Wednesday, August 20, 2003

a Buddhist critique of Islam?

[UPDATE, February 26, 2004: I've been thinking of retitling this "On Attachment," because the essay doesn't really focus as much on Islam as I thought it would. And maybe that's proper, because attachment isn't uniquely a Muslim problem. It is, as I argue in the essay, a human problem.]

I've been trying to figure out a way to write a Buddhist critique of Islam. I've already written and deleted two long essays, and it's getting frustrating. The thoughts are there, but ultimately, I'm concluding, the essay would have to be short (which goes against my prolix nature).

Buddhism isolates only one major human problem in the Saseong-jae (Sino-Kor. "Four Holy Truths"): the problem of tanha (Skt. craving, thirst, hunger, desire). This is the cause of dukkha, suffering. Eliminate tanha, and you eliminate dukkha. Somewhere in between tanha and dukkha, there is upadana, attachment or clinging.

I tend to view attachment as "desire over time." It's what happens when you allow desire to gain momentum. If I become attached to a particular idea and allow my attachment to gain momentum, then my thoughts, speech and action will cease to correspond to reality. Perhaps the worst feature of attachment is the obsession with fixity. Attachment is an echo of the basic desire we have for permanence and solidity. I want to believe I'm going to live forever, so I believe I've got a soul, and/or there's a permanent God who sits in judgement of it. I want to believe God is numerically singular, that he is "our rock and our salvation." Like Isaiah, I want to affirm that "the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever." I want to believe that mine is a house built on rock, not on sand. Fixity.

But Buddhism tells us reality is change. Being is becoming. It's all sand: even rock is going somewhere, eventually.

If you're a traditional Christian, or any kind of Muslim, you don't want to hear this. Truth for you is probably eternal, unchanging. And if you don't believe this, I bet you probably believe the truth is founded on something firm-- the ground of the universe, the Ground of Being. For Christians, truth is incarnated in the Christ (incarnatio); for Muslims, it's reified in the Koran (inlibritio). We have souls; there is a paradise which the good will inhabit forever; there is no God but God.

And that's the problem. If you clutch the scriptures and shout, "This truth! Only this!", you're only showing the depths of your attachment to ideas: ideas about God, truth, reality. Attachment isn't healthy, which is why a proverb like "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!" arose. You have to let go of truth, of scripture, even of God. If God exists, if scripture has any meaning, then these things are alive and dynamic-- moving.

The child clutches his teddy bear, refusing to let it go. It's an unreasoning attachment, but perfectly natural for a child. What happens when you reach for that teddy bear and try to pull it away? The child goes nuts! As adults, we should behave more maturely, but we rarely do. We still grab and cling-- to political affiliation, religious teaching, and unhealthy habits of body and mind. Try shouting, "Muhammad was just another guy!" in the streets of Tikrit. What happens? The child goes nuts!

Attachment to ideas is the worst. The belief that this, and only this, is the Right Way-- that's attachment. The resultant inability to see the other's point of view, as they see it, produces suffering. Attachment, which is "desire over time," always produces suffering.

This could just as easily be a Buddhist critique of Christianity or Buddhism, because attachment is a universal human phenomenon. No one is immune. But my focus for the moment is Islam, and what I see as the root problem in Islam is attachment: attachment to specific ideas of God, attachment to specific interpretations of scripture, attachment to specific forms of interpersonal conduct.

Does it make sense to plan your lifelong diet by following, fanatically, only one recipe? Such closed-mindedness will lead to malnutrition, I think. If your recipes don't reflect the changing reality of your needs and your surroundings, then your life will lack zest and variety. So we have to be ready to put aside our favorite recipes as we face new situations. My famous gumbo, chock full of shrimp and andouille sausage, isn't going to work if my dinner guests are all vegetarian. I'll have to put that recipe aside. Or I might have to keep the recipe, but vary it: maybe the Gumbo Lovers' Society is coming over and they all love my signature gumbo... but with a different kind of sausage.

Attachment causes suffering. It's a product of the child's mind, and a thought-habit we form early. Let's say I want to go see "The Matrix Reloaded." I round up some friends, and off we go to the local multiplex (pretend for a second that I'm not blogging from Seoul, and am in the land where multiplexes are sprawling affairs with huge parking lots). During the ride, my friends suddenly decide they'd rather watch "X2." Now I'm pissed. I feel betrayed. I grumble assent, but inside, I have no desire to see "X2." My concern is only for myself: How could my friends be so inconsiderate?

Analyze the situation and see where the attachment lay. It lay in my fixation on a particular movie. Far from viewing this evening as an opportunity to hang out with friends, I toss aside the human realities and make a damn movie my focus. This is selfish, but I'm blind to this. So now I'm in a bad mood. My friends see I'm pissed, so they're not in the best mood, either. "X2," far from providing a good night's entertainment, turns out to suck, mainly because I'm pouting. Attachment leads to suffering.

When religious folks get into arguments about truth or God or the True Path, they're still children clutching their teddy bears, because that's the childish lens through which they view the world. You know I'm right: the lack of rationality, the lack of a sense of responsibility for one's own actions, the overemotionalism-- it's all there. The teddy bear scenario, the movie scenario, the Islam scenario-- these are all situations that can be analyzed the same way, because the root of the problem is the same in each case. The difference is only in degree, not kind.

[NB: this claim may horrify some of you who'd like to insist that there's a fundamental difference between killing 3000 people in the space of a few hours, and spoiling an evening by pouting about a movie. I submit that the objection to my formulation is grounded in essentialist presumptions, and you already know, if you've read previous posts, my opinion of essentialism. If you'd like to write in, though, I'll respond at length to this issue. Suffice it to say I do realize there's a real and vast difference between 9/11 and a bad movie night; I'm only saying that that difference isn't fundamental. The same moral issue is operative in both cases. If you're still shocked, I want you to analyze that for a bit. You may discover that, at the roots of your own emotionalism, you're attached to a melodramatic notion of "human catastrophe" that prevents you from seeing the moral connections I'm trying to highlight. There may be a such thing as evil, but evil comes from somewhere.]

Because Buddhism's Four Noble Truths (I'm reverting to the more typical English translation here) boil the human reality down to such a simple dynamic, is it any wonder that Buddhist dharma talks often sound repetitive? Sit in on a few Zen dharma talks, and you'll see what I mean. I've managed to write the long essay I wanted, but in truth, the actual Buddhist critique of Islam is brief, because it's the Buddhist critique of all unskillful action: suffering is the fruit of desire and attachment. These things are all rooted in the mind. Human problems and solutions all begin and end in the mind. Which is why each of us, in our own way, has to wake up.

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