Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Clark Strand's lastest volley of attack against Western Buddhism

by Tom Armstrong
Image source: Buddhist Channel
Baby Boomer Buddhism Going Bust” is the headline at Topix, announcing the gist of Clark Strand’s latest attack against Western Buddhism in an opinion piece that appeared in the Taste section of The Wall Street Journal last Friday, and was posted online in the WSJ‘s Opinion Journal.

Titled “Buddhist Boomers: A Meditation” in its hardcopy incarnation, the article first conveys Strand’s belief, previously expressed in Tricycle, that Buddhism is on the ropes, in decline because it doesn’t have the family-friendly features of the Christian and Jewish faiths.

But Strand goes further in this new op piece. He says Western converts to Buddhism are deluded to think that Buddhist practice is free of dogma and superstition. And that in its “convert”ed state is “also free of folk tales, family and ... fun.”

Western Buddhism no fun? Is this guy cranky or what!?

And if many of us set aside what seems dogmatic or is superstitious in the ancient scrolls or premodern practices, hooray for that.

Further, in a remark staggeringly bizarre to me, Strand makes his case that Buddhism isn’t in sync with current science and -- get this -- isn’t, basically, peace loving:
In the contemporary discourse on religion, it is striking how often Buddhism is privileged over Judaism, Christianity or Islam as a scientifically based or inherently peaceful version of religion. Note that the Dalai Lama (rather than the pope) was asked to provide the inaugural address at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in 2005, even though, like Catholicism, Tibetan Buddhism includes beliefs (think reincarnation) that are anathema to medical science. Likewise, though Japanese Buddhists melted their temple bells to make bombs during World War II, the idea of Buddhism as a peace-loving religion persists as an enduring fantasy in Western people's minds. And yet, such fantasies are instructive nonetheless.
Today, when the Saffron Revolution in Burma weighs heavy on Buddhists’ minds worldwide, it is curious indeed that Strand chooses to say that Buddhism is not particularly peaceful. Certainly, there are calls for blessed peacemakers in the texts of the world’s other prominent religions, but Buddha’s teachings are remarkably peace loving and stripped of the justifications for war and violence found in the others.

It would be prideful for me to make the case for Buddhism’s myriad wondrous qualities, here. And it’s way beyond my scope to pull together an overview of Buddhism‘s relative excellence because I don’t know enough about religion, generally. But, is Strand nuts? The Old Testament has God requiring Abraham to slay his son. Jesus dies on the cross with the logic being that somehow that compensates for our sins. And let us not forget the Inquisition and the Crusades. And in Islam, Mohammad inveighs against the infidels and justifies making conversion to the faith by knifepoint.

Certainly, the record for Buddhism isn’t lily pure. War at slow boil continues in Sri Lanka between Buddhist sects. And in the highly nationalistic Japan of World War II, the Shinto-Zen blend of religion had a part in the war machine. But instances of Buddhist warmaking is very rare compared to other religions. That is just simply the case. How Strand arrives at the harsh ideas that he parades is mysterious.

As for Strand’s assessment that reincarnation is anathematic to medical science, I think he is wrong for two killer reasons: (1) Medical science doesn’t concern itself (or shouldn't concern itself ...) with reincarnation; it’s all about the physical properties of the body; and (2) He misses the point. The Dalai Lama, and most Western Buddhists, in contrast to adherents of other religions, accept corrections that may come from science to any “dogma” in our religion . That is why the Dalai Lama was an appropriate choice to address the Society for Neuroscience and the Pope wouldn’t have been.

In a statement near the end of his WSJ harangue Strand writes this:

Though some of my more devout Buddhist associates may balk at the idea, these days I have increasingly come to see Buddhism in America as an elaborate thought experiment being conducted by society at large--from the serious practitioner who meditates twice daily to the person who remarks in passing, "Well, if I had to be something, I guess I'd be a Buddhist." The object of that experiment is not to import some "authentic" version of Buddhism from Asia, as some believe, but to imagine a new model for religion altogether--one that is nondogmatic, practice-based and peaceful.
I cannot see what propels Strand to write this. Buddhism in America is not a thought experiment, as ungrounded as the swirling wind. There is a universe of texts from teachers of our time that speak with very similar dispatch to the values and traditions carried over from the root of Buddhist teachings. As much as any religion anywhere and at any time, I would aver, American Buddhism is attentive to and guided by [but not nailed to] particular and specific concepts, teachings, traditions and goalless goals. The new technology aids us in this, keeping our ducks in a row.

