Thursday, March 11, 2004

people turn into each other?

[March 17 UPDATE: To the folks coming here from Winds of Change, welcome and thanks-- there's plenty to see, so feel free to stick around, scroll up and down, and check out the posts I've selected for permalinking on my sidebar (near the bottom, just above the archive links). When you're done, check out the people on my newly-renovated blogroll, now complete with graphics. Just a word about the following post: I'm happy it was selected for the Winds of Change roundup, but in truth, it was very much inspired by a post at Flying Yangban and another post at Overboard. I think those posts should have been linked at WoC as well, but here are the links, fo' yo' big behind: Yangban, Overboard.]

It was an effort to wait until my scheduled Buddhism/Zen day to write about this, but somehow I managed to rein in the impatience.

Over at Flying Yangban, there's a fascinating post about a trend visible on American college campuses: the Buddhist get-togethers are predominantly white, while the on-campus Christian gatherings are overwhelmingly Asian.

Andi at Overboard picked up on this and added some amazingly profound insights of her own, taking the discussion in a very internal direction.

The Yangban's blog post stems from a year-old Washington Post article that characterizes the current demographic trend as a kind of trade. In discussing two Yale students, a white student named Harvell who became Buddhist and an Asian student named Chung who converted to Christianity, the writer remarks:

In a religious sense, Chung and Harvell traded places, each one embracing the faith of the other's forebears. But neither of them noticed the irony because so many other Asian and white students at Yale were doing the very same thing. Indeed, the 120-member Christian fellowship to which Chung belonged was about 85 percent Asian, while the Buddhist meditation meetings at Yale were almost entirely white.

Yale is hardly the only university where this is occurring. Asian Americans are rapidly becoming the face of Christianity on many college campuses across the country, joining evangelical clubs in large numbers and, in some cases, starting their own Christian organizations. The trend is most pronounced at elite private universities, where Asian American enrollment is high, but it also has been evident at public colleges, including the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia. Meanwhile, in smaller numbers, white students are increasingly gravitating toward Buddhism, Taoism and other Eastern religions.

Characterizing the trend this way is disputable. Are we, in fact, seeing a trading of places? On the surface, it may appear that this is what's happening: plenty of American white folks (and not just on college campuses) are indeed coming to know Buddhism, many through the intellectual, book-centered approach known by the amusing term "nightstand Buddhism." Nightstand Buddhism (and Taoism, etc.) are freighted with certain perils, not least of which is the false idea that one is plunging wholeheartedly into a new spiritual tradition, when in fact one is only internalizing new concepts, perhaps reorienting one's metaphysics, but doing little that would be considered actual practice by more traditional adherents. Along with this is the fact that most "converts" to nonessentialist Eastern traditions never truly leave behind their Judeo-Christian essentialism, often adopting a rather evangelical Protestant, in-group/out-group attitude toward other practitioners-- a dualistic dogmatism (e.g., this is "real" Buddhism; this isn't) not often visible in actual Asian practice, where the mentality is, generally speaking, much more syncretic.

Another problem with the "trading places" notion is that America isn't really the place to look for wholesale abandonment of Christianity. The Post article deals primarily with trends on American college campuses, and to its credit, it notes that some dabblers are probably attracted to Eastern religion for faddish reasons. Whether these faddies will go on to deeper practice is another matter; at a guess, most won't. The problem, from a demographic standpoint, is that America is still robustly Christian-- a fact that Andi deals with in her post when she says:

Let me level with you about my perceptions of the majority of "Buddhists" in America as opposed to the majority of "Christians": although there are a fair number of poseurs in both camps, at least "Christians" have the benefit of a dominant culture.

That's the American situation in a nutshell. If you want to see a real wave of white folks throwing off Christianity and filling their "internal void" with Eastern spirituality, look to Europe. Here is where the trend toward Asian spirituality is most striking. There are historical reasons for this, some of which I can sketch superficially, to wit:

Other writers, in a political context, have noted the difference between American and European religiosity. In Europe these days, it's the unassimilated Muslim population that's bringing back that old-time religious fervor. European Catholicism-- European Christianity in general-- has taken major hits, the death blow arguably coming with the advent of World War 2. Sartrean and Camusian post-WW2 French existentialism, which paints a picture of an absurd cosmos in which one builds one's own truth to live authentically, was a brave yet bitter response to the absence of God as the bombs were raining down on major cities. The Europe of 1945 was, among other things, an ironic juxtaposition of cathedrals and craters. Ultimately, existentialism is life-affirming, but it rests on the basic double-conviction of cosmic absurdity and multiple degrees of alienation (from God, nature, others, and self).

