What Makes You Not a Buddhist (A Review)

What Makes You Not a BuddhistEver on the lookout for interesting books, some years ago my eyes fell upon the compellingly titled, What Makes You Not a Buddhist (Shambhala: Boston, 2008). Written by one Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, I was drawn by the appeal of learning more about Buddhism in general, sparked to interest by the title, and spurred on by some positive Amazon reviews. I picked up the book then, have finally read it now, and am pleased to inform you that, indeed, I remain not a Buddhist.

Khyentse’s purpose is to present Buddhism simply and approachably, communicating its basic premises and foundational stories in ways that are understandable to the Western world in particular. Toward this end, he spends a chapter on each of the four basic “truths” of Buddhism, which he states in the introduction as follows: “In order to be a Buddhist, you must accept that all compounded phenomena are impermanent, all emotions are pain, all things have no inherent existence, and enlightenment is beyond concepts” (5). Being a Buddhist is a matter of apprehending the inherent truth of these four ideas—that because all things are made up of other things they can break down and are “impermanent.” When we recognize this impermanence, we simultaneously realize that emotions which depend on impermanent things are what cause us pain and suffering. In turn, we acknowledge that all perceived things are illusory, and our final step is to emerge from all our concepts of good, bad, happiness, and unhappiness, into nirvana—a bliss that is the consequence of transcending the illusion of the world.

I am not in a position to judge the quality of Khyentse’s presentation. Not only am I a novice in matters pertaining to Buddhism, I am also aware that Buddhism is a vast phenomena, open to a wide variety of interpretations and expressions, of which this book is merely one. I would no more want to judge this expression of Buddhism as definitive than I would want someone to judge all of Christianity based on a single book by C.S. Lewis, however good it might be. I can, of course, evaluate the objective quality of his thoughts and the presentation of ideas overall. And I think I know enough to tell you why I am most decidedly not a Buddhist. In the end, while it would be unjust to make sweeping statements about Buddhism overall, I nevertheless think I am in a position to ask some deeper questions about the nature of the Buddhist claims.

On the merits of the book’s objective quality—language, organization, presentation—I would give it an average rating. Khyentse is prone to wandering sentences and non-sequitur thoughts, possibly the product of his desire to be “approachable.” In a passage illustrating his thoughts on the third principle, that all things have no inherent existence, we see an example of this:

As in the Miss Universe contest, everything that we do or think in this world is based on a very limited system of shared logic. We put so much emphasis on consensus. If the majority agrees that something is true, then it usually becomes valid. When we look at a small pond, we humans just see a pond; but to the fish in the pond this is their universe. If we take a democratic stance, then the aquatic dwellers should win because there are many more of them than there are of us pond gazers. Majority rule doesn’t always work. Terrible blockbuster films can gross huge profits, while a fascinating independent film is seen by only a handful of people. And because of our reliance on group thinking, the world is often ruled by the most shortsighted and corrupt rulers; democracy appeals to the lowest common denominator. (70-71)

I am able to comprehend his overall point that our attachments to beauty, politics, and “fitting in” are illusory—in fact, I largely agree with him. But the means by which he goes about it darts so strangely from idea to idea that I am left a little dizzy. In the above paragraph, is he making a point about beauty, as the first sentence might hint? Or is it a point about fitting in, as the second sentence suggests? It is a point about the flexibility of morality, as the third sentence implies? Or is it a comment on perception and reality, as the story of the pond and the fish seems to do? Or is it, in the end, a subtle critique of the efficacy of democratic government, as the paragraph concludes? Regrettably, these kinds of meandering paragraphs are more often the rule than the exception; illustrations are evocative, but fail to serve the overall purpose effectively. Overall, this makes Khyentse’s book a bit difficult to read at times—not because the content is rich so much as it is unclear.

Pond Reflection

The clear image is easily shattered…

While the book’s presentation of ideas has succeeded in giving me an overall approximation of Buddhism’s four noble truths, most of the work was done by the chapter headings. Knowing what each chapter was about, I was able to decipher the chapter’s prose relative to its declared subject. Apart from this, the chapters wander (rather like the paragraph in focus above) and it is difficult to follow at times. However, this may be a product of the nature of Buddhism itself—after all, how do you speak with certainty about concepts such as the uncertainty of all things? How do you evoke emotions with rhetoric when emotions are inimical to the stated goal of nirvana? These seem to me to be inherent problems with the presentation of Buddhism in any form, and may not be specific to Khyentse’s book, although I feel somewhat certain that clearer thinking on his part would have made his book much more readable.

So, why am I not a Buddhist? First, because I affirm that at least one compounded thing is permanent—that is, the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ. In Christ, matter—material, impermanent being—has been united with divine, permanent being. The resurrected Christ is an image of permanent materiality. In Him I confess the logos of God. Second, I am not a Buddhist because I reject the claim that all emotions are pain, or, at least, I reject the claim that all pain and suffering is evil. Buddhism to me seems predicated on a question of suffering—what are we to do about suffering? The answer is to redefine the self, engaging in a form of realization whereby the material world is recognized as impermanent and my attachments to that world (through emotion) are seen as illusory. Thus, suffering is eliminated as I recognize that nothing in fact exists to cause me suffering. But the heart of the Christian witness is that God chose to suffer in the flesh, not so that we could cease to be flesh, but so that flesh could be glorified by life with God. The suffering—and even the humiliating death—of God is central to Christianity. Emotion, pain, suffering—these ideas are not denied in Christianity but redirected. My goal is not to have no emotions, no attachments, but to have glorified emotions and proper attachments. The problem is not that I am a being that attaches myself to things, it is that I am a being who is prone to attaching itself to the wrong kinds of things. To pin a word to it, there is pathos at the heart of the human creature.

