SCIENCE CATCHES UP
In her article (“Long Journey to a Bow,” Fall 2008), Christina Feldman points out the importance of penetrating the conceit of self, describes its various manifestations, and suggests that liberating ourselves begins with becoming sensitive to those manifestations. As she writes, life is a powerful ally in undermining conceit by providing us with “times when our world crumbles” to the point of realizing that “there is simply no more that ‘I’ can do.”
The fact is that “I” have never been able to do anything, whether in difficult circumstances or easy. It has become a given in neuroscience that there is no entity in charge of the brain, no “I” who controls our behavior. Science has caught up with the Buddha in recognizing that the “self” is an illusion, at least as a controlling agent. Selflessness is not some abstract theological concept; it is the widely accepted truth of brain science.
Realizing this scientific truth has been a great help to me in unraveling the intellectual underpinnings of the self, but, as Feldman suggests, liberation requires paying attention to the everyday manifestations of conceit: “our judgments and comparisons, the views we construct about ourselves and others. Suffering, evaluating, envy, and fear. . . ”
Intellectual understanding of ourselves, helpful as it can be, doesn’t seem to bring freedom. For most of us, liberation from a lifetime of conceit requires ongoing mindfulness. I’m grateful to Tricycle for its continual reminders to pay attention.
Norman L. Bearrentine
REVIEWING THE NUMBERS
Your Fall 2008 issue has an article on the Pew Report and its findings regarding the demographic makeup of American Buddhists ("Buddhism by the Numbers"). I am glad to see that you believe “care must be taken in relying heavily on” the results of this survey. Care, indeed.
You are right to point out that the margin of error is +6.5% and that the pollsters did not count Hawaii, which hasa large (and I suspect disproportionate) number of Buddhists, many of whom are of Japanese descent. The exclusion of the Hawaiian population is troublesome for a number of reasons, chief among them the continual marginalization of Hawaii as part of the United States and the marginalization of Japanese-American Buddhists in general.
Furthermore, it bears repeating that the Pew Center conducted their survey exclusively in English and Spanish and only called landline households, thus excluding two significant populations of American Buddhists: non-English speaking Asians and younger Buddhists who do not have a landline. Were these two populations actually counted, I wonder if we would still be seeing the aging, largely white Buddhist population the report describes.
Given these four glaring deficiencies in the Pew Center’s methodology, we need to be more than a little cautious when using this report to support any assumptions about American Buddhism. Clearly more research needs to be done, and these statistics need to be taken with a considerable grain of salt.
Scott A. Mitchell
Institute of Buddhist Studies
Hoko Jan Karnegis does an excellent job in reporting on the Pew Forum numbers of religious adherents in the U.S. and in raising some valid new questions and things to focus on for dharma communities. For example, Karnegis writes that the numbers disprove the stereotype that all Buddhists are yuppies or rich. Many Buddhists complain about the high costs of retreats, and efforts need to be made to spread the dharma with less concern about profits.
But the numbers given for Buddhists are completely false. I used to be a sociology professor, and demographics is still my hobby. I have been following the number of Buddhists in the world for some time now and publish and update the numbers regularly. (See thedhamma.com/buddhists_in_the_world.htm.) For several years, my own poll of polls has shown that approximately 2% of the U.S. is Buddhist and that only 20% of these Buddhists are non-Asian. This calculates to 6 million American Buddhists, including 1.2 million convert Buddhists or children of convert Buddhists. But the Pew Forum study reports only 2.1 million Buddhists, 1.1 million of whom they claim are converts. Therefore, according to my own studies, the Pew study can be seen as accurately representing the number of convert Buddhists in the U.S. but greatly missing the mark on the number of Asian Buddhists in America.
David N. Snyder, Ph.D.
Las Vegas, NV
AGAINST THE GRAIN
Many thanks for including the beautiful piece by Andrew Schelling in “The Question,” Summer 2008. It was refreshing to see there is room for a voice that is unrepentantly unorthodox. I’ve heard it debated in Buddhist circles whether a person who doesn’t believe in reincarnation can actually be a Buddhist, and the ugly specter of “wrong view” raises its head. But hopefully there is room for those who have an abiding interest in Buddhism and Buddhist meditation but fail to adopt some of Buddhism’s basic dogmas. There are some people who, when they come to Buddhism, fully embrace the entire doctrinal infrastructure that goes with it. They may become devotional and learn to believe in reincarnation and that many scriptures were dictated by deities. Yet there are also those who think that meditation can serve as a viable avenue for a type of esotericism that is devoid of devotion or belief in reincarnation or the cultural baggage of the various Eastern lineages. These “white ravens” attempt to carve out a present-moment awareness that is free of presupposition and that reaches deeply into human nature. The compendium of meditation techniques taught by the various schools of Buddhism provide a means for this, and there are people who come to this pathless path without all the trappings of the traditional lineage teachers.
Brush Creek, TN
BACK TO THE BASICS
I have studied Theravada and Tibetan Buddhism for the past 22 years and have read most copies of your magazine since its inception. The greatest threat I see to Buddhism in the West (the U.S. in particular) is the onslaught of self-appointed reformers who are attempting to dilute and reshape Buddhist teachings to fit their own opinions and biases. Along with more useful fare, you have featured many members of this baying pack in your pages. Most of their axes are being ground in the three areas of Politics, Western/New Age Psychology, and Academic Intellectualism. David Loy’s “Rethinking Karma” (Spring 2008) falls in the latter category. He rejects Buddha’s teachings on karma because they make him uncomfortable and don’t “dovetail nicely” with the best of contemporary thought. Many of the Buddha’s teachings directly contradicted core beliefs of his contemporaries as they do ours. So what? That’s the point: we’re ignorant and suffering. And if your encounter with Buddhism doesn’t make you uncomfortable as hell, you’ve either missed the teachings or you’re already enlightened.
Traditional Buddhism has a lot of difficult teachings and cultural baggage for us Westerners. All authentic teachers I have had have told me to take what I could use and set aside the rest. They have not told me to transform the teachings to fit my current state of consciousness and cultural conditioning. Yes, historically Buddhism has evolved and adapted, but that was an organic process played out over centuries.
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[Image © Neal Crosbie 2008]