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Durkheim, Religion, and Buddhism Author(s): Marco Orr and Amy Wang Source: Journal for the Scientific

Study of Religion, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Mar., 1992), pp. 47-61 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of Society for the Scientific Study of Religion Stable URL: Accessed: 24/07/2009 23:09
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Durkheim,Religion, and Buddhism*


Since its publicationin 1912, Durkheim'sElementaryForms has been scrutinizedin great detail, but researchers have mostly neglected or accepted uncritically Durkheim's brief discussion of Buddhismat the beginning of Book One. Such disregardis remarkablesince Durkheimreliedon his interpretationof Buddhism to support two crucial claims in his definition of religious phenomena: that gods or spirits are not essential to religion, for Buddhism has no meaningfulgods or spirits; and that the sacred-profane dichotomy is characteristicof all religions, since it is found even in an atheistic religionlike Buddhism.We examineDurkheim'sdiscussion to show that, despite qualifications and caveats, his claims regarding Buddhism are flawed on both counts. On the one hand, we show that Buddhism admits the existence of supra-mundane beings not as a secondary, but as a primarycomponent of its religion;on the other hand, we demonstrate that the distinction between sacred and profane is marginal to Buddhist thought.

INTRODUCTION study of religious phenomena was a lifelong, abiding interest of Durkheim's sociology, from his 1887 review of Jean Marie Guyau's L'Irreligion de l'avenir, to his 1912 masterwork, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. The interest of other social scientists in Durkheim's writings on religion has equaled, and perhaps surpassed, Durkheim's own preoccupation with the topic, from Gustave Belot's "La Religion comme principe sociologique," published in 1900, to W. S. F. Pickering's definitive study, Durkheim's Sociology of Religion, published in 1984. In his bibliography, "On Durkheim and Religion," Pickering (1975:313-21; 1984:544-62) listed about 400 publications which had appeared on the topic prior to 1982. Durkheim's most articulate discussion of religious phenomena is found in Elementary Forms, and most studies of Durkheim's sociology of religion have centered on the ideas he presented in that book, including his concept of the sacred and the sacred-profane dichotomy, and his discussions of totemic beliefs and of rituals. (For an analysis of the literature on these topics, see Pickering 1984:parts II-IV.) This article does not provide an overall assessment of Durkheim's sociology of religion, nor does it deal with Durkheim's Elementary Forms in its entirety. Instead, our specific concern is with Durkheim's analysis of Buddhism in Elementary Forms and its relation to Durkheim's general definition of religious phenomena in that same book. The
*An earlier version of this paper was presented at the meetings of the American Sociological Association, Cincinnati,Ohio,August 1991.The authorsaregrateful to the editorand the anonymousreviewersof thisjournal for their helpful comments and suggestions. tMarcoOrruis associate professorin the Departmentof Sociology, Universityof South Florida,Tampa,Florida 336208100.Amy Wang is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology, University of Illinois, Chicago, Ilinois 60680. ? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1992, 31 (1):47-61



Despite the detailed scrutiny of Elementary Forms, researchers have mostly neglected Durkheim'sbrief discussion of Buddhism (in Book One, ChapterOne, Sections 2 and 3), or accepted it uncritically (e.g., Ling 1973:16-19).Such neglect is remarkable since Durkheimrelied on his interpretation of Buddhism to support two crucial claims in his definitionof religious phenomena:that gods or spirits are not essential to religion, for early Buddhism had no meaningful gods or spirits; and that the sacred-profane dichotomy is characteristicof all religions, since it is centraleven to an atheistic religion like Buddhism. In this article we examine closely Durkheim's short discussion to show that his claims regarding Buddhism are ambiguous, if not altogether misleading, on both counts. On the one hand, we show that Buddhism clearly posits the existence of supra-mundanebeings, not as an afterthought but as a central component of its belief system; on the other hand, we demonstrate that the distinction between the sacred and profane,althougharguable,is in no way a crucialcharacteristicof Buddhism.In a cursory fashion, Melford E. Spiro (1966:91-96)has already raised similar objections regarding Durkheim's theses on Buddhism. However, in this article we go beyond Spiro's preliminaryformulation and provide a detailed analysis of Buddhist doctrines as they developed historically, to show Durkheim's ambiguous understanding of key features of Buddhism in particular and of the central characteristics of religious phenomena in general. Ourarticleproceedsin four steps. First, we present Durkheim'sdefinitionof religion and its philosophicalpresuppositions, to evince some of the background factors which led to Durkheim'sown definition of religion. Second, we counter Durkheim'sclaim that Buddhism is atheistic at heart by showing that Buddhism posits the existence of suprahuman beings, and that such beings are essential to Buddhism as a religion. Third, we show that the sacred-profanedichotomy is not a central characteristic of Buddhism; rather, in Buddhism the dharma of both the physical and the transcendental worlds is similarlycharacterized by emptiness, the signless, and the wishless. Fourth, we assess the implicationsof our findingsfor an improvedunderstandingof Buddhismin particular, and for a better sociological characterizationof religious phenomenain general. On the basis of the evidence found in Buddhism we conclude, in a preliminary fashion, that the belief in supernaturalbeings is a better markerfor religious phenomenathan is the concept of the sacred. DURKHETM'SDEFINITION OF RELIGION As is typical in much of his sociological work, Durkheimbegins Elementary Forms by addressing conceptual issues in the study of religions. Chapter One of Book One is titled "Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion." There we find, italicized, Durkheim's conceptualization of religion as follows:
A religionis a unifiedsystem of beliefs and practices relative to sacredthings, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden- beliefs and practices whichunite into one single moralcommunitycalled a Church,all those who adhere to them (Durkheim[1912] 1965:62).

