Buddhism: Into the Mystic?

We were born before the wind
Also younger than the sun
Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic

– Van Morrison

Well-known writer on Buddhist subjects, Stephen Batchelor says, “The Buddha was not a mystic.” This is true, if by “mystic” you are referring to “esoteric” or “otherworldly”, or if by using the word “mysticism” you mean, “vague speculation: a belief without sound basis”. However, if you refer to another definition of mysticism found at Merriam-Webster, “the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight),” then the Buddha was certainly a mystic, sans the God part.

The Buddha taught that nirvana (representing ultimate reality) was not some far-off transcendent realm, but was present in the here and now and accessible to all. However, nirvana is just one way of expressing the ultimate. Nagarjuna said, “The Buddha teaches the one dharma in numerous ways . . .  the ultimate truth, the reality that is not itself anything specific (akincana) is the heart of the teaching of the Buddha,” and Chih-i said, “The one truth is given many names.”

Batchelor has attracted a lot of attention with his deconstruction of Buddhist philosophy. For me, his notions have a scorched earth effect, because after he has deconstructed and demystified dharma, there is very little left: a classic case of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

I don’t find Batchelor a particularly original thinker. But then, those who are seem to be few and far between. I’ve noticed some similarity between Batchelor’s work and that of Prof. Trevor Ling (1920-1995), who was also British. That’s okay, all writers and philosophers build upon what came before. Assuming he has at least read Prof. Ling, which I think is a reasonable assumption, Batchelor seems to have missed some of Ling’s finer points.

Here is the expanded passage from Buddhism Without Beliefs, published in 1998, which was quoted briefly above.

The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks. Only as Buddhism became more and more a religion were such grandiose claims imputed to his awakening. In describing to the five ascetics what his awakening meant, he spoke of have discovered complete freedom of heart and mind from the compulsions of craving. He called such freedom the taste of dharma.

And here is a passage from Prof. Ling’s The Buddha, published in 1973:

The nature of the change which took place when Gotama sat meditating under the bodhi tree on the bank of the Nairanjana river is traditionally described by saying that he became the Buddha, that is, the Awakened. In later Buddhist literature, the transition is described in terms which make it literally an earth-shaking event, but the earlier literature gives a more prosaic and analytical account, and one which makes the event described extremely difficult to fit into the categories of ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ experience. This was no ‘inaugural vision’, such as the prophets of Israel underwent. There was no sense of awe at the realization of the presence of divine being, such as Isaiah felt; no ecstatic experience like that of Jeremiah; no voice from heaven accompanying the descent of the holy spirit as Christian tradition represents happening in the case of Jesus; no archangel as in the case of Muhammad, coming down to announce ‘Thou art God’s apostle’, making the chosen one to fall upon his knees and tremble. . .

The account given in a Pali Sutta called Discourse of the Ariyan Quest is represented as the Buddha’s own version of the matter given years later to some of his disciples . . . an account of the intellectual penetration into the nature of the human situation which the Buddha then achieved . . .

Just as the Buddha’s experience was unlike those Ling cites from the Bible, the collection of texts that are the source of nearly all Western religious thought, the Buddha, too, as a teacher, was unlike Western models. He was not a prophet like Isaiah or a law-bringer in the way that Moses was; he was a meditation teacher, a mendicant philosopher. Prof. Ling describes the Buddha’s awakening as “humanistic discovery based on analysis.” In the Majjhima Nikaya or “Middle-length Discourses”, the Buddha says, “I am an analyst, not a dogmatist.”

After dealing with the Buddha’s awakening, Batchelor goes on to describe the “Four Noble Truths” by saying “At precisely this juncture, Buddhism becomes a religion.” In my opinion, Batchelor is projecting his own Western religious prejudices onto the matter. The Four Noble Truths were not offered as religious beliefs but rather, as Ling indicates, the Buddha’s analysis of the human situation.