Certainly there are many rather-casual Buddhists in America as there are casual adherents to any religion. But I think "Well, if I had to be something, I guess I'd be a Buddhist" is neither in any way typical nor fair nor comes from anywhere other than Strand’s fertilized imagination.

Strand has established well the reputation he seeks as American Buddhism’s harshest, meanest, fact-flightiest critic. [In a 2003 article in Tricycle, Strand called American Buddhism racist. See Strand quote midway in this blog post.] What makes Strand most hurtful and harmful is his ongoing connection to Tricycle magazine where he has long been a contributing editor and a praised favorite of the magazine’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen. Strand’s WSJ article cites his connection to Tricycle, giving the imprimatur to outsiders of him being a scholarly Buddhist heavyweight.

The last portion of a Oct. 28 article about the Dalai Lama’s visit to Canada, published in the Toronto Star [and shortly thereafter posted to The Buddhist Channel], gets commandeered by Strand’s damning views on Western Buddhism as he is treated as a knowing and reliable authority.

I think that Strand has lost objectivity regarding Buddhism and has other religious fish to fry -- his next book is called How to Believe in God (Whether You Believe in Religion or Not) [Scroll to the bottom of Morgan Road Books' current News & Events notice]. For whatever reason [Bitterness? Loss of fervor?], Clark Strand has lost the Buddhist mojo he had in the past as a Zen monk, founder of a monastery, and Buddhist writer. It is time he was relieved of the connection to Buddhism Tricycle gives him that is used as his claim of being authoritative.

Update 11/15: Both the New York Times, in "Autumn of the American Buddhist," and Tricycle, with "Graying Buddhism?", have posted opinion pieces regarding Strand's Wall Street Journal essay. Both the Times and Tricycle focus solely on the idea of Buddhism dying out in America and not other issues Strand raised.

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  1. Hi Tom - I think all of us will take some pause and wonder where the heck Strand is coming from in this latest piece of his. As a note of clarification, I think Harris was comparing the Christians to the Bushmen and the Dalai Lama to the physicists.

    Regarding peace and war in religion, Dr. Nick Gier is currently working on an opus magnus detailing the historical facts in both western and eastern religions (or philosophies/ways of life). Speaking with him over a year ago he said it was very clear that the western monotheisms have been far more violent than eastern traditions (I think he surveyed Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism).

    Anyhow, I could pick fights with various other points in Strand's article, but I do agree with the idea of befriending clergy and practitioners of other religions (I think this is great for everyone, not just contemporary Western Buddhists). I don't think that Buddhism in the West is as bad off as Strand suggests - in my youthful experience it DOES appeal to the youth still - but there is always something to be learned (even if it is often how NOT to do things) from other religions and communities.

  2. Diane Winston disagrees with Strand's diagnosis:

    I agree with Strand that there is a need for Buddhism to have ways in which to propagate itself - both across society and from one generation to another. Yet, if it does this by becoming another edifice of dogma, another 'virus of the mind' what has been gained? What would make it preferable to Christianity or Judaism?

    The fundamental flaw with Strand's argument, I think, is that the religions which he uses as his examples of good cross-generational spread - Christianity and Judaism - achieve this through dogmatic indoctrination - particularly of children. And this would challenge the status of Buddhism as a quasi-empirical, 'low-dogma' practice.

    Is Buddhism based on superstition and dogma any more helpful in relieving suffering than Christianity and Judaism? If not then why bother to deconvert? Should we really aim for maximum propagation at any cost? If so, why not go for a more aggressive approach such as door-to-door conversion or conversion at knifepoint?!

    How can we find the right balance between effective communication and the integrity of what is communicated? Perhaps some sort of 'two-tier' system is needed. In traditional Buddhist societies the Buddhism of 'the masses' is very different from the practice of monks consisting largely of observation of rituals and material support of the clergy for the benefit of karma. I don't think there are many in the west who would want to fulfill this role - everyone wants to be a practitioner.

