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Seek, And Ye Shan’t Find

by on June 14, 2014

Seek, And Ye Shan’t Find
by Marco M. Pardi

“Man is certainly stark mad: he cannot make a flea, yet he makes gods by the dozens.” Montaigne, Essays, 1588

I began this blog site with a few expositions intended to point to my orientation in life. I say even that carefully because, if you have read those early pieces you have seen that I reject labels of any kind. More precisely, I find numerous reasons why labels are oxymoronic and self defeating. Unlike a photographer putting before you a picture of what is, I am a painter inviting you to examine my brush strokes and complete them for yourselves. You cannot frame my reality, nor I yours.

I recently read an article by Joanna Piacenza entitled, “Hate Religion But Love Buddhism?” Ms. Piacenza, the webmaster at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, received her M.A. in religious studies at U. of Colorado-Boulder.

Unfortunately, Ms. Piacenza seems to have embarked on a reactionary and distinctly hostile screed that embodies several questionable assumptions. Her basic premise appears to be that Buddhism is a religion, no more and no less. Immediately, in light of her presumed education, this raises the question of whether she is knowingly proselytizing a very narrow agenda, or whether her religious studies program was remarkably deficient.

The commonly accepted etiology of “religion” has it deriving from the Latin infinitive “religare”, to rebind. Ancillary derivatives include terms such as ligature (binding) and other terms. Here, the presumption is that one has fallen away somehow (The Fall) from an original state and is in need of reconnection to this original state. The (particular) religion thus provides the way.

So, is Buddhism a religion? This question has been argued for decades, with a tripartite answer: 1. It is a religion; 2. It is a non-theistic religion; and, 3. It is a philosophy. Looking at it from the perspective of No. 1, we cannot deny that there are those who have, over the millennia, made it into an extraordinarily complex and dogmatic system which, to many adherents, elevates Siddhartha Gautama (the founder) and various notable followers to states approaching a rank order of deification. Hours of oral tradition and reams of scripture have flowed from the claimed teachings of Siddhartha. How does this conform to the religious model, particularly the “organized” religion?

The anthropological position, especially on the origins of organized religion is that religions originate as a cult composed of those people immediately surrounding the person who has had a transcendental or numinous experience. Despite its modern usage, “cult” is a neutral term. It applies particularly to those people who, not having had the experience themselves, hear it directly from the person who did. As the central figure, the experiencer, ages and dies and the original “witnesses” age they pass on their recollections (often rife with interpretation) to their descendants, both literal and figurative. More removed still are figures such as Paul who, without ever having even seen Jesus in the flesh, is credited by many scholars as the originator of Western Christianity (Christos = Anointed One. Greek) And here is where things get messy. Over time, and over distance as the message is spread it gets changed ever so slightly at first with change building upon change until from a single slender stalk there has grown a mighty and tangled bush. The “telephone game” comes to mind. Unfortunately, internecine conflict also comes to mind, and to hand. When attempting to thread one’s way through the bush back to the stalk certain resources are presented. These are:

A. Scholars. People who have no stake in the outcome of the search.
Their personal positions are not relevant to their work.
B. Theologians. People who have decided there is a god (theos) and
are dedicated to the study of this god.
C. Clerics. Trained specialists in particular religious systems who are
expected to service the broader community of partially trained
believers. They are not there to think, they are there to convey the
thinking of others.

Ms. Piacenza seems not to have heard of scholars. She makes no mention of Dr. Walpola Rahula, author of the very highly regarded text, What The Buddha Taught, cited in the Journal of the Buddhist Society as “fill(ing) the need (for a concise introduction) as only could be done by one having a firm grasp of the vast material to be sifted. It is a model of what a book should be that is addressed first of all to ‘the educated and intelligent reader.’ Authoritative and clear, logical and sober, this study is as comprehensive as it is masterly.” (Reviewer’s comments)

I have this book, and have long valued it for its insights into the processes by which untold amounts of materials are added over time to what a speaker, such as Jesus and others originally said. Prune the dross from the Mishnah, the Midrash, the Canonical liturgy, the Quranic Tafsir and you are closer in Judaism, Christianity and Islam to what Dr. Rahula found deep inside the wild and variegated bush we know today as Buddhism: the comparatively sparse and surprisingly insightful words of the founders.

