Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Einstein And The Buddha

The other day someone passed me a book called Einstein and the Buddha – Parallel Sayings by Thomas J. Farlane. ‘Now that might be an interesting read’ I thought to myself. If ever you need to be reminded of the truth of that old saying ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’ read this little publication. Out of 125 quotations only 18 are attributed to the Buddha and of these only one is from the Dhammapada while all the rest are from Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible. Now you probably know that Goddard’s book would have to be the most unreliable rendering of Mahayana sutras ever published. Where there was something which didn’t fit into what Goddard thought the Buddha should have taught he just changed it accordingly. Even poor old Einstein hardly gets a hearing in Farlane's book; there are only 25 quotes from him. The rest are from Taoist text, Vedantic scriptures, Sri Aurobindo and some people I have never heard of; Godjin M. Nagao, Jagadish Chandra Chatterji, Cheng Chien, etc. As is often the case, Farlane uses ‘Buddha’ as a general catch-phrase for any vague, feel-good or ‘deep’ spirituality.
One quotation by David Bohn says, ‘Matter is like a small ripple on this tremendous ocean of energy, having some relative stability and being manifest…And in fact beyond that ocean may be still a bigger ocean…the ultimate source is immeasurable and cannot be captured within out knowledge’. The supposed ‘parallel’ saying by the Buddha is, ‘Universal Mind is like a great ocean, its surface is ruffled by waves and surges but its depths remain forever unmoved’. Now I’m just a simple monk and I’ve probably got it completely wrong, but it seems to me that the first quote is talking about matter while the second is talking about the mind. The first is positing unknowability while the second is asserting immovability. In fact, the only thing these quotes seem to have in common is the simile of the ocean. Many of the other ‘parallel’ sayings in this book are just as tenuous.
Einstein and the Buddha is, sad to say, a good example of the sort of thing I discussed on by post of 21, 4, 2008. The Buddha continues to get co-opted by those who wish to use him to support whatever they happen to believe in. The mechanism of this co-opting goes something like this. Where there is no authentic saying to support my beliefs I simply create one and where there is one that contradicts what I believe I either ignore it or claim that it was ‘put in later by the monks’. And whala! The Buddha is anything I want him to be – a strict vegan, a Rastafarian, an advocate of the healing power of crystals, a socialist, a free-marketer, an Aquarian Christian and an Inuit walrus worshipper who taught exactly what Teilhard de Chardin did and who came from outer space to exhort humanity to live in harmony. Of course poor old Jesus is subjected to this kind of treatment too but the wide availability of and knowledge about the Bible limits this to some extent. This is not the case with the Buddha. Authentic and complete translations of the Buddha’s words have only lately become available and even now are not widely read.
In the introduction to his humorous, readable and well-informed book The Gods Drink Whiskey Stephen Asma says, ‘It is my mission in life to take the ‘California’ out of Buddhism. Maybe that’s because I’m a Chicagoan – the son of a steelworker. Chicago Buddhism, if there is such a thing, is bound to be gritty, straightforward and down to earth. My blunt style may occasionally jar the sensibilities of more delicate, cheerful, colonic types. But rest assured, it is not certainty but only geographic temperament that gives timbre to my voice…Often the stuff that passes for ‘Eastern’ in the West would be unrecognizable in the East. The reason why so many Westerners become hopelessly muddled about Eastern ideas is that they have little interest in them per se. Many Western searches want the East on their terms. For Americans, Buddhist, Tantric or Taoist ideas have become like herbal remedies that one picks up at the local high-priced organic boutique-grocer…Consequently, Eastern ideas in the West float about like little self-esteem life-preservers – clung to desperately by disintegrating personalities. American Buddhists frequently go no further than, ‘This is what Buddhism means to me’, never seeing the narcissism in this approach and never bothering to understand Buddhism in its own terms’.
This is not my mission in life but I’m glad it is someone’s. Keep trucking Stephen! The tragedy of ‘California Buddhism’ is not that it is just shallow and inauthentic but that the Dhamma’s many unique insights can never challenge our assumptions, stimulate us to reassess what we already believe or get us to consider other possibilities. In short, it never help us to grow.


Terasi said...

"Often the stuff that passes for ‘Eastern’ in the West would be unrecognizable in the East." - two sides of a coin. All those food court Asian food that are Westernised, yuck! On the other hand, I am an Asian whose introduction to Buddhism is through Internet Western teachers and monastic. I am lucky to have the introduction Western-styled, with interest on rationality and pragmatism, and with respect to people's intelligence. Had it been introduced as rituals and superstitions, transmitted paternalistic-style, then I may not be reading this blog now. Oh wait.. Bhante also has another post about Rinpoche something on 26 October - why is the approach very similar to the impression I often have of Buddhism in Asia?

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