So much postmodernist thinking springs from this ambivalent source, and as the European religious temperament was forever changed by the crucible of WW2, a void did appear where Christianity once stood. I remember back in the 1980s that the French statistic was something like 60% catholique non-pratiquant (non-practicing Catholic). Religious satire and irreverence are par for the course in Europe; I have volumes of comic drawings by Claude Serre, many of which involve religious tropes-- one drawing depicts Jesus winning a swimming contest by simply running across the surface of the water. I always admired how relaxed Europeans could be about their religion, especially compared to the froth and thunder of so much American Christianity.

But even before WW2, European Christianity was old. This, too, has probably played a role in the creation of the European religious void-- the mustiness of European faith. Buddhism, which has made huge inroads in France and other European countries, fills that void very neatly and is often a topic of national discussion. One French book in particular, Le moine et le philosophe (The Monk and the Philosopher), became a runaway bestseller and did much to raise French consciousness about Buddhist values, feeding la vague bouddhiste (the Buddhist wave).

The end result is that many Europeans are throwing off the old religion and embracing Asian spirituality. While Zen teachers like Lewis Richmond, disciple of Shunryu Suzuki, believe that the Buddhism wave could still fail, the number of Zen (only Zen; not other forms of Buddhism) adherents in France has tripled from about 200,000 in the 1970s to about 600,000 now. Europe is the place to look for a wider embrace of Eastern spirituality. America, while highly pluralistic, remains strongly Christian in its demographics, and mainstream American Christianity is, arguably, on the wane as evangelicals and fundamentalists pick up the drifters and capitalize on the current national temperament, a resurgent wartime conservatism.

Christian missionary work continues apace, and the Third World is where evangelical Christianity is making the most inroads: parts of Central and South America, countries in Africa and Asia. The converts in these places are the true keepers of religious zeal; many of the converts now at American universities were converted in Asia and took their Christianity to the States.

When you look at the overall demographic trends, then, you're not really seeing symmetrical movement. The motives for conversion are often very different for Christian and Buddhist (etc.) converts, and the moving geographical "footprints" of Christianity and Buddhism are very different, too.

The nature of Christian and Buddhist "evangelism" (term very much in quotes, but there's no denying that Buddhism has always been, historically, a missionary religion) is different as well. South Korea is an obvious example of this. Buddhism enjoyed prosperity for centuries in Korea, especially during the Shilla Dynasty, but eventually neo-Confucianism came to dominate, and Buddhism was pushed backwards and upwards into the mountains. Monasteries lost land, money and influence; Buddhism became less relevant to the lives of the common people. Christianity's arrival in Korea led to conflict, but it was primarily a conflict between Christians and Confucianists, not Christians and Buddhists. The Christian-Buddhist conflict/dialogue is actually a somewhat more recent phenomenon here. Korean Christianity never lost the missionary zeal of the Westerners (and Chinese, and others) who brought the Gospel to its shores. Today, neon crosses dot the nighttime landscape of Seoul; churches can be found all over South Korea. Christianity also associated itself in the Korean mind with modernity and nationalism: Bibles were printed in Hangul whereas Buddhist sutras were (and largely still are) printed in classical Chinese; Christian dissidents were active against the Japanese occupation-- and even today, Christian missionary exclusivism works hard to portray other religions as false, primitive, and superstitious. Buddhism is trying to adapt to modern times in Korea, in many cases even resorting to Christian-sounding music to keep practitioners on their cushions. Korean Buddhist societies like Bul-il Hwae (Buddha Sun Society) help spread and reinforce Buddhist teaching among the laity, grounding the young in the Dharma.

But Korean Buddhism may be losing out. Many Westerners have fallen in love with Korean Buddhism, which shares both deep and superficial traits with Chinese Buddhism, but today's South Koreans often view monks, rightly or wrongly, as lazy and selfish; many modern Koreans also see Buddhism as "a woman's religion" (demographically speaking, Korean women are on the whole more active practitioners than men) and denigrate it as superstitious.

Buddhism has historically taken on different forms depending on the country/culture in which it settles-- borrowing local rituals and cosmologies, changing its shape to suit the needs of its practitioners. Andi's fascinating post deals in some measure with the question of what many Western converts are missing out on. I'd quote her entire post here if I could, but that would be rude. Here's a snippet:

I knew a lot about Buddhism before I went to Nepal. I'd meditated with a couple different groups and I'd read a little, fluffy stuff and scripture both. But none of it lived. I was also deeply skeptical of the American Buddhist community. I'd heard too many times, "I'm not Buddhist, but..." followed by some peace, love 'n' harmony line. I didn't buy it. If there's such a [label] as "Buddhist," I wanted to know what it was before I got too deeply into something.

