05 February 2016

Setting Ourselves Apart

Nihang Sikh
In this essay I will explore some issues surrounding our identity as members of a religious group (which might also be of interest to readers who aren't religious). Some of the opinions I'll express in this essay will be controversial. I'm not entirely convinced by liberal rhetoric on difference and tolerance. I do believe that we should be tolerant of difference, but when I look at the society I live in I have to admit that I might be in a minority. And given that a sizeable proportion, perhaps even a majority, of this society is not in tune with liberal rhetoric, what does that mean for religieux in practice? My purpose here is to try to understand issues of identification with a religious group and how that might play out in practice in the actual society I live in, rather than with reference to an ideal society that does not exist. Clearly there is a certain amount of intolerance towards minorities here. I think an evolutionary perspective on humanity helps us to understand why that might be, and at least to me, it suggests that our approach to diversity might be flawed. It's fair to say that this essay is a bit of a ramble and an opinion piece.


I've written about evolution and human societies quite often now. The facts seem to be that human beings are evolved for living in small communities of up to 150 people. These communities may be part of larger units—multiples of 150—but larger units tend to fission for purposes of daily life, coming together on special occasions. This limit is imposed, according to research by Professor Robin Dunbar, by the ratio of neocortex to brain volume. Larger groups require more neo-cortex because we have to keep track of more relationships in real time (family, friends, lovers, feuds, alliances, etc). Other primates mainly use one-to-one grooming to ensure individuals are well integrated in the group and that it has overall cohesion. Our groups are now so big that we could spend all our time grooming and still not interact with everyone in our group. And we have to eat and sleep! So we evolved group activities to help balance our time budget. Cooking food also helped by making our food more calorie-rich, reducing our foraging time.

Some of our most important faculties, such as reasoning are designed to work in small groups. Our orientation to the world as a social primate, like all social animals, is safety in numbers and cooperation to achieve common goals. An aspect of this is that we are distrustful of strangers and intolerant of individual differences where they threaten group cohesion. Our distant ancestors survived and prospered by ganging up and pulling together. Individuals who were loath to work with us or who worked against us were bound to be neutralised either by assimilation back into the group, or by expulsion from it (or in extremis by being killed). One of the most powerful means of social control we have is isolation: shunning, exclusion, banishment. Ironically, loneliness is often a feature of urban life, especially as we get older.

In his book on the people living in the New Guinea highlands, The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond explains that a hunter-gather tribe there has a well demarcated territory in which they can forage for food. They usually have uneasy relations with immediate neighbours and encroach on their land at their own risk. To be caught outside your own territory is to risk being killed on sight. A person living in this environment would seldom, if ever, stray much beyond the traditional borders of their tribe. They would never meet their neighbour's neighbours. Of course New Guinea is densely populated compared to some other places. However, rather than clump and blend, the tribes there stayed small and distinctive, with hundreds of languages between them. They are vastly more culturally diversified than similarly sized countries in the rest of the world. Australia was similarly diverse before the arrival of Europeans. We are evolved to suit this kind of situation of small groups and strong in-group/out-group boundaries. Since then our culture has changed at a very much faster rate than evolution can keep up with.

About 10-12,000 years ago our communities began to clump together. This is usually associated with the invention of agriculture, though at first this was a relatively unsuccessful venture that led to reduced food availability. It took centuries of trial and error for settled agriculture to begin to produce enough food to be a more effective way of life than hunting and gathering. It's likely that domestication of herd animals like sheep, goats, and cattle, was a key move towards larger groups, since it makes more protein available in a more reliable way. As long as there is pasture, herd sizes can increase exponentially (according to Dunbar the limiting factor is rainfall). Once we worked out how to produce a food surplus that would support non-farming society members, the stage was set for a revolution in how we lived. Numbers in our groups began to swell beyond the limits of neocortex. Once a few members of our society were freed from the necessity of finding food they could specialise in other activities (though they still had to sleep and participate in community bonding activities). Civilisation began to emerge. By which we mean groups with large populations and institutions to enable them to live together: division of labour, kingship, land ownership, organised warfare, religion, etc.

In these early stages of our social evolution, religion emerged partly as a way of helping groups members experience themselves as connected to the others. As already mentioned, Robin Dunbar has argued that as group sizes increased in our early ancestors, our usual primate methods of group bonding became ineffective. The time taken for one-to-one grooming with every group member, for example, became more than the time available. A variety of many-to-many grooming substitutes had to evolve alongside our burgeoning groups. Amongst these were group laughter, singing, and dancing. Presumably story telling also played a part. The first anatomically modern humans to migrate from Africa almost certainly carried myths with them that then took root and survived in far flung places like New Guinea and Australia. These group activities result in the production of the endogenous opioids (or endorphins) that produce a feeling of well-being. Religion took the form of collective rituals, often involving group dancing, singing and story telling, and explicit shared beliefs. This helped the group to experience a sense of connection and common purpose. Rites of passage for children becoming adults often involved a shared ordeal that helped to bond group members. A distant echo of this is "hazing" and groups often haze new members to help bond them (ironically this may involved inflicting suffering or humiliation on them). One has to be willing to undergo hardship for the group. And lastly groups of people like to ensure that they look different to neighbouring groups. One of the ways that tribes of people, multiples of 150, identify each other is through distinctive clothing, symbols, or body modification. In small societies every one is marked the same way. Armies still use this concept in their adoption of uniforms, flags, and insignia.

However, many of us now  live in massive, multi-ethnic societies in which any number of sub-groups exist based on ethnic identity and/or religion amongst other things. And members of some of these communities are still going out of their way to identify themselves with their sub-culture through wearing special hats, special grooming practices (involving hair in particular), and/or adopting special clothing. The subculture might be based on ethnicity or religion or it might be based on something more abstract. And we might identify with more than one subculture.

