27 March 2009

Buddhism and Religion

I've lived in Britain* for about seven years now, and one thing that has stood out for me about living here is the different preoccupations of the British. They are preoccupied with status in a way that, as a Kiwi**, I find baffling. One manifestation is 'class', which is a subject all of it's own! Stemming from this is the scrutiny of schools and education - where you went, where you send your kids, who teaches what - it's always in the news! One of the things that really stand out as different here is religion. The history of religion in Britain is complex and rich. We are left however with a rare thing in the Western world which is that the head of state, is also the head of an established (that is to say an official state) church. I've been a subject of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (left) all my life, but I hadn't even noticed that she's the head of a church as well until I moved here. Christianity is everywhere: the towns are full of churches - some of them centuries old; state media must broadcast religious content, and state schools must offer religious education. Yes, the remit has been broadened out in recent times to include "other" religions, but the proportion still reflects that mad Victorian Melvil Dewey's classification system: Christianity 200-289; Other religions 290-299; (Buddhism is 294.3 in case you're wondering).

Another thing I've noticed is that when the media talk about Religion, they generally mean first Christianity, and second other Abrahamic religions. A kind of third category of Atheistic Materialist Humanism exists, since the atheists are defined by their sometimes fervent lack of belief in God. Buddhism is understood to be a religion, along with "other" religions like Hinduism, but doesn't get much air time. A couple of exceptions are Vishvapani's occasional 2.5 minute appearances on Radio 4's Thought for the Day slot, and Melvin Bragg's In our Time which looked at Buddhism's popularity for 45 minutes in 2002 - enough to keep up our Dewey proportions.

If you ask Google to define religion (which you do by typing "define: religion") you get much the same thing. The majority of entries emphasise divinity, the supernatural, and/or use terms drawn exclusively drawn from Christianity. In other words the internet generally reflects the idea that Christianity is the model of what a religion is (what George Lakoff calls a prototype for the category). 'Other' religions are recognised as religions by Westerners in so far as they resemble Christianity. But does Buddhism fit into this scheme? We have to answer yes, and no.

Pragmatically yes, Buddhism does resemble Christianity (in some ways). Like Christians we gather together for acts of worship. During that worship many Buddhists pray for salvation. The Buddha is not a creator God, and Buddhism recognises no creator God, but he is capable of offering us salvation. For some Buddhists there is no way forward except through the intervention of a Buddha, for others a Buddha is insufficient and salvation requires the intervention of a human teacher. Like Christians some Buddhists believe that without someone to lead the way (a Christ-like figure) no salvation is possible. I may be accused of being controversial for using 'salvation' - a term drawn from Christianity - where I might have used, for example, 'liberation' or 'Enlightenment'. But since the liberation cannot, seemingly, be attained on one's own, then we are being saved by the (supernatural) 'other'. Part of the ambiguity revolves around the multifaceted nature of Buddhist belief which is so broad that the varieties are bewildering. You personally might not believe any of the above. But this does not make it untrue. Furthermore the Buddhist scriptures are full of references to the supernatural: to ESP like powers, to levitation and magic of various kinds (even if only to ban their use by monks). 'Hindu' gods such as Brahma, Indra, and Agni simply abound; and animistic spirits like yakkhas, nāgas, appear on almost every page of the Canon. So in these senses at least Buddhism really does resemble other religions.

However in the rational West Buddhism is not a religion. Westerners, often refugees from organised (especially, state) religion are attracted to the Buddhadharma, but loath to take up the seemingly less rational aspects of it. So a kind of sanitised version of Buddhism emerges where references to the supernatural are seen as "mythic" or "archetypal" and thereby explained away. They may still inspire us, mostly they don't, but we don't have to take them literally. Often the non-literal attitude to the supernatural creates a seeing separation between 'us' and what have been called 'ethnic Buddhists'. However this is complicated when leaders, such as the founder of my order, regularly have (or at least had) what are described as mystical experiences involving personal meetings with various supernatural spirits. (See The Rainbow Road for an account of some of Sangharakshita's experiences). Mystical experiences aside (preferably), we focus on the rational, on the common sensical, teachings. The teachings in other words that appeal to the belief system that we have absorbed from birth from the surrounding culture. One of the main influences on surrounding culture is Protestant Christianity with a dollop of the European Enlightenment. This emphasises personal religion, plainness, chaste morality, distrust of papal (i.e. human) authority in favour of the biblical (i.e. textual) authority, hard work, and rationality. Indeed here are many of the things against which the spirit rebels, and over which the British are conflicted. Buddhism in the west, and in particular the FWBO, has been accused of being Protestant Buddhism. There is truth in this, but it deserves its own post. I suspect that Buddhism in predominantly Catholic countries will look quite different, just as French philosophy is very different from British philosophy.

The upshot is a Buddhism which tends to suppress the supernatural in favour of the rational, the personal in favour of the cosmic, the visionary in favour of the moral, and magic in favour of hard work. It doesn't look much like religion despite having Protestantism as an influence. And Buddhists of this ilk have carried on the venerable Buddhist tradition of writing polemics against the others - with Sangharakshita, despite his mystical experiences, being a great exponent of it. These kind of Buddhists tend not to see Buddhism as a religion. I am in this camp, despite being aware of the kinds of conditions that give rise to this belief - which is to say I admit that I'm not very original in thinking this.

Last week I argued that Buddhism, at least by Bryan Magee's definition, is not a philosophy and that the Buddha was not a philosopher. Prompting at least one Professor of Philosophy to admit that he's not a philosopher by that definition either! My own view, although I acknowledge that this is far from universal, is that Buddhism is not a religion either. What's left?

I think the fact that this is a question at all reveals much about the way the discourse is framed. Buddhism must fit into preconceived categories. The fact that it doesn't creates a cognitive dissonance, a discomfort that cries out for resolution - just like a dominant seventh chord cries out for the tonic to create the classic "amen" of the perfect cadence. Many a contemporary composer deliberately chooses harmonies that eliminate the possibility of the perfect cadence, leaving the listener adrift and uncertain. A metaphor for our times I am sure. So I'm going to leave it up in the air. The Buddha himself repeatedly said that he was only interested in suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the way to bring that end about.

* The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the official name for the region. Great Britain includes the kingdoms of England and Scotland, and the principality of Wales. Britain, technically, is only England and Wales. People in England, apparently, think of themselves as "British". England and Scotland have had a single monarch since 1603 - which the Scots appear to be very bitter about. The Prince of Wales is usually eldest son of the monarch of the UK (not sure what happens when there is no male heir).

** A "Kiwi" is someone from New Zealand. The Kiwi being a large fat, flightless, almost blind, nocturnal bird that eats worms and grubs, and is on the brink of extinction. It just happened to grace the lid of the (New Zealand made) boot polish of choice in WWI which created the association with the hapless bastards from down-under who went to fight for the King in Europe in 1914-18, only to be slaughtered on the beaches of Turkey in a futile exercise dreamt up by incompetent generals - thereby helping to forge a national identity distinct from Olde Mother England. We will remember them.
There is a good discussion of Buddhism as a religion in Land of No Buddha: Reflections of a Sceptical Buddhist, by Professor Richard Hayes (a man of many aliases and a fellow member of the WBO known in these circles as Dayāmati - Compassionate Mind). Pgs 142-150. I can also recommend his blog: New City of Friends.
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