Sunday, May 15, 2011

Bullshit Buddhism, Counterfeit Christianity

Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chögy...Image via Wikipedia
When I first started seriously investigating Buddhism, circa 2004, I was immediately taken by many things. I read up on Ch'an, some Zen, all kinds of Pure Land, a bit of Tendai, and a huge chunk of Nichiren Buddhism. Basically the East Asian Mahayana forms were my focus, although I did look somewhat into other areas, including what is typically labeled under the umbrella of "Tibetan" Buddhism.

Well, the thing is, it clicked. Perfectly. It was nearly enough to overcome my secular aversion to any notion of rebirth--not quite-- but it felt like coming home. Or something similar to that. The simplicity, the directness and the fact that the Dharma Seals, all of the teachings, could be reduced to a proper appreciation of Shunyata. Nor did one need to dismiss other religions as false or inferior.

It was a bit like Unitarian Univeralism except that it did have specific teachings, history, practices and precepts that made it more than just a tent for various views and opinions united by the desire for liberal-leaning Western-style social justice. So it seemed that after having become dissatisfied with secular humanism and irreligious atheism, I had found a spiritual home. I would certainly be challenged in both group and individual practice, so the easy fit wouldn't be a cakewalk. Excellent, I thought to myself, and now I have a conduit to deepen my pursuit of truth and understanding and compassion. Sounds awesome, right?

Yet the temptations are always there. Buddhism was so alien and exotic, I could fill in the blanks however I wanted. Moreover, I could be "bodhier than thou", because Buddhism is hip, a mainstream way of being  non-mainstream, and identified in my society with academics, beatniks, liberal politics, open-mindedness, being laid back and non-judgmental, gentle sincerity in genuine spirituality, etc. So I could be counter-cultural to a mild and benign degree, a witness to what is wrong with religion in the West and all of that, and still be seen as "cool" for being down Siddhartha, even among many of those who despise religion and to a certain degree among many Christians as well. I am not saying that I consciously went through all of this in my head at the time, but it's something I can appreciate more now in hindsight. I found a promising sounding local sangha in the city where I was living at the time and showed up at the beginning of the (Western) new year in 2005. A few months later I started this very blog. I wasn't just reading and theorizing and speculating anymore, I was practicing. Well, sort of.

Now, the group I started practicing with was amazing. Let me tell you: if you want something real, not pretentious or shallow or easy, but something supportive and substantial, you can't go wrong with these people. I am not saying they are unique in this regard (I hope not!), but I was very fortunate they were the people I stumbled across. I did become conscious, though, while I was practicing with them, that I had a desire to "be official", and also a desire to "make progress" and perhaps show my commitment and deepen my practice by seeking to take on vows and a title of some kind. This concerned me, but I couldn't deny the rightness of my connection to Buddhism or the benefit of working with those folks. However, I never could manage to formulate or maintain a daily practice on my own. I did OK at the weekly services, or the rare all-day retreat, but that was about it. Still, I enjoyed "being" a Buddhist.

My practice was interrupted by personal issues beyond my control, and it was then I really noticed that I was craving the identity and credibility of being some kind of officially ranked and deputized Buddhist practitioner. Certainly on an intellectual level I had a solid grasp of the basics, and I was so excited early on that my own pondering matched up so well with the conclusions of present and former Buddhist masters of renown. If I had been asked to prepare for an essay or oral test in Buddhism 101, I was certain I would ace it with flying colors. Yet I was concerned that on the actual practical level, I was still a dunce. Before the break in my practice I had helped set up the altar (and tear it down afterward), with beating the drum, with ringing the bell, etc. Upon my return I decided to take a slower approach and to just be there to do the basic practice. Then other issues conspired to take me away again, ultimately in a literal sense when I moved to take a job.

