The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, January 18, 2014
Religion ... Spirituality ... Zen ...

In my life, I have both studied and practiced a variety of “organized spiritualities” (i.e., religions or other tradition-based spiritual group practices). I grew up as a Roman Catholic, and while in my 30’s and 40’s I was involved with various Episcopalian and Quaker congregations. Over the past 4 years, however, I have committed myself to a local Zen sangha. So, I’ve tasted a bit of both the western and eastern approaches to spirituality. (I’ve tasted more western than eastern, admittedly; but nonetheless I do actually sit zazen at least once a week with a group; Zen has become more than a handful of interesting books or magazine articles for me).

But then again, a lot of other modern Americans have similarly jumped ship. A lot of zen sanghas, my group not excluded, are comprised mainly of “refugees” from Judaism and Christianity. A lot of people, especially Baby Boomers (given our narcissistic tendencies), want to keep some sort of group-based spiritual practice going in their life, but don’t want all the doctrines, rules and ultimate judgment and other such baggage that the western “Abrahamic” religions usually require. The natural place for such people to go is to an eastern practice, be it Zen, Vedantic yoga (I’m thinking about the more spiritually expansive version of yoga, not your common stretching routines), other Hindu ashrams, Nichiren Buddhism, Bahai, etc. More accurately, they wind up in an American adaptation of an eastern tradition, which is not exactly what the old-school eastern practices were really like. More on that in a second.

From what I can see, most people who leave the church, temple or even mosque for the eastern ways never look back. They warmly embrace their new tradition, study it in detail, learn its every little rubric, and faithfully execute all the rituals and mind-sets that their new Eastern-flavored community require. Sometimes they get burned by an ego-driven “guru” or group leader (often called “teacher”, as we say in my sangha; more on that too in a moment). At the very least, a lot of the small Eastern practices (and most of them are small and local, there’s no “Vatican” or other command network overseeing these groups) require fairly hefty financial donations if you are to be fully initiated.

But even worse, it’s not all that uncommon for the leader to let power go to his or her head, and start ordering things that aren’t all that well thought out (even if a group decision process is maintained, it usually becomes a sham). If it goes too far, the leader picks out a clique of disciples, then isolates and might even expel those who don’t agree with everything he or she says (and I’ve tasted a bit of that myself!). The great teacher of the group might even sexually exploit certain attractive people in return for the promise of eventual entry into the “inner circle”. This is much less rare than it should be within Eastern spiritual groups.

Despite occasional abuses, the eastern spirituality business seems to be thriving in our nation. So, my story here is far from unique. Except . . . to be honest . . . I actually AM having second thoughts about eastern practice as a way of life, as a grounding and reason for one’s being. To be honest, I just don’t find Zen (or any other form of eastern practice that I know of) to be as existentially satisfying as my former Christian communities and practices could be, on their better days anyway.

Let me start with a sideshow and work my way to the center of the ring. Both east and west have their group participation exercises; for the western religions, about 95% of a typical service involves some sort of prayer, invocation, sermon or song. Only the Quakers set aside significant chunks of silent time (and even that can be interrupted at any point by anyone who feels led by The Spirit to talk up). As to the eastern practices, much time is spent in quiet meditation (which is why I signed up). Nonetheless, at least 1/3 of a Zen service (and more for non-Zen) is spent listening to a talk or in chanting a sutra (and we also have “group practice” discussions some weeks during the final half-hour).

So what about my group’s sutra chanting? To be honest, I think it sounds awful. There is little attempt at musical intonation (although inevitably some sort of pitch is struck by the group after 20 or 30 seconds of warbling). For the most part, our “Heart Sutra” and “Morning Gatha” sound to me a lot like insects buzzing in a field on a summer evening. The Abrahamic faiths generally seem to put much more energy into putting words and thoughts to music. Mostly that music is not terribly inspiring, but sometimes it truly can be beautiful. I sometimes miss this.

But on a more substantial level . . . it is becoming more and more clear to me that Eastern practices are highly vulnerable to narcissistic infection. Buddhism and most other ancient eastern spiritual doctrines are more “me-based” as compared with the theistic faiths. The Buddha preached on how to avoid pain, one’s own pain. The Zen version of it tells us over and over to “focus on the breath” . . . which is really not much different than gazing at the naval. Although Buddhist doctrine in fact requires concern for neighbor and some focus on the pain of the world and community, ultimately it is all about one’s own pain, one’s own breath, one’s own “enlightenment”. A person would attain enlightenment alone, and not through relationship (although having good relationships is certainly a useful part of the search for enlightenment). Neither Buddha nor most Buddhists define or say much about “Nirvana”; but to me, it sounds like a lonely place.

By comparison, the Western faiths also focus on personal salvation, on “saving me”. But they require a relationship so as to do it . . . a relationship with God. OK, so having a relationship with God is not like a normal relationship, given that none of us knows for sure that God really exists at all. I personally believe there ARE good reasons to believe in God’s existence; but even if not, even if God is just a fairy tale or a myth, there is another “community” aspect to this myth. And that is that God, being like a parent to all humans, wants each of us to play nice with all of our “brothers and sisters”. You don’t get to heaven just by having a relationship with God (although there are Christians who seem to think that). The quality of your relationship with God ultimately depends upon the quality of your relationships with all of the people around you. So, even if this is all just a myth, theistic salvation requires focus on and concern for other real people, not just yourself.

