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Buddhism
introduction to Buddhism and its permutations

The Art of Comparing Things

 

BuddhaComparative religion is an issue for serious theology students and too complex to enter into in any great theological detail here and now, except to say that Buddhism meets all criteria and therefore qualifies as a 'Religion', to be taken as seriously by the individual as any other. However, it shows a distinct lack of dogma, judgement by 'another' or for that matter 'rules' in the agreed sense, comparatively.

This perhaps begs the question: who then decided or set these theological criteria? The answer: We did - or at least the academics and serious theology students did! Maybe these people have the right and a duty to do such a thing. Seeing as though we can't stop them anyway I suppose we should simply let them get on with whatever they do best - Let them do it whilst we get on with whatever it is that we do; believing (for now) in what we believe in and having faith in whatever (for now) we have faith in. Likewise we shall no doubt continue to endeavour to understand what is understandable and probably remain confused about all that is not.

China and Japan are very different places. Each are inhabited by very different people with each exerting their own influence in what we 'see' in general as 'eastern ways'

On the surface they may all look the same to us Westerners or Europeans but they have about as much in common with each other as we (Brit.) have with say the French, German, Swiss and Dutch etc. Furthermore there is a far greater cultural distance and difference between the North and South of China than there is between the North and South of our own small island of Britain, from the stereotype/archetype of canny Scot to soft Southerner!

Mission - What Mission? To suggest that the often selfless risk of life and heroic work put in by particular Buddhists over the centuries was unintended is a severe injustice to the individuals themselves. Whether they were or were not on a Mission is not brought into debate here, but the interpretation of the word 'Mission' itself.. Enthusiastic Buddhists do things that they enjoy and find rewarding, as enthusiastically as any other enthusiasts do 'their thing' - some give their lives to whatever it is. What else might you call it when Japanese Buddhists risked their lives to cross the Pacific to set up a Temple in Hawaii? And what was the old man "on" when he walked through paddy fields from dawn to dusk with a statue of Amida Buddha on his shoulders? According to fundamental instructions a diligent Buddhist should not resort to extreme coercion or overt persuasion. In Buddhist terms there is no point to this, therefore, intellectually Buddhism has never really been on a 'Mission'.

I ask you to at least bear in mind the profound inseparability of Buddhism, Taoism and Tai Chi, so that you (and I) may learn what Tai Chi is and not simply only what we may hope it to be. This is about as tight as I can tie the knot around Buddhism and Tai Chi, but then again the knot should never be tight. Buddhism suggests that one "find out/investigate oneself." So does Tai Chi. Ultimately they seek the same - that is an understanding of "The Self", and this in turn may lead to a condition of "no-self". This should make for good Tai Chi and a good Buddhist if only there were such a thing!

Taoism

taoAnd so now, with a slight sigh I return to Taoism. Nothing is complicated in Taoism. If it's complicated - it's not Taoism.

The Yin Yang symbol, which since its inception has represented the Tao (the Way) has come and gone in-to and out- of fashion with regularity here in the West. In its heyday in the sixties it was particularly associated with the world wide hippie movement. It symbolised then exactly what it has always symbolised; Harmony and Balance if not Peace and Love, if you wish.

Confucianism

Confucianism has not travelled so well, at least yet. We should perhaps bear in mind that it took a couple of thousand years for the yin-yang to come 'into fashion' here in the west. Perhaps the embracing of the tenants of Confucianism is just around the corner - but it doesn't really look like it does it? Are we not already too far from the stern restriction, discipline, form and respect required to fall in with such a rigid 'system'?

So far then Confucianism has remained largely only where it began (China) and then onward into Japan where, being eminently suitable to the people it was adopted and blossomed. I have previously pointed out that there are differences between the Chinese and the Japanese. Here now I indicate similarities between them as one whole and us westerners as the other whole.

