May 14, 2009


Some people complain that Westerners are going to Buddhism like they go to Wal-Mart, picking what they like, leaving an ugly consumerist mess behind.

I am, apparently, one such Wal-Mart shopper. You can pin me with almost all of those negative stereotypes. I'm a middle class intellectual who lives a comfortable life and is pursuing a PhD. I don't consider myself Buddhist. I turned away, by choice, from religion because I couldn't stand being told what to think or believe. One thing I like about Buddhism - well, let's be specific, the practice taught here that includes among other things vipassana and metta - is its rationality and openness. I view it as somewhat scientific. I feel there is something of unspeakable value to be learned and known, but I am not interested in becoming a nun. I dislike complicated or unexplained rituals. I do not wish to revere authority simply because I am told to do so.

From one perspective, a somewhat bitter perspective in my opinion, I'm just another greedy Westerner who wants to apply a feel-good salve to her broken Western life at the expense of Asian tradition. If I'm going to be involved with Buddhism, I should call myself Buddhist (out of respect?). I shouldn't "pick and choose" which parts of Buddhism I pay attention to - the thing exists as a whole for good reasons laid down by smart people, and I am unwise to leave out the traditional aspects. I shouldn't be grabby - either I can live my opulent Western life, or I can ordain or become homeless and discover the true meaning of the teachings. I should be laughed at, or at least corrected, for insisting that there is a scientific quality to the teachings. I should believe Buddhist scholars about what is ethically correct before I should be so cocky as to trust myself, because I haven't thought about things as much as they have. I should not fool myself in to thinking that what I am doing is as valuable as what a real Buddhist is doing.

Oh, this makes me sad. And it scares me. Truly. This is precisely why I do not call myself Buddhist, and why I do not identify myself by any other label. Please, world, I beg you - do not judge me for following my heart. I am trying, with more earnestness than I could possibly convey, to wake up, to find out what is true, to bring happiness to the world instead of suffering. You do not have to believe me. I do not want to take anything away from you. I do not want you to think I am noble or correct.

This is so similar to the complaint that surfaces in Christian communities every December. Non-believers flock to churches on Christmas Eve, apparently, it would seem, to complete their sordid Christmas shopping list by taking advantage of the beauty that true believers create on such a special night. There is such outrage that these "cultural Christians" take comfort in a Christmas Eve service. I can imagine ways in which these infrequent church-goers could be a genuine problem - perhaps they are disrespectful, noisy, or otherwise clueless about how to participate. But I think most of them are respecful people with a genuine desire to mark a special day in a way that means something to them. Why is there such an impulse to deny them that opportunity? I do not think that they degrade Christianity with their sporadic enthusiasm and sharing. I do not think that their happiness is undeserved.

In some ways, I think it's human nature to want others to follow our path. This is evident to me even in daily life. If I find, while eating dinner, that combining my salad dressing and my mashed potatoes produces a fantastic new dish, I am likely to tell everybody at the table. I want them to experience it. Maybe I'll feel disappointed when my neighbor decides that she's perfectly happy with her food the way it is. This sort of thing happens all the time. Have you ever read a really fantastic article, and wanted everybody you know to read it, too? Some people will find it boring. Others will find it thrilling. Others will read the first paragraph and then become distracted by something that is more important to them at that time. In those moments we can have such a strong sense that THIS article is THE MOST IMPORTANT, and that everybody MUST see it. It's very strange.

This, I think, is the danger of religion. People have profound experiences, and they want to share. Some are intersted, others are not. There is this terrible tendency to think that if another person is not interested in following your path, he or she does not respect the depth of your experience, or even worse, denies that your experience is valid. This becomes so complicated when it comes to religious traditions. It is so easy to assume that if your neighbor does not do things exactly as you do them, he or she is missing out, and will never understand the wonderful things that you understand. I think this assumption comes, fundamentally, from a warm-hearted impulse, but is among the most damanging thoughs a human being can act upon.

