Religions of Man

Religious scholar Huston Smith is 92 today. A very happy birthday to him.

Smith is best known for his book “The Religions of Man”, first published in 1958, which evidently is now titled “The World’s Religions.”  It’s a classic primer to comparative religion.

I have always thought his section on Buddhism was rather good. I especially like the way he starts off:

Buddhism begins with a man . . . While the rest of the world was wrapped in the womb of sleep, dreaming a dream known as the waking life, one man roused himself. Buddhism begins with a man who shook off the daze, the doze, the dream-like inchoateness of ordinary awareness. It begins with a man who woke up.”

Unlike other religious philosophies, Buddhism is not concerned with magic or the supernatural. Buddha-dharma is about human beings, human affairs, earthly events. The experience Gautama had beneath the Bodhi Tree was neither mystical nor mysterious; it was a human experience. It has to be, or else we could never hope to have the same experience ourselves.

Smith tell us that the Buddha’s teachings were earth-bound, rational, and pragmatic. He lists six corollaries of religion and then gives six reasons why Buddha-dharma is “almost entirely disassociated” with them:

1. Buddha preached a religion devoid of authority.

2. Buddha preached a religion devoid of ritual.

3. Buddha preached a religion devoid of speculation.

4. Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition.

5. Buddha preached a religion of intense self-effort.

6. Buddha preached a religion devoid of the supernatural.

Then he presents six terms that summarize the Buddha’s approach to religion:

1. It was empirical.

2. It was scientific.

3. It was pragmatic.

4. It was therapeutic.

5. It was democratic.

6. It was directed to individuals.

[Smith offers an explanation to each of these, however it would too lengthy to include them here.]

This is the humanistic aspect of Buddhism, which I feel is its main characteristic.  A philosophy given by a human being to human beings. Teachings that address human problems, the human malaise, human suffering. Although there may be gods in the background, the dharma Buddha taught was not about them. The mystery he was seeking to solve was the mystery within the human mind.

Earlier in the book, Smith writes,

Finally religion brushes with mystery. It is always mixed up with magic and mysticism and miracles; with the occult, the esoteric, and the uncanny; with things like spiritualism and the supernatural. Rationalists may complain and all will deplore its credulity and excesses in some of these directions. Religion’s final business is the infinite, the beyond, the beckoning, and its coin is ecstasy. It will always, therefore, lie tangential to what is mundane, ordinary, and prosaic and move away from these even when it can only grope in the direction of their alternative.

If by “tangential” Smith means that Buddhism hardly touches upon the “mundane, ordinary, and prosaic,” I would disagree. Those things lie in the direction the Buddha encouraged us to head toward. It is the mystical that is tangential. Mysticism may be employed, but it is only a tool. Supernatural powers may be on display within the literature, but for us in the modern world, they should be taken as metaphors.

In “The Religions of Man”, Huston Smith says, “Religion’s final business is the infinite.” Interestingly, Rabindranath Tagore, whose phrase “the endless further” I took for the title of this blog, is well known for his book “The Religion of Man.” It was published some 27 years before Smith’s book and while it was not on the subject of comparative religion per se, Tagore did discuss at length his ideas on the universality of religion. This passage conveys what I think Buddhism means when it talks about the infinite. Here, Tagore is discussing

[What] Buddha has described as Brahmavihara, “living in the infinite”. He [Buddha] says . . . ‘To be dwelling in such contemplation while standing, walking, sitting or lying down, until sleep overcomes thee, is called living in Brahma’.

This proves that Buddha’s idea of the infinite was not the idea of a spirit of an unbounded cosmic activity, but the infinite whose meaning is in the positive ideal of goodness and love, which cannot be otherwise than human. By being charitable, good and loving, you do not realize the infinite, in the stars or rocks, but the infinite revealed in Man. Buddha’s teaching speaks of Nirvana as the highest end. To understand its real character we have to know the path of its attainment, which is not merely through the negation of evil thoughts and deeds but through the elimination of all limits to love. It must mean the sublimation of self in a truth which is love itself, which unites in its bosom all those to whom we must offer our sympathy and service.

