Poetry as an Instrument of Revolution

Anyone who is familiar with Sufi poetry also might be aware of the long history of protest poetry written by people of the entire Middle Eastern, North African and Asian areas that border the Arabian sea. I ran across a couple of good articles on this.

As I’ve been monitoring the various news streams over the past week or so, there has been quite a bit of colorful language used in many of the Tweets, blog posts and comments from Egypt and beyond. By colorful language I don’t mean cursing and such, although there is a thread of that too, but rich creative full expressions of people’s thoughts and feelings. Most are in Arabic and I’ve found a few sources of translations for some and often people are spontaneously providing English translations.

I don’t have time to sift through them right now but Elliott Colla the author of one of the articles I mentioned has done just that so I’m going to quote from his article The Poetry of Revolt that appeared on the Jadaliyya website. The author writes:

No less astonishing is the poetry of this moment. I don’t mean “poetry” as a metaphor, but the actual poetry that has played a prominent role in the outset of the events. The slogans the protesters are chanting are couplets—and they are as loud as they are sharp. The diwan of this revolt began to be written as soon as Ben Ali fled Tunis, in pithy lines like “Yâ Mubârak! Yâ Mubârak! Is-Sa‘ûdiyya fi-ntizârak!,” (“Mubarak, O Mabarak, Saudi Arabia awaits!”). In the streets themselves, there are scores of other verses, ranging from the caustic “Shurtat Masr, yâ shurtat Masr, intû ba’aytû kilâb al-’asr” (“Egypt’s Police, Egypt’s Police, You’ve become nothing but Palace dogs”), to the defiant “Idrab idrab yâ Habîb, mahma tadrab mish hansîb!” (Hit us, beat us, O Habib [al-Adly, now-former Minister of the Interior], hit all you want—we’re not going to leave!). This last couplet is particularly clever, since it plays on the old Egyptian colloquial saying, “Darb al-habib zayy akl al-zabib” (The beloved’s fist is as sweet as raisins). This poetry is not an ornament to the uprising—it is its soundtrack and also composes a significant part of the action itself.

The remainder of the article goes into the intertwined histories of both revolution and poetry and is well worth reading in it’s entirety.

These rhyming couplets are what you may be hearing chanted when you listen to Al Jazeera English streaming on the web. (Yeah that’s a plug for them) And here’s a video of a courageous young woman using this poetic technique while leading a protest against the police.

The use of poetry during times of social unrest is not that unusual. Consider the lyrics of some protest songs. Are they not poetry?

The other article I came across by Amardeep Singh: Poetry in the Protests: Egypt and Tunisia makes that very point in the first sentence:

Protest poetry and music sometimes rises to the surface during popular uprisings, crystallizing popular sentiments—one thinks of Victor Jara in Chile, Nazim Hikmet in Turkey, Faiz Ahmed Faiz in Pakistan, or Woody Guthrie in the United States.

So we are actually on somewhat familiar ground with this topic.

Amardeep quotes some of the longer forms of protest poetry found in the region. Here are the opening lines from the poem The Dragon by Iraqi poet Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayyati. The full poem can be found here.


A dictator, hiding behind a nihilist’s mask,
has killed and killed and killed,
pillaged and wasted,
but is afraid, he claims,
to kill a sparrow.
His smiling picture is everywhere:
in the coffeehouse, in the brothel,
in the nightclub, and the marketplace.
Satan used to be an original,
now he is just the dictator’s shadow.
The dictator has banned the solar calendar,
abolished Neruda, Marquez, and Amado,
abolished the Constitution;
he’s given his name to all the squares, the open spaces,
the rivers,
and all the jails in his blighted homeland.

He also discusses some of the background of poetry and provides links for more.

There is a very well known poem that has played a significant role in the current revolutions. “To the Tyrants of the World,” written by the Tunisian poet Abdul Qasim al Shabi which has became a rallying cry for the people in Tunisia is spoken in an NPR broadcast. It is spoken in Arabic and English.

Here is the English translation from NPR

Oppressive tyrants,
lover of darkness,
enemy of life,
you have ridiculed the size of the weak people.
Your palm is soaked with their blood. 

You deformed the magic of existence
and planted the seeds of sorrow in the fields. 

Wait,
don't be fooled by the spring,
the clearness of the sky or the light of dawn,
for on the horizon lies the horror of darkness,
rumble of thunder and blowing of winds. 

Beware,
for below the ash there is fire,
and he who grows thorns reaps wounds.
Look there,
for I have harvested the heads of mankind
and the flowers of hope,
and I watered the heart of the earth with blood.
I soaked it with tears until it was drunk.
The river of blood will sweep you,
and the fiery storm will devour you.

 

http://www.npr.org/v2/?i=133354601&m=133354628&t=audio

In case the embedded item doesn’t work here is the link

http://www.npr.org/2011/01/30/133354601/Tunisian-Poets-Verses-Inspire-Arab-Protesters

 

Protest poetry is not confined to any one culture or location. I’ll leave you with this Diane di Prima poem

Rant, from a Cool Place

by Diane DiPrima

“I see no end of it, but the turning

upside down of the entire world”

