Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Breaking Buddhist Stereotypes

This time, I thought I’d return to a more general topic with multiple areas to consider. There are many stereotypes surrounding Buddhism, mainly because of popular representations being propagated in Western culture. Movies like Little Buddha, Kundun, and Bulletproof Monk, as well as the TV series Kung Fu, give only a selective and idealized portrayal of what Buddhism entails. There are more accurate ideas portrayed of Buddhism, such as in 2012 with Tibetan monks, from what I recall, but most portrayals of Buddhism in media seem to focus on Tibetan Buddhism instead of the other forms. Even Japan is notorious for characterizing all major Buddhist characters with the robes, shaved heads and/or prayer beads in their animation and comics, but that’s at least more rooted in their culture. There are four misconceptions and generalizations that still exist among many non Buddhists even today, so we’ll dive right into them.

Probably one of the more implicit ideas surrounding Buddhism is that it is fundamentally against all forms of violence or force. This is to go beyond merely saying they’re pacifists, which composes a spectrum of beliefs, but that they are nonresistant and would rather die than defend themselves against an attacker. The middle path principle of Buddhism, which I will talk about next week, necessitates that killing is part of a Buddhist’s practice, albeit resignedly instead of willfully as sport or malicious intent.  This dispels a related falsehood that Buddhists are required to be vegetarians. While you can be healthy and be a vegetarian, some people’s digestive systems are unsuited for it, from what I’ve heard. It has something to do with processing certain foods, but I could be wrong. Fundamentally, Buddhism advocates that you should strive to not do harm, but in a sense it is very much unavoidable that we kill animals humanely in order to feed on them as livestock, as well as maintain healthy populations. But it is the humaneness of the killing that makes it less ethically problematic. There is a story about one of Gautama’s past lives where he was a captain of ship and there was a murderer on board who Gautama realized intended to kill everyone. So instead of telling everyone this and causing them to panic and kill the bandit, he mercifully killed the person himself, saving the other people from becoming murderous and stopping the negative karmic fruits the criminal would’ve brought upon themselves. Admittedly, this is an isolated example, but we can find other historical examples of Buddhists justifying war, albeit it isn’t always reasonable, such as with Japan’s nationalism that incorporated Buddhism as well as Shinto, the native belief system. Much like stereotypes of other beliefs in regards to violence and war, there are exceptions and there are mistaken ideas as well. Buddhists can be martial artists and defend themselves against attackers, demonstrated by Shaolin monks in China for an explicit example of resolving the alleged contradiction. That is what I consider myself as well, a martial pacifist; that is, one who seeks to make peace through nonviolent methods, but will utilize force when circumstances demand it in order to calm the situation. It may not always work, but I would rather not do violence to people unless I can find no other option. It requires great discipline and training to not become overtaken by the human desire for power and inflict violence upon others, but that is what I strive for as a Buddhist.

This next one is prominent enough, but connects more to our mistaken idea of what a Buddhist should appear to be, rather than just what a Buddhist believes and being wrong about. Buddhism is commonly represented through figures like Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki (D.T. Suzuki) and Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. They are monks who have taken vows and live a simpler life than many laypeople of Buddhism. But to say that you must be a monk to become enlightened unquestionably doesn’t hold according to Buddhist teaching, since everyone is considered a potential Buddha, a universal affirmation of the possibilities within all of us. There is a school that developed later in Buddhism called Vajrayana which suggests that in order to become enlightened in one lifetime you must become a monk. But beyond that, like other Buddhist schools, you only make progress towards liberation with sincere practice, not simply ascetic discipline, shaving your head and meditating for hours. This is admittedly a simple myth, but is not so easy to get rid of in our mindset, since we don’t have a decidedly secular idea of Buddhism in the same way Christians have propagated laypeople as being just as devout as monks. This would require a movement amongst Buddhists that would advance a similar notion that you can be in the world, but not be attached to it, just as Christians are to be in the world, but not of it. An explanation for why some people become monks is because they feel they are too easily tempted. And the same logic can apply to Christianity. There is a calling, but also a realization that you need more discipline than others. And that’s okay. We all have our own limits and understanding them is a step towards progress.