    Perhaps in the west we can cultivate a broad educatation in modern Buddhist principles, awareness, rituals and ethics for wider society as well as continuing to develop a core of more dedicated practitioners and monks with more emphasis on individual investigation and less on codified principles.

  3. Thanks, Justins.

    Justin #1: I've made some edits to the post. Woe is Tom; anything I write takes lots of polish [or should I say sandpaper? or blasting powder?]

    I expunged the Dalai Lama/Bushman thing from my post. Thanks. And cleaned up other minor instances of wrongheaded goofiness in my writing.

    Thanks for your words re Nick Gier. I found a page on his 2004 book The Virtue of Nonviolence at the Univ of Idaho website. You go, peaceful Buddha! (and Gandhi and MLK.)

    I don't disagree with the idea of befriending other religions. I don't like setting the religions against each other, but I do think it absurd to say that Buddhism has teachings and a history of nonviolence that is the same as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Strand has gone feral; he's foaming at the keyboard; he must be stopped!

    Justin #2 Diana Winston had some thoughts in the podcast you reference. (1) She suggests there are more younger people in Buddhism than we suppose and (2) She encourages discounts for twentysomethings to attend retreats.

    I'm game on getting information about Buddhism 'out there' -- but I am sure it pretty much is these days. Glory to the Internet! I think that folks from five to thirty, being particularly web savvy, can find Buddhism easily enough. And any effort to passively push Buddhism, to let folks know what's available in their locale, is great.

    But I agree with you: copying the Christians and Jews with indoctrinating and -- I would say -- coersive procedures is crazy talk. It flies in the face of what Buddhism represents.

  4. Ways in which to communicate the Dharma in a non-dogmatic, non-invasive way would be a good thing. 'Unhealthy' ways of living are able to transmit themselves from generation to generation (through culture, advertising etc) so why shouldn't Buddhism?

    And in my experience the major obstacle stopping people from taking up Buddhism is the perceived need to believe in traditional version of karma and rebirth. Which in my mind is probably the single biggest reason to for proggressive Buddhism. I'll be talking about this in my next post.


  5. I wonder what your response would be to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek's critique of Western Buddhism. In particular, the way he effectively argues that there is a certain kind of dogmatic logic to the it. I should say that the link I provide above does not constitute the whole of his critical stance towards Western Buddhism, which he holds alongside ambiguous admiration for the Buddha's teachings; it just typifies it.

    I have made my own attempt at beginning to make sense of Zizek's position on my own blog. I wouldn't say I unfailingly agree with him, but there is a definitely something to what he's saying, which has been at the forefront of my curiosities for a while.

  6. Very interesting tangent you are on, Joe [aka, pdxstudent]. I've read your blog entry, and, now, a little Zizek, including "Revenge of Global Finance," which you reference; "False economy," which gets into Buddhism, too; and "Desert of the Real." [I also got distracted a bit and added Sandcastles: Buddhism and Global Finance to the IMDb. It should get on the database in a week or so.)

    Slavoj Zizek is a crack up. He is enchanted by popular culture from America and distains it, both. [Hey, but then so do I and, I suppose, most people.]

    He despises High Finance, at one point using as an example the [at the time of one article] failure to provide AIDS medications to Africa, for pennies per person, yet seems to fail to appreciate that that same High Finance creates the ground to pay the research and development to create the medications.

    But, yes, there is a disconnect between how we live and who we think we are. And in the West, living with that disconnect is thought to be sane, when truly it is psychotic. Is Western Buddhism at the nexus of this disconnect? May be! But the shadowlands of our insanity make possible a lot that is good in addition to creating conditions for extinction of life on this planet.

    Is "Western Buddhism" Buddhism? I think it is -- both the cancer and its cure -- for this time and this place.

    Joe: You should write up your Zizek insights for Progressive Buddhism! Contact Justin [Ordinary Extraordinary] and he can add you to the Contributor Roll.

  7. I wouldn't mind it, Tom. I actually posted up a much longer entry before reading this comment, but we could cross-post them.