——————————— Erasmus

We are in the middle of a bloody, heartrending revolution

Called America, called the Protestant reformation, called Western man,

Called individual consciousness, meaning I need a refrigerator and a car

And milk and meat for the kids so, I can discover that I don’t need a car

Or a refrigerator, or meat, or even milk, just rice and a place with

————-no wind to sleep next to someone

Two someones keeping warm in the winter learning to weave

To pot and to putter, learning to steal honey from bees,

————wearing the bedclothes by day, sleeping under

(or in) them at night; hording bits of glass, colored stones, and

————stringing beads

How long before we come to that blessed definable state

Known as buddhahood, primitive man, people in a landscape

together like trees, the second childhood of man

I don’t know if I will make it somehow nearer by saying all this

out loud, for christs sake, that Stevenson was killed, that Shastri

————was killed

both having dined with Marietta Tree

the wife of a higher-up in the CIA

both out of their own countries mysteriously dead, as how many others

as Marilyn Monroe, wept over in so many tabloids

done in for sleeping with Jack Kennedy – this isn’t a poem – full of

————cold prosaic fact

thirteen done in the Oswald plot: Jack Ruby’s cancer that disappeared

————in autopsy

the last of a long line – and they’re waiting to get Tim Leary

Bob Dylan

Allen Ginsberg

LeRoi Jones – as, who killed Malcolm X? They give themselves away

with TV programs on the Third Reich, and I wonder if I’ll live to sit in

————Peking or Hanoi

see TV programs on LBJ’s Reich: our great SS analysed, our money exposed,

————the plot to keep Africa

genocide in Southeast Asia now in progress Laos Vietnam Thailand Cambodia

————O soft-spoken Sukamo

O great stone Buddhas with sad negroid lips torn down by us by the red

————guard all one force

one leveling mad mechanism, grinding it down to earth and swamp to sea

————to powder

till Mozart is something a few men can whistle

or play on a homemade flute and we bow to each other

telling old tales half remembered gathering shells

learning again “all beings are from the very beginning Buddhas”

or glowing and dying radiation and plague we come to that final great

————love illumination

“FROM THE VERY FIRST NOTHING IS.”

 

Advertisements

More More More More More on Idiocy [addendum]

In the comments of the last post about Idiot Compassion someone left a spam comment that is linked to selling a t-shirt. The t-shirt is to promote people to draw pictures of Mohammed on May 20th as some sort of outburst against the South-Park kerfuffle. Here is their spam-comment:

movieflight said on Manifestations of Idiot Compassion

April 30, 2010 at 02:27

In response to the South Park censorship, May 20 has been designated Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. Google it. Pass it along!

http://tinyurl.com/draw-mohammed-day

Someone sent me an email taking note of the spam-comment and wrote this above it:

I think this one is out of place……

But it occurs to me that such a cause, if you want to call it that, and such a reaction to it;the spam-comment, particularly since the main purpose is to sell t-shirts and not really to support anti-censorship efforts, is a good example of idiocy and is especially ironic in this situation.

The fundamentalist Muslim guy (and he’s a guy – maybe two guys – not a huge terrorist organization as people have tried to make out)  who wrote the incendiary Internet post about South Park in the first place has written further on that subject. The spam-comment goes some distance to lend a hint of credibility to what has been said:

from Revolution Muslim-run by the blogger that originally wrote in a threatening manner about the South Park creators.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Clarifying the South Park Response and Calling on Others to Join in the Defense of the Prophet Muhammad – RevolutionMuslim.com

The cancer we are referring to is that of American imperialism and its coincident culture of pagan hedonistic barbarism, a culture which drives to dehumanize the intrinsic morality of the rest of the world. As it stands today the vast majority of the world has witnessed the cloud of American debauchery, and those whom it has not hovered over have at the very least been affected by its dust.

It is no secret that America’s military uses American goods to spread its culture and propaganda in order to create docile societies.

In order to survive, empires must conscript support, and they usually impose loyal indigenous elite over the lands they conquer. Oftentimes these loyal elite find ways of influencing the home front as well. Empire is primarily concerned with preserving political, economic, and military dominance and therefore tends to portray itself as tolerant and pluralistic of the cultures and customs of they come to conquer.

However, a closer objective analysis always reveals that this tolerance is a guise of strategy and is only apparent where the conquered are willing to retain personal customs and control in exchange for the sacrifice of indigenous sovereignty over wealth, natural resource, and political decision. Thus while empires rape and extract the material wealth of the people they dominate, they grant the seeming retention of indigenous language, custom, religion and the like.

In reality, this focus on power and control leads to the actual loss of spiritual, psychological, and emotional health and, as an oligarchy is imposed, the educated class is granted modest concessions and then political and economic rights of the general people are violated for the long term. This requires that what a conquered people consider sacred must be portrayed as backwards. While this process tends to occur subconsciously it leads to a sense of power and privilege on the home shores of the imperialist, and that serves as a justification for the atrocities committed and thereby minimized on the frontier. The term “sand-nigger” or “camel jockey” did not start with American soldiers on the ground in Iraq, but was a phrase coined during Britain’s imperialist adventure in the Middle East. The ‘other’s’ culture and custom must always be degraded in order to retain a justification for physical domination. Media always plays a role in perpetuating these ideas.

The contemporary American Empire is dependent on a hedonistic, consumerist mindset that effectively numbs the general world populace and keeps them ignorant and oblivious to the imperialist reality.

Now here is what some other Muslims had to say about the situation in their blogs and columns.  Interesting to read the comments involved there too.

from Irshad Manji.com – a blog which has the subtitle “For Muslim Reform and Moral Courage” -Irshad Manji is Canadian woman Muslim writer

Sign my petition… or else

See, as a faithful Muslim who’s trying to educate her fellow Muslims that Islam can be reconciled with free expression, I’m offended by the broadcaster of South Park, a channel called Comedy Central, which has censored any mention of Muhammad. I’m offended that the executives are caving to Islamist criminals. I’m offended that they’re infantilizing Muslims by expecting so little from us. Above all, I’m offended that they’re making my mission of Muslim reform that much harder.

from The Chicago Islam Examiner – Qasim Rashid has has quite a number of articles on this topic.

