the Indian Constitution and became Minister of Law in the first independent Indian government even though he was an Untouchable. He converted to Buddhism in 1956 and took some 400,000 Untouchable Hindus with him into the religion and spent his life fighting for the rights of these abused and exploited people. Hayes also gives a thumb-nail sketch of Ambedkar’s speculations on the origin of untouchability, part of which may have been the Buddhists propensity for eating beef, which became forbidden by the Brahmin priesthood. It would be ironic if the descendants of meat-eating Buddhists who became Untouchable finally threw off their lowly caste by returning to Buddhism.

The most controversial of Hayes’s essays is undoubtedly What is a Friend?. In this essay Hayes rails against “romantic love”, marriage based on this love and almost any male/female relationship that includes a sexual element. His basic argument is that all male/female sexual relationships are grounded in power and deceit hence, “Perhaps the most honest and therefore most healthy form of sexual encounter is that which is found in prostitution.” (p.185) Relationships between men and women are far more complex than the simplistic biological imperatives that Hayes uses as a foundation for his argument. Power relationships, likewise, are extremely complex and problematic and there is a vast literature which attempts to understand just what ‘power’ is and how it is used. To conclude that prostitution is the “most healthy form of sexual encounter” is not only offensive as it ignores the many prostitutes who are forced unwillingly into the field and are subject to incredible abuses, but it is also intellectually shallow and simplistic. Buddhists reading a book such as this, by a writer claiming to follow the Buddha Dharma, deserve much better, as does Hayes himself.

This is unfortunate as Hayes does present some valid critiques of Buddhist practice in the West, such as the dangers of unquestioning subservience and obedience to a teacher who may not be worthy of such adoration, the need for an ethical basis to Buddhist practice and the dangers of commercialisation in Buddhist sanghas, among other topics. These are all compelling lines of inquiry but Hayes’s excessive use of emotive language will turn off many thoughtful readers, as it did for me.

I must confess that I had trouble finishing this book and many times thought of throwing it down in anger and despair. Hayes has an intellectual grasp on much of the history of Buddhism and Western philosophy but throughout seems unable to apply the teachings to his own viewpoints of the world around him. He seems to take undue pride in his knowledge of philosophy and often weaves an argument based on logic (hence, the essay Does a Logician Have Buddha Nature?) which tends to lead him astray from the Buddha Dharma. Hayes calls himself a “Socratic Buddhist”, whatever that may mean, but while there is a logic to Buddhism (see Nagarjuna, for example), it is not a logic based on Western philosophy but on Indian philosophy, quite a different way of viewing the universe, and all Buddhists should recognise that ultimately the path to liberation is to leave all this behind as liberation is experiential, not argumentative. But all is not lost for Richard Hayes. In the final essay he realises that his earlier approach, based on “rational scepticism” and the removal of “all fantasies, unwarranted beliefs, and half-thought ideas.does not necessarily accelerate the process of becoming disencumbered of ignorance and confusion. On the contrary, by using fantasy creatively and imaginatively, .one may actually speed up the process.” (p.262) It took many years for Hayes to come to this realisation and I hope that he pursues this line of practice rather than constant intellectualization of the Dharma and practice. The dangers of over-intellectualization of Zen practice are readily apparent in Hayes’s work. This book provides a prime example and as such may be worth reading for some. But then again, why bother?

For a synopsis of each chapter and some details about the author, see this site.

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