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True east

Associate Theology Professor John Makransky is a lama in the lineage of Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche. In his book Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars (2000), coedited with Roger Jackson, he invites Buddhists to consider their tradition's relationship with modernity.



Does Buddhism have anything like God?
Sometimes apologists, trying to interpret Buddhism to a secular, postmodern world, too quickly say, "No, there's nothing like God in Buddhism, and therefore it should be very interesting to you." But I wouldn't agree with that.

There are certain qualities usually associated with God in other religions that are ascribed to the Buddha and to those who followed in his footsteps in the various Buddhist traditions--such as the most revered Zen masters and Tibetan lamas. Buddhahood implies a penetrating insight pointing the way to ultimate freedom, or nirvana. The qualities that follow on that insight--unconditional compassion and love, spontaneous generosity, an unstoppable will to be offered up to the world--are analogous to qualities of God or of someone who has become receptive to God in Christian or Jewish tradition.

But there are also aspects of the Christian or Jewish God that would not be accepted within Buddhism. Buddhism does not have the concept of a God who created the universe. In a way it substitutes for that notion the doctrine of "dependent arising," which says that anything we experience arises in dependence upon its own causes and conditions, including our patterns of thought and action. Buddhists focus on the notion that we mistake our thoughts of the world for the world, construct our experiences accordingly, and suffer for that. A quick example: When someone cuts me off in traffic, I may have an immediate perception of that person as a simple jerk. That may lead me to feel wrenched up in anger or to cut him off in return. It seems in that moment that I really am the center of the world.

The Buddhist path around that would require seeing into the actual reality--recognizing that the other driver, like me, is what Buddhists call a "conditioned" being, a product of many causes, including habits of thought that put him in the center of his own thought-constructed world. Maybe he was thinking about a fight he had with his wife that morning, or maybe he was anxious to get to work because his boss is overbearing. He's no longer a jerk to be angry at. If we see things as they actually are--how profoundly conditioned we all are, and how much we all suffer for it--then our reaction will be empathy or compassion.

Is there any counterpart to a judgmental God? Are reward and punishment absent in Buddhism?
There is a Buddhist analog, in a way, in the teaching of karma. Karma is the Sanskrit word that literally means action and intention behind actions. Although we mostly are not conscious of it, our every intentional action has the profound and subtle effect of imprinting within us the capacity to be happy or unhappy, and the capacity to discover our inmost nature of compassion or to be lost to it. Therefore our actions, virtuous or nonvirtuous, matter very much. But karma does not involve a deity who stands above or apart, judging our behaviors as good or bad. It is simply a natural law.

Earlier you mentioned that there are various Buddhist traditions. What do Buddhists disagree on?
The diversity within Buddhism is comparable to the diversity within the other great religious traditions, such as Christianity. Some 2,500 years ago, the Buddha taught four noble truths: The first was the truth of suffering; the second concerned the causes of suffering, including karma and self-clinging patterns of thought; the third was the cessation of the causes of suffering, in mind and body, or nirvana; and the fourth was the truth of path, which is the discipline through which one can awaken into freedom from suffering and cease to be a conditioned, reactive person. These first teachings are shared among all the Buddhist traditions, but the interpretation of them in the various cultures of Asia has become quite diverse.

A Buddhist in, say, Sri Lanka, may have a hard time understanding a Buddhist in Japan. Sri Lanka has a conservative Buddhist tradition that focuses primarily on ethical disciplines and aesthetic monasticism, as well as on higher meditation practices of stable attention and insight into the impermanent nature of phenomenal reality. By contrast, certain kinds of Japanese Buddhists pray to a cosmic Buddha named Amida. They rely in faith totally on the Amida Buddha to liberate them at the time of death and draw them to his pure realm. There they believe they will receive special teaching and enlightenment, not so much through self-discipline as through the power of Amida Buddha's Buddhahood.

Do the differences in doctrine express themselves in concrete ways, in ordinary life?
In Asian cultures, Buddhism is very much a practice. The vast majority of Asian Buddhists are not highly schooled in doctrine. But from a very young age they are taught how to bow, how to make offerings to the Buddha or to the religious community, simple forms of meditation, ways of chanting sacred prayers and ancient sacred sounds in order to make them more receptive to the unconditioned, transcendent dimension.

When I was living in Nepal and hiking through parts of the Himalayas, I sometimes would hear the sound of a whole village chanting the most common mantra of Tibetan Buddhism, om man-ni pad-me hum, om man-ni pad-me hum. It's the prayer of the Buddha of compassion. You could hear it at a distance--the people all chanting together as they worked in the fields--almost like the hum of a thousand bumblebees. I would argue that for them this is a way of understanding doctrine, even though they may not be able to talk about it like a trained monk or scholar. They are actually practicing the doctrines with their bodies.

