Buddhizing Halloween

As Buddhism left India it came into contact with other, sometimes remarkably different cultures.  The result is that there is a religion that incorporates and expresses itself through images (and the concepts they represent) as colourful, complicated, and symbolically laden as this:

Now that’s busy! (Click to embiggen some)

… but also as simple as this:

Enso. (Go ahead and embiggen if you want to, but I’m not sure what the point would be)

The point here being, of course, that as Buddhism has moved into new cultural spaces it has adopted the forms of those cultures, using them to express peculiarly Buddhist themes and sometimes supplanting their original meanings entirely [1].  Naturally, as Buddhism becomes rooted in the West we should expect the same treatment to be applied to Western cultural forms, even though by all accounts it appears to be appalling to many culturally conservative Buddhists that Westerners should want to practice and celebrate Buddhadharma in ways that resonate for their own cultures.  But, speaking for myself, I see this as a good thing – I am not Tibetan/Japanese/Chinese/Thai/etc. and I do not wish to be [2].

Which brings me to an upcoming and super-fun holiday: Halloween [3]!  If there is any holiday that I want/is a good candidate for being Buddhized, this is it.  There are several reasons why this is so:

  • Although the broad outlines of the origins and meaning of Halloween are known, they are not believed in.  The holiday is widely celebrated by Western (at least, North American) society, but is largely devoid of meaning.  Indeed, the actual meaning of “trick or treat” never occurred to me until I was an adult – it had always just been a phrase that got you candy (which was good enough).
  • More specifically, Halloween has no Christian content, which makes Buddhization much easier for two reasons.  First and most importantly, to Buddhize Halloween will not cause outrage among/backlash from the Christian community.  Secondly, there’s no metaphysics that will need abandonment or difficult reworking in order to fit with Buddhist thought.
  • The West needs to take the dark side of life more seriously.
  • There are tantalizing hints of existing traditions that could, by mere suggestion, be transformed from simple fun into meaningful ritual.
  • It’s so so so fun.

I can think of a few obvious ways this could be done:

  • Teachings about hungry ghosts/hell realms.
  • Pointing out the emptiness of ‘external’ perceptions (what’s behind the mask?).
  • Transforming emotional reactions, demonstrating purity of the world (the old peeled grapes as eyeballs, spaghetti as brains, etc.).
  • Chod practice!
  • Death and rebirth teachings/meditations.

I know that I’m not the only Buddhist to be thinking about this holiday specifically or about similar themes, so what does everyone think?  Western Buddhists, what are your ideas and suggestions?!

Getting in the *spirit* of things (har)!

Update:  The pic of the grim reaper on the lotus comes from here.  I wanted to give the artist any traffic that might flow through, ’cause I think that’s a pretty awesome pic (but sorry everyone, I bought the last print!).


[1] Buddhism is not the only religion to have done so – Christianity has done so for Christmas and many of its saints.

[2] Which has just now inspired a thought vis-a-vis the Christianizing of old Pagan traditions throughout Europe.  Modern historians generally talk about this in negative terms (since there is a palpable anti-Christian bias in academia) but I wonder how much of this really was imposed by the Church.  If I as a Westerner want Halloween Buddhized, couldn’t former Pagans have wanted their festivals Christianized?  Food for thought.

[3] I know it’s a little early yet, but I’m thinking about it because I’m thinking about costumes!

There Is No Such Thing as ‘Progress’

Humans, being creatures that seemingly can’t live without meaning, [1] have always invented for themselves mythologies [2] that serve to provide the sort of meanings that the world doesn’t provide them gratuit. ‘Progress’ is just such a myth, operative in the political sphere that, like many myths, is taken to be literally true and which informs the sense of purpose, direction, and self of those who cling to it.  However, it is ultimately a false mythology – there simply is no such thing as ‘Progress’ – and its mistakenly being taken for gospel truth is something that strikes me as potentially dangerous [3].  So on this basis [4] I have decided to provide an argument why there is and never has been Progress or Progressives.

[NB: I am not making any arguments about the validity or value of those political parties, policies, or goals that are commonly identified as being ‘Progressive’.  This is not an argument against left-wing politics.]

How do you do that anyway?

Progress is an inherently teleological concept, a goal-oriented one.  Consider that what we commonly mean when we say we are making progress is that we are moving closer towards achieving some goal, destination, or desired state, whether that is reaching a desired level of physical fitness, getting closer to our destination on a road trip, or satisfying graduation requirements in our schooling.  The teleological aspect is no less true for, is in fact central to, the myth of Progress – that is, that we as a society are traversing the distance between where we are and some more (or ultimately) moral or desirable social/political order.  The trouble for the myth of Progress comes from how we determine that there is such a goal and in what it consists.

