November 06, 2003
And she's making me feel like I've never been born

OK, I finally have a bit of time to myself and should start on the backlog of posts that have been clogging up my brain. First, I said I'd respond to Andi about Buddhism, which I've been kind of dreading doing, because I've been coming to the conclusion that the original post to which she responded was one of my lamest ever. If Confucius didn't say, "Never shoot off at the mouth when you're ill and relying on decade-old memories of stuff you read," well, he should have.

I think the problem was that I got carried away with my own dichotomy and kind of took leave of the real world. The fact is, just about all religions have social and solitary elements to them, so it's not really fair to pit them against each other in that way. Catholicism, for instance, is both the most communal of Christian sects and the one with the strongest tradition of monasticism, elitism and mystical weirdos. And Buddhism, despite its emphasis on extreme self-reliance, has its sociopolitical elements. I mean, the whole reason Buddhism rocked India when it first appeared, basically, was that it disregarded the Hindu caste system.

I should also say that I was talking more about the sort of abuses that different faiths lend themselves to, than problems that flow inevitably from adhering to them. For instance, while anyone who reads the New Testament at all carefully can see that Jesus and the early followers were opposed to conversion by force, you can see how the general eschatological urgency of the whole thing, and the belief in an eternal afterlife, would make that easy to rationalize. By the same token, I didn't mean to imply that Buddha would have approved of the Tibetan theocracy. As I said, he was quite the egalitarian in his own society. But the enlightened/unenlightened division, exacerbated by the Mahayana belief in reincarnated "saints", kind of lent a rationale for it.

I have also personally experienced Buddhism in a very solitary way because I'm a Westerner. Even in northern California, which has got to be the most Buddhist place in America, the only Buddhist communities I knew of were either ethnic enclaves or oddball hippie communes. I've never seen Buddhism in its native habitat, and modern Westerners who've picked up Buddhism have adapted it to their own post-Enlightenment viewpoints. I think it was that that I was responding to, more than anything. There's an attitude among a lot of secular types that Buddhism is how religion should be -- no Big Daddy God, no baffling moral rules, no getting in other people's way, just solitary seeking. That's not really fair to human religious impulses, and also not really fair to Buddhism.

But under that whole mess, I think a somewhat more defensible source of the idea was what I've heard from former Buddhists and/or those who have seen it in their native habitat. The religion professor I mentioned was from Japan; he was not raised Buddhist but he had a lot of admiration for it. Still, he felt it was somewhat "undeveloped on the ethical dimension," was I think how he put it. That was also the complaint lodged by Martin Roth, who practiced Zen Buddhism in Japan before converting to Christianity. He also felt "a lack of love in the religion."

That was also the reason Katherine gave for converting, in one of her earliest posts:

I re-read all the suutras, re-thought all the koans, and examined all my practices. That done, I was left with the Truth: Zen works... but not as a spirituality. There was something missing; sure, they have mindfulness and compassion... but that doesn't compare to an all-out experience of love.

Now, I realize it's not entirely fair to use the testimony of apostates; and in the cases of Martin and my professor I suspect part of what they were observing was Japanese culture more than Buddhism. But I detect a common thread here, and I can see how it could spring from the differing cosmologies of Buddhism and Christianity. In some sense, they have similar notions of compassion by self-denial. If you stop clinging to worldly things and get over yourself, you'll be able to feel true unconditional compassion for others, because you won't be getting in your own way.

But from there, the two of them diverge. For Christians, relationship is the endpoint. Heaven is seen as a place of joyful permanent communion with God and fellow souls. Buddhists, meanwhile, keep going in the detachment direction until ultimately there's nothing left. There's no loving God nor fellow humans waiting for you in Nirvana; there's the bracing comfort of the Void.

What's the difference between Christian love and Buddhist compassion? Katherine seemed to imply that Christian love is more passionate, and that seems so to me. Buddhists seek to rid themselves of desire, but Christians have desire all over the place: God desires us, we desire him, we desire each other, etc. I can see why Katherine finds that more appealing than the Void, but I can't help feeling that this also brings the things that appall me about the Christian God -- the anger, the punitiveness, the blood and suffering and the whole shmeer. Is that the price we pay for having an impassioned God?

Well, I'm sure I've kicked up more trouble with this post, but this is on my mind a lot. I don't know the answers, I'm just putting this out for conversation.

