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Confessions of a Pseudo-Buddhist

A few years ago I was shopping in the local grocery store.  As I was walking down the aisle, I passed another guy, whom I noticed was looking at me.  He called me by name, and I recognized him–he’d been my best friend’s roommate in college some thirty years before.  It turned out that we both lived in the same small town now.  We talked for awhile, catching up.  At one point, I mentioned in passing that I was a member of the local Catholic parish.  He looked at me somewhat askance, and then said, “I always thought you were Buddhist!”  I don’t remember how I responded to that at the time.  Thinking about it later, though, I decided, upon looking back, that I probably did come off as a Buddhist in those halcyon days of yore.  Since then, I sometimes describe myself at that point as a “quasi-Buddhist” or a “functional Buddhist”.  Maybe “Buddhist fellow-traveler” would be better.  Best of all, perhaps, as with the title of this post, “pseudo-Buddhist”.

I’ve discussed here how reading the Dhammapada caused me to become interested in Buddhism.  I read voraciously about Buddhism in the sources available to me at that time–principally books on Zen, though there were some others, as well.  In particular, I read and re-read D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, a book I need to write about in detail in the future.  In conversations I’d often quote the Buddha or refer to Buddhist concepts.  I can easily see why my friend thought I was, indeed, Buddhist.  On the other hand, there was no real depth to it.  Except for brief attempts on maybe one or two occasions, I never really tried meditation (much later, after I became Catholic, I’ve done Buddhist and other forms of meditation relatively extensively).  I certainly never took refuge, the official way of converting to Buddhism.  I was vaguely aware of a Buddhist study group in the city were I was living at that time; but for reasons of which I’m unsure even now, I never made contact (I did do mediation at their meditation center many years later, once more, after I came into the Church).  You might say that such Buddhism as I exhibited was all saffron and no substance.

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An Introduction to Zen Buddhism

I have written previously of the profound influence the Dhammapada had on me when I read it at about the age of eighteen.  That resulted for me being for a considerable time what I’ve described elsewhere as a “pseudo-Buddhist”.  During that period, I read pretty much anything about Buddhism I could get my hands on.  This was actually much less than you might think.  Because of immigration from China and Japan, there had been Buddhists in the United States as far back as the mid-19th Century.  Pioneers such as Nyogen Senzaki had even begun to teach Buddhist practices, particularly meditation, to non-Asians by the turn of the 20th Century.  Still, it wasn’t until the post-World War II era that relatively large numbers of Americans began to study Buddhism in earnest.

As these early adopters of Buddhism gradually completed their studies, becoming ordained in some cases, and setting up schools of their own, a trickle of books started to become available in the 60’s and 70’s.  It wasn’t really until the late 80’s and early 90’s, though, with the increased visibility of and interest in Buddhism, partly because of awareness of the plight of Tibet and high profile advocacy by celebrities such as Richard Gere, that the trickle of books became a flood.  One can find Buddhist books and magazines even in bookstores in relatively small towns these days.  Back in the 80’s, even though I lived in a fairly large urban area, the pickings were much slimmer.

My initial interest, for reasons I’ve explained before, was in Theravada, the tradition of Buddhism of Sri Lanka and Thailand.  As noted, though, the pickings were slim, and most of what was available at that time dealt with Zen.  Philip Kapleau’s classic The Three Pillars of Zen was all over the place.  I tried to read it more than once, but I never could get very far in it.  It struck me as boring and irrelevant, and didn’t answer specific questions I had.  I actually bought a used copy of it a couple of years ago and tried to read it again.  Thirty years later, I still found it pretty much as unreadable as I had as a twenty-something, and I passed the book along.  In any case, at some point in the mid-80’s–probably around ’84, though I’m not sure–I came across An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by the famed Japanese scholar of Buddhism D. T. Suzuki.  That book clicked with me immediately, and I reread it time and again.

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Too Much Meta!

“What is meta,” you may ask, “and how is there too much of it?”  Those are excellent questions.  In order to answer them, I’ll need to give a little background on just what it is I’m talking about.  “Meta” comes from the Greek preposition μετά, which simply means “after” or “beyond”, among other things.  It can also be a prefix in which the basic meaning is attached to the root word.  For example, “metamorphosis” pairs meta– with with a derivative of μορφή (morphē), “form” or “shape”, giving the meaning, “beyond the [original] form”.  Thus, in a metamorphosis, something (such as a caterpillar) goes beyond the form it has into another form (such as a butterfly).

