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August 29, 2012

From Buddhist Laughter to the Protestant Smile

The Huffington Postwebsite carries a blog with the title “Faith Shift” written by Jaweed Kaleem. Last year, the blog reported on a large conference in Garrison, New York, supported by major Buddhist centers and periodicals. The focus of the conference was the future of Buddhism in America. The religion is represented in this country by two very distinct groups: immigrants from traditionally Buddhist countries, and converts to Buddhism without such an ethnic background. The conference was mostly attended by people in the second category.
If the future of Buddhism in America can be discussed as a problem, it is that as a result of success rather than failure. Todd Johnson may be called the dean of religious nose-counters. In a forthcoming book which he co-authored with Brian Grim (The World’s Religions in Figures: An Introduction to International Religious Demography), the number of Buddhists in North America is estimated at about four-and-a-half million. TheHuffington Post story gives an estimate of two million for the non-ethnic component of this population (converts and their families). These figures must be read with some skepticism. They are probably on the low side, because ideas and practices derived from Buddhism have become widely diffused in America, often without the label “Buddhist” being attached to them.  Even so, explicitly labeled Buddhism has become a considerable religious phenomenon—one that has evoked remarkably little animosity.

For example, in the Greater Boston area there are at least sixty Buddhist centers, representing just about any significant branch of Buddhism—including branches deriving from the two principal traditions of Mahayana (dominant in East Asia) and Theravada (concentrated in Southeast Asia), with strong representation of Zen (brought to America by Japanese missionaries) and Tibetan Buddhism (which has very distinctive and partly esoteric characteristics). Two dynamic international movements have centers—Soka Gakkai (coming from Japan) and Tzu Chi (with its origins in Taiwan). Some centers are labeled “non-sectarian”. One operates out of a Unitarian church (not surprising), another from an Episcopalian one (slightly more surprising). What one may observe here is a veritable orgy of American denominationalism. But in addition to these explicitly Buddhist organizations there is a rich assortment of “holistic centers”, offering alternative therapies for both physical and psychological maladies; many of these therapies include Buddhism-derived methods of meditation. The conventional medical establishment has become more open to these approaches, and some have been adopted by corporate “wellness” programs (the very term is self-consciously “holistic”).
Of course Buddhism is not the only source of this large phenomenon of what the British sociologist Colin Campbell called the “Easternization of the West” (in a 2009 book of that title). The widespread practices of yoga and martial arts are not primarily based on Buddhist ideas, neither is the appeal of traditional Indian and Chinese medical techniques—some herbal, others (such as acupuncture) not. Then there is so-called “engaged Buddhism”, which has espoused various political causes of American progressivism—notably environmentalism (restoring an allegedly more harmonious relationship between humanity and nature), communalism (overcoming the supposed evils of “excessive individualism”), sexual liberation (so called Tantric ideas serve here as a bridge between Buddhism and originally counter-cultural sexual liberation), and, last not least, social justice and pacifism (understood much of the time as anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism). The Dalai Lama, perhaps unintentionally (he is by all accounts a serious and scholarly teacher of a Buddhist worldview), has become a popular celebrity serving to legitimate this multicultural amalgam.
What is attractive in all this to contemporary Americans? I would take it for granted that there is more than one attraction—after all, some individuals may practice meditation to reach unity with the divine, others to experience better sex or to lose weight. But it seems to me that there is one Buddhist practice that is close to the heart of the attraction: the practice of “mindfulness” (sati in the Pali sources, smrti in the Sanskrit ones). It means concentrated, quiet attention to reality, beginning with one’s own physical processes (notably breathing) and the seemingly trivial objects in one’s immediate surroundings. If properly undertaken (and this can be taught), “mindfulness” leads to an experience of great tranquility, first in the act of meditation, then (one hopes) expanding to life as a whole. A well-maintained rock garden or a well-performed tea ceremony, both Japanese cultural artifacts of Buddhist inspiration, perfectly express this sense of pervasive calm. On my first visit to India, years ago now, I spent some days in Benares (now called Varanasi). There is a tumultuous scene on the shore of the Ganges in one of the holiest sites of Hinduism—multitudes of pilgrims coming and going, people bathing in the river, funeral ceremonies being conducted at the riverside ghatswhere corpses are cremated. There is something distinctively Hindu in this exuberant (and noisy) celebration of life and death on the side of a river which, like all rivers, symbolizes the flow of all beings toward absorption in the ocean of divinity. On one day I went out to visit the Deer Park, just a short distance from the city—the location where Gautama the Buddha is supposed to have preached his first sermon after achieving Enlightenment. The contrast could not have been any greater. The estate is quite large, dotted with temples and monasteries run by organizations from the Buddhist countries of East and Southeast Asia (Buddhism has been virtually extinct in India since the Muslim conquest and persecution). While I was there, no service was going on that I was aware of. Several Thai monks were quietly passing by. It was an experience of perfect calm.
Back to the American reception of Buddhism: Much of what I have described here is hard to quarrel with (leaving aside the foolishness of some of the counter-cultural adaptations); some of it may be beneficial (so say a few professors at Harvard Medical School), some may even be admirable. What does it have to do with the original message of the Buddha?