A lot of the discussion in the UK at the moment is over how Muslims fit into Britain. Many Muslims feel bound to make strong statements of their identification with their religion often through grooming and sartorial statements, or through beginning their contribution to public debates with the words "As a Muslim...". They are Muslims first and they want everyone to know and acknowledge this. A few vocal people, who adopt the same identifiers, are openly critical of the British way of life and wish to impose a traditional Middle-Eastern form of governance (ironically if they got their wish they'd almost certain lose the right to freedom of speech). Some extremists argue for violent overthrow of the state and the culture, and some are currently plotting to kill British people to make their point. Muslim terrorists have succeeded in one major terrorist attack, ten years ago, and several other plots have been foiled. I'm using Muslims as an example because they are in the news. We Buddhists also get involved in flouting our religious identity, and not a few would love to overthrow the current government and impose some kind of Buddhist rule (though they are generally speaking more circumspect about this). I sometimes see monastics wandering around in their robes and shaved hair. Or one sees people with ostentatious jewellery: badges, mālās, vajra-necklaces,  monk's bag etc. I do it too some extent because I prefer to use my Buddhist name in most circumstances. To religious people, religious identity is important. And usually we want other people to know we are religious. If it's not obvious from our hair or clothes, we'll habitually bring it up in conversation. We're tedious like that.

Society & Tolerance

It's not that long since British people felt their society to be relatively homogeneous. Yes, it was riven by strong class divisions, but these divisions were familiar, and the classes were unified to some extent by their rejection of outsiders. Even today Brits are almost nostalgic for the version of the class system of the 18-19th century - witness the constant rehashing of stories set before liberalism took hold. British people will joke about incomers to some villages being treated as the "new people" for three or four generations. This is a joke based in reality. Some people are really like that.

In fact immigrants have long played a part in British society, though usually on a small scale. An almost continuous series of waves of immigration from Europe have arrived over the centuries. Some were completely absorbed (e.g. Huguenots) and some were not (e.g. Jews, Roma). For their own reasons Jews tend to retain their identity, live somewhat apart from the mainstream. Hasidic Jews are definitely separatist. Which brings us closer to my main point. Ironically this very practice of separatism has itself often been a trigger for prejudice against Jews. This is not a justification or an excuse. I'm not saying that it is right! I'm saying that anti-Semitism is a something that Jews still encounter and that sometimes they inadvertently trigger it.

The trouble is that if you are apart from the mainstream, then when times get tough the mainstream may well turn on you. This can happen in any number of ways. In contemporary Britain there is a backlash against people who accept welfare for example. It was relatively socially acceptable in the 1970s, but nowadays if one accepts welfare it is, for example, very difficult to rent a house to live in. All people who accept welfare are tarred with the same brush: lazy, unreliable, and criminal; whereas British people generally see themselves hard-working, steadfast, and honest. Fifty years ago the Brits described people of Afro-Caribbean ethnicity using the same slurs. Before that it was the Irish. The Spanish have often been a target. As have all people of colour from Africa, America, Pacifika, and Asia. Outsiders, especially minorities, are easily portrayed as representative of the antithesis of in-group values. The English language has many apparently innocuous terms that were once ethnic slurs: French letter, Dutch courage, Wandering Jew, and so on; and even more outright terms of abuse, such as nigger, kraut, frog, dago, wop, spick, etc. The English will still depict the Scots as miserly (when in fact they were just poor, mostly because of the English). Within England the English make fun of the accent of Birmingham, or suggest that people from Norfolk are inbred. It's often done in a jocular way, with a nudge and a wink, but its done almost continually. Where there is smoke, there is fire. And the thing is that this kind of attitude is general amongst people I've met. In India the low caste Buddhists I know tell me that even the very low castes have other low castes that they look down on. Despite how caste has blighted their lives, they are still caste conscious. Where I grew up, people from Auckland are called jafas (after a sweet called a Jaffa). This is an acronym for Just Another Fucking Aucklander. And we told jokes about Australians being stupid and immoral (they told more or less the same jokes about us). When I lived Auckland, my neighbours from mainland China confided in me that they "did not like Indians". The awareness and marking of difference seems to be ubiquitous. I would argue that it reflects an evolutionary outcome of being a social species: high in-group trust, low out-group trust.

I want to argue, against the liberal mainstream, that this distrust of strangers is not a bug of society, its a feature. Again, this is not an endorsement. It is an attempt to understand an apparently senseless behaviour in evolutionary terms. I believe that the better we understand our unconscious motivations, the better able we will be to overcome the conditioning. But the first step is admitting that most of us don't like strangers. If there is any doubt about this, I can cite various politicians such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Tony Abbott, Marine La Pen, from around the world who represent a silently fuming body of people who are fed up with multiculturalism, tolerance, and immigrants; fed up with liberal values being pushed down their throats. The danger is that we don't understand this phenomena and fail to take adequate steps to counter it. We ought to be reflecting on our failure to effectively communicate evolution for example. If we believe that tolerance and migration are good, then we need to better understand why some people oppose it and why politicians who voice that opposition are increasingly popular at the moment. But too often liberals are not at all interested in how their opponents think. Rather ironically, they define conservatives as out-group and demonise them.

The Religious Other & Liberalism

This essay was sparked by reading a news item about a Sikh man who had been beaten up by a red-neck in America. The Sikh man's family had lived in their adopted town in the USA for over a century. And the man who beat him shouted, "Why are you here?" Chances are, the Sikhs migrated to America before the red-neck's family did! Any thoughtful American would already have concluded that they have more to fear from "white" Americans with guns than from any Sikhs. A quick trawl through the long list of mass shootings in the USA suggests that none of them were carried out by Sikhs. In fact one of the shootings involved a white American shooting up a Sikh temple and murdering many people. So it seems that a Sikh is significantly more likely to be the victim of mass murder than the instigator of it. So why would a red-neck target a Sikh man?

Part of my answer is to do an image search for "Sikh". The top 100 images are mostly of men with long beards, wearing turbans. The images are of Sikhs are mostly men, but from all walks of life. Importantly Sikhs often serve their adopted countries in the military (usually a high status job for red-necks). But a Sikh man is instantly recognisable as a Sikh. Sikh men ensure that they stand out as Sikhs. What I am suggesting is that if you were never educated about Sikhism, and most Americans are not, and at a time in history when the news was full of stories about foreigners who want to kill Americans, and all you saw was someone making a sartorial statement along the lines of "I am not one of you, I am a Sikh", then that might trigger a primal, aggressive response. I'm going to emphasise this point: this explanation is not an excuse, the point here is to try to understand why people become aggressive towards strangers and suggest ways to mitigate such reactions. 

