Thursday, June 08, 2006

religious exchanges 4

The following exchange begins on a false premise perpetrated by yours truly, and which Charles of Liminality caught: my misreading of an article by a Buddhist on the question of Kwan-sae-eum Bosal (the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara). However, what Sneem says with regard to the heedless "splicing together" of elements from different religions still holds, regardless of my own sloppiness.

May 26, 2006. Sneem to me:


Okay: the ISBN on the Han-Yeong Buddhist Dictionary is 89-7479-756-9; it's compiled by Seo Gwang (서광) Sunim.

I took a (brief) look at the article on Kwan Sae Eum as God, but I have a similar reaction to that as I do to people who say "Jesus was a Bodhisattva!" and mean it as an article of faithful fact (as opposed to saying, "Jesus *acted like* a Bodhisattva," or "exemplified certain aspects of the Bodhisattva ideal"): it's like trying to splice genes together from two different animals. Yes, it can be done--and sometimes to spectacular results, too--but I'm not sure it should be done. It tends to make for messy theology (does Buddhism have a bone fide technical theology once it appropriates God??!), among other things. Murky ground for this still-on-the-fence pluralist, but I'm going to leave God to the Godlings and the Dharmakaya to us impersonalistic heathens--though perhaps we're more appropriately heretics in these sort of trans-religious dealings, if we're calling Kwan Sae Eum Bosal "God," fer Pete's sake--insofar as calling names is concerned. (Which is one reason why I liked Hick: his use, and reasons for using, the term "the Real" avoided this in a rational and agreeable way.)

...and Mike's post on creeds at NV was great. I've been pondering the question of creeds since about last fall, in part because I've been learning all this liturgy. In all the characters and chants and blessings I've memorized, I've come across only one possible summary of "belief" that comes close to being a possible creed for the Jogye Order:

"If one wishes to understand all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, one must see everything as created by mind alone." (약인역여지 삼세일체불 응관법계성 일체유심조.)

It's from the Avatamsaka Sutra, and ascribing to this particular doctrine of Buddhism necessarily entails rejecting other Buddhist schools of thought as primary and would also lead one to the practice of Zen (as the way to "attain" the verse's promised emancipation). But no one asks about one's practice of or faith in this particular article--which discludes it from being a creed in the sense that monotheists would use--and it's not enforced as a belief anyway. Plus, it's mixed up with a lot of Pure Land *practice*-- most foreigners would know this verse because it's in the morning bell chant, and will also know that what immediately follows it is a bunch of gae-seong praising Amitabul. So, to heck with creeds in Buddhism... which is very annoying for those of us who would like someone-- anyone-- to be succinct and unanimous about exactly what should be/is happening in the average temple. Oh, wait: "everything." That's succinct, and accurate in the bargain.



May 26, 2006 (same day). Me to Sneem:


In the comments to the Kanzeon/Kwaneum post, Charles very politely zapped me for my misreading of the article. I added a mea culpa to the top of that entry. In case you didn't see it, MEA CULPA to you as well for having written a misleading post-- the result of sloppiness and negligence on my part. I'll be more careful in the future.


May 27, 2006 (next day). Me to Sneem (again):


I agree re: the risks of syncretistic moves. Upon closer reading of that essay, it would appear that McCormick isn't doing anything that hasn't been done by Thich Nhat Hanh: reinterpreting Christian core terms in a Buddhist manner. As others have pointed out, Nhat Hanh might have a Jesus statue on his altar, but his conception of Christian core terms is thoroughly Buddhist (viz. Holy Spirit reinterpreted as mindfulness).

At the same time, Nhat Hanh makes a metaphysical point that serves as a warning against overly reifying any given religious tradition: all things inter-are (as his re-branding of pratitya-samutpada goes). A flower is composed entirely of non-flower elements, and by the same token Christianity and Buddhism are composed entirely of non-Christian and non-Buddhist elements. The bright-line boundaries we see between the religions are placed there by our minds. How apropos, then, to read your Hwa-eom-gyeong quote:

"약인역여지 삼세일체불 응관법계성 일체유심조."

McCormick's essay doesn't seem as radical as the essay's title suggests. It'll definitely have appeal for the liberal Christian camp: we're always looking for excuses to pull away from a literalistic, anthropomorphic conception of God. But the essay's not really saying anything I haven't heard or read elsewhere in Buddhist-Christian exchanges.

Off topic: Dr. Jones's book, The View from Mars Hill, is truly fascinating. I'm around halfway through it now, about to get to the meaty part: his survey of the major theologies of religion in current play, including the various pluralistic models (except for those of Raimondo Panikkar [a non-model, actually] and Stephen Kaplan [holographic pluralism]). I've had to slog through Jones's whirlwind history lesson re: how Christianity's attitude toward other religions changed according to historical circumstance, but it's been worth it. More on this later.

I'm glad your head's feeling better. Tell your head to behave its damn self.



May 28, 2006 (next day). Sneem to me:


Re: my ramblings on religion. Post 'em as postal scrotal, if you'd like. And the "mea culpa" is equally mine, for being a lazy reader and not taking a good look at that essay--although I still hold that mixing up terminology like that, regardless of the definition, isn't a good idea (and I don't care if the Ven. Thay has done it). The point you made-- or, Thich Nhat Hanh made-- about specific religions being composed of non-specific parts is absolutely correct, but as Mike (the Villain) pointed out in response to my comment on creeds, people these days tend to attach less importance to language than they did in the past and than perhaps they should. Meaning: language still matters. All Zen Masters have made this point with students who get stuck in the realm of emptiness. It's not just Zen Master Seung Sahn who tells his students to go beyond the mid-point of awakening where water is mountain, mountain is water. Mountain has to become mountain again, water water...and then you make it function, where mountain is blue, water is flowing. Even (especially?) at this last, the words must match the experience. When you call Kwan Seum Bosal "God," even if the definition isn't the common/traditional theistic one, you're dragging those connotations into the "experience" of Kwan Seum Bosal at an emotional level--particularly for Westerners raised in [a theistic milieu.]

