The Zen Priest Discovers he is a Post-Secular Buddhist

The Zen Priest Discovers he is a Post-Secular Buddhist April 12, 2021





Somehow I’m on the email list for Academia dot edu. They’re somewhat controversial in academic circles because they’re a commercial site that uses the highly valued .edu domain designation. Apparently they acquired it before it was strictly limited to actual educational institutions.

Me, I like it because they send me random links to articles on Buddhism. I just ignore, well, I mostly ignore their blandishments for me to purchase an upgrade that will allow me to ego search my name in academic journals and books.

Noting that, this morning I opened my emails to find an Academia invitation to read Professor Ann Gleig’s review of Buddhism Beyond Borders: New Perspectives on Buddhism in the United States. And I did.

I’m a big fan of the professor and her work. This review is a good example of why. She gets details and she sees bigger pictures. And, while she absolutely has views,  I don’t think I’ve ever seen where they get in the way of her fairly presenting other views.

Buddhism Beyond Borders is a collection of essays that address aspects of Buddhism arising in the West. This is a controversial subject, which often is met with condescension if not rebuke. Several dichotomies have been presented about the phenomenon, most commonly the good modernist Buddhisms vs the bad ethnic Buddhisms an old but sturdy one, and the more recent and vehement bad modernist Buddhisms vs the authentic Asian Buddhisms. Sometimes even measurements found lacking against an authentic Buddhism without modification with that good old “s.”

This book takes a different tact, eschewing most of the prevalent value judgements and instead looking at what is arising. Criticisms are necessary, but if I read Professor Gleig’s review right, this is mostly a sympathetic if open eyed examination of the phenomena of the largely convert Buddhisms and how they fit into a larger picture.

When she swims into these waters Professor Gleig like to use the term”postmodern.” Me, I find myself wary of that particular term when speaking of my own religion. I am obviously indebted to the modernist project, especially maintaining a profound respect for all those elements that have grown out of the Western Enlightenment, especially rational analysis and a privileging of factuality. But. And. Those messy connecting things.

For one, “fact” has to be held lightly. I do get that. I have experienced how everything exists within contexts. But these include historical and cultural contexts, which are not quite as vague as some would have them. It isn’t all up in the air for you to grab what you want. Not in my experience. So, we can examine. I find. And out of that examination, things can be learned. I guess that’s the modernity part. A bit more modest, a tad more humble than might have been presented in much of the first half of the twentieth century.

And, very much at the same time I am cautioned by the very fluidity of, well, everything. And that makes me suspicious of the modernity part. But, postmodern for how I encounter all this hasn’t quite felt the right term to me. At least for me.

From one angle there are things and relationships, but from another, especially for those on a spiritual question, things are so fluid that things are more like moments or snapshots of motion. For me the issues I have within modernity turn on what gets designated “secular.” So, while I feel I should be aligned with it, I find little commonality with secular Buddhism as it is offered up. To me that word secular implies a reductionism that marks and often mars the rational impulse. Confusing as a spiritual matter a method for the thing. In this case the healing of the heart that informs my spiritual quest.

And so, as I said, postmodern doesn’t feel quite what I’m about, either. I guess it makes me think of people wearing berets in Paris smoking unfiltered cigarettes and drinking espresso. No doubt a terrible caricature. But it implies, again, for me, something disconnected from the live animal of my religion. And, then, bless her once again, Professor Gleig writes about alternatives to postmodern. Specifically, she mentioned post-secular a term used by Professor Courtney Bender (and others, she says).

From here I move on from Professor Gleig and her wonderful review of what looks to be a compelling book. At just under a hundred bucks for the hardback, I won’t do that; but, I will be springing the thirty-three dollars for the paperback. If you’re interested in the rich complexity of our emerging Western Buddhisms and how they sit within a larger frame, Buddhism Beyond Borders may well be a very important book for you.

But, for me. Now. Post-secular. Post secular. Postsecular. I like that version.

Postsecular. Now that touched me. I quickly googled Professor Bender, who I see teaches at Columbia and wrote a major study of the spiritual but not religious. They’re a category of folk I’m endlessly fascinated with. I’ve certainly seen a lot of what I would consider as, at the very best, shallow stuff among that crowd. It’s easy to see how the spiritual but not religious are often caught up in a spiritual market, where the individual is invited to shop among the world’s religions, picking this and that from one or another religion. And in the end creating something totally customized.

