Am I Buddhist Anymore? A Brief Socratic Dialogue

(Because Socratic Dialogues are more fun, and otherwise this post would sound too whiny. Plus this was inspired by a funny sign someone at work made a few months back which I took a photo of. Enjoy! :) )

Hiero: Hey Doug, is it me or is the Buddhist content on your blog getting a little thin lately?

Doug: Yeah, it has hasn’t it? To tell you the truth, I’ve been having some big changes in my life lately so I guess I haven’t been thinking about it much.

Hiero: What happened?

Doug: Well, you see I changed jobs. I work for the same big company I did before, and I am happy to stay, but I decided to transfer to an entirely new department and a somewhat different role after 4 years in the old one.

Hiero: Sounds stressful.

Doug: Sure has been. The new job is super busy and I am still transitioning, so I guess I am even more busy now than I was before. Funny thing is though, my stress level has gone down a lot in recent months and I feel happier than before.

Hiero: How is that possible?

Doug: Well, I liked my old job in many ways, but I was unsatisfied with the kind of work I did there, and I never felt I measured up. I guess it just wasn’t for me. In my new job, I feel it suits me better and I have more control over my situation, thus I feel more satisfied at the end of the day.

Hiero: Well that’s good to hear, but what’s that got to do with Buddhism, Batman?

Doug: Well, about the time I took the new job, I realized right away that the change had been good for me. I also started to having less and less interest in Buddhism. When I went to Japan in April, saw Nara, Kyoto and the sites of Tokyo, I was deeply inspired, but as I came back, the struggle to maintain the Buddhist path got harder and harder. I felt no connection anymore with the local Buddhist community which felt entirely different than what I experienced in Japan, and just kept slipping up in my personal practice: meditation, nembutsu, studying, whatever. I used to really get distraught over this.

Hiero: So why the change?

Doug: Because at my new job, I became too busy to think about such things. I have work that is challenging and engaging, so it forces me to focus on the here and now rather than wasting internal brain cycles on overblown issues in that are all in my mind.

Hiero: That’s it? Kind of anticlimactic, don’t you think?

Doug: No, even more importantly, I started to really look at Buddhism in a more critical way. Not negative, but really evaluating the fundamentals of Buddhism with a more detached objective view. It started when I began researching Neo-Confucian thought in Edo Period Japan, and its comparatively rational approach to issues as it competed with Buddhism at the time. The rational yet spiritual approach really got me thinking about my Path all these years, the constant reading, straining and contrived practices to attain spiritual happiness. All that work and energy was just a way to help me forget the feelings of dissatisfaction in life, but made it worse in a way.

Hiero: So you’re an atheist then?

Doug: Far from it. I just really started to appreciate the rational, down to earth side of religion a lot more than I did in the past. I guess I never realized that religion can be spiritually fulfilling and down-to-earth and rational. I think this is why I began to entertain doubts with respect to the Pure Land Path in Buddhism over the past months, and focused more on some of the more fundamental Buddhist teachings I had neglected over time.

Hiero: So you’re a Buddhist then?

Doug: Not so fast, Hoss. After a suggestion from a friend online about re-reading a wonderful book by Ven. Walpola Rahula titled What the Buddha Taught, I realized there were certain fundamentals of Buddhism I was still uncomfortable with, particular the cycle of rebirth and the layperson/monastic dichotomy. I took inspiration in the Buddhist text, the Kalama Sutta and its open approach to religious discourse, but on the other hand, to me it sounds a little like Pascal’s Wager which doesn’t really prove anything. On the other hand, if you carefully read the Kalama Sutta is does provide a good well-grounded approach to religion that I do find inspiring. On the other hand, I feel lately that Buddhism can be pretty aloof, dour and difficult to practice in the kind of environment I am in. Nor do I want to get tangled up in the petty and pompous culture that pervades Buddhist institutions in the West. If I hear the word progressive Buddhism one more time, I think I will cry. I’ve just had enough.

Hiero: So you’re not a Buddhist then?

