Buddha B. Goode: Originality, Remix, and a Secular Buddhism

The Secular Buddhist attempt to get back to an “original” form of Buddhism is riddled with issues pertaining to originality and authorship – especially given the emphasis on change and reconfiguration throughout the history of Buddhist thought and practice. The conceptual notion of “remix” provides a unique lens through which we might explore and reconsider such an inherently problematic venture.

Ananda! Ananda! It’s Siddhartha. Your cousin, Siddhartha Gautama! You know that new perspective you lookin’ for? Well listen to this!

Reflecting on the Buddha’s first sermon at Sarnath and the public disclosure of his groundbreaking ideas regarding suffering and the conditions intimately linked to it, I can’t help but think of a scene like this following shortly thereafter. Maybe it’s just my obsession with Back to the Future creeping into my work, or maybe it’s because the film actually displays an interconnected conditional reality – across time and space – in a way that makes it a great springboard for engaging Buddhist thought. Whatever the case may be, the scene I’ve remixed above – when Marty McFly starts playing Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” to 1950s high schoolers before it had even been written – shows how specific contexts and cultural products (in this case, music) facilitate innovation and creation. Much like this scene facetiously suggests that the sound Mr. Berry had been looking for was inspired by Marty riffing on stage to an unsuspecting audience – on a song that would ironically become Berry’s own in a few years – the philosophical and cultural climate of India during the Buddha’s lifetime necessarily influenced and inspired his own way of thinking about the world, too – no flux capacitor needed.

Talk of influence and inspiration, however, brings to mind recognitions of the source for these ideas, and thus, notions of originality and authenticity. An attempt to get back to an “original” form of Buddhist thought and practice has been a recent trend in contemporary Buddhist scholarship, mostly spearheaded by Stephen Batchelor’s work and through the broader “Secular Buddhism” movement. According to Batchelor, various interpretations based on contextual developments of the Buddha’s teachings since the time of his death have resulted in all sorts of theological baggage being attached to what he actually taught. Batchelor envisions a contemporary, newfound Buddhism that harkens back to the “original” teachings devoid of the Indian cosmology and metaphysics that muddled it up. While this move to get back to the Buddha’s Buddhism is an ambitious task – especially without the assistance of a DeLorean-cum-time machine – Batchelor sees it as ultimately necessary if we are to preserve the Buddha’s teachings and make them relevant for our time. But, he’s noticeably neglecting the fact that originality is a complicated, and generally deluded, term. Batchelor’s so-called “Buddhism 2.0,” rather than being framed as a return to the “original,” might more appropriately be considered from the perspective of remix studies instead: he’s remixing Buddhism, not restoring it.

While often assumed to apply only to digital media – audio and visual productions, specifically – as a conceptual framework, remix is applicable in all cultural domains; indeed, we might consider everything a remix – from our evolving genes to our profound ideas – everything is always transforming, adapting, changing, and appropriating what has come before. Thus, there is a noticeable affinity between remix and the Buddhist emphasis on impermanence (anicca), wherein everything is in constant flux and change, dependent upon a conditional and causal-effective reality – one that I think is problematic for Batchelor, who suggests that some sort of original, untarnished Buddhism exists (with extremely static overtones) hidden within the pages of early canonical texts. How can an original Buddhism exist if everything is subject to change and reconfiguration, indeed, characterized by change and reconfiguration? Instead of framing him as a sole creator, we might even re-envision the Buddha as a remix artist par excellence by taking a more expansive understanding of the term: one who was accepting, rejecting, and transforming principles expounded throughout the worldviews and ideologies among his contemporaries in India.

The Buddha as Remix Artist

The brahmins were a prominent sociocultural force in India during the Buddha’s lifetime, with a worldview revolving around maintaining harmonious social and cosmological relationships and balances. The Buddha’s response to some of their ideas – most notably his rejection of a static, essential self (ātman) explained in the scriptural Upaniṣads as being part of a universal essence (Brahman) in a micro-macrocosmic relationship – serves as an indication that the conditionality he professed also underlined the development of his own views and principles. In contemporary, digital media nomenclature, we might call him a “pirate,” taking the cultural forms at his disposal and creatively innovating with them in a way that transformed the philosophical industry of ancient India; in this case, reworking notions of selfhood and “soul.”