The history of Buddhism is five hundred years older than the history of Christianity. Needless to say, over this huge expanse of time the religion has taken many forms—some popular ones intertwined with magic, some of profound sophistication (from the Madhyamika philosophy of ancient Indian Buddhism to the twentieth-century Kyoto school that tried to establish links with modern Western thought). Certainly no outsider can decide what is and what is not “genuine” Buddhism (and, by the way, there is no central Buddhist authority to do so). But it is possible to understand the questions to which the Buddha sought to find answers. These questions are deeply rooted in the religious experience of ancient India, going all the way back to the Vedas (scholars disagree as to when the term “Hinduism” should properly be applied to this experience). At the very core of this experience, and of the bodies of thought that tried to reflect it, is the notion ofreincarnation: Every individual soul migrates across many lives. This is often called the “wheel of life”. It seems to me that this phrase does not accurately describe what the notion of reincarnation implies. A more appropriate phrase would be the “wheel of deaths”: Every individual must die over and over again. This is a vision of horror. To this day ordinary Hindus (as indeed many ordinary Buddhists) simply live in such a way that their next incarnation will be better, or at least not worse, than the present one. But “high” Hinduism and Buddhism have sought for ways to escape the horrible wheel altogether. Within the Hindu fold the “high” efforts to achieve this were classically represented by the Upanishads (part of the canon of sacred scriptures) and the Vedanta philosophy. Buddhism produced its own path of escape.
The distinctive worldview of Buddhism is very clearly expressed by the so-called Three Universal Truths, which are affirmed by most if not all Buddhist schools. Here they are: All reality is transitory (anicca, in Pali). All reality is non-self (anatta). All reality is suffering (dukka). The path to Enlightenment begins with the abandonment of the illusions that deny these truths: the illusions of permanence, of self, and of enduring happiness. Desire is what binds us to these illusions; therefore desire must be suppressed (or transformed, in Tantric versions of Buddhism). When Enlightenment is achieved, the result will be perfect equanimity in this life, and after it liberation from the wheel of deaths. Buddhist schools differ as to the end state of the liberated being (Pali nibbana, Sanskrit nirvana)—literal nothingness or blissful existence in a “pure land”.  (The paradox of an illusionary self existing in some sort of heavenly afterlife need not concern us here.)
To the extent that American culture has been decisively shaped by notions derived (even in secularized versions) from Christianity, the Buddhist worldview is not readily plausible. (I have argued elsewhere that the gist of an “Abrahamic” worldview may be formulated as a denial of each of the Three Universal Truths.)
Yet (to use a term favored by Catholic missiology) Buddhism has been successfully “encultured” in America. What happens in this process?
In Asia, both in “high” art and in airport souvenir stores, one often comes across “laughing Buddhas”. Why would a Buddha laugh? I think he laughs in post-Enlightenment relief at having been delivered from that nightmarish wheel. To be “encultured” in America, the Buddha has to acquire what may be called the “Protestant smile”—the somewhat bland, but nevertheless sincere benevolence of what the late American sociologist John Murray Cuddihy called the “Protestant aesthetic” (in his No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste, 1978). It is (let us call it) a Methodist smile, which replaced the Calvinist scowl. It is infectious. Everyone who gets settled in America learns to smile this way. The “Protestant smile” greets us in Methodist churches, in Catholic churches, in synagogues (at least this side of ultra-Orthodoxy), in mosques eager to establish their non-Taliban respectability—even, as I discovered recently, in a Hindu temple in central Texas.
Americanized Buddhism has spouted denominations, much on the Protestant model. Conservative Catholics, upset by what happened to their church since the Second Vatican Council, have bemoaned what they call “Protestantization”: uppity lay people practicing supermarket religion. But this is not due to Protestant propaganda. Rather, it is the result of the combination of religious pluralism and freedom of religion. All religious institutions, like it or not, become voluntary associations; the loyalty of the laity can no longer be taken for granted, so it has to be wooed; even naturally scowling cardinals learn to smile. But Americanized Buddhism has also absorbed the cheerful optimism, which (at least thus far—it may not persist if the future should bring economic and political decline) has characterized American culture for a long time. This is the country in which individuals and groups are free to re-invent themselves. It is the country of second chances. Thus meditational practices invented in austere Asian monasteries have become cheerful techniques for self-realization and “wellness” (not to mention bigger and better orgasms). A few years ago there was a debate in an American Buddhist magazine on whether a belief in reincarnation is essential to Buddhism. Opinions were divided. Some were quite willing to give up the notion entirely—the Buddhist path (the dharma) then becomes a fully secularized vehicle for a more satisfying lifestyle. Alternatively, reincarnation itself is Americanized—as a second chance!
Is this “enculturation” a bad thing? Not necessarily. Every religious tradition changes. Buddhism changed as it moved out of India into the very different cultures of eastern Asia. It should not be surprising if it changes again as “the dharma goes west” (to use a phrase much favored by American Buddhists).  There is much to be said for American optimism and benevolence, even if it is often bland. I for one rather like the “Protestant smile”; I learned to practice it myself soon after I arrived in America as a young man, still steeped in European existential gloom. As Cuddihy understood, this (no longer exclusively Protestant) smile expresses an important cultural dimension of American democracy. However, it has little do with the anguish that drove a young Indian prince to give up a life of privilege, to leave his family, and to go out as a begging pilgrim in search of a way to extinguish desire.
[Image courtesy Shutterstock.
Posted in Buddhism

