The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on August 29, 2012
From Buddhist Laughter to the Protestant Smile

The Huffington Post website carries a blog with the title “Faith Shift” written by Jaweed Kaleem. Last year, the blog reported on a large conference in Garrison, New York, supported by major Buddhist centers and periodicals. The focus of the conference was the future of Buddhism in America. The religion is represented in this country by two very distinct groups: immigrants from traditionally Buddhist countries, and converts to Buddhism without such an ethnic background. The conference was mostly attended by people in the second category.

If the future of Buddhism in America can be discussed as a problem, it is that as a result of success rather than failure. Todd Johnson may be called the dean of religious nose-counters. In a forthcoming book which he co-authored with Brian Grim (The World’s Religions in Figures: An Introduction to International Religious Demography), the number of Buddhists in North America is estimated at about four-and-a-half million. The Huffington Post story gives an estimate of two million for the non-ethnic component of this population (converts and their families). These figures must be read with some skepticism. They are probably on the low side, because ideas and practices derived from Buddhism have become widely diffused in America, often without the label “Buddhist” being attached to them.  Even so, explicitly labeled Buddhism has become a considerable religious phenomenon—one that has evoked remarkably little animosity.

For example, in the Greater Boston area there are at least sixty Buddhist centers, representing just about any significant branch of Buddhism—including branches deriving from the two principal traditions of Mahayana (dominant in East Asia) and Theravada (concentrated in Southeast Asia), with strong representation of Zen (brought to America by Japanese missionaries) and Tibetan Buddhism (which has very distinctive and partly esoteric characteristics). Two dynamic international movements have centers—Soka Gakkai (coming from Japan) and Tzu Chi (with its origins in Taiwan). Some centers are labeled “non-sectarian”. One operates out of a Unitarian church (not surprising), another from an Episcopalian one (slightly more surprising). What one may observe here is a veritable orgy of American denominationalism. But in addition to these explicitly Buddhist organizations there is a rich assortment of “holistic centers”, offering alternative therapies for both physical and psychological maladies; many of these therapies include Buddhism-derived methods of meditation. The conventional medical establishment has become more open to these approaches, and some have been adopted by corporate “wellness” programs (the very term is self-consciously “holistic”).

Of course Buddhism is not the only source of this large phenomenon of what the British sociologist Colin Campbell called the “Easternization of the West” (in a 2009 book of that title). The widespread practices of yoga and martial arts are not primarily based on Buddhist ideas, neither is the appeal of traditional Indian and Chinese medical techniques—some herbal, others (such as acupuncture) not. Then there is so-called “engaged Buddhism”, which has espoused various political causes of American progressivism—notably environmentalism (restoring an allegedly more harmonious relationship between humanity and nature), communalism (overcoming the supposed evils of “excessive individualism”), sexual liberation (so called Tantric ideas serve here as a bridge between Buddhism and originally counter-cultural sexual liberation), and, last not least, social justice and pacifism (understood much of the time as anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism). The Dalai Lama, perhaps unintentionally (he is by all accounts a serious and scholarly teacher of a Buddhist worldview), has become a popular celebrity serving to legitimate this multicultural amalgam.

What is attractive in all this to contemporary Americans? I would take it for granted that there is more than one attraction—after all, some individuals may practice meditation to reach unity with the divine, others to experience better sex or to lose weight. But it seems to me that there is one Buddhist practice that is close to the heart of the attraction: the practice of “mindfulness” (sati in the Pali sources, smrti in the Sanskrit ones). It means concentrated, quiet attention to reality, beginning with one’s own physical processes (notably breathing) and the seemingly trivial objects in one’s immediate surroundings. If properly undertaken (and this can be taught), “mindfulness” leads to an experience of great tranquility, first in the act of meditation, then (one hopes) expanding to life as a whole. A well-maintained rock garden or a well-performed tea ceremony, both Japanese cultural artifacts of Buddhist inspiration, perfectly express this sense of pervasive calm. On my first visit to India, years ago now, I spent some days in Benares (now called Varanasi). There is a tumultuous scene on the shore of the Ganges in one of the holiest sites of Hinduism—multitudes of pilgrims coming and going, people bathing in the river, funeral ceremonies being conducted at the riverside ghats where corpses are cremated. There is something distinctively Hindu in this exuberant (and noisy) celebration of life and death on the side of a river which, like all rivers, symbolizes the flow of all beings toward absorption in the ocean of divinity. On one day I went out to visit the Deer Park, just a short distance from the city—the location where Gautama the Buddha is supposed to have preached his first sermon after achieving Enlightenment. The contrast could not have been any greater. The estate is quite large, dotted with temples and monasteries run by organizations from the Buddhist countries of East and Southeast Asia (Buddhism has been virtually extinct in India since the Muslim conquest and persecution). While I was there, no service was going on that I was aware of. Several Thai monks were quietly passing by. It was an experience of perfect calm.

Back to the American reception of Buddhism: Much of what I have described here is hard to quarrel with (leaving aside the foolishness of some of the counter-cultural adaptations); some of it may be beneficial (so say a few professors at Harvard Medical School), some may even be admirable. What does it have to do with the original message of the Buddha?

The history of Buddhism is five hundred years older than the history of Christianity. Needless to say, over this huge expanse of time the religion has taken many forms—some popular ones intertwined with magic, some of profound sophistication (from the Madhyamika philosophy of ancient Indian Buddhism to the twentieth-century Kyoto school that tried to establish links with modern Western thought). Certainly no outsider can decide what is and what is not “genuine” Buddhism (and, by the way, there is no central Buddhist authority to do so). But it is possible to understand the questions to which the Buddha sought to find answers. These questions are deeply rooted in the religious experience of ancient India, going all the way back to the Vedas (scholars disagree as to when the term “Hinduism” should properly be applied to this experience). At the very core of this experience, and of the bodies of thought that tried to reflect it, is the notion of reincarnation: Every individual soul migrates across many lives. This is often called the “wheel of life”. It seems to me that this phrase does not accurately describe what the notion of reincarnation implies. A more appropriate phrase would be the “wheel of deaths”: Every individual must die over and over again. This is a vision of horror. To this day ordinary Hindus (as indeed many ordinary Buddhists) simply live in such a way that their next incarnation will be better, or at least not worse, than the present one. But “high” Hinduism and Buddhism have sought for ways to escape the horrible wheel altogether. Within the Hindu fold the “high” efforts to achieve this were classically represented by the Upanishads (part of the canon of sacred scriptures) and the Vedanta philosophy. Buddhism produced its own path of escape.

The distinctive worldview of Buddhism is very clearly expressed by the so-called Three Universal Truths, which are affirmed by most if not all Buddhist schools. Here they are: All reality is transitory (anicca, in Pali). All reality is non-self (anatta). All reality is suffering (dukka). The path to Enlightenment begins with the abandonment of the illusions that deny these truths: the illusions of permanence, of self, and of enduring happiness. Desire is what binds us to these illusions; therefore desire must be suppressed (or transformed, in Tantric versions of Buddhism). When Enlightenment is achieved, the result will be perfect equanimity in this life, and after it liberation from the wheel of deaths. Buddhist schools differ as to the end state of the liberated being (Pali nibbana, Sanskrit nirvana)—literal nothingness or blissful existence in a “pure land”.  (The paradox of an illusionary self existing in some sort of heavenly afterlife need not concern us here.)

To the extent that American culture has been decisively shaped by notions derived (even in secularized versions) from Christianity, the Buddhist worldview is not readily plausible. (I have argued elsewhere that the gist of an “Abrahamic” worldview may be formulated as a denial of each of the Three Universal Truths.)

Yet (to use a term favored by Catholic missiology) Buddhism has been successfully “encultured” in America. What happens in this process?

