What We Talk About When We Talk About Ducks
Every time I pick up a Buddhist magazine or book on Buddhism in the West, there seems to be some discussion about whether or not Buddhism is a religion. These discussions are kind of strange to me, because in Japan, Buddhism is definitely a religion. There is no debate. Buddhism is also definitely a religion for the estimated five hundred million people who practice Buddhism throughout the world. At the monastery where I lived every morning we chanted for at least an hour and a half in front of a big altar. We’d offer tea, cakes, and sweet water to the statues. When the service was done we’d go to another altar and chant there. Then we’d split up and get assigned work we didn’t have a choice about. I’m not an anthropologist and I don’t really know how to define religion, but you know how they say, “If it walks like a duck, and swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck?” Yeah. For me, Zen Buddhism is definitely, 100% a duck. I mean, religion. It’s a religion!
When I arrived at Nisodo I’d already been practicing meditation for about seven years. I’d officially taken precepts and “become a Buddhist” my sophomore year of college. But the monastery was a whole other level up of religiosity that I wasn’t used to or prepared for, especially since my relationship to Buddhism was about “my practice” (cultivating clarity, peace of mind, and compassion), not about offering fruit to a statue. After a few months, I met with the abbess to ask her some questions. For the record, she’s a very, very busy lady, and it was kind of her to take time out of her day to listen to a twenty-four year old American girl whine about atheism.
“I don’t believe in Buddha as a God,” I told her. “So why are we making offerings to a statue of Buddha?”
Aoyama Roshi affirmed what I already (didn’t) believe— that Buddha is not a God. So, in Zen Buddhism at least, you can’t say that you have faith in Buddha the way people have faith in Jesus or even faith in kami, the local Japanese deities. But at the same time, living itself is an act of faith, or, a better word might be, an act of trust. When you eat food, you trust that your stomach is going to digest the food. You don’t have to think about or will your stomach into doing this; you just trust that it will happen. Similarly, when you lie down to sleep at night, you trust that nothing bad will happen to you. You trust that you will fall asleep naturally, and wake up the next morning feeling refreshed. This is all faith in life, or faith in the universe.
In my experience, there is a lot of basic trust involved in Buddhist practice. First of all, I trust in my basic potential to wake up. This is a basic, fundamental trust that I touch in with every time I sit down on a meditation cushion. If I didn’t trust that I have capacity and basic goodness, then I wouldn’t be doing any of this. Even if “zazen is good for nothing,” I still trust that it’s a good thing to do. Figure that one out. I also trust—or suspect, or hope— that my teachers and my tradition know what they’re talking about. This is a big one. The tradition of Buddhism has been around for a few thousand years, and it’s included some of the most brilliant, dedicated religious figures throughout time all getting together to study, meditate, practice, and debate these issues. So… maybe it has something useful to say, you know? Maybe my limited twenty-eight years of existence on this planet can learn something from the Buddhist philosophy and practice which people have been dedicating their entire lives to developing for more than 2,500 years.
Recently, I’ve been reading some interesting articles about how Buddhism was first introduced to the West. Most historians trace the introduction of Buddhism (at least its introduction to White America) to the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. One attendee, Paul Carus, was so impressed with Buddhism that he came to devote his intellectual work and writing to promoting this new, Asian religion. He wrote a book called The Gospel of Buddha which re-articulated Buddhism as a rational, humanistic religion that was compatible with science. When D.T Suzuki first wrote about Zen for an American audience, he rejected that Zen is a religion because it “eschews ritual” and spoke of Zen in terms of “pure experience.” His idea of Zen as “pure experience” resonated with Western audiences. But the idea of a personal, subjective experience is not something that inherently exists in Japanese culture. The word for experience, keiken, is a new word that was only introduced in the Meiji period (1888-1912) by translators who were already in dialogue with Western philosophy. So it’s pretty easy to argue that the Buddhism we’ve inherited in the West is kind of a partial picture, one that was tailor-made and redesigned for us.
Because of the way Buddhism was first introduced to (white) America, people now seem most comfortable when mediation is introduced as a technique with scientific background. Is there something inherently wrong with this? Not really. I see two small problems, though. One is that appropriating meditation— taking it out of a Buddhist religious context— ignores and overlooks what Buddhism has been for thousands of years… which is a duck. I’m not claiming I know what that duck is exactly, maybe there have been many, different kinds of ducks over the years, and maybe this duck is evolving and becoming “Americanized,” but it’s a duck. And I think it’s a really, really, interesting duck that’s worth studying and not just throwing away. I also personally don't want to paint this duck red, white and blue, call it a bald eagle, and give it free reign to squawk around my subconscious. My subconscious can't take that. It can't tell the difference between myth and reality.
The other problem is that supplanting “religion” with “science” undercuts something basic and important about explicit religious practice, which is the direct engagement with and articulation of trust. Just because science explains how things work doesn’t make our inherent trust in the workings of the universe go away. It doesn’t make doubt and fear go away. Personally, I’m walking around with lots of unacknowledged doubt, fear, hope, faith and trust all the time. Religious practice makes this explicit. When I bow to a statue of a Buddha, I’m expressing my trust in something that is not me. I didn’t design this. I receive life, and I trust that oxygen will be there and work out the way I need it to. So, thank you life, thank you oxygen, thank you body. I don’t know how this is all working, but I’m happy it does.
Buddhism allows me to get in touch with my fundamental trust in the functioning of the universe, and this makes me feel less alone. If I read a study about how meditation lowers blood pressure, or how Tibetan monks have more grey matter in their brains, and then I decide to meditate because I want these benefits, that’s still coming to meditation (and life) with a large amount of hope. I’m still trusting, or hoping, that meditation will lower blood pressure. The only difference is that I am not aware of this trust. I am not aware of my own hope. If I’m in denial about my own hope, if I’m ignoring that I am trusting the universe at every moment, all the time, then I’ll probably continue to feel very, very alone. If I relate to life as if I am completely in control of it, like a person driving a car, and I don't see that I am in fact supported at all times by a billion causes, conditions, people, gases, and microbes, then I will feel alone.
And I don’t want to feel alone. So I continue to do practices I don’t fully understand; I continue to seek out and be supported by monastic communities; I continue to (try to) listen to advice from people I respect; I continue to shave my head; I continue to sit down on a zafu every day and embody the posture of Shakyamuni Buddha. Whatever that means. I don’t know what that means, but that’s okay. I like it better that way.
P.S Thank you to the people who've donated so far on this blog. It gives me... faith! I'm trying to raise money to afford Japanese language school, and it feel really good to be supported in this way. Thank you.