In mocking Prophet Muhammad, has South Park gone too far?

So, in mocking the Prophet Muhammad, has South Park gone too far?  The answer is, it’s irrelevant.  Regardless of how someone might desire to insult Islam or the Prophet Muhammad, it is never an excuse to respond in violence.  Such a notion has no place in Islam.

Prophet Muhammad and South Park: a Muslim sets the record straight

Muslims have not been humiliated, the Prophet Muhammad has certainly not been irreparably reviled, and everything sacred in Islam is still sacred, rest assured.  Did South Park wish to offend Muslims?  Probably, but so what?  Why only be offended when Prophet Muhammad is mocked?  Since Muslims believe in all prophets of God, why not demonstrate displeasure when Prophet Jesus is regularly mocked?  Is Prophet Buddha snorting cocaine an acceptable belief to Islam?  Of course not.

In mocking Jesus, Moses, Bhudda, and Krishna, has South Park gone too far?

Islam champions freedom of thought and forbids compulsion in such matters. (HQ 2:256). However, a restriction on compulsion of thought and a promotion of vulgarity in the name of free speech are quite different phenomenon.

Has it become impossible to express freedom of speech without resorting to offensive depictions of some of history’s most beloved individuals?  Why is it more funny, or funny at all to have such people derided and mocked? We don’t mock contemporary heroes such as Dr. King, who, looked to personages like Prophet Jesus for their inspiration.  Then, why malign the legacy of the people who revolutionized our world?

from altmuslim comment Aziz Poonawalla writes:

South Park and the freedom to blaspheme

I don’t watch South Park, and likely never will. But I much prefer their attempt at depiction of the Prophet, which is rooted in a simple need to assert their creative freedom, rather than any genuine intent to defame or insult Islam – quite unlike the Danish newspaper cartoons, which were created with only malice in mind. To understand this, compare and contrast the images of the Prophet as a super hero or a bear, versus a dark figure with a bomb in his turban. The real insult to the Prophet is in refusing to make a distinction at all.

The American Muslim response to insults to the Prophet is mostly indifference with perhaps some wounded silence. Only one nut on one lone website made any threat – the rest of us have behaved as anyone would to an impolite fool slandering our loved ones: by ignoring them. Instead, we’ve saved our critique for the real idiots in this silly tale – the ones who think Islam and the Prophet actually need defending from mere cartoons.

from Muslim Matters author Amad writes:

South Park Episode & Censorship of Mohammed’s (S) Depiction: The Script Played to Perfection

As far as the Islamic ruling around the issue of defaming the Prophet (S), many scholars have discussed this in the context of an Islamic state (like on Islam-QA). Islam pays a great deal of attention on individual actors not taking state matters in their own hands in an Islamic state. We can argue and discuss the rulings around blasphemy in an Islamic state, but that discussion is irrelevant to the issue at hand. No respectable scholar residing in the East, with any sort of mainstream following, has urged Muslims in the West to take the law in their own hands, and to resort to violence. Similarly, the fact that NOT ONE mainstream scholar in the West has ever encouraged or approved of violence by Muslims in this issue, is sufficient to prove that any other opinion is a fringe, marginalized view with no place in the mainstream public sphere.

from The American Muslim Robert Salaam writes:

South Park creators getting death threats

Some Muslims are just ignorant plain and simple.  It baffles the mind how hypocritical we are at times.  How can we truly ever get angry at any cartoon called “Muhammad” if we don’t even know what the Prophet (saw) actually looked like?  It’s just stupid that we would get offended as if a cartoon actually held any power over the Messenger of God (saw) or Allah (swt).  Is our faith that weak that we believe we have to go defending Allah (swt) and the Prophets (saw) honor every time someone draws an image or uses the name?  We are hypocrites for a myriad of reasons on this issue.  For one thing, if we were to actually get angry we are supposed to get angry at the depiction of ALL Prophets and Messengers, peace and blessings be upon them, of God.  So where is our “outrage” when Jesus (as) or Moses (as), etc. are depicted?  I know, I know, crickets….  Furthermore, don’t we have more important things to be angry about?  You know like the suffering and oppression of Muslims in so-called Muslim lands, carried out by so-called fellow Muslims?  You know where Muslim women are routinely raped in Darfur, child brides bleed to death in Yemen from forced intercourse, and people are routinely killed, harassed, etc. all over?  Have we become so perverted that we would give death threats to cartoonists and ignore suffering under our noses.  Why not use all that zealotry to fix our lands and truly make them a place where Muslims feel safe and secure and lands in which our neighbors feel safe.  You know as the Prophet (saw) actually ordered us to.  Do we really think the Prophet (saw) would prefer us threaten cartoonists over providing and defending the orphan, woman, weak, wayfarer, and fellow believers in our own lands?  We are a terribly misguided Ummah!  Leave these people alone.  Allah (swt) will chastise whom HE wills in this life and the hereafter.  Surely the Creator of the Universe has the power to deal with a cartoon if He chose to.  Maybe it’s just me, but we have more important things to be “outraged” about.

So within the Muslim community there seems to be a lot more variety of opinion than major news media and t-shirt-selling spam-comment writers could imagine.

Why I Think This Whole Thing is Idiotic

There is just more than enough idiocy to go around in this situation. The whole thing, from every side is a pretty small blip on the global scale radar. But there is money and attention to be had on all sides by whipping this up into some kind of frenzy.

Everybody is pimping the Prophet in this one.

Satire

Satire is known in many cultures. It is:

1.the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.

2.a literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule.