    I should admit, though, that I'm not necessarily brimming with ideas on the subject, not now anyway as I'm preparing to apply to grad-school. So, I don't want to give the impression that I'm going to have a lot to say all the time, or at least any time soon.

    Hell, I have to read much more of Zizek's work (several dozen books, articles, and lectures) before I can begin to strike anywhere close to definitive when it comes to his thoughts about Buddhism. I'll be glad to share what comes to me when it does though.

  8. As for one of your thoughts in your comment itself, I don't think Zizek's disfavor for High Finance (shall we just say Capitalism?) should be read the way you do. He'd be the first one to say that Capitalism is why we have the modern world, for better or for worse. This was Marx's lesson though.

    What remains to critique is a certain pathological impulse that Zizek and marxists before him locate in Capitalism. This requires a conversation about Zizek's thought that goes way beyond the issues of your comment or this blog even. Suffice it to say, in this respect I don't think you and Zizek disagree.

    I look forward to making this sort of intersection between the buddhadhamma and a plethora of Continental philosophy the engine of my graduate studies.

  9. Isn't the question this?

    How can the teachings of the Buddha, the Dharma flourish in the future? The Buddhist community needs to support their Teachers, Dharma projects, and the Monks and Nuns. Buddhist practitioners need to really practice virtues and be good examples! Merit will cause teachings of love and wisdom to remain in our world, and will cause a safe world for us to live and grow in to remain! When the baby boomers turned to Buddhism, their parents did not bring them to it! Perhaps it was their karma brought them to it, at a time when His Holiness Dalai Lama and other great Buddhist Masters came to the west.

    His Holiness The Dalai Lama said:

    In Dharma practice it is necessary to always keep an attitude of love toward others, for this is the basis of Bodhicitta. Love is a simple practice, yet it is very beneficial for the individual who practices it as well as for the community in which he lives, for the nation and for the whole world. Love and kindness are always appropriate. Whether or not you believe in rebirth, you will need love in this life. If we have love, there is hope to have real families, real brotherhood, real equanimity, real peace. If the mind of love is lost, if you continue to see other beings as enemies, then no matter how much knowledge or education you have, no matter how much material progress is made, only suffering and confusion will ensue. Beings will continue to deceive and overpower one another. Basically, everyone exists in the very nature of suffering, so to abuse or mistreat each other is futile. The foundation of all spiritual practice is love. That you practice, this well is my only request. Of course, to be able to do so in all situations will take time, but you should not lose courage. If we wish happiness for mankind, it is the only way.

    Here is an excerpt of a talk by Lama Yeshe of FMPT.

    Guru Shakyamuni Buddha revealed the path to enlightenment so that all beings would be happy and free from suffering. Therefore, starting with the four noble truths, he began to give teachings according to the various levels of mind of those who came to him for instruction.

    The viability of the Dharma in a certain country is determined by the lineage of the monastic ordination. Suffice it to say that wherever one cannot be ordained, Buddhism is dead. If it is to survive, let alone flourish, in the world today, sincere practice that must be done in order for the as yet unbroken lineages to continue.

    When we talk about Buddhism, we have to remember that there are two types of teaching—the words and the realizations. It is easy for the words to continue for centuries. But without the living experience of the meaning of the words that comes through purification, creation of merit and effective meditation, the words are dry and cannot be a vehicle for Buddhism to continue into the distant future.

    Another interview with His Holiness -

    Robert Thurman: Is there something about America that makes so many people seek out and practice Buddhism?

    His Holiness the Dalai Lama: I don’t know. Why are you so interested? [Laughs] I feel that Americans are interested because they are open-minded. They have an education system that teaches them to find out for themselves why things are the way they are. Open-minded people tend to be interested in Buddhism because Buddha urged people to investigate things — he didn’t just command them to believe.

    Also, your education tends to develop the brain while it neglects the heart, so you have a longing for teachings that develop and strengthen the good heart. Christianity also has wonderful teachings for this, but you don’t know them well enough, so you take interest in Buddhism! [Laughs] Perhaps our teachings seem less religious and more technical, like psychology, so they are easier for secular people to use…..

