Why I Can’t Be Buddhist

Cafe con BuddhaWhen I discovered Buddhism, what I found was a philosophy and set of teachings that coincided with my own thoughts and feelings about the world better, in many ways, than the brand of Christianity in which I’d been raised. Certainly, there are parts of the engendered faith of my childhood that I still agree and identify with, parts that give me comfort, and parts that ground me in my skin. But the endemic faith of my adulthood has been informed by my belief that it is in the convergent points between various world philosophies and religions that any true religion most likely lies. A common refrain of mine is that in every reasonable philosophy or religion, there surely exist some nuggets of truth. It is in the context of these two beliefs that my own philosophical, spiritual, and religious pursuits have been grounded.

Buddhism’s Appeal

My initial introduction to Buddhism—and to eastern thought in general—revealed a philosophy based on tolerance, inclusion, compassion, respect, wisdom, with a strong leaning towards self-understanding and self-improvement. These are things that I believed were also central to Christian teaching, but which I felt were almost unilaterally missing from the Christian religious community.

As I learned more about its philosophy and teachings, and particularly about meditation, my interest in Buddhism as a practice grew. The life of a spiritual comtemplative holds some appeal to me, but I would never be able to remove myself from the world enough to become a monk. Meditative practice, like prayer, seems to offer some window into that world without making life-changing sacrifices or an ascetic commitment. Also, it seems that meditation can offer something that prayer generally cannot—an opportunity to explore not just your relationship with God, but your relationship with yourself.

These things mean that Buddhism—both as a practice and as a philosophy—appeals to me very greatly. Unfortunately, Buddhism isn’t exclusively a practice, or a philosophy.

Buddhism’s Baggage

While the central beliefs of Buddhism neither depend on nor proceed from the assumption of a deity or God-like being, Buddhism in general has adopted theism as an integral part of the religious system. Aside from the various gods and goddesses, prayer and devotions are often offered to numerous boddhisattvas (roughly equivalent to Christian saints) who are associated with particular aspects of life or psychic well-being. And though these figures don’t have to be worshipped in a traditionally theistic way, it is fairly common, even in modern American Buddhist practice, to find reverent references, prayers, and supplications being directed to them in the course of dharma talks or guided meditation sessions.

Growing up in the Christian tradition, the worship of false gods and idols was drilled into our heads as one of the most serious sins. And, of course, the thing about religious indoctrination is that it tends to take root, if at all, very very deeply. So, to this day, I still operate under the principles, as a Christian, that I must guard myself against the worship of a “false god,” which makes a committed Buddhist practice an uncomfortable proposition. Herein lies the first major reason why I can’t be a Buddhist. Coincidentally, this reason in part also prevents me from converting to my wife’s brand of Christianity—Catholicism.

As a side note, however, to the one-god commandment; I have no problem holding the idea that the God of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are all one and the same. Likewise, on some levels, I can easily (internally at least) equate many ideas of eastern philosophy and buddhism with that same singular conception of God as well. So, in a way, the God that I worship is also present in Buddhism… he just seems to have company there that I’m not comfortable with.

The Wilted Lotus

The other big thing that dissuades me from a more active, participatory engagement with Buddhism, is the almost overwhelmingly whorish extent to which it has been commercialized in this country. The wealth and clout of televangelists and mega-churches in the Christian community has long been an indicator that there is a ready supply of “seekers” in the world more than willing to part with their hard-earned money for the simple idea of salvation, self-improvement (or self-castigation), and a sense of belonging. This fact is no less obvious, and no less disheartening, within the Buddhist community.

I haven’t measured and calculated it, but i would wager that, within the pages of the glossy-covered major quarterly buddhist magazine I occasionally buy, there’s a mix of about 60% advertising to 35% actual content (the other 5% is white-space). Of the advertising, I would guess that probably at least 50% of it is what I would consider to be purely profit-motivated, with the rest being genuine attempts at sharing a talent, a gift, or a calling.

So, while the underlying teachings are subtle, relevant, full, and beautiful, there’s this tarnish of crass consumerism on American Buddhism that makes it hard to stomach. Even if you can wade through all the ads for DVDs, mountain retreats, and the books on “Letting Go of the Ego” written by the 13th reincarnation of the 4th Dromedary of the Purple Orchid School, it can be hard to tell the difference between a genuinely committed teacher or practitioner, and a charlatan who’s mainly interested in an easy life or a quick buck.

Though this might not, by itself, prevent me from being a Buddhist, it sure doesn’t make things any easier.

