Monday, December 14, 2009

Our Way is Better Than Yours and Here's Why

Over at Barbara's Buddhist blog is the following post reflecting on a recent study of U.S. religious patterns and comments made about that study. This quote gives you a good idea of where she stands on the issues of both institutional religion and "free-lancers" who claim to be spiritual people:

It's currently popular to believe that all institutionalized religion is evil, and that one is better off being "spiritual" instead of "religious," which seems to mean that you free to believe whatever drifts into your head that appeals to you. And of course you are free to do that. And yes, institutionalized religion often is corrupt and annoying.

But how else do we remain connected to the visions and wisdoms of the deep past? How do we stand on the shoulders of spiritual ancestors? Without some connection to tradition, each generation re-invents the wheel, so to speak. And something very precious is lost.

Assumptions and Attachments
While I find some of Barbara's comments valid, the lumping of everyone who uses the label "spiritual, but not religious" into a group that believes in "whatever drifts into your head that appeals to you" is both arrogant and absolutely false. As I reflect further on the statements above, I also see both assumptions and attachments behind them. First, there is an assumption that people who are not part of a religious institution are basically flaky. And behind that assumption is a broader view that people in general are too weak and fickle to really ever dig deeply into the spiritual truths of this world. Why else would she, or anyone else, be so quick to condemn everyone that is unattached to an established religious institution?

The way I see it, behind these assumptions is a pair of attachments. First, there is a clinging to the view that institutions are, even with their warts, the best way to keep the wisdom of the past in circulation. And second, there is an attachment to some form of purity and preservation of that purity. In other words, we gotta keep all that New Age crap from contaminating our precious Buddhist institutions. Kind of sounds like boogyman talk to me.

The Five D's
What I find so fascinating is how much "ink" is given over to discussing, debating, defining, and then declaring divisions. These people are "this;" those people are "that." This group is on the path. That group is totally deluded. The pairing of categories with value judgments is especially where, in my opinion, we get in trouble.

Barbara seems to fall on the "institutional religion" side is the best. But I have no interest in just sitting here and picking on Barbara. I'm guessing if every one of you took a look at your own views, you'd have a certain leaning that dominates the others. Some, for example, fall into the "rational," or the let's strip anything that sounds supernatural out of Buddhism approach. Still others fall into the "spiritual, but not religious" approach to Buddhism, claiming Buddhism is more a way of life than a religion. These are terribly sloppy categories themselves, and no one fits neatly into any of them. Which is exactly my point: attempting to parse people and/or groups into clear-cut categories to use for praise or condemnation is next to impossible.

What is being argued for anyway?
Here's a particularly interesting section of Barbara's post:
for both Christianity and Buddhism, their greatest power and value is found in what sets them apart. For Christians, that would be their devotion and faith in Jesus. For Buddhists, it is the realization of prajna -- wisdom -- and compassion. But in prajna, all sacred others, including God, fall away. So, a genuinely 50-50 blend of these two religions requires muting the very parts of them that are most important, most transformative.

For this reason, maintaining the integrity of Buddhism and what it teaches is very important to me. I do not insist that everyone convert it it; just don't dump it into that New Age Spirituality stew.

I completely agree with her that the power of religious and spiritual traditions lies in their differences. People have different makeups, different backgrounds, different needs. Thus, it's important not to just morph everything into some world religion for all, and then assume that everyone will find the truths of this life through that.

But then there is this issue of "maintaining the integrity of Buddhism." What exactly does this mean? Is the zen community I read about in Brazil that has replaced the Japanese mokugyo with an indigenous instrument for their ceremonies destroying the integrity of Buddhism? Or did the same community destroy it when they incorporated elements of Brazilian folk spiritualism into their practice? Or, lets go back further. Did Dogen fail to preserve the integrity of Buddhism when he rejected nearly everything he saw in Japanese Zen and placed emphasis on zazen above all else?

Let's take a look at the meanings of integrity. Here's the entry from Webster's Online Dictionary.

