Monday, March 1, 2010
I recently was one of four American scholars presenting papers in a seminar on East/West morality at the Los Angeles campus of a Japanese Buddhist University. The president of the school chose us to present our views, first because we are fairly well-known specialists in Asian religion, and second because we are Caucasians who grew up in Christian households.
Only about a third of the audience was Japanese or Japanese Americans, for whom Buddhism was the inherited faith. The rest consisted of non-Japanese who had some interest in Buddhism. A few had even taken priest vows in one denomination of Buddhism or another. Some, like us, were from Christian families (I know of one Catholic priest in the audience), but the religion in the room was Buddhism.
Out of the four of us on the podium, three of us attended the University of Chicago in the early 1960’s, where we were influenced by the late Joseph Kitagawa. Also, we were personally influenced by the Zen scholar Masao Abe and his famous teachers, Daisetsu Suzuki and Shinichi Hisamatsu. On the Christian side, two of us came from the Church of Christ tradition, one from the Dutch Reform movement, and one (who is himself a Jesuit priest) from the Roman Catholic community.
We were asked to reflect in our papers on the moral lessons we brought from our Christian heritage while at the same time offering the audience insights into what we had learned of Buddhist (and Hindu) morality, with as many personal examples as possible.
The focus of one paper was on the writer’s growing appreciation for Hinduism while he was in India doing research. Another paper pointed out how the Christian parable of the “good Samaritan” is really directed at Jewish leaders who were missing the real point of Jewish law by being too bound by purification rituals that separated Jews from non-Jews. One more paper praised the Japanese cultural trait of carefully considering the needs and feelings of others (omoi-yari) before saying or doing anything of a more selfish nature. My own paper was a bit out of place and controversial, in that I brought up some topics that are condoned as practical legal matters in Japan but vilified as sinful and immoral by some Americans, such as abortion, adultery and homosexuality.
The discussion of our papers at the time was lively and insightful. For my part, I came away thinking that we all were talking about the moral compass that makes us declare some behaviors moral and other behaviors immoral. My own moral compass comes from religion, mainly. And that may be so for most people. But for many the source may not be religion at all, especially if they grew up untutored in, opposed to, or just uninterested in the subject.
Alexander McCall Smith, a medical lawyer, has lived most of his life in Africa and is the author of some charming books about practical morality. His multi-volume No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is a case in point (both in print and in a popular television series directed by Anthony Minghella.)
McCall Smith has said our “search for a moral compass” is widespread today because we have seen that “just doing what we want doesn’t work very well…” The point he makes is that we need a moral compass to give “moral structure” to our lives. His implication seems to be that our religions, the sources of our moral compass, are outdated.
The author implies that women in South Africa’s Botswana have a keener sense of what is right and wrong, at least in practical terms, than men do. And while the theological source for their moral compass is Abrahamic, the way they deal with everyday justice is not always in strict accordance with Christian or Islamic law.
In fundamentalist interpretations of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scripture, the punishments for immorality can be severe indeed – everything from ostracism, to cutting off arms and legs, to death by stoning, to everlasting hell are included in all these Abrahamic faiths. Sexual sins receive the severest punishments. The sense of living in accordance with God’s commandments or else… is very strong.
This fundamentalist radicalism is what McCall Smith suggests the modern world has discarded, even among followers of Western religions. The charm of his books, at least in part, is how his female characters get to the bottom of things, solving problems by dealing with practical matters first and fine points of the law second. In the process we can see the absurdity of some of our religious teachings, and how the women manage to respect the core values of those teachings without actually inflicting harsh punishments. In the end they retain the moral compass of the law and discard the rest as so much garbage.
People who are familiar with McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series usually see and applaud the wisdom of the female characters’ solutions to moral and ethical problems. They can see the practical logic that springs from the ladies’ religious faith. The women sometimes bend or break rules that men might insist are part of the religion (in this case, the Christianity that Catholic and Protestant missionaries brought to the country), and their struggle to outwit the men can often be very funny.
Some critics laugh at their antics only because the women try so hard to hang onto the religions that provide their moral compass. But my sense of them is that they are not funny clowns but are closer to being saints or even angels. I think of them as cousins to the characters in much of Mark Twain. Just as Twain’s characters speak in a distinct and dying dialect, the Botswanans in McCall Smith’s stories speak an accented British English that is full of colonial-period cliches.
