Chris wrote:Though, as Gombrich is an academic and not a buddhist, I much prefer the understanding of the Arahants of old, and the teachings handed down in the Traditions over the last two and a half millenia.
I'd like interject with a few remarks (btw, what I'm about say is not targeted at you per se, Chris, but at a general tendency that I've observed).
This notion that the views of commentators outside the Buddhist tradition (i.e. those speaking from the secular academe like Gombrich, for instance) are by default less relevant or less instructive in matters of the dhamma is, in my view, terribly disingenuous. I say this for several reasons:
1.) This stance of anti-(secular)intellectualism belies the fact that what we understand of the dhamma today was made possible and continues to be influenced by the work of Buddhist scholars of the 19th century. These forefathers of 'Western Buddhism' were driven by the post-Enlightenment secular ethos, and they employed the rigorous methodologies of the secular academe to uncover what they felt was a more 'authentic' version of Buddhism, a Buddhism that is universalist, rationalist and pragmatic. Theravada teachings appealed to many of them as, through their secular academic lenses, they were deemed to be closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. Are the values of universality, rationalism and pragmatism not the same ones that are celebrated today about the dhamma? Do we not invoke the same values of critical inquiry when we discuss the dhamma?
2.) Rejecting the views of secular commentators on the basis that there are merely 'academic' and not 'applied' or 'practical' belies the fact that within Buddhist traditions themselves there is a high degree of scholasticism. And I'm not talking about Tibetan traditions here. We could assume that one reason Theravada has survived for so long is because of the work of countless scholar-monks who have maintained the canon for a good two millennia, translating and espousing the dhamma to new audiences generation after generation. The suttas and commentaries we have today would not have been possible without continued scholarly work, the kind that requires an analytical rigor not unlike what is demanded of secular academics. In light of this, can we justifiably dismiss the scholarship of secular academics as less meaningful? When we debate about the dhamma, do we not cite from texts, make reference to this argument or that--as secular academics do? When the views of secular academics are dismissed simply because they are 'academic' what is really the issue: is it because rigorous scholarship has no place in Buddhism (evidently not) or is it because such 'merely-academic' views raise questions that are uncomfortable to tradition? Should Buddhism shy away from such questions simply because they are uncomfortable?
3.) The reason Buddhism has survived for so long is because it has been able to adapt to (whilst also transforming) the existing worldviews of the societies it migrated into. This requires conversation and a willingness to listen. In a contemporary secular world--an interconnected world where the secular academe plays an integral (although not a sole) role in providing the knowledge base for society--how is Buddhism to maintain its vitality if it sees the views of those outside the tradition as less trustworthy? Is Buddhism really listening when it dismisses such views as merely 'academic' and of little relevance to its emancipatory and ethical endeavours?
To make this post relevant to the thread I would suggest that Buddhist views about women/men ought to take into consideration secular academic views about women/men. The latter has approached the subject in ways that Buddhism hadn't been able to in traditional societies, and also allowed for new ways of being amongst women/men that wasn't possible (or needed) in traditional societies. This is perhaps a rather banal point. But nevertheless, what I find instructive about secular academic views is the way they reveal how individuals and societies have a great deal of unrecognised craving and attachment to notions of women/men that are not strictly 'natural' or 'inevitable' but which have more accurately congealed over time to appear as self-evident truths.
So, if liberation involves seeing how we crave and are attached to certain notions of self (and what more powerful sense of self is there if not woman/man), is it not worth our while to consider such secular academic views in our pursuit of the path? To be true to the FNT, why shouldn't we entertain the possibility that our understanding of the dhamma may be coloured by this attachment to notions of women/men, an attachment which may very well foreclose the truly emancipatory possibilities of the dhamma--or worse, unwittingly turn the dhamma into an impenetrable shining fortress?
PS: I do not pretend that I'm speaking from a neutral position for I am indeed pursuing a career in the academe. However, what I've written above can be considered by most of us, for it seems to me that many here have been educated one way or another in the secular academe and through such prior education is engaging with the dhamma in ways that weren't possible for the laity in traditional Buddhist societies.