    Then, of course, the democracy, freedom, is, I think, one of the most important conditions for humanity. For progress, for development, for happiness, what is it, democracy and freedom is very very essential. Without that we cannot utilize the human creative nature. Without that, no progress, no development, either in spiritual or in material, in any education, in every field. So therefore, the democracy and freedom is so sacred for humanity. Now, the freedom of movement, everywhere, it is really worthwhile to support….

    As a Buddhist, from… , and also, you see, sometimes, I introduced myself as a Buddhist psychologist. So, from the Buddhist psychologist, from that viewpoint, I consider the motivation is the most important factor. So every human action, whether it has become positive or negative, must depend on motivation. So therefore, they must take every care about the problem of motivation. For that is the Buddhist messagekaruna, compassion. It’s the basic thing for sincere motivation. So with the realization, all (word indistinct) being, if not at least all human being, as brothers and sisters, as a member of one human family. With that, it’s the sense of responsibility, the sense of concern for all others. It’s the key thing. So the promotion of the human compassion and the sense of involvement, sense of global responsibility. Now that I feel the entire of our future very much depend on this motivation. So here the various different spiritual traditions have special responsibility, and particularly the various Buddhist, we have our special responsibility the Buddhist message, the message of love and compassion, and the message of Buddhism (word indistinct). Now these two things are very very relevant in modern time. And I think the future of humanity, I think, for that, these two Buddhist messages can be very important role….

    So under these circumstances, it becomes quite clear that we need some kind of sense of global responsibility, not only taking care of one’s own family, or one’s own community, or one’s own nation, but having a sense of caring for humanity in its entirety. Because the interests of oneself and the interests of the other are always interconnected, I therefore sometimes feel the very concept of “we” and “they” are no longer there. So in order to have a happier life, or a happier future oneself, you have to take care of others’ interests….

    Realistically speaking, the majority of humanity will remain non-believers, and it doesn’t matter. No problem! The problem is that the majority have lost or ignore the deeper human values, such as compassion and a sense of responsibility. Then we really are faced with a problem. That is our big concern. Wherever there is a society or community or family without these good human qualities, then even one single family cannot be a happy family. That’s perfectly clear….

    Buddha Dharma means ‘mental quality.. So mental quality must develop through training your mind. Those people who have great merit, they may find it more easier and less obstacles, otherwise only through training your mind.

    Mr. Strand - On your questions: Buddhists need to ask honestly: “What kind of Buddhism addresses the questions and needs of my life?…Is it addressing the issues of my whole life? Or only part of my life?” When you’re like I am, and you’ve been at it for a while…If you have kids or a stressful job or a difficult marriage or financial problems, Buddhism should be able to address those issues. If it can’t, then it’s not functioning."

    No religion can change the nature of the two realities (conventional and ultimate) and the nature of karmic law. The answer to your questions are in the Lam Rim Teachings.

    Here is a quote that might help:

    “Western psychology is all about one’s own happiness, doing what makes oneself happy; that is the main thing. So, if there is something you need to express, you do it. But Buddhism is completely the opposite. It is not about one’s own happiness, it is about the happiness of others. By practicing this way, thinking about the happiness of others, working for the happiness of others, you achieve two things: the happiness of enlightenment and temporal happiness—happiness in the future and happiness now. When you are working for your own happiness, you do not get either. You do not get happiness in the future, and you are not happy now. When you work for the happiness of others, are concerned about the happiness of others, you get both. Happiness and suffering are dependent upon your mind, upon your interpretation. They do not come from outside, from others. All of your happiness and all of your suffering are created by you, by your own mind,” Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

    So, those who want a Buddhist community, start one yourself and invite people to your house!

  10. Evidently Strand doesn't really know anyone with kids.

    I could make a whole post on the topic of Buddhism & kids...but Strand still seems to think American Buddhists are a bunch of Dirty Hippies.

    He doesn't get it at all.

  11. I just picked up Strands "Meditation without Gurus" and am finding it quite refreshing. I have found personally that much interest in eastern faiths seem more driven by reaction against christianity than by desire for peace and reconciliation.

  12. What a great and, of course, well written blog. It`s so useful.

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