There are two seemingly obvious ways of going about doing so.  The first is to employ some sort of philosophical realism.  One could argue that Progress is possible because there is an objective moral order and Progress occurs whenever we (re)structure society and its laws to better conform to this moral order.  Similarly, one could make the case that there is an ideal (Platonic) Form of society and Progressiveness is measured by how closely our own society approximates this ideal.  The weakness of such arguments is, of course, that it is impossible to demonstrate that they are true.  If there really is an objective moral order, why is it so easily violated unlike, say, the law of gravity?  If there is only one true morality, what are we to make of moral disagreement between individuals and societies (more on this below)?  Plainly, such justifications are only convincing to those who are already on-side and, even then, only if one buys into the brand of realism on offer.

In light of the deficiencies of the above, the second route is to justify the myth of Progress on the basis of historical experience.  The narrative is (crudely) as follows:

In the past people were either ignorant, deluded, or evil and so were their societies.  Fortunately, history demonstrates that people and society have been growing in wisdom, justice, compassion, and morality and consequently human life has been improving across the millennia.  There remains much work to be done but the trend is unmistakable – future generations of humanity will be even more compassionate, wise, and moral than our own and it is our duty (and privilege) to facilitate this process.

Here, Progress comes to be seen as something of a law of history, the goal and its contents revealed as and through an inexorable marching forward and unfolding of “wisdom, justice, compassion, and morality.”  But there are two important reasons to reject this account of Progress.

We’re just lucky things didn’t go this way.

One is that history is, of course, strongly contingent.  Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War gives us good reason to think that, had cooler heads prevailed, Athens’ devastating war with Sparta might have been avoided or that, had the plague not routed Athens’ population, it might have ended very differently.  And looking to recent history, there is no reason to believe that, had Hitler’s inner circle been better strategic thinkers, Nazi Germany should not have been master of Europe to this day.

The other reason for rejecting this account of Progress is a corollary of the first.  Simply put, whatever Progress we see in the workings-out of history only appears to be such because of our particular historically embedded vantage point.  Our views on democracy, justice, racism, sexism, etc. by which we judge the historical process are the products of that selfsame historical process!  If one is a modern, liberal democrat, then of course history looks like Progress because it is that history that engendered one’s modern, liberal democratic values.  It is useful to think of it in this way: placing rocks one on top of the other only builds a pyramid if one is actively following a blueprint, otherwise it’s just a heap of rocks.  Historical processes build heaps, not pyramids.

No pyramid, this.

Note also that this means that to the medieval Church the early history of Christianity looked like Progress and that to radical Islamists the growing adoption of the burqa and niqab across historical time look like Progress.  If historical processes can offer up different value-sets from which one can make judgements about history, then there can be no one historical trend that counts as Progress unless it leads to the end-of-history: a static, global society containing a universally assented to morality.  But since, as I have suggested, history is contingent, the historical process resulting in such a  society is no more goal-directed than a rudderless ship at sea – wherever it washes up, there the winds have blown it.  Moreover, even were the end-of-history actually possible (a questionable proposition), why should we conclude that its values are therefore better than our own?  Most large-scale societies throughout human history have more-or-less taken the view that democracy is fundamentally flawed.  Perhaps they are right – maybe the end-of-history will be governed by an eternal monarchy (or something yet undreamt of).  If we are to insist that it is our values that represent Progress, then we will have to do so on grounds other that those of historical necessity – that is, retreat to realism (with all its problems) or adopt a sort of values-chauvinism.

Not by design did it arrive here.

‘Progress’ is a flawed concept.  This isn’t to say that we can’t make progress toward our individual or collective goals, only that we must not assume that our goals have the imprimatur of reality.


[1] Nor, frequently, with meaning, e.g.: Jonestown, suicide-bombings, martyrdom.

[2] The meaning of which I must define myself since the Wikipedia article is a holy mess of missing the forest for the trees (no concise definitions for this topic). Myth, in the context of this piece, does not carry the popular definition of ‘story that is untrue’ but instead means ‘story that provides meaningful context for real-world happenings, whether or not that story itself is factually true’. By this definition all of the death and resurrection of Christ, the history of the American or French Revolutions, the self-made man, and “Yes, we can!” are equally mythological.

[3] I don’t believe that I need to elaborate too much upon why that might be (that would be a whole other discussion), but I can spare a couple of words here.  The quick-and-dirty is this – when people believe that they are on the side of the inevitable march of history/good/God/whatever, it tends to make them self-righteous at best (very annoying) and, at worst, complete, raging assholes willing to railroad others to implement their vision.  Examples: Nazis, Soviets, the Khmer Rouge, Jacobins, Democrats, Republicans, Zionists, anti-Zionists, medieval Roman Catholicism, Puritanism, residential schools, Richard Dawkins, the Black Panther Party, etc.

[4] And, not to mention, also on the basis that false beliefs deserve to be challenged, whatever they are – accurate knowledge of reality counts as a moral good, in my eyes.