For Durkheim, religion combines four elements: beliefs, practices, the sacred, and a Church.Beliefs are sets of collective representations in a society; practices are rituals



enacted in a society to celebrate and reinforcebeliefs; the sacred is the referent matter of religious beliefs and practices; and the Churchis the organization which structures religion socially. Of these four elements, the sacred is undoubtedly the most important component in Durkheim's definition of religion. Pickering (1984:115)has said it best: "For Durkheim, at the heart of every religion stands the sacred ... Durkheim gives a priorplace to the sacred even over religion itself." The other three elements of religion (beliefs, practices, and a Church)are functional to the sacred and depend on it for their existence. Beliefs and rituals are religious insofar as they refer to the sacred, and the churchprovides the organizationalframeworkfor celebratingidentifiably sacred beliefs and rituals. Scholars have often objected to Durkheim's definition of religion in Elementary Forms, arguingthat it is not a scientificbut a metaphysicaldefinition;it is not a nominal, but an essential definition (Pickering 1984:163-192).Instead of providing operational markers for empiricallyobservable religious phenomena,Durkheimincorporatedin his definition of religion his own theory of religion: He included what he considered to be an essential requirementof all religions (and thus what he thought constituted religion itself), namely, the "sacred." Pickering has identified Durkheim's essentialist definition as resulting from several factors. For the purposeof our discussion here, two factors are particularly significant:
First, during the period from approximately 1900 to 1906, the concept of the sacred rose to such prominencein Durkheim'sthought [that]. . . There could thereforebe no alternative but to define religion in terms of that concept.... [Second,] Durkheim openly denied that God or the gods existed.... By contrast, as he was firmly convinced, the sacred had a reality which could not be denied (Pickering 1984:187-188).

The concept of the sacred, we can argue, became central to Durkheim's definition of religion because it provided him with a substantive criterionfor religious phenomena; the inclusion of such a criterion allowed him to characterize the belief in supernatural beings as non-essential to religious phenomena. The sacred easily replaced the supernatural. To be sure, Durkheim was not, and has not been, the only social scientist to define religion in terms of the sacred (Marett 1914; Malinowski 1925; Radcliffe-Brown 1952;Eliade 1959);but just as numeroushave been those social scientists who did define religion in terms of beliefs in superhuman beings (Spencer 1864; Tylor 1874; EvansPritchard 1956; Firth 1959). Durkheim's problematic definition of religion was partly a result of the realist philosophicalassumptions which led him to treat sociologicalconcepts commedes choses (as if they were things). On the one hand, he thought of social concepts and beliefs as partaking of the same facticity which characterizes natural objects. To admit that all religions display some form of belief in supernatural beings was, for Durkheim, equal to admitting that supernatural beings have a factual existence. To include the belief in gods as a criterion for identifying religious phenomena could be construed, from a realist stance, as saying that gods do exist. On the other hand, Durkheim still thought it necessary that religions everywhere should display some real and universal characteristic, and he identified this universal characteristic with the sacred. Durkheim'spreliminarydefinitionof religionin ElementaryForms was not a working



