In case you’ve been living on Mars, in a cave, with your fingers in your ears, here’s some stuff that might get your blood boiling.
“Although the hyperreal operates as its own type of reality, this does not mean that its provenance is divorced from the material conditions in which we live. The fact that the images that the media project can be readily identified as “representations,” rather than the truth of the matter, works to further mask the political, social, and cultural interests involved. At the same time, these images have the force of reality and serve as a conduit of meaning. No doubt, viewers can recognize the Arab terrorists in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film True Lies (1994) as fictional characters (“It’s just a movie!”), but these images undoubtedly reinforce, if not substantively inform, American viewers’ notions of Islam and the U.S.-Middle East conflict.”
Bodhisattva, Superstar is an interesting movie. A self-described “allegorical documentary,” it’s got all of the talking heads one would expect, but it also has the documentarian himself, Michael Trigilio, right in there along with a few scripted characters who find themselves at various places along the path, struggling with what it means to be a Buddhist in America. America is a place and a time where Buddhist ideas, terminology, images — indeed Buddhists themselves — can be co-opted in any number of ways that often make the purists (for lack of a better word) among us cringe.
There’s a lot in this film. At 83 minutes, it’s practically a feature-length movie, so I don’t think that it would be right of me to try and sum up all of my thoughts on it in a blog post of all places. I find myself at a place in my life where I’d very much like to get off the information superhighway and resist its demand that we always comment on everything and anything that happens, immediately offering up our opinions and criticisms and acting as if those opinions and criticisms aren’t what they truly are — knee-jerk reactions to information overload; no, I’d rather hop off the twenty-four-hour comment-athon from time to time, thank you, and allow for things to sink in, give myself permission and time to reflect on things before coming up with My Definitive Word on the Subject. But, clearly, that’s a different rant for a different day.
“Our habit of treating institutions as second-order elements that “mean” less than such first-order categories as doctrine and belief is not purely a Eurocentric imposition, but has been encouraged in part by the discursive frameworks that East Asian Buddhists have formulated to inspire religious effort. An example is the Buddhist notion of the Two Truths. This conception pits the ultimate truth of buddha nature, which is what the Buddhist must grasp to attain salvation, against the conventional truth that institutions represents (Faure 1991, 18). The Chan religious imagination chose to distinguish the phenomenal realm, where the senses give rise to the illusion of permanence, from the realm of the impermanent and absolute, bracketing the one with the other. Being of the former, institutions are vulnerable to the charge of contributing to the illusion of permanence rather than working to dispel it. Institutions are left to “mean” less than they “are.” And yet, institutions the customs, usages, practices, and organizations that shape the lives of Buddhists are what provide and perpetuate the very possibility of the Buddhist life, furnishing the rituals, gestures, stories, and training through which people have access to an understanding of the Buddha.”
If there’s one thing (modern western American whatever) Buddhists love is to make the claim that not only is Buddhism freakin’ awesome but we’ve got the science to prove it. Here, let us show you these monks with electrodes taped to their heads; let’s conveniently ignore two millennia of ghost stories and karma theory because we’re uncomfortable with stuff that isn’t readily explained by science; and, here, check this out chanting the divine syllable makes you a better person, and we’ve got the science to prove it!
Over the weekend, thanks to the miracle that is the Internets, I found out that I was quoted in the Winnipeg Free Press in an article about a newly opened Buddha Bar in that fair city. Funny, I thought to myself, I don’t recall having been interviewed by anyone from the Winnipeg Free Press, or ever having traveled to Winnipeg, let alone to any Buddha Bar. But, there I am. Waxing philosophically about the evils of capitalism and everything that’s wrong with a drinking hole named after the founder of my religion.
I was in a board meeting yesterday for a committee at the GTU (to protect the innocent, I’ll leave out the name of said committee) during which one of the members mentioned something about contextual theology. Now, the GTU is by design an interdisciplinary and multi-faith institution, which means that folks routinely drop discipline-specific terms in ways that folks from their same discipline understand while leaving others, like me, sort of scratching our heads. Not that I’m bothered by that; each of us uses language in this contextually specific way. Were I to say “Critical Buddhism” at a meeting of the International Association Buddhist Studies, I’m sure the folks the room would immediately get the reference while, sitting here, decontextualized in this paragraph, it may not be immediately clear to others.
But what this person said about contextual theology struck me, so I thought I’d do some quick digging. Unfortunately, there’s no Wikipedia page about it (which may mean that it doesn’t really exist), and the few articles that did pop up in my one-and-only Google search were pretty specific to a Christian theological context and, as a result, were either over my head or not interesting enough for me to really want to spend the afternoon doing any further research. If I’m going to spend an afternoon doing further research, chances are it’s gonna have the word “Buddhism” in it!
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.