Sunday, June 7, 2009

Western Buddhists - stay or go home?

Tricycle's Blog recently quoted a sentiment I have run across several times, including a few times from this one individual...
Many Westerners attracted to Buddhist practice have abandoned their own spiritual traditions. They reject the churches and clergy of their own traditions because they feel constricted and uncomfortable with the attitudes and practices they have encountered there. They have suffered within their own tradition and so have sought another. They approach Buddhist practice with the hope of replacing their own tradition and may wish to break away from their own tradition forever.
According to Buddhist wisdom, such wishing is in vain. A person severed from her own culture and traditions is like a tree pulled out by the roots. Such a person will find it hard to be happy. Buddhist practice can offer effective means to heal, reconcile, and reunite with one’s blood and spiritual families, in order to discover the precious gems in one’s own traditions. Thanks to the practice, people will see that Buddhism and their own spiritual tradition have many things in common, and therefore it is not necessary to reject their own spiritual tradition. They will see that there are things that need to be transformed in Buddhism as well as in their own tradition.
–Thich Nhat Hanh, from Teachings on Love (Parallax Press)

I replied with the following...

If you aren’t ready or able to see the use of returning to your religion of ancestry, then do not. The advice doesn’t just say “Go back.” It says to be healed first, implying growing and dealing with the attachment, confusion or pain previously associated with that ancestral religion and to use the insights from Buddhist practice to find what may have been previously overlooked in your old faith. I would venture to suggest that such reconciliation, in part or total, would eventually be necessary an inevitable even if one stayed on the Buddhist path. Just because you can’t appreciate that being possible now doesn’t mean it cannot happen. No need to force or rush anything or to presume where your path will lead. It will be alright and guide you just where you needed to be. :^)

The thing is, I can see how my experience with Buddhism has impacted my view of Judaism and Christianity, opened my eyes to the contemplative and mystical dimensions of Christianity and neglected but traditional forms of exegesis. The ideas of apparent paradox, the importance of the tension between literal and figurative meanings, the value of ahistorical truth, etc, have been amazing on my appreciation of Christianity. I share the excitement and enthusiasm of people like Clark Strand in (re)discovering the wisdom and compassion of the Bible, even if I am not on his level of insight (see my review of his book on the subject). Books like Going Home: Jesus and the Buddha as Brothers as well as the work and writings of Christians like Br. Wayne Teasdale, Br. David Steindl-Rast, Fr. Thomas Merton, Fr. Thomas Keating, and those saints (official and unofficial) who inspired them along with authors like Marcus Borg, along with strong social justice movements for peace and the welfare of all (such as liberation theology) tell me such insights and views are not flukes nor are they extinct in Christianity. And my apophatic contemplative mysticism provided a viable theological foundation.

But I am not finding it easy to decide to go with Buddhism or to go with Christianity. It's hard to find Buddhist communities to practice with, and my cultural (if not karmic) affinities tend to be Western and therefore Judeo-Christian. But then, my ideal Christian community, which would be the size, scope, and liturgical/historical richness and community of the Roman Catholic Church mixed with the interfaith respect and progressive values of the Unitarian Universalist, does not exist, and the idea of just where I would fit is hard to say. On the other hand, many Buddhist communities would have no problem with a new member with Christian affinities. But I don't "know" the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas like I do the Hebrew prophets, Jesus and his parents/disciples, etc. Maybe it would help if a teacher were to say "They aren't equivalent, but this Bodhisattva is like Peter and this Enlightened Being is like John the Baptist and this historical figure is like Moses..." Because even if you try to take these alien figures seriously as part of the service, it needs to be sincere, not just politely going along.

So anyway, as I wrote recently, if you want to pitch your group or congregation, I am open to suggestions.

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  1. This post resonates with me, as you might expect. I find my buddhist sangha and my Quaker community both illuminating without having the need to shoe-horn either tradition into the other. I think I'm fortunate to have access to these two traditions, teachings and communities.

    You may be interested in my next post on an article by John Hick which i've found helpful in making sense of this dual religious identity.