Ms. Piacenza directs much of her ire toward those in the West who have adopted some parts of Western Buddhism. Yet, she seems unaware of Lama Surya Das, “the most highly trained American lama in the Tibetan tradition.” In his book, Awakening the Buddha Within, written for Westerners and which I have, Surya Das “tells us that each of us has the wisdom, awareness, love, and power of the Buddha within; yet most of us are too often like sleeping Buddhas. In Awakening the Buddha Within, Surya Das shows how we can awaken to who we really are in order to lead a more compassionate, enlightened, and balanced life. It illuminates the guidelines and key principles embodied in the noble Eight-Fold Path and the traditional Three Enlightenment Trainings common to all schools of Buddhism:

Wisdom Training: Developing clear vision, insight, and inner understanding — seeing reality and ourselves as we really are.
Ethics Training: Cultivating virtue, self-discipline, and compassion in what we say and do.
Meditation Training: Practicing mindfulness, concentration, and awareness of the present moment.” (Reviewer’s comments)

Furthermore, as a medical anthropologist in various fields for 46 years I have encountered several Western psychiatrists who, realizing the wisdom in the writings of Alan Watts, apply the foundations of Buddhism in their practices. In his book, Psychotherapy: East and West, which I have used in college teaching and Death Counseling since 1973,
“Alan Watts found a common principle that, intentionally or otherwise, seems to be used wherever therapy is trying to overcome man’s false sense of himself as an isolated ego — an ego that traps him in a perpetual flight from death and loneliness. In varying ways and degrees, both Eastern philosophy and Western psychotherapy engage the individual in experiments that vividly reveal the fallacy of this conception and give him a new feeling of identity.” (Reviewer’s comments)

Of course, caution is needed here, as called for by Sheldon Kopp in his text, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him: The Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy Patients.

A more current volume, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, “written by Sogyal Rinpoche, is the ultimate introduction to Tibetan Buddhist wisdom. An enlightening, inspiring, and comforting manual for life and death that the New York Times calls, “‘The Tibetan equivalent of [Dante’s] The Divine Comedy,’” this is the essential work that moved Huston Smith, author of The World’s Religions, to proclaim, “’I have encountered no book on the interplay of life and death that is more comprehensive, practical, and wise.’” I keep this within reach, and hope to re-read its wisdom as I lie dying.

The reader may have noticed in all this there is no mention of God, no assertion of the need to Religare – to rebind. In fact, after years of searching, extreme asceticism and near fatal self deprivation, Siddhartha stopped looking outward and turned inward – to what he had all along: himself. And in finding himself he found all from which self is made; he found his being in Allness: Tat Tvam Asi – That Thou Art (Sanskrit: तत् त्वम् असि or तत्त्वमसि). Up to that point Siddhartha’s nearly unbearable anguish arose from the feeling that he was bound, bound within the ossified hierarchy of Hinduism. Bound within an unspeakably cruel and exclusive caste system. Siddhartha’s awakening (Buddha = Awakened One) was from the confining nightmare of living someone else’s life, a someone crafted by arcane and untraceable rules. He had hitherto lived in the prison of his given persona and only after turning inward did he see the bars around him for what they were, illusions programmed into him by a system which had, over the centuries developed into a hardened religious system. He realized that that seeking “out there” for something to which to rebind was an act based on an illusion. Out and In was a false dichotomy. Binding to “This” is by its nature exclusive of “That”. But This and That is a false dichotomy. As Jesus reputedly said some 500 years later, “The kingdom is within.” Siddhartha learned what has since become a maxim of Buddhism: “One does not become Buddhist; one discovers one is Buddhist.”

If this were the discovery of a religious affiliation, as Ms. Piacenza would have it, there could be no dual citizenship in this domain, no holding of “other” religious affiliations. Yet, in those 46 years of often working with the dying, their families, and their caretakers I have found examples of what William James would cite as “the white crow.” I worked with a Catholic priest (Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, Fla. State University) in developing within his parish one of the first hospices in the State of Florida. He and I had many marathon talks during which he fully and candidly shared his understanding of and use of the principles of Buddhism in his counseling practice. Of course, he equally assured me he would never openly divulge this to his parishioners; they would run him out of town. They were, after all, trapped in their – This, not That – mentality.

I spent 10 days at the headquarters of the Colomban Order (“Celtic Catholic”) in Navan, Ireland visiting two priests who had harbored my family and myself from Nazi retribution squads intent on wiping out my father’s (one of the high ranking Italian officers who overthrew Mussolini) family. They were in the Order hospice, one very near death. Over those 10 days I became friends with the Director of the Hospice, a Catholic priest (Ph.D. Clinical Psychology, Oxford University and Ph.D. Epistemology, Cambridge University). He also told me of his study of and adherence to the fundamental principles of Buddhism, and their supreme contributions to his Catholic ministry for the dying priests – whatever their hierarchical rank in the Church. And, he fully understood he was externally a man of a defined religion while internally a man guided by an insightful philosophy that threatened no religions except those which demanded the punishment of anyone deviating from the dogma.

Ms. Piacenza directs much of her wrath toward Westerners who adopt meditation and, in her view, claim they have adopted Buddhism. In fact, the influx of meditation to the West predates the Transcendental Meditation movement of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who awarded me the Enlightened Citizen Award in 1979. Dr. Daisetsu Teitano Suzuki, Kyoto School of Philosophy and Columbia University, brought meditation to the West in the 1950’s, as a foundation of Zen Buddhism. The novelist Jack Kerouac (The Dharma Bums and many others), with whom I conversed at a Tampa watering hole in the 1960’s popularized it in his books before dying of alcoholism in 1969.