I don't mean to single out Sikhs, it's just that the news story featured a Sikh man and they do often make this strong statement of setting themselves apart. Another group who often suffer this kind of abuse, in Britain at least, are Muslim women who insist on wearing full-face veils, something which is almost an anathema for mainstream British women who fought for the rights to be seen and heard, and are still fighting for equality. The British women I know find the wearing of veils and face coverings very difficult to empathise with. They are still concerned with finding an equal footing in society with men. They continue to fight inequality and discrimination and the veil seems to represent both. I recall quite an interesting radio interview with a British Muslim woman who became so fed up with hearing cat-calls from men that she decided to wear a full-face veil. She would go out covered from head to toe with only her eyes showing. But unfortunately this change in her appearance meant that cat-calls turned to sometimes violent abuse. It was awful. She was in an invidious position, but it was made considerably worse by her adoption of ostentatious religious garb that set her apart from the people around her. It was not an effective strategy. Anyone who looks, speaks, or acts differently from might become a target for hostility - where difference is entirely relative to the situation.

As I say, our distant ancestors survived and prospered by ganging up and pulling together. Nothing unites people like a common enemy. Who that enemy is, is also entirely relative. 

Liberals seem to naively expect society to just accept differences. To be sure, they have had notable successes in outlawing prejudice against people who are different in ways that they have no control over. It is illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender, sexuality, or ethnicity for example, which is not the same as saying that it has been eliminated. But for example, being sexually oriented towards your own gender carries far less stigma than it used to. We have also made it illegal to discriminate on some differences that are based on individual choices, such as political views (up to a point) or religious profession. Social liberalism has been a force for good in that it has helped minorities to emerge as equals in society. And it continues to have successes, in the form of marriage law reform for example, despite a decisive shift to the right in politics in Britain. But liberalism has to some extent steam-rolled these changes through. And under these circumstances there is always the risk of a backlash.

The Liberal response to all of the situations I've described: aggression towards a Sikh, cat-calls, and violent abuse is the same each time. Such things should not happen. Every one must be tolerant. Our laws reflect these values. But our streets, apparently, do not. We invent new crimes to make it clearer. Now if you abuse someone of a different race or sexual-orientation, that is not simply a violent crime, it is a race hate crime that carries harsher penalties than mere violence. We've defined a whole variety of hate crimes with harsh penalties. These offences often come with new labels. We mistaken refer to hatred of something as a phobia (or fear). I'm not sure this confusion of terms helps. Islamophobia is not a fear of Islam, it refers to a hatred of Islam. It's not born from fear, it's more likely born from disgust, the response to a stranger. Similar homophobia is not a fear of homosexuals. Personally I see theistic religion as a rather negative influence in society, though for some people it can be personally positive. Hate is probably too strong a word for what I feel. I'm certainly against theists having more say in society and would very much like to see the Church of England disestablished and a true separation between church and state. Nor do I hanker for a Buddhist state, since all the Buddhist states in history have been awful or even monstrous. In this sense I'm a secularist.

Making a law and punishing offenders is not the same changing the culture. A more successful strategy might be to welcome different people into public life. It's only in living memory that Britain allowed radio and TV presents to speak in regional accents. People of colour are still vastly under-represented in public life. And as we've seen some institutions, like the Oscars, seem determined to resist any liberal reforms that would make them treat women or Africans as being of equal status and value. TV is currently squeezing in a trans-gendered character where-ever it can, because this has become a cause célèbre. No reason it should not be a time for more awareness of this issue, but it's not as if we have solved the problem of under-representation in a broader sense. Women are still vastly under-represented in the higher echelons business and politics for example. The chances of an African American winning an Oscar are still minimal. And so on. Equality laws are not going to change things while, say, a woman only rarely gets a senior cabinet post in a British government (and this true of the cabinet of the only woman Prime Minster we've had as well).

With regard to "race" it's important to emphasise that skin colour is a particularly bad determinate of relatedness. Skin colour is simply a measure of how close to the equator your ancestors lived. If they were from the tropics, you'll have dark skin. If they were from higher latitudes you'll have pale skin. It's all to do with how much vitamin D one can synthesise and it changes quite rapidly - just 5000 years and your skin will change to suit. Humanity is all one species by any definition of the word. That said, the human population of, say, Africa is far older and thus far more genetically diverse than the rest of the world. Thus any two Europeans with pale skin are far more likely to be related than any two African people with dark skin. It's only legacy thinking that makes us think of dark skinned people as homogeneous. Of course in countries where Africans were transported as slaves, the slave population became a melting pot. The whole concept of "race" is bankrupt and more or less meaningless. The fact that Britain uses "black" and "white" as ethnic terms still makes me feel deeply uncomfortable, because the terms are meaningless (no one in the world is either black or white), but also because they preserve the prejudice of the recent past and reflect continuing discrimination against people with brown skin.

An important issue in Britain is immigration. In 2015 around 100,000 people emigrated to the UK. That's a town the size of Cambridge, where I live. Providing housing, infrastructure, and services to another 100,000 people, at a time when government spending continues to fall is stretching the resources of the country. If it happens every year, and it does, then we have a major problem here. Research seems to show that migrants taken as a whole make a net contribution to the economy, but even so the government is still cutting spending on things like the National Health Service, which struggles to cope with serving the needs of the present population. Unfortunately, compared to the rest of Europe, Britain continues to attract economic migrants, both temporary and permanent. And European law says that we cannot place barriers in the way of the movement of labour within the Union. This has led to the leaders of the country to offer an in-out referendum in which the citizens can vote to leave the European Union. The issue of identity and where we belong (and how we treat outsiders) is playing out in national and international politics also. 

