Andrew Fulford Archive Authors East Asia Nota Bene Philosophy

Retreat to Commitment in Buddhism

Robert H. Sharf writes about the retreat phenomena (with different terms) in varieties of Buddhism. Substitute “private spiritual experience” with liberal Schleiermacherian “immediate feeling of dependence upon the infinite” or conservative Barthian “encounter with the Word” and you get the same basic strategy for dealing with the same underlying problem:

The urge to reduce the goal of Buddhist praxis to a mode of nondiscursive experience would seem to arise when alternative strategies of legitimation, such as the appeal to institutional or scriptural authority, prove inadequate. Breakdowns in traditional systems of authority may in turn result from a variety of historical and socioeconomic circumstances. The situation encountered repeatedly above involved an Asian nation coming into sustained contact with the culture, science, and philosophy of the West. Such contact brought in its wake the scourge of cultural relativism. By privileging private spiritual experience Buddhist apologists sought to secure the integrity of Buddhism by grounding it in a transcultural, trans-historical reality immune to the relativist critique.

The central feature of private experience that allowed it to play this role is precisely its unremitting indeterminacy. Indeed, Buddhist meditative experience is often circumscribed in terms of its “non-discursive” or “non-intellectual” character. (Note the mischief at work here: the fact that nothing can be said of a particular experience-i.e., its ineffability-cannot in and of itself constitute a delimiting characteristic.) At the same time, the rhetoric of experience tacitly posits a “place” where signification comes to an end, variously styled “mind,” “pure consciousness,” the “mirror of nature,” or what have you. The category “experience” is, in essence, a mere placeholder that entails a substantive if indeterminate terminus for the relentless deferral of meaning. And this is precisely what makes the term so amenable to Buddhist ideological appropriation.1

  1. Robert H. Sharf, “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience,” Numen 42 (3): 268.