Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Thursday, August 7, 2008

[pc monk] A barrier to Buddha

As I began to nibble around the edges of Zen Buddhism as an approach to life, I immediately ran across a fairly considerable barrier to my immersion into its practice. Y’see, as much as we like to label things “zen” - zen golfing, zen poker, zen whatever - because it seems to embody the sense of some sort of particular manner of action, Zen Buddhism is a form of Buddhism, and Buddhism is a religion.

Yes, I know what is always said: it’s not really a religion, it’s more a philosophy. Or it’s a “way of liberation” (in the words of Alan Watts in The Way of Zen). I understand that Zen is more subtle and less dogmatic that Roman Catholicism or Judaism or Islam, but so is Unitarian Universalism, and it’s still a religion.

A wholehearted embrace of Zen Buddhism, as I understand it, requires me to believe that there is some sort of god-thing that created all the universe, and further, that the concept of moksha represents true reality, an infinite, undifferentiated Brahman. It is this godhood, moshka, that the Buddhist seeks to apprehend, rather than the maya, the (illusory) world of sense experience and facts. No matter how much the techniques and principles of zazen (sitting meditation) and koans (zen riddles) may be intellectually stimulating and useful and even valuable in other pursuits, it seems that there is no getting around that the ultimate point of the exercise is understand something that is, by its very definition, incomprehensible by “ordinary” means.

What this says to someone of a positivist bent, like me, is that a fundamental piece of the puzzle has to be accepted on faith. (To be fair, I have much the same problem with Kant’s prsentation of the noumenon: talking about the ding-an-sich is by its very nature a nonrational activity.) And I’m not sure that I can - or am willing - to do that without reservation. To me, the world is what is before me: what we can see, touch, feel, and otherwise experience. The questions of what underlies it all are just not important to me; I think Douglas Adams put it nicely when he asked “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

So, as much as I believe and hope that the practices of Zen Buddhism will bring me to a more mindful existence and clearer thought, I can’t help but thinking that I am cheating a little, since I am not buying the whole package. Once we start to cherry-pick from a system, what happens to the integrity? Perhaps I am looking for something more like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, both of which address apparently non-rational experiences from a scientific grounding; I don’t know.

But I stumble on.


John said...

"What happens to the integrity when we cherry pick parts of a religion instead of accepting the whole package?"

In my experience, the integrity increases. "Cherry picking" is our modern way of embracing what makes sense and reforming what we find archaic or objectionable. This is how we progress as a people.

The only danger I can see is rejecting things too quickly rather than exploring them thoroughly before dismissing them. When it comes to the mythology of any religion (be it Jesus' resurrection or the universe sprouting out of a belly button) I take it as metaphor... designed to give us a working picture of how things work. It can be useful for those literally minded folks who like to have a picture in their minds of how things work.

Jon said...

Is there an easy way for you to republish the comments made on the Wordpress blog about this posting because I think they were worth reading (and pardon my lack of modesty as I wrote one of them).

It would also be interesting to hear your response - or (by posting this piece again), do you still feel the same way as you did?

Walaka said...

I can cut and paste your comment over and will do, since you asked.

Anther piece is on its way.

Walaka said...

Here is the comment left by Jon when this post first appeared on another blog:

While I agree that you cannot cherry pick if you want to embrace something, several things come to mind. Firstly, there are many traditions and ‘versions’ of whatever it is that Buddhism is. Rather like Christianity, which is named after its supposed founder in a way that might have surprised and disappointed him, I am not sure the Buddha would have necessarily recognized some of the things that are done in his name. What the Buddha left was a brief but complete system for overcoming the suffering that we all feel. Yet like some of the zen koans that were created centuries later, their power lies in the need to interpret what they mean. One problem with all that we say that the Buddha said though, is that initially it was transmitted orally and not recorded until much later, adding to the potential for (mis)interpretation. I think one ‘message’ that does come through is that we should not seek to copy him but to find our own path to accepting and avoiding suffering.

I also think the concept of the Universal Soul or Atman is more a Hindu tradition that the Buddha rejected.

I have chosen to investigate the path of zen and I have to say that I have not found anything that asks me to believe in anything about a god-thing that created the universe. When asked himself about questions like where does the universe come from, how was it created and what was there before, the Buddha told the story of the man wounded by the poisoned arrow asking whether he would first question his doctor as to who shot the arrow, where and how the poison was made or would he ask the doctor to pull out the arrow. Life does not depend on the knowing how we got here or what will happen after we are gone. Whether we hold these views about these things or not, there is still suffering, sorrow, old age, sickness, and death.

A book that you might like to read if you haven’t already is:

What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula