Argument often gets a bad rap. Not that it hasn’t earned it. When it’s marred by recalcitrance, refusal to take in the other person’s point of view or to reconsider one’s own, by polemical distortions aimed only at winning, argument is worse than pointless. But spirited discussion, critique, and questioning of assumptions, when carried out with the aim of creating greater understanding, are all essential for the refinement of wisdom.
In reading the current issue before press, it occurred to me that often we publish starkly contradictory articles. Ideas, attitudes, and points of view collide and, in a sense, argue with each other. This is bound to happen in a magazine that strives to be nonsectarian and inclusive. As editors, we can try to facilitate dialogue across difference, and we often do, but we need not be constrained by that. Contradiction need not always be smoothed out. A piece that argues well for its perspective might ruffle one’s feathers yet still have value and significance in its own right. (A good example in this issue is Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s “We Are Not One.”)
Buddhism is itself a 2,500-year argument. It began with the Buddha’s critique of many of the guiding assumptions of his society. Along with others, such as Mahavira (the founder of Jainism) and the authors of the Upanishads, he was creating a critical space for new ways of seeing and living. Ever since, Buddhists have argued among themselves. The earliest sangha disagreed about what the founder said and came up with different scriptures and ways of living. And Buddhists have always tested and weighed what was most significant and valid through debate—so much so that one can’t cleanly separate the creativity of Buddhism from its sectarian arguments. As Bernard Faure points out in “The Myth of the Historical Buddha,” Buddhism has been characterized by contradiction and plurality from the beginning.
Buddhism’s story is much the same as that of any religion. The mythology and the preference are to look back and think there was a time of agreement, of a single clear message, a golden age. But Buddhist tradition has always been diverse. Indeed, never before has this fact been more apparent and challenging than it is today, when Buddhists of all schools are in constant touch with one another. Yet this challenge presents us with an opportunity, one that led the late scholar Rita Gross to speak of another kind of golden age, where one would “step beyond sectarian boundaries and venture outside the comfort zone that affiliation with particular center or lineage provides” (see “Remembering Rita Gross”). For some, like Joseph Goldstein (“Who Knows?”), resolution is found in the simple question “What frees the mind from suffering?” For others, like Bernard Faure, the unifying biography of the Buddha allows vastly different traditions to complement one another in ways that the monotheistic faiths cannot, making it more accurate, perhaps, to speak of “a Buddhist nebula rather than a unified religion.”
As Tricycle enters its 25th year, we are aware that what we offer is an argument in process, one that models the creative questioning we seek to engender in the wider world, where original thought is all too often stamped out in favor of a safer but narrower range of possibilities. Creative disagreement is one of the jobs of niche publications like Tricycle, whose task it is to bring change to the climate of ideas, starting from a close community of concern and extending outward. At times, so many different voices under one roof can sound like a cacophony. But that is not how we see it. For us, it is open conversation itself, inclusive of contradiction and not relying on agreement, that transforms cacophony into coherence.
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