But, in line with Ms. Piacenza’s discomfort, I have known Catholic priests who rankle at the “cafeteria Catholics” in their parishes, picking and choosing doctrines and regulations that suit them while rejecting the rest. While there can be no denying that for many people “Buddhism” has become an ossified, externally ritualistic form practiced in ways which mark it as a de facto religion, theist or not, it must also be remembered that, as Dr. Rahula and so many others have pointed out, Siddhartha Gautama himself would most likely have looked out on this wild and tangled “Buddhism” and wondered how his personal understanding could have given rise to such a “new Hinduism”. Many scholars have said the same of Jesus.

If the claim that the sole adoption of a particular practice is invalid without the adoption of the entire system of thought of which it is a part has any merit, it would appear the vast majority of the “religious” will have to resign their commissions. I think it is also clear that while Buddhism has become a religion for some, it is essentially a philosophy of Self which, not being exclusive in any way, would welcome Ms Piacenza for a chat. I certainly would.

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  1. Mark Dohle permalink

    “A more current volume, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, “written by Sogyal Rinpoche, is the ultimate introduction to Tibetan Buddhist wisdom. An enlightening, inspiring, and comforting manual for life and death that the New York Times calls, “‘The Tibetan equivalent of [Dante’s] The Divine Comedy,’” this is the essential work that moved Huston Smith, author of The World’s Religions, to proclaim, “’I have encountered no book on the interplay of life and death that is more comprehensive, practical, and wise.’” I keep this within reach, and hope to re-read its wisdom as I lie dying.”

    I have the above book and I treasure it. I have also read “The grace in dying” and will not part with it. Even though I am no longer in the infirmary I will keep it and reread it from time to time.

    I do find that many today who are on a spiritual path don’t always use it to deal with life, or to find some way to transform their existence and how they deal with it. They seem to want something that is only about feeling good, without the ‘death to self’ that is needed order to make progress. Chaos and inner struggle are just as important as being centered and peaceful. We grow by choosing, the deeper the choice, the freer it is the more difficult it can be.

    There will be a merging of beliefs as time goes on. I have no doubt that the genius of Buddhism is in their study of the mind, how it works and how to deal with it. For me, it enriches my Christian faith. I do not study Buddhism all that much, but over the years I have read and pondered different authors. Pema Chrodron for me being one of the best. I just wish they could find English terms for many of their concepts, that way it would be easier for more people learn and read.

    I do think that some of her criticism is valid, but you brought some balance to it as usual.



  2. Thank you, Mark. As always, I consider your insights invaluable. It would be nice if you and I could host a seminar some day. Perhaps. Give it some thought? Marco


  3. I wonder, did it make you cringe, or perhaps chuckle, when I told you I considered myself half Baptist/ half Buddhist? The truth is that neither of these are completely true, but they are as near a conventional definition as I can imagine. I believe that most religions and philosophies have a bit of truth in them, but none possess all of it.

    As a child, I was sent to the Baptist church on the corner, not so much because of any religious conviction on my parents’ part, but because it was convenient, and what you were supposed to do. Around age twelve or so, I was brainwashed enough to want to join the flock; but no sooner had my head been dunked under that water than I knew that there was more truth out there than would ever be found within those walls. And so my search began.

    After a bit of “comparison shopping”, I found myself most comfortable with the Buddhist/Taoist way of looking at life. Patience and tolerance are the keys. Each of us is on our own path, and each of us will find the truth we need to find our way; so long as we keep our eyes (and minds) open.

    If you and Br. Mark ever get that seminar together, let me know. I’ll be front row center. Rose


  4. Thank you, Rose. Your journey was not unusual, except perhaps in the fact that you did not simply switch beliefs. So, you are “SAVED” I guess. As they said about all roads leading to Rome, the Dalai Lama has said about all faiths/philosophies leading to the same place. I would dislike being a traffic cop on that highway.
    But, the idea of a seminar with Mark – and lots of people in attendance, especially you, is a fun dream. Marco


    • “SAVED”; by whom and from what? I’m sort of okay with the notion of forgiveness if it comes from within, but the notion of eternal salvation completely eludes me.
      My personal belief system is made up of bits and pieces of truths found pretty much everywhere; not just in religions and philosophies, but in the secular world around me. The truth is the truth, no matter where you find it.


  5. Was just kidding.


    • LOL I recognize sarcastic humor when I see it; it is a skill at which we are both highly proficient. I’ve been a bit too serious lately, and for that I forgive myself; hope you can forgive me, too.


  6. You have been through some tough times lately.


  7. “Unlike a photographer putting before you a picture of what is, I am a painter inviting you to examine my brush strokes and complete them for yourselves. You cannot frame my reality, nor I yours”
    SUPERB !!! I think this will stay with me for a longtime !
    As for the rest, as always, it is for me a `Read and learn !`
    I am definitely learning a lot here and always enjoy also the rest of the comments 🙂
    and as a PS … I can so totally relate to Montaigne`words ! pure genius !


    • Thank you, FOAL. We learn so much from each other. And I so enjoy the canvas of your “dreams.” Marco


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