In Asia, both in “high” art and in airport souvenir stores, one often comes across “laughing Buddhas”. Why would a Buddha laugh? I think he laughs in post-Enlightenment relief at having been delivered from that nightmarish wheel. To be “encultured” in America, the Buddha has to acquire what may be called the “Protestant smile”—the somewhat bland, but nevertheless sincere benevolence of what the late American sociologist John Murray Cuddihy called the “Protestant aesthetic” (in his No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste, 1978). It is (let us call it) a Methodist smile, which replaced the Calvinist scowl. It is infectious. Everyone who gets settled in America learns to smile this way. The “Protestant smile” greets us in Methodist churches, in Catholic churches, in synagogues (at least this side of ultra-Orthodoxy), in mosques eager to establish their non-Taliban respectability—even, as I discovered recently, in a Hindu temple in central Texas.

Americanized Buddhism has spouted denominations, much on the Protestant model. Conservative Catholics, upset by what happened to their church since the Second Vatican Council, have bemoaned what they call “Protestantization”: uppity lay people practicing supermarket religion. But this is not due to Protestant propaganda. Rather, it is the result of the combination of religious pluralism and freedom of religion. All religious institutions, like it or not, become voluntary associations; the loyalty of the laity can no longer be taken for granted, so it has to be wooed; even naturally scowling cardinals learn to smile. But Americanized Buddhism has also absorbed the cheerful optimism, which (at least thus far—it may not persist if the future should bring economic and political decline) has characterized American culture for a long time. This is the country in which individuals and groups are free to re-invent themselves. It is the country of second chances. Thus meditational practices invented in austere Asian monasteries have become cheerful techniques for self-realization and “wellness” (not to mention bigger and better orgasms). A few years ago there was a debate in an American Buddhist magazine on whether a belief in reincarnation is essential to Buddhism. Opinions were divided. Some were quite willing to give up the notion entirely—the Buddhist path (the dharma) then becomes a fully secularized vehicle for a more satisfying lifestyle. Alternatively, reincarnation itself is Americanized—as a second chance!

Is this “enculturation” a bad thing? Not necessarily. Every religious tradition changes. Buddhism changed as it moved out of India into the very different cultures of eastern Asia. It should not be surprising if it changes again as “the dharma goes west” (to use a phrase much favored by American Buddhists).  There is much to be said for American optimism and benevolence, even if it is often bland. I for one rather like the “Protestant smile”; I learned to practice it myself soon after I arrived in America as a young man, still steeped in European existential gloom. As Cuddihy understood, this (no longer exclusively Protestant) smile expresses an important cultural dimension of American democracy. However, it has little do with the anguish that drove a young Indian prince to give up a life of privilege, to leave his family, and to go out as a begging pilgrim in search of a way to extinguish desire.

[Image courtesy Shutterstock.]

  • http://shiracoffee.tumblr.com Shira Coffee

    There are some good points in this article. However, there are some errors, too. For instance (and somewhat trivially), the “Laughing Buddha” is not a representation of the Buddha at all, but of a sort of Buddhist folk hero called Hotei-Sama in Japan and Budai or Putai in China. Like Santa Claus, he is often depicted carrying a large sack, and he is said to provide food and gifts from that sack to needy, but generous, people.

    As for the “wheel of deaths”, I cannot comment on Hindu views, but the Buddha was primarily concerned with suffering in this life. One can argue about the importance of ideas of reincarnation in Buddhist thought, but the Four Noble Truths nor the Noble Eightfold Path (the central teachings of the Buddha) focus on the interval between birth and death — a single life.

    I think you may be right when you say that ” the gist of an ‘Abrahamic’ worldview may be formulated as a denial of each of the Three Universal Truths” but from a Buddhist point of view, the predictable result is exactly the kind of alienation, commoditization, extremes of hedonistic wealth and wretched poverty, and predatory individualism that have followed in the wake of “Abrahamic” conquering armies and colonizing businesspeople.

    It is possible that Buddhism must learn the Protestant smile, but also likely that the “Abrahamic” west needs the corrective of the Buddha’s clear gaze and open heart.

  • Gary Novak

    Shira Coffee describes the predictably horrific consequences of the Abrahamic worldview “from a Buddhist point of view.” Using Berger’s terminology, we can locate her a little more precisely: she is an “engaged Buddhist.” But the West no more needs the “corrective” of politicized, secularized Buddhism than it needs Liberation Theology.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Buddhist-American Shira Coffee’s rather Marxist-like statement that “Abrahamic conquering armies and colonizing businesspeople” have predictably led to “alienation, commoditization, extremes of hedonistic wealth and wretched poverty, and predatory individualism” deserves comment.

    My guess is that Coffee’s counter-culturalism and “Engaged Buddhism” would not resonate with the experience of many immigrants to America who come from Communist or former Communist political regimes. One of the most striking cultural characteristics observed by visitors to the former Soviet Union. Mao’s China, East Germany, or Communist satellite Hungary, was the emotional “grimness” and depression leading to widespread alcoholism.

    One need only go back in time and read a 1957 newspaper report “Grimness and Desperation Beset Unhappy Hungary,” published Jan. 26, 1957, about how the Communist suppression of the Hungarian Revolution left those in Budapest in a “grim and desperate mood” – link here: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1454&dat=19570126&id=KWdgAAAAIBAJ&sjid=9XENAAAAIBAJ&pg=818,4420299

    One of the complaints was the “rationalization program” of the new Communist government that forced Hungarians to join the Communist Party or lose their jobs.

    One website has even ranked Communist regimes by their level of experienced “grimness:” 1.North Korea, 2. Soviet Union, 3. China, 4. Romania, 5. East Germany, 6. Bulgaria, 7. Poland, 8, Cuba, 9. Hungary, and 10. Venezuela. http://www.conservapedia.com/Debate:_Rank_Communist_Regimes_in_Order_of_Grimness =

    I observed when I was involved in the Vietnam War that South Vietnamese were both Buddhist and Catholic while North Vietnamese were what might be called “grim” Buddhist Nationalists.

    Contrast this with the historical optimism of American capitalist culture and religion from Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking” to Rev. Robert Schuller’s “Possibility Thinking.” There has always been a cultural strain toward optimism in America.

    The German sociologist Max Weber was right in his description of American exceptionalism as having to do with Protestantism and Capitalism, as described in Lawrence Schaff’s book “Max Weber in America.” Scaff writes that upon visiting the United States Weber was “taken by the enthusiasm, raw energy, taste for adventure, social engagement, creative powers, and sense of humor” of Americans as a way out of the “iron Cage” or modernity and bureaucratic governments.

    There may be many who are discontented with American culture and choose to embrace a countercultural form of Buddhism, whether “engage” or “disengaged.” But for every one of those who are discontented there are many more immigrants from other countries who have learned the “Protestant smile” without ever being a Protestant.

  • Gabriel

    Professor Berger,

    Any thoughts on either of the last two articles in ASR to address this issue?

    http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2657418
    http://asr.sagepub.com/content/76/4/620.abstract

  • http://shiracoffee.tumblr.com Shira Coffee

    Mr. Novak is, I’m afraid, not as knowledgeable about Buddhist “denominations” as he seems to think he is. Like most American Buddhists living outside large cities, I affiliate with whatever sangha is within driving distance — in my case, a lovely and welcoming Therevada group run by Sri Lankan monks. In my previous home, I affiliated with a Zendo. It’s not a problem because the differences between Buddhist groups are mostly matters of emphasis, not fundamental disagreements.

    My point in writing was simply to call attention to some errors in the original post. I ask Christian readers: if someone pointed to a picture of Santa Claus, identified it as a picture of Jesus, and then used this picture to illustrate some element of Jesus’ thought, might you not wish to correct that line of argument? Or if a non-Christian made assertions about the teachings of Jesus by asserting that they were just like those of rabbinic Judaism of his time, might you not wish to at least question that assertion?

    Finally, as to the idea (which Mr. Novak apparently finds objectionable) that influence between religious groups — in this case, Buddhists and Christians — runs both ways, that seems to be simple fact, derived from our social nature as humans. I look forward to a fruitful exchange!

  • Robert F

    And what was the predictable result of accepting the Three Universal Truths in the East? The caste system, social stagnation, a refusal to take physical suffering and social oppression as phenomena deserving material compassion, an acceptance of the status quo, etc.? Such is the stuff of unsubstantiated generalization, Shira Coffee.

