Friday, May 04, 2007

The Attraction of Buddhism

"Spiritual but not religious". As an underlying philosophy, this has never been more popular, alongside a vocal disdain for "organized" religion. As I discussed numerous times now, this reflects the popularity of Gnosticism in American society, and Gnostic energy often gets channeled in a Buddhism direction, owing to key parallels.

Let me just review Gnosticism (see here and here for earlier discussions). Traditional Gnosticism believes in a Platonic metaphysical dualism that sees the world and all of creation as evil. Since creation is evil, it cannot have been created by a benevolent God. No, the creator is an evil God, a demiurge, often identified with the God of the Jews. Beyond all this lies a greater God, a good God. And here is the crux: within every human being lies a "spark of the divine" that is itching to be re-united with this greater God and escape the confines of the evil materialistic world. And how to escape? Escape comes through knowledge, gnosis, often hidden esoteric knowledge available only to a select few.

Now, at least on a superficial level, this has some overlaps with Buddhism. At is basis lies the underlying principle that life involves and endless cycle of suffering, and suffering is rooted in desire. The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, provided a basic road map to escape the cycle through the suppression of desire. The term "buddha" is used to denote anybody who has attained "awakening" (enlightenment/ Nirvana) and has escaped earthy suffering. Many are taught this knowledge by others in an esoteric fashion.

Many like to argue that the advantage of Buddhism is that it has no doctrine, is not organized, and it has no notion of a personal God. It is easier, conceptually, to view it through the frame of Gnosticism. Buddhism and Gnosticism both see the difference between "God" and creation as one of degree, not of kind, and view humanity as returning to some kind of equality with "God". Creation is not good, and the ultimate goal is liberation from the world. Of course, such an escape is not simple, and requires arcane knowledge ("gnosis") and ardent practice, and is only available to an elite few.

In contrast, Christianity views creation as the result of a beneficial Creator. God created everything that exists from nothing. Creation is good, but humanity is sinful. The essence of Christianity then, is that God became human to overcome this sin, and to allow humanity to become one with God. Note the clear difference: union with God is not a natural "homecoming"; it is rather a gift, a privilege. Moreover, this form of salvation is available to all, not just a small elite. The "institutional" church is simply the entity through which Christ mediates grace.

Why, then, are so many Americans attracted to Buddhism? Actually, what they seek is Gnosticism, rather than Buddhism. They merely see much of Gnosticism inside Buddhism. Part of the attraction springs from a very post-Enlightenment denial of objective truth. If truth is more relative than objective, then how can there be such a thing as sin? It's far easier to assume a natural unification with God after death, with no heed for the consequences of your behavior. Who needs doctrine when all that matters is the "spark of the divine" within me? Experience trumps everything! At the same time, the entrenched individualism in American society rebels against anything vaguely communitarian, especially an entity that claims to know the truth. Far easier to follow your own path! This can so easily feed the narcissism and sense of entitlement that pervades much of modern American culture and society (is it any wonder that Buddhism and Scientology are most popular in Hollywood, the ultimate pit of narcissism?). The notion that one can be a sinner is repellent in the popular mind. No, Gnosticism makes you feel special. I'm OK, you're OK! Do what makes you feel good!

There is a darker side to this, of course, as it can feed into the doctrine of American exceptionalism, that sees America as unique, specially blessed by God, not subject to the same rules and constraints as other countries. And if creation is not fundamentally good and in need of renewal, then why should be it not exploited through violence and environmental degradation?

This lies at the root of the American love-affair with Buddhism, and why it is seen as superior, better than those nasty "organized" religions. Though I would contend that Buddhism has some serious flaws, much of this crowd is attracted to a very shallow version of it, a Buddhism of the mind, not rooted in reality. Note, for example, that traditional Buddhism is concerned with suppressing the ego, the very opposite of the modern American instinct. No, Gnosticism is at fault, and Buddhism is largely guilty by association.

