Faith of a Liberal Buddhist


There I was, at another of the organizational meetings for Voices of Faith, our attempt at creating a state wide interfaith organization. I like the people, all of them, I think, but it is sometimes hard sledding.

Interestingly, the hardest thing is getting people to agree we don’t all think the same things somewhere deep down. For the majority people in our crowd I think it is a gentle imperialism, claiming the other is really just us. Much better than its ugly cousin, the other is unclean and needs to be expunged, read killed, but ultimately just as wrong headed.

For instance, at that meeting a colleague I really like offered how she told a mutual friend who is a prominent local Humanist that he has a “faith” as well. I admit I probably projected a small self satisfied smile on her face as she reported this.

Her description of faith was something I was familiar with from seminary. Faith is a verb, it speaks to an active engagement with one’s experience. While all the problematic things about religious belief, what Ambrose Bierce succinctly defined faith as,”belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel” was to be called “belief.”

I offered that she had re-defined that word faith in that very attractive way, but also one that ignored ordinary use. And by ordinary use, which is that appeal to authorities over the plain observations of our senses and reason, our mutual friend is not a “person of faith.”

And it is doing a genuine conversation, any hope of genuine understanding a serious disservice.

As I said, going to be hard sledding. Already is…

And it set me to thinking a bit about my own faith.

I’m a Unitarian Universalist, a notoriously slippery faith tradition. And, I’m a Zen Buddhist, also a somewhat difficult tradition to unpack – although I recently read a new translation of Nagarjuna that spoke deeply to me as a Buddhist of the Zen flavor. And, as a religious liberal.

Which is how I would describe myself: as a liberal Buddhist.

I thought back to something I wrote a while back about who can say they’re a Buddhist. And I thought in the light of my recent conversations about religion and interfaith dialogue and intellectual and spiritual integrity, it might be worth a revisit.

So, for a start, who is a Buddhist? And who is not?

This is an issue of some import as we have entered an era where Buddhist thought is cited for various purposes within our culture. And so, who may speak for the tradition? And who should be considered winging it while merely appealing to the name without justification?

It is in fact problematic as Buddhism is some five hundred years older than Christianity and during its whole history has never had a leading or normative institution, such as Christianity’s Roman Catholic Church. (Yes, some would assert the Vinaya ordained sangha could be that institution. But, the Buddhism of Japan is a glaring exception. And many emergent Buddhisms also have problematic relationships with the Vinaya ordained sanghas. So, it just isnt that cut or dried…) So, who gets to say whether one is Buddhist or is not? I find no institution that exists has the universal acceptance of the world Buddhist community or undoubtedly more properly, communities…

Many Christians consider it essential one acknowledges one of the traditional creeds such as the Apostles or the Nicene (or both) to be Christian. I know some throw in another called the Athanasian, as well. But there is also a strong minority position that holds the definition of a Christian is one who can say, “Jesus is Lord.” By that definition, at least on alternative Tuesdays, I could say I’m Christian.

Buddhism seems even harder to define. There is no creedal statement commonly held, although in modern times and in the West in particular many have appealed to the Four Noble Truths as a description of Buddhism.

Of course, some people think the Dalai Lama would be such an authority. But that just shows many people don’t understand where he fits on the Buddhist stage. Rather than being the Buddhist pope, the Dalai Lama is more akin to being the Patriarch of Russian Orthodoxy – that is the leader of a significant although by world standards not a particularly large branch of the religion. In fact few opinions held by Buddhists somewhere are not going to be challenged by Buddhists somewhere else.

And then for me as a Zen Buddhist any definitions are tricky, as words are tricky. Although I find the summary statement in the Heart Sutra, “form is emptiness, and emptiness form” a very good pointer…

But pointer not creed.

Still, Zen is nestled very much within Buddhism, and for me, at least, as with, I’m confident, the majority, if not all, Zen Buddhists; seeing Zen as Buddhist is important.

In some recent correspondence a friend cited one Tibetan authority who asserted four principles that describe Buddhism, and if one does not believe them, then that person is not a Buddhist.

They are 1) All produced things are impermanent
 2) All contaminated things are suffering
 3) All phenomenon are empty and selfless 
4) Nirvana is peace

I looked at this list and thought I could live with it, although I think the word “contaminated” and “suffering” need a little attention. I would substitute compounded for contaminated, as there is no pure reference point. The point as I understand it is that everything made of parts (and what is not?) will come apart, and that grasping at such things as if they’re permanent or whole or unchangeable brings about a sense of dis-ease, unsatisfactoriness, hurt, sadness, suffering, anguish. Each word pointing to this sense captured in the technical term dukkha.

As to Nirvana is peace. That too needs unpacking in that as a Zen Buddhist this is where we come to that Heart Sutra line I cited above. Here the identity of form and emptiness of samsara and nirvana cannot be ignored, and it is in fact the deep insight into this that is awakening. So, this peace that is nirvana also includes all the hurt of the world.

I thought it interesting that in this list the doctrines of karma and rebirth are not included. But, perhaps assumed? I believe any forthright examination must include these points. And I know this is where my orthodoxy starts getting a bit shaky.

