Sunday, August 13, 2006

Jeff Wilson On "Vague Buddhism"

PeaceBangers, I'm very excited to highlight for you this wonderful and informed comment on the subject of "Vague Buddhism" by Jeff Wilson, weighing in on the subject from Kyoto!!

"Hi there, this is Jeff Wilson writing from Kyoto. I've been researching this subject for several years and could provide a lot of info, but unfortunately since I'm in Japan until November I can't really do so at this point.

Suffice it to say that Buddhism is a major source for contemporary UU sermons, meditation manuals, and adult RE activities. It also shows up in our Sunday School materials. Most often, it is Thich Nhat Hanh (originally from Vietnam, but living in France for many decades at this point) or the Dalai Lama who are referenced, or some (often uncredited) "Zen master" from ancient or modern China, Japan, or even the USA. These are the Buddhist thinkers/traditions that are most assimilated to upper-middle class American culture, so it's no real surprise their adapted versions of Buddhism appear in our pulpits etc most often.

I have recorded not dozens, but hundreds of instances of UU sermons in the past several years that draw on Buddhism in some form. In some churches the ministers are personally interested in Buddhism (either as a meditation practice or a way of thinking) and it is virtually impossible NOT to hear about Buddhism on any given Sunday. I'm talking abstractly here but actually I could name names very easily.

I myself do not go in for the "vague Buddhism" of UUism. I prefer my Buddhism to be Buddhism, which is why I mainly go to actual Buddhist temples on Sunday morning (my form of Buddhism is more devotional than most and is universalistic in attitude: i.e. it is about expressing gratitude since Amida Buddha liberates beings without exception). When I go to UU churches I seek out those that do not contain vague Buddhism. I prefer my UU churches to be actually churchy, to tell the truth.

That said, however, I'm not really down on vague UU Buddhism. I don't mind too much the appropriation of Buddhism by UUs. I do just wish people would take it more seriously if they're going to do it, to really think through what they are taking, what they are leaving out, and what justifies their appropriations (as well as investigating why they think some things should be left out--UUs always talk about getting rid of the "cultural baggage" of Asian Buddhism, which strikes me as flat-out racist in many cases). And this is not meant to harsh on the many UUs who are deeply involved in a real Buddhist tradition and have demonstrated self-reflexivity. I think someone mentioned James Ford, I would definately count him in this latter group.

I am slowly collecting material for a forthcoming (academic) book on UUism and Buddhism. The thesis will argue that in the nineteenth century there was a net movement of ideas from Unitarianism into Asian Buddhism, especially Japanese Buddhism. Japanese Buddhists even proposed a merger of Unitarianism and Buddhism as a new religion of the future, but Unitarians balked because they considered themselves part of the Christian tradition. The middle of the book charts Unitarianized Japanese Buddhism's subsequent success in America, where it was perceived as authentic, original Buddhism rather than a pre-packaged, post-contact liberalized modern Buddhism. The final argument of the book is that by the end of the 20th century and into the 21st the arrow of influence had decisively changed, so that now there is a net movement of influence from Buddhism into UUism.
In part, I argue that this 180 change comes because UUism lost much of its willingness to remain in the Christian fold and, lacking a central focus, eventually became available for infiltration (not used in a judgmental way, please note) by alternative forms of religion with more positive associations in liberal circles, such as Buddhism.

This comment may be too long or inappropriate for this forum. I apologize. But I have to warn you, debates about UU vague Buddhism are potential fodder for my work! Random note: Peacebang, if you haven't seen, you might find it amusing based on your Beauty Tips blog. "

PeaceBang here again, thanking Jeff for his wonderful contribution to this discussion. Jeff, godspeed in Kyoto (what are you doing there?) and we'll all look forward to reading your book when it's published. Very exciting work, and we're grateful for your research and your insights!


Blogger CK said...

Interesting stuff. This morning in the class I'm teaching on religious pluralism, we talked about sin and suffering. We discussed Jewish, Christian, Islamic and Buddhist views. The class, nearly unanimously, went for Buddhism as the most helpful way of handling the suffering of the world.

It was interesting hearing some of the reasons why--Buddhism doesn't require 'faith' (wrong--there's a strong element of faith in the Buddha and the Dharma) but is a 'try and see if it works' religion. It's nonjudgmental and peaceful (again, wrong--there was an article in UU World about Buddhism and wars).

Gently, I tried to bring some correctives into the conversation, but since the focus of the class is on texts (and not systematic theology), it was difficult.

I'm no expert in Buddhism, but I would really like to teach a class (or see one taught) that dispels some myths about what Buddhism is, and how it's been adapted.

Aside from that, the discussion was great. The previous weeks, when we talked about God and the origin of the world, it was like pulling teeth. They didn't really care about whether God exists. It didn't matter. But that's another subject...

Blogger PeaceBang said...

