The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Losing Their Religion?

This article about Christian teachings driving some to convert to Buddhism (in Australia) had familiar ring to it when I came across it a couple of days ago.

Experts who study religious trends in Australia say many converts to Buddhism found the teachings of some Christian churches too rigid and intolerant of questions about the faith, reported the VOA.

In a three-year national study on the religious behaviour of Generation Y published last year, the co-author of the study, Dr Andrew Singleton from Monash University said that Generation Y in Australia is gradually departing from religion where some are turning to alternative spiritualities.

Some. Not all, as the article points out that the number adopting “alternative spirituality” is less than the number of of people “turn[ing] away from church attendance and participation,” particularly among young people. But it still brought to mind an earlier article about the rise in American Buddhism, as well as my own reasons for morphing from Baptist to Buddhist.

The general reasons for Australians turning to Buddhism echoed a Christian Science Monitor article on American Buddhism last year.

Carol Marsh, an architect who served as practice leader for the evening, had an interest in finding a spiritual path for years, but was “resistant to anything nonrationalist,” she says afterward in an interview. “Then I read ‘Awakening the Buddha Within,’ [Surya Das’s first book on ‘Tibetan wisdom for the Western world’], and it spoke to me directly…. My ultimate aim is liberation.”

After eight years of practicing, “I am happier, more grateful, more able to roll with whatever punches or moments of annoyance may present themselves,” Ms. Marsh says.

What’s so valuable to Jane Moss, who’s been practicing 15 years, is learning how “to be in the present moment.” And also to accept that reality involves perfection and “to view the world as good and people as basically loving.” Each month, the group holds a meditation focused on love and compassion.

…One doesn’t have to subscribe to a catechism or creed, or be a vegetarian. Nor do people have to give up their religion. That’s why some Americans speak of being Jewish Buddhists, for instance.

The Dalai Lama, in fact, often encourages people to stay with the faith of their cultural upbringing, to avoid the confusion that can sometimes result from a mixing of Eastern and Western perspectives.

Remaining in the faith of my upbringing wasn’t an option, like the Australians referred to in the first article, because I couldn’t manage the spiritual and mental contortions required for me continue to fit into that box.

When I went to college, I just dropped out of any religious practice at first. I tried becoming an episcopalian, but I still found myself still dealing with the problem I mentioned above. Besides, the believing in a literal heaven and a literal hell seemed to me much like believing in Never-Never Land, and by the time I reinterpreted the stuff I had trouble with I wasn’t sure how much of the original was left. I felt like I was making it up as I went along. So, I started exploring other beliefs. I read up on Wicca, but it wasn’t quite for me. I read up on ancient Yoruba beliefs and earth magic. Again, not for me. I delved into New Age, wore crystals, etc., but again felt like I was making it up as I went along.

Eventually, I just stopped. I gathered bits and pieces that made sense to me from the various beliefs I’d studied and just left it at that. When I started reading about the basics of Buddhism (the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the five precepts, etc.) it all seemed to me like something I could try to practice more as an ethical path than a religion. In now it seems like I’ll be doing well to just get most, or even some of the basics, down in this lifetime. I stumble a lot. There are probably more than a few examples of that on this blog, and being embroiled in politics makes it easy to do that. In fact, I think that political blogging and right speech may be somewhat diametrically opposed to each other. 😉 What I’ve found is that I tend to drift away from the practice for a while, and then return to it. But, at least it’s something I can return to.

And it’s something I can return to with my whole self as a gay man, because there’s nothing in Buddhist scriptures against homosexuality. (The Dalai Lama called same-sex activity “sexual misconduct” in 1997, but in 2006 issued a statement opposing discrimination against LGBT people and supporting “full recognition of human rights for all.” And, in any case, the Dalai Lama isn’t the authority figure and doctrine-setter in Buddhism that the Pope is in Catholicism.) What I found, instead of page after page of “thou shalt nots” (accompanied with promises of eternal torture and punishment c/o a loving God) I found a sexual ethics that offered a moral frame for my sexuality.