A subtle shift in this straightforward meaning began with the works of Aristotle, and rather inadvertently, at that.  Aristotle’s books on various topics derived from what we would now call lecture notes for the talks he gave at the school he founded, the Lyceum. These were either written by Aristotle himself, or taken down by his students.  After his death, these notes were collated and arranged by topic.  The book dealing with the working of the natural world was called the Physics, from the Greek φυσικά (physika), which simply means “having to do with nature”.  The name stuck, and we still call the study of mass, energy, motion, and such “physics”.  The book that was placed next in the sequence after the Physics dealt with abstract topics on the nature of being, what we can know and how we can know it, causality, and so on.  Whoever it was who arranged the texts very pragmatically called this text τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά (ta meta ta physika), literally, “the things coming after the Physics”).  In other words, it was the next book after the one on physics, so its title was essentially After Physics!

This was shortened by the Romans, who translated Aristotle into Latin, to Metaphysica, which we Anglicize as Metaphysics.  From early on, the tendency was to interpret “meta”–“beyond”–as meaning not “beyond” in the sense of “the next book in the sequence”, which was its original connotation, but “beyond” in the sense of “transcending”.  Thus “metaphysics” was understood to mean “that which goes beyond ordinary physics” or “that which transcends nature”.  This has been the standard connotation of “metaphysics” ever sense; and this connotation has determined the use of “meta” in other contexts, as well.

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In Praise of the Cat Path; or, I Can’t Save Me

Heaven help me I’m
Drownin’ and I can’t save me
Send some salvation
To keep me alive
–Anna Nalick, “Satellite”

On Facebook, posts with cats get lots of traffic.  Maybe the same will be true of my blog because of this post!  😉  Even if not, cats are never out of place….

Back here, I made reference to the Hindu concept of cat paths (or religions) and monkey paths.  Though I had originally encountered the term long ago–probably sometime in the 80’s–I couldn’t remember the original source of the metaphor (though I think it was in something by Huston Smith).  I did find a worthwhile and very readable discussion of the concepts here.

The poles of my religious life are Buddhism and Christianity.  I was raised in a vague and generic cultural Protestantism, without ever belonging to a church.  When I read the Dhammapada in my freshman year of college, it was the beginning of a long flirtation with and study of Buddhism, though once more I never actually took refuge or joined a sangha.  Eventually, I moved back towards Christianity, eventually joining the Catholic Church twenty-eight years ago and change.  Throughout all this time, and up to the present day, I have periodically practiced Buddhist forms of meditation and Catholic devotions.  It has been a sort of oscillation between the two ends of the spectrum, Buddhism and Christianity.

However, when I reread the Bhagavad Gita, I discovered that I was actually more Hindu than I thought.  Why that’s so I discussed here.  The point I want to make is that in some ways Hinduism does a better job of categorizing human religious thought and response than either Buddhism or Christianity manage to do.  This is probably because of Hinduism’s long-standing and in fact dizzying pluralism, coupled with its enormous antiquity and the availability of holy men and scholars who have analyzed Hindu thought for millennia.  These sages have long realized that human temperaments are varied, and that each relates best to the Absolute–i.e. God–in different ways.  Thus, despite my tendency to ping-pong around the poles of Buddhism and Christianity, I think that using Hindu categories will be most effective for this post.  Thus, I’ll put on my sannyasi robes and adopt a Hindu perspective for what follows.  Namaste, and let’s start!

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Joshu

With the possible exception of Bodhidharma himself, the greatest of all Zen masters is usually considered to have been 趙州從諗, or, as it is pronounced in Modern Mandarin, Zhàozhōu Cōngshěn.  In Japan, he is known as Jōshū Jūshin.  Most commonly, he is known merely as Zhaozhou or Joshu (henceforth I drop the diacritics).  The tendency in writing about the Chinese Zen masters these days is to use the original Chinese forms of their names.  Since Zen came to the English-speaking world mostly via Japan, older books typically use the Japanese forms of the name.  Thus, for example the noted Zen scholar and popularizer D. T. Suzuki, in his seminal works on Zen, always refers to the worthy we are considering here as “Joshu”.  For the rest of this post, I’ll follow his lead.  Yes, it’s less accurate; but then again, the Chinese of the Tang dynasty, during which Joshu lived, was pronounced significantly differently from modern Mandarin; and Joshu probably didn’t pronounce his own name as “Zhaozhou”.  Certainly, with Western religious figures, it doesn’t bother us that we don’t use the original forms of names–that we call the carpenter of Nazareth “Jesus” instead of Yēšūă‘ and his disciple “Peter” instead of Kêphā.  I certainly first encountered and developed an admiration for Joshu under his Japanese name; so Joshu it will be for the rest of this post.