10 Responses to From Buddhist Laughter to the Protestant Smile

  1. Shira Coffee says:
    There are some good points in this article. However, there are some errors, too. For instance (and somewhat trivially), the “Laughing Buddha” is not a representation of the Buddha at all, but of a sort of Buddhist folk hero called Hotei-Sama in Japan and Budai or Putai in China. Like Santa Claus, he is often depicted carrying a large sack, and he is said to provide food and gifts from that sack to needy, but generous, people.
    As for the “wheel of deaths”, I cannot comment on Hindu views, but the Buddha was primarily concerned with suffering in this life. One can argue about the importance of ideas of reincarnation in Buddhist thought, but the Four Noble Truths nor the Noble Eightfold Path (the central teachings of the Buddha) focus on the interval between birth and death — a single life.
    I think you may be right when you say that ” the gist of an ‘Abrahamic’ worldview may be formulated as a denial of each of the Three Universal Truths” but from a Buddhist point of view, the predictable result is exactly the kind of alienation, commoditization, extremes of hedonistic wealth and wretched poverty, and predatory individualism that have followed in the wake of “Abrahamic” conquering armies and colonizing businesspeople.
    It is possible that Buddhism must learn the Protestant smile, but also likely that the “Abrahamic” west needs the corrective of the Buddha’s clear gaze and open heart.
  2. Gary Novak says:
    Shira Coffee describes the predictably horrific consequences of the Abrahamic worldview “from a Buddhist point of view.” Using Berger’s terminology, we can locate her a little more precisely: she is an “engaged Buddhist.” But the West no more needs the “corrective” of politicized, secularized Buddhism than it needs Liberation Theology.
  3. Shira Coffee says:
    Mr. Novak is, I’m afraid, not as knowledgeable about Buddhist “denominations” as he seems to think he is. Like most American Buddhists living outside large cities, I affiliate with whatever sangha is within driving distance — in my case, a lovely and welcoming Therevada group run by Sri Lankan monks. In my previous home, I affiliated with a Zendo. It’s not a problem because the differences between Buddhist groups are mostly matters of emphasis, not fundamental disagreements.
    My point in writing was simply to call attention to some errors in the original post. I ask Christian readers: if someone pointed to a picture of Santa Claus, identified it as a picture of Jesus, and then used this picture to illustrate some element of Jesus’ thought, might you not wish to correct that line of argument? Or if a non-Christian made assertions about the teachings of Jesus by asserting that they were just like those of rabbinic Judaism of his time, might you not wish to at least question that assertion?
    Finally, as to the idea (which Mr. Novak apparently finds objectionable) that influence between religious groups — in this case, Buddhists and Christians — runs both ways, that seems to be simple fact, derived from our social nature as humans. I look forward to a fruitful exchange!
  4. Robert F says:
    And what was the predictable result of accepting the Three Universal Truths in the East? The caste system, social stagnation, a refusal to take physical suffering and social oppression as phenomena deserving material compassion, an acceptance of the status quo, etc.? Such is the stuff of unsubstantiated generalization, Shira Coffee.
  5. Shira Coffee says:
    Again, Mr. F., you might wish to consider that “the East” is not an actual place, and that Buddhism has had different relations to other social institutions (such as government and competing religious groups) in the broad scope of its tenure in various parts of Asia.
