from the archives

A couple of interesting bits from the Internets have found their way to my desktop today.

First up, via the good Rev. Harry, is an article published in Time magazine way back in October of 1962. The title of the article? Buddhism in America. It opens with a brief description of a Unitarian service in New York at which several priests and scholars celebrated “the 70th anniversary of Buddhism in the U.S.”

Which means that the beginning of Buddhism in America is dated at 1892. Pretty close to what I came up with in this rather snarky (and mathematically impaired) piece.

The article has some problems, of course, owing mostly to the year it was published. And by errors I mean the curious translations they use and the overly simplistic way they’ve described American Jodo Shinshu. But that’s alright. Arguing about that would be sort of like arguing with your grandpa about how to change the oil in his Edsel.

But I did want to to quote this paragraph, in full, because I get a kick out of so much of it. (And, in part, because it includes some numbers and numbers have been all the rage lately.)

A few years ago, West Coast beatniks and other intellectually unemployed seized upon Buddhism with all the enthusiasm some earlier orientalists had shown for mah-jongg. Their brief flings were mainly with the Zen sect, which concentrates on self-examination and is the most intellectual of the major Buddhist sects. But most Buddhists in the U.S., like Buddhists in Japan, belong to the Jodo Shinshu sect, which teaches that the Buddhist goal of cosmic enlightenment can be reached through faith in Amida Buddha, the Enlightened One of Infinite Life and Light. Of approximately 100,000 U.S. Buddhists, probably 80,000 are Shinshu. The sect operates 56 churches, concentrated on the West Coast but including a modernistic New York temple dedicated by the touring group.

I love that first line: “beatniks and other intellectually unemployed.” And the assumption that, by 1962, those folks had gone the way of the dodo.

There there, grandpa.

Moving right along. Tricycle was kind enough to unearth this little têt à têt between Stephen Batchelor and Robert Thurman from back in 1997 (the 105th anniversary of Buddhism in America? Okay. I’ll stop). They’re debating reincarnation. Batchelor, a die-hard agnostic, fiercely defends the skeptical-agnostic point of view that we can’t know, definitively, if there is any continuity after death. Thurman, bless his heart, just as fiercely defends the reality of reincarnation. It was a hard debate for me to read, truth be told. I’m not much of a fan of Batchelor’s work. I find his whole “Buddhism without beliefs” perspective to reek of Western intellectual exceptionalism, to smell a little too much like “we’re more rational (and therefore better) than those pesky Buddhists who’ve come before.” But reading this article, my inner science geek kicked in and I found myself rooting for Batchelor.

Almost, anyway. Thurman makes some good points and when Batchelor got to this point (toward the bottom of the second page), my eyebrows raised. Thurman suggests that in nature we observe all types of processes continuing over time, a point that Batchelor agrees with. Thurman then asks:

Thurman: So [you’re claiming consciousness] gets excluded. That’s what I’m trying to say: why should one thing be excluded from this vast sea of continuity?
Batchelor: Because consciousness is contingent upon this physical organism. What we are saying when we posit no future life for the individual is that that particular piece of process of continuity of me remembering myself as I go along – with the gaps that come from sleep, from meditative states, from momentary amnesiacs, and other things – that particular continuity is one that stops.

When I got to this point I realized that they’d never asked the underlying question: what do we mean by “reincarnation” in the first place? Is reincarnation a literal “me-consciousness” jumping from one body to another? (Thurman’s tone suggests that he thinks it is, but I rather doubt that he means this.) Or is reincarnation something else?

(As an aside, Rev. Harry and I, if memory serves, did ask this important question in our reincarnation têt à têt.)

The other thing that Batchelor’s comment made me think was, really? Consciousness is contingent upon this physical organism?” I question that. I don’t question the scientifically validated point that our consciousness is contingent upon some physical entity. But what exactly is “consciousness”? From a purely scientific point of view, it’s some amalgam of biochemical and electro-neural processes. In other words, energy. And energy is not necessarily contingent upon one, i.e., this, physical entity, but can be transfered from one to another or even changed from one form of energy to another. (A series of 1s and 0s stored on a magnetic chip, sent along a series of coper wires, and then converted into waves that manipulate the air that eventually strikes my ear drums and registers in my consciousness as “music.”) Now, obviously, I’m no scientician. So I’m bound to be wrong wrong wrong on all this. But it’s something to think about.

At any rate. Thanks, Internets, for giving us stuff to think about this New Year.

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2 thoughts on “from the archives

  1. Thanks for this post! Below was my favorite line, probably because I was very amused by their use of “Occidental”!

    With the faddists mostly gone, a small group of serious Occidentals continue to find a unique serenity in Buddhism and often are the most active members of a congregation.

  2. I felt like Thurman and Batchelor were talking past each other. Like you said, nobody ever explained just what they meant by “reincarnation”, or how this process is supposed to work, and the end result was a discussion that didn’t seem to go anywhere. I thought the most interesting part was the portion you quoted.

    Incidentally, not to be nitpicky but I think there’s a subtle but important difference between rebirth and reincarnation. Reincarnation, as I understand, is basically the idea of a “me-consciousness jumping from body to body”. The word literally means “to become flesh again”, which to me implies some kind of mind-body dualism.

    My understanding is that Buddhism rules out reincarnation (via the anatta doctrine), but does affirm rebirth, which occurs more along the lines of a “transfer of energy”. The energy which is transferred are samskaras, and the transference itself is the process of karma.

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