  • http://shiracoffee.tumblr.com Shira Coffee

    Again, Mr. F., you might wish to consider that “the East” is not an actual place, and that Buddhism has had different relations to other social institutions (such as government and competing religious groups) in the broad scope of its tenure in various parts of Asia.

    I can assert that the Buddha did not endorse the caste system during his lifetime. On the contrary, he taught that every human being, regardless of caste (or sex) was capable of enlightenment. (You can see a representative sample of the Buddha’s teachings on caste — very politely phrased, since he was instructing a king — at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.090.than.html.) In modern India, members of the “Untouchables” caste are embracing Buddhism in substantial numbers precisely because of Buddhism’s rejection of caste, so this anti-caste stance has been quite consistent for more than two millenia.

    As for your other concerns (“social stagnation, a refusal to take physical suffering and social oppression as phenomena deserving material compassion, an acceptance of the status quo”), perhaps you will be so kind as to furnish details about where and when these have been inculcated or perpetuated by Buddhist teachings, specifically. Then we can have a discussion about whether those instances are actually due to Buddhism, whether they are due to other institutions, and whether they are completely unmatched by actions of the Church or other western religious institutions.

    I am not trying to dodge your objections, but really, how can I make any reasonable response to generalizations about 2,500 years of history across a vast and varied continent?

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    REVISED AND RESUBMITTED WITHOUT LINKS

    I believe Buddhist-American Shira Coffee mistakes Berger’s intent which is to understand how the “smiling Buddha” is viewed through Western cultural eyes and not to describe the Laughging Buddha in Japan or China.

    Coffee’s intermixture of Buddhism and Marxism is evident in her statement: “Abrahamic conquering armies and colonizing businesspeople” have predictably led to “alienation, commoditization, extremes of hedonistic wealth and wretched poverty, and predatory individualism.” 


    My guess is that Coffee’s form of “Engaged Buddhism” would not resonate with the experience of many immigrants to America who come from Communist or former Communist political regimes, including those from South Vietnam or Cambodia.

    The American smiling Buddha can be contrasted with the “grim” despair of those who have lived in Communist totalitarian regimes.

    One of the most striking cultural characteristics observed by visitors to the former Soviet Union, Mao’s China, East Germany, or Communist satellite Hungary, was the emotional “grimness” and depression leading to widespread alcoholism. 


    One need only go back in time and read a 1957 newspaper report “Grimness and Desperation Beset Unhappy Hungary,” published Jan. 26, 1957, Star News, Wilmington, North Carolina, about how the Communist suppression of the Hungarian Revolution left those in Budapest in a “grim and desperate mood.” 
One of the complaints was the “rationalization program” of the new Communist government that forced Hungarians to join the Communist Party or lose their jobs. 


    Conservapedia.com website has even ranked Communist regimes by their level of experienced “grimness:” 1.North Korea, 2. Soviet Union, 3. China, 4. Romania, 5. East Germany, 6. Bulgaria, 7. Poland, 8, Cuba, 9. Hungary, and 10. Venezuela.

    Contrast the grimness of totalitarian Communist regimes with the historical optimism of American capitalist culture and religion from Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking” to Rev. Robert Schuller’s “Possibility Thinking.”

    There has always been a cultural strain toward optimism in America. 
The German sociologist Max Weber was right in his description of American exceptionalism as having to do with Protestantism and Capitalism, as described in Lawrence Schaff’s book “Max Weber in America.” Scaff writes that upon visiting the United States Weber was “taken by the enthusiasm, raw energy, taste for adventure, social engagement, creative powers, and sense of humor” of Americans as a way out of the “iron Cage” or modernity and bureaucratic governments. 


    There are many who are discontented with American culture and choose to embrace a countercultural form of Buddhism, whether “engaged” or “disengaged.” But for every one of those who are discontented there are many more immigrants from other countries who have learned the “Protestant smile” without ever being a Protestant or for that matter a countercultural “engaged” Buddhist. 


  • John Barker

    As a young man I was attracted to the rather amiable form of Buddhism preached by Alan Watts. One might term his version of the Buddhism as “Zen Hedonism”. I am impressed that the malleability of the mind is such that the austere doctrines of the Buddha can somehow allow for the enjoyment of wine, women and song, at least for some people.

  • Isaac Ohel

    All popular philosophies (I am deliberately avoiding the term “religions”), became popular by utilizing sales tools that attracted a large audience. I assume that the small minority of westerners that are attracted to the Buddhist philosophy were not convinced by the marketed benefits of western religions. Neither the wrath of God (Judaism), nor the pleasures of heaven (Christianity and Islam), were enough to induce them into the fold. Similarly, they are not driven by fear of continuous re-incarnations(Buddhism). At least to me, Buddhism’s attraction is in the path to a more peaceful existence. Siddhartha Gautama taught that even in this life, following the Dharma will lead to reduced suffering. I found it to be so, in small but significant ways. Thus, smiling or laughing, Buddhism has already adapted to the new environment.

    As an additional benefit, it is comforting to know that due to its emphasis on self-improvement rather than conversion, Buddhism philosophy generated few (if any) wars and atrocities.

  • Gary Novak

    I wonder if Shira Coffee’s “welcoming Theravada group” welcomes business people, military personnel, and rich people. I suspect it does. Apparently, it even welcomes “engaged Buddhists” (not an official denomination, of course), who wear their contempt for such people on their sleeves.

    Berger has written a lot about social influence via “plausibility structures,” and I don’t find that idea surprising or objectionable. But, for Christians, there are also vertical influences, if one is willing to listen to them. And that may mean being an individual against the social influences. I wasn’t suggesting that the East should listen to one-way lecturing from the West. My mention of Liberation Theology was intended to suggest that any “dialogue” between “engaged Buddhists” and Liberation Theologians would actually be a monologue, because both are political left-wingers who already see eye-to-eye in placing social “liberation” above transcendence.

    The problem with our social nature is that so much of our testimony to others does not originate in our existential encounter with what Berger calls “signals of transcendence” (I love that term) but is simply a further transmission of the conventional wisdom of our plausibility structure.

    The direction of influence doesn’t much matter if we haven’t experientially earned our beliefs, interpretations, understandings. I hope you find this a fruitful exchange and do not feel ganged up on by Berger freaks.

    I would like to add one word to John Barker, who notes that some people are able to enjoy wine, women, and song within austere Buddhism. American Buddhist John Stevens wrote “Lust for Enlightenment” on sex and Buddhism. It documents (often humorously)that, like Christianity, Buddhism struggles with the more puritanical aspects of religion. (The book’s purpose is not to convict Buddhists of hypocrisy but to foster enlightenment.)

  • Robert F

    Well, one example would be the way the Zen Buddhist hierarchy almost without exception supported the militarization of Japan before and during WWII, and in fact encouraged Japanese soldiers to follow orders unquestioningly, in the true spirit of the Samurai who had done the same for their feudal lords. This indictment would include the renowned D. T. Suzuki.

  • Robert F

    I’m really not interested in a debate about the history of religions. Societies on every continent exhibit the same mottled history of inhumanity mixed with occasions of moral clarity. Regions with a strong Buddhist influence show no advantage in this regard. My own impression of Buddhism is that it is extremely conservative and tends to ignore structural evil. In fact, Buddhism denies the reality of evil and asserts that the perception of evil, along with good, is an illusion. Enlightenment is that state in which the polarities of good and evil, along with self and non-self, are transcended by insight into the impermanence, and therefore non-reality, of all phenomenon perceived by the ego. The path of “virtuous” action as a means to enlightenment is one strategy, but since Nirvana is not a reward for ethical behavior, and is neither good nor evil, there are antinomian paths in Buddhism that involve the use of methods embracing all that is normally considered disgusting and evil. The doctrine of no-self, which is shared by all traditional schools of Buddhism, naturally leads, in my opinion, to a disinterest in affirming political rights for the individual. That is why I say that Buddhism is conservative, because enlightenment is as likely, or unlikely, to happen in a dictatorship as in a democracy, so why bother to foment political change? That would be to engage in illusion. Ultimately, Buddhism affirms that the world (including the social and political world) is exactly as it should be right now, and as the Mahayana Buddhists say, samsara is nirvana. Form and emptiness are the same.
    Against this I assert, along with the best part of my Chrisian tradition, that the individual does exist and is permanent, and therefore has natural, and supernatural, rights.
    And please don’t quote Buddhist scripture to me, all of which were written several hundred years after the historical Gautama Buddha’s death.