In your book, there is a chapter about "engaged Buddhism" that looks at Buddhist political and social activism. Is there a long history of such involvement?
Well, yes and no. There have always been populist movements rising up in the name of Buddhism against social oppression--for example, the Mahayana movements that spread from India in the first centuries
C.E. to Central Asia, then to China, Japan, Korea, and Tibet. Mahayana traditions in those lands put special emphasis on the capacity of all for spiritual liberation. A follower of the Buddha will be profoundly concerned about social justice because the fundamental Buddhist concern is to make the possibility of freedom available to others. And how can anyone possibly explore that possibility while struggling just to survive?

But "engaged Buddhism" is a modern term. It refers to a contemporary development very much like what happened within Christianity and Judaism after the Enlightenment in the West, when new frames of social, economic, and political analysis had a profound effect on the understanding of how Christians or Jews ought to participate in the world as Christians or Jews.

In Sri Lanka, in Thailand, in Burma--in fact, all over the Buddhist world--you now find movements to explore Buddhism's relevance for social and economic development and its role as a prophetic voice for human rights and against oppression.

The prominent Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk, was a leader of a nonaligned movement during the Vietnam War trying to bring together political and social forces for peace. And the Dalai Lama belongs to boards and councils all over the world that involve themselves with human rights. He's been very concerned about threats to the environment, and he has been reevaluating the structures of power within Buddhism regarding women and men and religious and lay people. And of course he's working hard to get the current Chinese government to deal with the problem of Tibetan freedom. He's also, like Aquinas, of the view that the truths of reason--which include science--and the truths of faith should not contradict one another. He's open to reinterpreting aspects of Buddhism in line with findings in neuroscience, cognitive science, and even physics.

Is modernity subverting Buddhism, as one of the contributors to your book puts it?
Perhaps to some degree. I also suspect that, as in the past, the principles of Buddhism have a tendency to subvert whatever culture they enter. Buddhism, in whatever form, says that human happiness depends upon virtue and an openness to the transcendent dimension of being that is unconditioned by temporal, self-clinging habits of thought. In that way, it's analogous to Christianity: It appears to be the opposite of secular, modern, Western understandings of happiness based on the accumulation of material things or the achievement of a good reputation.

Buddhism is subversive because it requires those who study it to look deeply into assumptions about where happiness originates, and to alter their behavior accordingly. How that works out in each culture can vary.

I gather there's been a considerable increase in interest in the Buddhist path in the United States. Is a distinctly American Buddhism taking shape? I think it's beginning to. Generally speaking, the emphasis in the West and in the United States is on fundamental meditation practices. Lay people, both men and women, are interested in learning what effect meditation can have on their lives, how it can be a tool for becoming more present to one's spouse, to one's children, and to one's community, and offer an alternative to being lost in the sufferings of self-concern.

Americans are drawing from a range of Buddhist traditions. There's been a strong interest in so-called insight meditations from Southeast Asia, in Zen meditation from China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, and in the basic meditations of Tibetan Buddhism. In the inner cities, we find the Japanese tradition called Soka Gakkai, which emphasizes chanting the name of a certain scripture and the possibility for one's life to be transformed through ritual practice.

Another Western distinction is the very strong involvement of women. In Asian cultures, women have had the opportunity for higher learning in Buddhism, but not nearly so much as men. Here, you tend to see about equal numbers of men and women--maybe even higher numbers of women.

There's also a broader sense of democratization, a tendency to be skeptical of hiearchy. I think what attracts many Westerners is that Buddhism provides entry to an inquiry into the very nature of reality, into the very heart of spirituality, and perhaps even into the very heart of what religion is supposed to be about--without someone stopping them at the door with, Do you believe in X, Y, and Z? Will you memorize the following?

There's a book called Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World, written by a contemporary Western teacher named Lama Surya Das, that identifies 10 distinctive trends in Western Buddhism, if you want to read more about this.

What brought you to Buddhism?
Initially, when I was young, in my twenties, I was caught by the teaching within Buddhism that life the way we live it ordinarily is suffering. That may seem strange, especially here in the United States where we have the means to get whatever we want. Yet no matter how much we get of whatever we want, we're still not finally happy. My experience as a young man was that life seemed pretty hard a lot of the time.

But over the years what I've come to appreciate the most about Buddhism is that it has such specific and concrete ways of looking, of paying attention, and of meditating to open the possibility that the inmost nature of human beings--unconditional compassion--can be discovered within each individual.

What's a Buddhist like you doing in a Jesuit institution like this?
When I came to Boston College and first interviewed for a teaching job, I sensed something about this institution that deeply attracted me. I later came to realize that Boston College provides a space for a sacramental vision of the world. That's a Catholic expression, meaning that there is an understanding that all of the different kinds of studies--whether English, biology, sociology, or physics--are ways of expressing the very ground of our being; are all potential expressions of God. In Buddhism, there's something very analogous to that: The ordinary is a doorway into the extraordinary. Each aspect of the world offers potential entry into nirvana, into a glimpse of freedom beyond the concerns of self-clinging.

The deep spirituality and rigor that inform faith in the Jesuit and Catholic tradition are tremendously interesting to me. They support my own sense of the world, and they inspire me.

Robert Cohen is a freelance writer based in Boston. His interview with sociologist David Karp appeared in Winter 2001.

Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert

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