Thursday, October 15, 2009

Notes from an Armchair Buddhist

My recent remarks about what people commonly think of as "religion," on this blog and on the Little Bang web site, have drawn blood. A new friend got angry with me for defending religion, and an old friend became upset because I abandoned it. Two members of my comparative religions study group were more intrigued by the term "cafeteria Catholics" that I used in my talk on "What is Religion?" than my conclusion that labels were more limiting than useful. Hearing that I'd once been described as an "armchair Buddhist," I've decided to see if that label can help me undermine the others.

The week following my talk, I was told by a heated interlocutor that any support for religion, any kind of religion, gives support to the enemy. The enemy of course are the fanatics, in particular the Muslim terrorists as well as Christians who murder abortion doctors. This is an argument that Harris and Dawkins and the other New Atheists have made. But they believe even liberal religion (what we might call "spirituality") hides the excesses of fundamentalism. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for God, and advocate zero tolerance in order to break what they believe is a taboo against any criticism of religion. Harris wants "to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance--born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God--is one of the principle forces driving us toward the abyss." I disagree.

When pressed to define "religion," my new friend said he meant institutionalized religion, the five (or so) "great" religions. People who believe in spirituality, he thought, are not so dangerous. I told him about my conversion to Roman Catholicism through the writings of Thomas Merton, and how I had met conservative Catholics who thought Hinduism and Buddhism were "cults." So I became a "cafeteria Catholic," choosing the aspects of Catholicism I liked (ritual, mysticism, work for peace and social justice) and rejecting those I found wrong or incomprehensible (i.e., the virgin birth, resurrection, and the Trinitarian god). "Then you were not a Catholic," he said emphatically. This is not the first time I've encountered a non-Catholic, even an atheist, who is certain they can determine who is or is not a Catholic.

Two ladies in the group told me they liked the phrase "cafeteria Catholics" and said it described them. Both were disappointed in the few churches in Bangkok that serve English speakers. One traveled frequently to Chiang Mai and liked the modern, red-bricked Cathedral of the Sacred Heart (which I've visited), particularly because of its outreach to hill tribes. The other told me about the large and modern ("it has seats like a theater") St. John's Church in the northern suburbs of Bangkok which serves primarily a Filipino congregation. Neither commented on the argument in my talk that the term "religion" is meaningless.

Which brings me to my old friend of several years, an intensely serious Buddhist and vegetarian with high moral standards. I've known for some time that our differences in approach to Buddhism and religion have put some distance between us, but I respect his position and have learned much from his articulate writing about where he stands. Still, I was not prepared for his response to my blog posts and the criticism (perhaps nit-picking) I had made recently about a Burmese monk who read a Dhamma talk to our English-speaking group in a soft monotone voice I could barely understand. In an email addressing my expressed interest in an upcoming ceremony and talk by an American Zen Buddhist, he wrote:
I know you're not a Buddhist or religious and it's merely academic to you, so you might just be bored, especially by the ceremony...of course if you want to come along and do more research next's up to you (it's a public event after all) - but I do hope you won't be offended by the delivery. The sound system there is not very good and a lot of the ritual and speeches will not be in English. I know you dislike this. Of course you have every right to turn up to a public event and then use the Internet to be critical afterwards, but you'll understand my fear that you may do the same again at this event. I suppose that having academics attend the ceremonies and talks of practitioners and then writing negatively about them afterwards is just to be expected. But it's still - in my honest opinion - unwelcome.
A further email admitted "I know this has done irreparable damage," and added "the wish that you have success in your search and find contentment and peace."

Rather than speculate on his motives for these words, I would rather write about my approach to "religion." It's quite clear that I have failed to communicate this very well to either my old friend or my new one, or to the two "cafeteria Catholics." I know that close friends in California believe I have abandoned Catholicism and lost my faith, even as I think I have broadened it to include the Hindu perspective of the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahmanic and animistic practices of Thai Buddhism.

