January 12, 2010

Buddhism's Dictionary

Brit Hume’s comments regarding Tiger Wood’s religion have been bouncing back and forth in the media and blogosphere for over a week. On the surface, I found the original comment innocuous. “He’s said to be a Buddhist. I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. ” Okay? So what?

Hume is expressing a perfectly valid personal opinion. I don’t find it offensive, only a little ignorant. He’s right when he says Buddhism doesn’t offer forgiveness and redemption in the Christian sense, because in Buddhism (so far as I can tell) neither concept exists. They aren’t important. He’s trying to sell Christianity by touting benefits that few Buddhists would think they need. It’s like trying to sell a washing machine with a satellite uplink. Why would anyone need that? However, Hume is perfectly within his rights to believe what he does and try to advise others to do so.

It's interesting that so many non-Buddhists are outraged, some claim on our behalf, which I doubt. They’ve managed to successfully make the mountain. Meanwhile the Buddhist response (that I've seen) has been very cordial. It’s all very strange for me. Perhaps more interesting is that the stage for all this debate is a very theistic one. The pundits all scrambled to find real, genuine, official Buddhists to comment and then asked all the wrong questions.

Rick Sanchez over on CNN wanted to know “Is Christianity better than Buddhism as far as redemption and forgiveness goes?” He asked Ethan Nichtern, who didn’t rise to the bait and described the mechanisms Buddhism provides that fill the same role as forgiveness and redemption, thereby couching the debate within familiar Christian language. This is where I think the mistake lies.

“Is Buddhsim a good place to look for redemption or forgiveness? Does it offer it?” Sanchez asked.

Ethan immediately replied “I think it definitely does.” He then went on to talk about meditation practice and becoming in touch with our minds and hearts and work with things we want to change.

Karen Maezan Miller on Shambhala Sun Space took exception to Ross Douthat’s column in the New York Times in which he stated “…these believers are colluding in their own marginalization. If you treat your faith like a hothouse flower, too vulnerable to survive in the crass world of public disputation, then you ensure that nobody will take it seriously.”

She responded by quoting her Lutheran mother: “The faith that competes is not faith. The faith that disputes is not faith. The faith that defends is not faith. The faith that debates is not faith. The faith that needs others to take it seriously is not faith.”

I think she, and her mother, are spot on, but again, they are couching the dialogue in theistic terms. One of the commenters, J Shaw in Seattle, had a very prescient response to Douthat’s column.

“As a practicing Christian, I find this demeaning and immature, that anyone would choose a faith for any reason other than their perception of its truthfulness. I find the existence of a loving God and his offer of salvation to be the best news ever told, but I wouldn't be a Christian if I didn't also believe it was actually the case.

“If Woods were to convert to Christianity (and it is within my rights and Hume's to hope that he does so), he may find a theology of sin and salvation which is more comforting to him than what he had in Buddhism (then again, maybe not). But this is no reason to convert. No, conversion should only come with genuine belief.”

For me, and perhaps only me, Buddhism has nothing to do with faith, belief, forgiveness, or redemption, at least as they are understood in the Christian sense. As Ethan pointed out to Sanchez, Buddhism does have mechanisms for dealing with suffering (whether from cheating on one’s spouse or anything else) which can bring the same kind of positive change and peace of mind that redemption brings to Christians, but to say that it is redemption is disingenuous.

To even call Buddhism a faith at all seems like a misnomer. The Buddha told us to question, test, try, experiment, and to never believe anything anyone told us just because they said so, including him. What I have in Buddhism is not so much faith as the benefit of the doubt, a “that sounds true, I think I’ll try it” intuition. Maybe this isn’t enough for some people, but it works for me. Faith, as I was taught faith, is belief in something that cannot be proven. Buddhism is, supposedly, the exact opposite, a system that can be proven through each person’s experience of it. If this were not so then all the assertions of the buddhanature and potential for awakening within each of us are just that, assertions with nothing behind them but words.

Can we (and should we) talk about Buddhism in this country without using Christian language? Without resorting to words like faith and foregiveness, and all the Christian baggage that comes with them? I may use the word "believe" sometimes, but never in the absolute sense, never in the Christian sense. What I believe is just a best guess at any point in time and so subject to drastic change. It's also always wrong, as conceptual thoughts are, but I haven't gotten away from them yet, so I'm stuck with the language.

We need new words (or no words?) to be able to talk about things without tripping over theistic concepts.


Teacher Jim said...


greenfrog said...


Well said, Monica.

Sean said...

Maybe we ought to use philosophical rather than religious terminology.

Christianity has always been a religion seeking a metaphysic, in contrast to Buddhism which is a metaphysic generating a religion.