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RageBoy’s fragments of mysticism

Chris Locke has a fascinating sketch of what he’s thinking about how the West turned Zen into a New Age religion. (I’m not being condescending by calling it a sketch; Chris warns us that he hasn’t stitched the pieces together yet.)

For me and a gazillion other half-baked students in the ’60s, D.T. Suzuki was the guy to read for the thrill of radical otherness that Zen promised. But, says Chris:

D.T. Suzuki and his Japanese masters conceived just such a questionable need to make Buddhism look and feel and act like Christianity. As a result, what was presented to the West as “Zen” is an animal that never existed. And this bait-and-switch routine has had consequences that still reverberate in our current cultural assumptions, not only about who and what those others are, but about who and what we are — ultimately, about who and what human beings are. And are not.

Because this is just a sketch and some notes, Chris doesn’t say more. We’ll just have to wait for the fullness of time. As if time were real.

Chris does also quote Robert Sharf, however, which gives a hint of where he’s going with this:

Philosophers and scholars of religion were attracted to Zen for the same reason that they were attracted to the mysticism of James, Otto and Underhill: it offered a solution to the seemingly intractable problem of relativism engendered in the confrontation with cultural difference…

My mother was something of a pan-religionist. She was eager to embrace every culture’s religious ideas, in part out of an admirable respect for the diversity of our world. But to embrace all religions, you have to drop the particularities of practice and belief. You end up reducing religion to a mere spiritualism — Yes, I am aware that “reduce” and “mere” are evaluative terms — that attempts to get you past the despair of relativism (just as Chris says) by finding a common core to all religion.

Spirituality may seem to be what all religions have in common, but that doesn’t mean it’s their core. Religions differ over the importance of belief, faith, action, practice and ritual; it only seems obvious to some religions that spirituality is the core of religion.

Personally, I think a whole lot of the problems vanish if we just accept the idea of local revelation, and reject any religion’s claim to universality. This enables us to preserve the notion of difference — which is a way of respecting the local — without falling into the depression of relativism.

(There you have it: A solution to the world’s problems in just two sentences! Now onto curing cancer…)

Anyway, see Chris’ Mystic Bourgeoisie blog for more on how Zen became NewAge++. [Tags: ]

14 Responses to “RageBoy’s fragments of mysticism”

  1. Revelation? Or the human susceptibility for superstitious delusion?

    Why not consider that religions are ‘selfish memes’ infecting the laity? They use all and any techniques to maximise adoption – without compunction.

    That there are sound ethics and wisdom inherent in religious/spiritual philosophies does not necessarily elevate faith above insanity.

  2. it only seems obvious to some religions that spirituality is the core of religion

    Nicely put. That’s my dissatisfaction with Christian-ecumenical New Agery in a nutshell. (Yes, there’s a lot we can learn from Ascended Master Char Siu Bao, but the chances are that what we learn isn’t what he thought he was teaching…)

  3. Crosbie, the selfish meme meme requires that I consider the faithful people I know (some of whom I am married to) to be insane or stupid. I have lots of evidence that in general they are neither. So, I suspend judgment, especially when the paradigms themselves are in conflict.

    It doesn’t help that Dawkins speaks in generalities about religion as if they were all the same. E.g., not all of them really care much about the afterlife or find G-d’s existence to be comforting. I.e., in my opinion Dawkins (not you) is a piss-poor scientist on this topic.

  4. David, your false dichotomy of “insane or stupid” versus “neither” is a shortcut out of a reasoned discussion of what’s really going on here. It’s like saying one man’s metaphysics is another man’s pizza, or spaghetti, or something.

    The “religion as selfish meme meme” meme feeds the idiocy. Religious faith and practice and the institutions these things support deserve a careful examination. It’s a roll of the dice whether a more highly evolved sensitivity to the universe will survive a fundamentalist Armageddon, but it would be nice to have a sense of what we’ll be losing when the radioactive dust and weaponized anthrax roll across the blue states.

    “More highly evolved?” you ask with a raised eyebrow. Indeed I have a feeling that most of the world’s major religions are little different from the MMORPGames that are eating into people’s consciousness and contemplative leisure.

    Without beating the drum for secular humanism, I also have a feeling that secular humanists may be further down the road to realizing -od’s true destiny for all mankind than the fundamentalists who so clutter our political and cultural landscape. And Locke’s Mystic Bourgeoisie, be they Suzuki Zen artistes or some weird strain of thanatopian, have ducked out the side door so to speak, carriers of a hundred selfish memes.

