Two Shores of Zen and The Broken Buddha: comments on two books

Buddhism as practiced in America has been subject to criticism. So has Buddhism in various parts of Asia. Here are the works of two more experienced voices on that subject.

Two Shores of Zen

A short time ago I got an email from Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler, who is a Soto Zen Buddhist priest and teacher, resident at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center which is part of the San Francisco Zen Center.

He has a new book out on the issues of Buddhism East and West which chronicles his time practicing Zen in California and in Japan. He seemed to think I might have interest in the subject matter of his book. He was quite right.

I’ve read the excerpts he sent from his book and found them to be really interesting. It isn’t often that those involved in the Buddhist Establishment write so openly about their disillusioning experiences in trying to find a way to practice that feels true and deep.

He writes in the beginning of his enthusiasm and zeal for practice in Japan. Ignoring physical discomfort and even injury he pushes ahead, and perhaps pushes himself too far in the quest. And it seems like a quest to an earnest young guy hell-bent on fully immersing himself in the Dharma.

His quest took him to Japan after some years studying in America. He describes this transition in this way:

But I’m frustrated, and I’m tired, and it’s dawning on me, like a slow, unstoppable train, that if I’m really serious about this Buddhism thing, I may well need to abandon this California imitation of it. I don’t mean to disparage the Sangha, my peers and my teachers, but I have vowed to end all suffering, my own and others’. And I’ve glimpsed the possibility of that kind of salvation, but the lifestyle here is not pushing me to take the plunge, to realize the one final truth that will shatter all delusions and liberate all beings.

It is not that I’m averse to problems; I understand that they are the stones that lay the path. I am tired, though, of these corporate problems, “Are we making enough?” and these hippie commune problems, “Who’s fucking who?” I want to live more humble problems: cold wind through threadbare robes, the faint, holy fragility of a diet of watery rice. I want monks’ problems. The problems implied in the ancient admonitions like Dogen’s Zuimonki, and the original Buddhist monastic code, the
Vinaya.

The romanticization of life in the East and life in the past has taken over many who follow the Buddhist path. Idealization of both place and time when encountering the products of other cultures and their histories can be a real diversion from one’s decided direction. It can become a great disappointment when the obvious appears. We can’t go “there” or “then”.  This can also be one of the most valuable lessons to learn.

Some resort to bitterness when disillusionment sets in. In several descriptions of a fellow American monk in Japan who became thoroughly disgusted with what he perceived to be American Zen this character states:

“I mean if you want to just live a good life, go back to American Zen. Move up the Zen corporate ladder, make your little Zen career like the rest of those guys out there.”

“Those American Zen ‘teachers’ think they’re saving beings but they’re just stopping some children from crying. They aren’t themselves awake, so how could they really save anyone?”

To which the author responds:

Here, finally, is a monk who understands the pain of being at a comfortable, pop-psychy American Zen place, while really wanting to realize the Way. I can talk to him, and say the things that seem too hard, or too unkind, to say at home.

Yet the author seems to have some doubts about the boisterous monk’s criticisms.  A few days later at the end of a conversation with another fellow monk he has some realizations that give a different perspective.

“You’re going back home!” I say, watching the water. I am sad and excited: sad for myself, and for our parting, but excited at the emerging possibility that there might be such a thing as “going home.” That even kalpas trickle away. I bite off a piece of my espresso ice cream bar, and remember once in the States looking at the ocean with a Japanese monk friend, watching the waves roll in and slide back. He taught me the word natsukashii, like nostalgic, homesick, longing backwards. It had seemed right then that he could swim home if he wanted—I had seen him see that he could swim home.

Going away in order to come home is a familiar theme in Buddhism. Home leaving in one form or another,  the finding of what has always been there, that home is not a place. There are a lot of lessons that come from the journey however it manifests and for whatever reasons it is undertaken.

