Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My Visit to Won Buddhism of Manhattan

Rev. Doyeon Park, center
I've always been interested in Buddhism, going back to at least the time I was nine years old. That's when I first saw the television series Kung Fu starring David Carradine, arguably the first show on American television to be centered on a Buddhist main character. Carradine played Kwai Chang Caine, a Shoalin Priest and a kick-ass kung fu fighter who only used violence sparingly and as a last resort. As a kid I didn't get the racism of casting a white actor as a Chinese character (though to be fair, Carradine's character was only half white, he had a Chinese mother.) I was more disappointed when I learned that Carradine was a dancer, and that most of the martial arts on the series was made up. (The series was originally suggested by and was to star Bruce Lee, but the networks wouldn't invest in a Chinese star with limited English. What a shame.)

Any way, Buddhism stuck with me, mostly as it pertained to Chinese Kung Fu films, Japanese Chambara films, comics, and my own study of Kung Fu from the age of 21 to 27 (when my daughter was born and I was suddenly too busy to practice.) About three years ago several things brought Buddhism back to me. I heard an interview with Buddhist author Stephen Batchelor, and read his Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist. That got me thinking about the practice of meditation and some of the rituals of Buddhism without having to believe in anything like reincarnation or the annihilation of self.

Coincidentally, my wife's church, the First Unitarian Church of Providence, hired James Ford to be their minister. James brought a strong Zen background to his ministry in Providence, co-founding the Benevolent Street Zen Sangha, "the ninth sitting group of the Boundless Way Zen project, an emerging Western Zen community with lineage roots in the Japanese Soto and the Korean Linji traditions." The style is described as "broadly Soto with elements of the Japanese Rinzai and the Korean Chogye." (emphasis mine) Here, for a short time, I experimented with Zen meditation, until my interests in applied Humanism took center stage and left me little time for religious experimentation.

I should point out here that I consider James to be a good friend to myself and my family, and he was immediately available and helpful when an interfaith religious response became necessary in the wake of the death and rape threats my niece experienced during the Cranston prayer banner case. James writes a Zen Buddhist blog on Patheos called Monkey Mind, which is worth some attention.

My experience with Zen meditation is difficult to put into words, because for me meditation was always a lot of work. I never took to it the way others seem to, or at least I have no way of knowing if my experience of meditation is similar to others. There is a value to sitting still and relaxing/concentrating/stilling one's mind, but doing so for hours at a time seemed like overkill to me. For me, short bursts (like five or ten minutes) of meditation work wonders in terms of relaxation but long periods add nothing more to the experience. Of course, there may be realms of understanding and experience I have yet to tap into through long sessions of meditation, but these experiences, if they exist, have been unavailable to me so far.

There are other aspects of the Zen experience I found troubling. Despite the fact that Zen, the way the Benevolent Street Sangha practices it, is mostly stripped of mythology, there is a fair amount of mythology retained primarily as metaphor and coloring. I should say at this point that I have never related to some of the central ideas of Buddhism, especially the idea that life is suffering and that we should want to escape it. I love life and I want to live forever.

Finally, there is an aspect to Buddhism that I find selfish. Indeed, the story of the Buddha is centered on a supremely selfish act, the abandonment of a wife and child to seek out personal religious fulfillment. In prioritizing my own enlightenment, I am ignoring the needs of everyone else in the world. When I hear about all day meditation opportunities, retreats that last for hours or even a week, all I can think is: Instead of dedicating my Saturday to meditation and personal spiritual growth, I could spend that day working with Habitat for Humanity, get just as much spiritual growth, and help people in the bargain.

I should note that the people I meditated with at the Benevolent Street Sangha were all stellar people, and I by no means want to disparage them by suggesting that they seek enlightenment as selfish people unconcerned with the suffering in the world. My experience was that my very limited time could be better spent pursuing what I consider to be Humanistic spiritual (if I can use that word) development through volunteerism and political work. For others the experience is, I'm sure, quite different.

So it is within this context that I joined Class 18 of the Humanist Institute in visiting Won Buddhism of Manhattan, to sit and learn about the practice of Reverend Doyeon Park, one of the most delightful, earnest and interesting religious leaders I have ever met.

