I’ve been reading a fun book called, “Buddha or Bust” by Perry Garfinkel. It’s part travel journalism, part social studies, part history, part self-exploration. He traces the history of Buddhism from its origins in India to the various countries and cultures as the spiritual tradition spread East. During his travels, he also highlights some new directions in which Buddhism is moving.
Throughout the book he focuses not only on the history and culture of Buddhism, but how it’s being used as a social and healing tool these days, something called “engaged Buddhism”. For example, Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne founded the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka. Its a self-governance program based on Buddhist principles that serves the majority of the country’s villages. Sarvodaya means ‘the awakening of all” and Shramadana means “a gift of labor”. And around much of India, a simple mindfulness meditation called “vipassana” is taught in schools, government departments and even prisons.
The author discovers an interesting trend while interviewing monks in India, Thailand and China. Apparently the “repackaged” Buddhism from America has found it’s way back into the cultures of these countries. The American version is cleaner, less cluttered with the superstitious and animism practices often found in the ancient Asian cultures where it originally took root.
The Naropa Institute in Boulder, CO is often host to Thai monks wishing to learn from their integration of Buddhist teaching into every class. In Hong Kong, clinical phychologist Helen Ma learned about the Buddhist based stress reduction techniques of Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts. Kabat-Zinn teaches a course called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) which has been clinically proven to reduce stress. And Shantum Seth in India realized the injustice promulgated by Hinduism, with its oppressive caste system. While Buddhism originated in India, Seth’s search for something more suitable to his spiritual needs ended in California, where he met the Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh.
Garfinkel enounters a confounding melting pot of Buddhist styles in Japan, all of which migrated by way of China. By far the most pure and interesting late form of Buddhism is Zen, which has also been refined in the US by the late Shunryu Suzuki. Suzuki’s son is head priest of a Zen temple in Yaizu, Japan.
It was during an interview with Suzuki-roshi that Garfinkel has an “Aha” moment about the problem with our Western concept of God. During a discussion about Western spiritual suffering, Suzuki reasoned the problem arose “Because they are looking for answers outside rather than inside. The Buddha said the answer are not out there; they’re within our selves.” When Garfinkel continued about how God is so much part of our traditional thought and language, Suzuki retorted, “Who is this God you keep talking about?”
Garfinkel then launches into his own discovery of the truth.
The question was so simple that it cut through all the theological bullshit and suddenly–aha–I realized that belief in God perpetuated suffering. When the Buddha explained that the universe is not divided into self and non-self, me and no-me, that it is rather one interconnected entity, he essentially disavowed the existence of god, for God would be something or someone else. Without God, all the responsibility for the stubbed toe and everything else falls back on me. That in itself may be the reason we invent God, because it is easier to point the finger than to take the blame. but if we accept non-dualism–that is, that there is no difference between subject and object, between knower and that which is known–there is no blamer, no blamee. […] This whole theological conversation–of whether there is a God, of two gods, or even that we are God–becomes moot when tested against one of the Buddha’s main theses: that we should accept only what we can experience directly or observe empirically with our five senses. […]…until I could point to something the two of us could “see” in that dining room, then the subject of God remained in the realm of hypothetical…
I’d say that about sums it up for me.