The constant fluctuation and change captured by anicca extends past the creation of Buddhism to the changes it has undergone since it first began. This is particularly evident in the history surrounding the Buddha’s first sermon. Batchelor points out that we have seventeen different versions of this text in Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan. It “cannot be treated as a verbatim transcript of what the Buddha taught in the Deer Park, but as a document that has evolved over an unspecified period of time until it reached the form in which it is found today in the canons of the different Buddhist schools.” ((Stephen Batchelor, “A Secular Buddhism,” Journal of Global Buddhism 13 (2012): 91.)) It’s a little tough to say, then, that the Buddha said or did exactly this over that when variation at such a level exists. And that’s part of Batchelor’s starting point for his project: Buddhism, in all its varying forms, has continued to change since the moment the Buddha opened his mouth at Sarnath. However, rather than locating this as a feature in line with Buddhist teachings like anicca, Batchelor seeks a return to that moment to extract what the Buddha originally meant.

In one of his first book-length studies on this topic, Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening (1997), Batchelor emphasizes the fact that the Buddha “taught a method,” not “another ‘-ism.’” ((Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening (New York: Riverhead Books, 1997), 17.)) The teachings aren’t “something to believe in,” he continues, “but something to do. The Buddha did not reveal an esoteric set of facts about reality, which we can choose to believe in or not. He challenged people to understand the nature of anguish, let go of its origins, realize its cessation, and bring into being a way of life.” ((Ibid., 17-18.)) The transformation of the teachings into a formal religious system simply muddied the spokes of the dhamma wheel.

It’s easy to side with him, too. We tend to hold “original” and “pure” versions of things at a much higher esteem than later transformations, even if we don’t really mean it (the music industry is a great example of how this position doesn’t always hold up in practice: most listeners of contemporary pop and hip-hop have little regard for the styles and genres that led to them over sixty years earlier…well, perhaps except time-traveling, rockin’ shredders like Marty McFly). But, scholars and practitioners like Batchelor neglect the conditioned emergence of the teachings in which they ground their return-to-the-original projects, and thus, neglect the conditional reality that characterizes the tradition at large as well. The multitude of varying schools of thought, in other words, are natural extensions of that first sermon (take your pick from the seventeen on file), but they are also situated within a tradition of critical analysis and response – what the Buddha was engaged in while honing his message. We can pay careful attention to what underlined that sermon and the concepts and principles the Buddha advocated shortly thereafter, but to pinpoint them as static, unadaptable proclamations can get incredibly problematic, and it’s necessarily an endeavor informed by our own historical and contextual circumstances.

In “Toward a Remix Culture: An Existential Perspective” (2015), new media theorist Vito Campanelli indicates that “a work is never completed, it functions rather as a relay that is passed to others so that they can contribute to the process with the production of new works.” ((Vito Campanelli, “Toward a Remix Culture: An Existential Perspective,” in The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies, ed. Eduardo Navas, Owen Gallagher, and xtine burrough (New York: Routledge, 2015), 68.)) He likens this to a dialogic process: remixes “enrich the information already existing in the world so that others can creatively continue the game.” ((Ibid., 79.)) His purpose is to demonstrate that nothing is created from nothing, and that the notion of unique, self-contained, i.e., original, authorship that doesn’t reference or draw inspiration from anything else is a deluded and mistaken perspective. It’s not that we can’t function as authors or creators of works or ideas; it’s that we need to be careful to acknowledge how works or ideas are created and informed so that we understand both what it means to create and the issues surrounding terms like “original.”

The Buddha’s ideas were a product of their time and place – a response to dominant Indian philosophy and perhaps other contemporary reactionaries like himself (such as Jainism’s Mahāvīra). They were in dialogue with these other worldviews, and we’d be remiss to neglect that fact. We might argue, then, that Buddhism also embodies what’s known as “deep remixability”: not only does the content of the different variations get remixed with each incarnation and transformation, but the “fundamental techniques, working methods, and ways of representation and expression” do so as well. ((Lev Manovich, “Deep Remixability,” Artifact 1, no. 2 (2007): 76.)) These new variations also create new dialogic processes of their own that respond to what the Buddha taught during his lifetime as they find their way into new times and places.