hypothesis or a tentative point of departure for empirical analysis. Rather, it was a definitive statement about religion which was not open to later discussion or reelaboration (no new, revised definition is found at the end of Elementary Forms). of religionwas not an operationalconstruct for the purpose Durkheim'scharacterization of setting out to study religious phenomena;rather, it was a theory which he sought to support with relevant empirical evidence. For this reason, Book One, titled "PreliminaryQuestions," turns to the discussion of Buddhism in orderto demonstrate that the definition of religion Durkheim provides is a sound one. Within the limited framework of this article we cannot address the complex epistemology underlying Durkheim's work on religion in particular or his sociology in general, nor do we claim that we can provide definitive empiricalevidence to disprove Durkheim's theory of religion. Such an endeavor would likely fail if it chose to ignore Durkheim's underlying epistemology and sought to disprove his theory of the sacredprofane dichotomy simply on the basis of the empirical evidence marshalled by contemporary ethnographers. As Mestrovic has argued in his reappraisal of Durkheim's Elementary Forms, the critical approachadoptedby several scholars (Jones 1986;Lukes 1973; Pickering 1984) "entirely misses Durkheim's point: namely, that the conceptual distinction between the sacred and profane is all around us at all times" (Mektrovic 1989:267).However, for the purpose of our limited discussion, the crucial fact remains that Durkheim endeavored to demonstrate the validity of his definition of religion by citing the empirical evidence found in Buddhism. In Durkheim'sdefinition, empiricalgeneralizations regardingreligious phenomena become the building blocks of his essentialist conceptualizationof religion. His assumption is that if a trait can be shown to characterize all observed religions, then we can claim that it constitutes the essence of all religions.Conversely,Durkheimassumes that if a trait cannot be observed in every religion, then it cannot be said to constitute a valid characteristicof any religion.Durkheim'sdefinitionof religionbecomesproblematic because the distinction between empirical generalizations and conceptual constructs becomes very thin or disappears altogether; for Durkheim, empirical generalizations regarding religious phenomena become the real essence of religion. However, more to the point for our purpose, the empirical evidence on which Durkheim builds his essentialist definitionof religionis itself highly questionable.Durkheimrejectedsupernatural beings as a feature of religious phenomena and instead proposed the sacred as central to all religions,by referringto the evidence foundin Buddhism. In the next two sections, we analyze in detail the evidence regarding these two issues, and evaluate Durkheim's claims concerning Buddhism. THE SUPRA-HUMAN IN BUDDHISM In Elementary Forms, the section on "Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion"begins, in a typically Durkheimianfashion, with a methodical demonstration of how the criteria used by other scholars to identify and define religious phenomena are unsatisfactory. This is Durkheim's standard procedure of "argument by elimination" (Lukes1973:31-33). In the specific instance of ElementaryForms, Durkheimshows that not all religions concern themselves with the supernatural or with divinity;



accordingly, neither feature can be essential to religious phenomena. Criticizing the emphasis on the supernaturalby scholars like Spencer and Muller,Durkheim (1965:43) argues that the idea of mystery "has a place only in a very small number of advanced religions. It is impossible to make it the characteristic mark of religious phenomena without excluding from the definition the majority of the facts to be defined." Concurrently,he reproachesReville and Tylor for emphasizingthe belief in gods or spiritual beings: "Religion is more than the idea of gods or spirits, and consequently cannot be defined exclusively in relation to these latter" (50). The specific evidence Durkheim marshals from Buddhism to demonstrate that it is a religion without gods or spiritual beings is ambiguous from the onset. He cites Burnouf(1844),Barth (1879),and Oldenberg(1881),to show that Buddhism is, at heart, an atheistic religion. (For a more recent defense of this thesis, see von Glasenapp 1966.) He begins his argument by stating: "In the first place, there are great religions from which the idea of gods and spirits is absent, or at least, where it plays only a secondary and minorrole. This is the case with Buddhism"(Durkheim1965:45).He carefullyadmits that the evidence from Buddhism might not be univocal: To say that gods and spirits play a secondary and minorrole in Buddhism is one thing; to claim that gods and spirits are absent is quite another.Yet Durkheim'swhole argumentregardingBuddhismtreads on equivocal evidence. For instance, he argues:
Instead of praying, in the ordinarysense of the term ... he [the Buddhist] relies upon himself and meditates. This is not saying "that he absolutely denies the existence of the beings called Indra, Agni and Varuna;but 'he believes that he owes them nothing and that he has nothing to do with them".... Then he is an atheist, in the sense that he does not concern himself with the question whether gods exist or not (Durkheim1965:46;emphasis added).

Later he comments:
It is true that Buddha, at least in some divisions of the Buddhist Church,has sometimes been considered as a sort of god ... [but] this divinization of Buddha, granting that the term is exact, is peculiarto ... Northern Buddhism.... We may well ask if he [Buddha]has ever really divested himself completelyof all humancharacter,and if we have a right to make him into a god completely; in any case, it would have to be a god of a very particularcharacter.... Finally, whatever one may think of the divinity of Buddha,it remainsthat this is a conceptionwholly outside the essential part of Buddhism (46-47;emphasis added).

