The Best of Both Worlds: Inclusivism & Exclusivism

David Kay uses the theoretical framework of inclusivism vs. exclusivism throughout his analysis of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) (Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain: Transplantation, Development, and Adaptationesp. pp. 40-41, 65, 109-110). What these terms mean for him becomes clear by the adjectives he uses to contrast the approaches of the eclectic Rime movement (shamanic, Tantric, encyclopedic) vs. conservative Gelugpas (clerical, scholarly/philosophical, orthodox), and also Lama Yeshe (ecumenical, open, unconventional) vs. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (focused/committed, hard-lined, literalistic). Kay ends his analysis with another parallel of this dichotomy: proteanism (modernist, skeptical, pluralistic) vs. fundamentalism (reactionary, dogmatic, purist). And so, of course, readers take away from this that the NKT is fundamentalist, which is quite irresponsible on Kay’s part! As explained in the Wikipedia article on fundamentalism:

However, most scholars do not agree with this characterization. Inken Prohl expresses hesitation over Kay’s use of the word fundamentalist in regards to the NKT because of “the vague and, at the same time, extremely political implications of this term.” Likewise, Paul Williams prefers the word traditionalist over fundamentalist in describing the NKT and other Dorje Shugden followers. Reacting to the charge that the NKT is a ‘fundamentalist movement,’ Robert Bluck said, “Again a balanced approach is needed here: the practitioner’s confident belief may appear as dogmatism to an unsympathetic observer.”

David Kay believes that, with his new inclusive-exclusive framework, he has overcome a common “Western theoretical bias” (pp. 37-38), but it is clear that his characterizations still reflect a Western liberal bias, and so he has not provided the “theoretically balanced analysis” he had hope for. To his credit, however, Kay does acknowledge that there are degrees of inclusivism and exclusivism. For example, although the NKT is exclusively oriented, nowhere in his book does Kay ever characterize the NKT as being sectarian.

Also, David Kay describes Lama Yeshe as being inclusive, but not eclectic: “Although Lama Yeshe never encouraged the abolition of religious differences and followed the tradition of Tsong Khapa strictly, his orientation was more inclusive than exclusive” (p. 65). This suggests a whole range of possible positions on the inclusive-exclusive spectrum. Two examples that Kay gives of radical inclusivism are the Rime movement (p. 42) and also the current Dalai Lama, who considers it praiseworthy “when someone practices all the Sakya, Gelug, Kagyu and Nyingma teachings through listening, thinking and meditation according to his own level of realization” (quoted on pp. 42-43).

This begs the question whether eclecticism is itself extremist! That is to say, at what point is inclusivism taken too far? There are always two extremes flanking the middle way. Given that sectarianism is one of those extremes, then if eclecticism is the middle way, what exactly would be the other extreme? This is the perennial challenge I answer in the essay Standing Up for the Middle Way.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso exhibits the perfect balance of exclusivism and inclusivism: cherishing one’s own tradition while respecting all other traditions and the right of each individual to follow the tradition of his or her choosing. Geshe Kelsang also says that non-Gelug traditions possess complete paths to enlightenment. Again, very inclusive!

David Kay says that eclectics also maintain “the validity of all paths” (p. 42) but this sentiment is insincere given the fact that they regard different traditions as only “partial descriptions and approaches” rather than complete paths (pp. 41-42). So, “equally valid” in the mind of the eclectic actually just means “equally incomplete”! As I said in the previous blog post, it is the eclectic who is insulting Buddhadharma, not the moderate exclusivist.

Eclectics like to make their own doorways out of the burning house of samsara, or try to escape using two or more doorways at once (and thus hit a wall). It is best to use the nearest exit (i.e., the path karmically nearest to oneself), established by a living Buddha via one of the pre-existing Buddhist traditions.


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