American Buddhists
Published on: September 18, 2013
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  • Anthony

    “Possibly the gloomier versions of Buddhism may also fine a new market…” Now that’s a thought given all that preceded it in your essay Peter Berger.

  • Jaldhar H. Vyas

    Just a point of information. Ishvara is an abstract term for God as the creator or Lord (the literal meaning of Ishvara) of the universe. It wouldn’t make sense in the story you quote. It is Indra the King of the Devas (Gods) who is compared to the ants.

    It illustrates one of the great divides in Indian thought; karma (deeds, particularly ritual ones.) versus jnana (knowledge) For the votaries of karma, the goal in life is to perform as many meritorious acts as possible which will lead to good fortune in this world and then the position of a Deva in Heaven. In the Vedas rituals range from a simple twice daily fire ceremony to the Ashvamedha which could only be performed by a king, took a year and culminated in the sacrifice of a horse. Indra is the representative of karma par excellence, one of his titles being shatakratu (“performer of a hundred Ashvamedhas”) The story you quote is pro-jnana. The sage tells Indra, that yes his good works have enabled him to reach the pinnacle of achievement, rulership of Heaven, but like all material things, that too shall perish returning him back to the wheel of samsara. The only true immortality is from knowledge of the true nature of ones self.

    The pro-jnana view dominates philosophical Hinduism and Buddhism and this is what the western reader is more likely to be exposed to. However the typical Asian follower of those religions is even today more likely to be trying to be an Indra than a Buddha. (Bathing in the Ganga or feeding monks has replaced sacrificing horses I’m relieved to say!) This is why the western converts have mostly failed to integrate with the immigrant communities in my opinion. They are often not aware of this dimension of their new faiths at all. Yet the funny thing is that with all this emphasis on yoga, mindfulness, and other this-worldly activities they may end up reinventing it.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Berger’s quip “perhaps the gloomier versions may find a new market” has reportedly been around since the year 1973. There is a real life person who is a composite of the Buddhist, melancholic, Christian, psychoanalyst he writes about. We might call him a personification of a Weberian “ideal type,” if syncretism can qualify as an ideal type.

    Dayamati Richard Hayes whose website “New City of Friends: Reflections on Life by a Quaker Buddhist” states he was initiated as a dharmachari with the name Dayamati into the Triratna Buddhist (formerly called the Western Buddhist Order) on January 26, 2000. He also writes he is a member of the Albuquerque Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). He makes his living teaching Asian philosophy.

    Dayamati is a follower of Dharmachari Subhuti – originally Alex Kennedy – who is founder of the Friends Western Buddhist Order centered in London, India, Hungary where he is associated with the Gypsy Buddhists of Eastern Europe.

    Dayamati has an entry on his website “In Praise of Melancholy.” One of his favorite books is “Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places” by James Hollis, a Jungian analyst. He is also the apparent founder of the Green Tea Party.

    You couldn’t make up this social construction of religious reality if you tried.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    In his underrated book “Religious Melancholy and Protestant Experience in America (1994),” sociologist Julius H. Rubin reminds us of Max Weber’s thesis that Protestantism and Capitalism sprang from the stern, disciplined, melancholic, inner-worldly ascetical, and “heroically ethical” Occidental personality. This cultural personality type was initially found in the Calvinist, Pietist, Methodist and Puritan sects.

    Weber ridiculed the Freudian and later mostly American mental hygiene movement that made melancholy into a form of psychopathology. To Weber, the mental hygiene movement was “the cheapest kind of cost accounting” practiced by “normal health snobs” that failed to account for the burdens and sacrifices of ethical conduct.

    Protestants found certitude, not in religious dogma, as much as in work as a technical means of vanquishing doubt, of constructing a life as God’s tool, by doing God’s work, thus accomplishing the certainty of salvation.

    The Protestant Work Ethic validated worldly work as religious legitimation for the emergence of Capitalism. The sober, rational worldview of Protestants thus rejected emotionalism. The Protestant Ethic meant magical, sacramental, and confessional ways of finding God’s grace were ended and replaced with finding one’s calling in the world.

    However, Rubin describes how choosing a life of pro-active self-mastery, work and charity, sometimes resulted in religious melancholy ending in what Emile Durkheim called “altruistic suicide.”

    With Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science the “religion of healthy mindedness” substituted for the religion of sober mindedness. Much later, the American charismatic movement placed emotionalism, not work, as a means of individual salvation. Perhaps this was a counter cultural rejection of the rationalistic economic world of modern society described by Weber. Thus, the thesis of Rubin’s book is that the religious melancholy described by Max Weber and William James passed away.

    If we are to read “the signs of the time” in the media news, the American form of Buddhism has recently fallen on difficult times. A self-described Buddhist named Aaron Alexis shot and killed twelve former co-workers at a Navy shipyard.

    As described on the religious blog Patheos (“Did Aaron Alexis Fall Into a Hole in ‘American’ Buddhism?,” Sept.18), Buddhist ethicist Justin Whitaker, author of the American Buddhist Perspective Blog quotes Clark Strand, the editor of the Buddhist publication ‘Tricycle”: “Buddhism can seem particularly appealing to “mentally unbalanced people seeking to right the ship in their lives, to self-meditate, to curb their impulses, or to get a firm grip on reality.” However, Patheos editors ask is Alexis’ story about Buddhism or American Buddhism?

    Patheos editors quote Rodger Kamenetz, author of “The Jew in the Lotus:” “Let’s face it one of the reasons Buddhism has become so popular with so many Americans so fast is that people have stripped away all of the rules and the precepts and the work that has to do with how you are supposed to live your life. In doing so, they have stripped Buddhism of its ethical content. You are left with a religion that makes very few demands of you. Is that Buddhism?”

    To which we might add: is it only American Buddhism that makes no ethical demands on its adherents?

    You can’t reduce religion to ethics. Nonetheless, if a prerequisite to being “ethically heroic” as described by Weber is to be melancholic, most brands of “the power of positive thinking” American religion would fall short, not just Buddhism.

    Now we can see where German Christian Evangelical theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer may have gotten his concept of “cheap grace” described in his book The Cost of Discipleship. He may have been influenced by Max Weber’s “ethical heroism” that came from the sober, melancholic worldview of Protestantism. Weber contrasted his “ethic of responsibility” with that of the “ethic of attitude,” emotionalism, self-meditation, or psychoanalytic self-awareness of one’s unconscious.

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