There is an amusing episode involving a foreign family from Australia that comes to visit the temple but I’ll leave that for you to read in the excerpts available.

On the other hand there is disillusionment to be found in Japan as well.

A former priest I met in the U.S. once told me about practicing at the Japanese Soto Zen head temple Eiheiji—not just the parties and porn, but at the gate, when he’d announced, upon ritual questioning, that his reason for coming to the monastery was ahimsa, “non-harming.” At that he had received a look of total incomprehension that really set him back, an early blow that never went away, that never turned around, and he’d only made it for nine months or so before getting out of his priest robes and out of Japan. If it isn’t ahimsa, he said, what is the point?

It seems the greater the delusion one is under the greater the effect when that delusion shows it self by way of reality. The burning out of delusion sometimes leaves people themselves burnt out. This is likely the reason so many turn away from the Buddhist path and into nihilism or worse.  Effort in that circumstance, when there is no more goal, is one of the most difficult things to muster.

Fortunately for Jiryu he managed to work out a way to continue.

One of the most important sections is in trying to define a Middle Way. I will take this topic up again in a larger context in the next section of this post with another author’s work. But on this subject Jiryu writes at some length:

But on what graph do we chart this Middle Way? Dogen would perhaps at one extreme draw the ancient Indian mountain ascetics, naked, long-haired, eating grasses if they ate at all; and, at the other extreme, he might put the pampered nobility of his own day. Given those poles, his model of the Middle was Shakyamuni, the renunciate monk who ate one meal a day and lived simply in the woods.

Shaykamuni, as recorded in the Vinaya, is clear how monks should live out the Middle Way: don’t light a fire just because you’re cold, don’t hand a woman anything, or ever be alone with a woman. Don’t ride on a carriage, don’t handle so much as a penny, and if you must lie down, sleep on your right side, in your robes, mindful. This was by no means Shaykamuni Buddha’s view of asceticism—this was precisely his teaching of the Middle Way.

But we American Buddhists, calling ourselves disciples of Buddha, find Shakyamuni’s own Middle Way too extreme. To find our Middle Way we seem to set Shakyamuni himself at one extreme, and the likes of Donald Trump at the other, so naturally we find our middle in soft beds and lazy practice schedules, in romances and The Times. But how can we call this following Shakyamuni? How did we manage to make the original Middle Way into an extreme to be avoided?

The texts like Zuimonki and the Vinaya scriptures thus recede into spiritualized metaphor—they aren’t about how we should actually live, but just about an inner attitude we should have. In their place, books like “Zen and Business” and “Zen Sex” spring up and dot the bookstores, excerpted in glossy, pop-Buddhist magazines. I hate those magazines, though it’s true I have liked some of the articles. There was that one about Zen and sex that I nervously skimmed, leaning against the shelves in a big city bookstore, but that’s just my own weakness…. Hate, too, is improper, but I quite nearly hate the celebrity Buddhists who, I’m told, dash their People interviews with Buddhist terms. My negativity is my weakness, I know. I should not disparage the Sangha. I apply myself to my studies and practice. I meet with my teacher again and again, hoping he can free me from my bias.

There are a lot of big issues in this book which is narrated in an engaging way. This work was reminiscent of the work of Janwillem Van de Wetering,  who wrote The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery in 1971  followed by A Glimpse of Nothingness: Experiences in an American Zen Community in 1975 and Lawrence Shainberg’s book Ambivalent Zen from 1995.  More recently Noah Levine and Brad Warner have written in a similar vein. I have to admit a fondness for the “Zen-fessional” genre.

Everyone struggles to sort out what is true and what is not. To be able to read of this struggle is both comforting and disturbing. We learn that others struggle and we also learn that it takes a lot of time and sincere effort to resolve that struggle if indeed it is ever completely resolved. The words “soul searching” come to mind but they would be misplaced and too literally taken by some.

The search for authentic practice of the middle way is at the crux of criticisms many have of Buddhist establishments anywhere.   Authentic practice is an expression of one’s authentic being .