Sounds wonderful, but unfortunately the “western approach” is also subject to an infection. And that infection is “big daddy” judgmentalism, the notion that God is like every dysfunctional, overbearing father who makes life miserable for all or some of his kids by requiring them to live up to his own unattainable standards (and berating them for failing). These parents know that even they themselves have not lived up to these standards, and thus become self-destructive in various ways, often through alcohol abuse. Their overbearing treatment of their children amounts to a last-ditch attempt to satisfy these unrealistic visions of achievement or refinement; i.e., “at least I got my kids to be what I failed at”. The kids don’t know that, though; they just know that they are being put thru Hell, even though they are being led by their tormentors to church on Sundays to hear all about Heaven.

To be honest, almost all of the ex-Christian (and even some of the ex-Jewish) Buddhists I know have some sort of tale of woe about dysfunctional judgmental parents. These parents were usually at least nominally religious, and so it was not hard to confuse “God the father” with one’s own drunken, abusive father. And so, it is also not surprising that modern American Zen, and many other eastern practices, have cuddled up to the world of psychology and therapy. Many Zen teachers in fact are psychotherapists (I can easily think of three local teachers within my own “lineage” who are shrinks). And why not? Psychology is arguably (if not really) a science-based approach to personal salvation, an approach where you need help but ultimately must do the work of healing yourself by finding fulfillment or psychological health (what ever that is supposed to be). It fits in nicely with the ultimate “me” focus of the eastern approaches. And it helps the modern converts to get over all the inner childhood scars that were left by the proxy of God, i.e. their own judgmental fathers.

Luckily, I did not have a father or mother who berated me for not being all they thought I could be. They both were nominally religious Catholics, although my father actually did show some signs of occasional independent thought. Every now and then he would say something about God that might not be fully approved by the local pastor. Once in a blue moon, he might even hint at his doubts. I think that I inherited something of his mind, given that I myself can no longer accept the “whole truth” of Christianity. Nor of Judaism or Islam, either. I am holding out hope that God really is out there somewhere (or is right here under our own noses), but I cannot accept that Jesus Christ is the true road to God. I also reject that God must be approached via Muhammad, or via Moses and the traditions of the Hebrew tribes. Give me God, but don’t force any of those “VIA’s” down my throat.

For now, I will stick with the Zen group, because they are the best game in town if you just want to spend some silent time with others. I just ignore most of the “teachings”, which really become repetitious after a while. “Live in the moment”, “thought leads us astray”, “do not make distinctions”, “return to the breath”, “there is no self, nothing is permanent or fundamental” . . . Not long ago, our teacher announced a new initiative, focusing on holding seminars on Zen practice, Buddhist thought, and psychology. I think that I will take a pass on that. Instead, I will offer my occasional criticisms and doubts about our “faith in Buddha and Freud”, about our focus on “me” and the corresponding eclipse of “relationship”. And thus I will continue to experience some marginalization by “the teacher” and his acolytes (e.g. recently I was stripped of my ritual duties, such as leading the kinhin walking line or performing the final bows when the teacher was still meeting in daisan with a congregant).

It’s too bad that the local Abrahamic faiths don’t offer two hours of quiet group meditation on Sunday morning. But then again, they would have the right to integrate some teaching and spoken ritual within the sitting, as we do at the zendo. And they would probably want to introduce Jesus, or Moses, or Mohammad, and ask me to acknowledge them as the BIG, EXCLUSIVE VIA to God. That would be a deal-breaker for me, even if the rest of the service was comprised of holy stillness. Sure, I could accept with some God talk with my meditation. In fact, I would like that. But as soon as it becomes a VIA, the ghost of my own father’s questioning nature is stirred.

[Arguably the Quakers keep the VIA’s to a minimum; but they still seem a bit “quaint” and cliquish to me, and again, do they really take silence all that seriously when anyone can interrupt at any time?]

So, it will be the local zendo for me once again tomorrow (Sunday) morning at 9.

PS, how about that other western system of human salvation — SCIENCE? Ah, science and rationalism. Science evolved in the west, but ironically has a lot in common with the mindsets of the east. Science, to some degree, rose up as a rebellion against the Abrahamic faith systems. They lift “empirical evidence” to deity status, and thus condemn the notion of God as posited by the religious believers. Thus they seem to be fulfilling the project of Buddhism in putting God to rest. Although, again ironically, the Buddha himself was NOT a radical empiricist. He certainly accepted many of the Hindu theistic beliefs in multiple cosmic gods and extra-natural forces beyond the control of humans.

The notion of post-reincarnation karma (and reincarnation itself !) certainly is not allowable in science, although many of the modern western psychotherapy revisionists of Buddhism try to re-write the idea in terms of long-term social consequences of our acts. The Buddha also spoke with a straight face about heavenly realms and gods and demons. He was not being merely metaphorical.