  • Gary Novak

    I’m not sure if Shira has left us or is only on a “Coffee” break. In the meantime, I’m noticing some interesting aspects of Robert F’s responses to her. Unlike Mr. Lusardi’s response, which has no sympathy for Coffee’s intermixture of Buddhism and Marxism, Robert F seems to agree with Coffee that Buddhism ought to be “not conservative.” (Robert doesn’t say “liberal” or “progressive” so I won’t put words in his mouth and just say “not conservative”.) But unlike the engaged Buddhists, he recognizes a permanent self grounded in the supernatural. Berger describes a “reductive” option in religion (ultimately pseudo-option because it’s not really religious), in which the supernatural is reduced to something like psychology or social work.
    In rejecting that option, Berger relativizes politics in a way that should pose a problem for Robert F. Berger writes: “An understanding of the various doctrines and ideologies that divide us today is interesting; on a certain level, such as that of politics, this may even be important or morally urgent. But in the face of the Gospel, which points us toward eternity, these distinctions are quite unimportant, indeed irrelevant. The Gospel is not of this world, and to try to make it so is to lose the redemptive power it contains” (A Far Glory, 1992, p. 15).
    When Robert F worries that conservative Buddhism leaves “structural evil” undisturbed, it sounds like he is favoring some kind of structural response to evil– a political program, social engineering– the same kind of thing as the engaged Buddhists or reductionists who never see beyond the “Social Gospel.” Berger keeps politics on a short leash because he identifies with the conservative humanists who have “a prejudice against change, NOT because they have profound convictions about the merits of the status quo, but because they have profound suspicions about the benefits of whatever is proposed as an alternative to the status quo” (Movement and Revolution, 1970, p. 21).
    Of course, Robert F is not required to reconcile his understanding of politics and the supernatural with Berger’s, but I didn’t catch the possible tension between the two in his first post, which I took as an immanent critique of Coffee’s position. Thanks for the added posts– and for the three hours of thought between them.

  • http://shiracoffee.tumblr.com Shira Coffee

    lol, not exactly a “Coffee” break — I had a small medical matter to attend to yesterday, but I am back today. I will try to answer briefly the several commenters.

    Mr. Lusvardi seems to be a fellow who “when asked about a breadfruit will answer with a mango” — that is, he seems to lump everything he disagrees with into the thought-basket of “Marxism” and then argue about that. For the record, I’m not a Marxist.

    I also reject the label Mr. Novak keeps trying to pin on me. I am socially engaged, and I’m a Buddhist. I also admire Thich Nhat Hanh. However, I am not an Engaged Buddhist. Nor (obviously!) am I a Liberation Theologist. Can you perhaps consider the idea that I am not the representative of some particular ideology you find objectionable and consider the idea that I’m just one Buddhist individual?

    I would like to read (I just got back to this stream a few minutes ago) Mr. Novak’s other comments and respond more thoughtfully when I have digested them.

    I would also like to respond to most of Mr. F’s comments after a bit of reflection. However, for now I will simply say that the history of some Zen organizations in Japan was shameful… and it was roughly similar to the behavior of some Lutheran churchmen within Nazi Germany. One difference, however, is that the words of Martin Luther could actually be read as a license to oppress Jews.

    My final point (before I go off to read and digest the more substantive comments here) is that denigrating the Pali Canon’s provenance. It is dead certain that the Pali Canon was written down closer to the events it describes than most of the Torah. In general, it is difficult to think of any religion whose founding texts have a perfectly clear provenance.

    I have read a great many religious texts, from the interpolated and heavily edited stories of Genesis to the misattributed Song of Solomon to the difficult-to-attribute book called Revelations. I have read the spirited give-and-take of the Talmud and the cinematic storytelling of the Gospels.

    I have to say that the Pali Canon offers, for all its imperfections, a surprisingly coherent and detailed view of the Buddha and his teachings. One comes away from reading the Pali Canon with a considerably clearer understanding of the Buddha’s views, style of discourse, and character than one can get of Jesus from the Gospels.

    I’ll be back soon! I’m so glad to engage in this discussion with all of you.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Just as there are those who have experienced the Protestant smile of a smiling Buddha in America without being a Protestant there are those who mix Marxist ideas with their religion without ever reading Karl Marx. Pineapple mixed with sweet bread makes a nice breadfruit but can sometimes result in an upside down cake.

  • http://shiracoffee.tumblr.com Shira Coffee

    Mr. Lusvardi, as a koan-writer… you’re a pretty good blog commenter. (lol.) All I’m saying is, if you pigeon-hole me, you can’t possibly hear me.

    Mr. F’s point about the “conservative” nature of Buddhism is an interesting one, and one close to my heart, for obvious reasons.

    There is no doubt that Buddhism has focused on the individual rather than social reform in many countries and eras. Even the Buddha himself (despite your distrust of the Canon) was careful to avoid offending kings, gentling his teachings to avoid giving offense. After all, he had a sangha to protect!

    In any case, it is a mistake to judge pre-Enlightenment societies by post-Enlightenment standards. Would you want Christianity judged by the role the Church played in making Medieval villages such beacons of freedom and fairness? In most historical societies, including Buddhist ones, ordinary people didn’t even try to have much say in public affairs. If religious leaders had influence over ruling elites, it was usually because they were members of those elites.

    Of course in America Buddhists tend to have political views, and mostly leftish ones. After all, lefties are more tolerant of novelty than folks who call themselves, well… Conservatives. That’s kind of a given.

    But you can also begin to see traditional Buddhist societies coming to terms with the idea of democracy and the tools of mass communications. Thich Nhat Hanh was the public face of a deep protest against the excesses of the governments of Viet Nam. The Dalai Lama has become the symbolic leader of the protest against the Chinese encroachment on Tibet. There have been monastic protests in Burma and in Bangladesh. Japanese temples have begun to take stances regarding environmentalism, nuclear power, and other political issues. And so on.

    Buddhism is adept at adapting to new climes and new mores without changing its essential message.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Shira Coffee:

    I started out mirroring your own comment back to you, which parrots a marxist worldview apparently without you ever having read or been exposed to Marxism. “Alienation, commodification, and predatory individualism” are concepts that didn’t spring from Buddhism. If self awareness is a Buddhist value you might benefit from having this brought to your attention.

    Much of the world doesn’t live in an environment of “alienation, commodification and predatory individualism.” They live in a world of “grimness” as I pointed out. I think that if most people had a choice they would want to live in a world of “alienation, commodification, and predatory individualism” with Protestant smiles than the world of secular Europe with its existential grimness, Russian realpolitik, or Chinese fatalism masked by a Buddhist smile.

    Alienation is both a universal condition and a social condition found in modernized societies. If one values the individual as opposed to the clan, caste, tribe, sect, denomination, or political class, then one has to accept alienation. I’m not sure if a precept of Buddhism is to accept alienation. It is difficult to live in a modern world without accepting some alienation, albeit one may find ways to buffer its harsh aspects via Buddhism or what Prof. Berger calls “mediating structures.”

