What to Call Faith

From the outside, I’m not sure that people would have thought of my home, growing up, as “religious.” For one thing, the word “religious” itself seems to have a rather negative connotation for us enlightened modern people. We know better now. People often seem to think of “Religious” as Puritanism or Evangelism. One’s from growing up and having to wear silly hats in kindergarten and the other is from watching too much media “news” and infomercials. And in my (parents’) house, we don’t have crosses/crucifixes on every wall, or whatever else religion in the home is supposed to look like. One of the cars did have an ichthys (“Jesus fish”) though. And we always had plenty of Bibles.

At any rate, I was raised in the Christian faith. To believe in God, however you chose to worship. My brother is Baptist. My aunt and uncle are Catholic. Like my mom, I am Presbyterian. At least I think I am. It’s hard to be “religious” (read “believe”) in this current culture. Christianity is seen as the province of the crazy conservative Rightists. Or maybe my mind is making it up. Or maybe, to a certain extent it’s the college atmosphere. Or maybe it’s because I personally have had trouble finding my faith. After leaving home to go to community college in Southern CA (my home county didn’t have a community college) I pretty much stopped attending church. So there might be some lingering guilt. There are lots of distractions in modern life. It’s easy to form idols: out of celebrities, money, grades. Science. Believing is not easy, and it’s not supposed to be.

So when Perry Garfinkel, in Buddha or Bust, tried to convince the head priest of Rinsoin (a Zen Buddhist temple) Hoitsu Suzuki that Americans have imbedded what he called “Judeo-Christian” traditions in their/our culture as thoroughly as Japan has Buddhism because

“Yes, we look to God,” I said. “God is there even in our casual language. We say, ‘God bless you,’ when you sneeze. We say, ‘Thank God that truck didn’t run me over.’ We say ‘God damn it’ when we stub our toe when Matsui strikes out.”

And when Suzuki-roshi responds “‘Who is this God you keep talking about?’” Garfinkel sees it as a revelation. He sees that “Belief in God is perpetuated suffering.” He is enlightened.

I really want to quote the whole thing now. And this section wouldn’t irritate me so much if it wasn’t couched in such universal terms. It’s evident that Garfinkel doesn’t have a strong personal belief to defend. For instance, his use of the phrase “Judeo-Christian” traditions. He has said that he was raised in a Jewish household, although I don’t think he mentioned how strongly traditional they were. However, you can’t compare “Judeo-Christian” traditions to a single religion like Buddhism. In a high school history class, when asked what was the largest religion, “Christianity” without the “Judeo-” attached, couldn’t be the answer. It included too many religions to be considered one religion.

I think what Garfinkel is enlightened to is his own lack of belief. And perhaps when he discusses his (personal) enlightenment in universal terms, it’s simply habit because he is a journalist. At the very least, I suspect Suzuki-roshi was certainly responding to Garfinkel’s lack of personal faith. Garfinkel (in one of the more problematic sections, for me) writes “That in itself may be the reason we invent God, because it is easier to point the finger than to take the blame,” which is certainly not why I choose to believe, and he then calls his own comments in his conversation a “pointless game of intellectual masturbation.”

The way he’s been talking? Yes, it is. Suzuki-roshi notices. It’s a careless argument. Garfinkel, up to this point, doesn’t seem to realize that he doesn’t believe. His “faith” and the faith on the part of our culture that he tries to evidentiate through empty phrases like “God bless you,” are not real. They’re habits. Left over from people who grew up around religion but never found “it” themselves. That’s how language works.

It’s not how faith works. And I think Garfinkel was fortunate that someone finally pointed out the difference to him.

Sacred Profanity

All religions have a sacred place. But a sacred place isn’t necessarily a religious or spiritual place. Sacred is not incompatible with secular concepts. Many consider Jerusalem to be a sacred place. Others find sites like Gettysburg, or even Yellowstone National Park, sacred.

In Buddha or Bust, Perry Garfinkel relates the story of his travels to Bodh Gaya, one of the most sacred sites in Buddhism. It is where, one could very simplistically say—and I will—the Buddha became the Buddha. Siddhartha Guatama struggled with his spirituality, first trying to attain it through deprivation, nearly starving himself. When he realized that he was none the happier for it, he changed tactics. After recovering, he decided to meditate: “he simply notes [his thoughts] without judgment as the focus of this minute attention rises and then, inevitably, fades away.” Kind of a “don’t sweat the small stuff” realization.

After he realizes this, he finds a nice tree and sits under a tree, vowing not to leave until enlightenment. Under the tree, he confronts M­āra, in the Vedic mythology, a god of love…thought the name means death. M­āra tempts him, with the traditional temptations of power, lust and fear. Siddhartha calls upon the earth to testify—which it does. This is not the end of his journey though. To become the Buddha, he continues with his meditation and gains knowledge of his past lives, the “superhuman divine eye” and the Four Noble Truths,” pillars on which he builds the dharma. And then he hangs out at the tree for another several weeks—understandably a bit overwhelmed. The area is known as the Vajrasana.

I didn’t mean to talk quite so much about Buddhist history. But without knowing the history, it’s hard to determine why people consider a site sacred. Especially one from another tradition. But knowing that history, it is clear why Buddhists see Bodh Gaya as such a sacred place.