In its original presentation, the Four Noble Truths does transform Buddhism into a philosophy, but not necessarily a religious one. There is a point of view to be sure, and without it, Buddhism would just be one more meditation technique or another form of yoga.

My feeling is that Batchelor and others who take the same tact are actually reacting against Western religion and not Buddhism. They have a beef with religion, and that’s cool, so do I.

Certainly there is Buddhism with beliefs, Buddhism as religion, as dogma, but there is the opposite as well. Really, Buddhism in today’s world is a potpourri where you can find almost anything you are looking for. But, at its core, I do not see the belief-system and religion that Batchelor does, and I suspect that he sees those things mainly because he wants to.

Prof. Ling had something to say about that, but first I should note that Ling’s thesis is “what we today call a religion is the remains of what was once a complete civilization” and when he uses the word “sacred” Ling is referencing what Durkheim called ‘a sense of the sacred’, or “the human individual’s awareness of his own dependence on the values and collective life of the society to which he belonged, something which greatly transcended him, with his own short span of life, something to which he was indebted, which upheld him, and which provided the sanctions of his conduct.” Prof. Ling:

Thus, in one sense of the word ‘religion’, denoting beliefs and practices connected with spirit-beings, Buddhism was in origin not a religion, but a non-religious philosophy. In the other, more sophisticated meaning of the world ‘religion’, which indicates awareness of that which is sacred, that which sanctions every individual existence, Buddhism in its Asian setting remains in certain respects what it was in origin, a way of attempting to restructure human consciousness and the common life of men in accordance with the nature of what it conceives to be the sacred reality.

There are signs that in the modern period this important dimension of Buddhist civilization – the societal and political dimension – has been lost sight of, and that Buddhism is being reduced from a civilization to what the modern world understands by religion: that is, a system of ‘spiritual’ beliefs to be taken up by the minority in whatever country it happens to be who care for that sort of thing, a source of comfort to some, but in the last resort a private irrelevance, having little bearing on the real issues that shape human affairs. When Westerners have looked at Buddhism, too often they have seen only this, because this was all they were looking for.

Mysticism, but let it be a flower,
let be the hand that reaches for the flower,
let it be the flower that imagined the first hand,
let it be the space that removed itself to give place
for the hand that reaches, the flower to be reached –
let it be self displacing self
as quietly as a child lifts a pebble,
as softly as a flower decides to fall, –
self replacing self
as seed follows flower to earth.

– Conrad Aiken

Memo: Here is an interesting essay about what various religions (I hate to lump Buddhism into this group, but its included) in Japan are doing to help with relief and recovery efforts, and as well, a connection of sorts to my post on March 14th. From religiondispatches.org: Tokyo Governor Says Tsunami is Divine Punishment—Religious Groups Ignore Him

Share

Riding down Niagara Falls in the barrels of your skull

Religious persecution is widespread, warns the report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that I mentioned yesterday. In addition to violence, the Commission also found that in countries with little freedom of religion some people are fired from their jobs for religious reasons. Yesterday, I also brought up a study of some 20,000 Christian participants that showed a very strong correlation between religiosity and racism in the United States. I wrote about how I had concerns about the direction the conservative right was headed in, and that I was worried about the rise of religious persecution in the US.

What I did not know about yesterday was Shirley Sherrod.

Is this a case of religious persecution? You betcha. As I understand it, the whole thing started with a guy name Andrew Breitbart, a conservative hit-blogger, who also speaks frequently at Tea Party Movement protests around the country. To my mind, there is no duality between the conservative right’s political ideology and their religious ideology. They are one in the same.

It’s not my intention to condemn all Christians, but I have no problem with condemning anyone who, in my opinion, uses religion as a tool to promote and impose a particular world view, morality, or political agenda – and conservatives, especially neoconservatives are doing all three.

Michael Lind, who calls himself a “former neoconservative” says that for the conservative movement “Religion becomes what Plato called a noble lie.” This is a concept that Plato talked about in The Republic. A lie, a myth, a falsehood, and what makes it “noble” is that it’s promoted supposedly for the greater good. A variation on the ends justify the means.