  • Gary Novak

    I don’t understand why Shari Coffee objects to being classified as a so-called “engaged Buddhist,” which Berger characterized as someone pursuing progressive politcs, environmentalism, communalism (vs. “excessive individualism”), social justice, pacifism, anti-capitalism, and anti-imperialism.
    Her own list of objectionable consequences of the Abrahamic worldview included alienation, commoditization, wealth inequality, predatory individualism, conquering armies, and colonizing businesspeople. And those were presented not as her personal sentiments but the Buddhist point of view.
    Could her objection be that the term “engaged Buddhism” implies that some Buddhism is not engaged– but that, in fact, all Buddhists deserve credit for being socially engaged?
    Regardless of the scope of engaged Buddhism, it should be clear that neither Berger nor I have a very high opinion of it. Recall the passage in which Berger mentions the debate in the Buddhist magazine about the centrality of reincarnation. He noted that for those who are willing to give up the concept altogether “the Buddhist path then becomes a fully secularized vehicle for a more satisfying lifestyle.” From the Abrahamic perspective, that is a very damning definition of Buddhism. Even with reincarnation and its acknowledgement of something beyond the empirically available, Buddhism cannot satisfy the Abrahamic needs (illusory, of course, in the Buddhist perspective). By sequestering the most Abrahamically objectionable versions of Buddhism in an enclosure labeled “engaged Buddhism” or “lifestyle secularism,” the Christian can remain more sensitive to possible signals of transcendence in Buddhism. (Sociologist of religion Rodney Stark argues that although Buddhism may be officially godless, most practitioners on the ground are devotional.)
    I’m inclined to think that Shari objects to “engaged Buddhism” as misleading because redundant. The transcendent God is a fiction and a distraction. Once we see through him, why wouldn’t we be more mindful, compassionate, peaceful, and socially engaged in this world, the only world there is? But in her last post she says, “I’m socially engaged, and I’m a Buddhist”– as if the second did not entail the first. So I’m still a bit puzzled.

  • Robert F

    Shira Coffee, what really interests me is how one can believe in the value of individual human persons when one affirms that the self is an illusion. Do you believe that you have a lasting and transcendent self, Shira Coffee? Is there such a thing (yes, I said thing) as a human person? Mr. Novak, both the Nazi regime, and the dictatorship of Stalin, were examples of structural evil that needed to be named as evil and resisted for the sake of human values; antebellum slavery in the United States is another example of institutional and structural evil that had to be addressed structurally. Would you call the American Civil War social engineering? Peter Berger is well aware that the discovery of the value of the individual human person that has slowly, haltingly and sometimes violently developed in Western/European cultures (and been exported in both savory and unsavory ways) is protected by fragile political and cultural institutions that, if not protected, will disintegrate. Liberal democracy is Berger’s choice for a structural response to structural evil, and it’s mine as well.
    Shira Coffee, your point about respecting Buddhist scriptures is well taken. My apologies. Nevertheless, the Buddha of the Buddhist scriptures has very tenuous links with the historical figure who they claim for their inspiration. And that is exactly why Zen Buddhists, and other Mahayanists, say that if you see the Buddha on the road, you should kill him, because they know that he is probably just a scriptural and religious idol.

  • Robert F

    Oh, and Shira Coffee, the words of D.T. Suzuki, and other Zen leaders, could be used, and were used, by the Japanese military as a license to murder and rape the citizens of Nanking when the Japanese invaded China.

  • Robert F

    And to all regarding “engaged Buddhism”: the cause of suffering, according to Buddhism, is attachment of any kind. If attachment is the cause of suffering, one can only imagine what engagement would cause.

  • Robert F

    Mr. Novak: I am a conservative because I want to conserve the values of liberal democracy, and those are values that promote and protect the liberties of the individual person against the collective; I am not, however, interested in conserving the values of societies, or institutions in societies, that systematically deny the liberties of the individual person. Buddhism came into existence in societies with governing structures that had little to no interest in the liberties of the individual person, and because Buddhism affirms that there is no such thing as the self, its position in respect to societal evils was not one of prophetic judgement, as in the Old and New Testaments, a position which leads naturally to open criticism and confrontation with the powers and principalities (as St. Paul called them), and sometimes to societal change. No, instead Buddhism served the purposes of those powers that wanted to conserve the systematic oppression of individuals (that is structural evil) by remaining quiet and compliant in the face of manifest evil. In this respect, Buddhism is conservative; on the other hand, it has no interest in promoting or conserving the liberties of individuals, because it has no metaphysical belief in either the self or liberty. Those Buddhists who in the contemporary world make public stands for justice (the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, etc.) do so for two reasons: because they have been influenced by “Western” concepts of human liberties and rights, and because, like some Buddhists throughout history, they have not been entirely consistent in applying with logical rigor the political and social indifference of their metaphysics (because the human heart was made by God to yearn for liberty for both ourselves and others, and this yearning sometimes shines through despite wrong metaphysical commitments-the light shines brightest in the darkness).

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  • Wayne Lusvardi

    To Dr. Gary Novak

    There is always the remote possibility that Shira Coffee is a pseudonym for Dr. Aglaia Holt, Professor of Wymyns Studies, California State University at Poco.

    WL

    • Gary Novak

      I was surprised to hear Robert call himself a conservative until he explained that he wants to conserve liberal democracy and individual liberty. I would be surprised if any of our participants were not in favor of liberal democracy. Michael Novak’s “The Universal Hunger for Liberty” (2004, no relation) supports Robert’s view.
      But I would question whether liberal democracy is “a structural response to structural evil.” The liberal democracies responded to tyranny in WWII with military action, not with liberal democracy. And no, I wouldn’t call the Civil War social engineering. I would call it war. Wars aim at eliminating intolerable evils, but they take place in a Hobbesian state of nature. It is only after civilization returns that we can democratically debate whether to, say, socially engineer a healthcare system in which medical experts determine “best practices” or, in a more libertarian manner, leave such decisions to patients and doctors. Nazi death camps are easier to classify as intolerable evils than is, say, lack of access to free medical care. When conservatives– and I mean people who are inclined to accept socially-evolved practices that are imperfect but functional and not intolerably evil– hesitate to unleash a structural (or smash-the-structure)response of war or revolution, it is because they are wary of Max Weber’s “irony of history.” One of Robert’s examples of structural evil, Stalin, was, of course, a product of a too-sanguine attempt to remove the structural evil of Czarist Russia.
      Conservatives are afraid that, with the best of intentions, indignant activists’ efforts to fix structural evil often amount to a game of whack-a-mole with little to show in the end. In the meantime, our life in the interstices of history– where nothing of historical significance occurs but a great deal of eternal significance may occur– suffers.
      I am not a quietist. I supported U. S. military action after 9/11 and lost a long-time friend as a result– an American Buddhist, incidentally (or maybe not so incidentally?)

  • Robert F

    Mr. Novak, it seems to me that warfare is a sophisticated and uniquely human activity that can only be conducted by human societies, and the human societies that are best at it are civilizations. You will find warfare nowhere in non-human nature. Liberal democracy is warfare waged without deadly weapons. It’s what we do as a society instead of taking to the streets, as was the habit of our forbears, English history being a good example of episodes of extreme civil violence in the service of political goals alternating with the gradual development of more-or-less democratic institutions that sublimated weaponry into words. Regarding tolerable versus intolerable evil: Jim Crow seemed to many to be a socially-evolved practice that was imperfect but functional and not intolerably evil. To others it appeared to be an intolerable structural evil that needed to be eliminated by political activism and civil disobedience, two honorable strategies the are practiced in liberal democracies to address systemic evils, real or imagined. And by the way, many of those who believed it intolerable were Christians who found the spiritual resources to stand against evil in their faith. Also, you might be surprised to know that Peter Berger is a liberal Christian who favors full inclusion of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and the trans-gendered in all facets of church, including ministry, which makes him more “liberal” than I’ve ever been, despite your suspicions of me. Also, I do not support Obamacare, because I find the HHS mandate, with its requirement that all employers provide health care insurance which includes birth control to their employees, an onerous imposition on religious organizations that conduct business in the public sphere, as well as those who conduct non-religious businesses but are guided by personal religious practices and beliefs at odds with this Administration’s values.

  • http://shiracoffee.tumblr.com Shira Coffee

    OK, this discussion is getting away from me, a bit.

    Why I do not claim the label of “Engaged Buddhist”: because there is no such thing.

    Yes, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about engaged Buddhism — that is, about the possibility of incorporating nonviolent protest into the “skillful means” by which Buddhists address the central issue of suffering. He was undoubtedly influenced by the religious-motivated protests of Gandhi and Dr. King.

    Nevertheless, he did not intend to create any sort of separate group of Buddhists who could be called “engaged Buddhists.” Thich Nhat Hanh is the heir to a long and distinguished lineage of teachers and has always been committed to that model of teaching Buddhist dharma. Moreover, there is no significant group of Buddhists who define themselves primarily as engaged Buddhists or whose practice is focused on politics as opposed to liberation.

