March 15, 2013

Buddha Buzz: A New President, A New Pope, and The Most Depressing Infographic Ever

Buddha Buzz will be short and sweet today, as this afternoon the Tricycle office was hosting Thai forest monk and abbot of Metta Forest Monastery Thanissaro Bhikkhu. He recently published a really excellent guide to meditation called With Each and Every Breath. Like all of his books, it is free to download. You can do so here. (And personally, I highly encourage you to do so. It's good stuff.)

Than Geoff and staff

Thanissaro Bhikkhu with Editorial Assistant Alex Caring-Lobel, Associate Editor Emma Varvaloucas, Managing Editor Rachel Hiles, Editor and Publisher James Shaheen, and Digital Media Coordinator Andrew Gladstone

As I'm sure you already know, this week we saw some shakeups in world leadership. There's a new pope, Pope Francis I, a Jesuit from Buenos Aires who, if Wikipedia is to be believed, is the first non-European pope in 1,282 years. I'm not so excited about his views on abortion and LGBTQ rights—he described the pro-choice movement as a "culture of death" and opposes same-sex marriage—but we are talking about the Catholic church, so it's not like I can realistically feign surprise. I haven't turned up anything about Pope Francis' views on Buddhism or his relationship with Buddhists, but he does say that he is open to dialogue with other religious faiths, so we'll have to wait and see about that. I bet a nice photo of him and HHDL hanging out will surface on the Internet soon.

On Thursday Xi Jinping became China's new president, replacing Hu Jintao in a once-a-decade power shift in the Communist party. Coincidentally, last Sunday was Tibetan Uprising Day, which commemorates the 1959 Tibetan rebellion against Chinese occupation that led to HHDL's escape into India. In honor of the occasion, Al Jazeera English has created what is known around the Tricycle office as "the most depressing infographic ever": an interactive visualization that shows the increasing number of Tibetan self-immolations in recent years. The current count is at 112.

Self Immolation Infographic

Number of self immolations as of January 1, 2011

Self Immolation Infographic

Number of self immolations as of March 4, 2013

Over at Vice, Michael Muhammad Knight has written a compelling piece called "The Problem with White Converts." (If I'm not mistaken, Knight is a white convert, so we know at least that the guy has a healthy sense of irony.) The article is partly about Henry Steel Olcott, a nineteenth century Theosophist, known as the United States' first Buddhist convert. This isn't entirely true, but Olcott was one of the earliest—and most talkative—Western proponents of Buddhism. Knight writes about him:

Olcott thus took part in a Euro-American reinvention of the Buddha as a modern empiricist philosopher and argued that the Buddha’s teachings were based on science, rather than supernatural claims, and that Buddhism opposed rituals, ceremonies, idolatry, and belief in miracles. This was not a Buddhism based on Olcott’s encounters with Buddhist tradition as people actually lived it in the world, but only the “true Buddhism” that he found in the Buddha’s original message. Olcott’s “true Buddhism” was necessarily contrasted with what he saw as the superstitions and corruptions of uneducated, uncivilized Buddhist masses. In other words, Olcott converted to Buddhism and then claimed to understand the Buddha better than every other Buddhist on the planet.

Sound familiar? We do, unfortunately, see this same idea played out in convert Buddhist communities and literature all the time. We assume that we can separate the "real Buddhism" from its various Asian "cultural containers," like we're not coming at it with any cultural baggage of our own. Or as Knight handily summarizes the problem:

When people assume that “religion” and “culture” exist as two separate categories, culture is then seen as an obstacle to knowing religion. In this view, what born-and-raised members of a religious tradition possess cannot be the religion in its pure, text-based essence, but only a mixture of that essence with local customs and innovated traditions. The convert (especially the white convert, who claims universality, supreme objectivity, and isolation from history, unlike the black convert, whose conversion is read as a response to history), imagined as coming from a place outside culture, becomes privileged as the owner of truth and authenticity. People forget that these white guys aren’t simply extracting “true” meaning from the text, but bringing their own cultural baggage and injecting it into the words.

If you couldn't tell, Knight is known in Islamic circles as being a bit of a provocateur...

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davidhare's picture

The new Pope: as a Nichiren Buddhist ex-Catholic (sometimes I call myself a 'recovering Catholic') I found myself getting really angry when my favourite BBC radio station dropped all its normal news and sport stories to give listeners (most of them atheist) wall-to-wall coverage speculating on the colour of smoke that would emerge in a puff from the Vatican. I then chanted a lot about my devout Catholic upbringing and came to these three conclusions, I will:
1. celebrate and feel grateful for the Catholic teachings that I find valuable,
2. argue against the teachings that slander the dignity of life (such as prejudice against LGBTs)
3. maintain unconditional positive regard for anyone who practises their faith with sincerity and a seeking heart.