The writer opposes "academic" and "practitioner" as if they cannot be easily combined. And it is certainly true that I became addicted to research during my many years in the academy where I was taught the important tool of critical analysis. Today the internet and Google allow me to research anything and everything, but the wealth of unfiltered information available means critical analysis is more necessary than ever before. I know some may find my many interests unpalatable and wonder why I cannot retire from the fray. I am motivated by a curiosity that won't let up, and a skepticism (but not cynicism) that prevents me from leaving my mind at the door. Life has been a series of practices: vacation Bible school, high school Christian camp, belief in flying saucers, Theosophical study, a variety of forms of Buddhist meditation, the Catholic mass, etc. I learned much from the many interests of Thomas Merton, and from studying liberation theology in Latin America which taught me the perils and potentials of combining religion and politics. I became a Catholic while majoring in philosophy and religion at the university, and each role was a practice.

Probably the term "practitioner" means something deeper for the writer, a serious practice as opposed to the fancies of a dilitante who dabbles in spirituality. And I confess that I have often felt like a dilitante as I followed my curiosity to monasteries in Massachusetts, England, California, India, Italy and Thailand, and while attending mass in churches throughout Latin America and Europe. Others always seemed so much more dedicated, even the guests in white at Wat Pah Nanachant in Ubon Ratchatani who were more interested in the pecking order of monks than the fine points of walking mediation. Practitioners give up important things like ordinary clothes, meat and sex which make it harder to defect from their chosen path (as Pascal Boyer writes in Religion Explained). No, I wasn't as serious as the others, and I always retained the right to withdraw from a way that I believed was mistaken (like the group of believers in flying saucers when I was 19 who decided that skin color was a sign of spiritual advancement).

I was an Armchair Christian and now I suppose I am an Armchair Buddhist. This negative term was directed at Americans and Westerners in general who discovered and studied Buddhism in the 19th and 20th centuries, even the noble Thoureau as well as the pessimistic Schopenhauer. According to historians of American Buddhism, the Beat Generation writers were the first to take Buddhism seriously, and a few, like poet Gary Snyder, did their apprenticeship in Asia. People in armchairs read books, but who is to say they can't meditate there as well? I have a comfortable armchair in my apartment in Bangkok, where I've read many books on Buddhism, though I have not meditated very often since I arrived here two years ago. I first took up meditation in the early 1980s and kept at it, off and on, for many years. My experience, however, was never more than nothing much. Perhaps I wasn't serious enough.

Does this mean I cannot be a Buddhist, or cannot think of myself as "religious," using the common sense of the word? I have not taken the Refuge Vows which most agree are necessary for one to become a Buddhist. But I would, if the opportunity were offered, since I do believe in the Buddha as an exemplary teacher, the Sangha as the global community of spiritual seekers, and the Dhamma as the way things are (much like the Tao). When I applied to become a Catholic, I had to wait for a year as a catechumen, taking regular classes, before the parish priest anointed me with blessed oil and permitted me to participate in the mass (I also got a letter from the Bishop attesting to my confirmation). Am I still a Catholic? The Dalai Lama has said you cannot be both a Christian and a Buddhist -- "It is like putting a yak's head on a sheep's body" -- and encourages his followers to return to the religion in which they were born. But I am a cafeteria believer, I take what is good and seems true from the religious traditions I have encountered. In India and Thailand I have been impressed by the everyday faith of a popular piety that never takes a day of rest. Alas, I can never be an Indian or a Thai (yet there are many Westerners who seem to think they can become Tibetans). As Popeye said, "I yam what I yam." I claim the right to decide for myself what is religious and whether that is what I am.

So why do I continue to think about religion in all of its permutations and forms? Despite the many crimes committed in the name of institutionalized religion down through the centuries, I respect and share the human thirst for transcendence. Not to escape from the world but to transform it into something deeply meaningful that will help us make selfless and compassionate choices in our daily lives. I believe people create transcendental ideas in the same way that they write symphonies, poetry and craft beautiful art. The human imagination is not constrained by physics or biology. You cannot find evidence to determine what is the right thing to do. Love is not a fact but a deed.