Britain has also seen a number of high profile terrorist attacks on our soil. These were carried out by Islamic fundamentalists. And we are told that a large number of plots to commit acts of terror are foiled on a regular basis by the security services. Some of these result in public prosecutions. And yet we are being drawn further into wars in the Middle East that appear to be fuelling the fundamentalist recruitment drive. The media that reports these situations has a vested interest in promoting negative emotions. The media thrive on our fear, anger, and disgust. And we, collectively, seem only too willing to feed the troll. The local terrorists are ostentatiously Muslim. There is a legitimate fear of religious fundamentalism amongst Muslims inspiring violence against British citizens. Some say that such people are "not Muslims". But this is facile. Islam, like every religion is split into sects that disagree on who is in charge and who is an authority. Appeals to the authority of the Koran are meaningless unless we accept the premise that it is God's word. Even then, what God meant is open to interpretation - God always seems to like to leave room for different readings. In the end it is men who decide what God's will is. The terrorists are Muslims. Very much so. The fact that other Muslims disagree with them is interesting, but not definitive, even if the British Prime Minister co-opts that view for his own ends. 


And amidst all of this are religious people who insist on asserting their religious identity over and above any other aspect of their identity. Like many groups who are insisting on their "right" they seem to unconcerned with unforeseen consequences. They have a right and it is up to the rest of us to protect that right of theirs, whatever it may cost us. In Britain I observe that there is a general unwillingness to think that one's actions might have consequences, especially if the actions are an expression of some right. If one is claiming a right then the consequences are not the responsibility of the individual. Society is seen as a guarantor of rights. And if our behaviour involves risk then it is up to society to eliminate that risk. So many people here go out at night and binge drink so that they completely lose control of themselves. And these people expect to be safe. But they are not safe. In many cases they might not even be safe doing what they are doing if they were sober. They are definitely at risk when falling down drunk. And yet they assert they have a right to be safe, whatever risks they may take. And complain when the government treat them like children. Sadly in the Cambridge News today is the story of a bright young Cambridge University student who was killed by a car: it was 1:30am, she was very drunk, wearing dark clothes, walking in the middle of the road, on a major arterial road, when she was struck by a car. The driver was going under the speed limit and watching out for cyclists with no lights (very common in Cambridge). 

Having been a victim of violence I sympathise to some extent, we all want to feel safe when we go out at night. But while society has yet to eliminate violent people, wouldn't it be more prudent to take reasonable precautions against becoming a victim of violence? Is there any rational or realistic expectation of eliminating violence from society? I can't imagine it myself. Is it realistic to expect everyone to obey the law all the time? Not really. So why would anyone expect to act as though they lived in a utopia? Of course we don't want to simply blame the victim. That's not what I'm getting at. But if you are in a minefield, there's no point in complaining that mines are illegal and immoral. One must take practical steps to get get out of the minefield without getting blown up before complaining. Nor am I saying the campaigning is pointless. We have seen a good deal of positive social change in my lifetime. What I'm talking about is a culture of entitlement. The idea that we are entitled to live in a utopia. That we ought not to have to make an effort to defend our rights from those who would deny them to us. It's the sense of entitlement that I don't understand. 

Talking about these things is difficult because if one expresses a dissenting opinion one tends to become a target for trolling. Labels get thrown around and thinking through the issues gets replaced by an enforced orthodoxy. And anyone who dares to dissent from this orthodoxy is characterised as evil. Lately the trend is to label anyone who argues with the liberal mainstream as a Nazi. Its as if we've forgotten the mad imperialism that brought the whole of Europe and half the world into an all-out war characterised by massive loss of life and destruction of property. We've forgotten that the Nazis attempted genocide, murdering sex million Jews. The Nazis were not simply authoritarian or dictatorial or anti-liberal. They were mass murderers on a scale that's hard to imagine. We trivialise the word Nazi at our peril. Once we trivialise a phenomenon like the Nazi's we raise the risk of it happening again: and this at a time when far-right groups are making steady gains in some European countries. 

There's a worrying trend to argue that people should not be allowed to say things that liberals disagree with. That one should not be allowed to say things that people might take offence at. Recently the British parliament actually spent time debating whether or not Donald Trump, a major investor in the UK economy, should be allowed to visit the UK. The reason was that he'd just said that his policy would be to stop Muslims entering the USA until there was some way to be sure they were not terrorists. This was shortly after the Paris bombing, where one of the bombers had entered France as a refugee. Many people argued that Trump should not be allowed here any more. The fact that this was a debate suggests that we have lost sight of what freedom of speech means. Trump can say what he likes. Our fear can only be that people will take him seriously. Why would we fear that? Of course the Trump the irony is that apart from one egregious example (9/11) most of the murderous attacks on American soil, the mass-shootings, are by non-Muslims and Americans of European rather than Middle-Eastern origin. Their problem is not so much religiously inspired terrorism as it is gun crime.

Setting Ourselves Apart.

If we religieux wish to set ourselves apart then we need to be realistic about the possible consequences of this. Out-group members may well receive harsh treatment, especially at times when there is economic or political upheaval. Arguing that this is not fair is childish. The world is not fair. People are what they are. Liberalism has certainly made some progress in the West, but our society is far from perfect, and many places are profoundly anti-liberal. We do not live in a utopia and probably never will. (I've written about this before: Living in a Non-Utopian Universe, 12 Sep 2014)

On the other hand I don't think it's true to say that religious people have more in common with each other than with non-religious people. The shared values that we have tend not to come from religious profession, but from the wider society. Religion is paradoxical in this sense. Since any one religion is always a minority these days, identifying with it to the point that one feels one must make a public statement of identification makes for a stronger sense of belonging to the religious community, but of being more set apart from society generally. If one also characterises society as generally evil or misguided, then the "us & them" effect is even stronger. Do we ever think about what we are sacrificing in order to experience a strong sense of belonging to our religious group?

