[Preface: This has been a difficult month for getting a blog post out there. I started several different pieces but things keep happening to pull my interest away from finishing each piece. Already it’s the last day of the month, so here’s a very short one for now.]
One benefit of interfaith discussion is finding out how others see your religion. At the recent Universal Muslim Association of America gathering after our interfaith panel, I was sitting at dinner with one of the UMAA Chicago leaders. I told him I liked his speech about being close to God and the Quran, and he said, “I visited your temple a couple years ago in the Sacred Spaces tour.” I told him it was the Midwest Buddhist Temple that was a part of that tour, not our temple. He said the visit left him with an uneasy feeling about Buddhism. “It seems to be a religion that each person comes up with his own ideas along the way. The person explaining Buddhism to the tour group kept saying, ‘In Buddhism, we listen to our inner self and follow that.’”
I told him that’s not how I see Buddhism – it’s not a “Do-it-yourself, make it up as you go along” religion. In our sect, Jodo Shinshu, we recognize there is a power beyond our ego-self and there are teachings to help us become aware of that power. I hate to speculate on who gave the explanation to the Sacred Spaces tour, but I know there are many people (including ministers) at Jodo Shinshu temples who would say the same thing, “We don’t need texts or external experts – it’s our inner voice that guides us.”
[from UMAA conference goodie-bag, a souvenir magnet]
In fact, I think a lot of people who identify as Buddhist feel that same way – that somehow Shakyamuni Buddha turned on the green light for each person to do their own thing and call it “Buddhism,” free of the restrictions of any organized form of religion. But anyone who bothers to read any bit of the sutras knows that Shakyamuni wasn’t just flapping his jaws and saying, “Don't accept what I say – go find out for yourself what the truth is.” On the contrary he was pointing out for us the pitfalls of relying on our deluded judgments and challenging us to test our fixed ideas against the flux of real life.
In addition to the oft-heard Western Buddhist rejection of “book learning,” there is the tendency to characterize Buddhism as pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps to enlightenment. In the 1990s my father was chauffeur in Minneapolis to Dr. Alfred Bloom on a lecture tour in the Midwest. At one public lecture, a man stood up and asked Dr. Bloom, “Do Buddhists believe in God?” My father said Dr. Bloom simply gave an emphatic, “No!” and the questioner promptly left the room. My father told me this story in a chuckling “What the heck!” way – but my impression is that he and most of the people present would’ve preferred to see Dr. Bloom engage the questioner in discussion.
I feel it’s the Buddhists who close off interfaith discussions by refusing to listen to anything that references “God” with a capital G – “We don’t go that sh*t.” If we get past the label, we find much of what is said in monotheistic religions is a deeply experienced sense of tariki, the power beyond self. For example, one of the imans at the interfaith discussion said he rejects the narrow sectarian views of the militant Wahhabis. He said God’s mind is beyond our human comprehension and that the Quran says that in the diversity of life we see the beauty of creation and that includes the diversity of religious expression. So any group that claims only they follow the true way of God are deludedly believing they know God’s mind.
Humans need to be taken down a notch or ten – we think we have the answers but our attachment to our “rightness” makes us intolerant towards others. Religion, including Buddhism, has the wisdom of the ages, of the transcendent, that makes us humble listeners and more open-hearted towards others.