Buddhist Modernism

Modernist trends associated with the Buddha’s teachings in the West demonstrate how this dialogue works in a familiar setting for most contemporary readers. They also place Batchelor’s aims in dialogue with similar processes that appear to shed the excess, superfluous – or superstitious – qualities. In The Making of Buddhist Modernism (2008), David L. McMahan outlines how processes of detraditionalization, demythologization, and psychologization often accompany modern developments, making them less institutional and more private, ridding them of supernatural elements, and framing them as peaceful retreats to inner, meditative states. These processes tend to overlap, creating forms of Buddhism that resonate with modern Westerners over ways where “traditional” forms might fall short or seem anachronistic.

These modernist trends, however, are just a continuation of Buddhist thought, not its undoing. They are also part of the larger pattern of adaptation and evolution taking place all around us. However, alongside movements to cast off antiquated “traditional” elements, there are also modernist trends that seek to return to “original” sources. While it’s easy to write that sort of thing off as overly romantic and naive – idealistic and fantastical – as I’ve been implicitly suggesting up to this point, not all of them are as ill-informed and fanciful as others. But, as alluded to above, even these returns to tradition are themselves conditioned by present circumstances and contexts. McMahan refers to this process as retraditionalization, and Batchelor’s characterization of the Buddha’s teachings as an “existential, therapeutic, and liberating agnosticism,” along with his attempt to inaugurate a Buddhism that fits the current milieu, is a great example.

Retraditionalization: Buddhism 2.0

In “A Secular Buddhism” (2012), Batchelor outlines the rationale and basis for his project to reclaim the Buddha’s original message. Citing a philological study from 1992, he reports that “the earliest form of this sutta [the first sermon at Sarnath] did not include the word ariya-saccaṃ (noble truth).” It was added at a later date. But, the problem is that we don’t have an original text of this first sermon. “All that can reasonably be deduced,” Batchelor states, “is that instead of talking of four noble truths, the text merely spoke of ‘four.’” ((Batchelor, “A Secular Buddhism,” 92.)) What he arrives at, then, are just “the four” – dukkha (suffering), samudaya (arising), nirodha (ceasing), and magga (path) – framed as sequential tasks rather than a confusing and “incongruous ordering of the propositional ‘truths’” (effect-cause-effect-cause) that have characterized Buddhism for centuries. ((Ibid., 99.)) For Batchelor, as a sequence of tasks, the ordering makes much more sense: “fully knowing suffering leads to the letting go of craving, which leads to experiencing its cessation, which leads to the cultivation of the path.” ((Ibid., 99-100.)) In other words, the path isn’t how enlightenment (nibbāna) is attained; the cessation of our cravings allows us to live life in this way – as a goal in itself, rather than the means to a goal. And this distinction is what separates his project from “traditional,” i.e., adulterated, forms of Buddhism.

Traditional Buddhism, in Batchelor’s framework, is really any form that revolves around the “soteriological worldview of ancient India” – specifically, the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, nibbāna, and kamma. He employs an analogy to illustrate the difference between this and what he envisions that coincidentally aligns remarkably well with this analysis, given the more easily recognizable relevance of remix in newer media and communication technologies:

the traditional forms of Buddhism are like software programs that run on the same operating system. Despite their apparent differences, Theravada, Zen, Shin, Nichiren, and Tibetan Buddhism share the same underlying soteriology…These diverse forms of Buddhism are like “programs”…that run on an “operating system”…which I will call “Buddhism 1.0.” At first sight, it would seem that the challenge facing the dharma as it enters modernity would be to write another software program…that would modify a traditional form of Buddhism in order to address more adequately the needs of contemporary practitioners. However, the cultural divide that separates traditional Buddhism from modernity is so great that this may not be enough. It might well be necessary to rewrite the operating system itself, resulting in what we could call “Buddhism 2.0.” ((Ibid., 90.))

