Why I Don’t Dig the Buddha

I don’t dig the Buddha.  I’m really outing myself here, because, if there is one thing that the humanist religious community can agree on, it’s that Buddhism is cool.  Even the non-Buddhists think so.  It is just not fashionable to dislike Buddhism.

Today, in our Spirit Circle discussion group at my UU church, we watched another segment of a documentary on Huston Smith, the eminent religion scholar.  This segment was about Buddhism, specifically Tibetan Buddhism.  I have since learned that there is as much diversity within Buddhism as there is within Christianity.  Our “token Buddhist” in the group is always the resident expert on all things Buddhist.  He leads two Buddhist practice groups at the church, and as I understand it, is a “somebody” in the regional Buddhist community.  Today, in discussing the film, I gathered that he has a preference for the Zen form of Buddhism over the Tibetan version.  I believe he prefers what he called the “starkness” of Zen to all the color of Tibetan Buddhism, which was ironic, because, if anything, the color and the iconography was the only thing that appealed to me about Buddhism.

Frankly, I start to zone out whenever we talk about Buddhism.  It just doesn’t interest me.  And today I was wondering why.  Every religion, to be successful, must sell you a problem as well as a solution.  That’s just good marketing.  Christianity sells humankind’s “fallen nature” as the problem and salvation through substitutionary expiation as the solution.   Neopaganism sells disconnectedness as the problem and (re-)connection as the solution.  Buddhism sells “suffering” as the problem and non-attachment as the solution.  Neither the focus on suffering, nor the ideal of non-attachment resonate with me.  I understand that the term “suffering” (dukkha) probably translates better as “discontentment”.  And yet, when he was asked today what drew him to Buddhism, our resident Buddhist said “suffering”, specifically the suffering that was created by his alcoholism.

I had just been thinking about the figure of the Buddha.  Not the “laughing Buddha” or Budai, which is so popular, but the Gautama Buddha.  If any word can be associated with that image is is perhaps “serenity”.

the Buddha


I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of stereotypes of religious identity
.  I identify as (Neo-)”Pagan”, because the image of the maypole-dancing, idol-worshiping, and fornicating-in-the-forest non-Christian calls to me.

“The Youth of Bacchus” by William Adolphe Bouguereau

While I find some of the images of the Buddha beautiful, they do not call to me in the same way as does the image of Dionysus.  Dionysus the imbiber.  Dionysus the dancer.  Dionysus the sufferer.

I believe that this attraction, both mine to Dionysus and my co-congregant’s attraction to the Buddha, is a function of biography.  For him, the Buddha was a way out of alcoholism, out of intoxication.  I, on the other hand, can count on my fingers the number of alcoholic beverages I’ve consumed in my life.  I was raised Mormon, and even after I left the LDS church, I was a natural teetotaler.  But it is not just a question of alcohol.  I have always been a sober and somber personality.  So, what I want from religion is not serenity.  I want passion.  Pleasure, yes, but also creative suffering.  I want ecstasy, which can be produced by pleasure or pain.  I want intoxication.

Nietzsche wrote:

“Under the influence of the narcotic draught, of which songs of all primitive men and peoples speak, or with the potent coming of spring that penetrates all nature with joy, these Dionysian emotions awake, and as they grow in intensity everything subjective vanishes into complete self-forgetfulness.  There are some who, from obtuseness or lack of experience, turn away from such phenomena as from ‘folk-diseases,’ with contempt or pity born of consciousness of their own ‘healthy-mindedness.’ But such poor wretches have no idea how corpselike and ghostly their so-called ‘healthy-mindedness’ looks when the glowing life of the Dionysian revelers roars past them.”

Maenad and Bacchant

It is “the glowing life of the Dionysian revelers” that I want.  And that’s why I don’t dig the Buddha.  Just don’t tell anyone.

  • http://jodoshinshubuddhism.wordpress.com Kyōshin Samuels

    Hi John, interesting post as ever. I personally have sympathy with both outlooks and have gravitated toward Japanese forms of Buddhism that contain an interesting blend of the ascetic and hedonistic. By the way have you ever read Zorba the Greek? It tackles some of these themes. I wrote about it a couple of times:
    http://echoesofthename.net/2011/01/17/zorba-the-greek-an-initial-reaction/
    http://echoesofthename.net/2011/01/20/zorba-nihilism-and-buddhism/

    All the best, Kyōshin

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John

      Kyōshin,

      Thank you for your response and the links to your very thought-provoking posts. Your posts merit a much more thorough response, but for the time being, let me say that I certainly appreciate that Buddhism can be experienced as a “great YES” to some people. (It certainly was to my co-congregant.) But, even according to the Elman quote in your post, this affirmative side of Buddhism is only reached through a process of emptying (*shunyata*). (I should note that various schools of Buddhism deal with the doctrine of emptiness differently — some which indeed are difficult not be be understood as nihilistic, at least to Westerners, while others seem more life-affirming.)

