November 24, 2014

To Suppose A Post-Modern Buddhism

In Buddhism's adaptation to the concerns and climates of the post-modern West, much of what has been taken for granted as necessarily intrinsic to it has inevitably been questioned. Ancient Indian and exotic Oriental flavours react unpredictably on a Western palate, and for some, the taste does not appeal.

An article in our essay series: Making Connections: Discourses on the relationship between Zen, Buddhism, and culture

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In Buddhism's adaptation to the concerns and climates of the post-modern West, much of what has been taken for granted as necessarily intrinsic to it has inevitably been questioned. Ancient Indian and exotic Oriental flavours react unpredictably on a Western palate, and for some, the taste does not appeal.

It seems the questions that keep recurring relate to what of this venerable tradition do we maintain, and what do we jettison? And to what degree can we hope to find any significant agreement on this issue? Will Buddhism in the West find its own precise interpretation as it has in Indo-Asian cultures, or will it inevitably be a "broad church" of experience and practice in a Western context that has embraced Buddhism at a time when it has also entertained the interest of a myriad other "comparative" and alternative religions?

How will Buddhism define itself in this world? Is it the case that in her long journey across the Pacific, a swimmer can perhaps only survive the experience to the degree she casts aside the extraneous like so much jetsam?

Any organism evolves, radically or gradually, as it meets and surmounts the challenges and conditions of new circumstance. And even radical evolution needs be tested against the demands and vicissitudes of time. Buddhism in the West is, and will be for some time, no different. Ours are unlikely to be the generations which will find the answers to the question of this new chapter of Buddhism, but it does fall to us to pioneer the appropriate questions.

There are many discussions and questions that are virtually de rigeur in Buddhist circles but which are possibly unnecessarily esoteric for new Western audiences; discussions such as the various differences between Mahayana, Theravada and Vajrayana, whether Zen can exist without Buddhism, or Buddhism without Zen, does one need be vegetarian, the role of celibacy, etc.

Questions such as these may be presumptuous; they presume a role and relevance of Buddhism that in many ways are not yet warranted. They presume that Buddhism has already established a clear function in Western society. Consider this observation from Bikkhu Pannaji when he writes:

"Of course, the Buddhists of Buddhist countries don't look upon Buddhism as a psychotherapy. It is mainly understood as a form of religion. Of course, those scholars who study the teaching of the Buddha ... tend to regard the teaching as a philosophy. Now as I see it, these two ways of thinking can be seen as two extremes. Avoiding these two extremes, I would like to take the Middle Path, which is to treat the teachings of the Buddha as a form of psychotherapy. I would say that if Buddhism is introduced into the modern world as psychotherapy, the message of the Buddha will be correctly understood."

This observation intelligently approaches a more fundamental level of inquiry regarding Buddhism for new generations of Western seekers; that being, not only what is Buddhism but, by extension, why is Buddhism? It is the very soul of Buddhism that must be measured, not its vagaries, exotic attraction, customs or dogmas.

So let us make this our departure point, and first examine this quintessence of Buddhism. From that place we can better attempt to determine its relevance before we put the cart before the horse and worry too much about the esoterica that surrounds the tradition in those cultures that are more familiar with its form and function, and more confident with its place and purpose.

What is Buddhism? Buddhist writer Brad Warner raises an interesting point when he suggests the very term Buddhism is a problem; he suggests that naming the experience and recognition of the Four Noble Truths after the person who initially promulgated the system was akin to calling the Theories of Relativity "Einsteinism". The point he was making was, I believe, that in naming the system after the man it possibly inevitably encourages a cult of personality, rather than an impersonal system of attainment. It puts the centrality of this process of personal attainment outside one's own experience and into the experience of another.

So let us ask the question; did Buddha create Buddhism? Or did his followers? Do we?

Did Buddha intend to create a religion out of his teaching? Did Jesus? Does anyone?

Or is religion simply the way people who don't fully understand the principles taught by their teacher express their limited understanding?

Where did Jesus suggest the concept of "mortal" sin as opposed to "venial" sin? Where did he discuss purgatory or the need for infants to be baptised so they don't miss out on Heaven? Or the need to eat fish on Fridays?

Where did Buddha try to persuade people about the importance of incense lighting, bowing, or the vanaya codes of monasticism?

The answer to these questions is obvious and simple; nowhere. Not that this invalidates the role of such practices and beliefs. As part of a religious observance they all may have value and relevance in the lives of the faithful.

But are they necessary practices and beliefs for those who look to the teachings of the founder and wish to follow the path they taught? I would suggest most profoundly not. A useful starting point for post-modern Western Buddhists when confronted by the various traditions of Indian and Asian Buddhism is to be willing to take it if you want it, but drop it as irrelevance if you need to.

So here I can better phrase a more fundamental question of relevance and practice - does Buddhism need to be a religion? Not "is Buddhism a religion?", but for we in the West, does it need to be a religion? What defines the milieu of Western spirituality? What is the post-modern zeitgeist that Buddhism must inevitably encounter? In what soil do we seek to transplant a plant born and raised in foreign lands?

As Buddhists, it goes without saying we respect the teachings of the Buddha. But do we equally respect the reality of our world, our society and our cultures? Can Buddhism be a successful import if we do not clearly know, understand and respect our own reality, our world, this soil?

