Thursday, September 29, 2011

This is Not a Buddhist

We celebrated our first wedding anniversary this week by dressing up and traveling an hour by taxi through heavy Bangkok traffic to dine in the Parkview Restaurant at the Imperial Queen's Park Hotel.  The incredibly expensive buffet included passable wine and lots of food we don't normally eat, including foie gras.  Nan wanted to try it.  Later I posted a photo of Nan and her pad of paté on Facebook and received this impassioned response:
As a Buddhist, I think you have a ethical responsibility not to support such horrible cruelty in the name of cuisine ... at least when it's so easy for you to help. Otherwise, I must say, it's armchair Buddhism ...
Now I know how foie gras is made because I saw "Mondo Cane" back in the 1960s, and I classify it with soups made from shark fin and bird's nest.  But it was Nan's experience and I always encourage her to explore the world that most village girls never see.  She had two servings. I took a bite and found it bland. I enjoyed the selection of cheeses with French bread.  The barbecued salmon, Australian beef and lamb chops (a rarity in Thailand) were more tasty and the cornucopia of desserts (dipping watermelon in a chocolate fountain!) were to die for.  We had exchanged gifts before leaving: a shirt for me and a new watch for Nan.  I wore a tie (the only other person with one in the restaurant was the maître d'hôtel) and Nan a slinky dress inherited from her aunt.  We gorged until we were full and I had finished the last spoonful of kiwi sorbet.

What gave me pause in the plea from my Facebook friend was not guilt over contributing to the suffering of geese (all my consumption choices contain that risk), but the assumption that I was a Buddhist.  The headline for this post, for those who flunked art history, is a reference to the Magritte painting of a pipe containing the words, "Ceci c'est pas non une pipe."  He titled it "The Treachery of Images," and it serves to remind me that icons and symbols are not transparent but have a history.  Just as Jesus was not a Christian, the Buddha was not a Buddhist (and the images and representations of each figure are further removed from that label).  Am I a Buddhist?  I have never taken the refuge vows which most agree are necessary to assume that identity.  Last year the Pali scholar from Oxford, Richard Gombrich, told a conference audience here that he was "not a Buddhist, but I very much admire Buddhism and especially Buddhist ethics.  I am not a Buddhist in a technical sense."  I like that.  Does it mean then we're only "armchair Buddhists"?

The day before our anniversary, I accompanied students of English from my university on a field trip to Ayutthaya, the capital of the Thai kingdom from 1350 to 1767 when it was destroyed by Burmese invaders.  All that remained was a field of red brick and headless Buddha statues.  Some of the brick was used in building the new capital at Thonburi and then Rattanakosin in what is now Bangkok.  Much of the city an hour north of the present capital has now been painstakingly reconstructed for tourists and students of history, although not all of the 500 temples have been rebuilt in the city Europeans described as the Venice of Asia because of its canals (the center is an island at the confluence of three rivers, and is consequently often flooded).  Ayutthaya was a Buddhist monarchy with the identity of its people affirmed by each pillar, then as now.  For Thais, the dhamma is inseparably linked with rule by a devaraja (god-king), a concept from India by way of the Khmer empire in Cambodia.

My students have come to Bangkok, and now the new campus in Wangnoi outside Ayutthaya, from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, south China, southern Vietnam,  and Shan State in Burma.  They have to be taught the unfamiliar English words "Buddhism" and "Buddhist."  In Thai, they follow sasanaput, the teachings of the Lord Buddha.  "Religion" is an abstract concept, hard to grasp, although they learn to think of Buddhism as a religion equal to the Christianity brought here by missionaries over the last 500 years (converts in Thailand are slim pickings). My students on the field trip clambered over the ruins and took photos of each other.  June, our Thai tour guide, gave a history lesson in English on the bus but the monks chatted with each other, listened to music on earphones, or slept.  I couldn't hear much over the rumble of traffic and squeaking of the bus carriage.  History taught in Thailand is celebratory rather than objective.  There is a big flap in the news here at the moment over students at a middle school in Chiang Mai who dressed up for an activity day as Nazis, apparently unaware of the history of National Socialism in Germany and its tragic consequences.