The evidence Durkheim presents regarding the atheistic qualities of Buddhism is ambiguous, and to remedy such shortcomings he has to qualify his claims repeatedly; thus, he strengthens his evidence from Buddhism by elaborating restrictive criteria on prayer, atheism, divinity, and Buddhism itself. He resorts to narrow definitions of divinity to downplay its role in Buddhism, or to dimiss it altogether. However, an examinationof the availableevidenceconcerningthe role of divinity in Buddhismreveals a different picture from the one Durkheim provided. To be sure, the ambiguity apparentin Durkheim'sdescriptionof Buddhism's beliefs vis-a-vis divinity is not simply the product of his overzealous attempt to prove a point; it is mostly due to the ambiguity created by a multiplicity of doctrines which accompanied the development of Buddhism starting with the life of Buddha (560-580 B.C.), through the archaic period of Buddhism (the first 140 years after the Nirvana of the



Buddha),to the schism which saw the development of 18 orthodox schools (around140 B.E.): with the Sthaviras schools in Ceylon and Southeast Asia on one side, and the Mahasinghikas in Northern India on the other side (for historical overviews, see Conze 1980 and Kitagawa and Cummings 1989). The orthodox schools together are known as Theravada (or Hinayana) Buddhism; the other schools, which later spread to China, Japan, and Korea, are collectively labeled Mahayana Buddhism. A careful examination of Buddhist thought in these three phases reveals that some idea of divinity and of supernatural beings is present throughout Buddhist thought, althoughit is strongerin MahayanaBuddhismthan in archaicand scholastic Buddhism. However, let us consider the available evidence. Archaic Buddhism In his Buddhist Thoughtin India, Conze(1967:56) has describedthe archaicBuddhist thought as follows:
The progressive detachment from the world is accompaniedand facilitated by the constant application of the three marks [impermanent, ill, and not-self]to all worldlyevents, and it furtherpromotes in its turn the five cardinal virtues [faith, vigor, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom].

Conze also argues: "Oncehe has achieved perfect indifferenceto all worldly things, the Yogin can automatically make Nirvana into an object" (56). The Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa (VM xxi 128) proclaims: "Now at last the supramundane Path will arise!" (cited in Conze 1967:77).This reference to entering the supramundanePath is crucial in its implications:
At this point the Buddhists [distinguish]between two qualitatively different kinds of persons, the "holyperson" and the ordinarypeople.... Holy men and ordinarypeople occupy two distinct planes of existence,the "worldly" andthe "supramnndene." A person becomes"supramundane" on "entering the Path".... The "saint," as distinguished from worldly people, at the moment of entering the first Path is said to "realize"Nirvana in the sense of "seeing" it (57; emphasis added).

Nirvana is reachedthrough the supramundanedoors to deliverance[emptiness, the signless, and the wishless]: "They are quite near to the true reality of Nirvana, at its very threshold" (69-70).Nirvana itself is Deathless, and the Buddha entered Nirvana "a deity, who tries to cause difficultiesto anyonewho wants by conqueringDeath (Mara), to transcend death, and who was defeated by the Buddha immediately before his enlightenment" (72). This evidence shows that concepts of divinity and transcendenceare clearly present in early Buddhism.Concludinghis descriptionof archaicBuddhist thought, Conzeclaims that "Nirvana is obviously transcendental" and can be reached only through the supramundanedoors to deliverance(76).He quotes from the Suttanipata (1069):"Alone, without support, 0 Shakyan, I am unable to cross the great flood. Tell me the objective support, 0 All-seeing One, leaning on which I could cross that flood" (cited in Conze, 1967:77).



Scholastic Buddhism The schism between the Mahasanghikas and the Sthaviras led to the development of 18 schools of Buddhism. The Sthaviras (literally, the Elders) stood for tradition and orthodoxy in Buddhism. The significant doctrinalpoint of the Sthaviras for our purpose is the classification of those who have attained Nirvana; such a point is related, more broadly, to Buddhism's envisioning of the Absolute. Conze (1967:159)has outlined the issue: "The Absolute occurs in an impersonal form as the 'Unconditioned'or 'Nirvana,' and in an apparently personal form as the 'Buddha' or 'Tathagata.' " Attempts to characterizeNirvana are sporadicand equivocalin Sthaviras doctrines, but these same doctrinesare detailedin their classificationof those who achieve Nirvana. Scholastic Buddhism identifies three classes of increasinglyenlightenedindividuals:the Arhat, the Pratyekabuddha, and the Buddha The Arhat, at the lowest level, is "one who has eliminated all ill." At the next higher level is the Pratyekabuddha, of whom Conze (1967:167) writes:
He is a Buddha for himself alone, who, unlike the Arhat, has ... won his enlightenmentby his own effort without instruction from others, but who, unlike the Buddhas, does not proclaim the truth to others.... The first two "adepts" represent the ideals of the individualists.

