Thursday, April 30, 2009

Buddhism for Atheists

There's a post at Unreasonable Faith about Buddhism, and specifically how a Western ex-Catholic tried it and lapsed from it, unimpressed. I had my own dalliance with Buddhism in (of course) college, and I've sometimes said that if an alien landed, pointed a ray gun at me, and said "Earth is now a zoo, and you have to pick one of these world religions to be the one we allow to fluorish," I would pick Buddhism as the least bad. I still might, in that situation. Some people claim that Buddhism is a form of atheism, that Buddha is not a god but a very talented nice guy who will help everyone achieve enlightenment and escape reality and reincarnation. But every religion claims at some point that it's not a religion, and I don't know any atheists who believe in supernatural entities or get their beliefs from scriptures and political structures. Buddhism is a religion, and it's not atheist.

Westerners have a bit of an attachment to Buddhism (ha ha) because it seems profound, unoppressive, and lacking in the political ambitions that we associate with organized religion in the West. Then again, somebody once told me rather darkly that you can like a person only until you know them well enough to discover their flaws. In the same vein, once you start learning about Buddhism, you start seeing its historical warts.

When I would mention my glowing opinion of Buddhism to friends from Japan, they often warned me that perhaps its history was not actually that rosy. To take the case of Japan then: Kammu was an eighth century emperor who was kind of like their Augustus, King Arthur and Carlos V all rolled into one, and he was in power only a couple centuries after Buddhism arrived. Kammu actually moved the capital to Kyoto because the Buddhists (centered in Nara) were getting their fingers into the government. Starting around the twelfth century, Buddhist priests there engineered a caste of untouchables to work with beef and leather, because people needed it, but killing animals was a sin and the work of unclean minds - so, you create a workaround, and in so doing condemn part of the population and their descendants to moral degradation. Only today are these people reintegrating into Japanese society, and in some places where they are still gathered in single rural towns, the town is not even put on the map. A Buddhist order of guerilla warriors even developed (the yamabushi, the hiders-in-the-mountains).

More recently, Buddhist involvement in promoting the Second World War was striking - you can read about this in Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything. I found that passage simultaneously disillusioning and enlightening. It's been a long time since I felt that disappointment which comes when you're factually disabused of a long-held notion, and for this I thank Msr. Hitchens. Last but not least among these injustices, the big Zen temple in Kyoto was going to charge me twenty bucks just to look inside. That's the greatest tragedy of all!

Thoughts for another post: Japanese Buddhists think nothing of visiting a Shinto shrine. How many Christians go to synagogue at Yom Kippur? There are other instances in Asia of tolerance of religion up to and including crossover between followers of established religion (like the otherwise brutal Mongols not giving a damn what religion their subjects were; like Buddhists operating some Hindu temples in Nepal). These examples go so far beyond mere unconscious syncretism, like Christians having Christmas trees, that it is difficult for Westerners to understand ("how can you be Shingon Buddhist! You're at a Shinto shrine!" "But we always toast oranges here every year at this time.") Why this allowance for multiple religious institutions for single individuals? Is the exclusivity meme an Abrahamic one?

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