  2. Ah, well, I am not choosing between two communities. I just plain don't have one.

    I like the straightforward and clear insight of the Dalai Lama, but I don't want to have to memorize a bunch of lineages and lists of qualities and faculties and Tibetan phrases and all the rest just to practice. If I had started when I was in my late teens or early twenties, maybe, but there so many friggin' lamas and tulkus and disputes over transmission, it's just too confusing.

    I like Chan and Zen, but so many teachers are again wannabees or arrogant or just, I don't know, not really beaming with gentleness and compassion. I know some who aren't this way, but again it's hard to wade through the crap to find or get access to them.

    Pure Land is nice, but the traditional community is still largely within Asian immigrant populations. Japanese Pure Land is nice, as is Nichiren Buddhism, but there are no temples or teachers near by and I don't care to spend time over-emphasizing or over-exaggerating the founders of these traditions as opposed to their actual insights.

    And so on and so on. After many years, I've burned out of learning about Shinran, Nichiren, the Chan Ancestors, the traditional Pure Land perspective, and to a more limited degree the practices, pantheons, and celebrity lamas of Tibetan Buddhism. I think I have gained a basic insight, at least intellectually, about the fundamental insights shared across the spectrum of Buddhist traditions, even if the absorption is more of an intuitive/generic nature rather than always remembering which of scores of readings specifically spelled out which teaching. It all starts to run together eventually.

    It is just a big swirl of names and chants and symbols and lists, the ten these, the five those, the 72 of something else, the avatar of this, the Bodhisattva of that.
    Is this person really authorized as a Bikkhu, is this person a genuine Lama, should you have x before y.

    I keep going back and forth. Oh, I'll just do Shin, because it is simple and I love books like Bits of Rubble Turned to Gold and the BCA is the oldest Buddhist organization in the USA. Oh, I'll just chant Nam(u) Myoho Renge Kyo because I like how Nichiren summarized Mahayana Buddhism and one the first people I met online who made Buddhism seem appealing was a Nichiren Buddhist. Maybe some form of Mahayana like combines things like Zen and (traditional) Pure Land, as I have respect for teachings/writings and teachers of both. Oh, Tibetan Buddhism is big enough to have something for everyone and I had a roommate from Tibet who was a Buddhist when I first went to grad school, and that and the stuff I've read from folks like the Dalai Lama and Lama Surya Das makes sense. Oh, I'll take my insights and go back to Christianity (but which tradition becomes a problem again - which denomination?).


    Oh, I'll just probably just duck out and keep doing a lot of nothing in terms of spirituality, cultivation, transformation, etc.

    If the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Devas, Angels, Saints, etc have some sign they'd like to convey from the Divine, now would be a great time for them to pipe up. :^p

  3. I just want to do some prostrations, chant a little, maybe visualize things which help me appreciate emptiness and generate altruistic intention, get involved with a significant social justice movement impacting the gross and subtle problems of our day, and find continuity in community and practice.

    Is that so much to ask?

    I get the sinking feeling that the purpose of my (spiritual) life is to serve as a warning to others...

  4. So what communities are nearby? What experience do you have of them?

    Yes, I am fortunate to have access to three spiritual communities, I need to remind myself of my good fortune from time to time.

    Namo Amida Bu

  5. In this town it's all Christian churches, including three Roman Catholic parishes, an Episcopal church, and scads of various forms of Protestantism. I went once to the Episcopal church - kind of got lost in the service, and it was a little dry.

    I like many aspects of the devotions and what not in Catholicism, like the Rosary, but otherwise as a progressive wanna-be mystic I don't fit it. However, I recently learned there is a Centering Prayer group about an hour away. I do like how Fr. Thomas Keating sees the Church, God, Christianity etc and this group is affiliated with his organization, Contemplative Outreach. There is a UCC church, which is fairly progressive, but the local church here seems much more conservative. I spent a long time is conservative Protestantism and have no need to go back. The closest Buddhist groups are 2 to 2 1/2m hours distant.


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