Why Buddhism?

Many people I know like to define themselves as Buddhists. Apparently, is has become the most chic religion in the west, partly because it is not a religion in the monotheistic sense. As a moniker, it seems highly compatible with a personal quest for spirituality and tolerance for others. “I’m a Buddhist” is shorthand for “Your thing is cool with me, as long as my thing is cool with you.” Somehow, Buddhism is challenging secular humanism as the choice ideology of the non-religious.

Despite the much-heralded rise in traditional religious belief, our monotheisms are going through a tough phase. For one thing, they can no longer accomodate the worship of nonviolence. Read the Bible, read the Koran. Read the Iliad, for that matter. Humanity has, until fairly recently, always flaunted and celebrated its ability to shed blood. It meant power, wealth and posterity. And–for the record–it appears that animals do it, too.

But are we seeing Buddhism as it is, or as we wish it was? Robert D. Kaplan has a recent piece in The Atlantic about his travels in post-bellum Sri Lanka, which sheds some light on our conceptions:

Buddhism holds an exalted place in the half-informed Western mind. Whereas Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism are each associated, in addition to their thought, with a rich material culture and a defended territory, Buddhism, despite its great monuments and architectural tradition throughout the Far East, is somehow considered purer, more abstract, and almost dematerialized: the most peaceful, austere, and uncorrupted of faiths, even as it appeals to the deeply aesthetic among us. Hollywood stars seeking to find themselves—famously Richard Gere—become Buddhists, not, say, orthodox Jews.

Well, they may not be deciding on orthodox Judaism, but many of them are drawn to things like Kabbalah for its promise of “spirituality.” The less daring go for a new-agey romp in Oprahland with The Secret. Barbara Ehrenreich has a new book out called Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, and I look forward to thumbing through it. 

Are we just looking for a bright-side which doesn’t exist outside of our own minds? Think Susan Boyle. Don’t think. Think again.

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