Once again we removed our shoes to enter the religious space. We sat on mats in a circle in the upstairs temple which was wide, clean and cool. The walls were off-white, and at the altar there was no image of the Buddha, there was instead a large plain circle. Won Buddhism translates as Circle Buddhism. Doyeon Park is in her mid to late twenties, and spoke very plainly about the beliefs and practices of Won Buddhism. Though there is an emphasis on enlightenment through Zen meditation, there is an extra emphasis in Won on helping others. Won is especially concerned with the rights and opportunities of women. Park did not sugarcoat the reality either. She pointed out that even Won Buddhism, with its emphasis on women's rights, was still working through some issues of male privilege. This is something that a woman of her intellect and commitment will continue to work on in her career.

Won also makes a commitment to interfaith and social justice as part of its core tenets. I must say that these commitments to women, interfaith and social justice seem closer to the kind of values I share, a real development towards what I'll call Humanistic Buddhism as opposed to the atheistic Buddhism of Stephen Batchelor.

Still, my rational mind has difficulty with some of the concepts Won Buddhists espouse. I can get behind the idea of "developing spiritually" because I can see the spirit as a natural part of what makes us human. I don't have to claim some sort of supernatural spirit divorced from body any more than I have to claim a supernatural mind. But I do have a problem with the concept of rebirth. Rebirth is different from reincarnation. In reincarnation our spirit drifts from body to body after we die, allowing us to experience many lives on the path to enlightenment. Rebirth is different. I'll explain it as best I can, and hope I don't get it wrong.

In rebirth our spirit falls apart after we die, just as our body does. Just as our body decays and its parts are used in the creation of new life, so does our spirit fall apart and it's various components come together to make new spirits. This idea brings Won Buddhism very close to a metaphorical view of rebirth, and it would be possible to dismiss a supernatural spirit under this system, but I did not get the impression from Reverend Park that we should see rebirth as naturalistic in the sense I, as a Humanist, would understand it. I think there is still a supernatural sheen to the idea.

Reverend Park's commitment to interfaith was on display when she turned the tables on our little group and asked us questions about our Humanist beliefs. This was very interesting, because in a room with eight students and two mentors, no one was immediately eager to step up and explain what Humanism is and what it stands for. Though we eventually stumbled towards a coherent answer, our reticence and uncertainty became a source of consternation and discussion after our visit. Why is it so hard for Humanists to explain ourselves? Can you imagine a Christian Evangelical having a hard time explaining his or her religion?

As Park listened to our answers, she sensed that we were trying to define something that was only just taking shape in our heads. She summed up our difficulty very well when she said, "Oh, so you are like pioneers."

Pioneers. It's hard not to feel complemented by such a term. It summons images of brave explorers staking out new territory in strange lands in the past or on wild planets in the future. There is a sense in which this is true. We as a class and Humanists in general are charting our course into the future, but I think we have a long way to go before we can earn the title of pioneers. First, we have to take the ideas of Humanism and actually go somewhere with them and do something with them. We have to challenge ourselves and others and maybe do something dangerous, experimental and scary, like real pioneers do.

My trip to Won Buddhism of Manhattan taught me about Reverend Park's religion and practice, but it also taught me about some of the deficiencies in my ability to adequately express my own philosophies and beliefs. Perhaps this is the value of interfaith, still a hotly contested concept in atheist and humanist circles. Needless to say, my own ideas on the value of interfaith were challenged here, which is excellent.

1 comment:

  1. Steve:
    for me, personally, this is the best piece you have written.

    You wrestle honestly with this practice of Buddhism and by comparing and contrasting it with Humanism you draw out some rare insights.

    Sometimes I find that as a UU I can't articulate my understanding of that faith. But it's because I don't want to characterize how/what all UUs believe and practice. There is no such thing. So humanists can be left flailing sometimes to express ourselves. Maybe that is the "Zen moment" when we literally have no words and become naturalistic humanists. I accept that I often cannot express what I mean. Poetry helps. Much can be learned in silence that will bind us together in ways words never will.