On one hand, to say that religion is “of man” is curious, for what creatures on this planet other than ‘man’ or humankind have religion?  On the other hand, it points to the bothersome truth that all religions, all gods, and the supernatural were created by humans.  Here is where, in my opinion, Buddhism has an advantage, because of its secular and humanistic qualities, Buddhism can be viewed as a path that goes beyond religion.  This is where I think we should all go, beyond the misty realms of the divine and into the world of humanity . . . beyond illusion and into the real.

Huston Smith writes,

Buddhism begins with a man . . . a man who woke up.”


Guilt vs. Empowement

If you want to have truly enjoyable sex then stay away from religion. That’s according to Darrel Ray and Amanda Brown’s “Sex and Secularism” survey. They claim that atheists have far better sex lives than religious people who are plagued with too much guilt to have any fun fornicating. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, and Baptists have the highest levels of guilt, while Catholics and Lutherans are at the lower end.

I don’t know where Buddhists rank in this, if at all, because I didn’t download the full study. To do that you have to sign up for whatever it is Darrel Ray is selling. Apparently, he is a noted psychologist and atheist who may or may not have some affiliation with the University of Kansas (his assistant in the survey is a student there). I should also mention that this was an online survey (of 14,500 people, it’s claimed) and as such I don’t know if it passes the muster for academic surveys, which I  assume is what Ray is purporting it to be.

“I saw my parents as gods whose every wish must be obeyed or I would suffer the penalty of anguish and guilt.” – Natalie Wood

Still, I think there might be some truth there. Certainly religion is not the only cause for guilt. Yet, there’s no escaping the fact that for thousands of years, guilt and religion have seemed inseparable. At least, here in the West.

All of us experience feelings of guilt from time to time. Some folks more than others. Research suggests that guilt settles in around the ages of three to six. Some psychologists believe that guilt can be healthy stimulus to change our behavior for the better. Buddhism doesn’t see it quite like that.

We often see guilt defined as a “feeling of responsibility.” Actually, though, it is a form of feeling. In Buddhism, guilt is viewed as a negative emotion, a form of self-loathing. It’s just another suffering.

The Buddha encouraged his followers to face their problems with clear and calm minds. Acknowledging one’s faults and errors and taking responsibility is crucial, as is repentance. According to Wikipedia, “Repentance is a change of thought to correct a wrong . . .”

[By the way, a few months ago I wrote about confession and repentance in Buddhism. You can read it here.]

“Sin, guilt, neurosis; they are one and the same, the fruit of the tree of knowledge.” – Henry Miller

This is what Buddhism asks us to do: change our thoughts. Buddhism never encourages us to be passive. There is always some action to be taken. A change in thinking can lead to a change in behavior. The self-pity and shame that accompanies guilt is not constructive. What is constructive, however, is to make a determination to not want to do it anymore.

“Want” is the key word here, because guilt, I believe, is a choice. Some people want to feel guilty, they want to feel bad. They subconsciously seek out negative experiences (or create them) and, as in the repetition compulsion Freud talked about, they repeat behaviors that produce feelings such as guilt. Or, they assume guilt needlessly.

Life is too fleeting to remain trapped in negative cycles. Every situation we face is an opportunity to gain wisdom. Guilt gets in the way of that. It’s a dead end street. I don’t believe it is a natural consequence of having a conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong, which I think is more akin to a crossroads. Because we know the difference between right and wrong, we can make the choice which way to go in the future. Lamenting over the past just wastes the time that could be better spent learning the lesson life is giving us and accepting our responsibility to change the situation by changing ourselves.

This approach is not unique to Buddhism. Just yesterday in Joplin, Mo., where no doubt some people are dealing with “survivor guilt”, President Obama said these words:

We can’t know when a terrible storm will strike or where or the severity of the destruction it may cause. . . .We can’t know why we are tested with the loss of a loved one, the loss of a home where we’ve lived a lifetime. These things are beyond our power to control but that does not mean that were are powerless in face of adversity. How we respond when the storm strikes is up to us. How we live in the aftermath of tragedy and heartache, that’s within our control, and it’s in these moments, through our actions, that we often see the glimpse of what makes life worth living in the first place.”