The religious sources for the moral compasses of the women in the Detective Agency stories are in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition. Although that tradition was born in the deserts of the ancient Near East, history has flung it across the globe in such a way that it long ago became the religious tradition of the Western world. The religions of the Eastern world, as we think of it today, are part of the distinctly different tradition of Hinduism and Buddhism. This is important to keep in mind when watching the actions of McCall Smith’s women.
The same moral compass works equally well in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All of the women in the stories used the same compass. It’s only the doctrines behind the moral compass that are different. The differences in the doctrines, of course, have been the problem, causing Christians, Jews and Muslims to disrespect, hate, and even kill each other for centuries. If we had operated with the moral compass of the religions rather than their doctrines, maybe history would have been different.
The question is, if the major South and East Asian religions are compared to the Abrahamic ones of the West, how does the picture change? Is the moral compass totally different? Similar? The same? Over the years I have taught many classes in comparative religion, focusing on Asian religions. Some of those classes were for scholars who already were familiar with the doctrinal differences. But most classes were for people who came from a Judeo/Christian/Muslim background and knew nothing about Eastern religions.
The doctrinal difference between the Eastern religions and Western religions is simply put: Hinduism and Buddhism are atheistic, whereas Judaism, Christianity and Islam are monotheistic. (Early Christian missionaries in India labeled Hinduism a polytheistic religion. But that is not accurate. It is not theistic at all.)
People in the Western world have a very hard time making sense of atheism. They think it means that someone who is an atheist is against the God of the universe, as defined in Abrahamic religions. Being anti-God, then, is being anti-Western culture, they think. I think it is more reasonable to say that an atheist dismisses as inaccurate the definition of reality that the doctrines of Abrahamic religions teach. A modern atheist is often a scientist, who holds science up as a method for defining the workings of life and death.
But there is another definition of reality besides the one offered either by science or by Western religions. When I say the Brahmanical religions of Hinduism/Buddhism are atheistic, I am simply suggesting that their definition of existence differs from the Western religious and scientific definitions. The Eastern definition grew up in a different part of civilization. Its assumptions about where we came from and why we are here are not the assumptions held by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Nor is it remotely similar to the assumptions of the modern scientific community.
One important characteristic of the Eastern definition of reality, historically speaking, is that it has not insisted on its definition being correct. Its correctness has not been an issue for people who have grown up with it. It has never been taught as the true definition, the “one true faith,” at war with the false definitions of others. The way the Eastern religious tradition has defined itself is as a process, with all of its working parts as immutable as gravity is for scientists (and indeed for all educated people on earth today.) For this reason the very concept of unbelievers and infidels is almost inconceivable for Hindus and Buddhists. They merely want to be at peace within the process rather than at war with unbelievers.
In contrast, knowing the truth and being right is at the heart of Western religions. The Abrahamic tribes are quick to call non-believers infidels, by which they mean they are lost and worthless. Furthermore, the various versions of God offered by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures have led to fighting not only between these three Abrahamic faiths in general, but also internally, most notably between Catholics and Protestants, Shiites and Sunnis, and even between off-shoots of each of these. Can there be any doubt that being right and defending the righteous (in God’s name) is the guiding principal of all forms of Western religion?
The Hindus and Buddhists I have met have never tried to convert me. Nor have they ever insinuated that the faith of my fathers is wrong, or that their understanding of life and death makes more sense than mine. The philosophical among them have always enjoyed listening to me talk about the assumptions of Westerners, and have gently filled in the gaps I had about their understanding of how things work.
We always got around to the question of “What happens after we die?” And I remember being incredulous at first when I realized they actually believed they were being born over and over again, making up for ignorant actions they made from one life to another. They were less shocked than bemused, I think, by my explanation about how each of us has one shot at pleasing God, and expect to be praised or punished at death by a jealous but loving Father, who might forgive us our sins if we truly repent.
The purpose I have in mind for this paper is not to dwell on the doctrinal differences between Western and Eastern religious traditions, but rather to see if the moral compasses of the two traditions are compatible. I think they are. But first we have to be clear on some of the basic assumptions upon which the doctrines are based. And they are clearly incompatible.
