Friday, July 17, 2009

Donald Lopez' "A Modern Buddhist Bible": Book Review

>"Tired of listening to eulogistical messages with empty contents," a Thai activist castigates Buddhist leaders for smugly promoting their tolerance, scientific compatibility, and downright goodness while his people starve under dictatorship. The selections compiled show a Buddhism that turns from worship and ritual towards meditation, but also towards social justice. Many books on Buddhism tend to be slim, full of platitudes, and self-congratulatory. This one strives for a truer depiction of how, from 1873-1990, Buddhist leaders and popularizers have engaged contemporary problems, and also have perpetuated modern fantasies, about the truth of the dharma.

Jack Kerouac claimed to have stolen a copy from San José, California's public library of an earlier assembly of Buddhist scriptures arranged by Dwight Goddard as "The Buddhist Bible." The incongruity and the compatibility of such a juxtaposition reveals Western and modern attempts to package dharma for a popular audience schooled in Holy Writ, and then, like Kerouac, wanting to step beyond it or integrate it into a modern encounter between East and West, mystic and mass-market, venerable and hip. Out of such conventional dichotomies, such authors as included here seek also to bridge cultural gaps, correct (or in earlier decades continue or distort) misunderstandings, and to realign Buddha's instructions as operating manuals in an age of faster transport, bolder power, and quicker communication.

The editor introduces modern Buddhism that "rejects many of the ritual and magical elements of previous forms." Instead, "it stresses equality over hierarchy, the universal over the local, and often exalts the individual above the community." (ix)
It does not improve earlier Buddhism so much as-- and the Protestant and/or secular, New Age, and/or rational qualities of many who started the effort from both Eastern and Western backgrounds must be emphasized-- seeking a return to a truer, more primitive, simpler practice. The ancient form is argued to be the most modern.

Lopez, a Tibetan expert, does insert practically verbatim parts from his 1998 debunking "Prisoners of Shangri-La" as he introduces Evans-Wentz' "Tibetan Book of the Dead," for example. Some earlier excerpts such as the historically important Madame Blavatsky with her Theosophical flights of fancy, Evans-Wentz' rather lugubrious interpretations, and Sir Edwin Arnold's once popular "The Light of Asia" will probably bore today's reader. But, they are necessary to show the start of the dialogue between Eastern reformers and Western explorers who discovered Buddhism and wished to present it as an alternative to imperialism, Christianity, and Darwin; or, perhaps rather compatible with at least the last two.

I found my own favorites. Shunryu Suzuki (see my review of David Chadwick's "Crooked Cucumber" biography) sensibly sums up Soto Zen's stress on simplicity. "It is like studying a foreign language; you cannot do it all of a sudden, but by repeating it over and over you will master it. This is the Soto way of practice. We may say either that we make progress little by little, or that we do not even expect to make progress. Just to be sincere and make our full effort in each moment is enough. There is no Nirvana outside our practice." (135)

Alan Watts seems to have fallen out of favor among current audiences, but he prepared the way for Shunryu Suzuki's impact in the San Francisco counterculture. Unlike the Beats (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Snyder) here featured, in his 1959 essay "Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen," Watts appears to have outlasted the Beats when it comes to a prescient observation of the permanence of true insight vs. the fads of a passing trend-- an aspect that continues to color how Buddhism gets marketed globally more than ever. Watts starts by nodding to the Japanese twist. Zen historically attracted the samurai class for its power to get rid of their self-conscious youthful education. But, this plays into the "Japanese compulsion to compete with oneself-- a compulsion which turns every craft and skill into a marathon of self-discipline." I thought of the bizarre game shows that try to humiliate or reward contestants with death-defying or at least stomach-churning feats. Watts finds that Japan's version of Zen "fought fire with fire, overcoming the 'self observing the self' by bringing it to an intensity with which it exploded." (161)
For Westerners raised within a Jewish-Christian culture, whether or not adhering to its beliefs outright, Watts understands the appeal of a Buddhism that the Beats enjoyed, one that did not preach or moralize. Yet, Watts knows the dangers of distorting dharma into existential folly. He insists that anyone from the West must get beyond being "swayed by its promises unconsciously." One must be able to take or leave "the Lord God Jehovah with his Hebrew-Christian conscience" but "without fear or rebellion." A comparison may be Rodger Kamenetz' studies (reviewed by me) in "The Jew in the Lotus" and "Stalking Elijah" about how Jewish and/or Buddhist seekers try to balance their psychic inheritance with their practical search.