Buddhism does have a strong sexual ethic, but not a repressive one. The main point of this ethic is non-harming in an area of life where we can do a lot of damage by acting violently, manipulatively or deceitfully. These and breaches of the other precepts – ill will, taking the non-given, lying and stupefaction – are the Buddhist no-no’s in sexual practice. Because of its universalistic character, Buddhism as such certainly does not buy into prejudices and inhibitions associated with social engineering, the reproduction of the tribe.

Of course, one can meet Buddhists from traditional backgrounds that do have a problem with non-procreative sex like homosexuality, just as we run into ones that are still challenged by gender equality. But this sort of inhibition or prejudice comes from a particular ethnic culture or national tradition only. You can confidently tell anyone who expresses these sorts of attitudes that they have nothing to do with Dhamma as such.

At the same time each of us has to exercise a personal judgement about how much energy and time we should give over to sex, however skilful our sexual practice. Where does it rank in the inevitably tight order of priorities we have to apply in our busy lives when most of us are struggling to find time to sit daily, get to a regular weekly group sit and to go on retreat? Part of the answer will depend on the moral significance of our commitment to our so-called sexual partner(s). Many people strive to make these commitments and relationships central focuses of moral meaning in their lives, as Ajahn Chah suggests we should. This seems to be the best way to lead an integrated life as a spiritual practitioner and a sexual being.

That’s not something the faith of my upbringing was able to offer me, at least not without a great deal of work to understand its scriptures differently, and then convince others of the validity of that new understanding. And that required a greater investment in the rest of that faith than I had or was inclined towards at the time.

I can imagine other people had experiences similar to mine, and that’s partially why Buddhism is said to be Australia’s fastest growing religion. It’s growing in the Scotland, where a temple established some 40 years ago continues to expand. Thousands of India’s “Untouchables” are seeking a way to recover dignity by converting to Buddhism, which rejects castes. And it’s not just the lower castes either, but the “hip and cool” university set as well.

Stateside, we have Buddhists in congress now. A Buddhist group in Pennsylvania will erect a new building behind its temple (which is actually a former church). Earlier this year 3,000 gathered in Yorba Linda, CA to take part in a 1,300-year-old Buddhist purification ritual. In Woodstock, IL, a Buddhist temple — described as “a giant in the interfaith community in Illinois” — held its fifth annual Vesak Ceremony this year. And in York, New Hampshire, members of an Episcopal congregation took part in a mindfulness practice.

Many in the audience were already familiar with the practice of “mindfulness,” a fundamental practice for Buddhist meditation. McDargh, a professor in the department of Theology at Boston College, was there to explain the connection between this and other Buddhist practices and the practice of Christianity.

He said that Christians can use the practice of mindfulness in their daily lives and for prayer, adding, “It is about our time to be aware of our connection with God.”

McDargh led the group in a trial of mindfulness. After the attempt, the participants discussed their experiences. Some were more skillful and had little trouble focusing exclusively on breathing. Others found little distractions — such as a child’s voice from another room — would take their mind off their breathing.

It’s that last one that’s most interesting to me, because Oakland, California has introduced mindfulness practice into public schools.

As summer looms, students at dozens of schools across the country are trying hard to be in the present moment. This is what is known as mindfulness training, in which stress-reducing techniques drawn from Buddhist meditation are wedged between reading and spelling tests.

Mindfulness, while common in hospitals, corporations, professional sports and even prisons, is relatively new in the education of squirming children. But a small but growing number of schools in places like Oakland and Lancaster, Pa., are slowly embracing the concept — as they did yoga five years ago — and institutions, like the psychology department at Stanford University and the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, are trying to measure the effects.