Then everything started to be exposed. I no longer had my Buddhist identity as a member of that sangha, and I still had no capacity for a solo practice. Moreover I couldn't decide with whom to try to practice next. I still cherished and felt the truth of the teachings (a situation that continues to this very day), but my shallowness was now catching up to me in a major way. Because I still wanted the trappings of authenticity to bolster and shape my own identity. Now by this time it is fall of 2007 moving into spring of 2008, and I am spiritually homeless, but I had even prior to all of this started to read a bit of interfaith nonfiction, and in an effort to make peace with my (somewhat fundamentalist) Christian upbringing I was learning about these open-minded Christians who actually understood and respected other traditions, especially Buddhism! Like many folks, I was rediscovering Christianity and elements of it that had been ignored, suppressed or forgotten, especially in the Protestant realms.

Now you see what is coming, don't you? Oooh. Hmm. I suppose hindsight is 20-20 if we pay attention, but yes, as is obvious, I felt an instant pull, a connection. Moreover, hey, even more misunderstood and avaunt guard in liberal religious circles than being Buddhist, which is kind of passe, is being some kind of neo-reforming Christian. So of course I couldn't resist. So I began doing background research into which communion or denomination I might be best suited to join.

I am not suggesting all of my goals or motives were somehow bad or short-sighted or unwise, but I was, and perhaps still and am, motivated by these same desires, which involve gaining a religious identity. But I can clearly see that when I was officially calling myself a Buddhist, I was a pretty poor one. I was practicing a form of self-serving, ego-dominated spiritual materialism, a kind a bullshit Buddhism. And I think I have been on a path to recreate the whole thing with a similar kind of counterfeit Christianity. But there have been a few unexpected advantages which helped to trip me up in that pursuit.

For one, I didn't have that same hipster cool image being identified with Christianity as I did when I was identified strictly with Buddhism. I don't know if you've heard, but Christianity in the Western world is waaay uncool, and "hypocritical", "xenophobic", "hateful", "bigoted", "backward" and "stupid" tend to come to many people's minds when they discuss the church. If I try to rely on Christianity's image to reinforce or support my own (self image), well, instant deflation. Second, whereas all of the sutras, poems, and spiritual practices and exercises I ran across in Buddhism were inspiring, challenging and uplifting (oh hell, they were just damn pretty and super sweet), even those which dealt with human failings, there is plenty that I find tiresome, tedious, outmoded, or just plain offensive in Christian scriptures, hymns, and prayers.

Now, I realize on that last point that there are historical and cultural contexts to those things (along with a trend in Christianity over the last few hundred years to veer towards a rationalistic literalism of the Bible in which it is a flawless history given as a series of memos by God) and other mitigating circumstances by which a deeper meaning can be extracted from those some Christian sources. Yet the exclusivism, the emphasis on explanations which at times tend towards being immature, and especially the dualism of a holy God versus a petty and corrupt creation are real and substantial, whatever the large minority who oppose or lament such tendencies may say. You may find a denomination or congregation to agree with you on these matters, but that doesn't make all the other professing Christian disappear. I just can't think of a similar situation of such magnitude in Western Buddhism.

Which brings us nicely to my third wake-up call about myself, which is that such opposition is not generally welcome, at least not in its fullest form, in all corners of Christianity. Some folks in the Christian community may agree with this or that nuanced distinction or reappraisal of theology, christology, etc, but then draw a firm line elsewhere. And others don't want to discuss any reassessment at all, whether it has ancient roots in the Christian tradition or not. This is very different from Buddhism in the West, and especially in the United States, where discussions of what is relevant and necessary from tradition and what can be reformulated for our current cultural and societal context can get you instant popularity, a book deal and an article in Tricycle, Shambhala Sun, or BuddhaDharma.

The point here isn't to try to run down Christianity or puff up Buddhism. These facts about my new surrounding are relevant because they stood as obstacles to my pursuit of spiritual egoism, and have been wearing on me, often without my appreciation of how and why. I immediately wanted to find a way around such disappointment, so I pursued a worthwhile effort of trying to appreciate the jewels of the Christian tradition and how my experiences with Buddhism have helped to unlock many of them for me. I think that's still a worthy pursuit. But the fact is that I just didn't want to deal with those other issues, even though they sapped my enthusiasm and sowed seeds of frustration and disinterest in any kind of spiritual pursuit.  Makes sense, given that the nature of one of my primary motivations for such pursuits was to prop up my self image.