I have sympathies with the impulse to make my own judgements, an, well, I do it, if I hope cautiously. I’m also very aware how dangerous this can. One can easily end up with a closed system where one’s prejudices are constantly reinforced, creating a spirituality that is just a bunch of mirrors reflecting me And with that the project becomes about protection not depth.

So, over the years I’ve liked to say I’m religious but not spiritual. But, that’s a bit facile.

There’s a nugget in that unmooring of the deeper matters of the heart from the institutions that have held them. And I keep returning to look at that nugget. Actually, nugget is probably not a good term, as it is a slippery thing, that animal thing, alive, breathing, sweating. It’s a mysterious animal, something very hard to look at straight on. But even looked at slant, as a hint of something that is found within specific religious contexts, but doesn’t seem to necessarily be owned by them.

I pause to note that I have friends who will suggest this nugget, this animal, is the creation of my longings and hopes, a chimera. I note that. In the moment I’m not interested in justifying, just reporting. A fuller reflection, of which this is a part, is in the works…

Anyway I think the nugget, the animal thing is very important to notice. It’s the thing that is not about academic research, but about the calling of the heart. And as I rummage around the glittering objects that capture the spiritual but not religious crowd, among the tinfoil and glitter, on occasion I catch glimpses of that animal lurking.

Anyway, Professor Bender likes the term post-secular. It serves here, but it also is super helpful to me. I also noticed she uses the term entanglements. Another super term for me.

Reading those words I immediately found my heart racing. I’ve found words that help me so much as I look at who I am and what my religion is. While I think there’s some serious problems with a bare linearity of religious then modernist then postsecular, I do find something of my quest here. Add in entanglements and I begin to find something.

I am a Buddhist. Specifically I am a Zen Buddhist. I am marked by modernism and rationality and a bias toward facts, as elusive and only momentarily substantial as they might be. What this means for me is that I look for the sources of my spirituality within the practice first, but then I see the awakening that I’m pushed toward is at best only implicit in the Buddhism associated with Theravada and their texts that they assert so vehemently as the only “real.” I see Nagarjuna and the whole nondual project as central to my Zen, actually to Zen. And, then all the things that come together in China, lineage, koans, new twists on practice of presence. And that lovely, lovely further twisting in Japan, itself framed first by Dogen and then by Hakuin. (And, lurking around the shadows for me these days, Shinran…)

It’s important for me to see how they emerge, especially to see how there was a time when they did not exist. At least in the sense of the clear articulation of the Zen classics.

And, then there’s where I am here today. I maintain a practice. I move in a world of practice and practitioners. Mostly, although by no means exclusively of European descent. These days I also attend a Buddhist church with a nominal Zen affiliation, serving an almost exclusively Japanese descent congregation. In many ways they’re a purely religious community only tangentially touched by modernity. Okay, more than tangental. They’re Americans, mostly. But they like some Japanese in their liturgy, even when they don’t understand more than a few words. Their deeper project is to celebrate the Lord Buddha and to follow his teachings. It’s very devotional. There is zazen on offer, but only because their minister is a Japanese Zen priest and he sits and invites others to sit with him. But it’s all kept away from the main hall and the main purposes of the church. And, I love it. I even love the archaic King James-ish language of the liturgy, a mix and mash that works for me. And. Because zoom allows it, I’m also working at a Unitarian Universalist church, consulting and once a month preaching. UU world is totally post religious in the sense of privatized religion, where the glue holding things together is an intuition we need to be useful in this world. Most Sundays I go to the Buddhist service and then the UU. I worry about what happens when time and space gets a little less flexible in post plague “normal,” and whether I’ll have to do one or the other.

But. And. Those connections again. Those entanglements again. Here I am. In this moment, here I am.

And. Oh, my, I am entangled. Fluid. Animal. Many things claim me.

I follow the forms of my Zen practice. I don’t believe all of them. But, I notice, they believe in me.

I am touched by the secular, but it is not me.

I have a reclaimed sacred, informed by critical analysis, but ultimately taking me not to a bare world of atoms and molecules, but to a world of dream and mutability and change and, well, heart.

I am, I have learned, a Postsecular Buddhist…

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