Perhaps I'm sensitive to this because I'd like to be able to comfortably conflate my two religious experiences, Christianity and Buddhism, and because I fight it knowing that such conflation often produces more confusion than it does clarity, even if it's a comfortable and palatable confusion. It also tends to overlook major doctrinal differences-- and whatever the mystic experience suggests about possible unity behind religious experience, there are real divisions in theories of that experience and the kind of practical religious structures they give rise to. We may "make" religious boundaries with our minds, but we pay for those boundaries in blood. An extreme way to phrase it, but I'm cautious enough to willingly make the point that way. I'm much more comfortable with Hick's use of a neutral term.

I've got all sorts of rather confused thoughts elbowing for articulation, but I'll leave it at that.

And I meant to say congrats on having it so good with at the University! I know what you mean about feeling like half your brain is gone without your books. Sometimes I wonder why I was so nuts as to give away so many of my books before I came to Korea last spring. Ah, well...

Outtie. I have to go wash floors and such; afternoon chore-time!


May 28, 2006 (same day). Sneem to me:

Well, now I'm the one inundating in-boxes... 2 emails in a day!

I was kind of bugged by my own conservativeness as it came out in my reaction to Kwan Seum Bosal=God...I mean, really: haven't I spent an awful lot of blog-time toeing a similar line? Why is the line s'damn important to me-- and rather suddenly, really, since a year ago I probably would have crossed and re-crossed and smudged the thing just to have fun, if not also make a point I felt was important.

Then it struck me: I'm turning Korean. Not kidding.

See, Korean monastic training is based on a more or less gradual introduction to the kind of rule-bending-breaking-obliterating discourse that we Western Zen students and scholars take for granted. We baby Sunims start out tightly controlled. No one's asking us what we think, certainly (I posted a little about this), in part because it's assumed that we'll listen to our elders to tell us what to think--and they do tell us, constantly. Not so much in words as in actions.

The attention to appearance, for example, and decorum, isn't merely to look good and act nice, though there's an awful lot of that in there. It's a reinforcement of the Korean attitude that forms have functions, and that if you learn the form you'll learn the function. If you can control your actions, you can control your mind, too-- that's another aspect of it. But what it means on a daily basis is being obedient to hierarchy within the temple, observing ritual and ceremony attentively, and learning the ground-rules for moral behavior in the context of our monastic precepts. Form, form, and more form. Form is important to a novice nun, and it's been drilled into me since the beginning... and I can't believe it, but it's sunk in.

My Unsa would be incredibly happy to know that I've unwittingly learned something!

It gets into your head, too; hence my increasing conservativism in certain regards. And with all this chanting I'm doing combined with learning a foreign language, language has come to be incredibly important in both religious and plain old functional spheres. All this is reflected in my reaction to Yahweh Bosal.

...which in retrospect I think is pretty funny. I still agree with what I wrote, but I also grant that I'm clearly a product of my training, which by Korean standards is apparently successful. Later, when they let me out of my play pen and I can go romp with the Big Kids in the Zen Park, hopefully I'll be more willing to cross lines... having learned what living with them means. I think that's actually a huge teaching that this traditional monastic form has: first you learn about form, so that when you break it, hopefully you can do it knowing why and how form has to be broken... and why and how it has to be put back together in meaningful ways. That's another thing. There's meaningless form out there. Heaps. Stacks. Universities and monasteries full of b.s. form. But that doesn't mean that form isn't useful or can be discarded willy-nilly. What's a cup of water without the cup? A wet spot on your carpet, and nothing in your mouth, that's what.

Anyway. "And on the seventh day, She rested." It's Sunday, after all. I should go do something usefully non-intellectual, like iron my starched clothes (*shudder*).


I wrote some stuff of no consequence in reply, so I'm skipping all that here and moving on to the last email in this series.

June 3, 2006 (a few days later). Sneem to me:


By the way, on Bulgyo Bang Song today they broadcast an English Dharma talk by one Mu Jin Sunim (English nun; held at Ja Kwang Sa, which used to do these four or five times a year...great while it lasted. I heard some ass-kicking dharma there), and she provided a definition of consciousness (aka sentience) that made clear the distinction between sentient and non-sentient beings: "awareness that accompanies the 6 sense organs." This doesn't explain what happens when someone attains the state of a non-returner (who abides in a formless realm, absorbed in meditation until awakening--I'm not good enough on my realms to know exactly *how* the formless realm is formless, i.e. if a subtle body remains, which has subtle sense organs as well, and if the formlessness of the formless realm refers to the state of mind or the state of body, etc.). Mu Jin Sunim began her practice in the Thai Forest tradition, so she's got her Pali Canon down pat--that's where her definition came from, that or an oral tradition from her teacher. Point is, her answer sounds traceable to a sutta, as well as providing the distinguishing characteristic between sentient beings and other animated material...

Okay. Get back to work on your book!


...and the exchanges end here. Soen Joon Sunim's writing is too good to be kept in private. I hope some of my readers have benefitted from what she's written.


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