Sunday, November 30, 2003

Proximate Testicles in a Single Scrotum:
The Jewels of Catholicism and Buddhism, and the Perils of Comparison

Ryan over at Ryan's Lair posts on supposed parallels between Tibetan Buddhism and Catholicism. Ryan quotes an 1835 essay by scholar Isaac Jacob Schmidt. In part, the quote says (re: the rise of a "dominating priesthood" in "semi"-barbarous Europe and Asia):

Every spiritual corporation, just as soon as its power is able to reach a certain height and to govern and dominate the benightedness of the ignorant masses arbitrarily through the mental predominance of an elevated culture, will not fail to demonstrate similar manifestations at any time in any country, but these manifestations must gradually grow more obscure and disappear eventually just as soon as the inheritance of all humankind, namely the spirit of examination, discrimination, and knowledge, gradually achieves maturity.

Ryan is both amused and wistful. He comments:

I miss the days when scholars could write with this kind of frank criticism of religious traditions, and with such naive optimism in anticipation of mankind's future Enlightenment. Now we clumsily hide our theological ambitions behind a refined veneer of philological and historical detachment. Sad.

The optimism was indeed naive; I think we've learned (or most of us have learned) to temper our optimism/idealism with a good dose of realism and historical perspective. That's not meant as a critique of Ryan's remark; it's more an observation of where much religious academe currently is (excepting those faculties too snowed under with PoMo nonsense to see straight).

Some remarks about Buddhism and Catholicism:

The monks of Haein-sa made it a point to tell me, in 2000, that they appreciated the Catholic clergy who would visit the temple to discuss religion and meditate. There seemed to be, according to these monks, something about Catholic mysticism that lent itself more easily to pleasant encounter. It wasn't the grating "I'm right, you're wrong"-style confrontations that almost always marked Protestant/Buddhist exchanges.

You know, there's something to be said for contemplative spirituality, whether monotheistic or Buddhist. I've always tended to believe that adherents of the mystical/monastic strands of the great traditions will have an easier time "understanding" each other than the rest of us proles. The monastics of various religions can look at each other and know that their interlocutors understand what it means to live according to a Rule, a disciplined routine (be it crafted by St. Benedict or Pai Chang Huai Hai)-- to turn inward, to be silent, and perhaps above all, to be attentive.

This demeanor is largely absent from Protestant Christianity in the worship context, though plenty of Protestants are, in their private lives, quite contemplative. I find it unfortunate that we Presbyterians don't generally go for things like silent retreats when we're together. When I gave a talk on Buddhist-Christian dialogue at my church in early November (barely a day after arriving home!), I deliberately subjected my three dozen listeners to about 30 seconds of silence. Why? Because that's not what we usually do.

We Protestants are all about expressing faith, fortunately or unfortunately-- it becomes very much an outward thing, with our "passive" liturgical moments spent listening to sermons. In other words, there's little to no time for silence during the liturgy (except for maybe 15 golden seconds after the Prayer of Confession).

[NB: This merits a fuller discussion, I realize, but bear with me.]

It's nice to think that contemplatives are touching something profound, some subtle ground available to all, some fundamental Oneness lying at the heart of the All. But do monastics/mystics in fact have the same deep experiences? If we toss aside my romantic notions of contemplative spirituality for a moment, we have to admit that there's no easy answer to this question.

Some academics, like Stephen Kaplan, take a constructivist epistemological approach and firmly conclude that mystical experiences are irreducibly diverse-- there's no getting past cultural and mental filters, no clear separation between what mediates experience and "experience itself" (if that phrase means anything). On the fuzzier end of the spectrum, you have people like Frithjof Schuon (not exactly respected by all academics) arguing that mystical experience takes place at an "esoteric" level familiar to all mystics no matter their background. Hindu and Buddhist epistemology ranges all over: some ancient thinkers minutely parse the experience of moving toward and attaining enlightenment, dissecting the mind; others are content to speak of "direct seeing" and leave it at that. No easy answers.

People need to beware facile comparisons of religious traditions, though-- the danger of homeomorphism highlighted by Raimundo Panikkar and others (e.g., don't hastily equate the Christian God with the Hindu notion of Brahman just because they're core terms in their respective thought-worlds). Buddhism and Catholicism are a comparativist's wet dream-- all the more reason to proceed cautiously.