Not all the storms of life are caused by weather, natural forces. We can create storms and the devastation they wreak is not always physical. And, just as there is not just one form of suffering, there is neither a single solution or single path for overcoming suffering. However, because of the emphasis on inner-directed contemplation and motivation, I feel that Buddhism offers rather effective solutions, which pierce directly into the heart of these storms.

In some cases, guilt is an indication of low self-esteem. Guilt and low self-esteem are mutually self-destructive, because for a person who already feels bad about themselves, adding on guilt only compounds the problem.

This is why the Dalai Lama, during his first visit to the United States in 1973, said this:

In such situations, where there is a danger of feeling guilty and therefore depressed, the Buddhist point of view advises adopting certain ways of thinking and behaving which will enable you to recover your self-confidence . . . Because such disturbing emotions are adventitious, they can be eliminated. To think of the immense well of potential hidden deep within our being, to understand that the nature of the mind is fundamental purity and kindness and to meditate on its luminosity, will enable you to develop self-confidence and courage.”

When we talk about the “self” in this way, we are not referring to the fictional self of ego and soul, the Big Me. Rather we are referring to self in the relative sense, i.e. our distinct individuality, our personal characteristics, the consciousness of our own identity or being.

“There was guilt in her smile, but nothing you could call remorse.” – Nick Charles, ex-Private Eye

As I’ve written several times recently, the practice and study of Buddhism should leave us feeling empowered. I’m not sure that message always comes through in Buddhist discussions, so I don’t feel guilty about repeating it.

Buddha told us to be like a lamp so that we can see light in a world of darkness. So that others can see the light. We are the light and knowing that should give us strength to persevere in any situation, to persevere in spite of ourselves. The light we shine also illuminates our way, keeps us from stumbling over the stones of such things as guilt.


Go For Broke! In Honor of Memorial Day and Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month

Some words about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team:

I have never been comfortable with the notion of a “good” war. I think perhaps the lone exception is World War II. A confrontation in the starkest terms between good and evil.

The 442nd was a WWII infantry unit composed of Japanese-Americans, the most highly decorated unit in American military history:  9,846 Purple Hearts, 4000 Bronze Stars, 15 Soldier’s Medals, 22 Legion of Merit medals, 560 Silver Stars, 1 Distinguished Service Medal, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 21 Medals of Honor.

The 442nd hike up a muddy French road in France, in late 1944.

These men were Nisei, Japanese Americans born on U.S. soil. Many of them volunteered for service out of the camps where their country had interred them. Interred is a polite word for imprisoned.

Soldiers from Hawaii called themselves Buta-heads (Buddha-heads).

In 1951, MGM filmed the story of the 442nd in Go for Broke starring Van Johnson. There’s a scene where a Catholic chaplain is speaking to a wounded Nisei soldier lying on a stretcher. Noticing the beads in the soldier’s hand, the chaplain asks why he hasn’t seen him at any of the services.  The soldier says, “Different type of rosary.  I’m Buddhist, Father.” The priest pats him on the shoulder and reassures him that he is there if the soldier needs him.

A Nisei soldier looks for German movements in a French valley 200 yards away.

During WW ll, military Chaplains were either Christian or Jewish. When Eleanor Roosevelt asked if any of the Japanese American soldiers were Buddhist, she was told no. In the absence of Buddhist chaplains, many Buddhist soldiers seeking spiritual guidance converted to Christianity. The U.S. Military would not allow a “B”, signifying Buddhist, on dog tags claiming it would confuse medics looking for a soldier’s blood type and the space was left blank.

The 442nd fought in eight major campaigns in Italy, France and Germany, including the battles at Belmont, Bruyeres and Biffontaine. It was at Biffontaine where the unit fought the legendary battle to rescue the Lost Battalion. 800 Nisei soldiers died rescuing 211 members of the Texan 1st Battalion.

