Robert Thurman – Buddhism and Academia


In academia, we have courses in the religious
beliefs of other nations, and among that, Buddhism is a major set of
historical and social phenomena… Buddhism and Academia …which involves many people’s beliefs, activities,
theories, institutions in many different countries, texts that were translated into many different
languages, with greater and lesser degrees of accuracy and success. Also, the history of individuals who found
great benefit in practicing the Buddhist education method, of their ethics, and their minds, and their
intellects. Studying all of that is what the academic
study of Buddhism does, and that’s very, very valuable. For some, it could be an entry, after studying
academically, to becoming a Buddhist. But one of the great things about liberal
academics in the world, fortunately, is that there is no preferred
dogma under which people investigate things. At least, in theory. In practice of course, teachers do bring their
prejudices. And I would say that the secular prejudice
that we find, which is the dominant motif underlying American
university campuses, and I think to a certain extent European ones
and modern Asian ones as well, is that secularism is reality. And that’s not presented as though it were
a theory, it’s presented as if it were a fact. And in that sense, it is kind of religious. You just have to accept it, that only matter exists, the mind is some sort of old-fashioned superstition, and spirit – forget about it! That’s ancient religious fanaticism with no
evidence to back it up. I’m afraid that is actually the dogma of our
academies, in which the natural scientists are something
like the high priests, the social scientists are wannabe high priests,
but they are good in helping us study the nature of human and social behavior. They’re wonderful traditions and disciplines, but there’s a little bit of close-mindedness
about it, because of the dogma of materialism that rules
on the campuses. It’s a good response to the former Christian
or Buddhist or Jewish university, where you have the dogma of some religious
belief system. But unfortunately, it’s become the new dogma
of a materialistic belief system, and in a way, that then prejudices people. So for example, in philosophy departments
in America, you don’t get to study Buddhism in a philosophy
department. You have to study it in a religious studies
department, where it’s a human phenomenon. And there it’s dominated by the idea that
the founding principle of Buddhism, which is that it’s possible for human beings
to achieve a higher type of consciousness – a Buddha-consciousness, awakened consciousness,
enlightened consciousness – and that consciousness sees deeper and better
and more accurately the nature of reality than ordinary mis-knowing consciousness, Buddhist studies sort of politely tiptoes
around this idea which is at the foundation of Buddhism. But it’s basically based on a disbelief in
that belief. Nevertheless, even under that system, to learn
about it is still useful. To learn that people believe this, they did
that, they meditated that way, they had this and that institution, they had this and that ethical theory, they
had this and that philosophical theory, is very valuable anyway.

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