Friday August 26, 2011
A few weeks ago, as I mentioned in the news section of this site, I was down in Manchester contributing to the discussion for a show on Western Buddhism for BBC Radio 4’s “Beyond Belief”. I was on the show along with Ani Rinchen Khandro, who was participating from afar up in Scotland, and my good friend Nagapriya, who was also in the Manchester studio. I am not a scholar of Western Buddhism, nor do I have any institutional position when it comes to any of the various branches of Buddhism in the West; so I saw my role as being more or less that of an interested some-time participant observer in some of the currents and cross-currents of Western Buddhism over the past decade and a half.
The format of the show is fairly simple: a quick introductory discussion, a middle slot with a pre-recorded interview – on this occasion with Canon Nick Buxton, who has a PhD in Buddhist studies, but is now an Anglican clergyman – and then further discussion, some of which is in response to the interview. For those who want to hear how it turned out – and I have not yet listened to the show myself – you can have a listen on Monday 29th August 2011, or can get hold of the podcast (see the programme Website).
In a half hour show about a topic so very broad as this, there’s always a danger of skimming over the surface. So although I had a couple of telephone discussions with the producers before the show about, for example, Žižek’s criticisms of Western Buddhism, when it came to the show we inevitably didn’t really get to grips with everything in the time available. But there was something that I thought worth picking up on and exploring a bit further in a brief blog post, and that was the notion, mentioned in the interview with Nick Buxton and picked up by the host, Ernie Rea, of ‘pick and mix religion’. I should say here that what follows uses this more as a jumping off point for discussion than a specific response to the interview.
I don’t know where or when this phrase ‘pick and mix religion’ was first used – although it has been around for some time – but I have not infrequently heard it used in relation to Westerners who practice Buddhism. So I’m intrigued by the question of what it might actually mean. There is, I think, a vaguely derogatory implication to the phrase ‘pick and mix religion’. It suggests an approach that is not particularly serious, that is about the bright colours and the sweet tastes, but not about the real substance: liquorice allsorts and fizzy pop, we are to assume, are no substitute for bread and wine. I am, in fact, in some sympathy with this. Everybody, perhaps, likes a buzz; but there is more to life than the consumption of one fleeting high after another. As philosopher Mark Vernon points out in his Guardian blog post, the problem comes when this liking for a buzz becomes the sole purpose in life (as, Vernon claims, it does in the current alliance between Buddhism and the positive psychology movement). The idea of ‘pick and mix’ religion risks the implication that any kind of movement between religious traditions is driven by this kind of sweet-toothedness. So I have two main questions here. The first is whether Western Buddhism is inherently at risk of being a kind of ‘pick and mix’ religion in this sense; and the second is whether there may be a sense in which picking and mixing – in other words, taking a critical and investigative stance towards all practices and ideas and teachings that we come across – may be exactly what we need to be doing, or exactly what we all, whether we want to or not, end up doing to a greater or lesser degree, whatever traditions we engage with.
Firstly, then, the question of whether Western Buddhists are more spiritually sweet-toothed than the rest of us. Žižek certainly seems to think so, and he’s not happy about it, writing that, “Buddhism can function as the perfect ideological supplement to virtual capitalism: It allows us to participate in it with an inner distance, keeping our fingers crossed, and our hands clean, as it were.” Again, this is not without some truth. Sometimes it seems to me that there is out there in the Buddhist world an awful lot of what I used to (in the privacy of my own mind, and with an implication that, I note, is every bit as derogatory as the term ‘pick and mix religion’, if not more so) think of as “Buddhist bollocks”. In other words, it seems to me that sometimes Western Buddhism sits uneasily on the cusp of a whole range of strange beliefs and practices that are often, frankly, rather dubious. As I wrote some time back in a blog post called A Strange Cocktail, Western Buddhists often find themselves,
part of a much larger world of curious beliefs, ranging from dowsing to homoeopathy to crystal healing to angel spirit guides, a well-meaning hodge-podge lacking in much rigour and in which it is possible to move seamlessly from talking about the neuroscientific evidence for the benefits of meditation to talking about ley lines, reiki and how to find your shamanic power animal. And in these kinds of situations, it is considered somewhat unseemly to raise questions about pesky things like evidence, or how all this is supposed to work or hang together. It is this hodge-podge that has, over the years, made me increasingly uneasy with the various forms of Buddhism in the West, and the broader cultural context in which Buddhist practice takes place.
All this is, I think, true; and yet at the same time, I do not think it is at all reasonable to say that Western Buddhism is reducible to being merely an adjunct of this feel-good spiritual hodgepodge. Not only are Western Buddhists not necessarily a part of this world, but also I very much suspect that adherents of Christianity are not themselves immune from it (and here, perhaps, both Mark Vernon and Nick Buxton might agree). The thing that anybody who has sat in meditation for more than twenty minutes will know is that meditation is not all liquorice allsorts and fizzy pop. And anybody who has done this for more than two consecutive days will have realised that meditation is, at times, damned hard. It is a form of discipline. And so is Buddhist ethics. Speaking personally, it was only after I started practising Buddhism that I realised – much to my relief – that ethics could truly be a discipline rather than a kind of law or a set of judgements passed down from on high. And although these days I do not explicitly identify myself as a Buddhist (although I did so once by accident, during the recording of the show – old habits die hard!), these notions of ethical and meditative practice have remained hugely useful to me. They seem the antithesis of spiritual sweet-toothedness. And when I think of many of the Buddhist practitioners I know in the West, amongst them are a great many impressive individuals who have seriously engaged with these disciplines, and who continue to do so: and in their commitment to a form of practice, they are a long way from this caricature of the spiritually sweet-toothed.
Secondly, then, there is the question of what might be called necessary discernment. We find ourselves here in the world having to make sense of our lives, the heirs to multiple traditions, and because we only have these various traditions, our relationships with each other, and and our wits to guide us, we do our best to make sense of it all. We are, out of necessity, forced to pick and to mix. We do as best we can, working with the resources that we have. What I am interested in, what I care about, is not necessarily whether somebody identifies as a Buddhist or a Christian, as Daoist or as atheist, or as some combination of all of the above; nor is it whether they regard themselves as ‘spiritual’ (a term I don’t identify with and prefer to avoid) or not; but it is instead the seriousness with which they go about this question of responding to the urgent demands of living. This might mean identifying with one particular tradition. It might mean identifying with several. And it might mean a kind of restless motion between traditions. But to me the details of this matter far, far less than the degree of care and discernment there is when it comes to responding with these various demands. It seems as inaccurate and unfair to say that Western Buddhists as a whole are necessarily adherents of ‘pick and mix’ religion as it is to say that those who find themselves identifying more strongly with the religions of their ancestors adherents of ‘off the peg’ religion. It doesn’t really tell us much, in other words, about what really matters.
Have a listen to the show on Monday 29th August 2011 at 16.30 pm UK time, and let me know what you think.
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