In classical Buddhism karma is all about intention. And those intentions are what directly lead to rebirth, and the normative view has been that “rebirth” refers to post mortem reanimation.

Out of respect for the tradition I try to maintain an agnostic view in this regard. But. I’ve noticed agnosticism tends to lean one way or another. So as regards a subject like theism an agnostic might lean toward theism or atheism while professing not knowing. In regard to theism I lean toward the not very likely. In regards to karma and rebirth taken in those classical ways, I’m agnostic but lean rather heavily against the view.

Rather for me karma describes the connection of an action or thought to its consequences. And within that unity of action or thought and consequence, rebirth describes the shift or immediate result of any given action or thought within, at least, a human being. I am because of what I was and I will be because of who I am – all right here, in each moment…

Then there are the moral codes, the precepts. Some would include how we interpret them to fall within at least orthodox and heterodox, if not whether one is or is not a Buddhist. The original conversation with my friend turned on how Tibetans in general understand the refraining from inappropriate sexual acts. For the most traditional understanding this means no sex that isn’t for purposes of procreation. With all the fall out that has for homosexual persons…

I have a very strong reaction to this. I find that view ridiculous and body-hating and a shadow of Buddhism writ large. It is part of a Buddhist perspective that needs to be challenged from within the community, as damaging to the wholeness to which we are genuinely called by our tradition. I believe the only appropriate way of understanding the precepts regarding sexuality turn on respect and care and mutuality. Missing this is missing how we engage with open hands the matter of life and death.

I assert these positions I hold are Buddhist, if liberal Buddhist.

Others, I know, think this means I am not a Buddhist. Or, at best, a marginal Buddhist.

But then many Buddhists think the same about Zen Buddhists in general.

The upshot is probably, while quite important, the question of who and who is not a Buddhist is going to remain ambiguous…

Not unlike life, it seems…

But, also, like life, very important to engage fully…

Which brings me back to that conversation at the organizational steering committee for Voice of Faith. I feel I share more in common with my Humanist friends than my Christian friends.

But, my path is different than either of those approaches to life and death.

Rather, for me, drawing upon all that I’ve mentioned, I find an approach that also touches upon faith and what it is and what it is not.

I’ve mentioned it before, and for a reason.

My dear old friend the Dharma bum Weasel Tracks was asked if he believed in God. He said no. The questioner pushed, “So, you’re an atheist?” To which Uncle Weasel replied, “No.”

Frustrated at someone not fitting neatly into his boxes, the man asked, “So, what do you believe?”

Uncle Weasel then revealed the great way as I understand it.

He smiled gently, and replied, “I believe as little as possible.”

Here the gates of genuine freedom are thrown open.

And all we need do is walk through…

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  • Tiara Askew

    Thanks for the article – could you share the new translation of Nagarjuna that you mention, please?

  • http://www.boundlesswayzen.org jamesford

    The Nagarjuna text is forthcoming from Wisdom. I was asked whether I could endorse it. I did, enthusiastically. http://www.wisdompubs.org/Pages/display.lasso?-KeyValue=33189&-Token.Action=Search&image=1

  • http://www.bluecollarworkman.com TB at BlueCollarWorkman

    What’s the name of the newest Nagarjuna translation that you read?

  • Bob

    I once said to George Bowman I didn’t know if I could be described as a Buddhist; he said he didn’t know if he could either.
    The precepts are our gift to others; not for our benefit?

  • http://www.buddhamamasansdrama.com Mandy

    “I believe as little as possible.”

    I love that. Can I steal it?

    • Weasel Tracks

      STOLEN!

      Use it well.

  • Paul

    Great article, James.
    I’ve been actively involved in interfaith work for almost 20 years and I used the phrase “spiritual imperialism” awhile back to make the same point.
    And within the Shin Buddhist community there are some who would question my Buddhism as well since, like you, I describe myself as a liberal Buddhist. Thanks for helping to clarify what I mean by that.
    Paul

  • Malaclypse Wakeful

    Hi there:) The four principles you quote are known as four seals of the view, or of Dharma, and are popular with all Northern schools. They’re nutshell orhodoxy – three characteristics of impermanence, suffering, non-self, plus nirvana. “Contaminated” is sometimes rendered as “stained” or “afflicted” as in “reactive.” The “compounded” you propose is already covered in the first principle as “produced” for which another rendering is “conditioned.” Clearly, not all compounded or produced events are suffering, they’re simply impermanent, but all “contaminated” once are, and to confuse the two would lead to nonsense. So, the second one is not about parts and wholes, it’s about confusion and reactivity. As far as Nirvana being peace, sometimes it’s rendered as “beyond extremes.”

  • Josh Lamson

    For fun- those four principles go back to the Indian monastic colleges, when Buddhist scholars would debate scholars from other schools. They were a sort of “party line”- broad positions to be held more or less absolutely. That translation is quirky but seems to be gaining currency. Far cry from “an oak tree in the garden”.

  • http://theistsandatheists.wordpress.com Roger Christan Schriner

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I’ve quoted you at:

    http://theistsandatheists.wordpress.com/2013/04/13/is-atheism-a-faith/

    Chris Schriner


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