Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Baby and the Bathwater

Living in a Buddhist country for the last five years has given me a close look at Buddhism and religion in general, and nothing seems the same.  The label "Thai Buddhism" hardly does justice to the multitude of activities, artifacts and attitudes revolving around monks and temples, much of it having little to do with the Buddha or his teachings.  Even the term "religion" feels inadequate for defining what Thais do in their religious as opposed to their secular lives; there is no such division that I can see.  As culture, it's fodder for anthropologists, but they too are often trapped by a terminology that wants to make distinctions that do not exist in Thailand.

Lately, I've taken to using the expression "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" to describe the possible ill effects of attempting to modernize and purify teachings of the Buddha by separating them from the superstitious and magical elements of the cultures in which they have been preserved.  This is a bit ironic for a lapsed Catholic who finds it almost impossible to affirm metaphysical verities.  Yet it seems to me that a buddhism yanked out of its cultural ecology is not much more than a self-help technique.

What surprised me most when I moved to Thailand was the confusing entanglement of Hindu, Buddhist and animist objects and symbols I found everywhere I looked.  Often the primary icon in the ubiquitous spirit houses outside every house and building was Brahma and not Buddha.  Thais wear string around their wrists and amulets around their necks blessed by monks for good luck and protection against ghosts and evil spirits.  Hell "gardens" throughout Thailand portray graphically the terrible consequences one can expect from bad deeds.  Ancient trees wrapped with colored ribbons and statues of Kwan Yin and Ganesha are venerated equally by Thais with a bowing wai and sometimes a prostration. Sacred symbols are tattooed on people's backs and painted on the walls of stores and ceilings of taxis. Although meditation is growing in popularity, it is engaged in mostly by the young and educated; Thais as a whole practice tam boon, or "making merit," with regular acts of symbolic and actual generosity usually taking place at a temple.  Rather than reaching for enlightenment, their highest aspiration is usually happiness and good luck now for themselves and their families, and a fortunate rebirth.

Thailand is not unusual; in other Asian territories where Buddhism spread from its origins in India, there are similar cultural imperatives, activities and festivities .  Born in the womb of Brahmanism, Buddhism was carried east and north by merchants (since Hindu holy men were not permitted to travel) and it infused itself with the local indigenous animisms.  While Buddha might be highest in the pantheon, he was accompanied by other Indian deities.  I also assume that in other Asian countries these practices are considered a way of life rather than what Westerners think of as "religion," or a separate sphere of life, one increasingly diminished by modernity and scientific thinking.  Christianity has been purging itself of "superstitions" for centuries, although these usually are defined as the unsavory practices of other believers.  If you define superstition as "a belief in a non-physical (i.e. metaphysical (supernatural)) causality," as does Wikipedia, then all religion is a form of superstition.  One person's enlightenment is another's superstition.

My move away from America included a departure from the Catholic church which I'd considered my spiritual home for over twenty years.  Reading the mystical and ecumenical writings of Thomas Merton, as well as enthusiasm for the social justice teachings of the church, which inspired liberation theologians in Latin America, had kept me connected with like-minded friends in our local parish despite disappointment and disgust with the institutional church.  At the same time, I participated in a Buddhist group led by a teacher schooled in Vipassana meditation and Zen.  Even though the Dalai Lama had declared you should not mix religious traditions, I felt comfortable with both Christianity and Buddhism, and it was the communities of wonderful people that tethered me to both.  When I moved away from these two groups, the freedom I felt was exhilarating and scary.

The first few years in Thailand I tried to make sense of the religious chaos I encountered: What, I wondered, was Buddhism, what was Hinduism, and what was animism?  But whatever string you pulled, it was connected to the others.  Some writers talk of syncretism, but that implies you can, at least theoretically, separate the different strands.  In my studies I'd learned that "Hinduism" was largely created by Western translators and academics and was accepted by Indians as a means of defending their culture against the insults of Christian missionaries.  You can't be ridiculed as a "heathen" if you have an established and accepted religion. Nationalism as well as religious practices were used as defense mechanisms to prevent or throw off Western colonialism.  Siam's kings successfully avoided being colonized by modernizing dress and religion; Western styles were adopted (no more topless ladies!) and superstitions were purged in order to show France and England that the Siamese were civilized.

Since then, I've been to countless temples to make merit, I've listened to monks chanting, attended weddings and funerals and ordinations of monks, and I've observed ceremonies at shrines and altars where sales clerks, office workers, and even prostitutes, begin their working day by paying respects, lighting incense, and laying out drinks (red soda is popular) and food for the hungry spirits.  In a sense, everything is sacred for Thais.  And superstitions abound.  Just as I was taught to avoid ladders, black cats and breaking mirrors, Thais do not cut their hair on Wednesdays, never make jokes when eating so that a ghost will not steal their rice, avoid smelling flowers offered to a monk for Buddha, and never sweep at night.  But while we joke about Caspar the friendly ghost, their stories feature terrifying spirit creatures that will steal babies if you say they're cute.