More @
David Hare
The Buddhist Life Coach

celticpassage's picture

Seems to me if you get 'really angry' about radio coverage then your #3 is wishful thinking.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Hi, David. I, also, am a Nichiren Buddhist ex-Catholic! Started practicing in 1973 in San Francisco. Glad to meet you.

Will.Rowe's picture

I am glad to know that the new pope does not condone abortion. I do not see how a Catholic, or Buddhist for that matter, could condone killing children. We have the 5 Precepts, one of which admonishes us against killing. Naming a child in the womb a "fetus" changes nothing; this is still a child developing in the womb, not a tooth or mere tissue. I am always amazed at the so called Buddhists who are greatly distressed by the killing of animals or insects yet support killing children.

David Gould's picture

Interesting that he is offended by "white guys wearing the hats of brown guys..." Offended by white Muslim women who wear hijab or Western Buddhist nuns in shades of maroon, gold or grey? I think Western understanding of the religions of the East, has come a long way since the early Theosophists. White or lack Western Buddhists with shaved heads and monastic robes, or having a Tibetan style altar in a New York apartment is not about cultural imperialism or mimicry. These things reflect that we live in a world culture, and Buddhism is part of that experience. To create a haven of practice space in my home, with incense, altar and images is not to pretend that I am Asian, but reflects my inner self. The Western body that I have is not what I had always, and likely may not always have.

Dominic Gomez's picture

My clothes are made by brown and yellow folks wearing American hats across the Pacific from me. Should I be offended?

lucketttm's picture

I disagree that criticism of whites should be equated with racism. After four centuries of colonialism, racial slavery, genocide, segregation and vote suppression, white people like me have a great deal to answer for. To say so out loud may be considered improper in polite society, but it is also historically true, and does not constitute bigotry.

My problem with Knight is rather that, in a single breath, he commits the same error for which he criticizes others. Webb and Olcott, in his view, conceived an artificial ideal of the religions of others, and then found that actual religious practitioners fell short of their ideal. Knight has his own ideal of these same religions. Sadly -- he finds -- Webb, Olcott and other converts fall short of his ideal.

dawn.heyse's picture

I disagree that I should be held responsible for things that other people did long before I was born, simply because they happen to look like me. How is that not racism?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Past is past. The present is our opportunity to create an unprecedented future. It will take an internal, human revolution to change such karma.

dawn.heyse's picture


celticpassage's picture

Well, I'm white and I have nothing to answer for.
Racism is racism no matter who it comes from. Feigned humility isn't humility at all.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Celticpassage, I have to disagree with you when you say that racism is racism no matter who it comes from. This is largely because I understand racial prejudice (which can be enacted by anyone) as being different from racism. This essay does a good job of explaining what I mean by that:

celticpassage's picture

You're free to disagree of course.
I looked at the article and I disagree with it and I also reject the sociologist's definition of racism (assuming that it is actually the one Sociologists use).
I make no distinction between "racial prejudice" and "racism" as you put it.

Dominic Gomez's picture

One can take a similar position on gender: sexual prejudice or sexism. Sexual prejudice would be plain ol' misogyny. Sexism would be locking the ladies in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant.

celticpassage's picture

Yes. The racism in Knight's writing is striking.
I've found though, that people sometimes use self-deprecating remarks in order to express racist anger and yet appear to be the opposite. Most people, except the person themselves, however see through the ruse.

Just as striking is his belief that he is telling people something new when he says that everyone brings their own viewpoint to any religion that they embrace. I suppose he wants to be an author, and it appears that one way to do it nowadays is to write about trivial truths.

Richard Fidler's picture

Knight's assertion that white converts are to be differentiated from "black" converts carries with it racist implications (when you read "white convert", you lump all whites together, attributing certain undesirable characteristics to them--"supreme objectivity," "universality", and "isolation from history"--traits Knight does not acknowledge might exist in "black" converts. As for converts bringing their own "cultural baggage" to their new religion, I say, "What is wrong with that?" "Cultural baggage" is another pejorative locution that suggests converts should let go of their previous conditioning and embrace a new system wholeheartedly. That is a mistaken view in my judgment: Look at the cross-fertilization that has occurred as Buddhism encountered Western ways of being: the place of women in Buddhism, the social outreach aspects of Western religious perspectives, the impact of Western science--especially cosmology and evolution--on Buddhist ways of thinking, religion as practice rather than belief--a perspective Buddhism offers to the West, Western psychotherapy's impact on Buddhist practice, and many more back-and-forth exchanges of insights have enriched both Western and Eastern traditions. Knight and others who think like him need to drop the idea that religion exists in a pure form, somewhere in Saudi Arabia for him and somewhere in Tibet for some Buddhists, and accept the idea that religion evolves as people's understanding of the world changes. After all, isn't that part of the Buddhist perspective--the impermanence of all phenomena?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Touché. What about brown, yellow, and red converts? Each individual brings something of value to the Buddhist buffet table. Such is the universality of the Law, which exists within the life of every human being regardless of our differences.