    I can assert that the Buddha did not endorse the caste system during his lifetime. On the contrary, he taught that every human being, regardless of caste (or sex) was capable of enlightenment. (You can see a representative sample of the Buddha’s teachings on caste — very politely phrased, since he was instructing a king — at In modern India, members of the “Untouchables” caste are embracing Buddhism in substantial numbers precisely because of Buddhism’s rejection of caste, so this anti-caste stance has been quite consistent for more than two millenia.
    As for your other concerns (“social stagnation, a refusal to take physical suffering and social oppression as phenomena deserving material compassion, an acceptance of the status quo”), perhaps you will be so kind as to furnish details about where and when these have been inculcated or perpetuated by Buddhist teachings, specifically. Then we can have a discussion about whether those instances are actually due to Buddhism, whether they are due to other institutions, and whether they are completely unmatched by actions of the Church or other western religious institutions.
    I am not trying to dodge your objections, but really, how can I make any reasonable response to generalizations about 2,500 years of history across a vast and varied continent?
  6. Wayne Lusvardi says:
    I believe Buddhist-American Shira Coffee mistakes Berger’s intent which is to understand how the “smiling Buddha” is viewed through Western cultural eyes and not to describe the Laughging Buddha in Japan or China.
    Coffee’s intermixture of Buddhism and Marxism is evident in her statement: “Abrahamic conquering armies and colonizing businesspeople” have predictably led to “alienation, commoditization, extremes of hedonistic wealth and wretched poverty, and predatory individualism.” 

    My guess is that Coffee’s form of “Engaged Buddhism” would not resonate with the experience of many immigrants to America who come from Communist or former Communist political regimes, including those from South Vietnam or Cambodia.
    The American smiling Buddha can be contrasted with the “grim” despair of those who have lived in Communist totalitarian regimes.
    One of the most striking cultural characteristics observed by visitors to the former Soviet Union, Mao’s China, East Germany, or Communist satellite Hungary, was the emotional “grimness” and depression leading to widespread alcoholism. 

    One need only go back in time and read a 1957 newspaper report “Grimness and Desperation Beset Unhappy Hungary,” published Jan. 26, 1957, Star News, Wilmington, North Carolina, about how the Communist suppression of the Hungarian Revolution left those in Budapest in a “grim and desperate mood.” 
One of the complaints was the “rationalization program” of the new Communist government that forced Hungarians to join the Communist Party or lose their jobs. website has even ranked Communist regimes by their level of experienced “grimness:” 1.North Korea, 2. Soviet Union, 3. China, 4. Romania, 5. East Germany, 6. Bulgaria, 7. Poland, 8, Cuba, 9. Hungary, and 10. Venezuela.
    Contrast the grimness of totalitarian Communist regimes with the historical optimism of American capitalist culture and religion from Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking” to Rev. Robert Schuller’s “Possibility Thinking.”
    There has always been a cultural strain toward optimism in America. 
The German sociologist Max Weber was right in his description of American exceptionalism as having to do with Protestantism and Capitalism, as described in Lawrence Schaff’s book “Max Weber in America.” Scaff writes that upon visiting the United States Weber was “taken by the enthusiasm, raw energy, taste for adventure, social engagement, creative powers, and sense of humor” of Americans as a way out of the “iron Cage” or modernity and bureaucratic governments. 

