Friday, January 8, 2010

Brit Hume Post Comment Roundup

Well, it's been five days since Brit Hume made his now infamous comments about Tiger Woods and religion on Fox News Sunday. I'm surprised it's still a talking piece, given the short attention span of both the media and many of us.

I'd like to take up a few points made by commenters on this blog. Marcus, who has retired his blog for awhile, continues to be a part of the online community through reading and commenting on posts. He said the following in response to yesterday's post:

If the only time people get to hear about Buddhism and from Buddhists is when they are writing to say how offended they are, when they are angry, when they are demanding that private indiviuals make public apologies for their opinions, when they are calling that indivual all kinds of insulting thing on their blogs, well, what exactly is it that people will learn about Buddhism?

I'm really interested in this. It's definitely worth considering and brings up a quandary for Buddhists living as minorities in their countries. Those of us living in North and South America, as well as Europe and Australia, are all members of a minority religious community, and thus do not have the advantage of being the default view of our societies. I think Marcus is right to point to the fact that misinformation can spread easily as a result of the kinds of public discourse that occur in response to something said or done by a member of the majority group. Any person of color in the United States can tell you how often their valid concerns about institutional racism are dismissed as complaining, just to give one example. So, it's very true that some people might lump all Buddhists together as whiners and bitchers because of this single incident.

Along these lines, while Ethan Nictern's response on CNN to Brit Hume was excellent, I found his definition of Buddhism rather lacking. I like Nictern's work, and think his organization, the Interdependence Project, is doing some innovative things, but when he described Buddhism as a "series of meditation techniques and psychological teachings" coupled with "an ethical system," I kind of cringed. Buddhism has been a spiritual path for over twenty five hundred years, and it's incarnation in most places has been in the form of an institutional religion. Sure, there have always been people who broke off or never joined said institutions, but Nictern's definition is an example of the kind of misinformation, or at least limited information, I think Marcus was pointing to. Having listened to many of the ID Project's podcasts, it's clear that Nictern falls on the Buddhism as philosophy school. That's fine, but that view doesn't represent the majority of practitioners anywhere.

However, at the same time, if no one ever wades into the muck, and makes an attempt to correct those errors, there is a cumulative impact that makes it much harder later on to address issues of injustice and oppression. I keep going back to Katagiri Roshi's line "You have to say something." This, to me, is the challenge of being an engaged Buddhist member of society. You have to do your best to weigh the possible effects of your speech and/or action, but in the end, you also have to make a decision and then let go of the outcome. It's no easy task, but I think that sometimes we are called to do so.

Algernon from Notes from a Burning House wrote the following response to yesterday's post:

Marcus mentioned Thailand, and that reminded me that when one of my blog's readers asked me what I thought about Brit Hume's comment, the part of me that seeks context and perspective was reminded me of the demolition of the ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan during the reign of the Taliban.

It was, in the end, just a bunch of rocks -- and the Taliban did nothing to change that, only their form.

What struck me more about what they did was the unmistakable message they were sending to Buddhists in Afghanistan. And for some reason, people matter to me more than rocks. (I know, "avoid picking and choosing." ;-) )

The intention of speech or act is very important, and I appreciate Algernon bringing up this example because it's somewhat in contrast to Hume's comments last Sunday. One of the challenges to publicly engaging discussions/debates over comments like Mr. Hume's is that even though we can infer certain intentions, there wasn't an obviousness to anything he said that demanded a response in the way the Taliban's actions did. And when I say response, I don't just mean a response from people protesting the actions. I also mean the kind of survival response you see when people flee or fight back when their lives are threatened. Those of us in the Buddhist blogging community, among others, perceived a potential for damaging consequences in the future if comments like Hume's were left untouched, but that's nothing like responding to your life being threatened, or to your entire community being repatriated against their will to a hostile nation, as some of my Hmong friends' relatives were recently.

Melody from the blog This is Me quoted me and then made the following remark:

"On the other hand, it seems kind of foolish for Buddhists to defend Buddhism, given what our practice teaches us."

I wish you'd talked a little more about this. I think it's this statement that is the main point.

This, to me, is one of the central issues we have to look at if we are going to be effective in bringing a Buddhist perspective into our public lives. One of the basic teachings of Buddhism is that there is no fixed self we can hold on to. There is no soul that passes on to the next life, nor is there anyone that stays the same even for a second. We're always changing, which doesn't mean that nothing is there, that we are just voids - that's nihilism, and Buddhism, contrary to what some people think, is not a nihilistic religion.

Just as we as people are not static, neither really are the teachings of our practice. They arise and disappear with every person, every community, and school of practice in different ways. And even though there are elements that provisionally appear in the world in very similar ways, even those elements, like the Four Noble Truths, or certain rituals (just to give two examples, emerge uniquely within the context of the lives taking them up. As such, what is there to defend ultimately? How can we defend what doesn't have a fixed position or nature?

There's more I could say about this, but for now, I think it's worth all of us Buddhists being socially active out there to ponder the origins of our desire to defend. Not just the teachings, but anything. I'm hanging with that one in meditation, and will continue to do so. May we all awaken.


Richard Harrold said...

I cringed also at Nictern's comments when I saw/heard them. It was good that he didn't take the bait, but I thought his description of Buddhism was unskillful.

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