The Buddha's enlightenment, at the highest level, is vastly superiorto that of the Arhats or of the Pratyekabuddhas. The Buddha surpasses individually experienced enlightenment and is able to proclaimthe truth to the world.In the Sthaviras doctrines, the Buddhais not simply one who has achievedenlightenment,but one who can proclaim the truth. Conze has elaborated:
The Abhidharmadefines the differenceof the Buddhafrom the other two adepts.... As for epithets, he is called "the Lord"(Bhagavan),the "Conqueror of Mara," the "King of Dharma."the "superman," the "Tathagata," the "victor unvanquished,"and so on (168-69).

The Buddha also has power over the cosmos and is its sovereign:
Possessing to a superior degree the miraculouspowers attributed to all saints, the Buddha can at will create, transform and conserve external objects, shorten or extend his life-span, move through solid bodies, travel rapidly for long distances through the air, reduce the size of material bodies.... (170).

Thus, one can conclude that, "It is, of course, a fallacy to regard the Buddha as a 'person' in the ordinary sense of the term.... Far more than a person he is (1) an impersonal metaphysical principle, (2) a supernatural potency, and (3) a type" (171; forcesand metaphysical emphasis added).ScholasticBuddhism'stheoriesof supernatural entities strengthens the earlier evidence from archaic Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism If the Sthaviras schools were unclear about the ontology of the Absolute (the Unconditioned),MahayanaBuddhism resolutely clarifiedthis central issue. (Max Weber [(1923) 1958:244-56] detailed the sociological factors leading to the development of



Mahayana doctrines.) The Buddha, in Mahayana doctrines, is characterized as a metaphysical principle, identified with the absolute Dharma: "The true Buddha is transmundane ... the historical Buddha is a mere apparition of him" (Robinson and Johnson 1982:65).The Mahayana broadenedthe access to enlightenment to include all individuals, whereas the Sthaviras schools had a more selective interpretation of who could achieve Buddhahood. Robinson and Johnson (1982:65-66)have argued:
The Mahayanainnovation was to proclaimthat the bodhisattva [future Buddha]course is open to all, to lay out a path for aspiringbodhisattvas to follow, and to create a new pantheon and cult of superhumanbodhisattvas and cosmic Buddhas who respond to the pleas of devotees.

There is no doubt that supernaturalbeings exist in Mahayana Buddhism and that these beings are instrumental in the individual's path to Nirvana; cults of the great bodhisattvas (like Maitreya, Manjusri, Avalotikesvara, and Mahasthamaprapta) flourishedin MahayanaBuddhism. Robinson and Johnson have describedthe Maitreya cult:
Maitreya,unlike the Buddhas before him, is alive so he can respond to the prayers of worshippers. Being compassionate ... he willingly grants help; and being a high god in his present birth, he has the power to do so. His cult thus offers its devotees the advantage of theism and Buddhism combined (79-80).

Therecouldbe no strongerevidencethat supernatural beings do in fact exist in Mahayana Buddhism, and that their help is actively sought by those who seek to achieve enlightenment. The evidence presented throughout this section has shown clearly that Mahayana Buddhism qualifies as a theistic religion;it also shows that significant theistic elements are present as well in archaicand in scholastic Buddhism.In archaicBuddhism,"a person becomessupramundane on enteringthe Path," and entering Nirvanarequirestranscending the god of death, Mara. In scholastic Buddhism, the Buddha is clearly described as a supernaturalbeing and a supernaturalforce with supernaturalpowers;the Buddha is also the only one who can proclaimthe truth of Buddhism to others. While one could identify a variation in the centrality of beliefs in supra-human beings in the three phases of Buddhism, it is nevertheless evident that the belief in supra-humanbeings is present throughoutBuddhist religion.We will elaborateon the implicationsof this finding later, but next we must turn our attention to another issue: whether the sacred-profane dichotomy is a central feature of Buddhism. SACRED AND PROFANE IN BUDDHISM In Book One, Chapter One, Section Three of The Elementary Forms, Durkheim (1965:52)provides a sweeping definition concerning religions:
All known religious beliefs, whether simple or complex, present one common characteristic:they presuppose a classification of all the things, real and ideal, of which men think, into two classes or opposed groups, generally designated by two distinct terms which are translated well enough by the words profane and sacred. This division of the world into two domains, the one containing all that is sacred, the other all that is profane, is the distinctive trait of religious thought.