CK, that doesn't surprise me at all. And I'm bummed to hear that no one was interested in discussing God concepts. This is how our dismissal of "supernaturalism" impoverishes our religious imaginations.

Sorry I can't help you with the cow link. I found it by doing a Google Image search on "cow face." I bet the organization doesn't exist anymore but their original site home page is still up.

Blogger LaReinaCobre said...

I don't care if God exists - but I am interested in supernaturalism.

Blogger anakashiko said...

Peacebang, glad my comment was worthy of attention. I'm in Kyoto for three months on a grant doing dissertation research. I've been here two weeks and I've already visited about 25 temples. Originally, the Unitarian/Buddhism project was my dissertation, but I decided to delay it because my reading skills in classical Japanese aren't strong enough yet (19th century documents in Japanese are quite different from modern ones). So the research continues, but the book itself will be my fourth (in line behind the dissertation on American appropriations of Japanese Buddhist abortion rituals, and the following one, on inter-Buddhist relations in the American South).

CK, thank you for trying. Buddhism is basically about faith. Western Buddhists will tell you otherwise, but, as someone who has traveled and researched in four very different Asian Buddhist countries, let me just say that Western Buddhists are simply wrong. Even the shortest glimpse at actual Buddhist practice (rather than abstracted--and often intentionally misleadingly translated--texts) will immediately make this plain. Furthermore, the Buddhism we hear about in America is not the living Buddhism of Asia, which isn't nearly so benign as we are led to believe. I wrote that UU article on Buddhism and war and could list endless examples of creepy beliefs/actions on the part of Buddhism in the past.

Dispelling myths about Buddhism is a large part of my life's work. But that doesn't mean Buddhism doesn't also genuinely contain great spiritual and cultural riches. It's a matter of respecting the tradition enough to understand it as a whole, warts and all, even if one chooses to only affirm the better elements personally. At least in my opinion.

I am a Buddhist today because I was given a positive impression of Buddhism in UU Sunday School. I can trace a clear (if meandering) line from early UU contacts with Buddhism to my present situation living in Kyoto at a Buddhist center.

I think this comment is less helpful than the first. So let me add a little more substance. I see Buddhism as being on the rise in UUism because it cuts the Gordian knot of UU Christianity vs. Humanism. It is spiritual in a way that those seeking "a more spiritual way" beyond basic Humanism can appreciate, but offers a non-theistic path for those scared off by that spooky spooky Christian stuff. At the same time, Buddhism is non-theistic, not a-theistic, allowing ample room for theistic (often not really Christian per se) Buddhists to carve out a comfortable space within it. And with its vast pantheon of Buddhas and enlightening beings Buddhism also meshes well with those with Neo-pagan sentiments. In other words, vague Buddhism can be all things for all factions within UUism without ruffling anyone. It provides the perfect meeting ground for these groups, and has the added benefit of being 1) exotic, so we don't know about the skeletons in its closet, 2) foreign, so no one in UUism is escaping baggage from an unhappy Buddhist childhood, 3) appropriatable, since white middle class persons have already made a certain Buddhism their own and often travel in the same circles as us, and 4) seemingly positive, since with the ever-smiling Dalai Lama and a general public relations success Buddhism seems to liberals to be the religion they either wish they'd thought up themselves, or the religion they can't quite comprehend but which looks mighty impressive from a distance.

It may surprise some that as a UU Buddhist, I'm not 100% pleased with this development. My fear is that Buddhism can lead to even greater balkanization in UUism. It increases the bewildering diversity of Buddhism yet further, and pushes us further again from our roots--roots in liberal Christianity that so many of us have forgotten or ignored. Even though I am not a Christian and do not wish UUism to become a Christian religion, I fear the consequences of drifting TOO far from those roots. I like to imagine that UUism could become both fully post-Christian and healthy, but I don't know if that is true. We can only wait and see, and hope that a religion generally as positive as Buddhism doesn't prove to be an ironic negative addition to the UU family.

Blogger CK said...

Jeff, thanks for more clarifications! For a short time (the past few months) I though I'd be going on to study Indian Buddhism in my Ph.D. I've since decided that was a useful, but ultimately dead-end detour. However, in that time, reading more in the tradition itself (rather than the Western self-help stuff you find in Borders) has been surprising to me.

I have a similar reaction to Buddhism as I do to Christianity, though there are pieces of it (lke Christianity) that I find useful, particularly some of the philosophical reflection on reality and how we interact with it, via our language and perception. But the more I read--with the question in the back of my mind, "Do I want to pursue this for myself?"--the more the answer was, no, at least not yet.

Before I could take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, I'd have to believe that this path was something I could put my trust in, with all its baggage of gods, rebirth, heavenly and hellish realms, rituals, and so on. It's not.

