Toward a Circumscribed Relativism: Another Mind Bubble from an Aging Western Zen Priest

Toward a Circumscribed Relativism: Another Mind Bubble from an Aging Western Zen Priest October 25, 2019




The disparity between common Japanese religious practices and belief-centric views of religion was again brought into relief when a prominent psychology professor from the US, who was temporarily visiting my lab in Japan, encountered the domestic co-existence of Buddhist and Shinto altars. Most traditional family homes in Japan house both a Buddhist altar to honour deceased relatives (butsudan) and a Shinto altar, called a god-shelf (kami-dana), to bring blessings. This pluralistic practice goes largely unremarked upon by Japanese people, but it can be striking for those from more exclusive religious backgrounds. When the US professor learned of the practice, he turned to a Japanese colleague and asked if he had two altars in his home. Yes, at his family’s house, he answered. The professor asked in astonishment which of the two systems, if either, was the one that he really believed in. My Japanese colleague was puzzled. ‘Neither,’ he said, and then clarified: ‘…or maybe both!’ He had never really thought much about whether he believed in altars before, he explained.

Christopher Kavanagh

I am a Buddhist. Buddhism, specifically Zen Buddhism, more precisely Soto Zen and koan introspection as a piece, centers my life. It focuses my attention, it guides ever step I take. It is who I am.

I am a Buddhist, if a Buddhist of a liberal sort. Of course that “liberalism” speaks to the profound assumptions with which I engage the world.

In my case it’s as someone who embraces the modern and post modern scientific world view. In his book the Universe in a Single Atom the Dalai Lama says “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” I believe that. And that privileging of the scientific investigation very much influences how I engage my religion.

And there are other things that weave into who I am and how I engage the world, and what I understand of my Buddhism. I am especially aware of how I engage Buddhism is heavily marked by my Christian upbringing and my graduate studies in a contemporary, if liberal,  Protestant seminary, itself a member of a pan-religious theological union, through which I wandered learning much of the methodologies with which I engage spirituality and the world.

Quite frankly it’s a mess.

For instance, when trying to understand ordination within Japanese-derived Soto Zen, I relied about equally on historical analysis of Vinaya ordination and its reform in Japan, together with the Christian ordination notions of ontological and functional ministries.  Then in trying to understand the ritual life of a Soto priest I found myself immediately seeing it through my earlier critical analysis of the Christian Eucharist.

Within this I see how I recapitulate in the most personal terms how a religion enters a culture and begins immediately to adapt and to re-interpret.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

And, you know, that’s okay.

In his article that I cite at the beginning of this briefest of reflections, itself more a tease toward something larger, cognitive antropologist Christopher Kavanagh throws away a phrase, “circumscribed relativism.” I find it delicious. And compelling.

Relativism, “the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.” But modified by circumscribed, “to define or mark off carefully.” With emphasis on carefully. With respect. With humility.

We are, in speaking of religion, approaching the most important things of our human lives, the questions and the findings of meaning and purpose. Nothing less.

So, as we approach that burning bush, (am I doing it again?), we need to take off our shoes and approach humbly.

It’s absolutely critical we understand ourselves and our limitations. So, deep looking is called for. But, also to respect the mysteries of our human condition, and maybe, to accept that wisdom arises where it arises. Wisdom cannot be contained. Not even by the greatest of systems. So, while I fully embrace the great story of evolution, I find I can only understand it through poetry. And poetry is always self-contradictory.

It will never be either or. It will always be both and…

It will always be messy. It will always be seen obliquely, through the corner of the eye rather than straight on, through a glass darkly, rather than through plate glass.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

A little darker. Perhaps.

But, much more true…

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