By David Jones
My last public talk as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses was called, How Should You Serve God?
It’s the only recording of my talks I have left. Listening to it recently, I chuckled at some of the things I used to believe, but one major theme kept resurfacing in that recording: my drive to confront the sense of superiority in our religion.
Although the Witnesses have a deeply-ingrained view of superiority over the world (those without religion) and over those of false religion (those with any religion besides ours), this “superiority conceit” is a deep infection throughout the Christian world.
And it also seems to be Buddhism’s dirty little secret.
In one day I left two different Buddhist social media pages due to members’ insistence of superiority to other faith traditions for various reasons. The next day, ads for the book Superiority Conceit in Buddhist Traditions: A Historical Perspective appeared throughout my social media feed. (Man, how did they know?) Intrigued, I bought it.
The author, Bhikkhu Analayo, isn’t someone who’s angry with Buddhists, nor does he sling mud as if he was writing about someone else’s tradition.
A Buddhist monk, scholar and author of other deep surveys of Buddhist topics, he wrote this book as a concerned walker of the path, as one who sees dangers others deny and thus feels the need to point them out so they can be addressed.
He picks four specific examples of this superiority conceit:
1. The male-centered attitudes and traditional views which hold women back from being fully recognized and valued as teachers and leaders within some Buddhist communities (including a discussion of various monastic legal requirements),
2. The Mahayana insistence that the Great Vehicle, and those following it, are the truest (and most correct), seeing the so-called Hinayana traditions (and their followers) as inferior,
3. The Theravada school’s assertion that it is the true preserver of Buddha’s original teachings, and finally…
4. The modern perils of Secular Buddhism (focused primarily on Stephen Batchelor, to be honest), and how modern (Western) approaches to Buddhist practice can lead to feeling superior to folks whose views are based on earlier traditions and understandings.
In the process he also examines early, modern, and personal understandings of such things as Nirvana, the Five Aggregates, Truth, Luminous Mind, Dukkha and many, many more.
The topics are considered carefully, with the author making frequent statements to head off any complaints that he’s just picking on people.
He urges respect of other views and those who hold them. His arguments are laid out and supported by textual evidence, both from earlier and later Buddhist scriptures as well as relevant modern works. It’s well-sourced with plenty of citations and a full bibliography.
Now then: this book is not going to be for everyone.
Even though I love scholarly books, this one gave me a run for my money. The book is relatively short at around 184 pages (my e-book is 167 pages, and only about 115 of those pages make up the book’s body), but it is densely packed. I stopped to look up a few words (like “reification”) and a few times I had to re-read portions to be sure I was reading it right. There are summaries at the end of each topic which are very thorough, almost like reading all of the information a second time.
Still, I absolutely recommend this book to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.
These are the words of a monk who is genuinely troubled by trends of feeling superior to others, and who seriously wants to help call attention to—and help remove—these insidious views, especially when folks holding such views use their scriptures to support their position.
And here I thought that was just a Christian thing.
Editor: Dana Gornall