I've discovered that I'm a religious humanist because I appreciate the contributions of religion, not because I want to be religious in the sense of following a tradition. And I'm not comfortable with a la carte religion, although I admit that meditation has its pragmatic value in my life. I just don't want to call what I do "Buddhist" meditation.

Rambling, sorry. But the last few months have been an interesting journey and raised more than a few questions about my affiliation with the UU church and the trajectory of my "spiritual" journey.

Blogger THeath said...

While I consider myself a non-theistic buddhist, this conversation has me wondering whether I can really be anything as far as religion is concerned. Maybe I'm really an atheist after all.

Blogger anakashiko said...

CK, I think you probably made the right decision on the PhD in Indian Buddhism. As someone completing the final stage of a Religious Studies PhD (focus on Buddhism), I can say that pursuing a doctorate in such a field is only for those with a burning interest in the obscure linguisitic and philosophical issues of these ancient texts. They will add little to your spiritual life; and what little they do, could be MUCH more easily acquired by a more appriopriate path of personal reading and research. The PhD process is profesisonal training to become a professor and reseacher, not really to learn about religion in greater depth (though that is a necessary component). But I think perhaps you've figured this all out since you put that idea on hold.

Studying Buddhism as a graduate student/professor has no direct relation to accepting or rejecting aspects of Buddhism's beliefs or history, in my view. I happen to be a Buddhist and happen to study Buddhism professionally, but there need be no connection between these things and many Budddhist Studies professors are not and have no interest in being involved in Buddhism on a personal level. On the other hand, if you are a Buddhist and a good student/professor, you will continually encounter information that requires a reconsideration of your understanding and your place within the tradition. This holds as true for Japanese professors as American Buddhist ones, in my experience. It is pretty similar to Christians who study the development of Christianity: the best students discover it to be a challenge to their faith and are transformed in ways, regardless of how they come out the other side.

Re-reading my comment, I see that I accidentally typed that I fear that combination of UUism and Buddhism adds to Buddhism's eclectic mix. Buddhism is indeed tremendously diverse and UUism does indeed add to the mix, but what I meant to type is that I fear how Buddhism adds to UUISM'S eclecticism. I love our diversity but it can easily become a source of problems. Buddhism as I have observed it does not create overt conflict in UU circles. But it does provide yet another special interest group that saps the strength of others and draws some apart into yet another less communal pursuit. It is so foreign to Western history that it requires the acquisition of a whole new range of vocabularly and concepts. That's OK, but if we spend too much time on Buddhism, say, then I bet we're not spending as much time on really engaging with our own history and our own religious traditions. Because I feel we've become too detached from Unitarianism and Universalism, I fear that Buddhism just acts as yet another distraction from those core sources.

I'll put it another way. If we all really understood who we are and especially who we have been, then there would be little danger is spending a lot of time and effort learning about who a totally unrelated religious tradition is and has been. But since there does indeed seem to me to be a paucity of understanding of U and Uism history (and I mean spiritual history here, not just dates and names from the past), it seems like a potential problem to spend a lot of time on something else, even if it is Buddhism that I personally practice and feel can benefit many UUs.

Buddhism is often misunderstood by UUs. Sometimes it is even twisted by them. But Buddhsim is HUGE and one of the oldest surviving traditions of humankind. It can survive UUism, no matter how badly we mistreat it. But UUism is small. It is in some ways very new. UUs are like rare plants clinging to rocks in a few niche environments. The grafting of something new onto these plants might make them stronger, but upsetting the balance could also cause imperil their delicate situation. I don't know that UUism could survive a full Buddhicization. And even though something new and wonderful in its own right might emerge from the transformation of UUism into vague Buddhism, the prospect of accidental extinction worries me.

Blogger CK said...

Thanks, Jeff. I think that it was the right decision, too. Mind you, I'm still heading towards a Ph.D. in religious studies, but in an area (philosophical theology) which I have more expertise in, and which is more accessible with my background.

Putting all my eggs into one basket isn't a good idea--while I find great fulfillment in my academic life, I'm realizing that part of what it does is prepare me to do outside reading well. I don't have to do a PhD in Buddhism to get a decent grasp of the religion's history and ideas. Sure, I won't be an expert (and really, who is, except in a small corner). What I will have is a corrective to the Westernization of Buddhism, since I know where to go in texts and what questions to ask of them.

I wonder for UU's, though, how we can teach that kind of critical engagement with religions. I deeply appreciate the room for lay teaching (heck, I'm benefitting from it as I teach my own class). Yet I am fearful that we are too tolerant about misinterpretation of religions, confusing that for tolerance of religions.

This holds true for Christianity as well as Buddhism, but I don't think we are in danger of being "Christianized", which is ironic since it is our heritage. It seems that the contrast is useful too look at, though.

In some churches we throw out the baby with the bathwater (vis a vis Christianity, because of past wounds). In other churches, we ignore the baby and drink bathwater (vis a vis Buddhism, taking the bathwater as poor interpretations).


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