Buddhism

Buddhism is now recognised as one of the world's 6 great religions. There is disagreement on this, not so much amongst the antagonists, but amongst the followers themselves! I must say immediately that I am one of those Buddhists, and that I am a member of a certain Religious group. It did take me a while to come to terms with this myself because I 'found' Buddhism whilst on retreat and refusal of any Religion, any Dogma. But that is a personal story. (A story that I am prepared to tell anybody that asks - the operative word being "ask". If you ask I will tell you of the rewards. If you don't - you are not interested)

This then I suppose is my religious mission. I really have no idea of what is in the mind of a Tibetan Alpaca Herder, or a Japanese Businessman, the Mongolian Horseman or the Hawaiian Building site worker. We have perhaps just one thing in common. Due to the Wisdom of the Buddha we at times agree that the Truth is the Truth. All things are Dharma. The Way that can be spoken of is not The Way.

Talked About

Time then now perhaps for some cold hard facts on the movements of Buddhism in the West.

Without doubt one of the most noticeable and talked about Buddhist imports from the East in recent times is Zen. An oft forgotten aspect of this practice and indeed the sentence that describes more precisely what it is, -is 'Buddhism' i.e. what it is, is Zen Buddhism.

Current Buns

It is vital that we (westerners) understand that by simply removing the second word of a two-word sentence does not simplify the concept of what it is - it destroys it.

If a chef were to set out intent on baking a current bun then that chef should certainly ensure that currents be amongst the ingredients considered. If the chef was not personally partial to currents they could be omitted from the recipe. In this case any consumers of the delicacy should not be expected to compliment the chef on his 'current buns'. Plain old bland buns yes. nothing else.

And then there are those that just adore currents but are not so keen on buns. They are as deluded as the chef if they believe that picking out the currents is equivalent to consuming a whole current bun.

Bad Karma

And so: "One of the most noticeable and talked about spiritual import from the East in recent times is Zen". What arrived back in America with the soldiers returning from postings in the east was if anything mostly Zen and not much Buddhism, loads of currents, very little bun! The rich imagery of Zen captured the imagination of many Americans and new images were formed to accompany phrases such as "bad karma" "enlightenment" etc. then all rounded up together as "Very Zen" to describe something very stark and clinical; one might even say bland?

Ten Bulls

In libraries and on shelves throughout the West is a book entitled Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. The feature 10 Bulls is taken from that publication.

In front of me right now is a battered copy of the first edition paperback. (Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. 1961) Its publication indicates that a certain amount of interest existed at that time. Within the decade reprint followed reprint reflecting a growing interest in all things mystic and exotic. I suggest also that us Westerners, product of a mass produced industrial society are quick to take up any option of being 'a little different' from our neighbour.

To quote phrases like "the enlightened man is one with laws of causation" satisfied this need and even perhaps temporarily reduced the sensation of 'un-satisfactoryness' within the person that makes the quote, maybe even within the person that listens. I suggest also to go along with this that us Westerners, product of this society are beguiled more by the glitter rather than the substance and even this glitter we desire more to 'process' rather than share. This leads to more new phrases and one for me sums up this satisfactory/unsatisfactory that we remain chained to by simply repeating wise words for effect with no understanding of what they mean: "Been there, done that, got the T-shirt - bought the book, saw the pictures".

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

Back to the facts. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones - published 1961. From the first page I quote verbatim. A finger clearly points to the past.

"Paul Reps, the compiler, is an American who has spent a great deal of his life abroad, mainly in India, Norway and Japan. He is a student of comparative religions and is the author of several books of poems and prose. Each of the first three parts of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones appeared as separate volume in the 1930s under Mr. Reps' name.

Nyogen Senzaki who collaborated with Paul Reps in the transcription of the first three parts of the present volume is a Buddhist scholar of international renown. He was born in Japan and very early became a "homeless monk," wandering the land and studying at various monasteries. Shortly after the turn of the century he came to California where he has lived ever since."

Buddhism has without doubt 'spread', albeit passively. Maybe not in the form of any holy crusade but rather by being taken back to where the crusaders or missionary's came from! For instance, the first general 'lay' or non-enthusiast views of Eastern Religious Art was in the form of wrapping paper used only to protect the delicate china that they collected on their journeys. Very soon the silk originals were highly valued, appreciated and collected in the west. It is interesting to note that although those prints were recognised as technically far superior to anything that the west had so far produced, they were not valued or particularly appreciated as religious or art. We might now take note that a common and popular form of art presentation in the west today is as Poster Art!