Doug: Well, I realized that while some things make me uncomfortable, there were some things about Buddhism I still found deeply inspiring. I do believe in the Buddha’s notion of impermanence along with the Buddha’s explanation of the conditioned-arising of phenomena, and so on. Fact is, when I think about Kannon Bodhisattva for example, I can’t help but smile. I found myself randomly doing that while walking home from work recently. That goes double for Shakyamuni Buddha. Lately, I feel like I understand him better than I did before, and it makes me appreciate him more than I did before. Meanwhile, a small statue of Shakyamuni Buddha still sits happily on my bookshelf and every so often, I look at it, feel inspired and recite the old Pali-language prayer namo tassa bhagawato arahato samma-sangbuddhasa (phonetically speaking here) as homage. Maybe in a way, I am more Buddhist now than I was in the recent past. I really don’t know.

Hiero: So…. what are you then?

Doug: Good question. I haven’t figured that out. I have no desire to go to any Buddhist temple in my area, nor really engage with the online community. I guess I am tired of the petty politics and all the baggage that comes with organized religion and the silent pressure of conformity. Frankly, I don’t feel inspired to write about it either, and may not do so for a while, who knows? Every time I do lately, it feels forced and not really fun anymore. At the same time, I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from Chinese Confucian and Taoist teachings as of late. I am reading about Confucianism a lot now, as well as the writings of Zhuangzi the Taoist and the occasional book on Shintoism too. I find these more down-to-earth and easier to apply in my life as it is now. So maybe I am more of a Confucianist, or a Taoist, or maybe just a Buddhist who needed a good break for a while to clear his head. Right now, I just don’t feel like I need Buddhism for spiritual comfort or guidance like I did before. It’s been a part of my life for years now, and had a big influence on me, but I am not so sure now it will continue to be in my future.

Hiero: Sounds confusing and kind of miserable, doesn’t it?

Doug: On the contrary, in the last month or so I feel happier and more “ok” than I did in a long, long time. Sure, I’m not perfect, but I feel like I stopped trying to measure up to something unattainable and lofty, and just making myself feel miserable and inferior in the process. I learned to appreciate a more rational, pragmatic approach to religion and Confucianism in particular inspired me to make the mundane things in my life more sacred rather than trying to abandon them and tune out in a kind of mental retreat. Just as I changed jobs to something more suited to me, maybe all I needed to do was change my religious perspective a little.

Hiero: So what does the future hold?

Doug: Good question. The blog stays, and I doubt will change much other than a quiet shift in topics. I want to restore a balanced approach I did when the blog first started and continue exploring various subjects. Naturally of course, I want to give readers something to think about it but be fun too. :)

Hiero: Er, I was talking about your personal life.

Doug: Oh, that. That’s still a work in progress. The “mental debate” I had a few months back didn’t really peter out as I thought it would. Instead, it’s evolved into a nice laid-back exploration of the wonderful teachings found across Asia, and finding something that suits my life and my temperament. Since I can’t change my life right now to suit religious pursuits, I need to figure out how to adapt religious teachings to my life as it is. Truth is, I love Buddhism but I also love the other teachings as well.

Hiero: Don’t people in Asian cultures find a way to balance them in their lives?

Doug: True. Western religion tends to be an all-or-nothing approach, which can be limiting, while Asian culture does seem to blend and synthesize various schools of thought more readily. But then again I also am a big believer in doing one thing and doing it well (which is mentioned in the writings of Zhuangzi oddly enough), so there’s something to be said in exploring one tradition fully enough to appreciate it. Tasting many tiny samples of ice cream is not the same as having a nice bowl of your favorite flavor, that is once you decide which flavor you actually want of course. I definitely do not want to label myself as a “spiritual shopper” though as that just usually means someone’s being wishy-washy or non-comittal, but I do feel like a change of pace is badly needed in my life and has been a breath of fresh air.

Hiero: Speaking of ice cream, let’s stop with the abstract and whiny talk about religion and go eat.