Related Links

The author,  Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler,  maintains a blog No Zen in the West. More information about the book is on www.shoresofzen.com. There is a downloadable selection of excerpts available there as well as ordering information for the entire book both in print and electronic format.

Dosho Port has a couple of interesting posts on this book  Two Shores of Zen: Are Western Sanghas All of That? and What is Great Practice? and there is vigorous discussion in the comments as well.

The Broken Buddha

Ven. Shravasti Dhammika has been a Theravada monk for over 30 years. He has trained in Sri Lanka, Burma, India, Laos and Thailand and is a great storehouse of knowledge of the Dhamma both in study and in practice.

Some time ago he produced a short book that addressed concerns he had about the stagnation and rigidity to be found in the institutions of Buddhism in Asia and increasingly in the west. This book is called The Broken Buddha:Critical Reflections on Theravada and a Plea for a New Buddhism. The purpose of the book is  summarized as:

…these reflections will also attempt to show what Theravada really is, how it got like that and suggests ways of bringing it closer to the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings so that it can become revenant to a non-traditional environment.

The author begins the text with a quotation:

There is no law in history which guarantees that Buddhism will grow roots in the West or advance beyond its present infantile stage. But one would expect that it will grow more conscious of its own difficulties and Buddhists will awaken to the problems which Buddhism itself thrusts upon man as an essential part of its treasure. One would also hope that doubt should appear as the sign of a deeper conviction. Luis O. Gomez

This is an interesting quote because it points to the apparent gap between Buddhism as historically practiced and the sometimes wildly new expressions found in convert groups. The choice seems to have become so polarized that what we are left with is either stultifying rigidity or hedonistic abandon. It is as if no middle ground exists. Yet the middle ground is what most of us occupy.

Just as the previous author mentioned here too is a dichotomy that has appeared not only between East and West but also between past and present. The latter duo is what is emphasized in this particular work.

We are given a thorough history of Theravadin schools and developments, with points illustrated with stories from the Pali Canon as well as Mahayana texts  such as the Vimalakirtinidesa Sutra. The breadth of background material is somewhat daunting but very informative. He also relies on historians, philosophers and social scientists, particularly in the field of anthropology in the analysis.

There are particulars about monastic life in South and South-east Asia that are given scrutiny. Institutional problems such as hypocrisy, boredom, lack of materials, exaggerated veneration and other excesses as well as selfishness, misogyny, sectarianism, wealth collection and hollow rituals are outlined. It is a fairly comprehensive catalogue of issues. But issues cannot be addressed until they are first acknowledged.

A New Buddhism is proposed. The author writes:

It might appear from all that has been said that I would advocate throwing the old Buddha image with all its cracks, missing pieces and dents on to the scrap heap and leaving it at that. However, there might be another alternative. The metal the image is made from may be corroded and rusty but it is still of inestimable value. The image’s style might be at odds with modern tastes but a skilled sculptor could fashion a more contemporary and beautiful form. The old Buddha image needs to be melted down and cast again in a new mold.

Many of the issues discussed on this blog and elsewhere including issues of ethnic Buddhists and converts, levels of involvement in the Dharma from hobbyist to monastic, representation of women are presented. This new Buddhism which  would encompass elements from most of the current representations of Buddhism is tentatively titled Buddhayana. I’ve just looked up a reference to this and here is a section of text from:

Saddharmapundarika Sutra

The stupid and those of little wit,
Those tied to externals,
And the proud cannot believe this Truth.
But now I gladly and with boldness
In the midst of (you) Bodhisattvas,
Straightway put aside expediency
And only proclaim the Supreme Way.
It was as expedient means
That I expounded a Three-Vehicle Law.
Let all be free of doubt and perplexity.
World-Honoured Ones, without exception,
Teach this Way: the One Buddha-yana.
(For) all Buddhas take the one vow:
‘The Buddha-way which I walk,
I will universally cause all the living
To attain this same Way with me.’
Though Buddhas in future ages
Proclaim hundreds, thousands, kotis,
Of countless ways into the doctrine,
In reality there is but the One-Vehicle.

from the complete text here.[pdf]

It is not a description of one way that throws out everything including texts and commentaries but one that understands them more fully. Not one that seeks a destructive approach of sowing to salt the ground on which tradition stands, but one which clears the weeds and finds the seeds which were planted there and attends and nourishes them appropriately.