    An analogy might be to the terms “Mainline Christians” and “Christian Dominionists”. I’ve met plenty of Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists etc., but no one who identified themselves as a “Mainline Christian.” Similarly, I’ve met plenty of Evangelicals of varying sorts, but no self-identified “Dominionists”.

    A quick check of the web suggests that the term “Mainline Christian” is mostly used by Evangelicals and Messianic Jews to label the invisible opponent in the empty chair they are arguing with. “Dominionists” seems to serve the same purpose.

    And I have the strong feeling that you gentlemen are using “engaged Buddhist” in exactly the same way.

  • http://shiracoffee.tumblr.com Shira Coffee

    Let me now explain (before I run off to enjoy the holiday weekend with my family) the meaning of my original observations on the unfortunate result of rejecting what Prof. Berger calls the Three Universal Truths (which I know as the Marks of Existence.)

    When I was young, I came across the story of the destruction of the Midianites in the book of Numbers. Eventually, I went to Israel, learned modern Hebrew, came back, and attended a text-critical college of Jewish studies. There I began to see a larger pattern, including the story of Shechem in Genesis, the destruction of Jericho in the book of Judges, the story of Amelek in the book of Kings, and the bloodletting at the end of the book of Esther. I also began to see that the same pattern was repeated in the history of conquest I had learned in school.

    Eventually, I came across a list of the religions of the world, listed in order of number of adherents. The first two, of course, were (and are) Christianity and Islam. And looking at that list, it occurred to me that these two successful Abrahamic faith share an interesting characteristic: most of their adherents are descended from peoples who were converted by force.

    In other words, if you’re a Muslim, chances are your ancestors were in the way of the armies of conquest of the great Islamic empire. If you’re a European Christian, some of your ancestors were probably converted at spear point by the imperial legions of Christian Rome. If you’re Hispanics, it was the conquistadores. If you’re African American…

    If the Abrahamic tradition had an avatar like a video game character, it would be a tall man in armor, holding a naked and dripping sword and offering a line of people in chains the option to convert or die. I had no idea why that should be the case, but the image was enough to drive me away from religion for about 15 years.

    Then came 9/11, and religious intolerance was suddenly everyone’s concern again. Among the many books I read in those days was Sam Harris’ _End of Faith_. I didn’t think much of most of his conclusions, but a chance favorable mention of Buddhism sent me off to investigate.

    I happened to live near a Zendo (Japanese version), so that is the door I entered by, motivated mostly by curiosity. Curiosity turned out to be a quite useful way to approach Zen meditation, and I found that as I continued to meditate, I began to thrive in many ways.

    Eventually I moved a little away from the sternness of Japanese Zen and discovered (through the books of Thich Nhat Hanh) such things as mindfulness training, metta training, Buddhist ethics and Buddhist psychology. At this point, I still had no particular political consciousness, beyond a tendency to vote Democratic because I grew up in a union home.

    In the course of this reading I of course came across the Three Marks, but they were something of an anticlimax. After all, I had already been engaged for several years in the careful disassembly of my faulty ideas of ego-self and “its own” consciousness.

    Probably around 2007 I became aware of the Pali Canon, but I did not have any idea how to approach this massive corpus with its alien style of discourse and its baffling lack of organization. Someone intelligently suggested that a traditional starting point is the Dhammapada, which I would describe as the poetic summary of the rest of the canon.

    The first verse of the Dhammapada is roughly as follows: Mind precedes all things; mind is their chief. Suffering follows the impure mind as the cartwheel follows at the heel of the ox.

    When I read and meditated on this, I finally understood why Abrahamic faiths are so coercive. The armed and armored man from my image was re-enacting what he saw as the will of God. “Adonai ish milchama” / The LORD is a man of war says the Bible, and this is, in my view, the most psychologically astute sentence in the history of religion.

    In other words, it seems to me that the Abrahamic viewpoint not only falls for the illusion of a separate, durable, independent self, but actually projects that illusion onto the experience of the numinous. The result is predictably bad — the verse from the dhammapada lighted the dark corners of my image of the armed and armored man. Logically, if the people in front of him were offered conversion or death, then what followed in his wake (as closely as the cartwheel follows the heel of an ox) was a trail of dismembered bodies and chained, subservient survivors. And the landscape of these survivors, which the television news showed us in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Bosnia, in Afghanistan, in Iraq again, etc. was one of formerly fertile fields reduced to barren dust, through which flowed rivers red with blood and choked with the filth of war.

    So that is why I say that my original statement was about Buddhism and not about politics.

    Happy Labor Day, gentlemen!

  • Robert F

    “Suffering follows the impure mind as the cartwheel follows at the heel of the ox.” In other words, we get what we deserve. If this is true, then the Midianites got what they deserved when the Israelites wiped them out; and the Cambodians got what they deserved in the killing fields; and Jesus got what he deserved along with all the others tens of thousands who were crucified during the centuries of Roman rule; and etc., etc. Talk about blaming the victim. And that is what the doctrine of karma does, it blames the victim. Talk about cruelty. But this cruelty is wrapped in the facade of a man sitting in the lotus posture and proclaiming peace, shantih, shantih, shantih, (when in fact there is no peace), and so it is acceptable. All that blood that you lay at the feet of the Judeo-Christian tradition is only a horror, Ms. Coffee, if there is someone who has been victimized. But according to the first lines of the Dhammapada, as you convey them suffering is only and everywhere caused only by one’s own impure mind, and so no one can be victimized by someone else. So if you’re analysis of the metaphysical situation is correct, then you are wrong in one specific: there never was, nor will there ever be, any horrors. It’s just impure mind enduring the suffering it brought on itself by being…..impure?

  • Robert F

    And, Ms. Coffee, the tens-of-millions who have been converted to Christianity in the last twenty years in Africa and China, where the gospel of Jesus Christ is spreading like wildfire, are under no coercion to do so; in fact, like the early Christians, many of them face persecution for confessing the name of Jesus. But they are willing to take that risk because they have come to know the love of Christ. If the current trends continue, both Christianity and Buddhism will be practiced by an increasingly dwindling demographic in the North-Atlantic nations, but Christianity will thrive as it never has before in the Global South.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Perhaps Ms. Coffee is right. One does not need to read the Pali Canon or even the Dhammapada. As Coffee puts it: We are arguing with an empty chair of “engaged Buddhists” just as those who argue with “Mainline Christians” and “Christian Dominionists,” of which there are none in reality. Either that or we have encountered one of Max Weber’s “Ideal Types” (German: Gendankenbiler – “thoughtful pictures”).

    For an example of “empty chair Buddhism” fused with Christian Dominionism I would recommend reading the recent book “The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness” by former mainline Protestant minister Tim Keller, now senior pastor of the Redeemer Presbyterian mega church in Manhattan. Keller’s form of “empty-chair Buddhist-Christianity” is based on Philippians 3:14 – “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.”

    Which all goes to confirm the rumor of angels: Shira Coffee has become engaged to Peter Berger. This “union” is what Austrian scientist-novelist Robert Musil would call “The Perfection of Love.” It is what Musil interpreter Frederick G. Peters calls “the moment of ultimate narcissism” (Frederick Peters, “Robert Musil: Mastering the Hovering Life,” 1978, p. 89).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    As regards the Buddhist notion of impermanence, the Catholic philosopher, Maurice Blondel, observes that the mind takes the ceaseless, living flow of which the universe is composed and makes cuts across it, inserting artificial stops or gaps in what is really a continuous and indivisible process, rather like stills taken from a moving picture. The effect of these stops or gaps is to produce the impression of a world of apparently solid objects. They have no real existence as separate objects; rather, they are the design or pattern that our minds impose on reality.

    Blondel was influenced by the German mathematician, Dedekind’s notion of the cut, where he inserts a new irrational number in every gap in the continuous number line at which there is no existing real number.

  • Susan K.

    To Wayne Lusvardi:

    Apparently the idea (of Rev. Tim Keller’s form of Christian-Buddhism) is to follow along with the latest “religious trends” — and all the urban centers are “doing Buddhism this year.” In the fashion biz you’ve heard them say things like “hot pink is the new black” so that the gullible public will buy a brand new wardrobe every season to avoid the “horrors” of not being “chic.” Looks like Tim Keller’s form of Christianity — instead of being an eternal truth — changes with the seasons so that his church and the congregants will always be “in style.”