There is something to the religious aspect of Buddhism, that folk-level stuff. The paintings, the prayers, all the dross that "religions" get. What would [Catholicism] be without its cathedrals?--still faith in the resurrected Jesus, still love and fear of God, still the community--but something would be absent. The uplifting of the spirit, the enthusiastic aestheticism of architecture, art, and ritual... I find these are useful, though not necessary, parts of religion. And they provide a depth, a way for people no matter what level they're at (still praying for good crops or completely cut from the cycle of suffering), to engage and plug into guiding principles and morality.

Several times on my own blog, I've said, "Beware Barnes and Noble Zen!" This warning is especially applicable to people who read the likes of Alan Watts (yours truly included) and feel they've gained some deep insight into "what Zen is." I've also argued strenuously against those "Buddhist essentialists" who take their rarefied, stripped-down, essentialistic Barnes and Noble Buddhism and make declarations, usually against respectful, inquisitive Christians, about what Buddhism is and isn't. These Buddhists don't seem to get Andi's point: most Buddhism is folkloric! Here's how I dealt with the question contra Buddhists on Beliefnet who preached an essentialist gospel:

OK, maybe I do have a real critique of online Western Buddhists: Beliefnet needs some down-home folkloric Taiwanese Pure Landers-- unreconstructed East Asians without a hint of Western pollution in them. People who're Buddhist because their families have been Buddhist since the time when snaggle-toothed cave men were dragging their knuckles and drawing stick figures. People who see ghosts, hobnob with ancestral spirits, think waaaay superstitiously, factor good/bad luck into everyday living. People who, like the Taiwanese lady who sat in on my lecture about Buddhism at my church, said, "I didn't recognize a single thing you talked about," because, like so many Western Buddhists do when discoursing on Buddhism (and Beliefnet's threads provide plenty of confirmation), I reduced Buddhism to a set of rarefied academic concepts and principles, and to a very narrow set of practices that had nothing to do with how millions of people actually live their Buddhism in the Old Country.

I'm not implying that Western converts (or Western "cradle Buddhists") are somehow fake. I am saying, however, that every time I see a Western Buddhist on these boards lecture about how Buddhism "isn't about X or Y," I keep thinking to myself, "Maybe you should ask the folks back home." Not theistic? Depends. Not dualistic? Also depends. No essences? Routinely contradicted whenever the phrase "real Buddhism" pops up.

[NB: the link to the above archived post, "The Question of Religious Pluralism," is unstable. If you have problems, hit the link on my sidebar to "A Critique of a Holographic Model of Religious Pluralism" and scroll down, down, down a ways until you see the proper post.]

I think Andi is making a point that's missed by many Western Buddhists. Perhaps it's a point better appreciated by Catholics than by us Protestants, because it speaks to the organic nature of solid tradition. If Buddhism leaps to America from Asia and magically loses its skin and flesh, landing on Plymouth Rock as nothing but a skeleton of its former self, it is, I think, legitimate to ask whether something-- a bunch of somethings-- might not have been lost in translation during that leap.

To speak of the organic nature of tradition (and practice, and belief, and all the rest) is to speak of continuity. Continuity, as I noted in my critique of Dr. Vallicella's paper, isn't the same thing as permanence. Continuity is that quality we often mistake for permanence or essence. Continuity is what gives phenomena their distinctness and uniqueness, but it's also what prevents phenomena from being somehow fundamental or essential or substantive. A quiet little stream moves through the woods; you point to it, right now, and say, "That's a stream." And sure enough, that's what it is. But come back in a thousand years-- no stream there! Same with people: you see a child running around your living room and you say, "Look at that child!" But come back in fifty years-- no child there! You can do the same thing to the phenomena we call Buddhism and Christianity: zoom forward or backward in time a few billion years-- no Buddhism or Christianity there!

Thien monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote eloquently about all this in his Living Buddha, Living Christ. He said:

When we look into the heart of a flower, we see clouds, sunshine, minerals, time, the earth, and everything else in the cosmos in it. Without clouds, there could be no rain, and there would be no flower. Without time, the flower could not bloom. In fact, the flower is made entirely of non-flower elements; it has no independent, individual existence. It "inter-is" with everything else in the universe.


Just as a flower is made only of non-flower elements, Buddhism is made only of non-Buddhist elements, including Christian ones, and Christianity is made of non-Christian elements, including Buddhist ones.

Life is a messy process which our minds are duty-bound by evolution to clean up and clarify. Life is rarely symmetrical, despite all the preaching in the West about justice, and all the preaching in the East about balance. To see the world in terms of cosmic scales is to impose yet more superstitious thinking on natural processes. So I don't view the current religious "trend" on American college campuses as an actual trading of places (and to the Post's credit, the writer notes Dr. Robert [father of Uma] Thurman's remark that Western students who engage in Eastern practice rarely want to go into the ritual aspects of that practice); that's too clean a description. Instead, what we're seeing is what we've always seen in human activity: the simple and natural eros of the human spirit.


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