Buddhism 2.0 – a “praxis-based” version of Buddhism compared to the “belief-based” version of Buddhism 1.0 – is what Batchelor thinks is needed in order for Buddhism to successfully adapt to the contemporary period and remain pertinent. A few years after initially presenting these ideas, he gave an interview in Insight Journal about how he expanded upon this project in his latest book at the time: After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age (2015). “So in offering a critique of the traditional view of the ‘operating system’ of the Four Noble Truths,” he stated, “I’m basically attempting to re-write the operating system of the Dharma itself, at least as it’s been widely taught up to now…it’s very much the outcome or the fruition of all of the work and study I’ve been doing for the last 40-odd years. To me, it’s an entirely natural outcome from what I’ve been doing.” This reflection reads as a testimony to the dialogic nature of his research, and how it has slowly coalesced into something wholly informed by scholarly work, compelling ideas, and contemporary societal trends – the sources, in other words, that have shaped his remixed version of Buddhist thought.

While certainly compelling – and, indeed, ambitious…even heavy, Mr. McFly might add – Batchelor’s project still runs the same sort of risk he’s critiquing in his response: the tasks can just as easily become static, belief-oriented, unadaptable proclamations much like the truths in place among most Buddhist schools of thought. Moreover, by elevating his new operating system to a status that seemingly transcends how it was informed, he neglects the modernist and historical context that allowed him to arrive at his conclusions and ideas in the first place. In other words, Buddhism 2.0 is just as dependent upon the evolution of Buddhist thought as the forms to which he is responding. Thus, rather than frame his project as a return to the original – which, as we’ve seen, is an inherently problematic aspiration – it might be more useful to consider it a certain type of remix.

Remix scholar Eduardo Navas notes that every media product – and Buddhism, alongside other ideological systems, is certainly both a product of mediation and deeply integrated with its expressive media – “is a conceptual and formal collage of previous ideologies, critical philosophies, and formal artistic investigations.” The conceptual and formal collages – the historical databases – are accessed in what he calls a “regenerative remix” based on “the needs of the user in the ever-present.” Applying this framework to the various Buddhist schools in existence today, we can observe their reliance upon concepts like the Noble Truths within the Buddhism 1.0 database, which can be accessed and mixed to apply to different settings and manifestations. Batchelor is arguing, then, for a new database – one consisting of the sequential tasks of Buddhism 2.0 that can also be applied in certain settings.

Batchelor concludes “A Secular Buddhism,” however, with a curious and somewhat confusing note. Drawing on the parable of the raft from the Alagaddūpama Sutta, he indicates:

the dharma is an expedient, a means to achieve an urgent task at hand, not an end in itself that is to be preserved at all cost. It emphasises how one needs to draw upon whatever resources are available at a given time in order to accomplish what you have to do. It does not matter whether these resources are “what the Buddha truly taught” or not. The only thing that matters is whether such a configuration of disparate elements is of any help in getting you across the river. ((Ibid., 106.))

While this statement makes it appear as though Batchelor is backpedaling on his grand assertions regarding Buddhism 2.0 – framing his project instead as a possible option among others – it rightfully places his secular (from the Latin saeculum, “this age”) form of Buddhism within a culture characterized by remix. Regardless of whether or not we accept the view he maintains at the end of After Buddhism, that “many of the traditional forms of Buddhism inherited from Asia appear to be stagnating,” ((Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2015), 313.)) casting them as dependent upon a first edition of Buddhism (version 1.0) that is improved upon in the latest release (version 2.0) is not only a rather disparaging way to frame millennia-long traditions that are filled with rich cultural contributions and valuable philosophical insight; it also perpetuates the hierarchical, authoritative, and institutional rhetoric that spurs modernist projects like his to begin with.

Perhaps outside of Batchelor’s analogical framework, a secular Buddhism still holds the potential to best capture the sort of remix of Buddhist thought he’s advocating: a Buddhism for “this age” rather than the original Buddhism. Maybe it would continue as an extension of a secularized (as in, nonreligious) form of Buddhism, or maybe it would look something like what the Buddhist Geeks are doing with new media technologies. But, trying to go back to an original misses the mark. Without fully appreciating Buddhism as a deeply remixable construct, itself dependent upon a long chain of conditional, regenerative relations, a secular Buddhism simply risks becoming what it’s aiming to reform. And if there’s one final insight we might take away from a film like Back to the Future, it’s that traveling back in time – in pursuit of correcting the present, specifically – is never as easy, straightforward, or innocent as it may seem.

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