The Art of Comparing Things
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
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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
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.
Increased interest and translation of Buddhist text
from Sanskrit and Pali into English.
Pali text translation Society/Group formed.
Alan Bennett. First recorded Westerner to be
ordained in London as a Buddhist Monk.
Gordon Douglas. Ordained in the Theravada Buddhist
tradition. Colombo /Ceylon/Sri Lanka.
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".
information and a prospectus send an SAE to:
The Buddhist Society,
58 Eccleston Square, London SW1V 1PH tel: 0171 834 5858
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.