      I believe that there is no one-size-fits-all religion, and I think it is wrong to assume that a religious tradition would be experienced the same way by people living as different times and places as Siddhartha and Nietzsche. So while the emptying process of Buddhism may lead to Nirvana in some, I imagine it can be counter-productive to others (i.e., leading to nihilism). I wonder if Nietzsche and Schopenhauer (and Zorba’s narrator) didn’t fail to understand Buddhism, but rather they simply were not the type of people for whom the Buddhist emptying would work. Nietzsche, who had recognized the death of God (i.e., the Self), was already struggling with a form of emptiness. One reaction would be to seek to free oneself from suffering and impermanence through further emptying of the Self (i.e., God). Another would be to immerse oneself further in the world of impermanence — by finding the “holiness” in the “natural”. (Actually, both methods might be thought of as deconstructing the Self, I suppose, although in radically different ways — but that’s a post for another day.)

      Ann Ulanov wrote that God comes to us in our idols, as well as in the smashing of those idols. Buddhist emptying may be seen as a form of idol smashing, but I don’t agree with your post on idolatry that all true religions are aniconic. Idolatry is a path to the divine as well. Nietzsche understood this I think.

      I don’t think there is a *right* response to this question. That’s because we’re not all starting in the same place. William James’ observed that there are once-born and twice-born people. He was writing to a Christian audience, and his recognition that there were different fundamental types of Christians was profound for his time I think. But I think his insight should be extended even further to include many more types of people. Each type represents a different challenge to religion, a challenge which is a function of biography and personality. No one religion can meet all of those challenges, and most are not good at meeting more than one. For me, right now, shunyata is a dead letter.

      I guess what I am trying to say is that, while it is wrong to treat one form of Buddhism as representative of all Buddhism, it is also a mistake to assume that a single form of Buddhism will function the same way in every person’s life, regardless of biography etc.

  • http://jodoshinshubuddhism.wordpress.com Kyōshin Samuels

    John, Thanks for such a thorough response.

    “even according to the Elman quote in your post, this affirmative side of Buddhism is only reached through a process of emptying (*shunyata*). (I should note that various schools of Buddhism deal with the doctrine of emptiness differently — some which indeed are difficult not be be understood as nihilistic, at least to Westerners, while others seem more life-affirming.)”

    This is true. Though as I say some forms of Japanese Buddhism might come much closer to a theology that you would find sympathetic. Here is a description of the Zen master Dogen’s outlook: “““[In Dogen's thought] The authentic self is the person who lives in a way profoundly embedded in the world and who does not make a distinction between what is and what is not the self …The selfless person (the authentic self) of Dogen does transcend the conditions of personhood (namely, its distinctive identity, its separate history, its role and day-to-day existence); but it does not transcend the world. It merely becomes more closely related to it.”

    “I don’t agree with your post on idolatry that all true religions are aniconic. Idolatry is a path to the divine as well. Nietzsche understood this I think.

    I was quoting a Christian theologian in that post rather than my own views, but it would be fair to say I still bear strong traces – one might even say prejudices – from a Christian evangelical upbringing. My path though is one of exploration and two years since I wrote that post my understanding of the (small p) pagan attitude to ‘idols’ has developed – I hope – and I intend to learn more by reading such thoughtful sites as yours.

    “types of people. Each type represents a different challenge to religion, a challenge which is a function of biography and personality. No one religion can meet all of those challenges, and most are not good at meeting more than one. For me, right now, shunyata is a dead letter.”

    Yes. Last night I was listening to a lecture by a writer of urban fantasy who said that he finds that he has readers who just accept the ambiguities in his books, and others who come up to him and ask questions like, “Was the monster real?”, “Was it just a dream?” and seem to find it completely impossible to accept that fiction performs a different role to factual writing. Or you get people who complain that a novel has no message, or too much of a message, and so on. Where this all gets really tricky and interesting in terms of religion though is when we ask the question: Is following ‘affinity’ a healthy path or not? Probably failing to follow affinity will make us miserable, but at the same time: Does following affinity mean that we miss out on experiences that we would find challenging but would be valuable to us?

    “I guess what I am trying to say is that, while it is wrong to treat one form of Buddhism as representative of all Buddhism, it is also a mistake to assume that a single form of Buddhism will function the same way in every person’s life, regardless of biography etc.”

    Agreed. E.g. even within the specific sect of Buddhism I participate in there is a spectrum of people who relate to Amida Buddha as some form of person or being, through to others for whom Amida is more of a principle.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John

      “‘[In Dogen's thought] The authentic self is the person who lives in a way profoundly embedded in the world and who does not make a distinction between what is and what is not the self …The selfless person (the authentic self) of Dogen does transcend the conditions of personhood (namely, its distinctive identity, its separate history, its role and day-to-day existence); but it does not transcend the world. It merely becomes more closely related to it.’”

      That does sound very Neopagan, indeed!