This book brings to the fore, in an honest fashion, the author’s observations over decades of monastic practice. In some ways it parallels the author’s own spiritual path. He amply illustrates his points with personal stories as well as scholarly references. Some people will not like what he has to say. Others will conclude he has not gone far enough. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it but it certainly provides a great deal of food for thought.

Related links

The Broken Buddha:Critical Reflections on Theravada and a Plea for a New Buddhism by Shravasti Dhammika  – the complete pdf document downloadable from the link.

The author maintains a blog Dhamma Musings full in interesting and insightful writing.  There are links there to other books he has written.

Conclusion

Overcoming this deep ocean that seems to separate East from West and Past from Present is going to require the building of a raft with materials from both shores.

Amerikan Tantriks:The Greedy Teaching the Needy

travelingtantrik

Here in India there are folks who go around under the guise of religion and bilk the ignorant, poor and often not-so-poor and not-so-ignorant. They are called Tantriks. The newspapers abound with stories of people convinces to do everything from handing over their life savings to sacrificing their neighbors children for some kind of relief of problems or personal gain.

Seems that America is not much different. There have been snake-oil salesman aplenty in American history. The only thing that sets apart the current crop is their brazen audacity , utterly shameless greed and the willingness of individuals to participate in this lunacy.

These new Amerikan Tantriks are often monastery and ashram drop-outs with little else going for them but a driving ambition and a lot of glib talk.  Some have no credential at all except for the ability to mimic what they have seen done at a retreat or two or on the National Geographic channel and call it some new fangled self-help technique. Throw in a lot of scientific or foreign sounding words and you’ve got a money making machine. Or at least one to polish up the  outrageously inflamed ego of the group leader.

Recently a couple of people died in a makeshift moneymaking “sweat lodge” ceremony in Sedona Arizona, not exactly a place known to be a bastion of rational or critical  thought.

There have been apologists all over the place preaching compassion for the group leader James Arthur Ray and condemning any sort of criticism of the event. The guy should be charged with manslaughter at the very least. What the fuck are people thinking? Are they thinking at all? (Yeah and Roman Polanski should face up as well! Rape is rape even if it isn’t in Whoopi Goldberg’s esteemed legal opinion (there’s an oxymoron if I’ve ever encountered one) “rape-rape” .How would she like her grandchildren raped even if it isn’t “rape-rape”???)

As the few who have been reading this blog for a while know, some critical examination of some of the bullshit wearing Buddhist (and other) religious robes is not something I shy away from much. Not that I want to become a basher of anything that doesn’t fit “MY” definition of Buddhism but some shit is just too hurtful and harmful to let pass in silence.

Conscience is at the heart of ethics and yes compassion too. Without a conscience there is no ability to identify suffering or beyond that identify with suffering and experience empathy. Without a conscience we are psychopaths given over only to our own self-gratification. I mentioned this before but consider the words of H.H Dalai Lama who used the Tibetan phrase “shen dug ngal wa la mi so pa” which means “the inability to bear the sight of another’s suffering”. (Dalai Lama in “Ethics for the New Millennium). What is it in us that cannot “bear”?

It is the conscience.

Links:

The Unquestioned Gurus of the Religion of the Self -I think Duff’s critical examinations of the guru industry in America are much needed. In this piece he talks about the greedy teaching the needy and an important section on psychopathic spiritual teachers. And there are a few of them in the Buddhist world too!