I do not know if there is an ontological being, an omnipotent mind without an observable body, that we can call God, but I doubt it. I do believe the metaphorical notion of God is useful. A Mexican Marxist theologian, whose name I have forgotten, wrote somewhere that "God comes to be in an act of justice." I like that, and I hope that this idea can help us recognize injustice, the absence of God. I do not know if some part of each of us lives on somewhere after death, but I doubt it. Despite the popular piety which focuses on rebirth, I remained convinced that the Buddha taught that our notion of Self is seriously flawed and contributes to unhappiness. I can understand neither the concept of karma nor the belief in the Last Judgment. But I think we make our lives meaningful by the good deeds we perform, and by the love we give and receive. To postpone reckoning for the harm we do until after death is wrong.

It's difficult but not impossible to remain a Catholic if you do not accept that Jesus was the son of God, his resurrection from death, and the real presence in the host at mass. Cafeteria Catholics can do it, but it's a slim diet. I also think it's difficult but not impossible to be a follower of the Buddha even if you do not accept karma, the Sangha as an organization only for monks, the renunciation of meat and sex, and even the historical existence of the teacher (or the Savior for that matter). If that makes me a dilitante and academic researcher rather than a serious practitioner, then so be it. I don't need any true believers in my church of one, just good friends with whom to share experiences on the journey.

I am in agreement with Karen Armstrong, former nun and accomplished writer on religious subjects, when she said in an interview last month with on NPR Radio in America with Terry Gross:
All the world religions say that the way to find what we call God or Brahman, Nirvana, or Tao is to get beyond the prism of egotism, of selfishness which holds us in a little deadlock and limits our vision. That if we can get beyond that, especially in the practice of compassion, when we dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, we live much more richly and intensely.

And if religion - your experience of God speaking to you or whatever, compels you to live a more compassionate life, then it's doing its job. And if it's filling you with respect and awe for the natural world and for all God's creatures, it's doing its job. What we call God comes to us in many ways. I couldn't make the personal God work for me. But that's not to say it won't work for other people. We all experience the inimitable, limitless God in as many different ways as there are human beings.


NellaLou said...

I recently read an article that discusses two Buddhist approaches to education

"the ekayano magga and the anupubbi katha"

these being differentiated by the level of attainment of the student. One involves the direct meditative experience and the other is more gradual and encompasses study and a more scholarly approach.

Both have been "endorsed" by the writings in the Tripitaka.

As for myself I am a Buddhist practitioner of over 25 years as well as one who approaches through the academic method. I have found that this has given a most complete view.

Hopefully your friend who criticized your criticism will examine his need to police your viewpoint.

I enjoy your articles and viewpoint immensely. As an ex-pat in north India it is interesting to learn about how others are living in their adopted cultures as well. Thank you

Source of above quote:

rubby_alvarez said...

Great post Will. I felt identified in many points (not in the academic part). For me religion is something completely subjective, something personal, and each individual have the right of believe in anything they want, as deep and commit as they want. And none has the right to decide if you are doing it right or wrong, which ever religion(s) you choose or you said you choose.

Unknown said...

It seems that there are as many paths as there are people...whatever the case, the common thread running through most religious or 'spiritual' practices is a somehow transpersonal experience.

I'm sure I can safely say that everyone reading this has felt intuitively that there is a greater awareness connecting it all together.

Whatever this authentic point of view is must be inclusive of all human experience, and as the saying goes, we can use our differences to create a heaven or a hell.

'Unity in diversity' is the greatest challenge for the human race but it's also what makes us so damned interesting to be around!

Anonymous said...

When you sit down on the meditation cushion and still the mind to quietude, then you're encountering The Dharma. If Buddhism is anything at all, it just this practice alone.