      “Is following ‘affinity’ a healthy path or not? Probably failing to follow affinity will make us miserable, but at the same time: Does following affinity mean that we miss out on experiences that we would find challenging but would be valuable to us?”

      That’s an excellent question. Our spiritual paths must surely challenge us in order to deserve the name “spiritual”. I can honestly say that the path I have chosen is challenging. I am about as un-Dionysian as a personality gets. Nevertheless, for me the question has been whether to strive toward an abstract ideal which is imposed from without, or to seek harmony and wholeness from within. I ultimately decided that I must begin with my own experience and build my spiritual practice from there. That may seem self-evident to others, but for a long time it was not to me. It seems to me that a large portion of the religious community does it the other way around. I have tried it the other way around, and it nearly tore me apart. I think we need to work with our natures, not against them. Perhaps this is a fundamental difference between Neopaganism and other religious systems. Nevertheless, as you point out, there is an ever-present danger of complacency. I think that challenge to complacency comes from others mostly. That’s a large part of the reason I attend a UU Church and why I participate in these online discussions — I need to be challenged. And your comments have been challenging, so thank you.

  • http://cafedog.wordpress.com/ chris

    I like Zen because there is no talk of dogma, doctrine no symbolism or idols, as their are in other school of Buddhism. (note the phrase: Kill the Buddha).
    I talk about it online because it is a subject concerning mental health or wellness. So my zen started with a problem to unravel concerning wellness.
    I wondered if you don’t like Buddhism, have you found Christian Soren Kierkagaard of interest.
    He explored the problem of anxiety.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John

      I love symbolism and idols.
      I admit, I am not very familiar with Kierkegaard. What do you find of interest about him?

  • http://humanisticpaganism.wordpress.com B. T. Newberg

    >Pleasure, yes, but also creative suffering. I want ecstasy, which can be produced by pleasure or pain. I want intoxication.

    Sing it, brother! It’s interesting that you make a Buddha-Dionysos comparison, as I’ve done the same thing but maybe for different reasons. I see Buddhist mindfulness meditation as attending very closely to the senses, including the five senses, as well as feelings, emotions, thoughts, etc. Meanwhile, I see Dionysian revelry as a celebration of sensual experience. Mindfulness then seems to me an ideal way of going deeper into sensual experience. I am not by nature one to flit about the room like a satyr drinking copious kraters of wine; but I am a satyr of a kind. I am the satyr that sits quietly and calmly drinks the wine of all these wonderful sensations and experiences of this world.

    I *do* dig Buddhism, and followed it in one way or another for many years, but it is no longer my path, for a couple of reasons.

    I don’t feel that Buddhism gives a prominent enough place to meaningful suffering. For example, the suffering of a mother in childbirth, a middle-aged man going through an existential crisis, or an activist striving for social justice. Nor do I resonate at all with the idea that, supposing literal rebirth in a succession of lives were true, I should want to end that cycle. Rather, my overall goal in spirituality is to achieve a state where I would always, always sign up for another go round on this earth – to grow so close to it, with all its joys as well as horrors, that I would never want to be separated from it.

  • Pingback: Why my story (and yours) is important | The Allergic Pagan

  • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

    I came across this description of a visit to India contrasting two scenes, one Hindu and one Buddhist, and it captured well what I was talking about above:

    “On my first visit to India, years ago now, I spent some days in Benares (now called Varanasi). There is a tumultuous scene on the shore of the Ganges in one of the holiest sites of Hinduism—multitudes of pilgrims coming and going, people bathing in the river, funeral ceremonies being conducted at the riverside ghats where corpses are cremated. There is something distinctively Hindu in this exuberant (and noisy) celebration of life and death on the side of a river which, like all rivers, symbolizes the flow of all beings toward absorption in the ocean of divinity. On one day I went out to visit the Deer Park, just a short distance from the city—the location where Gautama the Buddha is supposed to have preached his first sermon after achieving Enlightenment. The contrast could not have been any greater. The estate is quite large, dotted with temples and monasteries run by organizations from the Buddhist countries of East and Southeast Asia (Buddhism has been virtually extinct in India since the Muslim conquest and persecution). While I was there, no service was going on that I was aware of. Several Thai monks were quietly passing by. It was an experience of perfect calm.”

    source: “From Buddhist Laughter to the Protestant Smile” by Peter Berger
    http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/berger/2012/08/29/from-buddhist-laughter-to-the-protestant-smile/

  • http://www.facebook.com/kapple6364 Kenneth Apple

    Have you read Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor? Very good book about a Buddhist who has rejected the metaphysics and such for a trimmed down secular buddhism.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      No I haven’t. I’ll check it out. Thanks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kapple6364 Kenneth Apple
  • Pingback: Embarrassment and the twin threats to Paganism: Shallowness of the mind and of the heart | The Allergic Pagan

  • Pingback: The questions that led me to Neopaganism | The Allergic Pagan

  • Pingback: 2012 Blog Roll, Looking Forward to 2013 (Part 1) | The Allergic Pagan


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X