For example, when we approach Buddhism and Catholicism on the institutional level: the Dalai Lama isn't a Buddhist version of the Pope. Yes, like the Pope, the Dalai Lama is a religious leader who doesn't represent the entirety of his tradition: the Pope doesn't speak for Protestants, and by the same token the Dalai Lama doesn't claim to be other than a Gelugpa monk. But when you examine Their Holinesses' functions more closely, there are glaring differences. The Pope is indeed the temporal head of the Roman Church, but his role is tied in with a pervasive notion of magisterium-- teaching authority-- which has no direct parallel in any form of Buddhism I know of (maybe some elements of Pure Land come close in terms of propositional belief, but I doubt you could build a strong case for that). In that sense, the Dalai Lama doesn't actually "speak for" all Gelugpa Buddhists in quite the same way that the Pope speaks authoritatively for (and TO!) Roman Catholics. To look at it another way: nothing theological is stopping a Japanese Soto Zen adherent from traveling to Dharamsala and enriching his practice by learning at the feet of the Dalai Lama. If the Soto Zennist views the Dalai Lama's words and practice as somehow wrong or mistaken, there's little institutional or doctrinal reason for such a conviction: it's more likely a personal matter (note to scholars: I'm aware this is an oversimplification of both Christian and Buddhist cases).

Compare the Buddhist situation to the obvious theological gulf separating Protestants and Catholics. It's exceedingly rare for Protestants to request an audience with the Pope. And why should they, for anything other than a photo op? Protestants for the most part don't subscribe to an intercessionary theology/cosmology requiring temporal intermediaries. "What can the Pope do for me that God Himself can't do directly? Why should God have to act through anyone when I'm already in immediate communion with Him through prayer, study, and daily living?" the Protestant naturally wonders. Many Protestants are also exclusivist in outlook and theology, while the official Catholic stance since Vatican 2 has been inclusivist (for a discussion of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism-- especially pluralism-- see my essay here). If your branch of Protestantism hasn't worked out how to be "in communion with" the Roman Church, then technically speaking, you're not supposed to participate in the eucharist during a Catholic mass. So far as I know, no such ritual/doctrinal limitations exist among the various strains of Buddhism. There's nothing in Buddhism analogous to the idea of various Christian denominations being "in communion" with each other; as far as lay practitioners are concerned, affinities in Buddhism will have more to do with historical/cultural evolution than with brute doctrine. If you're into Vipassana but want to try something along the lines of Kwaneum Seon (Seung Sahn's Korean Seon/Zen sect), simply come on in and follow the house rules, baby!

Moving back to the general level, I'll note that folks who know little or nothing about Buddhism tend to view the Dalai Lama as a Buddhist pope while further assuming that all Buddhists view him as their ultimate temporal authority. That's a huge mistake. Properly speaking, Buddhism has no magisterium per se; the only "teaching authority," if we insist on misapplying this term to Buddhism, is your own experience. Also, Buddhism has no "closed canon," which means it's prey to the "protestant impulse"-- schisms happen easily and frequently, which has resulted in a huge and still-burgeoning variety of Buddhisms, none of which look outside their own sect for "ultimate authority."

"Boom! Your experience!" Korean Master Seung Sahn bellows. Buddhism's big on upaya, expedient/skillful means. Go with what works. Does Soto Zen work for you? Fine; keep it up. Do you prefer being handed a kong-an and chewing on the hwadu? Go for it, but practice deeply! This doesn't mean you should be constantly skipping around like a shopper (I'll save my rant about the market approach to spirituality for another day), but it does mean you're not forbidden from peeking over the fence to see what others are doing, and even crossing over into their yard. But not crossing over is also OK. All the Zen monks I've heard will advise Christians and Muslims and other theists: "Want to deepen your practice? Be a better Christian (etc.)." They won't demand that you renounce your religion and become a Buddhist adept-- keep right on going to church! And that's a far cry from the Roman magisterium.

Most Christians, however, do have to worry about doctrine, theology, etc. The denominational divisions are often quite real and deep. If you're a townie living in Sheep Vagina, Kansas, where the locals and church buildings are all lily-white (and the Christianity is, too), and if your family's unrepentantly Baptist, you can bet your unreconstructed white Protestant ass you'll have a hard time skipping off on a lark to a mass down the street with a Catholic friend on Sunday morning (in fact, why are you hanging with those godless Catholics, anyway?).

And beyond denominational issues, there are interreligious ones: if you, a longstanding member of The First Sheep Vagina Baptist Church, ever expressed sincere curiosity about what the Jews were doing on the other side of town at the Beth-el Synagogue, there'd be hell to pay. Monotheists, much more than Buddhists, tend to believe that birds of a feather flock together.

[NB: I'm thinking mainly about how it works in America; obviously, there are reasons why the situation is often different in Asia. If you're interested in my take on American Buddhists who get too doctrinaire, try this essay on the "hidden Christ" of Beliefnet Buddhism. I haven't written anything about Buddhist demographics in Asia (the "birds of a feather" issue), mainly because I don't know enough to write at length.]

Enough rambling.

Just as you should beware my generalizations, you should also beware too-easily-formed religious parallels. Parallels do exist, because people are people; but people are wildly complex, even more so when you have to talk about them corporately in terms of history, traditions, institutions, and beliefs. Watch how you compare. Approach the comparative problem with some perspective, but also with more questions than prejudices. Be ready to be wrong as well as right.