Since "Buddhism" and "religion" have become reified and commodified through use, it's difficult to talk about the living practices, beliefs and customs on view everywhere in Thailand and other Asian countries without recourse to these labels and the discourse that surrounds them.  I'm attempting to put together a conference paper on the differences I've observed between "buddhisms" (traditional vs. modern, Asian vs. Western, for starters) and whether or not it's possible to unify them all within one "big tent."  I got this idea from reading somewhere that it was more accurate to speak of "christianities" than an abstract Christianity which doe not in fact exist.  I started by reading the voluminous literature on American Buddhism; one writer called it "Ameriyana" to contrast it with "Theravada" and "Mahayana," the two generally accepted schools of Asian Buddhism.  Westerners reject ritual and monasticism to focus on meditation and what Thich Nhat Hahn calls "inter-being," an interconnectedness with people and nature.  This makes understandable a much-told joke about the Dalai Lama asking a hot dog vendor to "make me one with everything."  But when the Tibetan leader was told the joke, he found it incomprehensible.  The dhamma generally teaches elimination of self rather than an expansion of the self.  But in the west the romantic notion of mystical oneness prevails.

Buddhism in Thailand is a hybrid cultural practice combining Brahmanism and various forms of Buddhism, brought to Southeast Asia by merchants along sea routes from India, with local animist beliefs and rituals.  There is little enforced orthodoxy, although Buddhist teaching relies on the Pali Tripitaka, considered to contain the earliest sayings of the Buddha (although not written down for hundreds of years after his death).  Like "Hinduism," an institutional structure based on the traditions of brahmin priests, Asian Buddhism absorbs everything in its path. The bewildering variety of icons and symbols I found in Thailand were nothing like the rather austere zen and vipassana Buddhism I knew in California.  How could these buddhisms coexist in the same tent?

For the first 2,000 years of its history, teachings and practices centering on the perhaps mythical figure of the Buddha spread out of India south to Sri Lanka, east to Southeast Asia, and north to Tibet, China, Japan and Korea.  There was little contact and interchange between different sects and schools which intermingled with local cultures to create different blends.  European visitors lumped all their observations into the category of "heathen" and compared it unfavorably with the three monotheistic "world" religions.  But in the 19th century, linguists working as colonial administrators discovered and translated sacred texts of the Far East, thereby creating "Buddhism."  At first the texts were seen as evidence of  "pure" Buddhism while living practices were viewed as corruptions of the original religion.  Then two Theosophists from the U.S. went to Sri Lanka, became Buddhists and reconstructed the religion, making it more "protestant" and anti-colonial in the process.  There is now a large corpus of literature on "Buddhist modernism," which, with the connivance of Asian teachers, made Buddhism more rational and scientific, countering an earlier European opinion that it fostered nihilism.  Homegrown modernists (and King Mongut in Thailand, when not fighting with Anna, did his part) tried to purge Buddhism of superstitious accretions and promoted an intellectual understanding of the dhamma over a devotional one.  A wide variety of buddhisms from different Asian countries presented teachings acceptable to American susceptibilities at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893.  From the Transcendentalists to the beats and hippies, America welcomed Buddhism with open arms, first zen and more recently the vajrayana tradition from Tibet which has achieved a popularity all out of proportion to its size in the Buddhist universe.

At the annual Day of Vesak celebration and conference held by my university, several thousand Buddhists from all over the world representing most traditions gather for three days of talks and ceremonies.  The monks and nuns in their many-colored robes and the laypeople speaking a Babel of languages is most impressive.  The large hall at Wangnoi is certainly a big tent able to hold all views and opinions of the dhamma despite superficial differences.  One big difference, however, is the respect accorded the Thai monarchy.  Nowhere else is royalty so intertwined with religion.  One delegate describe it critically as "the thaification of Buddhism."  But at least religious imagery and devotional ceremonies were on display, unlike in the West where perhaps, in their zeal to purge Buddhism of Asian rituals and superstition, the baby might thrown out with the bathwater.

My paper on buddhisms in the big tent is far from finished.  I've accumulated a foot of printouts and my leaky memory already makes any coherent organization of research impossible.  I want to write about the dispute in the pages of Mandela between the secularist Stephen Batchelor and the traditionalist B. Alan Wallace, both trained in the Tibetan tradition, over what counts as authentic teaching and what can be doubted (perhaps karma and rebirth).  Then there are the punks and progressives, mostly younger Buddhists, who criticize the first generation of Buddhist converts in America with their wind chimes and hippie ways.  In Thailand, Buddhist reformer Buddhadasa tried to eliminate superstitions while affirming modernist ideas, though his student, Phra Visalo, believes some superstitions are helpful.  A new generation of Asian academics, like Prapod Assavavirulhakarn from Chulalongkorn University, are contesting accepted Buddhist history written mostly by Westerners and even claiming that "Theravada," the recognized term for southern Buddhism, is inaccurate and useless.

But I may not finish (I've already said as much in an earlier blog post).  The research is fascinating and illuminating and I've always liked it more than crafting an argument.  This post is a way to run through several of my ideas to see if they make sense in print.  I've even got some thoughts on methods to actually unify the disparate elements of a hijacked tradition.  Wittgenstein's theory of family resemblance might be useful, as is the concept of hybridity developed by anti-colonial theorists.  And Buddhist historian Robert H. Scharf has some interesting suggestions about conversation as the unifying element.  I love the title of Tomoko Masuzawa's 2005 book, The Invention Of World Religions, Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved In The Language Of Pluralism.  I've only read her chapter on Buddhism but her thesis is provocative and persuasive.  The struggle over what counts as Buddhism seems to be a very-unbuddhistic fight for control.  Why does "religion" have to be universal anyway?  The Thais I see who daily pay respects to the Buddha and to Ganesha and who practice generosity to gain a favorable rebirth have no need of being theologically correct.  Few have the luxury to pick and choose beliefs from the spiritual marketplace as do western spiritual searchers.  Their devotion is more simple and honest, and I prefer to stay in their big tent.



Dion Peoples said...

Good words and good photos! Ignore the negativity!

Dion Peoples said...

good words and good photos... ignore the negativity!

Marcus said...

Hi Will,

Another nice post covering some huge ground very succinctly. Thank you for a good read.

But I have to disagree with the idea that "the Buddha was not a Buddhist"!

The historical Buddha clearly - from whatever reading of Buddhism you choose - intented to set up a new religion. He was the teacher teaching the Dharma and he gathered around himself a body of disciples he called the Sangha which he organised and instructed.

Of course, those truths which the Buddha taught are universal and apply to all beings, but that's not the point I think you were trying to make.

As for vegetarianism, you know my opinions on that already! LOL! Anyone who chants the Metta Sutta or expouses loving-kindness one minute and eats the abused and slaughtered bodies of beings who may have well been their mother or grandmother the next is hardly matching their actions to their words.

Sorry if anyone thinks this is negative!

And all the best to you Will,



Anonymous said...

I appreciate your thoughtful response to the issue!


Ed Ward said...

"Ceci n'est pas une pipe," but whatever.

I like the idea of buddhisms, and think that one approach to the history may be that there was a guy who had some ideas about reality and spirituality and probably about ways to get closer to certain experiences. His ideas spread to places where, in isolation, as you've noted, they kind of mutated, the way a language will do when it loses contact with the mother tongue. Every buddhism that worked, worked. It's more about the basic structure of the ideas and the evolving methods than about any rigid canon.

As for foie gras, I saw dozens of duck farms in the Dordogne in August, and given the many uses those ducks serve after their deaths, not all of them culinary, I'd just hope I could do the same after I pass away. That said, I, too, find foie gras a little dull.