  • Robert F

    Michael Paterson-Seymour,
    Is there one mind or many? Is this mind itself stable or part of the flux? If it is part of the flux, then how does it establish a perspective from which to “cut” while experiencing itself as discrete and separate? Does(do) the mind(minds)exist as a separate object(objects)? Is the design or pattern that the mind(s) imposes(impose) on the flux real or illusory? How would you, being one of the minds (or the mind itself) be able to distinguish between what is real and illusory and on what basis would you make the distinction? And if you had a basis on which to make such a distinction, and could do so, wouldn’t that in fact be a distinction in the whole field of reality between what is objectively real and what is not, in fact a stable point separate both from yourself and from whatever flux is contained in a reality that includes (at least) flux, stability and you(mind)? Anyway, Blondel’s hypothesis is not the same as the Buddhist notion of impermanence because Blondel believed in the reality of God and human persons, i.e. the mind(s) you mention, as stable places both within and apart from the flux. This is not the Buddhist concept of impermanence at all.

  • Gary Novak

    A lot has happened during my coffee break. First, I must decline Mr. Lusvardi’s (spelled correctly this time) promotion of me to Dr. Novak. I just have an M.A. in the soft science of sociology.

    Shari Coffee has cleared up my puzzlement about her dislike of the term “engaged Buddhism,” which she sees not a special kind of Buddhism but a consequence of Buddhist principles. The term is redundant and pejorative. Not all Buddhists are equally politically active, but, as she says, there is no opposition between liberation and politics. When the issue of war comes to the fore, is there any doubt that the Buddhist consciousness will tilt in the anti-war direction? Isn’t that what led Shari to Buddhism in the first place after her 15-year hiatus from militaristic Abrahamic religion? (Please don’t wince yet, Robert; I’m coming to your Nazi samurai.) And it is not insignificant that the recommendation came from “new atheist” neuroscientist Sam Harris. (I haven’t read The End of Faith, but I’m guessing that he was more impressed by brain-wave patterns during Zen meditation than by a phenomenological analysis of the numinous.)

    The term “engaged Buddhism” may be in a historical situation similar to the term “neoconservatism” in the 1960s, when leftist Michael Harrington introduced it to describe those liberals who were defecting from orthodox “anti-anti- Communism”—the position of those who weren’t exactly Communist but felt that anti-Communism was worse. Liberal Irving Kristol (one of the defectors) embraced the term and not only gave it positive connotations but expanded its applications (e.g., to marriage and family). Ironically, his “consciousness was raised” partly by his having been defined by his enemy: “Now that you mention it, I am a conservative!” When I came to endorse capitalism and reject Marxism after many years, one of my Marxist colleagues said, “Watch out, religion comes next!” He was right.

    The point is that our deepest intuitions can be at variance with the traditions in which we try to work out our self-understandings. Shari seems to have invested considerable effort (learning Hebrew, etc.) trying to recognize her intuitions, moral promptings—indeed, herself—within the Abrahamic tradition. When such efforts are successful, Berger speaks of a “nexus” forming between the individual’s own experience and the tradition. A nexus is a connection, a correlation, an elective affinity. As he puts it, “The nexus comes about when I relate the tradition to my own experience and am compelled to say, ‘yes, yes—this fits!” With respect to the Abrahamic tradition, of course, Shari was eventually compelled to say, “no, no—this doesn’t fit!”

    But how long should one try to find a nexus before one says, “It’s not just that I don’t get it—it’s the tradition itself”? The meaning of a religion is not completely contained in its “DNA.” Josiah Royce makes the point by saying that the command of the Christian church is not “Obey me!” but “Create me!” But he also understood that not any creation could count as a Christian church. To pursue my DNA analogy, sociobiologist E. O. Wilson said that biology keeps culture on a leash. Genes don’t produce finished individuals; they are blueprints for the construction of proteins. What actually emerges as a phenotype depends heavily on such variables as nutrients in the environment. And among the “nutrients” of a religion-in-the-making is the tradition as it has previously developed. So it is difficult to disentangle religious genotypes and phenotypes.

    But I find Berger’s arguments more convincing than Shari’s because he is analyzing the implications of fundamental principles (“genotypes”), while Shari starts with the bad phenotypes (imperialism, colonialism, militarism, etc.) that drove her from Abrahamic religion. How could a religion which produces such phenomena on a statistically significant scale be attractive? Well, maybe Luther was right, and the Pope was the anti-Christ. Why blame God for the church? What do Crusades and Inquisitions have to do with Christ? (Remember Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, who told the reappearing Christ to get lost.) (I’m not suggesting, of course, that Catholic DNA is to be found in the medieval popes.)

    Shari’s original post referred to the predictable result of the denial of the Three Universal Truths, but in her interesting autobiographical post (#29), she says that the video game avatar of the Abrahamic tradition would be a tall armored man with a dripping sword, but—she had no idea why that should be the case. At that point she had studied numerous horror stories in the Jewish Bible, but it had not occurred to her that “The LORD is a man of war” was the source of the avatar’s marching orders. Without having solved the puzzle, she left the Abrahamic tradition, disgusted with all the unintelligible carnage, which only became predictable after her decision to leave. Then she learned from Buddhism that “mind precedes all things.” Well, no wonder the Lord is a warmonger—he has a bellicose mind! I wouldn’t call that a prediction based on Abrahamic principles. I would call it a rationalization and say that she still has no idea why that should be the case. And, since I don’t think it is the case, I doubt if she ever will. None of which means she made a bad choice. The bottom line is that she was unable to form a nexus with the Abrahamic tradition, and that is a good reason to bail out. Just because I spent most of my adult life trying to form a nexus with left-wing politics does not mean others should be so foolish.

    So I would still say that despite Shari’s claim of predictability, her assessment of Abrahamic religion is phenotypical and that Berger’s “genotypical” approach is more convincing. After all, Shari argued in post #7 that some of the phenotypical problems Robert F associated with Buddhism (e.g., the rape of Nanking) might not actually be derived from Buddhism.

    Robert said in post #13 that he is not really interested in the history of religions, because they all contain a mixture of inhumanity and occasional moral clarity. Unlike Shari, who is inducing the nature of Abrahamic religion from its manifestations, Robert is merely illustrating the nature of Buddhism with examples whose meaning can be deduced from Buddhist metaphysics. The militant samurai who is comfortable hacking people to pieces is a genuine Buddhist, because his victims have no thingy selves and there is no such thing as substantial evil. The Buddhists who display some concern for human liberty are good people but bad Buddhists, because Buddhism gives them no logical basis for such a concern.

    Now it might seem that, if I am going to praise Berger for his “genotypical approach, I should praise Robert for his. But Berger is interested in the history of religions. I said above that it is difficult to disentangle religious genotypes and phenotypes. Without religious history, it might be impossible. That’s why some contributors properly recognized the relevance of the age and authenticity of sacred documents.

    In the preface to “Questions of Faith,” Berger writes: “My argument [for Christianity] is skeptical in that it does not presuppose faith, does not feel bound by any of the traditional authorities in matters of faith—be it an infallible church, an inerrant scripture, or an irresistible personal experience, and takes seriously the historical contingencies that shape all religious traditions.” This flexibility in approaching Christianity certainly increases the chances of finding a nexus with Christian tradition—but is it cheating? No, because faith is not presupposed. If the interpretive contortions required to make one say “yes, yes—this fits!” are too extreme, one can simply drop the project and take up another religion or secular lifestyle. But if one refuses to “play around” with different interpretations of what is central, what is peripheral, what is authentic, what is interpolated, etc. out of respect for “actually existing” Christianity—with all its warts, historical accretions, contingent absurdities, dogmatic non-negotiables, etc.– one may find oneself rejecting a pearl of great value just because it has a little dirt on it.

    And how do we play around with interpretations? By becoming lay theologians like Berger in “Questions of Faith.”