3.a literary genre comprising such compositions.

from Dictionary.com

Medieval Arabic poetry included the satiric genre hija. Satire was introduced into Arabic prose literature by the Afro-Arab author Al-Jahiz in the 9th century. While dealing with serious topics in what are now known as anthropology, sociology and psychology, he introduced a satirical approach, “based on the premise that, however serious the subject under review, it could be made more interesting and thus achieve greater effect, if only one leavened the lump of solemnity by the insertion of a few amusing anecdotes or by the throwing out of some witty or paradoxical observations. He was well aware that, in treating of new themes in his prose works, he would have to employ a vocabulary of a nature more familiar in hija, satirical poetry.”

from Wikipedia

There is also Arabic satire and Persian satire [so it’s not like an American invention or only understood by English speaking people]

The Idiocy of South Park

Not a fan of South Park. It’s creators have been hailed as some kind of post-modern prophets rampaging through the temples and ideals many people hold in some kind of regard.  They are busy deconstructing all the sacred cows in their little frat-boy way with their high-school art-class doodled cartoon with the wind up jack-in-the-box music and we are all supposed to take it up as some kind of huge revelation. No thanks. There’s more insightful stuff on YouTube. Yeah OK I am a satire snob.

Nobody really listens to any issue, however legitimate, when someone is insulting and boorish. [and boring]

The Idiocy of Threats Against the South Park Creators

The South Park portrayal of Mohammed was not something that rational people would even take seriously. Getting into a big snit and quoting Osama bin Laden and then requesting a rational dialogue is a little hypocritical and over the top. Attention seeking behavior of this kind is not all that different than the South Park creators.

Nobody really listens to any issue, however legitimate, when someone is shouting and threatening. [and boring]

The Idiocy of Spam-Comment T-Shirt Sellers

Now even if there were some concerted non-commercial effort to stage a Draw the Prophet event it just comes off as pointless.  Expressing some smug slogan is not going to change centuries of history or the beliefs of millions of people.

What’s the purpose of even suggesting this? What will be accomplished? What is the goal?

Let’s all go way off the deep end because South Park guys did what they do in their attention seeking way to make money and one Muslim guy did what he did to get attention and some news coverage, and then have a bunch of people piss all over the whole Islamic religion and the many hundreds of thousands who didn’t get irate or even bother to get involved.

Keep some damn perspective.

Every religion, belief, philosophy, opinion is open to abuse from both the outside and within. Whether from Dharma-pimps, Jesus-pimps, Mohammed-pimps, atheist-pimps or just the straight out money-making pimps like at South Park.  If there is gain to be made from anything there is someone willing to exploit it.

Why is this even an issue?

[Probably because a bunch of people will actually jump on that bandwagon, buy t-shirts, draw pictures for their blogs and get all self-righteous-y about doing their part to combat anti-censorship]

Here’s another interesting link from the Christian Science Monitor ‘South Park’ episode 201 and the frustration of being Muslim-American

[Addendum]

From this blog post

Everybody Draw Muhammad Day

which links to this blog post

Freedom of sketch

which links to this blog post

Post-‘South Park’: Cartoonist retreats from ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!’ [UPDATED]

I’ve  finally tracked down where this idea originated. And there are bandwagon jumpers aplenty. A Facebook group Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. among other things has been set up. (There is also a “Ban Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” Facebook page) People such as Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan have also decided to participate.

It is highly ironic that the originator of this idiocy had this to say in the Washington Post.

In that interview, Norris said of the Facebook campaign: “Dare me, I’ll pursue it.” A day later, however, she told Comic Riffs she had a change of heart, saying the campaign had grown far larger than she intended and that her cartoon was being appropriated in ways that were beyond her control. [sort of like the image of Mohammed?]

…As for the larger campaign, Norris says simply: “I just want to go back to my quiet life.”

Duh! Maybe she knows how a lot of Muslims feel then.

Some More Links About This

Draw Mohammed by John Kranz of Three Sources.com

The South Park Test by David Hazony of Commentary Magazine

Everybody Burn the Flag: If we don’t act like inconsiderate jerks, the terrorists will have won! and Everybody Draw Rebuttals from David Taranto of the Wall Street Journal

Would You Die for a "Philosophy"?

By way of an introduction to this post I present the conclusion first:

In Conclusion

After writing this post I almost trashed it. All these words and quibbles and insight and ignorance going round and round.  It felt more and more like a waste of time and effort.  Then I happened upon some interesting words by Paul Lynch in the comments of a post on the Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt blog. (Paul keeps his own blog at Zen Mirror) . Among other pertinent things he said “…all of our constructs are poor substitutions for reality.”

So here I’ve been hacking away on and off for a couple of days on this real fancy construction of a blog post, adorning it with some amount of energetic and wordy decoration yet knowing full well it will never adequately represent the reality of Buddhism, secular culture or my thoughts on these topics.

So there is some choice to be made with these things. As it happens something else occurred which is spurring my choice to put this on the blog anyway. In the past week I’ve been writing comments on a couple of well known blogs and self-identifying as a “religious” Buddhist. That’s the first time I’ve come out with it plainly. Coincidentally today, 2 people have stricken me from their blog-rolls and 2 have dropped me as Facebook friends. (There is a total of 3 people there-all 3 are secularists) Apparently my religious declaration didn’t go down too well with them.  I did not attack a secular view of Buddhism but attempted to write from a religious (not fundamentalist) position. It seems that to do so, especially if you are not a monk, nun, priest or teacher is equated with some sort of coercion into religion.