Main Entry: in·teg·ri·ty
Pronunciation: \in-ˈte-grə-tē\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English integrite, from Middle French & Latin; Middle French integrité, from Latin integritat-, integritas, from integr-, integer entire
Date: 14th century

1 : firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values : incorruptibility
2 : an unimpaired condition : soundness
3 : the quality or state of being complete or undivided

So, which of these meanings is Barbara pointing to? I'm not really sure. Incorruptibility seems pretty impossible when it comes to institutions over the long haul, religious or secular. How about being complete or undivided? Sounds nice, but by whose terms? Zen Buddhist? Tibetan Buddhist? Pure Land? Soka Gakkai? Shambala? Are you tired yet? In some ways, the middle definition seems most applicable - an unimpaired condition, or soundness. And yet, what is it that impairs Buddhist teachings? Is that even a question worth asking?

Searching for Purity is Pointless
When you get down to it, how is it possible to divorce Buddhism, or any spiritual path and it's associated institutions, from the culture and already established practices around it? There's a lot of talk about stripping the "folk" out, and/or stripping the "unnecessary cultural elements" out of Buddhisms here in North America. And some of the same people, as well as others, are also arguing for a preservation of "tradition" and of institutional practices. Seems to me that both of these arguments, if taken too far, are merely opposite ways to get at a purity that doesn't exist anyway.

All this talk about preserving the integrity of Buddhism just seems like a polished way of saying "Our way is better than yours and here's why." And while I'm all for critiquing pop spirituality and trendiness, and challenging the commercialization of, and dumbing-down of, the spiritual life, I have no interest in fixing the location of wisdom into a single place, manner of life, or time.

I'm a member of a zen institution with a lineage that goes back hundreds of years. In fact, I am the chair of this institution's board of directors, so I actually have a strong interest in helping the place maintain and even grow. And yet, I also have some healthy (unhealthy? both?)skepticism about institutions as houses of deep wisdom. I've seen first hand what happens when you bow down to the agenda of a charismatic leader. And there's no end to the stories about religious institutions denying, deflecting, or outright smothering the wisdom of individuals and groups that don't go along with the established institutional views. As such, I have a certain distrust in statements that suggest institutions are the best approach to maintaining the deep wisdoms of the past. And yet, I also see the incredible support an institution can offer to us when it's functioning in a healthy way, and when the individuals within it are able to both put aside their personal agendas, and also maintain their individual uniqueness.

I guess when it comes down to it, I just don't believe in some stable form of purity anymore. Even with all the efforts being put forth by Buddhists today to preserve texts, continue ancient rituals, and to teach in "traditional" ways, there are, and will continue to be changes, modifications, additions and subtractions. It's unstoppable. A generation ago, there was no internet, and thus no concept even of "online Buddhist practice." Now we have heated debates about it that have changed even those people and groups who have completely rejected it. That's just one example among too many to count.

Just when you think you have found the "core," it slips away. Isn't this exactly what Buddhist teachings keep pointing to, the futility of believing in some fixed essence?


Jamie G. said...

I stopped reading her blog a few posts back. She came across as hypocritical after chastising someone for "snarky-ness" and then was snarky to her commenters after several more posts. In fact, she seems to have become more snarky and less objective in her posts lately so I deleted her feed. She totally misses the heart of the issue and it reflects in her attitude, especially toward fellow seekers. I no longer see the compassion in her writings.

Kyle said...

Excellent post Nathan, well thought out critque of Barbara's post.

Nathan said...

Hi Jamie,

I agree with you. She ripped me twice for comments I made on a post a few months ago, and I notice an unwillingness to fairly engage people who ask legitimate questions or offer alternative views in a respectful way. I continue to read her posts at times, though, because she's bringing up some important topics, even if I don't agree with how she handles them.


spldbch said...

I wonder if the problem might really be with change. People have a hard time with change, myself included. So when someone tries to incorporate new practices into a pre-existing religion, set of spiritual teachings, institution, etc. people are bound to resist.

And yet, as you said, change is inevitable. Not all change is good but neither is all change bad. And what is good to one person might be bad to another.

I can't really draw any conclusions because there isn't a "right" answer to this debate. I think if a change results in reaching out to more people it's probably a good thing, but not everyone would agree with me.

Very thought provoking post.

spldbch said...

By the way, what exactly is "snarky?"

Nathan said...

Hi Melody,

I think it's very true that resistance to change is part of the issue here. We all have some of that, so I know I'm no better than others.

Snarky is basically sarcastic, or irreverent.