Monday, April 05, 2010

Confession of a Bipolar Buddhist

Sometimes the contradictions cannot be resolved. I confess to an attraction to both a Buddhism of the head and a Buddhism of the heart. In America I first learned about Buddhism from the writings of Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki, and spent over 20 years on and off the meditation cushion. Now in Thailand I am learning about Buddhism from devotees who bow to a bewildering variety of images, acquire sacred tattoos, link themselves to spiritual power with string, wrap trees in colored cloth, hang amulets around their necks, cover altars and icons with flowers, small squares of gold leaf, candles and sticks of incense, and who practice generosity by giving coins to beggars and food to monks. If I still identified as a Christian, it's as if I might be torn between attending a Unitarian Universalist meeting and a gathering of holy rolling snake worshippers.

Perhaps Stephen Batchelor shares a little of this ambivalence, for he writes, uncharacteristically I might add, "I am glad I belong to a religion that worships a tree!" in his new book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. In what might be considered a sequel to his highly controversial Buddhism Without Beliefs, published in 1997, Batchelor presents his view of a this-worldly Buddhism, devoid of metaphysical beliefs like karma and rebirth. He roots his understanding of the Buddha's teaching in a rigorous study of the Pali canon, the oldest documents of Buddhism. This is a perspective that I can embrace. Despite a lifelong effort to understand and accept metaphysical, mystical and transcendental accounts of reality, I find myself at this late stage a confirmed materialist. "The challenge of Gotama’s eightfold path," Batchelor writes, "is, as I understand it, to live in this world in a way that allows every aspect of one’s existence to flourish: seeing, thinking, speaking, acting, working, etc." Then he adds an important caveat with which I totally agree: "I find it immoral to relegate the demands of this life to the 'higher' task of preparing oneself for a postmortem existence (or non-existence)."

This is an intellectual Buddhism, however, shorn of ritual. Though he was a monk for many years in both the Tibetan and Korean Zen traditions, Batchelor also studied existentialism and pragmatism, and brings Sartre, Heidegger and Richard Rorty to the discussion. "Buddhism has become for me a philosophy of action and responsibility," he writes. I, too, studied philosophy, in particular the implications for religion of Wittgenstein's later writings, but find that ideas can sometimes get in the way of mindfulness. For Batchelor, however, mindfulness, Vipassana mediation,"serves as an antidote to theism, a cure for sentimental piety, a scalpel for excising the tumor of metaphysical belief." Living in Thailand, I am surrounded by non-physical perceptions of reality; we share space with spirits and ghosts. The Buddha, presumably, answers prayers (Nan says she prays that "everyone be lucky"). We have two Buddha icons and one of the Hindu god Ganesha atop our bookcase and they are adorned with flower garlands for every Wan Phra (Monk Day, on the four phases of the moon).

A visitor in Thailand soon notices the ubiquitous wai (hands folded in reverence and respect) that Thais make when passing a Buddhist temple or spirit house. In addition to glasses and bottles of red soda (the gods apparently like red), the spirit houses usually feature a Hindu deity inside, mostly Ganesha but often Brahma in one of his forms. Images of the mythical bird Garduda are prominent on buildings if the company provides services to the monarchy as a kind of royal seal of approval. It's hard to know where Hinduism ends and Buddhism begins in Thailand. Historically, Hinduism came first to Thailand followed by Theravada Buddhism imported from Sri Lanka, but the replacement was never complete. Even deeper in the Thai psyche is an indigenous animism in which nature is alive with spirits that must be placated with arcane rituals including string to increase power and provide protection from danger. There are religious shrines to everything in Thailand, from ones covered in phallic symbols to promote fertility to others where clothes and toys are presented to a dead mother and her child. The Chao Phraya River in Bangkok is full of fish donated to gain merit (a royal princess recently put 55,000 fingerlings in the river to celebrate her 55th birthday).

Batchelor's new book is a mixture of autobiography with the quest for the historical Buddha through Pali scripture and visits to sites in India and Nepal, and his version of a slimmed-down Dhamma (he calls his style of writing "a collage"). He acknowledges that his early understanding was mostly intellectual. "As a Western convert, I saw Buddhism as a set of philosophical doctrines, ethical precepts, and meditation practices." But when he lived in Korea surrounded by lay Buddhists he realized this was naive. "I began to see it [Buddhism] as a broad cultural and religious identity, one that provides a framework for fallible humans to make complex decisions in a precarious and unpredictable world." I think it's difficult for Westerners, who experience Buddhism from books and speakers while attending a retreat, or on a cushion in a meditation hall, to understand the resonances and overtones Buddhism has for people who live it fulltime. Who is to say what is Buddhist and what is not? Ph.D. student Brooke Schedneck from Arizona is currently doing research in Thailand on how meditation centers here treat Western visitors differently, and her findings are appearing in her blog, Wandering Dharma. Basically, non-Thais receiving a training in meditation without much of the customs and ritual that cradle Buddhists would consider essential. What's the baby and what's the bathwater here?