He also clarifies that "by sacred things one must not understand simply those personal beings which are called gods or spirits" (52), and in support of such clarification he resorts to the evidence obtained from Buddhism: "That is how Buddhism is a religion: in default of gods, it admits the existence of sacred things, namely, the four noble truths and the practices derived from them" (52). We must emphasize here, that it is not our aim to prove the absence of a concept of the sacred in Buddhism. Supernatural beings in Buddhism are clearly sacred in religious practice, as they are enshrined and worshippedby the believers. Phenomenologically speaking, the sacred is found in all societies and religions, and its identification cannot be settled through doctrinal religious disputes (for a phenomenological appreciationof the sacred and profane,see Elisde 1959).Ouraim in this articleis instead to show that while Durkheim claimed that supernatural beings are marginal to Buddhism, and the sacred-profanedichotomy is central to it, we wish to demonstrate the opposite thesis: that supernatural beings are central, and the sacred-profane dichotomy is marginal, to Buddhism as a religion. We saw in the previous section that Durkheim's evidence for claiming that spirits and supra-mundanebeings are not central to Buddhism was most ambiguous. We now wish to show that the sacred-profanedichotomy Durkheim claims to be central to all religions is in fact at least marginal, if not altogether rejected or denied, in Buddhism. Before presenting our evidence, however, let us consider Durkheim's only example regarding the sacred in Buddhism: "the four noble truths and the practices derived from them." The Four Noble Truths the fournobletruths The early scripturesof Buddhismshow that Buddhaproclaimed in his sermon at Benares, where "the enlightened Lord" addressed the five monks. The four noble truths concern pain, the cause of pain, the cessation of pain, and the way that leads to the cessation of pain (Burtt 1982:30). Describing his path to enlightenment, Buddha stated:
As long as in these four noble truths my knowledge and insight with the three sections and twelve divisions was not well purified,even so long, monks, in the world with its gods, Mara,Brahma,its being with ascetics, brahmins,gods, and men, I had not attained the highest complete enlightenment (cited in Burtt 1982:31).

In his sermon,Buddhaannouncedthat the highest completeenlightenment(Nirvana) cannot be achieved unless one has a "well purified" insight into, and knowledge of the four noble truths. The Buddha himself is able to proclaimthe four noble truths because he has achieved enlightenment, and he is now the Lord (Bhagavan). It appears, then, that what gives the four noble truths a central position in Buddhism is that, having attained complete enlightenment, the Buddha can proclaim these truths as noble. For those who have not achieved Nirvana, these four truths are incomprehensible: They are such eliminate how to in this and statements about world, suffering philosophical What achieved. is unless understood be cannot but enlightenment fully suffering, they does it matter to proclaim that "existence is unhappiness" unless one has obtained



Nirvana's purified knowledge? The four noble truths of Buddhism are not sacred in themselves; rather, they derive their significance from the fact that the Buddha, having achieved enlightenment and having become the Lord, proclaims them as such. Thus, at the center of Buddhism we find not the four noble truths, but the enlightenment of the Buddha. Conze (1967:30) has explicitly argued such a point: "Buddhism bases itself first of all on the revelation of the Truth by an omniscient being, known as 'the Buddha.' " This shows that supramundanebeings (and most importantly the Buddha) are central to Buddhism as a religion, directly underminingDurkheim's (1965:45)claim that "all that is essential to Buddhism is found in the four propositions which the faithful call the four noble truths." We admit, to be sure, that the four noble truths display some degree of sacredness (one could argue that the transition from the first truth to the second, third, and fourth represents the shift from most profane to most sacred). However, the fact remains that whatever sacredness these four noble truths display is not an intrinsic quality of the truths themselves, but a quality the Buddha has given them. The Conditioned and the Unconditioned The four noble truths are not a fitting example of the centrality of the sacred in Buddhism, but are there any other elements in Buddhism which would fit Durkheim's sacred-profanedichotomy? His central notion is that all religions divide the world into two distinct domains:the sacredand the profane.Stanner(1967:217-240) sought to refute Durkheim's dichotomy based on its logical inconsistencies and on contrary evidence found in aboriginal religions. He argued "not only that 'the profane' is the weaker of the two categories, but that the dichotomy itself is unusable except at the cost of undue interference with the facts of observation" (229). Here we will limit our observations to the evidence about the sacred and the profane found in Buddhism. Durkheim did not provide any illustration of the sacred-profanedichotomy in Buddhism, but if anything comes close, it is Buddhism's treatment of the Conditioned (Pratitya-samutpadaor Samsara) and the Unconditioned (Nirvana),the two opposite realms of the physical world (past, present, and future) and of the transcendental world (enlightenment).This is an importantissue in Buddhism, as well as in other majorworld and the sacred religions,since it displays the tension between the profane"this-worldly" "other-worldly," which is at the root of much religious thought (Weber [1922] 1978:518-634).Buddhism partakes of this tension (Lopez 1988). We do not seek here to dismiss sacred-profanedistinctions altogether, but rather to make a more specific point: namely, that a close scrutiny of the Conditionedand the Unconditionedin Buddhismshows that they do not partakeof the sacred-profane duality which Durkheim considered central to religious phenomena. Let us be clear that Durkheimhimself did not discuss the Conditionedand Unconditionedin Buddhism;we have chosen these as the best examples, if any, of a possible sacred-profanedichotomy in Buddhism. Durkheimwrites in ElementaryForms that "the sacredand the profanehave always and everywherebeen conceivedby the humanmind as two distinct classes, as two worlds between which there is nothing in common" (Durkheim1965:54;emphasis added).Yet



