When I am asked what attracted me to Buddhism, one of my stock answers is a story about a community college course I was in and an instructor who told us that the first Noble Truth of Buddhism is that life is suffering. And my response, as an angry, confused, seventeen-year-old ne’er-do-well was, “Hell yeah.”
It was that sense of existential uncertainty, of pent-up frustration, that attracted me, like a lot of other young men and women for more than half a century, to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. And then, over the next decade or two, everything else he published that was still available in print or, in one case, at my university library in microfiche form.
J.D. Salinger passed away yesterday at the young age of 91, forty-five years after his last published short story and spending most of his life in “a little cabin somewhere” in New Hampshire, away from “any goddam stupid conversation with anybody.”
Some random, but no less important, digest-y thoughts for the waning half of January.
In my last post on this issue, my overall point was two-fold: (1) there are real differences between Buddhism and Christianity that aren’t being discussed in the Brit Hume kerfuffle; and (2) that Brit Hume exposes a deeper religious double-standard in our country that may be the better target of our discontent. In this post, I’d like to talk about a related but separate issue, that is, how the mainstream media represented Buddhists in their response to Brit Hume’s comment.
I’ve wavered back and forth quite a bit about whether or not I wanted to weigh in on the whole Brit Hume thinks Tiger Woods should be a Christian thing. But I think there are a couple of points in all of this that are worth bringing into the spotlight, so, albeit a little late, here goes.
First, some disclaimers.
For starters, I think Marcus is right. Our outrage is no doubt better served by protesting actual atrocities committed against Buddhists the world over rather than the vacuous comments of one talking head on a network not generally known for being particularly fair or balanced. Moreover, I think that we’re right in spending our energies on real human suffering, such as that in Haiti right now, and that, in the grand schemes of things, Pat Robertson deserves far more ire than Mr. Hume.
But I also think that some of the commenters on Marcus’ post are, at least partly, also right. This was something of interest to us here in the States, and it is worth talking about to the extent that, to borrow a phrase, media matters (it is the message, after all). So, while I respect the fact that we should all be doing Other Things right now, I’m going to talk about some of the buried messages in this little event, take it as a teaching moment, a way to shed some light on how the media operates, and what it has to tell us about the state of religion and religious discourse in the good ol’ U.S. of A.
I hate it when I’m right.
Way back in 2005, before anyone thought we’d elect an African American to the highest office in the land, folks were convinced that Hillary Rodham Clinton would the forty-fourth president. And I said then, in a glib, off-hand post, that that was a terrible idea.
The reason I thought Hillary Clinton in 2008 was a terrible idea was not because I have anything against the woman. I’m fairly ambivalent about her as a politician, truth be told. The reason I thought it was a terrible idea was actually because I have a fair amount of respect for her. I knew that whoever got elected in 2008 would be inheriting a political and economic mess of gargantuan proportions. I was short on specifics in that post, but I talked about the economic mess, about two wars, about global crises, and, most importantly, how the spin doctors and talking heads in the media are so wrapped up in the Now that they have no sense of history or causality. Americans in general are so consumed with the present that they blithely ignore how it is that we got into this mess in the first place, and they seem to want to pin all their hopes, all their fears, all their blame on whomever happens to be sitting in the Oval Office regardless of who’s fault this disaster actually is.
Just after the new year, Jerry Kolber contacted me to ask if I wanted to write a guest post over on the One City blog. I have deeply ambivalent feelings about this. I have ambivalent feelings about this because One City has been criticized by people whose opinions I deeply respect. So, part of me feels like a sell out. On the other hand, I have to respect the fact that the editors of that blog are reaching out to a ne’er-do-well such as myself which suggests that they’re willing to entertain alternative viewpoints, an idea I want to support.
I wrestled with the piece that I ended up submitting to Mr. Kolber. And I’m not 100% satisfied with it, truth be told. Part of me wanted to write a massive take-down critique of the whole thing, a snarky, sarcastic “everyone’s wrong but me” sort of post complaining about my usual irks (privilege, diversity, commercialism, the “Buddhism isn’t a religion” crap). But lately I’ve found myself feeling less irritable. Or, more to the point, I find myself tiring of complaining in those terms about issues that I’ve been complaining about for over six years in this space. If my readers really want to know why I think Buddhism is a religion, I’ve covered that territory. And I’m tired of being a critic for the sole purpose of being a critic. There are, at present, other bloggers out there who are better, wittier, and possibly hotter than me. Let them have that lime-light.
So, in the end, while I’m not 100% satisfied, with the piece, I’ve got to keep it in perspective and remember that it’s (a) only a blog piece and (b) does fulfill my primary aim, one that I doubt I’ll grow tired of any time too soon, i.e., reminding everyone that there really is diversity within the broader (American) Buddhist community, that this is a good and necessary thing, an idea that I’ll defend till I’m blue in the face.
But in the interest of space (I got the impression from Mr. Kolber that shorter was better) there was something I ultimately cut out of that piece that I really wanted to leave in. I cut it out because it was only tangentially related, not directly and obviously related, to my main point. And every attempt I made to make it more directly related seemed forced. And I loath (my own) forced writing. What I really wanted to include was the following: I love Oakland.
In preparing for a talk I’m giving at the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin next week, I’m reviewing the classics, the Kyogyoshinsho, the Tannisho, and so on. And I came across the following passage from the latter:
Supposing that followers of other schools ridicule us by saying that the Name is meant for those of low intelligence and that this teaching is shallow and inferior, we should avoid any dispute and reply: “As we are convinced that the ignorant who are poorly gifted and illiterate like ourselves will be delivered by Faith, for us this is the supreme doctrine, even though it may seem contemptible to those of higher ability. Although other teachings may be superior, we cannot practice them because they are beyond our powers. Since the original intention of all the Buddhas is to free everyone from birth-and-death, we request those of other views not to interfere with us.” If we treat them without malice, who then will harm us?