This is the event that stands out in my mind: when members of the 442nd were attached to the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion and they participated in the liberation of a Dachau concentration camp. I wonder what it must have been like for a young Japanese-American, having left an internment camp to go fight for the country that put him there, to be witness to the horror of a Nazi death camp, sharing food with Jewish inmates who were nothing but skin and bones  . . .

When the Nisei soldiers were sent ahead, they followed the same path that the Nazi’s used to march Jewish inmates to the camp. They noticed lumps in the snow and went to investigate. One of them later said, “Most of them were skeletons or people who had been beaten to death or just died of starvation or overworked or whatever. Most of them I think died from exposure because it was cold.”*

When you meet members of the 442nd, they’re just like the other American soldiers of that generation. They don’t much care to talk about the war.

You can learn more about the 442nd by visiting the Go For Broke National Education Center and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team Historical Society. In reading the history of the unit and the individual stories, one might be tempted to think some screenwriter thought it all up. Countless acts of bravery, heroism, selflessness. Living in the misery of rain, mud and snow. Death, a constant companion . . . It was real, their war was hard, and these Asian-Americans, like all the other WWII soldiers deserve our appreciation.

“All of us can’t stay in the [internment] camps until the end of the war.  Some of us have to go to the front.  Our record on the battlefield will determine when you will return and how you will be treated.  I don’t know if I’ll make it back.”
– Technical Sergeant Abraham Ohama, Company “F”, 442nd RCT, Killed in Action 10/20/1944

President Barack Obama talks with his guests before signing S.1055, a bill to grant the Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, in recognition of their dedicated service during World War II, in the Oval Office.

*George Oiye testimonial.


Jacaranda Time

Severe weather is still pounding the Midwest. The videos of these tornadoes are awe-inspiring, just as the scenes of the devastation they leave behind are heartbreaking.

Here in Southern California we’ve had unseasonably cool temperatures and unusual wet weather, but the last few days that’s changed and it’s beginning to feel more like spring. And since it’s May, that means it’s Jacaranda time.

I don’t believe the Jacaranda mimosifolia or Blue jacaranda we have here are native. From what I understand they originated in South America and were transplanted. Jacarandas are a bit like cherry blossoms in that they drop from the trees almost as soon as they bloom.  The Jacarandas tend to drop slower, though, and some blossoms stick for up to two months, while cherry blossoms are normally gone within two weeks.

To me, both  represent the transient nature of life.

Here are some photos I took yesterday of the big jacaranda tree down the street from me. You can click on them for a larger view. And I have more photos of the jacarandas, from a previous year, here.

It is precisely
because all is transient
that even mute trees
put forth blossoms in the springtime
and in autumn shed brown leaves.

Otomo no Yakamochi (718?-785)

One cannot rely
on things to stay as they are –
for on the morrow
this day we call today
will be called yesterday.

Monk Saigyo (1118-1190)

While I gazed out,
barely conscious that I too
was growing old,
how many times have blossoms
scattered on the spring wind?

Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241)

Well one may wish –
but will those who have parted
return once again?

Late into the evening,
mountains where blossoms fall.

Bishop Shinkei (1406-1475)


True Buddhism

When I was involved with the Soka Gakkai, they used to call the teachings of Nichiren, “True Buddhism.” I imagine they still do, and they are not the only ones to describe their brand of Buddhism that way. However, such sectarian claims are now quickly crumbling in light of new scholarship.

Last week there was an interesting article published on entitled “Whose Buddhism is Truest?” It’s about the discovery of some birch bark scrolls in an area of eastern Afghanistan/northwest Pakistan that was once known as Gandhara. This locale at one time was also the center of a Buddhist civilization. Gandhara art is mostly Buddhist, done in the Greco-Roman style, and includes not only the earliest known oil paintings but also some of the earliest representations of the Buddha’s likeness. The giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan were a part of this incredible legacy, and sad to say, Buddhist artifacts from the Gandhara era are still being destroyed by the Taliban.

Somewhere around 1994, the aforementioned birch bark scrolls were discovered and eventually wound up at the British Library. It was soon apparent that these were the oldest Buddhist manuscripts in existence. Perhaps the first thing researchers noticed was that the manuscripts were written in a language previously unknown. Not Pali, not Sanskrit, or any other Indian language. This led to the conclusion that not only were they the oldest Buddhist manuscripts, but they were “the oldest surviving manuscripts of South Asia, period. They reach back into an era when the oral tradition of Buddhism probably first began to be written down.” What’s more, some of the material is new.