Buddha spoke of the necessity of "skilful means" when communicating the dharma; that one understands both the capacities and limitations of the audience this dharma is being communicated to. The questions that Western Buddhists must surely ask themselves must therefore include an honest inquiry into the capacities and limitations, as well as the prejudices, predilections, and interests, of the modern West.

One issue that I think must be examined is the importance of the concept of religion in this environment. It does no-one any good, and it does not do the chances of teaching the dharma any good, if we do not question the value of this concept for modern Western audiences. Can we deny that the very word religion conjures negative associations for many? Can we ignore the fact that the word "priest" elicits increasingly uncomfortable reactions from these same people?

This is not the place to argue the merits of this reality; rather, this is the time to appreciate that such is the reality of a new post-modern world.

Does Buddhism require an appreciation that perhaps its value lies, not in its introduction as a "new and improved" religion, but rather as an alternative to religion? Will the modern Buddhist teacher speak with more relevance as a priest or monk in an ecumenical gathering of religious authorities, or will she reach more people speaking as a teacher of the dharma at secular and humanist meetings, for instance? Does the modern Buddhist, successful in communicating the teachings of the Buddha, speak to the religious instinct or to the new breed of atheist/agnostic who cannot or will not countenance any form of religious expression which he considers to be simply the old stories wrapped in new ribbons, the old wolf dressed in just another sheep's clothing?

This is an issue which will prove, if not necessarily central, at least significant in the re-interpretation of an ancient teaching in our world. And those who seek to communicate the dharma for the good of an audience, rather than for their own needs, must surely at least consider these and similar questions.

However, even should such questions be pursued diligently, and the answer for many may well be that Buddhism need not be associated with a religious impulse, do we need to take it that further step and pointedly disassociate Buddhism from religion? Perhaps, many will. But as Buddhists we agree that the Middle Way is one of the defining tones of Buddhist thought. One rarely cures the excesses of one extreme by embracing its polar opposite.

Although Buddhism need not be religious, similarly it need not be irreligious.

Which may lead to an even more thorny issue; if post-modern Westerners do want their Buddhism to incorporate a religious dimension - what are their options? Certainly, some may adopt the religious frameworks of Tibet, Korea, China, Japan or India in their entirety. But others may baulk at the premises and practices that were designed to serve the interests of cultures and communities that are of little to no relevance to them. What may these seekers do to resolve their difficulties?

Perhaps one answer is to recognise that although Buddhism need not necessarily be a religion, there need not be any reason to consider it incompatible from other religions.

Much is made of the debates regarding whether there can be "Christian Zen", or "Humanist Zen", or "non-Buddhist Zen". It is an interesting discussion, although personally I don't participate too deeply in it as I believe every religious tradition has its equivalent mystic practice so to add Zen to those traditions seems to me a superfluous exercise. But in the context of this essay, a more interesting question may well be, can one have a Buddhism that sits harmoniously within an existing religious tradition?

Can one imagine the functional reality of a Christian Buddhist, or a Muslim Buddhist, or a neo-Pagan Buddhist? If Buddhism need not be seen as a religion in and of itself, can the Buddha's dharma express itself as a practice within the parameters of existing religions in the West?

I have two good friends, one a Catholic seminarian, and one an author and practicing neo-Pagan. With the latter, I discussed what I considered to be some of the core defining principles of Buddhism; those being the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the "Three Seals of Buddhism", generally regarded as being impermanence, anatman (no-self) and dhukka (the truth of suffering inherent in nature). She considered there to be absolutely no reason why, using this definition of Buddhism, one couldn't call oneself a neo-Pagan Buddhist.

When I asked my Catholic friend the same question, the only point of dispute arose in relation to impermanence and anatman. However, when we discussed the issue in greater depth, we found common ground when we more comprehensively examined what nirvana and samsara might mean to a Christian. Being familiar with the mystic theology of many of the great Christian mystics, he was prepared to accept that if samsara meant that world subject to change, then Heaven and the human soul were rightly considered to be products of a samsaric consciousness, and that the idea of the human soul that exists forever in Heaven could well relate to the samsaric dimension. In the experience of nirvana, God, Heaven and Self no longer exist as separate conditions. His familiarity with the devotional and mystical writings of his own religion enabled him to see there need not be any theological conflict between the "soul that exists forever and separate" from the Three Seals of Buddhism. In short, in that world where Heaven and the soul exist, they may well exist "eternally". But the context of "eternity" is a samsaric one; impermanence and anatman relate to a nirvanic and mystic experience.

Interestingly for him, the idea of a Christian Buddhism significantly deepened his interpretation of his own religion, and added to it a dimension he had not previously considered. For him, an examination of Buddhism, seen not in the context of a competing religious view, provided both a reframing and evolution of his own religious approach.

It needs be said, I do not intend to imply that such an approach to the value of Buddhism in the modern Western world need follow such a course. It simply demonstrates the breadth, and wealth, of opportunities that both this particular culture and this particular practice have to offer each other.
And in concluding this essay, it is important to reiterate the most likely truth; that our generations will unlikely be the ones that see the true development of Buddhism in our own unique environment. Our generations, however, are the ones that will recognise and foresee the challenges and opportunities, and will have the opportunity to create the appropriate questions and vision that will determine what relevance Buddhism will have as it evolves its new destiny.