Setting ourselves apart amidst a larger community is a two edged sword. A common enemy does bring people together, but we run the risk of becoming that common enemy and uniting people against us. This ought not to surprise us. At the level of our adaptation to pre-civilisation lifestyles, this makes perfect sense. It's part of our of survival strategy. As admirable as liberal values of tolerance inclusivity, and egalitarianism are, by setting ourselves apart we run the risk of testing how deep those liberal values go. And all too often they don't go very deep. So it might be worth religious people asking themselves, is it worth it. Can we get that feeling of belonging without all the public displays of affiliation and overt tribalism? Or is the acknowledgement of strangers really that important to us? 

One thing we need to think about is why some people are happy to define their in-group as "humanity" and why for some it is so much narrower. Why for some people seeing a man in a turban is a delightfully exotic sight, and for another it is a trigger for violence. And we really urgently need to drop any moral rhetoric along the lines of "because they are stupid". Sometimes people are stupid. But pointing this out never really helps. We need to try to get beyond our own simplistic, moralistic judgements and really connect with the values of others. That we might not share those values makes this difficult, because all of us find it difficult to embrace someone who's values are different from ours. But until we understand those values we will not make a connection of the kind that can bring change.


See also

29 January 2016

Chronology and Buddhism

gold dinar
Samudra Gupta  335-375 CE
Coin Indian
One of the major problems for historians of Buddhism as an Indian religion is that there are no agreed chronological terms. The disagreement extends to Indian history generally. Those terms that we do use in Buddhist Studies are emic (emerge from the received tradition based on traditional concerns) and sectarian, at least in origin. I've already complained that scholars of Buddhism appear to be in love with their subject and therefore far too reluctant to be critical in the way that interests me (and other people who seek to break away from received traditions). There's no significant scholarly support for attempts by contemporary Buddhists to move beyond the limitations of received tradition.

In the past I have used the terms "early Buddhism" and "pre-sectarian" Buddhism, but both of these are problematic. Early Buddhism is, in effect, simply a euphemism for Hīnayāna. When discussing early Buddhism, we almost always exclude the early development of the that other prominent emic category Mahāyāna, even though these clearly over lap with the time period covered by early Buddhism. Some significant new work has been published recently on the early Mahāyāna showing that it overlapped with the mainstream of Buddhism for centuries, before becoming the mainstream. Those who study early Mahāyāna often exclude late "Hīnayāna" developments from their considerations, even though a figure like Nāgārjuna clearly looks back as much as he looks forward. Some of these divisions are being breached, but the growing prominence of Theravāda bhikkhus in the study of early Buddhism has also reinforced some divisions. We conveniently forget, for example, that the Chinese Āgama texts were not translated until the 5th century. They were not foremost in the minds of missionaries from India for the first four or five centuries, but were translated only when some attempt at comprehensiveness was being made. They were translated as an afterthought. Some so-called Mahāyāna movements are just as divergent from say, Prajñāpāramitā, as Theravāda orthodoxy is. Pure Land Buddhism for example has almost nothing in common with Prajñāpāramitā Buddhism. So emic rubrics are often deceptive if used without due consideration of what period of history the label is being applied to. And at present we apparently have no way of stepping out of the various traditions and categorising history objectively. All our terminology seems to come from within the traditions.

"Pre-sectarian" is a term that emerges from Buddhist narratives of how Buddhism developed. To the best of my knowledge there is absolutely no evidence for a pre-sectarian phase of Buddhism. The idea is simply based on accepting the story that the texts themselves tell - that the stories in the Nikāyas were all told by the Buddha (even though some of them clearly were not). The canons of Buddhist texts, which we take to be the earliest written accounts of Buddhism, contradict each other along sectarian lines. This is so evident that an attentive scholar can make a reliable attribution of which sect the various Chinese Āgama translations were associated with. The Pāḷi version is full of internal contradictions and multiple versions of stories suggesting pre-existing sectarian divides. Something similar emerges when scholars study the early history of Christianity, for example reviewing Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, by Elaine Pagels, Frank Thomas Smith, comments
"What Pagels did not find during the course of her research was a “golden age” of purer and simpler early Christianity. It was not monolithic, but included a variety of voices and an extraordinary range of viewpoints, among saints and heretics alike—the “saints” being the ones who won. From a historical point of view, then, there is no “real Christianity”." 
Every scrap of evidence we have for the earlier phases of Buddhism, show it to be pluralistic. The idea that it has an underlying unity is something I now question. It not only seems more plausible to me to posit an underlying pluralism, but one can see that the idea of an underlying unity comes from within the tradition itself and it not evaluated critically. Commenting on this issue and citing the Pagels's book as a case in point, Johannes Bronkhorst says:
"This directs our attention to an important feature of religious traditions: they may preserve inconsistencies, but are at the same time likely to explain them away. This observation should be heeded by those who point to traditional interpretations of seeming inconsistencies." 
I have pointed out a number of these inconsistencies in my writing. Buddhist metaphysics and Buddhist morality require two different approached to personal continuity, so that some texts assert personal continuity and some deny it. The doctrine of karma is not fully reconciled with paṭiccasamuppāda because one denies the possibility of action at a temporal distance and one requires it. Another type of inconsistency is the great variety of nidāna sequences supposedly representing paṭiccasamuppāda. Were there 5, 7, 10, 11, or 12 nidānas? Or the later imposition of the Three Lifetimes Interpretation. Even the theories to reconcile these differences only produced more divisions. Buddhists simply deny that these inconsistencies exist or resort to hand-waving explanations that serve only to divert attention. As Noam Chomsky has said,
“The system protects itself with indignation against a challenge to deceit in the service of power, and the very idea of subjecting the ideological system to rational inquiry elicits incomprehension or outrage, though it is often masked in other terms.”
We see a steady stream of apologetics from religious Buddhists, particularly from the Theravādins arguing for such propositions as the "authenticity of the texts" or "the truth of rebirth". Authenticity only bears on the authority of the texts, and authority is only interesting when one is using the texts to legitimate an idea or practice. Anthropologists are interested in how religious people use the concept of authority to justify their behaviour, and historians might trace the use of texts as sources of legitimacy, the assertion that the texts are "authentic" (i.e. are what they represent themselves to be) is a religious concern. And one that refuses to die despite the absolute absence of evidence to back up any argument.

