Thursday, August 10, 2006

Vague Buddhism?

Peacebang has started a fascinating discussion with her two latest posts, Humanists, or "Vague Buddhists?" , Humanism or Vague Buddhism, Part II ,and ChaliceChick continues with The ChaliceBlog: Response to PB's "Vague Buddhists" post . The timing is, for me, amusing, as our last small groups meeting was about Buddhism!

I think Peacebang has something in concept- I believe we are headed for “Buddhism Lite” as a denomination. First consider Buddhism stripped of the cultural trappings such as vegetarianism or reincarnation, and look only at the 4 Noble Truths, and the 8fold path, and the Middle Way. The Middle Way is merely avoiding extremism- don’t we hear that every single week in a UU congregation? If you reworded the 8 fold path such as to make its Buddhist origins less obvious, any humanist would be happy to claim it, and if you’re careful with the translations of the 4 Truths, (I’m told the word “suffering” is not exact), the same is true of them as well. Buddhism and Humanism both put the emphasis on behavior rather than belief. Where Buddhism differs from Humanism is that Buddhism does not require a deity, but has no trouble with your worshipping of one, whereas the wording of the Humanist Manifestos denies the possibility of the existence of a deity. One could say that a Buddhist is a Humanist who has no beef with god-Talk.

This difference is where UU comes in. It seems as if it were a near thing, but the UUA could never quite bring itself to become formally atheistic- in fact, the pendulum now seems to be swinging in the other direction, with the recent “Language of Reverence” debates. Oh, we’re still embarrassed by words such as “God” or “Prayer”, but openly expressed hostility is no longer common. It seems, just from my limited experience, that what growth we are enjoying is because of that, that we’re getting religious humanists, often young families who believe in God, but not religion, and are looking for a generically religious tradition for their children.

It seems inevitable to me that the UUA head in that direction. There are very few of the old-school “anti-theist” type of humanists left; vocal as they are, they’re starting to get drowned out in debate. More and more New-Age types are joining, largely people who have been unchurched for 20 years, and are starting to want fellowship again. There are the UU Pagans and the UU Christians who are getting more vocal. All of these trends, it seems to me, are bound to result in a denomination that will more openly embrace Divine inspiration, but retain the behavior-oriented posture of our humanist tradition. If you were to take Buddhism and intentionally rewrite it for western ears and cultural references, is that not exactly what you would get? Is there a better word for that than Peacebang’s, “Vague Buddhism”?

Peacebang asks “What I was wondering was whether or not we were mostly putting Buddhist teachings and readings and quasi-spiritual practices (like 30- second 'meditation') where Christian instruction and ritual used to be.” Well, of course! Inertia is the most powerful force in the universe- the forms and trappings will change last, if ever; the content is much less important than the format. After all, in any religion not one congregate in a thousand truly understands their own creed and liturgy- ask the man on the street the theological differences separating the Methodists from the Episcopalians. in fact, the way our own members treat the PPs like a creed should demonstrate that point. So if the content must change to permit more open acceptance of theists and spiritual issues without the minister being accused of sounding too Christian, the only way to do it is to insert Buddhist teachings into an otherwise normal Protestant church format.

6 comments:

CK said...

The Middle Way is merely avoiding extremism- don’t we hear that every single week in a UU congregation?

Joel, are you saying that's what the Middle Way is, or saying we've mischaracterized it?

One could say that a Buddhist is a Humanist who has no beef with god-Talk.

I'd have to ask Jeff Wilson to back me up, since I am ignorant on these matters, but I'm not sure I'd agree. Buddhists have problems with lots of essence-talk, of which god-talk is chief. There may be room for gods in rituals, but not as ultimate deities, since there is no "ultimate" except emptiness/sunyata.

I agree with the general gist, though, that UU's are heading towards a Westernized Buddhism stripped of its uniqueness. Course, US Christians could be heading towards a Westernized Christianity stripped of its Jewishness (and arguably, Christ-like-ness).... that's another discussion!!

Jaume said...

How do you reinterpret the Middle Way and the Eightfold Path out of its original context without betraying its very essence? The Middle Way is about rejecting the radical asceticism of the Sadhus, and the Eightfold Path is about the Law of the universe (Dharma) and how to escape the cycle of rebirths. If you miss those elements of Hindu belief, Buddhism makes little sense but just a New-Agey "inner peace and harmony" attitude with no real content.

Joel Monka said...

CK- "Joel, are you saying that's what the Middle Way is, or saying we've mischaracterized it?" I had prefaced that interpretation by saying "First consider Buddhism stripped of the cultural trappings..." which is indeed a mischaracterization, but a common one.

Jaume- "If you miss those elements of Hindu belief, Buddhism makes little sense but just a New-Agey "inner peace and harmony" attitude with no real content." Quite true- but this is often how it is portrayed anyway. When you hear "We have much to learn from Buddhism" from someone you know does not believe in God or reincarnation, that is about all you can take from it, and I cannot be the only one who has ever heard a sermon about Buddhism and come away with that impression. Surely my congregation cannot be the only one with UU/Buddhist/atheist members, either, or the discussion would never have been started. Actually, I would imagine darn few UU buddhists believe in reincarnetion.

CK said...

Thanks, Joel. I didn't want to assume that was your interpretation of the Middle Way, based on the context.

Am I right to assume your characterization of a Buddhist as a Humanist who has no beef with god-talk is also the same kind of parody?

Just making sure I'm not tilting at straw men....

Joel Monka said...

Yes, again that is the impression one might come away with from the average "UU can learn from Buddhism" sermon or presentation. I call 'em as I hear 'em. :)

CK said...

OK, Joel, thanks for clarifying. I think you're right on target. I just missed some of the quotation of others' views in your post.