The Buddha said:
“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

This passage is oft-quoted by Western Buddhists, and perhaps they (I?) cling to it too hard, as proof that they are not being duped or brainwashed, as many fear. It may be that my love for this passage is merely a product of my cultural background, but if so, I am not ashamed, because I do not pretend to be somehow existant without a culture. I do think it is important. I think it invites us all to do that most vile deed, and "shop" for what we believe. I call it "shopping" in order to make a point, but I do not think there is anything consumerist or cheap about refusing labels and refusing to be told what to think. I realize that this very attitude, one focused on independence, is very Western, and that everything I say is being colored by it. There are no absolutes. I can prove nothing. I can only act.

But when one decries the intersection of Western ideals with Buddhist ideals, when one announces that Westerners can't possibly "achieve" anything with a watered-down Buddhism catered to their every desire... one misses the goodness that is already flowing in this newborn tradition. There is a certain sweetness here already. It is changing lives. Who cares whether or not it will "go as far" as Buddhism has in the East? We'll find out when we find out. Nothing is being desecrated. Right now - right here, and right now! - there is just a little more happiness. I've felt it - happiness isn't in the imagination.

In the end, we all want to be seen for who we really are. I am a middle class intellectual who lives in a co-op, organizes (among other things) for organic food to be delivered to my door, and believes strongly in living in a supportive, inclusive community. To the degree that I am able, I do not take part in consumerist culture, I tend the earth, I recycle, I reuse, I use technology responsibly, I take care of those around me, I take care of myself. I am pursuing a PhD in a subject which I truly believe will help relieve suffering. I don't consider myself a Buddhist because I don't want to espouse beliefs I haven't fully examined, and I don't want to be embroiled in conflict about which Way is Correct. I like the rationality and openness of Buddhist practice because I don't want to be a part of any belief system that is exclusive in any way. I view it as somewhat scientific because one's experience is not governed by the amount of one's faith. I am not interested in becoming a nun because I think I have more to offer the world on the path I'm taking and it would be false to abandon that notion. I dislike complicated or unexplained rituals because one can easily confuse the ritual itself with the quality of heart the ritual is supposed to invoke. I do not wish to revere authority when I am told to do so because I think there is more honor in being respected for a reason than for power.

That's all.

1 comment:

Aron said...

I wonder, do these scarecrows you posit really exist? No doubt they do, given that you felt compelled to write about them. But you have rejected such views with enough heart that next to your words they look simply ridiculous, and in a way that should be obvious to the holders of these critiques.

I feel that those who criticise from outside the faith err immediately, for the partial adopters pose for them no harm. If the Buddhists have no problem with how you use Buddhist ideas to develop your own spirituality, than no one else should either. For those critics from inside the faith, I believe that the error is the same across many faiths.

There must be more motivation for the orthodox to oppose heresy than compassion, more to the critically faithful than a desire to share the spiritual equivalent of culinary innovation. Especially given how sharp you portray their tongues. I think there is a fear, a deep insecurity from the threat of partial and differential adopters, the shoppers, that perhaps they have found the grain from the chaff, and that perhaps they might advance to a stage of greater revelation, leaving those that beat after antiquated traditions faithful to dead ends.

Especially when these shoppers are already disliked, for what else they believe or how they live or where they were born. Then the idea that they might have the wisdom to select the most salient ideas would seem arrogance in the extreme, but perhaps disquieting too.

Religion, to the extent that it is a social virus, is also bound to the laws of natural selection. Creeds that condemn heresy, or that even just culture the devote to frown on shoppers, promote themselves to the fullest, like enzymes doing copy repair, and thus this pressure for orthodoxy, for the literal word, or, in the case you reject, for the full adoption of practices and hierarchy and label (brand?), is ubiquitous among the faiths.

It is important to call out such close-mindedness, and to reject it. Thank you for doing just that.