    Thank you all for your contributions. I’m going on a coffee break until Berger’s next post.

  • Nancy D.

    What Christianity presupposes is Faith in Perfect Love. God Is Love. Love exists in relationship.The Blessed Trinity Is an ordered, complementary communion of Perfect Love. The essence of Love is personal and relational, which is why those who abide in The Truth of Love, The Word of God, recognize that from The Beginning, regardless of race or ancestry, every son or daughter of a human individual, from the moment that son or daughter has been created and thus brought into being at their conception, has been created in The Image of God, equal in Dignity, while being complementary as male and female, to live in Loving relationship, as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, while being called to communion with The Perfect Communion of Love that is The Blessed Trinity. We can not transform Love, The Truth of Love, Our Savior, Jesus The Christ transforms us through the Grace and Mercy of God, The Blessed Trinity. There is no flexibility in Christianity because there Is only One Word of God, and thus only One Spirit of Love between The Father and His Only Begotten Son. One can only be for Christ or against Him. Abiding in The Word of God, being in communion with The Blessed Trinity, is not a matter of degree.

  • Nancy D.

    “Let Us Make man in Our Image.” – The Blessed Trinity

  • http://www.dogzen.blogspot.com ST Triane

    What a big mess of vines yall are tangled in. Put it in the pot and boil. Boil and boil and boil. When it’s just about gone, take a look in there.

    Nancy, who called himself the “son of man”, and why? You understand Buddhism better than the other commentors, you just call it Christianity.

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  • Charles Braslow

    I’d like to offer a personal, simpler view of Buddhism in distinction to the “deep” thoughts presented in these comments. As an atheist, I began reading about Westernized concepts of Buddhist thought during a search for non-supernatural sources of morality. In my opinion, the lasting truth expressed by the Buddha is encompassed in the Four Noble Truths: People tend to suffer a lot; much of this suffering is caused by excessive attachments to things which do not really matter much and which will change and disappear anyway by their very nature; relief from suffering can be achieved by choosing a moderate life-path based on some particular precepts. These precepts consist of wisdom (a mind-set to see things as they are and a commitment to moral and mental self-improvement), ethical conduct (avoiding lies, slander, harsh words, gossip, killing, cruelty, sexual exploitation, stealing, harmful occupations), and mental development (training the mind through meditation to pay attention without distraction, to concentrate actively, and to see reality clearly, particularly the reality of change, transitoriness, and the way the mind constructs the concept of “I” which we all perceive).
    I have found these ideas very helpful in living a life which feels more deeply rooted in the reality of human existence than previously. They can happily co-exist with any other religion. There is no need to invoke a supernatural God, reincarnation, karma, or nirvana.

  • J

    First, I consider myself a Buddhist, so that my bias is known upfront :) I’ll admit to being left of center, too.

    I have to disagree about the author’s analysis of the “worldview” of Abrahamic religions and Buddhism. There may be Buddhists who may agree with the distinctions made, but that’s not the Buddhism I subscribe to.

    Much is made by outside critics of Buddhism that it is nihilistic-that the individual is seen as unimportant and that nothingness and emptiness suggests life is unimportant, or worse, something bad. The problem is translation of concepts. Words are insufficient to describe the Ultimate-be it called God or Nirvana or something else-but I think I can at least bridge a little of the gap with language we are more familiar with. It isn’t that everything is imaginary, as illusion implies. It is that our vision fails to see all that there is. I see Buddhism as trying to get us to understand that none of us has the full picture, and that humility is appropriate in the face of the awesomeness of reality. None of us can know everything or always do the right thing, but that is ok. We can still find relief in realizing we are part of this whole amazing place. Buddhism has used words like emptiness and nothingness to get folks to realize that they do not know as much as they think they do, and that we are part of something much larger not to be feared. Emptiness, in particular, can imply that something is full of possibility-something can only be empty when it is full of something. Loss of the self means that we come to an understanding that we are part of the whole, and that what we do impacts others.

    I see my view as very compatible with what I perceive in much of Abrahamic religious expression. The words used to get us to realize the need for humility and to provide hope are that of a father who knows all and sees all while we don’t, and who will forgive our limits. A lot of people confuse the symbolism of God with the mental picture of a man sitting on a throne up in the sky. This is why the scripture of Abrahamic religions stress the importance of not forming a picture of God; the picture to be avoided is not just a physical one, such as graven images or the name of God, but also of limited concepts of what God means. Unfortunately, human beings are quite capable, whatever their religion, of twisting good religion into a justification for their own selfish needs. Neither Christianity nor Buddhism is immune from that ill.

    What strikes me about the thrust of many of the comments here is the polarization of individualism and communitarianism: the notion that one of these is bad, and the other is good. To me, an individual does exist without the community, and the community does not exist without individuals. Respecting the needs of both the individual and the community are important. Calling something Marxist whenever community needs are considered is as bad as calling something Anarchist if the needs of individuals are considered. The Middle Way of Buddhism sees the need for nuturing both individuals and community. I think Christianity does, too-why else would there be such an emphasis on church and relationships within the church in Paul’s letters? I think there is room for legitimate disagreement about when community needs should trump individual needs and vice versa among people of good will.

    Even within Buddhism, there is a difference of emphasis. Theravadan Buddhism generally emphasizes individual enlightenment, rather than community engagement. Mahayana Buddhism can be seen as an effort to expand the possibility of enlightenment to the masses.

    @Charles-like your description of what Buddhism means to you.

  • Groundhog

    I have been reading this exchange with great interest, and truly admire the tenor of the debate. Let me preface my comments by explaining where I am coming from (hopefully not to bore, but to contextualize). As a person with a serious social science background, I admit I am only an educated layperson in the sociology of religion. I accept some basic tenets of evolutionary psychology: We are smart, social animal–meaning we are naturally territorial and status conscious. I find this dovetails well with being a classical liberal, with a belief that the human condition is, over time, improvable (not perfectible).

    As such, while I am no atheist (nominal Eastern Orthodox), I do find it difficult to wrap my western, positivist mind (positivist in a that I believe there such a thing as the real world) around the three universal truths. Yeah, the universe may blow up one day–but till that day, I believe in reality. There is a self, and I find it hard for one to believe in sociobiology, evolutionary ecology or economics without a conception of self. Maybe many animals do not possess self-awareness, but that don’t mean they don’t exist. As to suffering: Well, the whole point of modern (incremental) liberalism–with all its bumps–is that government can be the mechanism through which we ameliorate pain. I like suffrage extension, universal education, child labor laws, rural electrification, social security and
    the EPA. I also want to live in one country, not fifty little ones (Yes, the French revolution went too far–but France did not will not suffer the fate of Yugoslavia).

    As to pointing out (numerous) moral failings in the history of religions: I smile a little smile when Sam Harris, an avowed atheist, tries to explain that while Jesus was a hippie, Muhammad was a warlord. I also know he ain’t getting anywhere with a lot of relativistic liberals. Any sociologist of religion should admit that there is always gulf between the original teacher/prophet and what people want to hear. It ain’t difficult to see how the human mind can both oppose and justify slavery, for example.

    As such, my western eyes see Buddhism as essentially a philosophy of acceptance: it’s all bullshit, we can not change it, and personal peace will come when we can accept that there is nothing wrong or unhealthy with this realization (i.e., “enlightenment”). I simply do not see how this worldview is reconcilable with the modern western one: The rights of individuals; the pursuit of free, rational inquiry; the call to collective political action (whether at Philadelphia, in parliament, or in the modern civil rights movement). Not to be quaint, but since when do people who believe in nothing write constitutions, end the slave trade, save the bison or go to the moon?

    And while there have not been many wars started in the name of Buddhism, the history of Asia is not only one of (monotheistic) Muslims invading the subcontinent or Christian Europeans picking off the periphery. The Japanese, Han, Mongols, Mughals, Vietnamese, Manchurians and even the Tibetans have known their predatory phases. At the risk of apologia, I will suggest you are more likely to hear historical truth in a European or American school than a Chinese or Japanese one. (Okay, maybe a perk of winning?)

    I will leave my questions on the Christian conception of caritas vs. the Buddhist conception of compassion to my next post.