One final thought: one of the much-touted "attractions" of Buddhism is that it is inherently peaceful, tolerant, and non-violent. This is utterly false. Just look to the political turmoil in Sri Lanka. Here, a nationalistic and xenophobic brand of Buddhism is highly influential among the Sinhalese minority, and is not above denying equality to the minority Tamils, or using violence to impose its will. Remember too, in Vietnam, it was the Buddhist monks who burned themselves to death. And yet the Hollywood brigade tends to ignore these inconvenient facts...

5 comments:

Antonio Manetti said...

As the following quote indicates, many Catholics see an enriching synergy between Zen Buddhism and Catholicism.

Near the end of his life the Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton said that he wanted "to become as good a Buddhist as I can." A contemporary priest, Robert E. Kennedy, S.J., Roshi (Zen master), holds Zen retreats at Morning Star Zendo in Jersey City. He states on his web site: "I ask students to trust themselves and to develop their own self-reliance through the practice of Zen." Meanwhile, the St. Francis Chapel at Santa Clara University hosts the weekly practice of "Mindfulness and Zen Meditation." Similarly, there are a growing number of Buddhist retreats and workshops being held in Catholic monasteries and parishes.

The full article can be found at http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2005/clarkolson_cathbuddh_feb05.asp

Key said...

As someone who was raised Catholic and has spent several years practicing Zen Buddhism, I found this post quite interesting. I agree with your main point, that much of the popular interest in Buddhism is based on a misunderstanding of what it is. Buddhism is as "organized" as any other religion - it has doctrine (called the dharma or "teaching"), communities (called sanghas), and varying sects and interpretations.

But I disagree with some elements of your description of Buddhism, particularly with the idea that the Gnostic belief in the evil of creation is similar to the Buddhist doctrine of suffering and its release. Buddhist believe that all of creation is "buddha-nature" - perfect and complete - and it is only our own illusion and desire that cause suffering. To me, that understanding is more similar to the Catholic concept of human sin than to the Gnostic doctrine of material evil.

But actually, the Buddhist doctrine is different from both the Gnostic and Catholic in a fundamental way. Buddhists do not believe in the "dualism" (e.g. God good, creation evil or God good, man sinful) that underlies both Gnostic and Catholic thought. Instead, they have the concept of "enlightenment" in which we can have greater or lesser understanding of the nature of reality. In Buddhist thinking, our suffering is not caused by some fundamental state of sinfulness or evil, but by the illusion of ego.

Lorenzo said...

Buddhism is concerned with freeing oneself from misery and unhappiness. This can be narcissistic, but then so can Christianity--feeling superior because one is so much more God-fearing and moral than group X or person Y.

I would suggest much of the atrraction of Buddhism is a function of the Maslow Hierachy effect. As people become more prosperous, higher order concerns matter to them more. That has some downsides--such as the epidemic of depression. Buddhism speaks to those concerns, particularly to those suffering depression.

Morning's Minion said...

Interesting comments. I certainly think that Christians can borrow with great benefit from some of the meditative practices of Buddhism, but we should understand clearly where we differ.

John said...

People tend to find buddhism agreeable because it encourages them to directly experience what the spiritual life has to offer as opposed to blind faith or misguided belief motivated and sustained by fear.
They also find it agreeable because it does not conflict with scientific reasoning and reasoning in general.
It is adaptable and therefore has remained functional and practical throughout the millenia and as long as people actually practice the dharma it will remain sustainable while bringing benefit to all who come into contact with it.
Again, they find it attractive because it encourages tolerance, compassion and patience towards others and a deepening self knowledge and knowledge of the nature of reality, of how things are.
People in these modern times have a sense of urgency, they seem to sense that as a race we are facing a spiritual problem and that so far we have only tried to solve it by material means. Continually changing the outside environment in an attempt to fix what is happening in our minds. Basically we have it all backwards, we are a very backwards race of beings.
In my experience buddhism demonstrates an almost inexaustable wealth of teachings on the mind. On the nature of suffering, the nature of the grasping mind, the nature of enlightened mind and the nature of relative phenomena/existence. More than you could possibly hope to know in one lifetime.
No other religion that I know of is so 'organised' or so specific and detailed in their approach to understanding the human condition and how to end our collective and individual suffering.
I say this as someone with no specific religious affiliation. As simply a human, being.