Sangha member David Holmes wrote the following reflection, and will be leading a discussion on this topic at our evening meeting on Sunday, February 19. He would appreciate your reading it and coming prepared to share your reactions.
What (Western) Buddhism Lacks
By David Holmes
This is about the observations of a person who is self-described as a Buddhist, and who believes, from both personal experience and the observation of others, that Buddhism, at least as practiced in the West, enriches our lives, gives us the tools to deal with many of life’s problems and makes a vital contribution to our daily lives.
I raise that semaphore here at the beginning so that no one will conclude that my observations on Buddhism, as it is typically practiced in the West, are intended to be an overall criticism or rejection of Buddhist teachings, practices or culture.
In fact, I’m a regular attendee at meetings of our local Sangha and a participant in a monthly Sutta reading and discussion group, all of which I enjoy immensely. In the form on file with my local hospital, I check the box in the religious preference section marked “Buddhist.”
This essay, then, is not intended to be a criticism or denigration, but rather an observation or series of observations, on Buddhism and some comparisons with traditional Western religions.
I’ll also disclaim any in-depth knowledge of how Buddhism is actually practiced in Asian countries or the place it holds in many Asian’s lives, and confess my deep ignorance as to those cultures, where the majority of the world’s Buddhists probably live.
Finally, I’ll note, for reasons that will become clear as the article proceeds, that I am not a Jew, Catholic or a Christian, although I see much in those religions and their moral codes and teachings with which I agree. Neither am I traditionally religious, and I would classify myself as an agnostic.
Some ideas and feelings of mine which had probably been dormant for some time were recently awakened by a movie: Vision: Aus dem Leben der Hildegard von Bingen, a German movie (with English subtitles) available through Netflix and about the life of Hildegard von Bingen, a Catholic nun who lived during the 12th Century.
Von Bingen was a writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, Benedictine abbess, visionary, and polymath, and was regarded as one of the most brilliant and impactful women of the Middle Ages. A short history of her remarkable life can be found at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hildegard_of_Bingen, with an accompanying bibliography.
What the movie gave me, without it being in any sense a polemic or attempt at conversion of any kind, was a view of what the religious life was like during that time and how it formed a core element in people’s lives.
What religion, as it was then understood, gave to people was not only a set of guiding moral principles (which Buddhism also does well) but also a sense of the transcendent, of deep spirituality and of a connection with a force or being that was beyond anything experienced in their daily lives.
Words and concepts used to describe the religious experience during this age (and perhaps even today, for devout religious believers) would include awe-inspiring, a sense of the sacred, holy or divine.
[Although the later three words have different meanings for different folks, for purposes of this discussion I’ll take at face value the following definitions, taken from dictionary.com:
sacred: entitled to veneration or religious respect by association with divinity or divine things; holy.
holy: entitled to worship or veneration as or as if sacred: a holy relic.
divine: of or pertaining to a god, especially the Supreme Being.]
While von Bingen and her fellow nuns (and probably many of the lay people of the age) would be very comfortable with applying such words to their beliefs and the effect on themselves, I believe that few, if any, Western Buddhists would claim the same words or concepts to be a central feature of their Buddhist belief system.
Note that I am most definitely not saying that individual Buddhists do not have such experiences in their lives.
Standing on a rock above Yosemite Valley, looking deeply into a flower or an infant’s wondrous face gives me, and I expect many Buddhists, such feelings. But, at least for me, the Buddhist experience itself does not, as valuable as it is, and I expect that may true for other Western practitioners.
At its core, Western Buddhism is deeply rational, as the Buddha himself made clear in the Kalama Sutta, and gives us marvelous tools for dealing with suffering, as well as understanding both ourselves and the world around us, for which I am forever grateful.
What Western Buddhism does not give us, and which it generally lacks, are those very elements of traditional religions (a sense of the sacred, participation in some experience that is holy, a connection with a divine being or progenitor of a moral code) that are so central to the religious experience and for which so many humans long.
And I wonder if that fact may be part of Buddhism’s continuing very limited appeal to many Westerners. In a 2007 Pew Research Center survey, at 0.7% Buddhism lagged far behind Christianity (78.4%), no religion (10.3%) and Judaism (1.7%).
This conclusion may be supported, to some degree, by a Pew Center survey of beliefs of various religious practitioners. When asked if they had a belief in God, only 67% of those self-identified as Buddhists responded that they were certain or fairly certain of God’s existence, the lowest number for any of the religions reported.
I welcome your thoughts, criticisms, insights and comments.
© 2011 David E. Holmes