Monday, January 10, 2005

Buddhist theodicy

Get Religion has been covering the religious angle of the tsunami disaster. In a post by Douglas LeBlanc on the perennial question of suffering, one commenter writes:

Perhaps the worst thing to say, in my view, is that the dead "deserved to die" because of actions in a previous life. Maybe THAT theological nicety needs examination, rather than the Western, conventional view.

Another commenter in the same post writes:

And thank you, Doug, for an eye-opening look at how other religious traditions respond to disasters like the tsunami. I'm glad I believe in grace instead of karma.

These posters are responding to this paragraph in the original post:

Buddhists believe the universe operates on a strict system of karma, moral justice that spans generations. Bad things that happen to a person in this life are the result of bad things the person did in this life -- or in myriad earlier lives. That means there are never "innocent victims."

"What goes around comes around," said the Rev. Prem Suksawat, the Thai-born religious leader for the Dhamma Cetiya Buddhist Vihara in Boston.

In another post on the tsunami and theodicy, GR links to an article by Ron Rosenbaum, in which Rosenbaum writes:

"Why this need to defend God?" someone (that would be me) finally posted on the Beliefnet comment board in response to the multiple alibis for God that others were posting. All so eager to rush forward and exonerate their version of God from any connection to the slaughter. It began to smack of "they doth protest too much": The disaster somehow gets transformed into a display of God’s wonderfulness. In a way, doesn’t this sort of thinking suggest a kind of Stockholm syndrome? He’s the only God we’ve got, He’s got us imprisoned in this hell of a world—so, after a while, we worship Him.

This is consistent with Peter Berger's view (I discussed this earlier) that theodicies amount to rationalizations of divine/cosmic abuse.

Most Buddhists, of course, won't put the onus on God: human suffering, they will say, is a result of human karma. But whether all modern Buddhists believe that human action generates natural catastrophes is a rich subject for discussion and research. My superficial impression: Western Buddhist converts will generally claim that most natural disasters arise out of nature, as a consequence of physical laws, not as a result of human misdeeds. These Buddhists wouldn't seriously argue, for example, that human greed and bellicosity caused the tsunami.

The Buddhist question gets muddier, however, when you shift the focus to Asian cradle Buddhists, many of whose beliefs have a folkloric aspect. Such Buddhists would view the wave in terms of human karma. At the same time, many modern Asian Buddhists are not so different from their Western Buddhist counterparts in taking a more scientific approach to the question of what causes what.

We should avoid simplistic appraisals of religious belief. As a matter of empirical fact, there are multiple Buddhist answers to the question of human suffering in general, and of the tsunami in particular. This is true of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu responses to adversity as well. No facile solutions, nor should we expect them. Perhaps the value of the most troublesome religious questions lies not so much in arriving at clear-cut answers, but in actively engaging the questions-- not merely through theologizing, but through compassionate words and deeds. The deepest answers to these questions are lived, not proclaimed.

(This piece is being cross-posted over at Ditch the Raft. You can leave comments either on my site [see my funky sidebar image] or over at Andi's blog, which is always and forever comments-enabled.)


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