Buddhism's Conditioned and Unconditioned are two classes of dharmas, that is, two classes of "truly existing objects," and they share a number of similarities. In Buddhism, Conditioned and Unconditioned dharmas are both characterized as Emptiness, the Signless, and the Wishless. Conze (1967:60-70)has described how these three concepts apply to each of the two classes of dharmas:
In one sense 'emptiness' designates deprivation, in another fulfillment.... Objects ... have no relevanceto anything that is worth knowing or doing [they are signless] ... The yogin... forsakes the 'sign,'... and aspires in resolute faith towards that which is without a 'sign.'... The Wishless [is]... without predilectionor desires for the objects of perception.... Nirvanais an object of craving only in so far as one forms a mistaken idea of it.

In Buddhist religion, since its inception, the Conditioned and the Unconditioned appear to have significant commonalities which prevent us from considering them as a mutually exclusive dichotomy in the sense Durkheim envisioned. With the development of Mahayana Buddhism, the blurring of the two realms becomes even greater. has commentedthat the Mahayanadevelopedthe method of "proclaimConze(1967:160) ing the truth by boldly self-contradictorypronouncements."The relationship between the Conditionedand the Unconditionedwas one such topic of contradictoryarguments:
The most startling innovation of the Mahayanais ... the identificationof the Unconditionedwith the conditioned.... The Mahayanapoints out that once someone has given up everything for the Absolute,he simply is the Absolute,and nothingin himis any longerdifferentfromit.... The identity of the contemplatorwith the Absolute seems to have a value of a self-evidentimmediatefact of experience (Conze 1967:227-28).

Thus, in Mahayana Buddhism, the conditioned individual becomes unconditioned; as one achieves enlightenment, one is the Absolute. Yet the identity of Conditionedand Unconditioned is also proclaimed at the level of non-individual entities. Both the Conditionedand the Unconditionedare dharmas.The Mahayanaclaim that if all dharmas are non-different, they are by that very fact all the same (Conze 1967:228; Robinson 1978:184-90).They argue: "Nothing in Samsara is different from Nirvana; nothing in Nirvana is different from Samsara. The limit of Nirvana is the limit of Samsara; there is not even the subtlest something separating the two" (Madhyamakakarika 25, 19-29; cited in Conze 1967:228).
The Absolute in this system is defined as ... the supremelyreal Element, Dharma-elementor the Buddha-element.This pure and eternal factor is the basis of the entire world of appearance,and in the absence of any limitations it is the omnipresentgerm of Buddhahoodwhich indwells all beings (Conze 1967:229).

In the Mahayana doctrine of sameness (or "suchness"), the Conditioned and the Unconditioned thoroughly merge and become indistinguishable. They are central to Buddhist doctrine, but they most clearly do not meet Durkheim's requirement of a sacred and profane dichotomy which he considered to be the universal characteristic of all religions. Thus far, we have shown that Durkheim's arguments regarding Buddhism were defective on two counts: He argued ambiguously that Buddhism does not really admit of suprahuman beings or spirits, and he claimed inaccurately to have identified and



characterized the sacred in Buddhism. What are the implications of our findings for characterizing Buddhism in particular and religious phenomena in general? We turn next to these questions. LESSONS FROM BUDDHISM In his definition of religious phenomena and in his presentation of supporting evidence from Buddhism, Durkheimused two strategies: He opted for a narrow definiwhich allowedhim to show Buddhismto be essentially atheistic, tion of the super-human and he chose a broad characterization of the sacred which, in Buddhism, could be identified with the four noble truths. On the one hand, Durkheimarguedthat only those beings which directly intervene in human affairs and are actively instrumental in achieving salvation meet his definition of what gods are. This is the thrust of his argument, since he claims that the gods Indra, Agni, and Varunado exist, but the Buddhist "believes that he owes them nothing and that he has nothing to do with them.... Then [the Buddhist] is an atheist" (Durkheim1965:46).On the other hand, Durkheimposited the sacred as anything a collectivity deems sacred, regardless of its pertinence to transcendental matters. He claims that "a rock, a tree, a spring, a pebble, a piece of wood, a house, in a word, anything can be sacred" (52), thus constructing the sacred as an undeterminedcategory whose only criterion is its opposition to the profane. Yet the profaneis, in Durkheim'stheory, a residualcategory for what is not sacred (Stanner 1967:230). Given the shortcomings of Durkheim's two-pronged approach, we must conclude that it simply does not do justice to Buddhism as a religion, or to most sociologically observed religious phenomena. Arguing against Durkheim's criterion regarding superhumanbeings in Buddhism, Spiro (1966:92) has contended:
With respect to supermundane goals, the Buddhais certainly a superhumanbeing. Unlike ordinary humans,he himself acquiredthe powerto attain Enlightenment and hence Buddhahood.Moreover, he showed others the means for its attainment. Without his teachings, natural man could not, unassisted, have discovered the way to Enlightenment and to final release.

