unmistaken ignorance

Of the many many things I’ve written about lo these many years (egads, it’s been six years now since this site went live. whew!), one is this crazy notion that Buddhism is… wait for it… a religion.

Many people think “religion” is a dirty word. Many people would like Buddhism to be nothing more than a “way of life” or “a philosophy” or some ball of feel-good, self-help claptrap that will either get you laid or make your morning commute more bearable. They would like to ignore all the facets of Buddhism that rub their modern, Western sensibilities the wrong way. They cling desperately to the idea that Tibet really is Shangri-la, that everything that comes out of the Dalai Lama’s mouth is pure gold. Some folks are so enamored of this perspective on Buddhism that when something comes along to challenge that idea, they are shocked, shocked, horrified to find out that what they’ve been embracing is, at the end of the day, susceptible to the same shortcomings as whatever version of Christianity they left behind.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Exhibit A. This “review” of the new documentary Unmistaken Child, via the Buddhist Channel via the Huffington Post, about the search for the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama. (Full disclosure: I have not seen this film.) In the review, Claudia Ricci starts off by saying that she’s all into Buddhism, but dear me, look, would you just look at what they’re doing to this child?!

(Queue Mrs. Lovejoy: “Won’t somebody please think of the children!?!”)

Here’s some good highlights with, as you might have guessed, my two cents:

The child is taken from his parents (with their permission, but of course, they’ve been pressured in so many subtle and not-so-subtle ways.) The pain in their faces is heart-wrenching.

But the story is disturbing for other reasons. I never realized before seeing this film how much “god worship” there is in Buddhism, the gods being little humans who are chosen reincarnates (and of course there is plenty of worship of the older Lamas.)

The trouble here is that she’s projecting her expectations of what it means to be a family, of what it means to be a child, of what it means to grow up in a particular culture, into this other cultural milieu. Yeah, if a bunch of monks showed up at my door in midtown Oakland tomorrow claiming that my kid (hell, even my cat!) was the reincarnation of their dearly departed teacher, I’d smile, thank them for their time, quietly shut the door and do my best to forget about it. But that’s because I live in Oakland. Not Tibet.

Moreover, the term “worship,” my dear Ms. Ricci, is not a Tibetan word, now is it? It’s an English word taken from a Judeo-Christian context, taken from a religious context where the only thing anyone is supposed to worship is the good Lord himself, not other people, not statues, not paintings, and for Christ’s sake certainly not children. But I’m pretty sure that if we were to interpret this behavior more fairly to the Tibetans themselves, a better word would be “venerate.” The word venerate simply means “to regard with great respect.” That’s closer to what we’re doing in Buddhism whenever we bow to anything — statues, altars, our teachers, etc., etc. We’re venerating, we’re respecting, the inherit spiritual quality in those objects and people.

It’s not disturbing. It’s part of Buddhist culture. It’s been part of Buddhist culture since, oh, I don’t know, the fifth century BCE.

What’s interesting to me about this review is that Ms. Ricci is, no doubt, of the progressive, liberal persuasion (a not-too-illogical assumption considering the source, the Huffington Post, usually only publishes reviews or op-eds by conservative folks when those folks are rebuking their conservative colleagues). So I’m sure she’s aware of the inherent problem of universalizing one’s own culture and then using that set of cultural assumptions to denigrate some other culture. If Ms. Ricci came across a conservative pundit who said, “Those damn Central American’s with their Feasts of the Virgin Mary are just creepy, idol worshiping heathens!” she would be justifiably outraged.

So I don’t think I’m at all off base when I call foul at the following comment:

If you do [see the film], pay special attention to the very last scene, where the monk and the young boy are sitting very close to one another, laughing and playing. To me the scene (I won’t tell you what they are playing with) suggests something quite sinister about the relationship between the 30ish year-old monk, and the 3 or 4-ish year old boy.

I hope it’s just me.

I’m sorry. Are you implying that the monk is doing something licentious with the child? I’m sorry. Did you just accuse someone of being a child molester? Oh. My. God. Has the level of fear and paranoia about religious leaders abusing their power reached the point where anyone and everyone who comes into contact with any child is under suspicion? If so, we’ve got a problem.

(As an aside, if anyone has seen this film and knows “what they are playing with,” do let me know. I suspect it’s a vajra, an object that someone this ignorant would probably mistake for a phallus.)

You might think that I’m just assuming that Ms. Ricci is projecting her own biases and fears and experiences into this movie and, by proxy, onto another culture. And that that assumption is off-base or unfair. But I don’t think it is. As she herself states, watching a throng of Buddhists venerate various teachers “was a dreadful thing…the sort of adulation that I recall from my Catholic upbringing, the kind I thought was reserved for the Vatican and the Pope.”

And that’s the crux of the issue right there, really. The problem is that some folks spend so much time deluding themselves into believing that Buddhism isn’t a religion, that Buddhism is immune from all of these things they find distasteful, that when confronted with some contrary evidence, they’re thrown into a tisy. Into a hissy-fit of shock, horror, and (no doubt) baseless accusations.

Ms. Ricci says at the start of her review that she’s a fan of Buddhism, that she’s “been meditating for at least 10 or 12 years” (well bully for you!). And toward the end of the review says “I thought the point of Buddhism was the elimination of the ego.” You’re right. And part of letting go of the ego is letting go of the assumption that your way of seeing the world is the only way, the right way.

Maybe she’ll get that after another decade of meditation.

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4 thoughts on “unmistaken ignorance

  1. “Oh. My. God.” This is where I started laughing out loud. I enjoy your rants about people’s misunderstandings about Buddhism – lets me know I’m not the only one that gets hot under the collar about these things. This was a particularly fun one though!

  2. heh.

    so, yee-ah. I’m so not a joiner, and group worship/veneration/ any other form of corportae devotional practice makes my secular antennae vibrate uncontrollably: watch out! they say: this is not. for. you.

    But your point that we (by which I mean socially liberal folk) have the obligation to check our selves before we impose “progressive” western values on other cultures (heck, on our own “sub” cultures) is surely something you had already anticipated my favorable reaction to.

    I once taught a unit on “the rhetoric of “childhood”” that asked students to understand our own definitions and values of children/ childhood as recent, historically located developments. remember the industrial revolution and the little children whose fingers got caught in the machines? not so long ago, in the scheme of world history.

    That said, child “oblation?” SO not my bag. But like you said, it’s my right-but also my conditioning- to feel that way, having grown up in berkely, and not in, say, Tibet. And having studied the practices of the clergy in medieval europe (in which child oblation was quite the rage) I can say that those kids sometimes ended up with much better lives than their secular counterparts. So, you know, context. always context. okay. I’m done.

  3. @ Todd Alexander: thanks! I’m so glad someone else thinks I’m funny!

    By the way, you’re officially my 600th comment! If I had a budget, I’d send you a prize. But in this economy….

    @ sj: I had a feeling, considering our tête-à-tête yesterday, that you’d get the gist of this post. And, just to clear the air here, my progressive antennae were all a-tingle, too, especially the other week when I read an actual review of this film in the Chronicle that described the scene where the kid’s taken away, sad parents, queue sappy music. So this post isn’t an advocacy for people to drop all their Western values and replace them with Tibetan ones whole hog. It’s just, you know, to acknowledge cultural bias when we have it.

    There’s a really good joke in here about little fingers in the machinery, but it’s been a long day and I suspect it’ll come out wrong and get me into all sorts of trouble! So I’ll let that one sliiiiide.

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