You can read all the details in the article here. In the meantime, here are some excerpts to give you an idea of the impact of this discovery:

[These] scrolls and scroll fragments are a stunning find: an entirely new strand of Buddhist literature.

[Scholars traditionally thought] that if they traced the various branches of the tree of Buddhist textual history back far enough, they would arrive at the single ancestral root . . .

As scholars scrutinized the Gandhari texts, however, they saw that history didn’t work that way at all . . . It was a mistake to assume that the foundation of Buddhist textual tradition was singular, that if you followed the genealogical branches back far enough into the past they would eventually converge. Traced back in time, the genealogical branches diverged and intertwined in such complex relationships that [the model] broke down completely . . .

It is now clear that none of the existing Buddhist collections of early Indian scriptures—not the Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, nor even the Gandhari—‘can be privileged as the most authentic or original words of the Buddha.”

These scrolls are incontrovertible proof that as early as the first century B.C.E., there was another significant living Buddhist tradition in a separate region of India and in an entirely different language from the tradition preserved in Pali.

In other words, there is more to Buddhist history than we know. Well, it’s not news to me and if you have followed this blog for any length of time, you know that I have said as much on several occasions.

The story of Buddhism that has been handed down to us has many gaps in it and has been spun in order to legitimatize tradition and solidify the monastic/priestly power base. The question folks should ask themselves is this: If we are to follow the teachings and try to cultivate an enlightened mind, a mind that is open and vast like space, shouldn’t the vehicle for these teaching also be open and vast? When I say open and vast here, I chiefly mean in the sense of being non-fundamentalist and inclusionary.

One thing is for sure, it is time to lay down sectarian posturing. For example, the Theravada tradition claims that the Buddha spoke Pali (which he didn’t) and that their Buddhism is the original Buddhism, and so they expect everyone else to bow down to them. On the other extreme, we have the Nichiren schools who claim that the historical Buddha actually taught the Lotus Sutra and yet, in some amazingly convoluted reasoning, the Buddhism of the historical Buddha is invalid and only dharma based on the Lotus Sutra should be practiced. Both claims are ludicrous and between those two poles there are quite a few variations of the same kind of dogma.

As we pry open the dharma gates to make Buddhism more accessible, reasonable and understandable to greater numbers of people, we come face-to-face with one prime point.

In The philosophy of the middle way: Mulamadhyamakakarika By Nagarjuna, David J. Kalupahana writes,

Myths of huge proportions have developed around the spiritual and philosophical stature of various personalities in almost every school of Buddhism. Often these myths were inflated by sectarian rivalries that continued to plague the history of Buddhism, especially the rivalry between the two major schools, Theravada and Mahayana. These prejudices tended to polarize the philosophical teachings of these two traditions though, in fact, they are similar if not identical. They are similar in being faithful to the basic teachings of the Buddha; they are also comparable in the way in which they rejected certain metaphysical ideas that continued to creep into the teachings . . .

The continuation of certain sectarian prejudices among the faithful adherents of Theravada and Mahayana may be understandable. Critical scholarship, on the contrary, has a responsibility to remain unsmeared by such sectarian prejudices. Modern scholarship in Buddhism, which began with the recognition of this sectarian rivalry as representing a major split in Buddhist philosophical and religious ideology, has come a long way in asserting its untenability. However, scholars are now beginning to realize that the Theravada/Mahayana distinction is an exaggeration and that the fundamental teaching of the Buddha has remained intact throughout the centuries.”

In the final analysis, once we remove the veils of sectarianism and have debunked all the myths, we come down to the clear fact that the message and the goal of Buddhism is essentially the same despite whatever name you give it or however you spin it.

I teach only suffering and the end of suffering.”

– The Buddha

It’s all meat on the same bone.

Transcending suffering and being of benefit to others, that is True Buddhism.

Everything else is flavoring.