Rupert Gethin’s unpacking of certain concepts that are systemically present in the “Western” study of religion is helpful in tackling questions that arise for Western scholars studying Buddhist thought. Some misunderstandings that he points out are patterns so fundamental to Abrahamic, European-based thought that they go unnoticed by scholars steeped in these habits of looking at religion, instead running as unexamined undercurrents. Often, the patterns that Gethin identifies stem specifically from European Christian-formed thought, such as the “legacy of the Reformation and the Enlightenment”(Gethin, 64).
For example, in addressing assumptions about religion that create philosophical problems when superimposed onto Buddhism, Gethin points out the “modern tendency to understand religion as principally a kind of belief system—usually revolving around a God who is both creator and saviour—that an individual takes on board and which then provides him or her with a way of looking at the world”(Gethin, 64). His later identification of traditions rooted in an Indian cultural context as “practical way[s] of dealing with the reality of suffering” already departs drastically from what “English speakers,” as he puts it, would perhaps automatically think of as religion; especially because it can be difficult for those brought up in a Christian-influenced intellectual tradition to accept suffering as the baseline reality of existence. Suffering, in the Christian tradition, is sometimes referred to as the Problem of Evil—but it is not a “problem” if you don’t have to reconcile it with an omnipotent, omnibenevolent creator. The fact that life is suffering and that sentient beings have both the ability and responsibility to do something about it is a message of hope within a Buddhist cultural context; yet this is difficult for many Western thinkers to fundamentally accept, and this can get in the way of understanding dukkha philosophically as well.
The questions posed to the Buddha by Māluṅkyāputta provide an excellent juxtaposition to this problem. Gethin puts forth the position that such questions
…are unanswerable because they assume, as absolute, categories and concepts—the world, the soul, the self, the Tathāgata—that the Buddha and the Buddhist tradition does not accept…That is, from the Buddhist perspective these questions are ill-formed and misconceived. (Gethin, 68)
This illustrates a situation internal to the Buddhist tradition that wrestles with the same issue that Gethin examines when dealing with the “Western” study of Buddhism: the assumption of essential concepts or absolutes that are either rejected by Buddhist thought, or are simply irrelevant.
There comes a point when certain questions or comparative philosophical debates just aren’t useful. We need to be able to suspend our disbelief enough to realize that Buddhism does not need another philosophical tradition imposed on it in order to be understood. It is impossible to fully reconcile systems of thought, belief, and practice that developed independently of each other; indeed, it is even difficult to reconcile the textual thought, doctrine, or other perceived authority of a tradition with its actual practice. While it is difficult to suspend the mental frameworks and systems of categorization and understanding that we may be used to, I think it is important when studying religion to do this where we can, and acknowledge our own subjectivity where can’t.