Plainly, Buddha is central to Buddhism as an observed religious phenomenon;neither the four noble truths, nor the Dharma, nor the Samgha, nor the Unconditioned would have any meaning without the Buddha. We believe the evidence we provided from Buddhism warrants such a claim. Spiro (1966:95)has also criticized Durkheim for his unwarrantedconclusion "that religionuniquely refers to the 'sacred'while secularconcerns are necessarily 'profane.'" Instead, Spiro has claimed that "religious and secular beliefs alike may have reference either to sacred or to profane phenomena"(96).As an example, civic values we consider sacred like liberty, or patriotism, or the pursuit of happiness are not commonly understood to be attributes of a religion (but see Bellah 1970; Bellah and Hammond 1980);their endorsementor acceptancedoes not rest on a belief in transcendentalspirits. Conversely,any kind of everyday profane activity (singing, bathing, eating) can assume a religious character if it relates to beliefs in transcendental powers. Again, Buddhism provides exemplary evidence in this respect. The four noble truths of Buddhism, taken



by themselves, have no sacred quality. Stoic philosphersin classical Greece and ancient Rome, for instance, claimed as much as the four noble truths claim concerningsuffering in this world and how to become indifferent to it (Polhlenzet al. 1987; Capes 1909), but we do not commonly consider stoicism's pronouncements to be religious truths. The differencebetween Buddhismand stoicism, then, is that the formerrests on the teachings of the Buddha, the Lord, and it is geared toward achieving transcendental Enlightenment; stoicism, instead, proposes itself as a philosophy of life in this world, without any reference to supernatural beings. We have shown throughout this article that Durkheimwas exceedingly ambiguous in describingthe corebeliefs of Buddhismconcerningthe existence of suprahuman beings and concerning the sacred and profane, and their relationship. To conclude, we want to explore the broader consequences of Durkheim's misreadings and propose ways to overcomethem. Religiousphenomena,as observedempiricallyin social groups, postulate the belief in supra-mundanebeings as their distinguishing characteristic. Eliminating this requirement, as Durkheim did in his Elementary Forms, makes religion and philosophy, and even science and technology, essentially undistinguishable social phenomena. Strong collective sentiments can accompany Darwin's theory of evolution as much as they can accompany Buddhism's Eightfold Path to Enlightenment. The singing of a national anthem can elicit the same strong collective emotions as does the singing of religious hymns. The religious characterof a phenomenon,however,is clearly located not in the sacredness of the phenomenonitself (as Durkheimclaimed)but rather in the phenomenon's relation to the suprahuman and the transcendental. Rejecting Durkheim's definition of religion, Spiro (1966:96)has provided his own working definition of religion as "an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturallypostulated superhumanbeings." We also subscribeto such a definition. All social institutions, of course, are characterizedby culturally patterned interaction (Berger and Luckmann 1966), but the distinguishing element of religion as an institution is its collective belief in transcendental spirits (Goody 1961; Horton 1960). Spiro (1966:98)has concludedthat "viewed systematically, religion can be differentiated from other culturally constituted institutions by virtue only of its reference to superhuman beings." It is outside the scope of this article to engage in an extensive demonstration of how Spiro's definition of religion does better justice than Durkheim's definition to religious phenomena;it is also outside its scope to discuss the desirability of identifying some modern ideologies as "varities of civil religion" (Bellah and Hammond 1980). All we claim to have shown here is that Durkheim's analysis of Buddhism is seriously defective. The evidence we found in Buddhism greatly underminesDurkheim's broader definition of religion but it does not, by itself, provide final proof that such a definition researchon religiousphenomenawouldbe needed is wrong.Moreextensive, cross-cultural to make such a conclusive claim. However, we hope our analysis of Buddhism has achieved broadersignificance by raising serious questions about past characterizations of religion and by providing some preliminaryhypotheses toward a better social scientific definition of religious phenomena.



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