Monday, December 17, 2007

The Need for an "Open Source" Religion

People sometimes think that I am a bit of a pendant because I am such an advocate of modern scholarship. For example, I often advise people to stop reading the Stephen Mitchell translation of the DDJ and get a more scholarly version---such as the Mair or Hendricks ones. I believe that I have a more nuanced approach than that of a simple intellectual snob, though.

First of all, it isn't that I am opposed to a non-academic source so much as I find scholarship so fruitful. A lot of people treat religious texts like idols that need to be worshiped on a regular basis. By this I mean that a lot of folks spend time repeatedly re-reading books over and over again in an attempt to "prayerfully discern" the "deep meaning". While there may be some sort of meditative value to this, I haven't personally found this a good way to deepen my understanding. Moreover, when I converse with others who do follow this practice I rarely get the feeling that they have gained much understanding either.

In contrast, when someone reads the work of a good scholar it is very common to find insights that can dramatically change his or her understanding of a text or the tradition as-a-whole. For example, many people start off with the assumption that the DDJ was written by one person---Laozi---and work heroically at trying to interpret the different chapters in a way that renders the entire book internally consistent. When I found out that the majority of scholars believe that the name "Laozi" is probably a corruption of the phrase "the Old Ones"; and that the book is a compendium of different voices preserved through a collective oral tradition; it made studying the text much easier because each fragment can be thought about separately from all the others.

But this appreciation of the value of scholarship is not totally without reservation. Scholarship is very good at dissecting dead schools and ancient texts, but it does real violence to living movements. The root of this problem comes from the fact that scholars try to deal exclusively with with "objective facts", whereas members of a living movement live in a realm of "opportunities" and "potential". That is to say that a person studying the ancient, dead tradition of "Daoism" is only confronted with the question of "how did people think about and do things 800 years ago?", whereas someone who is a modern Daoist must ask himself "how should I live my life here and now as a contemporary expression of this ancient tradition?" As the saying goes "all the world looks like a nail to a hammer", so to an academic all religious traditions are ancient artifacts preserved in formalin rather than "works in progress" being created by living human beings.

The strongest example of this point of view that I can find on the internet is the text of a talk by Russell Kirkland with the ridiculously long title of The Taoism Of The Western Imagination And The Taoism Of China: De-Colonializing The Exotic Teachings Of The East. Now I do not particularly take issue with Kirkland's position, especially as he is clear to point out that he is not so much arguing that these biases are inherently wrong, but rather that they should become more conscious and less unconscious in nature. But given the tone of the address, I suspect that almost all readers are left with the impression that Kirkland feels a great deal of contempt for people like me who are trying to construct some sort of authentic, Western spiritual tradition based on ancient Daoist foundations.

The problem with this position is that all ancient traditions have reinvented themselves from generation to generation. A scholar like Kirkland would be the first to admit this, as he has spent his life teasing out the nuances of the historical record. And each an every innovation was itself the result of individual practitioners reacting to external influences and novel situations. And, again, each and every one of changes faced opposition both from "conservative" elements, and from alternative innovations. It is only in hindsight that any one school or tendency became so dominant that it entered the historical record where scholars, like Kirkland, were able to study it and declare it "authentic" after-the-fact.

A problem that is similar in form, if different in context, is that of ecclesiastic authority. That is to say, people who are attracted to some form of spiritual practice are constantly on the look out for someone with "credentials". That is to say, they want to find a person who is ordained, or comes from some long lineage of teachers, or, a book that is contains some ancient wisdom handed down from ages past. This makes a great deal of sense because people who are starting out have to take a great deal on "faith". That is to say, someone who is seeking wisdom really has no way of knowing if the specific practices and way of life they are entering into really will lead them to what they are seeking. In this context, people want to have the same sort of confidence with their teachers that they would have when they seek a medical doctor or certified auto-mechanic.

Unfortunately, once one starts looking critically at the ecclesiastic institutions that award these "certificates", one begins to find a lot to be desired. The Pope may hold the keys to heaven, but if you study the history of the Papacy in any detail, you will find that most seemed to be no wiser than any other people who have ascended to the position of CEO after a long career of service in the bureaucracy. And at the lowly level of individual cleric, recent scandals in both the Roman Catholic and Buddhist institutions would seem to indicate that it is simply impossible for a large institution to exert the sort of quality control that would allow a neophyte to know exactly what he or she is getting into when they first walk in the door. Even recognized Zen Masters, who are supposed to be the hand-picked bearer of a person-to-person transmission that stretches back to Gautama Buddha, have been shown all too often to have feet of clay, as has been shown by Brian Victoria's Zen at War, Janwillem van der Weterling's AfterZen, and, Michael Downing's Shoes Outside the Door.

This all-too-human quality of religious institutions means that even at any one given time, there are currents within a ecclesiastic body that are constantly at odds with one another. Some people suggest that believers need to retreat from society, others suggest engagement with the social issues of the day. Some suggest that God lives in the here-and-now, other suggest that one's entire life should be devoted to some sort of afterlife. Some suggest that if we save one life it is as if we had saved the world, others that everything is just an illusion. Add to these theological differences the constant bickering and conflict that comes from the practical needs of institutions where buildings need to be maintained and salaries paid, and the church becomes a very amorphous institution indeed. I heard a Zen Master in a talk sum this up by saying that no Zen Master should ever come within 20 miles of another---in order to keep the arguments to a minimum.

What this all tells me is that most people have their understanding of religion all wrong. Religion and spirituality is not some sort copyrighted mechanism that has come forged from the anvil of God. Instead it is a piece of open-source software that is the result of generations of tinkering by thousands and thousands of individuals. And my life, and its contributions---like this blog---are my particular, tiny contribution to the Daoist kernel and the North American distribution. Whether it has any longevity or is erased in the next release is not up to me or anyone else. It simply is the will of the Dao.


gukseon said...

What a great analogy! I wish more people also thought of religion as "open source", rather than as "copyrighted". Religions (like most other things we encounter) are dynamic and variegated---but people are always trying to fix them in place, one way or another.

And personally I appreciate your strong grounding in scholarship, since it's a very welcome yang to the "words mean whatever you want them to, go with your feelings" yin of many Western Daoists. Definitely, one shouldn't be too academic about a living spirituality, but I've encountered far too many people who treat the Mitchell "translation" like a Christian Bible. A pinch of scholarship wouldn't hurt those people.

the Cloudwalking Owl said...

I'm glad you find the open source metaphor apropos. I spend a lot of time thinking about what exactly religion is, and I find myself driven to thinking of it as a cultural "operating system". Of course most religious people are repelled by the idea that Heaven is a collective human creation, which is why I am a recluse instead of a happy member of a religious community. :-(

I wonder if scholarship is yet another mask that the ideal of "self awareness" wears in that particular facet of our life. Having the courage and discipline to study a text in a rigorous fashion is sort of like the pregnant moment in our life when we decide to swallow our fear and ask the girl to the prom or tell the man or idea oppressing us "no more!"

Every moment of our life, fork on the road to eternity---.

Anonymous said...

Open source operating systems like Linux and FreeBSD seem to be the perpetual underdog compared to Windows. Obviously this is because copyrighted intellectual property is more economically viable than free, open source, community sponsored software. There's a vested interest (money) in closing the source code to the community.

Historians too in their quest for authenticity, accuracy, and the "real" meaning close the source to the community. I think most people who have studied Taoism have run across books where historians have expressed reservations with the interpretations of the New Age and hippie movements. I am an older brother and I remember as a child being quite annoyed when my younger siblings didn't use their toys "right," played with the box rather than what's inside it, etc. I don't think there's much of a difference. "How much fun can those hippies reallybe having if they're misinterpreting everything?"

I'm not a hippie nor do I consider myself a New Ager. But I do think there's something to this idea of an open source religion. With Linux you're handed a well crafted kernel that been modified and tested over the years but even that may not suffice for what you want to do with it so you hack it to fit your style and needs. That's always been my approach to religion.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece. (Btw "Janwillem van der Weterling" should be " Janwillem van de Wetering")

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

I looked up the name, and right you are. Thanks for the correction.