  5. I’m confused by your comments, Frank. “Stupid” is my paraphrase of Crosbie’s “Superstitious” and “insane” is for “delusional”. I think the bifurcation was his. I don’t think all religious people are either superstitious or delusional.

    Frank, “you have a feeling” religion is like a MMORPG, just as Crosbie compares religious beliefs and practices to an infection. If you want to examine that feeling, would it be too much to ask that you specify exactly which religions you have in mind, and which beliefs/practices you find delusional or otherwise wrong? Because my point was (and is) that religions are vastly different. I don’t think you can find a single commonality that, when looked at carefully, is actually meaningfully in common. E.g., “They all believe in G-d.” A. No they don’t. B. Their conceptions of G-d are very different. C. What follows from those conceptions — even their ways of holding their beliefs — is way different.

  6. I’ll try to write something more thoughtful than my offhand comment. This is way deep. But one thing I was trying to point out was that you took Crosbie’s “superstitious or delusional” and counterbalanced it with “neither,” creating, I thought, a false dichotomy, because there are other things to be that might include either or both or neither. The set of ways we might evaluate the religious would certainly include the subset of “superstitious or delusional (or both)” and the subset of “neither superstitious nor delusional,” but I think there are other dimensions to explore, and I’ll try to do that by sharing something that is more meaningful than my mini-rant.

    I don’t think this is as trivial as I’m making it sound here in comment-space.

  7. On the notion of “spirituality”… I think Americans tend to use the term in a narrow religion referring sense. In Europe, being “spiritual” refers to cultural awareness (art, etc…). “Culture” (cultural traditions) is the replacement of religion for most Europeans. You can be spiritual without being part of a formal religious tradition. Re-ligio for most Europeans means re-linking to their past, their cultural traditions, and the people around them – and not to transcendental stuff. To me, that sort of “cultural” re-ligio is much more healthy. In this context, religious traditions are accepted as part of your own tradition. My own cultural tradition is Christian… I tend to identify with the moral stuff coming from Christianity. I take it as produced by humans for humans… and object of questioning. There is no dilemma of being either “spiritual” or an amoral “relativist.”

  8. Spirituality may seem to be what all religions have in common, but that doesn’t mean it’s their core. Religions differ over the importance of belief, faith, action, practice and ritual; it only seems obvious to some religions that spirituality is the core of religion.

    Indeed. In Judaism, for instance — at least, mainstream normative Judaism, in a historical sense — praxis is far more important than belief, and what one might call ‘right action’ (living according to the system of mitzvot) is far more important than belief, faith, or “spirituality.”

    Of course, that tendency is finding a counterbalance today in phenomena like the Renewal movement, which attempts to marry some of the “spirituality” and joy of Hasidism with a liberal, post-triumphalist sensibility and by so doing to reinject spirit into Judaism’s arguably dry mainstream. But this kind of thing, much as I support it, is definitely fringe-y and isn’t anywhere near the “core” of Judaism.

    Personally, I think a whole lot of the problems vanish if we just accept the idea of local revelation, and reject any religion’s claim to universality. This enables us to preserve the notion of difference — which is a way of respecting the local — without falling into the depression of relativism.

    Huh. I’m not sure I’m with you, there, but it’s an interesting idea which I’d like to consider more closely. For my own part I favor the metaphor that “God” (for lack of a better word; the term is loaded but it’s the most recognizable one we’ve got) is broadcasting on all frequencies and each tradition “receives” where it happens to be open or listening — I think revelation is far bigger than what any given tradition receives.

  9. i don’t know much about these topics, but i picked up suzuki’s book a while ago…it’s not been read only because i came across a very charismatic person that has innumerable audio lectures on this and other eastern philosphy topics…alan watts.

    i don’t know what alan’s view of suzuki was, but based on this ‘sketch,’ i would say he was very much against that type of teaching.

    what’s your view of alan watt’s on this topic…it’s very important to me to learn the most direct version possible of all this stuff and so far watt’s seems to be the way to go.

    thanks.

    jake

  10. At the moment David, you’re being drowned out by the most ostentatious chest-beaters for religion, who seem to be Osama bin Laden and G.W. Bush.
    And that could be one explanation of why Dawkins is on a tear, and many of the rest of us have been brought up short.

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