There are a lot of demands from the secular Buddhist crowd to be heard, acknowledged and validated in their opinions of Buddhism. Many of these opinions are not the result of studying Buddhism in either monastic situations or in academic situations. And often not even with any sort of teacher or Sangha. What is being asked is a validation of an invented form of what Buddhism “ought to be according to me”. And when immediate validation is withheld or consideration of the position is not whole-hearted a reaction ensues. Just to put forward an openly religious opinion, not expecting agreement or even acknowledgement seems to threaten some people.(I am reminded of a short post on the Ramblings of a Monk blog called Disagreeing or not understanding (knowing))

Now it doesn’t really matter to me what lists I am on. It makes little difference to what is written here or how I live. It does matter to me that nice people would withdraw from a position they either don’t understand or apparently don’t agree with. To me that signals fear or dis-ease, dis-comfort and yes suffering.   It is not as simple as East and West or tradition and modern or progressive and traditional or race or culture. The world views of the secular and the religious Buddhists are somewhat different. Having been raised in a secular society and having studied Buddhism in both secular (academic) and religious contexts and presently living in a religious culture has formed my opinions.  Having the benefit of both perspectives gives some justification for the analysis of this question.

Everyone’s got to decide this one for themselves. One can’t just up and switch world views like changing hats. It takes a lot of work to see another’s perspective. It takes no effort at all to shut people down just because you think you may not like their point of view. Just because I’ve chosen to engage Buddhism from a religious perspective does not mean I don’t understand secular perspectives.  It doesn’t necessarily mean I need my perspective “stretched” or that I am in the throes of some kind of “brainwashed” cult-like delusion.  And especially it doesn’t mean I don’t know the difference between reality and it’s representations. Yeah I get it-the finger and the moon.

All told Buddhism represents Buddhism. It is what it is. It doesn’t need to be a science, philosophy, psychology or even a religion. It is itself just like the rest of reality.

So on to the original post….

.

Would You Die for a “Philosophy?”

Introduction

On numerous blogs there are discussions about the religion of Buddhism. Some want to call it a philosophy and others see it as a form of self-help psychology and still others call it a contemplative science.  Buddhism is a big thing. It’s self-stated purpose is one of transformation and liberation. This accords with purpose in most other religions even if it does not accord in terms of specific methodology,doctrine or theology in all ways to all other religions. This rather functionalist view relies on two questions. What does it do? What are it’s ends?

At the Tricycle blog the question was asked “Is Buddhism A Religion?” and within that post the additional question was posed  “And Does it Really Matter?”

Personally it doesn’t matter to me what people call it. But my personal viewpoint is not what is primarily at stake. The question of “Does It Really Matter?” ties in a lot of related and much bigger issues.

There is currently a lot of effort expended to look at Buddhism through the lens of secularity and science.  The purpose here is to look at the attempts of scientific society, modern society, Western society, secular society (choose your term) to remove elements of Buddhism and Buddhism itself from the religious and transplant it into the secular. Let’s examine some of the underlying assumptions in this effort and bring forward some arguments as to the potential success of the endeavor. And finally I want to answer the question posed “And Does it Really Matter?”

Religion or Not? Initial Position

Does it come down to the old science vs. religion argument?  That is the standard viewpoint and not one I want to take up here in too much depth. It becomes something like a contest with taunts “My science is better than your religion.” or “My religion is bigger than your science.” And the measures used by either side differ in quality. For science these measures include rationality, provability, measurability and replicability and other objective criteria. For religion they include faith, devotion, behavior, effectiveness, transformation and other subjective criteria.  There are possibly some scales in terms of social science and other disciplines that could be utilized to measure the socio-cultural impacts of religions on societies but these in turn generally rely on the subjective reports of individuals. Consider the Gross National Happiness factor in Bhutan. (Gross National Happiness: Towards Buddhist Economics from the New Economics Foundation is one related examination, as is Gross National Happiness and altruistic economics from the Global Ideas Bank)

Another of the major differences between science and Buddhism is a matter of ends. Ultimately the activity of science has no end. In dictionary definitions of science we find it to mean “a continuing effort to discover and increase human knowledge and understanding through disciplined research” and “The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation [scientific method], and theoretical explanation of phenomena.” or “knowledge covering general truths of the operation of general laws, esp. as obtained and tested through scientific method [and] concerned with the physical world.”  But even amongst scientists themselves there is controversy over definitions such as are explicated in this editorial from The Journal of Theoretics. The author posits this as a definition of Science: “the field of study which attempts to describe and understand the nature of the universe in whole or part.”  This rather broad and vague definition could then include just about any field of study including theology, philosophy or even practices like poetry and Buddhism. Clearly it is quite untenable.

Science is about hypothesis and provability of objective reality. Science is specific to the nature of the universe. Science deals with knowledge. It’s purpose is to understand.

Buddhism is about a defined goal-the eradication of suffering, also known as enlightenment. [Even though Zen posits the paradox of relinquishing goals-“Stop seeking, start finding”  or leaving words and even “religion” behind]  Buddhism is specific to individuals even if it is practiced communally.  Buddhism deals with the nature and quality of being and inter-being and by that it becomes closer to the delineated fields of philosophy and psychology but not identical to them. It’s purpose is individual transformation.

There are plenty of definitions of religion too that are as disputed as definitions of science. The typical definition often looks at a set of behaviors such as ritual, prayer, specific place and dress.   These however are lists of characteristics, circumstantial evidence if you will. The list goes on to another set, this time of beliefs. These include Metaphysical or Supernatural or Supramundane Reality, faith, doctrine, salvation, reward.  These come closer to the mark. They deal with motivation.

Often these sets of characteristics are grouped by function.  One such grouping calls them dimensions. The seven dimensions are: 1. practical/ritual; 2. experiential/emotional; 3. narrative/mythic; 4. doctrinal/philosophical; 5. ethical/legal; 6. social/institutional; and, 7. material. The emphasis on each of the dimensions varies according to each instance of religious activity.  These kinds of groupings may present an opportunity to see why from the secular viewpoint Religion has become such a dirty word.