A Modern Practice

So, what are we left with, then, if the teachings resonate within us, but the structures or daily realities leave us cold or even antagonized? My personal feeling is that you can take the best parts, build a practice that is unique and personal, and leave all the baggage behind. In my opinion, religion—and especially spirituality—are an inherently personal thing anyway, which we each are constantly re-defining at every moment.

For me, the goal (which I am currently about as far away from achieving as is possible) is a consistent meditation practice reinforced by reading Buddhist teachings and listening to dharma talks. I have some interest in sitting in with local meditation groups, if they’re relatively free of the religious baggage, and possibly even joining a sangha if the fit is right.

There are plenty of online resources, as you might imagine, for learning more about Buddhism and meditation. I have listened to quite a few dharma talks by Gil Fronsdal of the Insight Meditation Center, and found them to be a good fit for me personally. There’s also the San Francisco Zen Center, and the Zen Mountain Monastery which also produces WZEN.org.

If you’re an unrepentant cynic or heckler of hippy-sounding self-help-style psychobabble, you may as well skip it, unless you can get over yourself long enough to try to understand the implications. As with most self-analysis type stuff, some of this is just plain common-sense, but the majority of it may be incredibly revelatory, especially if you actually apply it.

3 Responses

  1. xhexaxrtx says:

    I am afraid of going to Hell for believing in philosophies other than Christian ones. I don’t believe that sinfulness deserves eternal punishment, especially if the reason someone doesn’t repent a sin is because they don’t feel that what they did was in any way wrong except for that by definition, it was sin, but Christians are taught that this kind of thinking is wrong. I don’t really know what I believe, but I desperately wish sometimes that there was no God at all. But people say that without God, we wouldn’t be here. So I don’t understand why it matters. The only reason I don’t want to explore other religions is because I don’t want to go to Hell. I want to better myself for the sake of myself, not because sin “makes me un-godlike,”, who I was made in the image of. And sometimes I want to follow some other religion because I don’t want to constantly suffer from this perilizing fear of thinking for myself. I’ve been told that human rationalization is wrong, that Christianity is the basis for all peaceful thinking (Christian or otherwise), and that humans are not capable of understanding God’s ways. But then why do we follow him so earnestly?

  2. matt says:

    Not all Christian communities are quite as draconian as yours seems to be, perhaps you’ll find a better fit in one of the other Christian denominations.

    Ultimately, however, I believe that religious faith is an inherently personal thing—not something to be taken as rote from someone else and simply accepted.

    You cover a lot of ground in your comment, and unfortunately most of it relates to things that you really need to work out for yourself. If someone gives you these answers, then you’re just falling back into the trap in which you’re already finding yourself.

    If you feel that you can’t escape Christianity (and I wouldn’t try to suggest that you should), you should study the Bible, and read as much as you can from the most highly regarded theologians. Thomas Merton comes to mind as a fairly modern example. In my experience, I’ve found that pastors are generally great, even-headed, open-minded people to approach with questions. Certainly this isn’t always the case, but I think you can probably make a judgment pretty quickly.

    As for sin, certainly there are some “sins” that are more or less in name only (some of the Old Testament food restrictions come to mind… well, unless you’re Jewish, I suppose.) But still, pretty much every major religion has, at its core, some form of rules or recommendations regarding morality or social conduct. Obviously, murder isn’t a sin in name only—that one’s pretty well accepted even in secular society.

    If you’re struggling with questions of what, if anything, you should believe in, well, the only person who can answer those questions is you.

  3. Mary Beth says:

    Very interesting, Matt. I grew up in the Methodist church, but was never fond of organized religion. As a Philosophy minor in college, I explored lots of religions, Buddhism, Hari Krishna, Hinduism, etc. — but still found the bounds of religious DOCTRINE made me uncomfortable. My path to spirituality changed in a big way when my Mother, also disenfranchised with organized religion, began writing and publishing a series of metaphysical books (“channeled” through teachers, including Jesus, identified as spirit masters collectively known as the Brotherhood of God) that finally made everything clear. We are not human beings who happen to have a “spirit,” we are spiritual beings currently in human form living a plan we chose before being born into this lifetime and many, many more. Freedom from religious doctrine allows us to connect directly to all that God is. I won’t ramble on, but if you’re interested, go to http://www.god-mindbooks.com. My Mom wrote 8 books and has presented workshops throughout the U.S., Canada and the UK. Click on News & Info and read the blurb about her writing of the books. They’re big sellers at Amazon, Barnes&Noble, etc. and even published now in French and Spanish.