I was reading an opinion piece in the New York Times about the perils of positive thinking, or even the power of negative thinking, when I stumbled upon this part:
Buddhist meditation, too, is arguably all about learning to resist the urge to think positively — to let emotions and sensations arise and pass, regardless of their content.
That’s an unusual description I don’t agree with. Meditation practices come in many forms and focus on just about any kind of mental activity, whether it’s the breath, one’s feelings and emotions, or the center of a lit candle. Even the objective of meditation can differ, from getting less affected by the stream of thoughts (which seems to be what the author has in mind) to cultivating compassion, the latter of which does seem to be a kind of positive thinking.
But the main thrust of this post is common perceptions of buddhism in the West, especially the meme that “Buddhism is not a religion.” Famous anti-religious spokesman Richard Dawkins says in passing in “The God Delusion” (p. 59):
“(…) I shall not be concerned at all with other religions such as Buddhism or Confucianism. Indeed, there is something to be said for treating these not as religion at all but as a ethical systems or philosophies or life.”
Dawkins’ quote is open-ended enough for him not to be caught in the act of explicitly saying Buddhism is not a religion, and I would emphatically agree that Confucianism is not religion. However, that there is something to be said for this argument shows that the idea that Buddhism is not a religion holds sway in the West. In countries with a significant belief in Buddhism, though, it’s hard to see how it would not be a religion, with its temples, offerings, metaphysical teachings of reincarnation and karma, among others. (*)
Another curious part of how Buddhism is often understood in contemporary Western culture is that, apart from being a system of pure wisdom, it’s also thought to be a completely peaceful religion. Any religion, however, can be used for both peaceful and bellicose reasons, and one need look no further than Sri Lanka for an example of nationalism and Buddhism mixed up. Naturally, this can happen with any religion. Christianity can be credited with both supporting and opposing slavery, depending on which historical period, sect or proponent we are talking about. The peaceful faith of Aung San Suu Kyi is poles apart from the Zen buddhists who supported the Japanese war effort in WWII. No matter what, Buddhism is capable of supporting the whole spectrum of human behavior, just as Christianity and Islam is.
I personally find the day-to-day religious practice of Buddhism, and the way it has influenced local culture, more interesting than the abstract and wise version described in popular media. Back in 2006, for example, I visited the restive area of Aba (Ngawa in Tibetan) in Sichuan, where lamaism is very common and practiced by Tibetans and quite a few Han. One thing I’ll never forget is the sight of the meditating monk by the roadside. As our caravan of jeeps drove past, he sat there in his wine-red robe, seemingly oblivious to the noise of the traffic. We must have broken his concentration, though, since five minutes later he overtook us on a motorbike.
On another note, I think the reason the whole question of religion has become so important is because it historically played a different role in the West than in many other places. Quite a few Asian countries have historically had coexisting “teachings” but hardly anything like a state religion. Even Japan’s shintoism has existed alongside Buddhism. The whole idea behind the claim that Buddhism is not a religion seems to be that its proponents does not want it to be associated with religious persecution, superstition and dogma as was common in historical Europe. It’s hardly true, though, unless we accept a very narrow definition of religion.
* Whether Buddhist teachings accept karma and reincarnation in the popularly understood way is a question of debate, but it seems to me that the layman understanding of it even in countries where Buddhism is prevalent is of souls migrating to new bodies.