Here I have decided to focus on Christianity for the Western religion and Buddhism for the Eastern religion. The former is fundamentally monotheistic; the latter is fundamentally atheistic. Knowing that fact is both important (otherwise we will misinterpret things coming and going) and, from a Western point of view, scary (because for all children of Abraham the denial of a creator God is the ultimate blasphemy.)
Christianity and Buddhism arose from preexisting faiths based on huge bodies of literary records. The Bible in itself was formed by documents that fill libraries. The Buddhist scriptures, too, including the Tripitaka, fill libraries. They both can be traced back to antiquity, and ancient languages, which have been translated into every language on earth.
Each of the two faiths has a hero, who is customarily referred to by the words that identify him as such: Christ, meaning the “Anointed of God,” and Buddha, meaning “Awakened One”. Their birth names, or names people called them if they did not acknowledge their religious character, were Jesus (or Yeshua) and Shakyamuni (which literally means “Sage of the Shakya Family.”) Using the universal calendar that honors Jesus’ role in world history, we can say that Jesus lived in the 1st century A.D., and that Shakyamuni lived some 600 years earlier, in the 6th century B.C.
Anyone who speaks with any kind of authority about Jesus and Shakyamuni, these two selfless heroes of Christianity and Buddhism, the major religions of the Western and Eastern worlds, has to admit that what we know of those two men comes to us through scriptures that Jesus and Shakyamuni themselves did not write. We also must admit that the difference between the two religions that bear their names could not be more pronounced.
Nevertheless, I have come to believe that Jesus and Shakyamuni were like twins in one important respect. Reading the texts that purport to record their lives and teachings makes it clear that Jesus and Shakyamuni were rebels, even revolutionaries, who challenged the religions and societies that produced them, namely, Judaism and Hinduism. This seems to be a good place to begin any comparison of them.
Jesus and Shakyamuni apparently were happy with what their religions claimed to be real and true. But they were clearly disturbed by the ways their religions were being practiced. The issue that seems to have concerned them most was not so much what happens to us after we die and why. Rather, it was how we should live the lives we are living.
In other words, they seem not to have had a problem so much with the orthodoxy, or proper doctrines of their religions. Indeed, they even defended on occasion what those doctrines teach about reality. But they abhorred the negative effects their birth religions were having on the people of ancient Israel and India.
Jesus (who lived in the first century of “his” era) was critical of Judaism, and Shakyamuni (some 600 years before Jesus) was critical of Hinduism, for failing to practice proper action, or orthopraxy. Simply put, each of them said that followers of his religion were talking the talk but not walking it. They both reminded their spiritual leaders that human beings should live with compassion towards one another first, and worry about doctrine later.
Although Jesus was a faithful Jew, and spoke primarily to Jews, he spoke more about the spirit of the law of Moses than the letter of that law. His parables of the good Samaritan and prodigal son come to mind, but there are so many others. Most of Jesus’ parables were addressed to “Priests and Levites” – the holy men of Israel – whose obsession with rules concerning purity and holiness often made them lose sight of the other side of the law: love and compassion.
The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, likewise, addressed himself to leaders in his religion of birth. This “Sage of the Shakya Kingdom” (in what today is Nepal and north-central India) spoke primarily to the upper-caste Brahmins and Kshyatrias (Shakyamuni’s own caste) when making them aware of the horrible discrimination that the Hindu caste system taught in the name of purity.
Hinduism teaches that all beings are in possession of a spark of perfection (Atman), which at one very ancient time was complete in itself (as Brahman), a state of perfection allowing no distinction whatsoever between self and other. It further teaches that all living beings are on a return journey leading to that perfect state (known as enlightenment or Nirvana.)
However, the operational aspect of the Hindu idea is that we are reborn over and over again, in different levels (castes) of spiritual attainment, based on our actions in each life, until all of our karmic ignorance of the true self is erased, thereby allowing us to collectively return to that perfect state of selfhood that we came from.
Both Jesus and Shakyamuni stood on the edge of heresy, as far as the practice of their religions was concerned. Jesus suggested that Jews could remain Jews, but that they also could associate with all sorts of people without polluting themselves. A rabbi could do the same thing a half-breed (a Samaritan) did when he went to the aid of another pollution-carrying person. In fact he should do that, as a good Jew, despite laws to the contrary.
