July 29, 2008
‘I don’t believe in religion.’ So goes the response to my reluctant confession that I teach about religion for a living (obviously a religious nut). Yet, when I drop in that I teach about Buddhism, the tone changes. ‘But Buddhism’s not really a religion is it? More a way of life?’ While in some ways it comes as a relief that my cherished spiritual principles are not dismissed as so much garbage, if not positively harmful, it puzzles me that Buddhism should escape the wrath of the anti-religious zealot. Is it so anodyne as to cause no one offence? Are Buddhists so accommodating that they bend whichever way the wind blows? Or is it simply that the general perception of Buddhism is so rose-tinted and exoticized that it cheerfully resists the all-too-mundane reality?
There is no doubt that in general Buddhism has a very positive press in the Western media. The public profiles of leading figures like the Burmese politician Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the Vietnamese peace activitist Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Dalai Lama lead to the impression that all Buddhists are saints. Yet it is only while Buddhism remains at a cultural distance that this idealised version of Buddhism and Buddhists can remain. The situation is not helped by the way in which Western – and even Eastern – writers idealise Buddhism, making it sound like everything good and nothing bad. If this were true, you wonder that the entire world has not turned Buddhist!
I continue to be amazed at the ways in which Buddhist symbols and teachings are seen as commercial assets. Adverts use Tibetan monks to sell soap powder or tissues. Fragrances borrow the names of Buddhist terms like Nirvana and Samsara. TV shows adopt Buddhist concepts like Karma and name drop the Dalai Lama. Films use images of the Buddha to create a contemplative atmosphere. Describing something as zen-like is generally seen as some kind of compliment, yet no one is necessarily any the wiser as to what Zen might be. The more you look, the more you see Buddhist heritage being used to promote what are often far from Buddhist products. Buddhism is box office.
As with all things, the reality falls far short of the hype. Buddhists have feet of clay just like everyone else. The Buddhist world incorporates alcoholic lamas, power hungry senseis, and womanizing elders. For every Buddhist saint there are a thousand shambling practitioners, and even the saint may be having a secret affair. For some, awakening to the imperfections of Buddhism and Buddhists shatters their idealism, undermines their faith, and may even leave a trace of bitterness.
Personally, I find the not-so-perfect real world of Buddhism affirming, even strangely comforting. There is something essentially inhuman about the notion of perfection and, while it remains important as an ideal, it is not something that we should aspire to or expect others to exemplify. To be human is to be fallible, imperfect, limited. Is it not then all the more remarkable that, from time to time, some human beings rise to extraordinary acts of generosity, compassion, and understanding?
Rather than feeling let down when a guru fails to fulfil my expectations of perfection, I would prefer to marvel at the simple acts of human kindness that ordinary people show me on a daily basis. For me, such conduct is not just profoundly inspiring but deeply humbling.