What we have here is some religious idealogs distorting facts to smear those who they disagree with, in this case the NAACP and Shirely Sherrod. Now Sherrod may have some skeletons in her closet for all I know, but it appears that her major crime is being black, and I assume, a liberal. What’s even more shameful than the complete distortion of the woman’s heartfelt story of personal transformation, is the rush to judgment.

I wonder how long we are going to continue to give into fear, because that’s the other tactic.

Yesterday I mentioned Martin Niemoller, a German Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi theologian. Niemoller underwent a transformation not unlike Sherrod’s. Not only did he at one time support Hitler and National Socialism, he had also been anti-Semitic. In 1956, he wrote:

I have never concealed the fact and said it before the court in 1938 that I came from an anti-Semitic past and tradition… I ask only that you look at my life historically and take it as history. I believe that from 1933 I truly represented the Lutheran-Christian outlook on the Jewish question — as I revealed before the court — but that I returned home after eight years’ imprisonment as a completely different person.

Niemoller was put on trial for activities against the State and received a seven month sentence. He ended up doing eight years, as he wrote.  He later became active in the German peace movement and campaigned for nuclear disarmament.

His story is being played out again, “They came for the Jews and I was not a Jew so I did not object.”

They came for Shirley Sherrod, in a different way, but they came all the same and they got her. Andrew Brietbart said this woman was a USDA official and she discriminated against this poor farmer, and she must go. He said its not about this woman, it’s about this organization that tolerates racist behavior within its ranks. The problem is that it was a lie, and there was nothing noble about it.

Andrew Brietbart, owner of many websites,  says, “My sites offer truth.” He says “Racism is used by the left and the Democratic Party to shut up opposition.” He says “I consider myself to be a Judeo-Christian. I fight on that side.”

Yes, Andrew Brietbart, ace journalist, is a just godly guy doin’ God’s work.

Bob Dylan, guitar player, says “Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.”

Share

Religion is bad? Some disturbing trends.

I’ve been reading of a number of recent studies and reports that point out some rather disturbing facts about the practice of religion.

A study by Gregory S. Paul, presented in the 2005 volume of the Journal of Religion and Society, published by the Rabbi Myer and Dorothy Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Creighton University, showed that religion does not necessarily lead to healthier societies, indeed, quite the opposite may be true: “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies.”

A recent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom report states that religious persecution is widespread. The commission found that more than 24 countries had little freedom of religion, and in the countries cited people are imprisoned for their religion, fired from jobs or kicked out of universities. Even worse: In Nigeria 12,000 people killed in a cycle of violence between Christians and Muslims stretching back more than a decade.

A study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that more than two out of three people around the world live in countries with high or very high restrictions on religion.

Another study has found a positive correlation between religion and racism. This one is entitled “Why Don’t We Practice What We Preach? A Meta-Analytic Review of Religious Racism” by Deborah L. Hall, David C. Matz, and Wendy Wood. Actually, they begin with the premise that there is a link between religiosity and racism in the United States since the Civil Rights Act, and then they focus on the way in which the racism manifests, such as in-group/out-group identity, values of social conformity and respect for tradition, and so on. The disturbing conclusion they reach is “The authors failed to find that racial tolerance arises from humanitarian values . . . Only religious agnostics were racially tolerant.”

This “meta-analysis” looked at 55 independent studies carried out in the United States with more than 20,000 mostly Christian participants. It might be tempting to lay these racist tendencies at the door of one particular one religion, however, the UN report would seem to counter that notion. Besides, Wood, who is Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at USC College and the USC Marshall School of Business, says “All religions offer a moral group identity, and so across world religions — including Buddhism, Hinduism, Muslim, Judaism and Christianity — the religious ingroup is valued over outgroups.”

I don’t feel this information requires an alarmist response. Banning beliefs and outlawing religious rituals is not the answer. However, I think there are more than a few people out there who think it’s just the ticket.

