The Dalai Lama, who is in Washington, D.C., for a ten day event, has written: “I have come to the conclusion that whether or not a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be a good human being.”. . . “That is why I sometimes say that religion is something we can perhaps do without.”It seems many in the West agree with the spiritual leader, as millions report that they incorporate Buddhist practices such as meditation or mindfulness into their own spiritual activities without necessarily adopting Buddhism as their religion.Does religion aid or hinder the spiritual journey? Can you practice Buddhism without becoming Buddhist?
The Dalai Lama speaks not only with compassion, but with the religious training and wisdom gained from having started his monastic education at the age of six and eventually attaining the equivalent of a doctor of philosophy in Buddhism. The vast majority of those incorporating “Buddhist practices such as meditation or mindfulness” in the U.S. are doing so with little or no training in Buddhism; is this a kind of spirituality that deepens faith, or a way to skate along on the surface without wrestling with the deeper questions? I truly believe it is often the latter.
When I say “Namaste” in a yoga class, I do not delude myself that it’s a profoundly spiritual moment. “Namaste” should sound familiar to the many Americans who practice yoga. It literally means “I bow to you” and is often used before and/or after a yoga class. It is the acknowledgment that ‘the divine spark in me recognizes the divine spark in you.’ It’s lovely, and it is not particularly Christian.
I say “Namaste” with respect for the tradition that generated such meditative practice, but I don’t confuse it with Christianity, or, in fact, with Buddhism. That is to disrespect both traditions. In this, I have discovered, some Buddhists agree with me.
Christianity and Buddhism differ profoundly on several important points, namely God, the human condition, the meaning of suffering and the nature of salvation (enlightenment, in Buddhist terms). It does a disservice to Buddhism, and to Christianity, to blend them uncritically. Wrestling with the hard questions of faith, such as whether we are to escape the suffering that characterizes this world by meditative practices (Buddhism), or whether the world is created good and we are to engage in the struggle against evil and suffering (Christianity), is central to understanding ethical action.
Some American Buddhists recognize that a superficial blending of Buddhist practices without the philosophical depth is actually doing harm to Buddhism in the U.S., not helping it.
I found a thoughtful engagement of this subject by Barbara Hoetsu O’Brien, a journalist and student of Zen Buddhism since 1988. She responded in About.com/Buddhism to a post I had written for “On Faith” about being “spiritual but not religious.” In “Western Buddhism: A Xerox Copy?” a phrase I use, she reflects, as a student of Buddhism, on my idea that spirituality without religion is like a diet of “sweetness” without the “fiber” of religion.
Exactly. In turn, I agree with her that religion at its best is the “strength of tradition” and the “wisdom of those who have gone before.” Those, I believe, are what the Dalai Lama brings to the religious conversation. Without those two, then, the “discipline of practice” such as meditation can become an empty shell.
She continues with this quotation from my earlier post, “Zen Buddhism is centered in a meditative practice that emphasizes direct experience rather than formal creeds or scriptures. Wisdom passes from teacher to student, not in words but through the practice of meditation and eventually mind to mind. Of course, actual Buddhist enlightenment takes years and years of intense work in meditation with knowledgeable teachers. What floats through American pop culture in films and even in most yoga classes is a kind of Xerox copy of Buddhism that is based on the old “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” psychology of the 1960s.”
Barbara writes in response, “Yeah, pretty much. I know I complained last week about another writer who portrayed all western Buddhists as privileged dilettantes who don’t practice seriously. But the Rev. Thistlethwaite is not saying that. She’s saying that the language of Zen, or a superficial understanding of Zen, has been coopted by the “spiritual but not religious” people to rationalize their marshmallow fluff spirituality diet.
“I have two concerns. One is that many people are been so turned off by western religious institutions that they run screaming from anything that looks like a religious institution. So they cling to faux Buddhism and run away from the real thing, which is sad.”
“My other concern is that marshmallow fluff Buddhism will supplant the real thing before the real thing has thoroughly taken root. This is a particular danger for Zen, I think, because it did have the misfortune of becoming popularized and then romanticized in books and film, but it’s something that’s an issue for all of Buddhism, I think.”
I am grateful to Barbara for her reflections from a Buddhist perspective, and clearly we agree. I think, as a Christian, that when Americans hear the Dalai Lama, they will not recognize the long study and practice that has led to his wise, and difficult insights on the relationship of religion and ethical action. Nor will they recognize the particular Buddhist journey of detachment from institutions that enables him to evoke profound compassion as the true meaning of religion; when compassion is exquisite, institutions become irrelevant.
That wisdom, however, is the product of a long religious journey, not its beginning.
To reverse that process and begin at the end is “fluff Buddhism” in Barbara Hoetsu O’Brien’s phrase. I have often observed that “fluff Buddhism” contributes to “fluff Christianity,” to the detriment of both.
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite | Jul 6, 2011 10:08 AM