American False Idols-Brenda P. asks some pertinent questions along this line in the Yoga world. Choice comments too.

James Arthur Ray’s Spiritual Warrior Event Kills 2, Injures 19 in Sweat Lodge Fiasco-Duff has at it again with this tragedy. He has a followup piece as well. The Dark Side of The Secret: Reading James Arthur Ray’s Sweat Lodge Disaster through a Magickal Lens

OneCity picks up the thread  in Ellen’s article Spiritual Warrior Death in Sweat Lodge in Sedona, Arizona It’s a fairly tepid piece, on par with the prevailing Zeitgeist of the Buddhist Blogosphere. (WTF we Buddhists would Neeevvveeeer do anything that silly! Though some of us would follow Michael Roach around for three years without saying a word!  See Could you hack 3 years, 3 months & 3 days of silence? )

From the Pagan blogosphere The New Age Sweat Lodge Death Controversy

New Age Frauds and Plastic Shaman is a new website dedicated to examining these sorts of issues.

At Integral Options Cafe the post An Ethical Code for Spiritual Teachers offers some possibilities in future directions

The Zen Site has a critical Zen section and a recent inclusion is that of The Aitken-Shimano Letters which outlines years of inappropriate behavior by Eido Shimano, who is still the head of Zen Studies Society and Dai-Bosatsu monastery. Why does this continue?

A couple of loosely critical attempts at guru and teacher ratings. Some well known Buddhist affiliates are included:

Self Help Guru Ratings

Sarlo-s Guru Ratings (here’s the Zen teacher’s page)  Here’s a criticism of Sarlo’s pages as well

Here is a great explanation of the psychology behind these kinds of self-help situations by a Marketer-Persuading People To Death – When Self Help Turns Deadly

Aside: While not a nice post there just needs to be a little more examination of some of the things that go on under the rubric of spirituality and this includes Buddhism. Lecture away if you will about right speech. Faking it in the “flowers and rainbows” department is not something my conscience would rest easy with. Oh yeah I killed a furry little mammal the other day too.

How to be an Avant-Garde Buddhist

The Avant-Garde.  Is there anything more heady and enlightened?

The poetry and drama of out of control weirdness is sure to stop all the pretenders cold. The fine line between genius/madness/enlightenment is not to be approached by the less than worthy.

One must succor the innate disconnect between consensual reality and that which you have constructed/perceived with your own trans-inspirational Buddha-nature.

The dialogue between that ever precious mental metal lotus blossoming and the steely refrain of the galvanizing homogenization of the stimulative context in which it flourishes is the refuge and the source of that Nirvana-hum our Bodhicitta was meant to reach towards.

Enjoy the fruition of the moment. And you too can develop the Avant-Garde Buddhist within. It’s not merely a promise of so much more. It is as the Universe.

Here’s my poem for this hour. It is part of an on-going project (a must for the Avant-Garde).

Tesselation
on the bandstand
of life
Samsara
Ubiquitous
Unquiet
Remote
Together
Participatory
Slander makes dander
Dandruff

Here’s some links to get started on your new identity as an Avant-Garde Buddhist

The Facebook Fan Page for Bjork’s Swan Dress-contemplate the dissolution of all things as you view the dress or make your own dress to wear as you chant the Heart Sutra but don’t use a real swan either for the dress or the chanting. In the latter case they make you lose your rhythm.

bjork-wearing-swan-dress-2

Nam June Paik’s TV Buddha– a video installation

bild-1During the ‘Projekt ‘74′ exhibition in Cologne, Paik took the Buddha’s place in his recent creation, suggesting the implicit antithesis between transcendentalism and technology was equally present in his own personality. From

A couple of sound things from UbuWeb

Tellus #19: New Music China (1988)
Ji Gong – Sings hit TV theme of itinerant Buddhist monk (2:29)
With refrain chant “Nan Wu A Mi Tou Fo” to the Amithaba Buddha. The lead-in lyrics: “My hat, clothes and fan are tattered. You laugh at me and I laugh at you.” Shanghai Record Co

Åke Hodell (1919-2000) 220 Volts Buddha

220 Volt Buddha – Electronic Purgatorium I (21:25)


Addendum

You might also want to check out this post from the Tricycle blog Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect, says the Times

This and That Blahblahblah

Blahblahblah

Was just going to leave it at that but perhaps blahblahblah is not sufficient.

