Thursday, April 8, 2010


Fundamentalism (idamsaccabhinivesa) is, correctly speaking, the belief that the sacred scriptures should be interpreted literally. Today the word is more broadly used to describe a conservative or extremist attitude to one’s beliefs. Either way, fundamentalists tend to be dogmatic in the practice of their religion and intolerant towards other religions. If anything, they are often even more intolerant of their fellow-religionists who interpret the scriptures differently from how they themselves do. The Buddha characterised the fundamentalist as the person who keeps angrily proclaiming: ‘This alone is true, all else is false’ (M.II,171). Because of Buddhism’s generally open and explorative nature, it has only rarely produced fundamentalists or fundamentalist movements. The Buddha said that while examining his teachings one has to take into account the letter (vyajana) but also the spirit (attha), implying that there are dimensions and nuances of the Dhamma beyond the mere words and that knowing just the words is not enough (D.III,127; Vin.I,20). Elsewhere, he said: ‘The Dhamma has been taught by me in diverse ways. But it may be expected that those who agree and approve of it being taught by others (with different but still) well-spoken words, will live with them in harmony, mutual respect, without arguing, like milk and water mixed and looking upon each other with the eyes of love’(S.IV,225). In the famous Kalama Sutta he said that in our efforts to assess religious claims we should rely more on our experience than on religious scriptures (A.I,187).


David ( said...

Another quote I like from the Buddha is:

“Monks, these two slander the Tathagata. Which two? He who explains a discourse whose meaning needs to be inferred as one whose meaning has already been fully drawn out. And he who explains a discourse whose meaning has already been fully drawn out as one whose meaning needs to be inferred. These are two who slander the Tathagata.”

Anguttara Nikaya 2.25

Note the words in bold, which show that there are at least some discourses where the meaning is to be inferred and the literal meaning will be wrong. And then, also, there are some discourses which should be taken literally, but the point the Buddha makes, is that it is not all of them.

Ananda See said...

Dear Bhante
How about fundamentalist buddhist ? He maybe dogmatic in the practice, take the scripture literally, but he at least will not intolerant because Buddhism don't teach intolerant ?

NellaLou said...

Dear Bhante

I appreciate that you have addressed this issue.

One problem that has come up is the misuse of the word fundamentalist to mean anyone who even references the Buddhist teachings at all.
On several occasions I and others been involved in discussions on Buddhist topics with others who declare themselves Buddhist. As soon as a reference to any Sutta or commentary or any other somewhat authoritative source of information is given there are those who immediately label me and others who refer to Dhamma materials as fundamentalist or more likely "sutra thumper". The anger is quite unrestrained.

Then follows usually a long diatribe about the Kalama Sutta which to these folks means "texts, teachers etc." are of no use. Only what you yourself know is important. I have pointed out that this may be a misreading. And it is rather ironic that those who would eschew sources of Dharma information would use those same sources to quash opinion.

This is very surprising to me since these are Buddhist folks discussing Buddhist topics.

It strikes me that the "anti-text" folks are behaving in this instance in a rather fundamentalist way by vociferously denying the information available in Buddhist teachings and often angrily denouncing others without even hearing them.

It is a strange conundrum and one that seems to be on the increase in the West.

It may be in part caused by the strong reactions radical atheists are putting forth and invoking towards Christianity and by proxy to anything that smacks of "religion". There is such a polarization in any religious discussion these days that middle ground is often not considered much less sought.

It is hard to know what to do in such situations. These are good people, I've enjoyed discussions with them on many occasions, I certainly bear them no ill will, but this wall of defensiveness makes it difficult to continue.

It is understandable that many are coming from restrictive religious environments where "texts" etc were taken in a very authoritarian fashion rather than as guides for living. I do try to keep that in mind.

What else can be done?

Justin Choo said...


Thanks for this post.

It is most relevent.

anotherqueerjubu said...

I have always felt that there is a deeper truth in the multiple meanings of the word "fundament."

Most people see it as relating to basic principles. But it also means buttocks, or relating to the anus.

So when I call someone a fundamentalist, I think of it as a more polite and acceptable way to say a-hole.

MidPath said...

Conversations on religion is not easy and conducting group discussion is even more so.

Unless one is skillful in conveying the Text or expressing opinions, one may come across as relying on the Text rather knowing through living the Way. The label may just be a hint... :)