During a five-week pilot program at Piedmont Avenue Elementary, Miss Megan, the “mindful” coach, visited every classroom twice a week, leading 15 minute sessions on how to have “gentle breaths and still bodies.” The sound of the Tibetan bowl reverberated at the start and finish of each lesson.

The program is based on another that’s used in treating depression, chronic pain and anxiety; a “secular” use of mindfulness that was popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Mindfulness isn’t technically prayer (there’s no deity involved, no doctrine required, and not much more than quieting and focusing the mind), but my guess is still that the religious right will attempt to make hay out of this if they get wind of it. (And will try to put an end to it even if it’s shown to have positive results.)

Still, it’s the angle on treating anxiety that’s most interesting to me, because of a study suggesting that being judgmental increases anxiety.

A recent study performed by researchers at the University of Vermont’s Department of Psychology explored possible links between anxiety and mindfulness skills.

The study looked at 154 young adults in their early 20’s. Researchers found a significant association between certain mindfulness skills and high levels of both negative affectivity (also known as neuroticism) and anxiety sensitivity.

Essentially, the more anxiety a person experiences, the less they will be able to practice mindfulness skills. Specifically, negative affectivity leads to greater difficulty with awareness, acceptance, and description mindfulness skills. Anxiety sensitivity makes it especially difficult for those with anxiety to practice awareness and acceptance.

…Everyone experiences negative emotions. The distinction between those with anxiety disorders and those who do not suffer from anxiety disorders is that those with anxiety disorders lack the mindfulness skills needed to sit with negative emotions, name them, process them, and cope in healthy, self-supporting ways. Anxiety is commonly linked with avoidance, the opposite of mindfulness, and can best be described as “getting in bed and pulling the covers over your head.” The more a person can become aware (mindful) of their negative emotions, the more they will be able to overcome their anxiety and learn to live with the full spectrum of emotions.

What are mindfulness skills? According to the scale used by the researchers performing the study, mindfulness skills include awareness, acceptance, description, and act. Awareness is the ability to observe without judgment what is going on around and inside of the individual. When someone has awareness, they can sit back and recognize both internal and external events. Acceptance is the ability to deal with what is really going on, saying, “This is what is,” without placing judgments of “good” or “bad” on the situation. Description is the ability to put words to those events. It’s the ability to use language to describe one’s feelings and thoughts and the events that triggered those feelings and thoughts. Act is simply that; the ability to take action after conscious, mindful deliberation.

It can also help people stop drinking.

A combination of cognitive behavioural therapy and Buddhist meditation can help people with drink problems turn their backs on alcohol.

Dr Paramabandhu Groves, a consultant psychiatrist at the Alcohol Advisory Service in London, who has successfully run workshops with people with depression, has now turned his attention to using the techniques to help people with addictions. Dr Groves has been ordained into the Western Buddhist Order based at the London Buddhist Centre in Bethnal Green, east London.

… The technique comprises “mindfulness” which, through meditation, develops an awareness of emotions and physical feelings and then guides people to make creative choices about how to respond to them.

“It emphasises critical awareness, rather than concentration,” said Dr Groves. “In meditation the mind keeps wandering off, so you note where the mind has gone and then you come back to the body sensation. When you do this, you begin to notice where the habitual patterns are and this gives you the ability to stay with negative thoughts. Once you stay with these negative thoughts, you can diffuse them and take the power out of them.”

By doing this, said Dr Groves, the vicious cycle of alcoholism can be broken. Negative thoughts, particularly linked to an external trigger, such a row with a partner, can trigger a relapse and lead to substance use. Mindfulness can break this link, Dr Groves told delegates. Clients are taught how to recognise and resist negative thoughts by observing themselves non-judgmentally and learning to accept their emotions.

Non-judgemental acceptance is a good thing? Healthy, even? Being judgmental is anxiety-inducing? It sounds almost un-American, yet some Americans (and Australians, and Indians, etc.) are opting out of that brand of anxiety. And according to this article from last fall, at least some of them are young people, and perhaps some of them are among the young people Jim Wallis described in April of last year.