Watts finds that unless one is freed from the "itch to justify" one's self, one's
"Zen will be either 'beat' or 'square', either a revolt from the culture and social order of a new form of stuffiness and respectability. For Zen is above all the liberation of the mind from conventional thought, and this is something utterly different from rebellion against convention, on the one hand, or adapting foreign conventions, on the other." (165)
He contrasts the "underlying protestant lawlessness of beat Zen" as calculated to annoy the squares, who seriously try to pursue the "satori" or breakthrough by gaining official stamps of calligraphed approval. Their own spiritual tourism, their rush to wander Asia to find what they can obtain in their own garden, also presents dangers, when such "fuss" gets "mixed up with Bohemian affectations." (168; 171)

Chogyam Trungpa in the last selection, after the next dozen years of the Beats turned hippies found many Americans unable to handle true wisdom, also finds that without a "spiritual friend who is a doctor with a sharp knife," seekers will fail to free themselves from "spiritual materialism" and "shopping" for one layer after another to put on and discard as they wander the bazaar of the next hip spirituality.

Thich Nhat Hanh offers another alternative to such restlessness within the modern heart. "A human being is like a television set with millions of channels. If we turn the Buddha on, we are the Buddha. If we turn sorrow on, we are sorrow. If we turn a smile on, we really are the smile. We cannot let just one channel dominate us. We have the seed of everything in us, and we have to seize the situation in our hand, to recover our own sovereignty." (205)

Allying individual renewal to social transformation, Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and Taiwanese activist Cheng Yen urge smiles to accompany little shifts in personal behavior that start to ripple out to those around us. While B. R. Ambedkar's Indian manifesto shown earlier tying Karl Marx to a revolutionary dharma may have never come to fruition, nor the Thai Buddhadesa's call for "dictatorial socialism" to overcome the dictators in his homeland, the gentler calls for reform dominate later appeals to apply the dharma to change the world, rather than play into stereotypes of a navel-gazing Buddhism concerned only with monastic ritual, inner exploration, or exotic mantras.

Arranged chronologically by the birth of their authors, the thirty-one selections do not follow any logical pattern otherwise. As with "Prisoners of Shangri-La," this anthology will prove difficult to plow straight through; a glossary does help somewhat, but not a book I'd recommend to beginners. Try Rick Fields' narrative history of Buddhism in America, "How the Swans Came to the Lake," first. Lopez can be less than helpful in some of his too-compressed introductions; I am not sure where a "Calvinist convent" is for Alexandra David-Neel's early education. Some excerpts are astonishingly dull, predictable, or obtuse. Still, this forces the reader like it or not into hearing a diverse array of voices demanding renewal and rebirth of Buddhism. I shared a few of my favorite passages above.

Lopez views the modern Buddhist movements as their own sect. Not mutually exclusive of earlier forms, but often compatible if with "its own lineage, its own doctrines, its own practices." Here, from "a cosmopolitan network of intellectuals," he attempts to present "its own canon of sacred scriptures." (xxxix)

While William Burroughs' rejoinder "Show me a good Buddhist novelist" (155) remains to be proven, given the lack of fiction and not much poetry of any worth within these pages, I do hope a century later readers of a "21st Century Buddhist Bible" may find much to celebrate in the genres not only of polemic, sermon, address, scientific speculation, and inspiration, but in the realms of the creative arts. (Posted to Amazon US today, and also on my shorter blog where many other reviews appear, "Blogtrotter.")

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