Wednesday, September 21, 2005

postal scrotum: Buddhism and... autism?

Don W. writes:

Hello there, Big Hominid!

I've got a question for you.

This is something that's been plaguing me for quite some time now. Finally, suddenly, in the drunken late-night early morning, it occurs to me that the Hominid is the man to inquire of.

I'm wondering about religious identification and student behavior.

Specifically, having taught all ages here in Korea for most of the past four years (previously in Seoul and Kimpo, now in Busan), I'm wondering about Buddhism and what might very loosely be called autism, or a kind of extreme withdrawal from one's surroundings and peers.

At this point, I suspect, you're either nodding your head in agreement, or wondering what the hell I'm on about.

It must have been all the way back in around the summer of 2001 that I first began to notice this phenomenon. I was teaching adults, some business, some government types, at a Seoul hakwon. One young woman was almost pathologically withdrawn (not that I'm a shrink to be judging such things!) to the point, anyway, that she wouldn't even answer my simplest questions. ("How are you today?" Silence. She understood but wouldn't answer. The ULTRA-shy type.)

When the topic of religion finally came up, I learned that all the other students were self-described Christians of one sort or another. She somehow mustered up the courage to admit to being a Buddhist.

At this point of course, it was a matter of sheer conjecture on my part. Right off the bat, a lot of people would accuse me of illogicality, but I think you will concur that there's nothing INHERENTLY illogical about hypothesis-forming (the hypotheses being discardable if they don't prove out):

Hypothesis: Buddhist equals ultra-shy.

Sub-hypothesis: Positing one's observable, 3D, everyday reality as "illusion" or "maya" is bound to have this effect. If reality is bogus, then flee from it! Disconnect! Live within your mind! Don't listen to that teacher's voice too closely: ***he's merely an illusion, after all!*** Just keep subaudibly chanting that mantra of yours, and ignore your surroundings. Your morning English class is a mere illusion, after all. It must soon pass.

Don't get me wrong, Hominid:

I am fundamentally so "Buddha-friendly" that I'm standing right on the brink of abandoning my overt Christian profession.

I tell Koreans that I'm a Christian, and they think that I'm a 10-hour-long each Sunday church-going Presbyterian.

I tell them that I'm Catholic (closer to the existential truth), and they wonder aloud why I don't go to Mass. (Much too difficult to begin to explain about Vatican II, let alone Vatican I, let alone how being a tradionalist of sorts sets one at odds with one's fellow "progressives" within the Catholosphere--forgive the soju-inspired coinage, if you will.)

Why not just save myself a whole lot of trouble by saying I'm Buddhist? You know: Acknowledge the spiritual side of things, attempting to live the Eightfold Path (10 Commandments--whatever), observing ahimsa to the best of my ablility, etc.

Utterly worthless factoid which you will promptly forget: I had my head shaved on Buddha's birthday earlier this year. This of course means precisely nothing. Except that I noted the date. And felt inspired to do something about it. And am not exactly ANTI-Buddhist, at least within the walls of my own mind, if you see what I mean . . .

Nonetheless . . .

A very clear pattern has worked itself out in my teaching.

Within the past year I've had to deal with at least two near-autistic children. Not a professional diagnosis, but the best I can do. Both Buddhist. Both have refused to answer questions, have refused to read aloud from the textbook--repeatedly, again and again and again, to the point of morbidity--have been indifferent to classmates.

Happily, I AM seeing some progress with the latest young girl in question. She wears the wooden beads around her wrist and is extremely withdrawn. Recently, I've enjoyed a bit of success in drawing her out of her shell. But just a bit.

Another student, it just occurs to me, rather less severe in his abstraction, is a high school senior on his way to Yonsei University. Not quite morbidly withdrawn, this fellow: he does TALK, but seems awfully detached. On the few occasions that I've passed him on the street (just by chance, out of class), I've attempted to make eye contact, or say hello, but he's off in nirvana somewhere, if you know what I mean. He seems happy, but "not all there."

Again, with the wooden beads around the wrist.

Your thoughts, Big Hominid?

(P.S.: As always, I'm drunk and it probably shows here, and yet the drink brings on a kind of strange lucidity by lowering the inhibitions and thus clearing away dust, if you see what I mean. It's all clear, to me anyway, if only in a somewhat wobbly way, and certainly all true. Heck, this email has been 4 years in the making, as you will have gathered, and I'm addressing it to you, author of an eagerly anticipated blue-bound tome of devotional import, for reasons which will not perhaps require elaboration.)


From one of your biggest fans (I know, it makes me sound even more drunk and thus very likely reduces my credibility to add this bit, but it is true, and so there),

Don W
Busan, South Korea

I was planning to write a long reply to this, but I'm about to hit the sack (then, perhaps, go to bed). Like my underwear, I'll be brief.

First: a note of congratulations, Don-- you're a better typist when drunk than many folks are when sober.

Second: In my own experience with Buddhists-- monastic and lay, Korean and Western-- I've seen no obvious correlation between their introversion/extraversion and their beliefs.

Third: I can almost guarantee you that the "maya" theory isn't operative in most Buddhist consciousnesses, for a number of reasons: (1) not many Buddhists seriously believe that the route to salvation comes from renouncing an illusory phenomenal world. In fact, most Buddhists think the world is plenty real, but its fundamental nature is empty-- this is different from seeing reality as basically illusory, I think. The truck that's about to hit me is no illusion, but there is no fundamental, permanent truckness to the truck. The truck's collision with me will prove that the truck and I are both impermanent. (2) What "maya" means is open to debate. Not all Hindus and Buddhists use the term to mean "illusion." Some (especially certain Hindus) use it simply to refer to "the phenomenal world." Many Buddhists make no reference to the term at all. (3) Buddhists of a Zen persuasion will have been thoroughly conditioned by the Taoist meme in Zen to affirm this world and this moment rather than reject those things.

If Buddhist = ultra-shy, we'd be seeing a hell of a lot more shy Buddhists than we actually do.

That's my quick take on the matter, anyway.

How's the head feeling today?


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