    There are many who are discontented with American culture and choose to embrace a countercultural form of Buddhism, whether “engaged” or “disengaged.” But for every one of those who are discontented there are many more immigrants from other countries who have learned the “Protestant smile” without ever being a Protestant or for that matter a countercultural “engaged” Buddhist. 

  7. John Barker says:
    As a young man I was attracted to the rather amiable form of Buddhism preached by Alan Watts. One might term his version of the Buddhism as “Zen Hedonism”. I am impressed that the malleability of the mind is such that the austere doctrines of the Buddha can somehow allow for the enjoyment of wine, women and song, at least for some people.
  8. Gary Novak says:
    I wonder if Shira Coffee’s “welcoming Theravada group” welcomes business people, military personnel, and rich people. I suspect it does. Apparently, it even welcomes “engaged Buddhists” (not an official denomination, of course), who wear their contempt for such people on their sleeves.
    Berger has written a lot about social influence via “plausibility structures,” and I don’t find that idea surprising or objectionable. But, for Christians, there are also vertical influences, if one is willing to listen to them. And that may mean being an individual against the social influences. I wasn’t suggesting that the East should listen to one-way lecturing from the West. My mention of Liberation Theology was intended to suggest that any “dialogue” between “engaged Buddhists” and Liberation Theologians would actually be a monologue, because both are political left-wingers who already see eye-to-eye in placing social “liberation” above transcendence.
    The problem with our social nature is that so much of our testimony to others does not originate in our existential encounter with what Berger calls “signals of transcendence” (I love that term) but is simply a further transmission of the conventional wisdom of our plausibility structure.
    The direction of influence doesn’t much matter if we haven’t experientially earned our beliefs, interpretations, understandings. I hope you find this a fruitful exchange and do not feel ganged up on by Berger freaks.
    I would like to add one word to John Barker, who notes that some people are able to enjoy wine, women, and song within austere Buddhism. American Buddhist John Stevens wrote “Lust for Enlightenment” on sex and Buddhism. It documents (often humorously)that, like Christianity, Buddhism struggles with the more puritanical aspects of religion. (The book’s purpose is not to convict Buddhists of hypocrisy but to foster enlightenment.)
  9. Robert F says:
    Well, one example would be the way the Zen Buddhist hierarchy almost without exception supported the militarization of Japan before and during WWII, and in fact encouraged Japanese soldiers to follow orders unquestioningly, in the true spirit of the Samurai who had done the same for their feudal lords. This indictment would include the renowned D. T. Suzuki.
  10. Robert F says:
    I’m really not interested in a debate about the history of religions. Societies on every continent exhibit the same mottled history of inhumanity mixed with occasions of moral clarity. Regions with a strong Buddhist influence show no advantage in this regard. My own impression of Buddhism is that it is extremely conservative and tends to ignore structural evil. In fact, Buddhism denies the reality of evil and asserts that the perception of evil, along with good, is an illusion. Enlightenment is that state in which the polarities of good and evil, along with self and non-self, are transcended by insight into the impermanence, and therefore non-reality, of all phenomenon perceived by the ego. The path of “virtuous” action as a means to enlightenment is one strategy, but since Nirvana is not a reward for ethical behavior, and is neither good nor evil, there are antinomian paths in Buddhism that involve the use of methods embracing all that is normally considered disgusting and evil. The doctrine of no-self, which is shared by all traditional schools of Buddhism, naturally leads, in my opinion, to a disinterest in affirming political rights for the individual. That is why I say that Buddhism is conservative, because enlightenment is as likely, or unlikely, to happen in a dictatorship as in a democracy, so why bother to foment political change? That would be to engage in illusion. Ultimately, Buddhism affirms that the world (including the social and political world) is exactly as it should be right now, and as the Mahayana Buddhists say, samsara is nirvana. Form and emptiness are the same.
    Against this I assert, along with the best part of my Chrisian tradition, that the individual does exist and is permanent, and therefore has natural, and supernatural, rights.
    And please don’t quote Buddhist scripture to me, all of which were written several hundred years after the historical Gautama Buddha’s death.

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