Third, I am not a Buddhist because I reject the claim that all phenomena are illusory and empty. As a Christian I confess that God created the heavens and the earth—that both material and immaterial reality possess existence because of God’s creative work. I confess that the material world has existence—birds, trees, my lunch, this book, my neighbor. I believe that each of these is real. Furthermore, I confess that the spiritual world has existence—unseen concepts like morality, justice, law, faith, and heaven. As a Christian I am convinced that the most important relationship in the world is the relationship between heaven and earth, that is, between unchanging eternity and changing temporality, and the consequent decisions we make relative to those realities in time. I confess, in a word, the existence of the aion. Finally, I am not a Buddhist because I do not believe that enlightenment is beyond concepts. Quite the opposite, I believe that what Christians might term “enlightenment” approximates to the whole business of the Kingdom of God—the intersecting point where heaven’s reality impacts the earth’s in time, space, and power. In short, I believe that “enlightenment” (or salvation, if you will) is not a matter of transcending suffering, but of embracing it. Furthermore, I am convinced that Christian enlightenment is not a matter of transcending concepts, but of embracing those concepts revealed to us by God. Happiness, or contentment, is not found in escape from suffering, but in living in accordance with the God who made the universe for His own good purposes. In fact, happiness of the Christian may very well mean willed, purposeful suffering. Thus, I am not a Buddhist because I confess the logos, pathos, the aion, and the Kingdom of God (in Greek, the basilea).

heavens-glory

Light, traditionally, has illustrated the intersection between heaven and earth.

I think Buddhism, so presented, opens itself up to a few serious questions which are worth noting here. To get at them, consider the following selection, taken from the conclusion of Khyentse’s book:

The Buddhist practice of nonviolence is not merely submissiveness with a smile or meek thoughtfulness. The fundamental cause of violence is when one is fixated on an extreme idea, such as justice or morality. This fixation usually stems from a habit of buying into dualistic views, such as bad and good, ugly and beautiful, moral and immoral. One’s inflexible self-righteousness takes up all the space that would allow empathy for others. Sanity is lost. Understanding that all these views or values are compounded and impermanent, as is the person who holds them, violence is averted. When you have no ego, no clinging to the self, there is never a reason to be violent. (113)

I should note that in some ways these sentences crystallize how I feel about the book as a whole—that as I read an experience a measure of agreement mixed with disagreement. For example, I agree wholeheartedly with the assertion that self-righteousness crowds out empathy. In line with this, I might note that the study which is generated by a Buddhist mindset has done much to diagnose the human emotional condition, and I think this has great merit. I can see, for example, how a therapeutic processes such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has benefitted from the attentiveness, mindfulness, and thought-tracking that is asked of the adherent to Buddhism. Nevertheless this agreement is mixed with disagreement. First of all, observe that while Khyentse claims that Buddhism’s goal is to escape the dualisms of good, bad, ugly, beautiful, moral, and immoral, the whole concept remains predicated on the idea that Buddhism’s approach is superior to the alternative. In other words, while attempting to spurn dualisms, Buddhism remains entrenched in one—it claims that its ideas are true, that they accurately reflect reality. This might be the single most significant question I can raise about Buddhism—how can a system that denies the existence of concepts express itself as a concept superior to others? If, more to the point, all compounded things are impermanent, then even a presentation of Buddhism in written form qualifies as a compounded thing, and therefore subject to the law of impermanence. What reason do I have to privilege the Buddhist conception of reality over any other one, especially if the initial premise is that I should distrust all things as impermanent? In other words, Buddhism appears to make an exception to its own concepts relative to human thought. Nothing is real, nothing is permanent, but apparently my thoughts—and particularly Buddhist thoughts—are real and permanent. But why should I make this distinction, rejecting all the other experiences which I have in life? I do not see a ready solution to this dilemma. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, Buddhism appears to be predicated on a belief about suffering. Gautama Buddha witnessed the suffering of people and pursued enlightenment as a solution to the problem of suffering. But again, if nirvana is beyond concepts of good and bad, happiness and unhappiness, then on what grounds can I claim that suffering is “bad” or somehow “less good” than any other condition? To deny the existence of a moral universe implies that we cannot make any claims to any condition being better or worse than any other. It simply is what it is, and we are what we are, and there is no reason to change, because comfort and discomfort alike are illusory.

In the end, What Makes You Not a Buddhist, was an informative although not terribly enjoyable read. Although Khyentse’s prose was a little labored, I’m still grateful to learn more about Buddhism and to employ that knowledge as an opportunity to reflect more on my own Christian faith, giving further definition to what I believe is the compelling witness of Christ.

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