The term "pre-sectarian" is based on an assumption rather than evidence. There is no evidence for a pre-sectarian phase of Buddhism apart from the traditional religious hagiographies of the founder of Buddhism. And remember, that founder's name is something we cannot be sure of, and that man is not mentioned in any contemporary literature outside Buddhism. He may not have existed. And the first evidence of Buddhism is centuries after the putative time of the founder.

Similarly, notations based on nation states or ethnicity are exclusive in unhelpful ways since Buddhism often took centuries to develop distinctive national character if it ever did. Sometimes the apparent unity in a nation is due to failure to see the differences. In the case of China, influences to and from India flowed until the end of Buddhism in India; Chinese Buddhism was far from static. China is diverse in so many ways, including in the forms of Buddhism that it adopted and produced. In the West we have this unfortunate tendency to talk about China as a relatively uniform place, with, for example a Chinese language when in fact China is at least as linguistically diverse as Europe is. The number of people I meet who are unaware that Japanese and Chinese languages are not even in the same language family is embarrassing. Anyone talking about Buddhism regularly, has probably experienced the cognitive dissonance of referring to a Westerner as a "Tibetan Buddhist" - the person is not Tibetan, the Buddhism is. But it's not as though Tibetan Buddhism is uniform enough to be a homogeneous category. It isn't. It's simply that we are unaware of the diversity. Making the Tibetan diaspora seem more unified that it really is helps the campaign against Chinese rule for example. It's much snappier to refer to the "Tibetan people" and their "leader" the Dalai Lama than to acknowledge the diversity and sharp divisions that existed before the common enemy appeared to unite them.

Another category widely used these days is "Mainstream". It's used to refer to non-Mahāyāna Buddhism, as a substitute for early Buddhism (because that term is widely acknowledged to be problematic). If we look at Indian Buddhism in the two centuries spanning the beginning of the common era, what we see is that at all times the Mahāyāna in a wide variety of forms is present and grows in importance. The Abhidharma project is also present and perhaps dominant throughout, but divided along multiple sectarian lines, with most sects ignored by modern scholars (partly because we lack sufficient information about them to pay attention to). But is the Abhidharma "early"? Not early, early, for sure. And it continues to be studied by monks right down to the present. Some parts of Greater India harbour progressive and even transgressive innovators while others harbour the deepest conservatism. At the beginning of this period the mainstream is probably Abhidharma oriented, depending on where one looks, but by the end of the period the balance has shifted towards some form of Mahāyāna and Mahāyāna is itself beginning to coalesce as a distinct approach to Buddhism from a series of unrelated cults. So Mainstream Buddhism is meaningless unless it is qualified with a time and place and a keen understanding of the history of Buddhism in that time and place. What was mainstream in 1st Century Gandhāra was almost certainly not mainstream at the same time in Magadha or South India. Two centuries either side of that date completely different forms of Buddhism might have been mainstream. So mainstream turns out not to be a viable short-hand either, though it is as widely used nowadays as early Buddhism.

I've been reading some Chinese Buddhist history recently, and in these texts the authors simply adopt the time periods of Chinese history generally without privileging the history of Buddhism the way Buddhist Studies scholars do when discussing Indian Buddhism. I think the lack of suitable time period notation for Buddhism may reflect a lack in the study of Indian history. In order to remedy this I'd like to propose a basic notation for Buddhist history which avoids emic categories. In this I draw on the terminology that has origins in the study of the European history of ideas as it has been adapted to Chinese historiography.

I began discussing Buddhist historiography and dates in an earlier essay: The Very Idea of Buddhist History. Some of my comments here assume that the comments made there, particularly with respect to dates, are familiar.

The origins of Buddhism are on the margins of the second urbanisation and thus the emergence of the second urbanisation is a key milestone in the history of Buddhism. There is considerable evidence for the second urbanisation, which supports the Two Cultures hypothesis promoted by Geoffrey Samuel and Johannes Bronkhorst amongst others (one culture being Brahmaṇa and the other Śrāmaṇa). If there was a single founder figure, he lived in this period, though I suspect that the Śrāmaṇa culture gave rise to new ideas collectively and only in retrospect were they ascribed to a founder figure. There is no archaeological evidence for Buddhism in this period, no external corroborating evidence of any kind. The only evidence for Buddhism at this period is that texts appear to be set during the second urbanisation: walled cities are featured for example.

As I have said, above, to the best of my knowledge there is no evidence for a pre-sectarian phase of Buddhism. The earliest evidence we have is already pluralistic, though the texts do contain founding myths which suggest unity, the actual diversity of the basic teachings on any subject suggest that if there ever was a unified period it was very short-lived indeed. This is not inconsistent with the primitive legends of the founder teaching disciples and sending them off to teach on the basis of their own experience. On this Canonical account, if there is any truth to it, diversification must have begun with a year of the founding of Buddhism as each of these teachers expressed the experience of awakening in their own terms.

I have argued that we have a predisposition or bias to see the past as simpler than the present, and to see the past converging. This is partly because our view of the past is condition by the metaphor of the tree. This view biases us towards seeing convergence in the past. I've argued that the tree is the wrong metaphor for many evolutionary processes, including the development of Buddhism, and that a braided stream would be a far better metaphor: See Evolution: Trees and Braids (27 Dec 2013) and Extending the River Metaphor for Evolution (28 Mar 2014).

The founder myth suffers from confirmation bias. For example the existence of two contradictory narratives of the Buddha leaving home doesn't undermine our confidence in the myth. The fact that Gotama is an extremely unlikely name for a non-Brahmin, because it is a high-prestige Brahmin gotra name associated with the composition of the Ṛgveda and the lineage of teachers of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad; or that the name Siddhattha is never found in the Pāḷi texts does not undermine our confidence that the Buddha's name was Siddhattha Gotama; or that no one in the Buddha's family is called Gotama except his mother and aunt (in a culture were women did not take their husband's gotra name) despite it being natural for his father to be referred to as Gotama if it were the gotra name of his family (in which case our man would be Gotamaputra or some other diminutive). And so on. Contradictory evidence is simply ignored, and its difficult even to get it published.

