The only religion that enjoys near-universal respect in our culture is Buddhism. Even revelations of corrupt Asian “holy” men or Buddhist nuns involved in fund-raising scams never seem to touch its vague prestige. Christianity and Judaism are well-known and widely practiced. But in the academy, in Hollywood, among journalists, and at publishing houses, both faiths present serious demands of belief and morality that make them uncongenial to the self-indulgent. Buddhism, by contrast, seems to have no rules, no dogmas, no guilt-inducing concepts like sin. It puts you in touch with your real Self. And we know that in modern America, self rules.
At least this is the understanding of Buddhism most common among America’s intellectual elites—a source of no little worry among the practitioners of real Buddhism. Earlier this year, the deep divines at the Internet magazine Salon reported on the growth of Boomer Buddhism and its celebrity followers such as the actor Richard Gere and Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, to say nothing of the Steven Segals and Tina Turners. Titles such as Zen and the Art of Screenwriting are popular on the two coasts. The real Buddhism, with its “traditional religious trappings—robed priests, elaborate rituals, sacred images of supermundane figures, devotional practices,” the faith of hundreds of thousands of Third World immigrants to America, is ignored. Instead, we get a New American version that is “egalitarian, more feminist, and more socially conscious,” Salon says.
Buddhism is easily distorted because in several of its forms, it denies the value of tradition and preaches the necessity for all of us to find our own way to liberation. As early as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 19th- century forays into the mysterious East, these notions have resonated with Americans who wanted to escape the traditions of Europe and rely solely on their own personal experience. But in its authentic form, Buddhism demands disciplines and sacrifices that, if required by any Christian denomination, would be labeled life- denying, uptight, and wholly inappropriate to modern, enlightened people.
Buddhism deserves study, then, for several reasons. One is to answer the question: What has made it so attractive to the most comfortable sectors of the First World? In part, the answer lies in an ill-understood desire to escape the imperial self and recover a wisdom lost in technological societies. Another reason to learn about Buddhism is that Pope John Paul II envisions the evangelization of the East as one of the main tasks of the third millennium. And he has repeatedly urged us to get a better understanding of Asian faiths and cultures as a prelude to preaching the gospel in Asia.
This is a difficult task. Anyone who wants a lively and brief introduction to the real Buddha and early Buddhism ought to look at Karen Armstrong’s recent Buddha (2001) in the Penguin Lives series. Armstrong is a former Catholic nun who has been prodigiously productive and sometimes critical of the Catholic Church. But her survey of Buddhism is clearly written, generally free from ax-grinding, and a useful corrective to distorted views of a major world religion—though it still goes easy on some aspects of that faith.
Buddhism is based in a kind of meditation that, for all its fundamental difference from Christian meditation, reminds a Catholic of the great contemplatives like St. John of the Cross. Instead of self-indulgence, it preaches the extinction of desire and detachment from the world. Far from being a nature-loving environmentalist’s kind of faith (early Buddhists were terrified of the forests where they wandered), it views the world as intrinsically a realm of suffering; hence its goal of finally escaping the cycle of birth and death. The Buddha’s followers may have compassion for all living beings, but it is difficult for a non- enlightened outsider to avoid the impression that being alive seems to be a kind of evil per se in Buddhism.
In certain schools—Zen Buddhism most prominently—the Buddha’s insistence that his followers accept no tradition unless confirmed by their own experience is interpreted as a denial of tradition itself.
But the Buddhist scriptures tell a different story. These date from centuries after the Buddha lived and are mixed with later teachings. People who like to question the truth of the Christian gospels, which at least were written by people who knew the historical Jesus or still-living eyewitnesses to His ministry, may find the Buddhist equivalents even more hopelessly complex. But we know that the orders of monks and nuns he established laid down clear teachings and rules. Armstrong notes 277 offenses that had to be confessed when the chapters met every two weeks. Buddhism does not have an idea of sin, so these confessions concern “unskillful” behavior. But the need to confront one’s shortcomings is as solid in Buddhism as it is in the Catholic confessional.
Though the Buddha wanted no cult of personality (which might become an obstacle to the seeker’s need for firsthand experience), he is also reported to have said, in a phrase similar to one of Jesus’: “He who sees me, sees the dhamma [the teaching], and he who sees the dhamma sees me.”
A Westerner who believes Buddhism is easygoing will be surprised at its moral absolutism. The Buddha imposed five prohibitions on those entering his order: abstaining from stealing, lying, intoxicants, violence, and sex. Like Western contemplatives, he knew that outward behavior did not eliminate inward attachments, which needed to be rooted out by skillful yoga and meditation practices. And he doubted that anyone who had not become a mendicant monk could achieve liberation from human attachments. Though lay movements and a kind of religious worship of him grew after his death, it is clear that these were accommodations rather than the purest practice.
Many Christians have grown worried about the kind of meditation and contemplation sometimes advocated in Christian circles today. They rightly see that emphasis on techniques can degenerate into a kind of Pelagianism, which is inherent to Buddhism, since human efforts alone without grace are thought to lead to salvation. (Anyone who wants a good guide to the differences between Eastern and Western contemplation should look at Rev. William Johnston’s older, but still helpful, Still Point, published in 1986.) The kind of self-reliance that lies at the heart of Buddhism, for all its palpable humility, sets it at odds with Christianity. But it is hard not to admire the dedication with which the Buddha and his followers sought truth and salvation.
Two and a half millennia before the notion of Buddhist nuns became a political joke in America, the place of women in his order presented a serious question to the Buddha. Armstrong, who has strong feminist sympathies, takes note of the Buddha’s great reluctance to admit women, who were thought to be an inferior human form and could reach final enlightenment only after being reborn as men. Nuns were required to stand in the presence of male monks, had to receive their instruction from men, were not allowed ceremonies of their own, and could be rebuked by any monk but were not permitted to rebuke any monk themselves.
Like most truths about the past, these notions would come as a surprise in Southern California and other enclaves of contemporary enlightenment. But in themselves, they tell us little more than that, like other archaic cultures, Buddhist culture privileged males, while at least allowing an opening to women. A contemporary sympathizer would no doubt regard all this as ancient history and point to Buddhism’s welcoming of all today. This is fitting, but it would also be fit-ting if the same standard were applied to Western faiths such as Christianity and Judaism.
At the end of the day, the biblical faiths and Buddhism point in different directions. The former take this world as a beloved creation, and in Christianity, the Incarnation of God Him-self gives human nature inconceivable, even eternal value. The Buddhist seeks nirvana in the complete extinction of self. Long discussions are needed to know exactly what each religion means and its relationship to the other, if any. They offer very different visions of liberation. But they join hands in reminding us that absent a true, transcendent reference point, we are all in a very bad way indeed.s