I teach English to monks at a Buddhist university and hear fascinating stories about their lives. I've gone to temples with Nan to make tamboon (merit) for her recently deceased father and for my son Luke. Recently her grandmother died and I've seen the photos of the cermony where her body was carried in an elaborately designed "boat" to the cremation ground. Shrines, icons and images are everywhere I walk. And yet, like Batchelor, it is difficult for me to be other than a secular Buddhist. "Whether I liked it or not," he writes of the time even when he was a monk, "I was a secular, post-Christian European," and "I had no wish to let go of my cherished humanity.” In his quest for the historical Buddha, Batchelor finds much support for a godless Dhamma. He believes the Pali canon presents Buddha as an "ironic atheist." Rather than an aggressive atheism "premised on a denial of God every bit as fervent as the believer’s affirmation of Him," he thinks Buddha was neither a theist nor an anti-theist. "'God' is simply not part of his vocabulary. He was an “atheist” in the literal sense of the term."

In America I became a Catholic because I liked all the bells and whistles, the incense and the candles, kneeling and genuflecting. The plainness of Protestant churches seemed sterile and deadening to the soul (when I still believed that one's soul could be considered distinct from the body). I read and re-read the Bhagavad Gita and tried to understand the differences between the three spiritual paths it described: the paths of wisdom (jnana), action (karma) and devotion (bhakti). On my first trip to India six years ago I visited many temples and found the popular devotional piety of the people inspiring. There religion was infused into the culture and not a separate sphere of action. It seemed possible to appreciate Hinduism both intellectually, by reading and listening, and spiritually, by participating in communal rituals. Here in Thailand I have found the same unity of religion and life. Batchelor defines religion as "life living itself: not a mechanical repetition of dogmas motivated by threats and fear."

Most Buddhists in Asia are polytheists, Batchelor writes. When a country becomes Buddhist, "the spirits and gods are only downgraded, not abolished." Buddha, he said, "did not reject the existence of the gods, he marginalized them." Still, for the secular Batchelor, "no single Asian form of Buddhism was likely to be effective as a treatment for the peculiar maladies of a late-twentieth-century post-Christian secular existentialist like myself." This goes for me as well. I know that while I can appreciate and applaud popular piety, I will never be able to totally partake of it, just as I can never culturally become a Thai no matter how well I learn to speak the language or eat their spicy food. Is this a form of spiritual bipolarity?

Life, for Batchelor, presents itself as an unresolved question. "Existence strikes us as a mystery, as a riddle. This experience reverberates through us, issuing in the sounds ‘Why?’ and ‘What?” The various religious of the world are systematic formulations of the answers to these questions." By studying early documents traced to the teaching of the Buddha, he came to realize "how deeply Buddhism was tied to the world-renouncing norms of much Indian religion" and that it "still has as its ultimate goal the ending of rebirth and thus of life as we know it." And as "the words of Siddharttha Gotama metamorphosed into the religion called 'Buddhism,'" he writes, "I began to suspect that something might have gone awry." This opinion has been much criticized by tradition-oriented Buddhists (read this scathing review of his new book). Nirvana, in Batchelor's view, is "a way of being in this world that was not conditioned by greed, hatred, or confusion...[it was] a radical shift of perspective rather than the gaining of privileged knowledge into some higher truth...The heart of Gotama’s awakening lay in his unequivocal embrace of contingency" and this was to be found "not by turning away from the world but by penetrating deep into its continent heart." (my emphasis added)

When he was a monk, Batchelor's mother wrote to him with this advice: "You cannot stay in Nirvana forever, my dear."

Confession of a Buddhist Atheist is a challenging and insightful book and I have not done it justice. I'm following it by reading an equally controversial interpretation of Buddhism, What the Buddha Thought by Richard Gombrich, a Pali scholar from Oxford. During a visit to Bangkok six months ago he gave a talk in which he said that Thai Buddhist monks treat women "as untouchables." It caused a storm of controversy. I'll report on my findings later.