Postmodernism Taken Too Far, Not Taken Far Enough

A little while back I was having a conversation with a fellow student with whom I share a goodly number of perspectives.  Our conversation began on the topic of the absence of free will (of the kind that most take it for granted that we have) and the worry about the justice of punishment in light of that fact (if it is a fact)[1], but then it drifted into a general conversation about the ideological state of the West generally.  Interestingly, we both agreed that postmodernism (I doubt that I shall need to explain this idea to my readership) has proven a significant failure.  [2]  Now, we agreed that postmodernism had some useful perspectives on many issues – indeed, postmodern thought has definitely influenced my ways of thinking about things and I would be remiss in not saying so – but its over-application, or its being taken to extremes, has proven disastrous.

Take, for example, the doctrine that maintains that all beliefs are really ideologies of power, that all beliefs serve the political purposes of particular actors.  I think that there is some valuable insight here – particularly that beliefs and ideologies are used for power-politicking, and that the social and political order is always justified (at least in part) on the basis of claims about how the world ‘really’ is.  Also of importance is the insight that there is no uncontroversially objective access to reality, that the things we believe will invariably reflect our desires and needs.  These are some very important things to acknowledge, but when they are over-applied to the world, they result in obviously stupid notions.  For example, that the whole of modern science is just another ideology of power [3], so that any and all purported sex-based neurological distinctions are fabrications intended to promote patriarchal norms (Newton’s Principia ought to be renamed Newton’s Rape Manual).

The same analysis applies to ethics (and particularly to cross-cultural ethics).  Since ethical systems are based in the particularities of different cultures and their power structures, there actually is no way to judge between them, since any judgements we may make about another culture’s practices (e.g. slavery, female circumcision, burkas) will be done on the basis of our own beliefs.  As such, we cannot judge their moral validity without either making a category mistake [4] or doing violence on that culture: nonsense or imperialism.  This, too, should strike us as obviously wrong – though it may be true that I will be imposing my values on another culture should I argue that slavery or the burka are bad, it shouldn’t follow that what I am saying is without meaningful content or that it should not be said.  [5]

I have this suspicion, however, that these stances are the result of a failure to take postmodern ways of thought seriously enough.  If we accept that our beliefs are grounded in the social fabric, that our epistemology is tainted, this makes the giving of reasons even more important.  We can no longer trust that authorities [6] are right, so the justifications of their arguments are crucial.  Though we have to maintain a rigorously skeptical epistemology, we nevertheless can acknowledge that there are better and worse justifications for claims, justifications that are good enough to confirm belief and to act upon.  Similarly for cultural practices – their very groundlessness is what allows for their proliferation and creative variety.  We do not necessarily do wrong by promoting our way of life, since there is no one way of life that makes a fit for all human beings everywhere and throughout history – if we appreciate our way of life, that is enough to justify our partisanship, and if we don’t, that is justification enough to strive for reform.

Or am I missing something?  Maybe what I am suggesting is totally incompatible with postmodernism, rightly considered.  In that case, transcendence is required.  How to do it?


[1] This was the upshot of a class we both took on the topic of free will.

[2] I wonder whether this is evidence of an impending generational shift in ideas.  I sincerely hope so, since I am not a great fan of PM in the way it has influenced politics and much of academe.

[3] Not that this doesn’t mean politics doesn’t enter into scientific research – it certainly does, just not in the way that postmodernists claim.  From what I can tell, politics’ greatest impact on scientific institutions and inquiry is by influencing what the research questions will be.

[4] Since our values are incommensurable, judging a practice as ‘bad’ would be like judging a song for being inadequately red.

[5] Besides which, it is unclear to me how the giving of reasons can be considered ‘imperialism’.  Isn’t imperialism ultimately backed up by the application of force?  Aren’t reason-givings attempts to persuade without relying on force?

[6] Authorities of any sort, that is, not just the typical authorities pointed to by most postmodern theorists.

Mythic Tales From the Subconscious

Once, in a fit of inspiration on a sunny day, I began writing a story about a man who found himself totally enraptured with a woman whose beauty and raw sexuality were terrible and overwhelming.  The story was intended to have both a literal or mundane element, as well as a mythic element (though ultimately I couldn’t pull it off, because I’m awful at writing fiction).  Anyway, the feller was at the beach – my favourite one, incidentally – and he sees this woman (girl, really) emerge naked from the waters and is immediately awestruck by her presence because he understands that he is not seeing a woman, but a goddess.  He sees this surfacing not as the plain event that it was, but as her birth – and, indeed, he sees and understands the impregnation of her mother, the waters, by the sky, her father.

Birth of Venus (Aphrodite)

Anyway, I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I was doing was vaguely reconstructing the story of Aphrodite’s conception and birth.  And I was doing it without having actually heard the story (obviously, we all know the pictured art, so we all know she came from the sea, but I didn’t know the sky is her father).  Anyway, I find this fascinating – even though I had only the barest of knowledge about the mythologies at the time I was writing, the same general outline emerged.  I acknowledge that, yes, I may have heard the myth and had it kicking around the ol’ brain for some time, but I don’t think so – my hunch is that my mind spontaneously went to the same place as that of the person who first created this story.  If I’m not wrong about that, it says some interesting things about the human mind and mythology.  Something to think about.