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Aliens, Robots, and Perpetual Motion

About three years ago I read an SF (science fiction) novel in which one of the protagonists suspects that the other is either an alien or a robot (or perhaps a bit of both, and thus in effect a cyborg, though that term was never used).  I enjoyed the novel, actually, but I noticed a trope that I’ve encountered before in SF.  The first tip-off about the possibly non-human nature of the second protagonist is when she is observed not breathing.  In a sequel novel, it is made explicit that the second protagonist is indeed a technologically-augmented alien (and thus, as noted, a cyborg) and that she does not need to breathe, eat, or sleep, although she chooses to do all three in order to blend in to human society, and also because she’s developed a liking for those actions.  Additionally, I should point out, she doesn’t need to go the bathroom, either.  Yes, the second novel went there….  I still liked it, though, which may say something about me.

Robots (and their variant, androids) don’t need to breathe, eat, or sleep, either, though some can eat.  It is made explicit in Star Trek:  The Next Generation that Data, the resident android, is capable of eating and drinking, though he doesn’t need to.  In fact, one humorous vignette in the first TNG movie, Generations, is this:

In the process of testing out his emotion chip, Data drinks the liquor that Guinan offers him.  He hates it, and orders another–but the point is that he is indeed capable of drinking it in the first place.

Another thing about robots is that they are immortal and seem never to need repair or recharging.  In the TNG two-part episode “Time’s Arrow”, the crew find Data’s head in an archeological dig in a cave in San Francisco.  It has apparently been there since the 19th Century–thus nearly half a millennium.  Later in the show, Data’s head is blown off, and his body is recovered.  His “future” head is reattached, and it works perfectly, while his “past” head is left in San Francisco, to be found in the 24th Century.

Similarly, in the Stephen Spielberg movie A. I. Artificial Intelligence, the boy android David spends two thousand years underwater, awaiting the granting of his wish by the Blue Fairy (you’ll have to see the movie if you want an explanation of the plot point!), until the future Mecha (sapient robots that have replaced the now-extinct human race) rescue him and restore him to the surface.  He is after two millennia fully functional.  In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Marvin the Paranoid Android is functional after 576,000,003,579 years (he counted!) in the radio series, and “thirty-seven times older than the Universe itself” in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, though there it is noted that he has had ongoing repairs.

So what am I getting at with all this?  Read on!

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The Second Noble Truth, Paraphrased

Picking and Choosing: Religious Affiliation

I am continuing with my use of older essays, written in a different context, as new blog posts.  Longtime readers know I’m Catholic, but that I became so only after an extended period of studying the various world religions.  This was originally written to a friend to give a brief explanation of my thinking on why, for me, at any rate, Catholicism was the right choice.  I might not phrase everything quite the same way if I wrote this today; and the format is of an explanation to another person; but I am editing it but lightly, leaving it substantially as originally written.  I should also point out that this is strictly personal–others of other faiths will have their own reasons for why they joined the traditions to which they adhere.  This post is intended to be descriptive of myself, not evangelistic of others.

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The Heart Sutra for the Weekend

Attaining Nibbana: Orientalism, Protestantism, and Translation

If your inclination upon reading the title of this post was to say, “What?!”, let me note that you would have been less likely to do so if I’d said, “Attaining Nirvana”.  You still might wonder what the heck that has to do with Orientalism, Protestantism, and translation–we’ll get to all that–but at least you’d recognize the word “nirvana”.  “Nirvana”, though a loanword from Sanskrit, has become sufficiently naturalized in English that we no longer need to use all the diacritical marks of proper Sanskrit transliteration (according to which it would be “nirvāṇa”), nor do we even have to italicize it (as is the proper usage for foreign words not considered to have been assimilated).  Moreover, most people have at least a vague notion of what nirvana means.  True, for most Americans not familiar with Buddhist thought, “nirvana” is more of a synonym for “paradise” than its correct meaning of “blowing out” or “extinction” in reference to finite, conditioned existence.  Still, the point is that it’s hardly an unknown word to the average modern English speaker.

What’s interesting is that we use the Sanskrit term “nirvana”.  The oldest scriptures of Buddhism are the so-called Pali Canon, which, though most closely associated with Hinayana* Buddhism, are more or less accepted in most existing branches of Buddhism.  Pali is an ancient language of India (technically, a Middle Indo-Aryan language), and it is related to Sanskrit.  The relationship of Pali to Sanskrit is somewhat like that of Italian to Latin–that is, a later language that has derived from an earlier, “classical” language.  Whether Pali derived directly from Sanskrit or not is debated, but the analogy is good enough.

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