The Stripping of Buddhism

A crevasse (moulin) in the Langjökull glacier, Iceland. At the moment it was perhaps three or four meters long, a meter wide and some 30-40 meters deep. It has no bearing on this post

From Barbara’s Buddhism Blog:

Some in the West dismiss these devotional and worshipful aspects of Buddhism as corruptions of the original teachings of the Buddha. For example, Sam Harris, a self-identified atheist who has expressed admiration for Buddhism, has said Buddhism should be taken away from Buddhists. Buddhism would be so much better, Harris wrote, if it could be cleansed of the “naive, petitionary, and superstitious” trappings of religion altogether.

If you know me then you know that I enjoy the company of  a few atheists as well as agree with atheist views on the topics of science education (no religion there EVER), evolution and door-to-door proselytizing.  Even the “New Atheists” which are often termed “fundamental” atheists have my deepest respect for voicing their views and proclaiming for equal ground in the religious debate.

Harris’ comment about cleaving away through the cultural or superstitious “trappings” of Buddhism does twist in my mind though.  Mostly because it precludes an ownership that doesn’t exist.  Buddhists no more own Buddhism than atheists own atheism.   And frankly those who wish to “dismiss” anything simply because that aspect doesn’t work for their practice are…well….jackasses.  I don’t work with a teacher but I don’t dismiss teachers as an important aspect of Buddhist practice; I just admit that a teacher doesn’t work for my practice.

Bottom line, for me, is that there is nothing to gain and no compassion in dismissing another’s Buddhist practice.  The search for authenticity or trying to distinguish between “cultural trappings” and root teachings is a fool’s quest.  It just moves you away from your practice.  The beauty of Buddhist practice shines through whether or not the basic tenets remain the same whether they wear a particular robe or colorful display.  Buddhism isn’t defined by the color of the robes or by the lack of them.  You can strip it down or dress it up but if you are attaching to either then you are missing the point.  The root is the same but the route can differ. 

I have explored some Shingon and tantric practice lately as well as a bit of Yogacara and I am absolutely struck by the similarities between that practice and the devotional Zen practice that I am now engaged in.  The goals and the basic teachings remain the same but the tools used are different (and sometimes really different).  It isn’t your race or ethnicity that dictates whether you are more aligned to a devotional practice in Buddhism.  It’s your life situation; your experience or lack of experience; your curiosity and your sense of adventure; your practicality and your pragmatism…

…and if it is your game then it is also your karmic background.  Whatever it is…it behooves us openly and actively explore the variety that is inherit in the practice of Buddhism.  If you are lucky enough to get it right on the first try then I envy you and am somewhat sad that you didn’t get to explore.  For me it is like dating – you have a time blinded by the pure radiance of your partner…you then see the frailty and blemishes…and then you grow together or part your ways (or have a messy divorce).

Buddhism would not be better if it you strip it of the devotional practice or if you take it away from the Buddhists (if you want to ask for it then most are willing to let you have it.  It’s like saying the ocean would be great if it wasn’t for all the fuckin’ fishes that live there and draw life from it).  Anyway, how does one strip the Dharma away from those that freely give it?




7 thoughts on “The Stripping of Buddhism

  1. you said fucking

    i could not love you more hahahaha

    excellent points made. i don’t connect initially to any of the asian metaphors or concepts, however, i did find that once i approached the sutras as poetry rather than some heavy and scripturous (my own word..we do that in texas) that my mind opened more. as for the rituals and chanting and such, they initially tripped my catholic triggers but those, too, can be approached as poetry of word and deed…again opening me more to either the traidtional ones or ones that i make myself…which i find more powerful anyway, but that’s the pagan in me going off again.

    whatever the case, you said fucking, and that’s colorful poetry right there 🙂

  2. agreed John. I think the mistake is in not taking into account the target audiences. For example, The Lotus Sutra was written for Chinese Buddhists living 2000 years ago. Rather than disregard all of the poetry and imagery as this Sam Harris would have us do, I think the more skillful approach is to understand the poetry, the meaning, and it’s intent. Then grab what you can from it and move on.

    When I go out to a nice restaraunt (a very rare occasion) I don’t really care if the food looks pretty. I know the chef went to all that trouble, and it’s nice, but I just don’t care. I just want it to taste great and fill me up. Though I suppose if the presentation wasn’t up to par, this Sam Harris guy either wouldn’t eat the meal, or wouldn’t like it. I say, just dig in damnit!

  3. Wow! Someone really thinks ritual is ancient whatever… I never thought I’d like ritual..but first time I spent time with monks and bowed I found the purpose in my training for bowing…full bowing…chanting…having candles…all the symbolic bringing together of the mind in action and letting go self in the process… For some I suppose it’s helpful…but no one should mistake it for some old idea .. not necessary… and somehow unworthy… to bow deeply to the universe is good to do… Gashho!

  4. I like to think of stripping devotional forms of our pretensions to buddhist practice. That does not mean dismissing the forms, but not fetishizing them either. This is the difference between scholasticism and philosophy.

    • I agree that it is equally detrimental to dismiss or “fetishize” (I like the term) but what some people view as fetishizing may not be fetishizing at all but instead an artifact of the other’s perception. This is why I try not to judge until I have a better understanding of why a particular method is used rather then judge from my (limited) perception.

      Thanks for the comment!



  5. Pingback: A new (old) ritual « Home Brew Dharma

Comments are closed.