Saturday, September 25, 2004

Buddhism notes

Charlie the KimcheeGI sent me a great link to a book review written by Jin Y. Park. The book in question is called Being Buddhist in a Christian World by Sharon Suh.

The review itself is very thorough and makes me want to buy the book. I do, however, have one disagreement with Park, who writes:

...the author [Suh] argues that, unlike the overemphasis on selflessness as the core of Buddhism seen in western introductory courses on the religion, "discourse on selflessness was historically aimed at the most highly trained of monastic Buddhist scholars interested in questions of ontology and was not a concern of the ordinary lay Buddhist" (p. 5). This is a strong claim which requires some scholarly buttressing, but which the book does not provide.

I disagree that this is a "strong claim." It's not radical at all: any Religion 101 student can tell you that religion, as a sociological phenomenon, divides itself up into "classes" and "groups" much the same way any other human phenomenon will. Robert Buswell makes this point very well about the Korean monastic community in his The Zen Monastic Experience: there are monks who are more philosophical and scholarship-oriented, monks who are less intellectually inclined and more action-oriented, etc. Buswell also notes that only a small percentage of monks devote their careers to hard-driving meditation.

When you move outside of the monastic community proper to look at temple-lay sangha relationships, the sociology still applies: the lay folks who receive the monks' teachings come in all shapes and sizes, i.e., some are more prone to live their Buddhism in a folkloric (read: superstitious) manner; others will approach it with more intellectual rigor and be less magically inclined, etc. Since the laypeople don't undergo anything like the scholarly training most monks receive, it should be obvious that lay Buddhism will be a lot less philosophically/metaphysically oriented.

Many lay Buddhists have little notion of the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhism, just as most lay Christians aren't equipped to discuss the subtleties of trinitarian theology. This doesn't make lay Buddhists any "less Buddhist"; on the contrary, this serves as a reminder that overly reductive definitions of "Buddhism" (or "Christianity," or "Islam") tend to disclude huge numbers of adherents, producing a distorted picture of the tradition in question while claiming to provide a more accurate account of "what Religion X really is."

UPDATE: I missed the fact that Ryan Overbey is back to blogging again. Go give his blog a visit if you're interested in religious issues.


No comments: