This is part two. You can read part one here.
Yesterday I made the distinction that when I say “Westerners” in this case I am talking about deracinated Westerners who have never been, or no longer feel themselves to be, part of a living religious tradition indigenous to the West (the various flavors of Christianity and Judaism). I’m talking about people with a gap in their lives when it comes to religious belief.
I’d also like to clarify why I keep saying “Westerners” and not just “people” in general. It is because I don’t think I am the right person to pass judgment on whether entire societies have got their religion wrong. That doesn’t mean I don’t prefer one to the other. I prefer, for example, Catholicism to Islam. But I have no agenda to make Arabia shed its Islam. (Perhaps this would be a good thing… but I’m simply not the man for that job).
Likewise, monks and laypeople in the north of Thailand have been practicing Theraveda Buddhism longer than the Greeks have been practicing Christianity. If a Thai person living in Thailand practices the ancient religion of his ancestors, I am not one to protest!
So when I criticize Buddhism in this post, though I must necessarily talk about its actual inherent qualities as a practice, I have my eye specifically on how these qualities affect our deracinated Westerner.
And finally, this is not a straw man! I know because I was him, and so are/were many of my friends.
Buddhism is presented to Westerners as a religion of choice. Naturally, all religion is a matter of choice, at least in a free society such as mine. No adult is forced to adhere to any one creed, obviously. Also obviously, the dice are loaded for some creeds. Any given man is most likely to adhere to one of two creeds (or some combination of the two, very likely):
- The creed of his clan and of his ancestors. Hasidim beget more Hasidim. Mormons beget more Mormons. Etc.
- The dominant creed of society, which I would characterize (at least where I live) as utilitarian individualism that is atheist at core but agnostic in rhetoric, and which is tinged around the edges with the remnants of Christian ethics and assumptions (about, say, the nature of time, the nature of good and evil, etc.)
So people choose these creeds a little less than they choose something they convert to, if you will.
Of course, people still convert to Western religions all the time, and not just in Africa. There are new Catholics, new Evangelicals (especially), and new members of non-mainstream churches, especially Mormons in the USA. Etc.
But I would argue (and I admit I’m getting on some thin rhetorical ice here; I’m really just arguing from a gut feeling) that these kinds of conversions come from a deeper — or at the very least more fervent — conviction than do “conversions” to Buddhism. In fact, it sounds weird to say “converted to Buddhism” though we have no problem saying “converted to Islam” or “converted to the Catholic church.” In my own story which I posted yesterday, I said it (without even thinking) the way most people say it. “I began practicing Buddhism.”
Just like I “began practicing” the violin last year.
Do you see what I mean? It’s a lifestyle choice. Hopefully that feels intrinsically wrong, to choose a religion for lifestyle choice reasons. But why, exactly?
Because it makes a mockery of the most important thing a man can do with his time on earth.
Just as I picked up the violin last year but I hardly practiced it at all this summer (I was busy!), a religion that’s an accessory, a lifestyle accoutrement, comes and goes with convenience. Yesterday I described how Buddhism could function for some people as “gateway religion.” But that gate swings both ways. I think it also functions as a gateway away from religion. And I think it serves this function more often and more thoroughly than the other way around.
But how can a religious practice serve to lead people away from religion? And besides, am I trying to say that only Buddhists are dilettantes? Surely passing enthusiasms happen in other sectors of life, both inside and outside of specific traditions.
Ah, but it is the special character of Buddhism that makes it serve this anti-religious purpose, and more thoroughly and more often than other major traditions. And this same anti-religious character is the same reason it’s so popular in the West.
Essentially, Buddhism (serious Buddhism) asks the practitioner to look within for the answers. It is not other-directed, not at its core. Though it comes with a set of ethical rules that show consideration for others, and though some schools emphasize compassion practices in meditation, philosophically speaking, Buddhism is self-oriented. The whole point of the religion is for the self to save the self.
Christian readers will understand what the problem is here. And even non-religious readers must recognize that while the notion of the self saving the self is very attractive and seductive, it raises a lot of questions. Like, for instance, if the self is so wise and powerful, what’s it doing being non-saved in the first place?
But it doesn’t stop there. Buddhism is also fundamentally an elitist religion. Now we’re really getting down to brass tacks. Buddhism, as founded by the historical/legendary Buddha, was never intended to be a religion for the masses.
It is a practice to be followed by an elite class of monks, those who are already close enough to enlightenment due to countless past lives of practice. The average man at the time and place of the Buddha was what we today would call a Hindu. And he was intended to go on being a Hindu. Only the very, very wise elite was intended to reach Nirvana through the Buddha’s teachings.