Posted by Camassia at November 06, 2003 07:01 PM | TrackBack

my reasons for leaving Zen are somewhat more than just "passion." (Though to be fair, Zen is still here; I never really left it--but Christ is first in my life, now.) Christianity acknowledges anger and rage and all of those other feelings. In fact, those feelings help you understand. Buddhism is not quite like that... feelings are a hindrance.

Void is void is void. But I think it is a mistake to think that God (presence) is the opposite of void (absence).

But the real reason? see Cardinal Ratzinger's critique. Too many people practice zen for all the wrong reasons.

Posted by: Katherine on November 6, 2003 07:41 PM

One of the teaching tools used in Zen, and especially in the Korean Zen lineage in which I practice, is the Zen Circle. You start at zero degrees: love is love, hate is hate. As you progress through the stages of consciousness, the awakenings on the way to "complete enlightenment" (whatver the heck that is) you break down your conceptual mind. Ah, and when you're stuck on the void...that's not enlightenment. The comfort of the void? I don't know of any such thing.

When you come full way, 360 degrees from ignorance to great wisdom/great compassion, then love is love and hate is hate. There is no void in enlightenment; there is no non-void. So this concept of "void" is flawed. There is no void waiting for good Buddhists. And if there were...well, I'd be as afraid as could be of that void, all empty and hollow, without life, without love, without wisdom, compassion, or fellow beings.

I was highly sceptical of "American Buddhists" before I spent four months in Nepal, and saw Buddhism as it is practiced in its "Native habitate." I thought American Buddhists were post-hippie types, still high on dope and without a clue as to what Buddhism is or was or will be. I was going on nothing but preconceived notions. Now I know better...but American Buddhism is a different critique/post.

I met real, live, warm teachers. Men and women so full of love and life I could believe them. Their meditation practice took them not away from the humanity around them, but brought them into greater intimacy with the world. Their compassion was palpable, tangible when they spoke, when they acted.

I came back to the US. There was no Tibetan buddhist community in my town, so I started going to the Zen center in New Haven. And I found different forms, but the same vitality and warmth. I have never studied or practiced Japanese Zen. I have been fortunate to connect with Korean Zen, which is earthy, living, powerfully connected to spirituality and practice--and, recalling your earlier posts, a great deal of shamanism! That aside, I have found that my Zen practice fills me with living, the moment, not the void. My passion becomes compassion, my energy has a direction: save all sentient beings from suffering, attain great wisdom, great compassion.

Comparing Christian love and Buddhist compassion is, at some point, an impossible task. It becomes impossible at some point just short of God and annuttara samyak sambodhi--complete enlightenment, 360 degrees (nirvana is at 180 degrees, "true emptiness"--but not true enlightenment, not true living. how do you live if everything is empty? You would fall through the sky! Ah, so true wisdom is: the sky is up, the earth is down...not to get too Zen, but this is a usual progression).

Anyway: all this to say, apples and oranges. Buddha is Buddha. Jesus is Jesus. What really matters is: how are you living? What is your direction?

I was a messed up college student. I had no moral compass. I had no ethical code. I acted with selfish impunity. Buddhism, whatever that is, helped me find my ethical core. It gave me my direction: help all beings.

And that, I think, is quite enough from me! I'm taking up all your space...I can post this on my blog and you can delete it, if it's taking up space.

Posted by: andi on November 7, 2003 06:55 AM

Well, we might be having a translation problem here. What I meant by the Void is basically as it's summarized here: 'Another term, more frequent in Mahayana Buddhism is sunyata (emptiness) or in Zen, "the Void." But the Void is not nothingness, but rather no-thing-ness, the Shining Void which contains all potentiality, comparable to the space which matter depends on for existence.'

I was being figurative when I said this was 'waiting for you in Nirvana.' It is not a place, but the reality of what is already here, theoretically. But I do gather that the Void in that peculiar sense is identified with Nirvana. I am not familiar with Korean Zen, so maybe the concept isn't as prominent there, but it seems to be a big deal in Japanese Zen.

Why compare Buddha and Jesus? Because I've brushed with both of them and they both attract me, and I don't see how one could really pursue both at once, for the reasons you said earlier. I might post more about this later...

Anyway, don't worry about long comments. You're hardly the most long-winded commenter around here (certainly not more than me!).:-)

Posted by: Camassia on November 7, 2003 08:33 AM
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