Saturday, December 24, 2011

On Buddhism and Misappropriation

For some reason, Buddhism, in America, has become a very unpopular religion. I find this highly interesting. I can't say that I know a lot about it. I know some of the basic tenets such as the Golden Mean and the eight-fold path and I'm also aware of some of it's more mystical elements involving reincarnation and hungry ghosts and things of that nature. At first glance it seems odd that it would be viewed so unfavorably. It's not like Buddhists as preaching violent jihad or anything like that. I had a university professor who swore that the Mongols lost their warlike nature when they adopted Buddhism and I am inclined to agree with him.

The problem to my mind is that the majority of contact that most have with Buddhism in America comes in two forms. The first are Buddhist immigrants from southeast Asia who form faith communities here and build temples and so on. These people are some of the friendliest, hard-working people you will ever meet. The second form are, for lack of a better term, are well-to-do progressives who have taken (misappropriated?) some of the more secular aspects of Buddhism, ignored or rejected the importance of faith communities, and make claims about "being spiritual without being religious." This is a rough divide and there are many who do not easily fit into either category, but for the purposes of this post, it will suffice.

The second group, I submit, is responsible for Buddhism's bad reputation. And to a certain extent, I can sympathize with that view. If someone was born in Thailand, a majority Buddhist country, and was raised a Buddhist and subsequently rejected the faith of his/her upbringing and claimed to be Mormon, how would that person be viewed by others in their community? Let's say this person has never gone to a single Mormon church meeting, has never been associated with any other Mormons and dismissed things like the First Vision and historicity of the Book of Mormon as superstitious nonsense. Rather they have only embraced the idea of free agency and eternal progression, although only in a limited, secular sense because other well-to-do, educated progressives had spoken favorably of it. Would we consider this person Mormon? Even with an expansive, inclusive definition of what constitutes a Mormon, this person would be on the outside looking in. You can't convert from Buddhist to cultural Mormon. And how would other community members view this person? Rather unfavorably, I'm afraid. Those well-to-do progressives attempt to define themselves as Buddhist come across as insincere as though they are covering their atheism with a veneer of intensely self-gratifying and self-centered spirituality. I personally find it tough to stomach and very insulting to Buddhists who havw fully embraced their faith and their faith communities.

Take the parable of the raft across the river. Quasi-Buddhists (and others...I have heard several former Mormons allude to it as a justification of rejecting Mormomsim) have taken a deep, profound insight of Zen Buddhism and made it into an incredibly self-centered, hubristic idea. In a nutshell, the parable of the raft asks one to imagine being on a dangerous riverbank, with no bridge and no boat, and with safety on the other side. The proper way forward is to build a raft and sail to the other side. Once there, having crossed the river, you no longer need the raft, so you should abandon it and move on. One meaning of the parable is that a religious idea can only get you so far, but at a certain point, you need to abanon it and move on. Some see this interpretation as profound and it could be if our life journey was done in solitude. But what of those around us? I live in a community with friends and family. We are all on this journey together. What of those who don't know how to build rafts? Do we abandon them so we can focus on ourself? What about those who built poorly-constructed rafts and are now floundering in the middle of the river? Do we let them drown because our way forward is more important then their safety? There are many ways to build rafts that help you cross the river. And until everyone has crossed the river, it is immoral and callous to abandon your friends and family there. Maybe you don't like the raft you crossed in; that's fine. Switch it for another that is equally as useful. But I think it hubristic to claim that you've outgrown your first raft or you no longer have a need for it. And for anyone who uses this parable as a justification for abandoning a religious heritage, you don't sound profound, you sound selfish and uncaring of those you left behind.