To this day in many places (such as Mongolia, Cambodia, Burma), the pattern holds. The average person lights incense to minor (now Buddhistic) deities; he offers food to the mendicant monks; and the monks are the ones who get saved. By helping the monks, the laity can move up the reincarnation ladder and maybe be a monk some day (er, some lifetime) themselves.
I’m not here to criticize the social arrangements of clergy and laity in Mongolia. I’m just pointing out how lovely and seductive this would be to a deracinated, PC, atheistic leftist. It’s essentially gnostic. A religion for an enlightened elite to practice, that claims at the same time to believe in universal compassion.
Buddhism has been described as “Hinduism stripped for export.” Hinduism is very specific to India and Indian people. Buddhism, by lifting itself out of its cultural context, by — yes — deracinating itself, spread like wildfire throughout Asia in the first 15 centuries AD. The “folk Buddhism” I talked about yesterday is essentially the lay-Buddhism that naturally grew up around the core of monks in the various countries to which it spread. While folk Buddhism exists in many flavors, Westerners are in fact correct when they intuit that there is something context-less and universalist at the heart of Buddhism.
[Christianity, of course, is universalist in its own way too. But the universal salvific message of Christianity is rooted in a specific, carnal, historical instantiation. Buddhism — while founded by one person — is not rooted so.]
Interestingly, Buddhism can also claim never to have been spread by war or conquest. This is, of course, one of the Western Buddhist’s favorite things to point out.
Buddhism does have a moral code that, with a few variations, is pretty consistent from sect to sect. It’s based around lists of “precepts,” such as not to steal, not to lie, not to kill, not to drink alcohol, etc. One of these precepts is usually “avoid improper sexuality.” In books for Westerners this is usually glossed as meaning avoid hurting people through sex, and it’s left purposefully vague. Traditionally this meant avoid all sex for monks, and avoid homosexuality, masturbation, and fornication for laity. (You can see why no Westerners want to talk about that one.)
What’s interesting about these “precepts” is that they are not commandments. They are suggestions. This is a selling point for Westerners. No authoritarian meanie God decreed these things. No no. These are merely suggestions.
Why are they suggestions? Well, the wise old masters (I say it without sarcasm) discovered that to commit these evil acts roils up the mind and the spirit. The goal of Buddhist practice is to calm the mind to the point of total clarity. Committing evil clouds the mind with turbulence. Therefore, commit no evil so as to have a clear mind.
[Left unanswered: Why do these acts cloud our minds? Why should this be so?]
Anyway, it’s up to the practitioner to decide which rules apply to him. It’s all good, as long as you end with a happy, feel-good mind.
And don’t think too hard about those cumbersome old rules about sex and whatnot. After all, if it feels good, do it.
So this practice — this Buddhism for Westerners — is many things at once.
- Elitist and gnostic
- Exotic and yet “stripped for export” at the same time. Both pleasingly foreign and yet conveniently open to interpretation.
- Makes claims about universal compassion without all that troublesome business of a universal God. Focuses on being a “nice guy” without any authoritarian “mean guy” side to it.
- Moral rules are just suggestions, explicitly open to interpretation.
- The point of morality is that it makes you feel good about yourself.
It’s almost as if Buddhism was tailor-made for arrogant Western leftists. It pushes every button and rewards its followers with strokes of pseudo-holiness.
So these are the specific ways in which Buddhism serves as a reverse-gateway religion.
People have a natural yearning in their souls. A materialist with an empty feeling in his heart can try filling it with drugs, or sex, or television. But, sensing the futility of that, he might try and fill it with religion.
Christianity, Judaism, Islam… oh these are all so authoritarian, so passé. Ah, but Buddhism. That’s nice. That has caché. And it’s so easy!
So the searcher gets a little hit of spirituality. As I said yesterday, it’s not a worthless practice by any stretch. It may indeed be the proper practice for certain people and certain cultures.
But for the deracinated Westerner, it is precisely the wrong practice. It reinforces everything that makes the Westerner feel so empty in the first place: his rootlessness, his sense that he is the only proper source authority in his life, his desire to pick and choose his beliefs as if from a buffet, as if shopping for a natty outfit.
And when spiritual or temporal crisis comes to this person, where is his rock? I’ll tell you from personal experience: nowhere. There is no rock. Buddhism seemed like the only sensible religion, and yet even it has failed. Therefore: all religion is false.
Buddhism convinces the empty-souled, universalist Westerner that it contains too much religion. Whereas, in fact, it does not contain enough.
He’s like a starving man who eats a single bite of rice and finds his stomach so tight and dry that he can barely keep the food down. So he concludes that food is the problem.
I find I have even more to say on this topic, but I have rambled on long enough and this post is starting to lose any discernible structure. I do believe Buddhism grasps some universal truths, but incompletely so. I’ll try to address specifically how this is so, very soon. But please do not withhold comments (if any) on this post, as I’m not sure when I will get around to it.