German sociologist Max Weber observed at the beginning of the 20th century that "the fate of our times is characterized by rationalisation and intellectualisation and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world."  But this disenchantment has not taken place in Thailand or perhaps in much of Asia among the common people.  The world is still a wondrous place and existence involves a constant negotiation between the seen and unseen.  "Somehow Theravada Buddhism and the pre-Buddhist animistic heritage," anthropologist Niels Mulder writes, "have collaborated in an enduringly harmonious marriage."  Civic religion is pervaded with Brahmanic state ceremonies (like the recent funeral of the king's cousin).  And Mulder believes that
the common understanding and practice of Buddhism remains animistic in the sense that merit-making is generally understood as a mechanism to ensure safety and auspiciousnes, and thus the institutionalized Buddhism of the masses has become a powerhouse for individual and communal protection.
Educated Thai Buddhists put down the masses for their stubbornness in honoring and propitiating the spirits along with Buddha and assorted Hindu deities.  King Mongut and King Chulalongkorn both led modernisation efforts in the 19th century, and popular monk Buddhadasa Bhikku strongly condemned superstition in the mid-20th century. But according to many observers, outside of Bangkok and the control of the Sangha, animistic practices continue to flourish.  Historians of Buddhism, like Justin McDaniel and Prapod Assavavirulhakarn (reviewed in previous posts), now argue that there was never a pure and unadulterated Buddhism in Southeast Asia; it always came attached to Brahmanism and blended easily with indigenous beliefs and practices.  Attempting to construct an original Buddhism, based on Pali texts written several centuries after the Buddha's death, only serves efforts to control the tradition.

When I was studying the environmental history of California, I learned about the importation of eucalyptus trees from Australia in the 19th century.  But only seeds and individual plants crossed the Pacific; the accompanying ecosystem was left behind.  This created numerous problems for those who thought it would be a miracle crop.  Buddhism is like that.  When it spread out of Asia to the West, both teachers and students tailored it to the American and European psyche; superstition and magical thinking were left behind.  The Buddhism I practiced in California primarily involved meditation.  It was a psychology and a philosophy compatible with modern science.  It was free of metaphysics.  Consequently, Buddhism has become a spiritual product on sale in the religion section of book stores.  It can be, and is, adopted as a lifestyle.  But it can just as easily abandoned. The roots do not go down deep.

"You think too much."  I've heard this comment many times from Thai friends when they see me frustrated and upset (jai ran, a hot heart) about something.  This of course is heresy in the West where thinking is the primary activity of being human.  Can it be that Thais actually think less?  Perhaps this accounts for the difficulty students have with critical analysis.  But it also might reflect a reduced sense of self which, after all, is a centerpiece of Buddha's teaching.  If the self is a construction of experience and convention, and not essential and eternal, why waste time thinking of what might have been and could be?  As for the preoccupation with metaphysical entities, a surprise for Westerners who prefer an atheist Buddhism, I'm beginning to see that this is a trick of language.  Philosopher Owen Flanagan, in a recent Partially Examined Life podcast, makes a distinction between conventional and scientific language.  The two are often confused by critics of religion.  In order to construct and communicate meaning, we often speak poetically and metaphorically.  "God," as an object of a cry for help, is not an ontological statement claiming metaphysical reality, but rather a way of speaking about what concerns us deeply (Paul Tillich understood this by defining faith as ultimate concern).

Religion in the west is a badge of identity, and conversion is a rite of passage.  The buddhism I'm surrounded by in Thailand is not a style but a way of life.  It encompasses all that Thai people do and believe.  I'll never be able to inhabit it after a lifetime of analysis and cynicism, but I can appreciate it for what it offers the people and how it informs their lives.  To do otherwise, is to toss the baby out with the bathwater.


janet brown said...

Although you may never inhabit it, you observe it with respect and insight. Every one of these paragraphs is an outline for its own chapter. I wish you'd expand them, using this same tone and vocabulary,into a book. In the same way that Thai Buddhism with all of its complexities embodies so much of the culture,your book, with its "cynical, analytical" Western outlook underpinning and its careful examination of the uses of religion, would be appealing on so many levels. And it would be an enduring legacy to give to your country of choice.

Anonymous said...
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Paul Ryersbach said...

You might want to check this book out: