Buddhism & the West

[Reproduced here: a comment I made on one of The Zennist’s postings http://zennist.typepad.com/zenfiles/2013/04/my-job.html#comments ]

Within that posting is a significant statement: “the only ‘nothing’ in Buddhism is life without the realization of pure Mind.” The ongoing problem for me–since I am working with a Taiwanese-American teacher and writing official class notes–is the problem of terms in translation. I’ve noticed (going through the classes more than once) that every time “emptiness” is mentioned, the shifu has to immediately explain that “this does not mean nothing or void or meaninglessness” and that “the translation is always a problem.” To the average American with a least a perfunctory Christian background, the emptiness of Buddhism is equated with–and always culturally defined as–nihilism or atheism. Who, in the USA, finds themselves funnelling into Buddhism? 1)Those who have some gripe with Christianity or Judaism. 2)The mentally ill, especially depressives. 3)Introverts who enjoy reading philosophy. 4)Scientific types who are basically atheistic and go along with the rituals. Step into Buddhism the religion, & you risk getting into monkish scrupulosity (no cilantro in the diet, performing rituals before fumigating your house for termites, veganism, not swatting flies, etc.)

To an unenlightened person such as myself the problem becomes: Shall I worship something outside myself which may be a cultural projection, or worship myself, which is odious (because that would be worshipping the 5 corrupt skandas, the only thing I know about myself)? The latter option is the one to avoid, since it amounts to pure empty headed narcissism. Do people worship themselves? Yes. I repeatedly find myself in the position of perpetual outsider because I will not exchange one set of beliefs for another–and I will not be boxed by society–as a Buddhist or as anything else, because I know I am not a thing. I feel myself to be an actor in a play, surrounded by the idols of society and the idols of religion. There is not a single moment when I could not cry tears of frustration over this “caught in the middle” situation.

Sometimes your references to texts elude me, since I haven’t read those sutras, but the idea that Ananda’s photographic memory somehow preserved everything the Buddha said over 29 years perfectly and it was passed down the ages just as it was said…well, even the relatively small number of Sutras I have read…there’s different authorship. For example, The Vimalakirti Sutra is obviously a story written by a great author. The Sayings of Great Beings is like the McGuffy Reader compared with it. And let’s not go into that endless stream of sickening Buddhist anecdotes (a vain women returning to life as a maggot in the nose of her corpse, etc.)

Somebody at the monastery asked me, on finding out that I also studied the Bible in addition to taking the Buddhist classes “What do you believe, that the Bible had different authors or one author?” And I’m afraid that I looked at her like she was crazy “Well, of course it was written by different authors. The books were written at different times, they are different literary forms, and the styles of writing are different.” In that instance, I had to tell her that I wasn’t “covering my bases” in the religious sense, but that I enjoyed studying material worth studying.

I’d like to throw an idea out here: that the reason atheistic or non-mystical Buddhism is so strong is because most people in our current era in the USA want to be completely obliterated after death, and the only afterlife they can envision is one where they spend a boring eternity with people they don’t particularly like.

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