Evidence external to the texts emerges only around the time of Asoka, the India emperor who aped his Persian counterparts in creating inscriptions asserting his sāsanā or edicts. The stone and pillar edicts mention Buddhists and Buddhism for the first time. Asoka can be dated fairly accurately by his naming of four Bactro-Greek kings in edicts. He must have lived and ruled in the mid 3rd Century BCE. More or less all dates for events in Indian history before the Common Era are given by some assumed relationship to Asoka. Note that Greg Schopen has insistently pointed out that where we have external evidence it almost inevitably contradicts the texts. Traditionalists, scholar bhikkhus like Sujato, hotly contest Schopen's account of early history and seek to discredit his conclusions and assert the "authenticity" of the texts. Perhaps the arguments on both sides are tendentious, but those with no vested interest can see merits and faults on both sides of this divide. My view is that in studying history the most important principle is not to take any tradition on its own terms. Any historical conclusion based solely on Buddhist texts can only ever be provisional despite what apologists for the tradition would have us believe. The archaeology associated with Asoka provides the first evidence for Buddhism, some 150 years after the new consensus date for the death of the Buddha ca. 400 BCE (a date based solely on readings of texts!)

From the period following Asoka, with the collapse of the Mauryan Empire and the rise of smaller political units and the rise of a Brahmanical social hegemony, the basic forms of Buddhism as we know it begin to emerge. Large-scale, settled monasteries, supported by rulers and wealthy merchants became the central institution of Buddhism. The religion is vigorously evangelical and begins to spread to the edges of the Mauryan Empire and beyond. Buddhist texts are formalised, canonised, and begin to be written down within a a century or two of Asoka. Monastic rules exist in a number of recensions and continue to diverge. The different Abhidharma projects, partially aimed at fixing problems inherited from the formative period. These problems are also now denied by Buddhists, but were once the subject of considerable debate and controversy, as evidence from intra-Buddhist polemics that have survived. From the time of Asoka we begin to see what we might call Classical Buddhism emerging in texts and archaeology.

I therefore would like to call the period before Asoka "Pre-classical" and the period beginning with Asoka "Classical". The Pre-classical period was marked by oral transmission of texts, a minimal footprint in terms of social or cultural change (no archaeology). We know nothing for sure about this period in history, but certain features of the texts suggest that they were composed after the second urbanisation had started and before Asoka. This is about as much as we can say.

In Classical Buddhism, ideas are moving beyond the founder myth. At the same time see the emergence of conservative codifications of dogmas and progressive innovations aimed at getting to grips with the problems inherited from the pre-Classical period. The Classical Period includes the development of sectarian Abhidharmas and the emergence of distinct Mahāyāna sects. It was the period when missionary activity spread Buddhism beyond the limits of Asoka's empire into South India and Sri Lanka in the south, into Burma and South East Asia to the East, in West and North into Persia and Central Asia. However, it was also the period when Brahmanism was beginning to dominate the intellectual and religious landscape across Greater India and leave a massive footprint on Buddhism as well. The roots of Mahāyāna are presumably already present and various forms of Mahāyāna practice emerge alongside the mainstream, in the same monastic centres, initially as a series of disparate and distinct cults that have little in common. Standalone sūtra cults focussed on the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā for example are in existence and mature and coalescing into the Mahāyāna. By the end of the Classical Period the era of major sūtra composition is also over.  Key figures of the Classical period include Nāgārjuna, Vasubandhu, and Buddhaghosa. With these thinkers, Buddhist thought begins to drift away from Canonical texts as primary sources and towards sāstric or commentarial texts. Sūtras continue to be important of course, but they are now interpreted through the lens of sectarian śāstra. A pattern that continues down to the present. 

A feature of the Classical period is the gradual adoption of Sanskrit as the lingua franca of India, influenced in part by the hegemony Brahmins now asserted over India. Buddhists began to ignore the canonical injunctions against translating their story into Sanskrit (in favour of the vernacular) and joined other groups in adopting the language. Texts in Prakrit are translated into Sanskrit. New texts are composed in Sanskrit, sometimes a mongrel Sanskrit-Prakrit hybrid, but increasingly often in compliant Pāṇinian Sanskrit. The Pāḷi tradition dies out in India, but continues in Sri Lanka, Burma and South East Asia; with Burma and SE Asia apparently receiving their texts directly from South India rather than via Sri Lanka (according to Alex Wynne).

I locate the end of the Classical Period at the collapse of the Gupta Empire under pressure from Huns, in the mid to late 6th Century. This was the first of a series of incursions from the West that would contribute to the elimination of Buddhism from India. With the end of the Classical Period we move into the Medieval Period (essentially this means a "middle" period between the ancient, or Classical period, and modernity). Chinese history is usefully divided in early and late Medieval periods which may be relevant to India as well. The collapse of the Gupta Empire seems to have been particularly cataclysmic for India. As narrated by Ronald Davidson the result was a breakdown in civil order and trade routes with resulting isolation of cities in stretches of lawless wilderness. If we take the elimination of Buddhism in India to be a key milestone in the history of Buddhism, which occurred sometime in the 12th century, this would mark the horizon between early and late Medieval Period. By the late Medieval, Buddhism is wholly non-Indian and the development into different sects based on local culture is no longer anchored by developments in India.

By the early medieval period Mainstream Buddhism is thoroughly Mahāyāna. Whether there are any non-Mahāyāna schools left by this time is moot because the central institutions, such as the large monasteries, are all dominated by Mahāyāna practitioners. However in the Medieval Period there is a strong challenge to the Mainstream from the emergence of Tantra. Before too long, the Mainstream is Tantric. And this is the essential problem with the term Mainstream: what it means depends on what time period is under discussion.

