Can you be Christian and Buddhist?

Kevin Thew ForresterThe title question is not something I lose any sleep over. But the other day I ran across The God Blog over on the Jewish Journal, which asks this question with respect to Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester. He’s in the news due to irate Episcopalians who will not tolerate him as both a bishop in the Anglican communion and an ordained Zen teacher.

Of course, Forrester’s ordination is (I’m guessing) more along the lines of giving him the OK to teach meditation. He is not leading a secret life as an abbot of a Buddhist monastery in rural Michigan. I doubt that he even identifies himself as Buddhist. I see nothing wrong with his ordination, but clearly plenty of people (Christian and Jewish) do.

In short, I think the title question is entirely inappropriate for this situation. The question is still an interesting one, but whenever I hear it I always think back to Kusala Bhikshu’s ruminations on practicing multiple faiths. If you’re Buddhist and Christian, then where do you go when you die?

I have a hunch that Rev. Forrester has already made up his mind on this one.

Geting it Right: Ritual and Communal Learning

I played the wooden fish for the first and currently only time on May 17th, 2008. I had received a call that same morning half-asking but mostly telling me to do it at a Vesak celebration later that day.

I had never abused fish, gong, nor bell before, and hurried to try and be hastily taught by a friend of mine before show time. Education be damned, I ended up flustering about and striking the thing about twice as much as I should have. Rolling Stone praised my “rock steady baselines and infectious hooks,” but Buddhist chanting it was not. It was one of the most horrifyingly embarrassing experiences I have ever weathered and I regret not skipping town and hopping a freight train the morning of.

And nobody who wasn’t wearing robes knew the difference.
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What we get from Grandparents

I do not think it is an uncommon story that many Buddhists develop their spiritual leanings from their grandparents. The grandparent/grandchild bond is a special one – grandparents are wizened with knowledge without the day-to-day responsibilities of child-rearing, which seems like just the right combination to imbue an appreciation of peace and a proclivity to contentedness.

I also see grandparents as muddling that already terrible “heritage Buddhist” definition – where children grow up encountering the Dharma from their grandparents even through their own parents had rejected that very series of influences.

I am not part of that muddled category as neither my parents nor my grandparents are Buddhist. Still, I would not have ended up a Buddhist without the opportunity to know my grandparents. They taught me generosity, always being willing to give what they had simply for the reason that it was there to give. I learned patience, temperance, and that doing what is right for your family requires doing what is right by your family.

That being said, I only terrifiedly came out about my wacky religion to my grandparents this last year.

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What does it mean to not be Buddhist?

This past summer I visited my main spiritual teacher, and he naturally inquired how my practice has developed since we last met three years ago. When I first met my teacher, I told him that I was Buddhist, and he asked me what that meant. I was still active in a college Buddhist association, and for me that was the chief example of what it meant to be Buddhist. I was Buddhist because I was in a Buddhist club.

My perspective on Buddhism has almost entirely been framed by my American upbringing, whether I like it or not. I classify Buddhism as a religion, on par with Judaism and Christianity (among many others). I call myself “Buddhist”, and I wear a symbol of my faith around my neck and wrist. I even use it as an excuse to avoid drinking (“It’s against my religion”) or to justify my behavior (“I’m Buddhist, I don’t kill bugs”).

But I recently stumbled across an interview with SN Goenka, a famous teacher of vipassana meditation, where he says, “I don’t teach Buddhism. I am not a Buddhist.”

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Gandhi: incredible non-Buddhist, incredibly non-Buddhist

Recently, I have been reading Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj and, while reading it, I realized it was something that I very much enjoyed which had nothing to do with Buddhism.

I feel like Buddhists, myself included, frequently try to ‘claim’ Gandhi – to express our love for his ideals by scuttling him under the Buddhist umbrella. But I’m not sure that’s best for Buddhism, or for expressing a sincere respect for Gandhi.

I realize that this same kind of behavior happens in the larger Buddhist landscape, both when any old thing is shoehorned into Buddhism and when the Dharma is made to be compatible with any given thing.

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Popular Buddhist Media

While a lot of Buddhist popular media is emerging, like Buddhist Pop Songs, Buddhist Movies, and even Buddhist Videogames, and I find a lot of it very interesting, sometimes it sort of hits the wrong note.

I think one of the reasons why that is is because Buddhism is very much not about Buddhism. It is not an umbrella where a bunch of other stuff fits underneath it, but instead is a handful of practices and perspectives that looks at the stuff under the umbrella.

I think that any sort of sincere popular Buddhist media would have to be much more holistic, taking a Buddhist perspective amid a variety of others. That being said, I am reminded of the webcomic Sinfest [ironically enough], where the Buddha is an occasional character – used seldomly but to great effect.

Sometimes the creator, Tatsuya Ishida, hits just the right note.

Running in the family

Tonight is the last of three nights that I’m staying at my brother’s place in the Bay Area. I came back up here for the first time in two years to run a race and see family that I don’t usually get the chance to see. This weekend has also made me realize the comforts and importance of having a Buddhist family.

Not all of my family is Buddhist. Five generations ago, everyone was supposedly Buddhist or followed our indigenous religion. Many converted to Catholicism and later to Protestant Christianity when they came to the US in the years before and just after WWI. My grandmother clung steadfastly to the “old ways”, and some aunts and uncles “reverted” to Buddhism. But it was the Buddhist practices of my grandmother that left the strongest imprint on me and my siblings, who have come to embrace our Buddhist heritage.

Buddhism was never forced on me, but neither did it hang as some sort of background tapestry on the wall. It was the little symbolic things that I built my practice on later in life, even if I didn’t know what they stood for.

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Asian American Buddhists

I don’t want to sound like the Angry Asian Man, but I’ve had a hard time finding articles about Asian American Buddhists.

This is one of the classic issues for Asian Americans. The underrepresented minority caught between two worlds. Asian Americans born and raised in North America must continually confront a mainstream perception that they aren’t American enough. At the same time, Asian Americans face pressures from both within and outside the Asian American community of not being Asian enough.

The real issue for young Buddhists in the Asian American community is that there are very few Buddhist communities that they can go to without having to suppress part of their identity. Culturally Asian temples emphasize language and culture, which can be really intimidating for Asian American youth who feel excessively high cultural expectations placed on them. There is probably no coincidence that the virtually all Asian American Buddhists who are active in their communities are also fluent in their parents’ native language and culture.

But on the other hand, culturally American Buddhist centers often feel impersonal when stripped of culturally Asian (but maybe spiritually-lite) practices. And it’s hard for these American centers to understand the perspective of young Asian Americans, who may be intimately familiar with Buddhist symbolism and ritual, but don’t know what it all stands for. An iconoclastic emphasis on philosophy often smacks of inauthenticity.

Then again, there are organizations like the BCA that have really, in my opinion, managed to forge a unique Asian American identity. But cultural divisions in the Asian American Buddhist community continue. BCA Youth are more likely to play basketball with Japanese Methodists than with GĐPT youth (who also have basketball teams).

So is there a place for Asian American Buddhists in today’s Buddhist community? Maybe this is why the Pew study said that 50% of Buddhists choose not to keep the faith…

Oh, that Dharma, it is `emergin

…Our people are foolish, narrowminded, and petty. They cling tightly to transitory successes and delight in surface virtues. Will such a people, even if they do sit in meditation, succeed in quickly realizing the Buddha Dharma?”

“American Buddhism” is a curious creature. One of the constantly touted accomplishments of Buddhism is that it has transitioned to so many cultures, adapted authentically to suit each culture, while retaining the noble aspects of the Dharma which lead to liberation.

In most instances, pioneering monks and nuns entered new lands, learned the language and the culture, and slowly started to turn the wheel of the Dharma. Wether it is Bodhidharma journeying to China, or Mahinda traveling to Sri Lanka, these tales and treasured and worn, and ring with the resounding resonance that the Dharma is alive and vibrant in the world and expanding.

While America has these stories as well, and I do not wish to diminish them, I feel like American Buddhism, especially amongst non-Asian non-heritage Buddhists, is asked for. Converts contend with the opposing needs of wanting Buddhism just as it is, with all of its cultural trappings in order to indulge in the myth that by being from somewhere else it can solve our capitalistic post-modern ills, while at the same time wanting this mysterious distant answer to conform to a four-dollar coffee venti mocha lifestyle.

In some ways, the clearest picture of an “American Buddhism” can be seen in Japanese American Buddhist organizations like Buddhist Churches of America. Japanese Buddhism has been here for over a hundred years, and has had to change both to protect itself by protestantizing some of its outer trappings as well as changing to serve its members by being a Jodo Shinshu organization that offers meditation instruction. It has become something different though related to the Japanese Buddhism that first came to America, while retaining the liberating qualities at its heart.

The quote that opened this blog sounds like it is describing Americans, or perhaps Westerners in general: a flighty bunch short on virtue and addicted to instant gratification. But its not talking about that at all.

That is from the Shobogenzo, and it is talking about Japan about eight hundred years ago.

Here is part of Dogen’s response to the question:

“…Shakyamuni’s instructions have been spreading through the three thousand worlds for something like two thousand years. The countries within these worlds are of all kinds and are not necessarily lands of benevolence and wisdom, nor are their people necessarily always astute or intellectually brilliant! Even so, the true Dharma of the Tathtagata has always possessed a marvelous, unimaginably great, meritorious strength so that, when the time is ripe, It spreads throughout those lands.”

What is there to do? Plenty of work! We can work together, grow together, reach outward, and search inward. The American Buddhist Community needs engagement and protection. However, I do believe, and I think it is a reasonable belief, that the greatest protection that Buddhism in America has, and indeed, Buddhism in the world, is that the truth is there to be known, and we all yearn to know it.