If one has been exposed to a culture who’s dominant religion strongly emphasizes the ethical/legal and social/institutional style all religion would be viewed from this skewed perspective. Other religions like Buddhism and Taoism which emphasize the experiential/emotional, might be painted with the same brush. Similarly with the secular philosophical viewpoint latching onto the philosophical elements in Buddhism to the detriment of other elements. We are drawn to what we are familiar with. And feel alienated from that with which we have little or no experience.

Another grouping of the characteristics of religion includes Intellectual, emotional and active/performance. More will be said later about these, with particular reference to the Intellectual elements.

My definition is:

Religious activity has the main purpose of transformation towards an ultimate, subjectively held ideal. Religion is intellectual, emotional and material action reflecting the process of that transformative function. Religion as a system (of thought, of manipulating emotions or in institutional settings and usually in all 3) mediates inevitable change. Religion then is a mediator of reality.

[I am drawing this definition in part from Systems Theory]

Buddhism, the Abrahamic faiths, and any world-wide religious practices, from Shamanism and charismatic Christian revival to Scientology fulfil this definition. While science (material), philosophy (intellectual), psychology (emotional) do not. (Does my definition stand up to scrutiny? Please let me know in case I need to refine it further)

Religion or Not? Does it Matter?

Arun at Angry Asian Buddhist made some interesting points regarding the more objective socio-political reasons why it matters in  a recent post

  • Freedom of religion doesn’t apply to Buddhism.
  • Buddhism doesn’t belong in interreligious dialogue.
  • Monks and nuns should not be eligible for visas as religious workers.
  • Buddhism doesn’t belong in religious studies.
  • Persecuted Buddhists shouldn’t get religious amnesty.

This makes me think of the situation with yoga. Now yoga itself is not a religion. It is, in India, part of the Hindu religion amongst the yogis of my acquaintance. In North America however it has been sliced off from it’s origins and has become something unto itself. I do know that some yogis and yoginis in the West do understand the historical underpinnings and doctrines behind it. The difference is that in India yogis are seen as holy people. They enjoy the full protection of the Indian constitution with regard to freedom of religion. If you substitute Yogi for the Buddhist references in the above in India all these exclusions would not apply. And Yogis of Hindu origin would also enjoy that in America and elsewhere. In the West yogis that do not identify with the Hindu origins would not be able to access that same protection.

So when meditation in and of itself or Buddhist psychotherapy or Buddhist contemplative science (referring to writings by B. Alan Wallace -and there’s more to say on his hypothesis but not right now) comes into play the usual protections of rights fall away. One could make a case for freedom of association or thought or the like but it’s a much harder one to fight.

Another example of the confusion that occurs in slicing off bits and pieces of a religious practice is in Malaysia which is a Muslim country but with significant and diverse non-Muslim populations as well, including people of Indian and Chinese origins. The government there recently outlawed Yoga practice for Muslim citizens. A  backlash occurred since many Muslims there enjoy yoga as exercise in much the same way that many Western people do. The government amended the restriction and now yoga may be practiced by Muslims as long as it is not in a religious context.

I bring up the latter instance because it represents a situation where freedom of religion, even religion by implication, is not fully enjoyed. The secularization of particular religious practices is not without benefit in this particular instance. So I’m not saying instances of secularization need be condemned or some other fundamentalist type of statement. Sometimes by way of introduction to Buddhist thought and practice the secular avenue is the most approachable for some people. Nothing wrong with that. The only problem arises is when secular thought then, with it’s self-imposed limitations decides that some distorted subset of Buddhism is the whole of Buddhism.  I mentioned several of those limitations above such as philosophy, self-help psychology, or contemplative science. Buddhism is all of these and more. And further when those who do embrace the whole are vilified as religious fundamentalists, superstitious fools, deluded “believers”,  or something equally as obnoxious, this is an attempt to force them into the secularist box.

Some Contentious Assumptions

Over-rating the value of intelligence and scientific approaches and some other contentious assumptions seem to be made by certain secular Buddhists. On one blog recently this comment was left:

“for those who categorize Buddhism as a religion, this essay from B Alan Wallace might stretch your perspective http://bit.ly/YjH27

That the author believes stretching the perspective with B. Alan Wallace’s article is necessary for religiously-oriented Buddhists certainly smacks of some kind of assumption. As for stretching the mind I ask,  “What is the name of that asana?”  Clearly the author of the comment has equated religious Buddhists with small minds, meaning lacking in intelligence.

This worship of the intellect is not confined to one commenter.

Over on BeliefNet, the OneCity blog had an interesting piece about Buddhism and intelligence called Buddhism For Dummies – I Don’t Think So. I admit I quite got into it over there in the comments. Some part of the reason for that relates to the notion that religion is for superstitious and backward types, while philosophy, neuroscience, psychology represent intelligent, modern viewpoints.  There is a certain elitism in some of the more secular forms of Buddhism.

In an interview with Robert Sharf, scholar and Buddhist priest the interviewer has stated the following:

Buddhist modernism, … is the tendency to interpret Buddhist tradition through the lens of contemporary and largely unexamined assumptions, prejudices, and values.

If you read his whole interview on the Tricycle community you will find much to recommend the view to a broader view of Buddhism than through this narrow lens.  Sharf states:

One way of looking at Buddhism is as a conversation, and this conversation has been going on now for over two thousand years – a long time. Participation in this conversation has always been predicated on having a foundation in various aspects of the tradition – its literature, its philosophy, its rituals, its discipline, and so on. It is a conversation about what it is to be a human being: why we suffer, how we can resolve our suffering, what works, what doesn’t, and so forth. These are big issues, and whichever one you choose to look at, you are not going to find a single Buddhist position. There have always been different positions, and these would be debated and argued. But all parties to the debate were presumed to share a common religious culture – a more or less shared world of texts, ideas, practices – without which there could be no real conversation.