To make things a little clearer, consider that I started attending a highly liturgical yet forward looking church a year ago come the end of this month, was baptized by mid-August, and was confirmed a few weeks ago over the Easter holiday. That's quite the rush. Moreover, I was deeply impressed and partly drawn into a rediscovery of the Christian way by people who were vowed religious, those who belong to religious orders and communities, and belonging to such a community is definitely a way to get a religious identity. It is also a way to give some weight and focus to one's practice, which was the primary reason I applied to be a junior member of such a community, but of course looking at my pattern it's hard to deny the element of ego involved in the whole course of the past year. It's 2011 and I'm just coming to fully appreciate a very tough lesson on the spiritual path, and it only took seven years. Good grief.

That isn't to say that the time I've spent on my spiritual path thus far has been wasted or that I learned nothing else other than this need for ranking/progress/status/identity, but still, that particular desire was something that kept nagging at me, like an image flickering at the edge of your peripheral vision. Nor does it mean I should make another major turn at this point just because I've been trying to make another mess out Christianity. Because the biggest obstacle yet is precisely that I went through everything so quickly, got all of the sacraments and ceremonies completed and, shy of becoming an affiliated member of the aforementioned religious community, have "gone" as far as a lay person can in the church. There is no additional title or recognition left to have, except perhaps something like Eucharistic Minister. I am now somewhat cautious though, about completing my efforts at joining that monastic community, because it also has levels of commitment and additional vows. That's could present quite a temptation. It makes me wonder what would have happened if I had been able to stay with my sangha and had tried to make "progress" as a member of their order. Would I have become bored after having taken a major set of vows (assuming the abbot wouldn't have seen right through me) and getting a cool robe?

I've read it and heard it enough times from enough sources but I guess I really didn't truly understand it before: if you can't find it within yourself, you aren't going to find it anywhere else. You can seek external validation for your identity, your beliefs, your actions, or anything else, but that can't confirm or deny what you are or what you aren't. While external criticism and confirmation can help us navigate the errors and pitfalls of a solitary subjective perspective, it cannot replace our own conscience or volition. There is a great deal of benefit from community and tradition, but when it comes down to it, you've got to work the most basic things out for yourself. I'm not sure if that's good news for me or bad, but it's the truth. And I've got to deal with that.

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  1. Well now, that's some story!

    Ken Wilber, in whom I have much faith and some wariness, says that all religions are true. Well, not ALL of them, of course, but all that are sincere.

    Buddhism isn't bullshit so much if we in the West could only stop looking at it as exotica; and Christianity is divine, but you do have to look past all the contradictions.

    Yours is a message that you are doing very very well in your spiritual quest, right?

  2. tinythinker, thank you for this beautiful and candid reflection! the spiritual materialism can be such an obstacle for us, huh? i wonder whether it has to do, also, with the ways in which dominant US culture loves talent and prodigies — people who pick up on things quickly and 'naturally.' i think we relate to that model of achievement more than to the revered elder who has steeped herself/himself in wisdom over decades. though, on the other hand, i think in convert buddhist communities here, it can swing the other way, and the number of years that someone's been practicing is the sole thing that they name as a qualification for being a teacher! (not attainments on the path, for instance, or studying with someone who's well-acknowledged as highly attained or awakened.)

    anyway, i just wanted to say that i identify with pitfalls of overintellectualizing (or overly valuing the intellectual side) dhamma, and wanting to be 'good at it.' thank you for sharing your story and insights!

  3. OK, well, I recently had the blog up on blocks trying to do a major overhaul, and long story short, I accidentally deleted about 6-10 of my most recent comments. None from visitors thankfully.

    @Tom: I guess I will leave it to others to judge. Pride or thinking "I've got it!" will just lead me into another quagmire. But I am glad to untangled at least part of one knot.

    @katie: I don't know how applicable my pitfalls are to spiritual seekers in the US, but it is nice to realize what pressure I was putting myself under and why I was always seeking something new or different. I'm definitely slowing down and taking stock of things, as the redesign and re-launch of this blog indicate.


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