Another fairly popular myth is propagated through fundamentalist Christian critiques of Buddhism, but regardless of the meme’s prominence, it is untrue. Buddhists have never worshipped Siddhartha Gautama as if he will grant you salvation. The closest you come to this is in Pure Land Buddhism or such where you can say a mantra and your karma will be wiped clean, or so I recall. The statues of Buddha do not constitute idol worship anymore than a bust of Beethoven on your piano means you think he is deserving of piano devotionals. I’m being a bit crass, but it still stands to reason: a mere representation of something in a place does not mean one regards that as something sacred. There is a story I recall from somewhere, though I cannot seem to source it well. It goes like this: a Catholic missionary is in China and enters a Buddhist temple. He sees the monks prostrated before a Buddha statue and accuses the elder of idolatry. His observation about the monks bowing to the image seems to make sense at first. But the head monk walks up to the statue and throws it onto the ground, smashing it into pieces. The other monks continue on as normal. The story may be completely made up in terms of historical occurrence, but it establishes an idea you see enough in Zen; the trappings of piety in Buddhism are simply superficial and mean nothing in terms of whether you are really practicing the beliefs. At the most, the statue serves as a memory of a beloved mentor and teacher, in a way similar to large portraits in peoples’ homes of loved ones and relatives. It serves to make one remember all the good the person did in their life and with that memory, one seeks to emulate that person in their own lives as well. That is what monks would no doubt explain to you in their having a depiction of Gautama in their temple. Christians don’t worship the cross, they worship what died on it and the symbol the item represents to them. Likewise, Buddhists don’t worship the founder of their religion, but hold him in high regard as an exemplar of what they should strive to be like.

An image many of us encounter at some point or another in an Asian restaurant is that of an obese monk, jovial as they come. It’s also an easy leap to say that this is a depiction of the historical Buddha Gautama. The legend goes that he ate to excess and then starved himself to skin and bones in his quest for enlightenment, but I don’t think that’s quite how it goes, albeit the difference between history and folklore of Gautama’s life is very fine. The monk is indeed a Buddhist figure, though it’s also used in Chinese folk religion and Daoism. He goes by a few names, including Hotei in Japan, one of the Seven Lucky Gods, and Budai in China, called the Laughing Buddha. His connection to Buddhism is fair, since he is Buddhist in the sense of practice. A Chan monk, the Chinese equivalent of Zen, he was quite eccentric, but always very happy and joyful at life, entertaining children most often in his depictions. The notion of rubbing his belly for good luck is more folkloric in nature, most likely and the confusion of him with Gautama is mostly due to ignorance of cultural depictions in India, China and Japan, where he is tall and slender, whereas Hotei is always short and chubby. It’s not like you can’t draw Buddhist lessons from him, but to say he is the historical Buddha likely irks many Asians who have to deal with that mistake to correct, similar to myself as a person who appreciates Buddhist culture and philosophy. It will take more education through various mediums to distinguish the truth from the falsehood of this mistaken cultural gap.

On the one hand, there are many overly positive stereotypes of Buddhism on the one hand, such as it being completely passive and nonresistant, vegetarian and has an amiable, but heavyset founder. But the more troubling misconceptions of Buddhism are based in not understanding what Buddhist practice actually is: neither monasticism as the only path to enlightenment nor idol worship of the founder is part of the philosophy in the slightest. There are other stereotypes I could get into, such as the oft spoken idea that Buddhism is pessimistic and nihilistic, but that would require a whole other article to speak on. It is only through proper education and understanding of people’s initial paradigms that will advance a better perception and cognizance of what Buddhists are, what Buddhism is and what Buddhism is not. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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