Buddhism reached out beyond India in the classical period, becoming established, at least amongst the elites, as far afield as Korea, Japan, and Thailand. Tibet however was converted during the early Medieval Period. And this leads to some very significant differences between Buddhism in Tibet and surrounding regions compared to East Asia. Also the Silk Route broke down around the 8th century with the expansion of Islam into Central Asia. This meant that Buddhism in China and its vassal states ceased to be anchored in India before the eventual demise of Indian Buddhism. Japanese Tantra, for example, did not incorporate significant developments in Tantra that are epitomised by the Hevajra Tantra: the rise to importance of female figures and sexual symbolism. The last phase of Indian Buddhism is dominated by Tantra and developments from the Tantric milieu. Tantra rises to become a major force in Indian religion generally, alongside Mīmāṃsā, Vedanta, Yoga, Vaiṣṇavism, and Śaivism. Buddhist Tantra draws on Śaivism, increasingly as time goes on. 

So the periods of history as I discern them are:

700 - 250 BCEPre-Classical (second urbanisation up till Asoka; no direct evidence of Buddhism)

250 BCE - 500 CEClassical (First evidence of Buddhism, formalisation of the basic tenets, move to Sanskrit and Śāstra, ends with collapse of Gupta Empire).

500 - 1200Early Medieval (from the end of the Gupta to the elimination of Buddhism from India)

1200 - 1700Late Medieval (Buddhism as purely non-Indian phenomena, until the substantial presence of European colonialism and imperialism)

1700 - presentModern (the European discovery of Buddhism, influence of West on Buddhism and vice versa, post-colonialism)

All of the dates are approximate and do not represent hard boundaries, but milestones that serve only to divide history into manageable chunks for us to think and write about. Such periodization is always notional and to some extent arbitrary. If we are ever to understand Buddhist history as a whole we need to step outside the emic, sectarian straight-jacket and study Buddhism both synchronically (all the Buddhism being practised and thought about at a particular time) and diachronically (the history of ideas across time). With diachronic studies we definitely need to pay more attention to the long term, tracing how ideas change as we move from period to period. Central ideas like karma change considerably, for example, and yet we still tend to talk about karma as a unitary phenomenon with a single well understood definition. This impression of uniformity is completely false. The doctrine of karma was the locus of considerable competition and innovation for Buddhists. And in synchronic studies we need to break out of sectarian categories to reflect the pluralism of Buddhism more accurately.

Particularly we need to stop thinking of the Pali texts as "Theravādin" or representative of the Pre-Classical period. Of course we have more texts in Pāḷi than other Indic languages, but this fact has been transformed into a measure of significance or importance. After the Common Era the Pāḷi texts played almost no role in the history of Buddhism in mainland India. Serious money is now going into the study and translation in English of the Chinese texts, which might help to correct this imbalance, but these texts are being studied by people with a vested interest in the idea of the historical unity of Buddhism. Big money is also involved in producing a proper critical edition of the Pāḷi Canon, but this project is sponsored by a cult, the leader of which is being prosecuted for financial irregularities. One gets the sense that the Gāndharī texts might just be languishing because the preservation and conservation costs means that they are far more expensive to work with. Certainly information about the Gāndhārī texts we have continues to emerge at a trickle - we do not even have published texts for all of them yet, let alone translations and studies. And since they are the oldest Buddhist manuscripts in existence they ought to be a priority. 

My suggestion may mean that we have to avoid getting bogged down in details and try to get an overview of the themes in each time period. It may also require subdividing time periods to avoid information overload. The Classical Period is particularly dense for example, and may need, for example an early and late sub-division. But the divisions ought to be based on major historical milestones rather the sectarian or purely emic categories. And ideally any synchronic study will take in the breadth of Buddhist ideas and practices current in these times, rather than as now focussing on particular sects or individuals. We also need to more closely link the history of Buddhism to the history of India generally, to see Buddhism in its social and political context.

One can sympathise with all those Nāgārjuna scholars who are still trying to puzzle out what the man was getting at (mostly without trying to replicate the kinds of experiences that informed and underpinned his work), but it seems to happen at the expense of the broader history of Buddhism in the second century. And since his principle commentators are in fact Medieval he tends to be tacitly time-shifted to a later period. Nāgārjuna with respect to his own commentators is somehow more important than Nāgārjuna in relation to his own contemporaries. On the contrary Vasubandhu is often seen to be arguing with his contemporaries and his work is over-cited as representing their views when that can be misleading. Buddhists are notoriously bad at misrepresenting their enemies, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist.

There are barriers to this approach. The Classical texts are preserved in Pāli, Chinese, Sanskrit and Gāndharī, as well as a few in Central Asian languages. To do a thorough job one must have access to the texts in their original languages. Though if one was to start early with Classical Sanskrit and Mandarin, adding Pāli, Gāndharī and Middle (Buddhist) Chinese as required, this ought to be manageable. After Sanskrit, Chinese grammar is mercifully simple, even if the writing is not. Scholars of classical Greece often learn Latin and Greek from a relatively early age and may already have a degree of fluency before starting an undergraduate degree. Ideally we'd have scholars who learn Sanskrit and Mandarin in high-school with a view to studying Buddhist history at university. This is unlikely to happen in Western Countries any time soon. 

Perhaps because of the language requirements, and with having to start from scratch at university, so many of us focus on philology and philosophy, or perhaps anthropology, there are too few trained historians working in the field of Buddhist studies. The lack of research based on sound historical principles definitely hampers progress in understanding Buddhism. Perhaps we need to think in terms of interdisciplinary teams of researchers rather than the typical individual jack-of-all-trades who knows Indic languages fairly well, but has little or no training in history or anthropology?

Lastly a scheme like this means nothing in isolation. Adoption of an historical schema unilaterally, especially by someone who is not part of the mainstream, will change very little. Influential academics need to acknowledge the problem first (by which I mean the problem of trying to discuss Buddhist history in terms of emic terms and categories). There is some progress on this as many scholars are aware of the problematic nature of how we categorise and periodize Buddhism, but solutions to date have been piecemeal, such as using "mainstream" to replace the euphemism "early Buddhism", when we all just mean Hīnayāna but are trying to avoid the unpleasant connotations of that foul word. Even if someone does set out a better alternative, getting a majority Buddhist Studies scholars to adopt this new scheme is likely to be difficult. Even so the current situation is confused and confusing and the more of us who say so, the more likely the situation is to change. 

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