Doug: That sounds like a great plan. Let’s go.

The End

7 thoughts on “Am I Buddhist Anymore? A Brief Socratic Dialogue

  1. Hey Doug, Wow that book I just gave you couldn’t have been worse timed. I doubt you are in the mood for reading about some extinct heretical Buddhist sect right now!:-)

    It’s a real shame that we didn’t get to meet up the other week as I think we would have had a lot to talk about. You might have noticed that I just posted something at ‘Echoes’ where I was trying to assess why I go to the temple.

    I grew up with a particular religious world view which was pretty hermetically sealed but once I left home it cracked open and after that I don’t think you can go back to following a particular tradition or school of thought in a totalistic way – which is probably a good thing. Like you say though maybe that attitude – the assumption that Buddhism should answer to every aspect of our lives – is a very European and North American thing? I have been to a very orthodox, very traditional Shin temple in Japan where they nonetheless have classes on the Analects and Confucian ethics, occasional lectures by Shinto priests and frequent lectures by artists, philosophers and so on.

  2. Hi Kyoushin, far from it! The book is a good example of all the interesting content on Buddhism and east Asian religion missing from mainstream media and I have been reading it out of genuine curiosity.:-) I was very happy you even thought of it.

    Yeah it’s a shame we couldn’t meet, but as you can see, I am much more busy than I was before, but nit necessarily in a bad way.:-). I was too embarrassed to bring up this subject until now anyway, so I might not have mentioned it at the time. But I’m sure well run into each other again. Wee are also planning trips to the EU one of these days.

    Your point about “orthodox” Western religion is an excellent point. I wasn’t aware of the blend in Jodo Shinshu in Japan as most of my exposure has been in Western temples.

  3. Rev. Harry Bridge gave a talk at the SF Zen Center a week or two ago. The local Zen folks don’t often know what to do with Pure Land practice, hung up as they sometimes get on “Buddhist practice” = “seated meditation” or, just as likely, “practice” = “doing something outside of or different from your normal routine.” a lot of folks had many questions in this realm, and one woman asked in a very straightforward way, “what is the practice?” To which Harry responded, “Raise a family? Drive your car?” in his own way (a way far more eloquent than mine, here) I think he was pointing out that practice us no different than anything else we’re doing, that the distinctions we make between “Buddhist” and “not Buddhist” are the real problem.

    Not that this has anything to do with anything necessarily. Just thought I’d share. You sound, as always, like you’re doing well. Keep it up!

  4. Hi Doug-san,
    I’m very impressed with your writing. In my opinion, all religion are to make people happy, so you don’t have to struggle. Maybe, you never find the truth of any religion by such an easy or dishonest way, but you have to live the real life every day, you know? It’s too stressful to be simply honest. However if you can feel happy in such a world, I think it’s the power of religion. Now you feel happier than before because you’ve got something by Buddhism.

  5. Hi guys, great to hear from you:

    Scott: Sounds like Rev. Harry gave a great talk. It would have been fun to hear it. :) Part of me still feels value in practices apart from my normal life, but it’s just not really feasible anymore, plus I have lingering doubts as to their efficacy for all but people in a dedicated, monastic setting. Naturally, not everyone can be a monastic, nor is suited for it. So, I really want to focus on working with what I have now and somehow making it better (incl. “driving a car” which I am terrible at). I guess for too long I’ve been trying to add something above and beyond what’s already there, and that’s my critical mistake.

    Naoko: I think religion means different things to different people. I agree religion can make one more happy and peaceful, but I also feel it’s important to also use religion to improve one’s self and also benefit others. Otherwise, it would be a selfish pursuit. People who help others, and have self-discipline I think are much happier than other people. :) You’re right: you have to live life each day, whether you want to or not, and that’s a huge challenge. I want to be a better person, I want to have more self-discipline, and so on, but I just can’t make it work through Buddhist teachings, so I want to explore other ways of dealing with the same problem. Maybe Buddhism is the right choice after all, maybe not. Or maybe a combination. Who knows? :)

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