Like most sacred sites today, though, Bodh Gaya has caught the attention of Tourists. And the place has been overrun. Not just by the tourists, but by those taking advantage of the tourists. As Garfinkel puts it, it’s more of a “spiritual three-ring circus” than simply a spiritual epicenter. There is simply no way, as he discovered, to recreate the Buddha’s experience. And ironically, the attention may have begun to harm the sacred site: the Bodhi Tree had been infested by the mealybug—possibly relating to the activities of the devout.

Garfinkel does not actually say that he sees Bodh Gaya’s “three-ring circus” as a bad thing. When writing of the plans the Indian tourism department has for bypass roads, Garfinkel points out that “Bodh Gaya will have less traffic, less noise and less air pollution—and less character—than when…I was there.” Generally, for the US and journalists, character is considered a virtue. He also points out that people look for distractions from Enlightenment. That’s why the Buddha is so revered. If it was easy, anyone could do it.

Garfinkel calls it “the sense of peace that nonetheless manages to transcend even the chaos here.”

All the while Garfinkel discusses his visit with the tour, he points out how superior he feels to the others with him. He knows how to ignore the beggars, and to rise above the surrounding poverty. He isn’t naïve like that poor rich woman from, and is perfectly aware of social injustices as a fact of life—even when she cannot. Then, when he is in the Mahakala caves, he finds himself confessing to one instance in which he was particularly obnoxious to another traveler. He confesses, and then realizes that he can let the incident go. He doesn’t have to feel guilty, or even superior, any longer.

But in the caves, he’s already pointed out, it still feels to him as though they must be the same as 2,500 years ago. But in letting go of that instance, he also let go of his own expectations. “Bodh Gaya is no place for intellectual nitpicking.”

Because Bodh Gaya wouldn’t be a tourist destination if no one believed in the Buddha and his teachings. People come to the site to connect with their history…or at least the history of their beliefs. They find their own meaning there, not dependant on the outside conditions. If Buddha found his enlightenment there, then not everyone else needs to. He went to teach others his principles so that they could find enlightenment in their own place.

Bodh Gaya is sacred because the believers make it so. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Little plastic Buddhas? Well people only like marble because it’s expensive. Let’s not be elitist.

*Another post from my class blog.  I’m not as happy with this one, but not quite ready to edit it. I need to think some more about it.  I’d appreciate feedback though.

Baby Boomer Buddha

My parents are of the baby boomer generation. Unfortunately, they were not “anti-establishment Beatniks…anti-war peaceniks…antinuke activists who saw the world coming unhinged by assignations, nuclear proliferation and military buildup,” as Perry Garfinkel describes in his book, Buddha or Bust.(1) So when Garfinkel paralleled the Axial Age to his generation of rebels, I raised my eyebrows a bit, ’cause I didn’t follow. It seemed a bit presumptuous to appropriate the head of an ancient religion—even if he did point that out stretch himself.

But even as I geared my arguments for dismissing the relevance of the comparison (and even as I still disagree with the use of the term “baby boomer” for what I see as an entirely different phenomenon) there may well be a useful implication of that observation.

Right or wrong, however, when I think of the baby boomers, I think of their image now, which is only the reference point I have. What I remember hearing of the baby boomers is their discontent, yes, but usually in the context of dissatisfaction. Materialism. Entitlement. Other such, rather less positive, terms.

The “baby boomer” generation was so named because couples fresh after World War II found themselves with far too much disposable income, and lavished most of it on their families. The kids produced in this era found themselves embarrassed by parents spending too much and making themselves foolish in the rush of keeping up with the Joneses.(2)

That kind of situation is where Siddhartha (the Buddha) is supposed to have come from.

So could Buddha be described as the world’s first baby boomer? He was the stereotypical pampered prince, never even allowed outside the palace walls. Unlike the Disney movies, though, he didn’t get out until he was nearly thirty and already married with children. At any rate, he did eventually find his way out of the palace walls—and despite all precautions, was presented with the reality of human suffering. He realized that one day he would grow old, even die. So he became an ascetic. After six years he realized, it really didn’t help. In a move of such profound common sense that it had to be formalized into religion, the Buddha realized happiness might be better found along a “middle way”.(3)

I think this says more about Garfinkel’s philosophy than about Buddha’s—as a baby boomer himself, that particular feeling of disillusionment would be most resonant with him. If anything, I find it irritating only that Garfinkel discounts how often such disillusionment comes to different generations…the Industrial Revolution was hard on people.

But whether the Buddha could be counted as a baby boomer? Maybe that’s not the most important question. Garfinkel seems to use him as a role model—implicitly at least—for the baby boomers who have not yet found a middle path. Like himself. Some people spend years jumping from quick fix to quick fix, and never find the stillness to really have a middle path of their own. Calling Buddha a baby boomer might make him relatable to those people…especially the ones who dismiss Buddhism as just more new age-y claptrap from their misguided youth.

1. Or should I say, there is no evidence for it. You could argue my mom went to Humboldt…but I’m going to Chico, and frankly, I stay home most nights. Also, she’s (mostly) Norwegian. We’re just generally boring people, even if we do chose “exciting” colleges.

2. I made that up as a reason. Kids are always embarrassed by their parents, aren’t they? And the philosophy of generations tends to follow a rather pendulum-like swing of reaction.

3. In no way is this intended to be disparaging. If anything is a misnomer, “common sense” is. It’s not common, nor is it often simply a “sense.” It takes a lot of work, and the Buddha seems to have been a skilled practitioner. Believer or not, that’s admirable work.