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.

The Narcissism of Heaven: A Review of Smith’s Heaven in the American Imagination

Heaven in the American ImaginationGary Scott Smith in his book, Heaven in the American Imagination (Oxford, 2011) has written a detailed, in-depth, and far-reaching study of the history of Heaven in American thought. Beginning with the Puritans, Smith highlights in each chapter a different era (Victorian, Pre-war, Civil War, etc.), documents that era’s historical distinctives (wars, death rates, major events), spotlights its notable theologians (ranging from Jonathan Edwards, to D.L. Moody, to Billy Graham, to Mitch Albom), and then discusses how the people of that era, given their history and influences, formulated the doctrine of Heaven. In this way, Smith seeks, through alternating survey and analysis, to document the changing perception of the afterlife that has followed the progression of the American experiment. On the whole, Smith’s book contained many historical gems as well as some interesting theological observations. Unfortunately, these insights were often rendered opaque by Smith’s oversaturation of data. The result was a book with good information—if you have the patience to mine it out, that is.

Historical study, then, is perhaps the best term to describe what Scott has done, and while Smith’s history is often interesting, this is also a weakness of the book. For example, Smith’s chapter-by-chapter structure is fairly rigid. Each chapter has a survey of history, a survey of theologians, a section discussing perceptions of afterlife, one on perceptions of hell, and a conclusion. When Smith discusses the work of theologians in the given time period, he fills his paragraphs with quotations—often of only one or two words at a time—to such a degree that one finds the theologians blurring together. Quotes, in other words, were not used either economically or very efficiently. The net result of Smith’s structuring and quote-density is that Heaven in the American Imagination is often tedious to read.

Still, within the tedium there are real gems. Many of these are from the descriptions of the various time periods he examines. For instance, we learn that the perception of Heaven during the Civil War was uniquely framed by the tragic loss of life: Heaven was the place where you were reunited with those loved ones. Another fascinating section documented the conceptions of Heaven as formulated by America’s black slaves—whether it be as a place of peace from their labor, or for justice from their masters. Or, to learn that Harriet Beecher Stowe was partly responsible for the myth that deceased children become guardian angels when they die. These kinds of historical connections (and developments) were some of the most compelling parts of the book.

As I have intimated, however, the forest of ideas is sometimes lost for the trees of historical detail, and to get at the real analysis of the book takes a little ingenuity. So, according to my analysis of Smith’s book, I believe there are four things (generally) to observe about the history of Heaven in American thought.

#1. There is always an orthodox line. Throughout the history of Christianity in America, there has always been a consistent strain of Christian orthodoxy which upholds the traditional understanding of the afterlife: that it is attained by faith in Christ alone, that there is a real Heaven and a real Hell, that choices in this life determine one’s ultimate destiny. Furthermore, along with this strain there is a consistent voice which reminds us that Heaven is about God more than it is about us (the object of Heaven is relationship to and union with the Trinity). This orthodox line is a refreshing reminder that truth, though it sometimes seems dormant, continues to thrive.

#2. Alongside the orthodox line there is always a popular perception of Heaven. This popular perception was present even in the earliest founders of America, whose Deist beliefs led them to think that doing good and being a good person would warrant acceptance into Heaven. In one form or another, this perception of Heaven has also always been present in American thought. Thus, disconnected from Christian orthodoxy, Americans felt liberated to populate and shape the afterlife after their own desires. Rather than being about a God they may or may not believe in, Heaven became more and more about us.

#3. Between the orthodox and the popular line, a host of ‘theologians’ have attempted to bridge the gap by accommodating Christian theology to popular tastes. Hell is softened, Heaven is reinforced by theologically whitewashing the desires of the masses, and the entry requirements are reduced (good behavior is enough for some, others think everybody gets saved, and so on). Fuzzy theological books about visits to heaven are some of the best examples of this accommodation—especially because they emphasize all the pleasure and peace of Heaven, while reducing the need for obligations in the present. In short, these popular accounts of ‘Heaven’ are most often wonderful opiates against real action or reflection.

#4. There are four historical features of Heaven, and one modern one. The oldest and most orthodox perception is that Heaven is a place of divine contemplation. We are exposed to the Trinity, and worship and enjoy the Godhead forever. The nature of this enjoyment, while described in various ways (harps, singing, worship, contemplation, etc.) is never truly described, but, when in doubt, Christians have retreated to superlatives (‘unending,’ ‘wondrous,’ ‘incomprehensible,’ etc.). The Puritan foundation of American theology helped to cement this perception of Heaven, but as the Puritan influence faded, Americans began to import into Heaven desires that were framed by their times. For some, heavenly rewards were the focus of Heaven (those who suffered, lost children, were slaves, feared survival). For others, heavenly reunion was the key (especially during wartime, but also when infant mortality was high). For still others, Heaven was the place where we fulfill our talents and abilities (perfect knowledge for the Puritans, but work for later believers, and singing, dancing, skill-usage, and thrill-seeking for 20th century Americans). Finally, and most recently, heaven has been conceived as a place of therapeutic healing, where our anxieties regarding self-identity are resolved in the peace of inner harmony.

The Hell of Self-Obsession...

The Hell of Self-Obsession…

So, what does all this mean? My own assessment is this: that the more narcissistic we have become as a culture, the more we have lost out on the reality of Heaven. Focusing on ourselves, we have cheapened Heaven with our cut-rate desires. This must necessarily be the case, because Heaven and narcissism exist in an inverse relationship, and we must continually ask, “Is Heaven about God, or is Heaven about me?” If the focus on Heaven is about what I get, and what I experience, then I’m on the wrong track. If the focus is on what God is doing (and by proxy on experiencing Him), then I am on the right track. And the line that is drawn between the two is the line called narcissism. Seen this way, the history of American theology appears to be the history of increasing, and increasingly blessed and accommodated, narcissism. Heaven goes from being God’s gift, to the reward we are owed for good lives. Hell shifts from being a place of revealed, final judgment, to being an inconvenient theological pariah. Heaven shifts from being the place where we encounter God, to the place where we get rewards, meet people we want to see, and exercise our skills and talents. Are these features inherently untrue? By no means—but they cannot be the focus of Heaven, and if they are, then they are idols. And the fullness of our narcissistic fruit may be bearing a crop even now—Heaven is the place of ultimate self-fulfillment and healing, where it is entirely about us, and only marginally (if at all) about God. Hell, the very thing that judges our narcissism, is then fully eclipsed. We are left, then, with a Heaven that is for us, about us, and leaves nothing to trouble us at all. It is a place that reminds me of something George MacDonald once said, “The one principle of Hell is: I am my own.” Hell, indeed, is narcissism extended to eternity. Heaven, by contrast, is the opposite: it is about someone and something else; it is eternal self-sacrifice and eternal renewal in relationship with the Triune God.

All in all, Smith’s book was an interesting and informative read, although it was bogged down by its organization and oversaturation with detail. Nevertheless, I came away with a renewed appreciation of the Puritans, of Jonathan Edwards (who I now suspect really is America’s greatest-ever theologian!) and some fascinating details about the Civil War period in American History. I also developed some interesting perceptions about American thought—chief among them was this: that while Americans are saturated with desires, they are also starving for significance. As a consequence of their hunger, they have consistently projected their confusion into the afterlife for over 200 years. What, then, is Heaven in the American imagination? For some (the orthodox, a small group) is the presence of God. For others (most everyone else), it is the projection into eternity of the fulfillment of our temporary desires. And that is a discouraging revelation indeed.

Heaven in the American Imagination: 4.5 stars for content, but only 2 for readability and organization. Final judgment: 3.5.