That the atomization of Buddhism into the reductionist positions of philosophy, science or psychology then does preclude a continuing conversation.

Here are a couple of self-descriptions of secular Buddhist blogs as examples:

If you’re interested in how your mind works, are interested in meditation (but don’t want to pretend you live in ancient Asia), care about the world, are into media, love contemporary culture, and above all, really dig the truth of interdependence-that nothing happens in a vacuum–then this blog is for you.

This is a group-blog on the topic of progressive, modern Buddhism – looking at Buddhism in the light of modern knowledge, free from over-attachment to ancient dogmas; looking at the best ways to integrate Buddhism into Modern/Western societies; discussing and encouraging an empirical or scientific approach; seeing insight and awakening as a living tradition not just a historical one

Both use the words ancient in contrast to modern/contemporary, both attempt to distance themselves from any sort of Asian connection and both position themselves as being providers of some sort of Buddhist interpretation for the “modern” world.

This attempt to dismantle Buddhism and to import selected ideas and practices may see some success initially. But what happens is that such an integrated system will inevitably bring along all those unselected parts and those will have to be dealt with.

The Conversion of Buddhism

If one has some interest in the history of religions and particularly new religious movements there are some pertinent trends that continually emerge.

One of the principle things to note is that with religious developments historically each does not supercede the last but incorporates it.  Elements of the older religions in a given geographical or socio-cultural area are carried over into the newer forms. (eg. Bon in Tibet)  Religion is not invented anew but pieced together with the prevailing belief systems.  This is important because not only the elements of the new religion but many elements of the old belief system still manifest.

In the case of secular America currently many people who turn to Buddhism have rejected the majority Christian religion. Christianity, with it’s sometimes authoritarian manner has become identified with the word religion.  As have the extremist actions of Muslim fundamentalists in the form of terrorism. Much of this rejection of Christianity (and Religion) has brought about a zeal for rationality and intellectualism. Modern Buddhist religion is suffering from the backlash against aggressive Christian and Islamic prosthelytizing practices and power assertions. I am not arguing against Christianity or Islam, only against aggressive, coercive practices done in the name of a religion in the specific case of America.

What continues to happen though, with the adoption of a new belief system is that a major portion of the undesired framework comes along with it. Some have labeled this “cultural baggage” or “ancient dogma” or “traditional practices” or “Asian influence”. Nonetheless these things do make themselves known (in blog posts too).  Here are a couple of examples of this in North American and European Buddhist convert practices:

  • Seasonal activities tied to the country of origin. If the new improved secular Buddhism has indeed loosed itself from the ties to Asian culture what is the purpose and meaning of  Ango or the rains retreats. There is no summer monsoon season on the continents of North America or Europe or Australia.
  • Secular Buddhism still involves hierarchies, politics and an (increasing)ordering of society (institutions, ritual and moral rules to obey) as in Asia. Teachers, students, rules of a Zendo, are one such example
  • Chanting in a language other than English (or other European language)
  • Buddhist religious symbolism. What is the purpose of a traditional symbol in a philosophy, psychology or science context? (ie Buddha statue) And why are such symbols imported (not the physical thing but the idea or image) rather than constructed locally? (An exception, I believe, is Joko Beck who uses natural local objects rather than statuary)
  • Rites of passage. To practice meditation or psychotherapy even using the Buddhist methodology does not require the taking of vows.

Buddhist religion is already here. And has been for much longer than the Neo-Secular-Buddhists would currently like to recognize.

So whether we wish to call it a religion or not the reality of the situation is that it has already taken on many of the religious characteristics that exist in Asia.  And this will only become more evident in the future.

So it matters if we want to acknowledge reality.

Religion or Not? Does it Matter? The Persecution of Buddhists

It also matters for one other reason. If:

Religious activity has the main purpose of transformation towards an ultimate, subjectively held ideal. Religion is intellectual, emotional and material action reflecting the process of that transformative function. Religion as a system (of thought, of manipulating emotions or in institutional settings and usually in all 3) mediates inevitable change. Religion then is a mediator of reality.

then in this view there is only religion as either action or reflection of action. So since the old adage goes “Action speaks louder than words” consider the actions of all the Buddhist people now and throughout time.

For Buddhism to be seen as anything less than a religion is an insult to hundreds of thousands of monks and nuns who currently dedicate their lives to the dharma. And even more so it is to forget the thousands who have given their lives for the dharma throughout history. In India there have been many persecutions of Buddhists throughout history. As well persecutions have and in some cases currently are underway in China, Tibet, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Burma, Mongolia, Korea, Soviet Union, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Japan, America.

That the Buddhist religion survived concerted efforts to eradicate it speaks strongly about the resilience of the Dharma and it’s adherents and their faith. These people did not die for a philosophy.

In Conclusion

After writing this post I almost trashed it. All these words and quibbles and insight and ignorance going round and round.  It felt more and more like a waste of time and effort.  Then I happened upon some interesting words by Paul Lynch in the comments of a post on the Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt blog. (Paul keeps his own blog at Zen Mirror) . Among other pertinent things he said “…all of our constructs are poor substitutions for reality.”

So here I’ve been hacking away on and off for a couple of days on this real fancy construction of a blog post, adorning it with some amount of energetic and wordy decoration yet knowing full well it will never adequately represent the reality of Buddhism, secular culture or my thoughts on these topics.