While Jesus seemed to imply that it was no longer necessary to keep all the dietary restrictions, make the animal sacrifices, and follow the circumcision practice of ancient Jews, Jesus did not attack the basic Law of Moses, regarding God the Creator, Adam and Eve, Abraham, and most especially, the Heaven that awaits good people after they die and the Hell that bad people (who do not keep the commandments) will have to suffer forever after they die.
In somewhat the same way, the Buddha Shakyamuni did not dismiss the Hindu notion of being born over and over again (reincarnation), in the process of moving closer towards the spiritual perfection of Enlightenment or Nirvana with each lifetime. He did imply, however, that we don’t all have to get there together, but that individuals can realize that sense of togetherness in one lifetime, as awakened beings, or Buddhas.
That is the one teaching that makes Shakyamuni a Hindu heretic, because such teaching implies that the most important aspect of Brahmanical Hinduism was wrong: we do not have to wait for all of our various self-delusions to disappear, through reincarnation, before we as individuals can attain a full state of non-differentiated selfhood.
To say that one person can reach enlightenment in one lifetime (which by implication means she has reached oneness with all other beings) renders the Brahmanic definition of Enlightenment (collective spiritual perfection) quite meaningless.
In Zen Buddhist teachings, in the seemingly nonsensical puzzles known as “Superior Teachings” (J. koan), used in teacher-to-disciple training in two branches of the Zen Buddhist denominations in East Asia, the practical and compassionate side of Buddhist teachings is always championed over any that get bogged down in doctrinal and philosophical musings about how Enlightenment happens.
At heart, therefore, both Christianity and Buddhism can be seen as branches of Judaism and Hinduism. The view of reality held in Christianity (and Islam, for that matter) remains that of Judaism. And Buddhism’s take on what is real is the same as Hinduism’s. Perhaps this is why we find fundamentalist Christians rushing to the aid of modern Israel, and why Hindus merely accept Shakyamuni Buddha as a Hindu god.
So what’s to be done? I admit that I have tried to fit my life into the orthodoxies of these great religions all my life. Now at 74 it is clear I have failed. I did not find a fit. Worse, the religions seem irrelevant to me now, and to have caused (and continue to cause) more suffering than benefit to the world. That really is a shame, because the stories of Jesus and Shakyamuni will forever be an inspiration to me.
Looking back at my life (and imagining the future), I can say that I have spent (and plan to continue to spend) my life in three principal places: university classrooms, Christian churches, and Buddhist temples (not counting the hours I spend watching TV and dancing with my wife.)
When I am with students my spirit is lifted by their enthusiasm and curiosity. I do not need to change their minds or convert them to any system of belief. At church (Episcopal, for the last twenty years) I most enjoy Holy Communion. The sacraments bring me into the mystery (and personal challenge) of Christian love and service. I do not wear Christianity as a doctrinal suit of armor. The best part of Zen temples is my pillow in the meditation hall; all of the sutra parsing and lineage posing seems almost silly to me now.
If you, like me, have a problem with any orthodoxies that claim to solve the mystery of life and death, I would suggest that we join Jesus and Shakyamuni in paying attention to the orthopraxic side of their religions. The orthodoxies that informed the Judaic and Brahmanic sources of Christianity and Buddhism also infiltrated the religions that later came into being in the names of their founders. The irony in that is painful to admit. Surely Jesus and Shakyamuni, wherever they are, must be saddened by that twist of fate.
Since none of us can offer any proof as to what happens after we die – either to be judged by God and end up in heaven or hell, or to be reborn over and over until we finally get it right and wake up as Buddhas – we might as well do what we can do very well if we try, namely, treat everyone with respect and kindness, with no preference and absolutely no thought of personal reward. Maybe it is by our actions that the world can really know Jesus and Shakyamuni after all.
Karen Armstrong, one of the most thoughtful minds among us when it comes to looking at the world’s religions with a sympathetic heart, has it just right, I think, when she says that all of our religions require a leap of faith where doctrine is concerned, but that no leap is worth taking unless it leads to what she calls “practical compassion.”
The female characters in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency clearly are not using a moral compass that they fashioned from Christian doctrine with the aim of declaring their faith to be true or even obeying each of its commandments. But their moral compass is clear to see in the kindness and goodness in their words and actions. I think they teach us how we can emerge from our various belief systems – whether Western or Eastern – with a moral compass that benefits everyone.