The Victorian spirit of adventure, discovery, invention and exploration (and missionary work) was the causation (see: "man at one with"?) for the transformation of many once 'exotic' items and ideas into familiar and everyday additions to our lifestyles in the West. From Aspidistra to Gazebo, enlarged goldfish to miniaturised trees; and who could ignore that most common and 'British' of institutions: "a nice cup of tea."

All of these items and more have been adapted to please or serve us as or when their usefulness to us has become apparent or desirable. In this respect I contest that it is not the 'item' or 'thing' that is discovered - but its usefulness or beauty. Likewise, 'things' in themselves are not patriotic or fixed to a certain place or people; they 'appear' or are 'discovered' when the need or desire is great enough. They are 'discovered' and then assimilated or adapted, sometimes to almost bizarre and meaningless effect. For instance - in the east cups do not have handles and they are held thumb at base, two first fingers on rim. The physiological effect of this is that the little finger points up. As a gesture of refinement/poshness this silly practice remains in the West, although it is neither physiologically or practically necessary - the China Cups that 'posh' people drink tea out of in (the west) have handles!

Spaceships were 'invented' to explore the stars and space, microscopes to explore organisms and atoms and each perform the tasks efficiently enough for our present needs. Buddhism (more correctly the teachings of numerous Buddha's) provides an organised method of exploring 'the self'. Its usefulness will be fully realised only when the need to discover all aspect of this 'self' is great enough.

I stated some time ago that the first "substantial" signs of Buddhism's immigration to the west were at around about the turn of the century. These events as listed below confirm the usefulness and the beginning perhaps of the acceptance of Buddhism in the West; however it would be foolish to believe that this is when Buddhism began. It began when it began and was given the name of the person that with great wisdom explained its usefulness, not the person that discovered it.

That person is you.

 

1826
Increased interest and translation of Buddhist text from Sanskrit and Pali into English.

1881
Pali text translation Society/Group formed.

1898
Alan Bennett. First recorded Westerner to be ordained in London as a Buddhist Monk.

1899
Gordon Douglas. Ordained in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Colombo /Ceylon/Sri Lanka.

1924
The Buddhist Society founded in London/UK by Christmas Humphreys. This organisation remains to this day the foremost provider of study and information on all mainstream Buddhist teaching. A quote from an advert for the society's Summer School '99 clearly reveals the attitude that is maintained: "The organic relatedness of all the teachings will be explored with special emphasis to their practice and application in our time".

For further information and a prospectus send an SAE to:

The Buddhist Society,
58 Eccleston Square, London SW1V 1PH tel: 0171 834 5858
Internet: http://www.budsoc.org.uk
Open to members and non-members 2-6 p.m. Mon-Fri 2-5 p.m. Sat.

 

For the purposes of this article I coin the phrase "True Tai Chi". That is - Tai Chi with nothing added and nothing taken away - and as first quoted in the article 'Direct Experience' as "The Deal". Is this unreasonable? The likely prevalent answer from the average westerner is probably "Yes - it is." This is Tai Chi with a most destructive element added; that is 'picking and choosing'. Here lies a fundamental difference in eastern and western attitude, a difference that can still be clearly discerned to this in other important areas such as the workplace, education system and farming methods. The western attitude is intrinsically one of individuality and the personal freedom of expression. This is one way and in generally it works very well - here. It does however leave us westerns with our own western problems that we must one way or another 'learn to live with'. In one respect we live a culture where censorship is an anathema and the right of the minority is protected, yet in another our prisons are full and dead babies have their hearts and brains removed by doctors for research without the knowledge or permission of the parents. On the one hand euthanasia is illegal, on the other - genetic engineering is ok. The methods of the workplace in Japan are well known in the west and although results speak for themselves - this is not a way that we even try here in the west, as it would be considered culturally and socially acceptable. Vis-à-vis individuality is more important or more suitable for the western workforce. The eastern alternative is apparently un-acceptable.

 

 

Buddhism suggests that one "find out/investigate oneself." So does Tai Chi. Ultimately they seek the same - that is an understanding of "The Self", and this in turn may lead to a condition of "no-self".


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