The Religious Right, well the Right period, frightens me. The Tea Party movement especially. I can understand how putting a Muslim mosque would seem inappropriate to some people, but the vitriol of the “Kill The Ground Zero Mosque” campaign, as well as in the other issues these people rail about, I think betrays their true motives, or if not that, then it exposes the root cause of the Tea Party mind-set.

It’s one thing to have a reasonable debate about how the Muslim religion should be treated in Western society, after all, there are elements in that religion who want to destroy the West. But interest groups who create hysteria with hate-filled propaganda about Muslims are not acting in what I consider the American way.

When you live in a democratic society, everyone is supposed to be free to express themselves, and everyone else needs to be tolerant about it, even when dangerous ideas are expressed. That’s what democracy means. There is no other way.

There are some individuals and groups in this country who, if they were able to, would not hesitate to outlaw Islam tomorrow. Then what? The Jews, probably. They’re always at the top of everyone’s list. Then the Hindus, the Buddhists . . .

Reminds me of the famous quote by Pastor Niemoler. You probably know it: “They came after the Jews and I was not a Jew, so I did not object . . .” and by the time they got to Niemoler, there was no one left to object.

Maybe I am being alarmist myself, and yet somehow, I don’t think it is too far-fetched. I certainly don’t think that racism or religious intolerance is going away anytime soon, here or anywhere else. I don’t know what the answer is except that maybe it’s up to each of us to “object” by practicing a little more tolerance each day. There are other, more concrete measures to be sure, but I think it really starts with that, with us being the change we want to see in the world, as Gandhi famously put it.

As a Buddhist, I do feel that a gauntlet of sorts has been thrown down. I cannot abide with the idea that racial tolerance does not arise from humanitarian values, as one of the studies cited above concluded.

No one who believes in humanitarian values should accept that.

Share

Prasannamati Mataji: A Nun’s Story

Here is a beautifully written account of a young Jain nun called Prasannamati Mataji. It’s a story about her absolute commitment to an extremely austere path, and her friendship with another nun. You will be inspired, saddened, and perhaps, disturbed. There is not a lot of literature about Jainism, so this is a rare opportunity to get a peek into that tradition.

It’s by William Dalrymple, a historian and travel writer, adapted from his book Nine Lives:

Two hills of blackly gleaming granite, smooth as glass, rise from a thickly wooded landscape of banana plantations and jagged Palmyra palms. It is dawn. Below lies the ancient pilgrimage town of Sravanabelagola, where the crumbling walls of monasteries and temples cluster around a grid of dusty, red-earth roads. The roads converge on a great rectangular tank. The tank is dotted with the spreading leaves and still-closed buds of floating lotus flowers. Already, despite the early hour, the first pilgrims are gathering . . .

Read the entire story here at the Washington Post.

I wonder what you will think at the end of it . . .

Share

Harry Potter is evil and other news

A few news things from the Web that caught my eye over the long weekend:

The Evil Harry PotterThe Vatican has decided to host a series of debates in Paris between atheists and agnostics and top Catholic theologians. But they are only prepared to host nonbelievers who are of the “noble atheism or agnosticism” stripe. Whatever that is. Folks like Piergiorgio Odifreddi, Michel Onfray, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens will not be invited. I find the slighting of Richard Dawkins curious. You would think that the Pope and Dawkins would have some common ground since they both hate Harry Potter (he’s evil, you know and will corrupt children). Read about the upcoming dialogue here.

Oxford University Press has just brought out a new book, Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think by Elaine Howard Ecklund, a professor at Rice University. Some say there is tension between science and religion, Ecklund investigates this in her study of what scientists really think and believe about religion and how it plays out in their work and personal life. Read the review in the Washington Post.

Elsewhere in the Washington Post: What happens when the Dalai Lama dies?

Jack Kornfield, American Buddhist pioneer, is profiled in the LA Times.

1000 Buddhas in Montana.

The Dalai Lama goes bar hopping in the NY Times.

And, you can Google a Goo Goo Guru here.

Share