Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Critics, flowers, and violins

Critics are everywhere! No one can escape criticism! Two thousand years ago there were critics, one thousand years ago there were critics, five hundred years ago there were critics. Today there are still critics. By way of example, in the late 14th century Jeong Dojeon felt that Buddhism would "destroy morality and eventually humanity itself", so he wrote a book outlining why it was bad. If you aren't familiar with Buddhism, let me introduce Charles Muller. Professor Muller is your average scholar of East Asian thought who works at a university in Tokyo. He has translated a number of Buddhist texts into English, including the Diamond Sutra. His translation is interesting in that it seems obvious what he considers to be the essential teaching of this particular sutra, namely the following lines:
All conditioned phenomena
Are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow
Like the dew, or like lightning
You should discern them like this
I'm guessing that Jeong Dojeon doesn't fully agree with this sentiment, as romantic as it sounds. Somewhere in his book he probably says it isn't right to think of everything as an illusion, in fact it is plain stupid. Or something like that, after all he's a Neo-Confucian and they have a different way of seeing things. I don't actually know what he says, but whatever he says I am sure it sounds smarter than that. The Buddhists might counter (if they ever did counter him) with something about infinite regression, or maybe they might say that... well they might say a lot of things. It is interesting to view an argument when you don't have a dog in the fight.

But as for me, I like critics, in fact they make me excited! Seriously, always have. My position: If you think I am wrong, then tell me and be honest please. How can I ever improve if I continue to be wrong? Wouldn't you want to know if you were wrong about something? That is why I like critics. Shouldn't everyone? Yeah, when you prove that I am wrong, I will flinch slightly at the sting, I will lick my wounded ego, but then (and this is the crucial part) I will get back on my horse 'cause I can take it. My sacred cows might not fare as well though.

Why should women get to claim all the symbols that are delicate and beautiful, such as flowers and butterflies, for their own? 'Cause you know, sometimes I feel like a flower, or a butterfly, or maybe a butterfly on a flower. It's like those big buff guys who have a tattoo on their shoulder that says "mom", because inside, they just want a hug. On the other hand, I like big scary animals too.

I drempt I played a violin, but instead of drawing a bow across the strings to produce sound, I used another violin. Now that I think about it, wouldn't that be hard to do?


Aratina said...

Beautiful translation! How did you find out about Charles Muller?

I find that Buddhism is treated too ethereally by Americans. The real nuts and bolts Buddhism has the full gamut of politicians, bullies, unethical proselytizers, rapist priests, barbarian monks, etc. in addition to all the good stuff like the sutra you mentioned. In that sense, perhaps Jeong Dojeon found some real shortcomings in practiced Buddhism at the time and naturally attributed those shortcoming to the failings in the perceived beliefs of Buddhists.

The real challenge to humanity is when criticism is suppressed, which has more to do with practice than position. Neo-Confucianism is actually very similar to neoconservatism in its militarism and its black and white sense of right versus wrong based on strong religious convictions, which gave rise to a suppression of differing viewpoints if I recall correctly.

While I invite critics and easily give out criticism, I often find criticism difficult to bear because much of it is sophomoric. People will much more readily criticize another's character and credulousness rather than the inaccurate knowledge. I humbly admit to doing that myself.

Keir said...

Muller was referenced on the Diamond Sutra page at wikipedia, which is where I heard about him. Jeong Dojeon was very serious and did his homework before writing his book, you can read Muller's translation of his criticism of Buddhism here:

While Buddhism in practice is no more virtuous than Christianity in practice, at least the early texts sound more ethically responsible. I think this is why it is growing in popularity as more people want to connect with spiritual traditions that reflect their sense of morality and global heritage. But then, Neo-Confucianism and Taoism are also very interesting in different ways. It is the dependence of these three systems of thought on growth through dialogue and mutual criticism that seems to set them apart, making many of their texts more like philosophy than religion. That's a compliment that few religions can justifiably claim. It is the difference between absolutism and non-absolutism (as exemplified in the text I quoted from the Diamond Sutra).