I have only directly experienced modern Americanized / psychologized Buddhism, not the Buddhism that was practiced for centuries in Asia. I do recall a revealing passage in Lawrence Shainberg ‘s iconoclastic book “Ambivalent Zen”, regarding a roshi from Japan who casually mentions his own prayer life. The author asked him to explain how he could reconcile theistic prayer with the way of the Buddha, and the roshi flicked him off with typical Zen mumbo-jumbo, i.e. “when I pray, I just pray”. Recall also that a popular manifestation of Buddhism in the east is called Pure Land, which seems a lot more like a western theistic faith than the Buddha himself would have prescribed.

Even though Americanized eastern practices are increasingly atheistic, I doubt if most Asian followers were or are quite as doubtful as we are here in modern America. Nor would they have invested such “faith” in the empiricism and rationality that supposedly underlie modern psychology. I don’t see them embracing therapy as the ultimate “practice”, and science as the fulfillment of what the Buddha intended. Psychology and science in our time have both replaced the religious God with the enlightened human as the supreme being. I believe that the Eastern man and woman would have, and hopefully still have a bit too much healthy skepticism to swallow that notion!

One more PS — I agree with much if not all of what Dr. Moe says here about Eastern vs Western spiritual practices. Dr. Moe is in fact a psychologist! Will miracles never cease, perhaps even a psychologist can “get it” !! I.e., that there is still a lot of good in Western spirituality, that Eastern spirituality is NOT at all superior to it. The biggest thing that Dr. Moe misses is that ultimately, we need both. If we stick with the West, we still need to learn of and experience the Eastern way. And vice versa!!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:31 pm      

  1. Jim, Good summary of why it is you are going to stay with Buddhism at this point. I think there are a lot of people who probably have a similar story to tell about their own religion and why they stay with it.

    It does seem to me that the Catholics in the West and the Orthodox in the East (here there is a combination of both East and West) have more ritual than other religions, with perhaps the exception of the Lutherans. I’m not sure, but I think that ritual meets a need in a lot of people as an expression of the religion those individuals may hold.

    I can see why ministers of any religion / spirituality might be well served with knowing some psychology on some more advanced level. After all, whether one is counseling people in confession or counseling people in a Buddhist one-on-one meeting, it might be helpful to have some more advanced knowledge of how to help and deal with people’s problems effectively. Yet, I am not sure I understand why psychology as such would become an inherent part of the Buddhist “service”. Seems inappropriate to me when it becomes a “public” use of psychology. (Then again, what do I know?)

    As to the importance of meeting together with others for meditation: Some place along the line in my life I realized that I too had spent over 15 years of my life meditating with a group each day for an hour (30 minutes in the morning, 30 minutes in the evening). This was when I was a member of a religious order (no cult-like thing going on here). Some time later, after I had long left the religious order, I began to seek out meditation with a group of Theosophists. Discussion later about it all seemed somehow ineffective and lacking in what I was looking for. Then it dawned on me: A huge *DUH!* I had spent more than 15 years, every day meditating with a group; the final result was that it really didn’t seem to serve any purpose except to assure that I would have personal time for meditation. I don’t mean to rain on your parade here. Most likely you are receiving something very effective from that quiet meditation time. Maybe it’s not at all the same thing as I found those meditation times to be; then again, if it is, you are giving yourself that time to have the quiet time you need. One can’t argue with that.

    I’ve noticed in a lot of people in about 50+ years’ time that often they will divert from their early religion, spend perhaps many years pursuing other areas for expression of their spirituality. Maybe it’s something peculiar to Catholics who were raised with the beauty of the ritual of their early religion; I can’t really speak for those who have been raised in other religions.

    But in the end it always seems to me that those who really take their religion/spirituality seriously end up with some version (usually one they work out for themselves) of the religion they practiced in their very early life. Not sure why that is either. Maybe you will not end up back with your own version of your original religion; it probably wouldn’t matter just as long as you keep seeking. MCS

    And my own P.S.: As to the emphasis on the individual and the narcissistic tendencies you see in Zen Buddhism: Perhaps it’s important for people in the East to have that emphasis. The Eastern cultures (I think here of India and China in particular) tend to emphasize the country and/or culture over the individual whereas the West emphasizes the individual over the general society where less emphasis on an individual is important.

    Imagine what we’d have in the West if a culture that already emphasizes the individual added more emphasis on the individual in its religions! Too much! The East needs more than the West some place to express the importance of the individual and seems to have put the importance of the individual in its religion / philosophy / spirituality (whatever one wants to call it). At least that’s what occurs to me at this point. (Then again, what do I know?) MCS

    Comment by Mary — January 19, 2014 @ 12:09 am

  2. Jim, And another P.S., of course, the reverse holds too: Perhaps the West needs more of a communal sense, a sense of community; thus, it has the more communal rituals. Once again, this occurs to me as I write as the last comment occurred to me as I wrote. MCS

    Comment by Mary — January 20, 2014 @ 10:35 am

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