So there is some choice to be made with these things. As it happens something else occurred which is spurring my choice to put this on the blog anyway. In the past couple of days I’ve been writing comments on a couple of well known blogs and self-identifying as a “religious” Buddhist. That’s the first time I’ve come out with it plainly. Coincidentally today, 2 people have stricken me from their blog-rolls and 2 have dropped me as Facebook friends. (There is a total of 3 people there-all 3 are secularists) Apparently my religious declaration didn’t go down too well with them.  I did not attack a secular view of Buddhism but attempted to write from a religious (not fundamentalist) position. It seems that to do so, especially if you are not a monk, nun, priest or teacher is equated with some sort of coercion into religion.

There are a lot of demands from the secular Buddhist crowd to be heard, acknowledged and validated in their opinions of Buddhism. Many of these opinions are not the result of studying Buddhism in either monastic situations or in academic situations. And often not even with any sort of teacher or Sangha. What is being asked is a validation of an invented form of what Buddhism “ought to be according to me”. And when immediate validation is withheld or consideration of the position is not whole-hearted a reaction ensues. Just to put forward an openly religious opinion, not expecting agreement or even acknowledgement seems to threaten some people.(I am reminded of a short post on the Ramblings of a Monk blog called Disagreeing or not understanding (knowing))

Now it doesn’t really matter to me what lists I am on. It makes little difference to what is written here or how I live. It does matter to me that nice people would withdraw from a position they either don’t understand or apparently don’t agree with. To me that signals fear or dis-ease, dis-comfort and yes suffering.   It is not as simple as East and West or tradition and modern or progressive and traditional or race or culture. The world views of the secular and the religious Buddhists are different. Having been raised in a secular society and having studied Buddhism in both secular (academic) and religious contexts and presently living in a religious culture has formed my opinions.  Having the benefit of both perspectives gives some justification for the analysis of this question.

Everyone’s got to decide this one for themselves. One can’t just up and switch world views like changing hats. It takes a lot of work to see another’s perspective. It takes no effort at all to shut people down just because you think you may not like their point of view. Just because I’ve chosen to engage Buddhism from a religious perspective does not mean I don’t understand secular perspectives.  It doesn’t necessarily mean I need my perspective “stretched” or that I am in the throes of some kind of “brainwashed” cult-like delusion.  And especially it doesn’t mean I don’t know the difference between reality and it’s representations. Yeah I get it-the finger and the moon.

All told Buddhism represents Buddhism. It is what it is. It doesn’t need to be a science, philosophy, psychology or even a religion. It is itself just like the rest of reality.

Here are some of the blog discussions

Wandering Dhamma  New Trends in ‘Western’ Buddhism

Barbara O’Brien has had a couple of posts on this. Buddhism as Religion and Religion as Buddhism.

Tricycle blog Is Buddhism a Religion? The question that won’t go away.

Secularizing Buddhism–Making it Accessible or Stripping the Roots? from the  One City blog

Beyond Science, Beyond Religion on Progressive Buddhism

Sweep the dust, push the dirt blog offers numerous related posts such as Athiests Love Buddhism!

definitions is the latest post at the buddha is my dj blog that deals with matters related as well

At The Zennist When Buddhism isn’t Buddhism & chili beans ain’t chili beans

Buddhism without the Buddha on the Breathe blog

What Religion Needs to Get Right…If It Doesn’t Want to Go Wrong-Clark Strand offers a broader view of the religion debate

Modernising Buddhism-Ashin Sopaka of the blog a raft offers his view

An article with letter writing back and forth on whether Buddhism is religion or not at Tricycle magazine

On persecutions of Buddhists

Persecutions of Buddhists Wikipedia

Anti-Buddhism -list of further links

Persecution of Buddhists -lists and short descriptions

Spirit of tolerance, harmonisation and assimilation in Buddhism – from The Buddhist Channel

Two Worlds, One Reality-A Valentine Poem

Two Worlds, One Reality

-for Osama Bin Laden

i

Lord, said David, since you do not need us,
why did you create these two worlds?

Reality replied: O prisoner of time,

Remember God so much that you are forgotten.
Let the caller and the called disappear;
be lost in the Call.

Today is a holiday

Full of trinkets

Some will be treasured

But most forgotten

As life passes by

ii

O you who’ve gone on pilgrimage
where are you, where, oh where?

Hindu Kush mountains

Kush means either killer or throne

Assassin king some call you

With derision and with pride

iii

Poor copies out of heaven’s originals,
Pale earthly pictures mouldering to decay,

We are sacks of stones

Waiting to be thrown

Or meant to adorn

Some peaceful garden’s fountain

iv

There are thousands of wines
that can take over our minds.

Don’t think all ecstasies
are the same!

Many drink from poison cups

Old Gautama said:

If on the hand there is no wound,

one may carry even poison in it.

Poison does not affect one

who is free from wounds.

Dhp IX Papavagga Evil

Who of us is left unwounded

by the burn of the sun

and the cold of the night?

v

say this, “Anything that comes and goes,
rises and sets, is not what I love.”

else you’ll be like a caravan fire left
to flare itself out alone beside the road.

One is not advanced

Nor is another lagging behind

Walking on this road

Where is the shelter of a few trees

Under which to rest?

vi

What has the fine pearl to do with the world of dust?

we are the pearls from the bosom of the sea,
it is there that we dwell

The pearl does not drown

Nor is it’s light seen

through the depths

vii epilogue

Talking is pain. Lie down and rest,
now that you’ve found a friend to be with.

This poem is only my trinket

Given to the wind

I do not know Reality

Who can be sure?

Not you and not me.

But it is also said

Rub thine eyes, and behold the image of the heart.


Rumi quotations are in italics