Gave myself a couple of weeks holiday from doing much Internet stuff. Nice.

Read a few things that I could have gotten on a soapbox about but decided the climb up there wasn’t worth it at the time. I may revisit some of it later (oops I did later in this post)  if the mood hits or not.

Took an extended stay in Canada this summer and traveled back to India during this hiatus. Nice stay at the Hong Kong airport as a friend happened to be on the way to Bangladesh and we both had a couple of hours to kill, so a good conversation and coffee was had.

Arrived home to find Manoj (who I live with here) has had the whole place painted and a lot of electrical and other problems sorted out nicely.  Am always happy to see his smiling face at the airport at 2AM.  He’s not all that keen to come to Canada. “Maybe one time.” he says.  But he may just be placating me.

Things chug along.

Noticed this blog got listed on the Tricycle website somehow! Gasp. Will I still be able to tear into the Buddhist glossies with the same saber wit as always? (a little dull recently though) Sure why not.

Some want to get into Buddhist branding (OneCity blog) and others want to rewrite the precepts to encompass the brewing of beer-ask the Tibetans about that-they’ve been making Chhaang for years (and having had a taste of it in times gone by it ain’t that bad) or take in the Shambhala training on that and related topics. Something for everyone!

And the usual crews want to step up the SECULAR CRUSADE against religious Buddhism or whatever it is.

In fact, if I do nothing else for the next few months with my space here at Beliefnet other than help clarify that Buddhism is not a religion, I’ll feel that my time was well spent.  Jerry Kolber in comments on the OneCity blog.

Will there be enough interest and entrepreneurial spirit by the great leaders and dharma teachers in the West to forge something new, something that speaks to our culture in a way no other tradition can do? Kyle on Reformed Buddhist blog

Sounds a little “Crusady” to me. So what will be accomplished by all of this thought and effort to “enlighten” us ignorant, superstitious, religious types? Weeellll  I suppose there’s a name in lights somewhere-such things like “The man who brought a religion to it’s knees!!!” or “The man who brought a Diet of Worms to Buddhism!” (did ya get the reference to Martin Luther there?!) YESSS!!! You too will get your own Wikipedia page for the effort in another hundred years or so. It won’t help much in dealing with the Great Matter but who cares about that shit anyways?

There might be a co-authorship with that Hitchens guy or some other famous anti-religious crusading Atheist dude. Could fill the bank account quite nicely. Maybe even a guest spot on some talk show.

And who needs ethical guidelines  (or other “religious” crap like that) to get in the way of a good time anyways! Best to just make it up as we go along. If there’s collateral damage well that’s their karma! My New Age friends told me so.
And of course a few people will be ever grateful for their release from the suffering of repetitive strain injuries caused by having to iron all those stupid robes day and night!

It’s highly unlikely that the BIG NAME dharma teachers are going to throw off their robes and go frolic naked in Times Square in celebration due to this BIG NEWS that Buddhism isn’t a religion. (though wouldn’t that be quite a sight!)

So you know if these folks want to make some kind of secular sect due to their queasiness with anything smacking of belief/religion/tradition who cares? Call it contemplative science or logical enlightenment or or drunken boxing or any sort of brand that comes to mind. I am sure a couple of hundred million religious Buddhists around the world couldn’t give a shit about it and right now neither do I much.

It’s all the fucking politics of semantics anyways.

Blahblahblah.

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