“We are having these town meetings disguised as book signings, and they are almost revivals in bookshops. There’s younger evangelicals who don’t feel the loud television preachers speak for them, who care about poverty, the environment, Dafur, sex trafficking. Catholics are coming who want to apply their social teaching to domestic and foreign policy. Mainline Protestants are coming, a lot of black church people who have a tradition of this, young Jews and Muslims are coming.”

Last month Wallis launched his book in Britain, which is even more secular than Australia. He says BBC listeners were surprised and delighted to find an American Christian telling them he didn’t think God was American or a Republican whose only agenda was abortion and gay marriage. Young people poured into bookshops to meet him. Non-Christians thanked him for making them feel welcome.

“There are two great hungers in our world today, one for spiritual integrity and the other for social justice. And the connection between the two is the one the world is waiting for,” he says.

“The churches ask for the edges of people’s lives, and that’s what they get, the edges. A whole generation of young people are looking for an agenda worthy of their energy and gifts, something big enough to give their lives to.”

And, if those young people aren’t abandoning Christianity entirely, a number of them may become part of something I’ve only become aware in the past year or so; a brand of Christianity called the Emerging church. I don’t pretend to know much about it, but the rejection of legalism seems to go back to the “rigid and intolerant” teaching mentioned in the first article as driving some Australians to convert to Buddhism.

Scripture and historical orthodoxy define legalism as seeking righteousness by works. Some contemporary Christians, and emergents in particular have subsequently defined legalism as a position on morality that subscribes to certain unchangable ideals (biblical, moral absolutes) and they reject such thinking. Those who identify with the emerging movement are not likely to be dogmatic about any specified moral behaviors. Emerging churches generally will be more apt to discuss issues of morality and ethics in a relativistic, conversation format than in a way that speaks of moral absolutes or biblical commands. Consequently, Emergents are usually tolerant of conduct generally frowned upon by Evangelicals such as drinking, swearing, and watching movies with sexual content.

Maybe they’re the kind of young people minister Brian McLaren mentioned in his post about “the homosexual question.”

The couple approached me immediately after the service. This was their first time visiting, and they really enjoyed the service, they said, but they had one question. You can guess what the question was about: not transubstantiation, not speaking in tongues, not inerrancy or eschatology, but where our church stood on homosexuality.

That “still, small voice” told me not to answer. Instead I asked, “Can you tell me why that question is important to you?” “It’s a long story,” he said with a laugh.

Usually when I’m asked about this subject, it’s by conservative Christians wanting to be sure that we conform to what I call “radio-orthodoxy,” i.e. the religio-political priorities mandated by many big-name religious broadcasters. Sometimes it’s asked by ex-gays who want to be sure they’ll be supported in their ongoing re-orientation process, or parents whose children have recently “come out.”

But the young woman explained, “This is the first time my fiancée and I have ever actually attended a Christian service, since we were both raised agnostic.” So I supposed they were like most unchurched young adults I meet, who wouldn’t want to be part of an anti-homosexual organization any more than they’d want to be part of a racist or terrorist organization.

My first guess is that either the husband or wife McLaren spoke to was bisexual. Thus their position on sexual orientation might be more complicated than that of most mainstream evangelicals.

Even if we are convinced that all homosexual behavior is always sinful, we still want to treat gay and lesbian people with more dignity, gentleness, and respect than our colleagues do. If we think that there may actually be a legitimate context for some homosexual relationships, we know that the biblical arguments are nuanced and multilayered, and the pastoral ramifications are staggeringly complex. We aren’t sure if or where lines are to be drawn, nor do we know how to enforce with fairness whatever lines are drawn.

But it turns out that, like four out of ten Americans, they have family members whom they love and accept who happen to be gay. They didn’t want to be part of an organization that advocated discrimination against their loved ones, thus denying them dignity and respect. And the possibility of being associated with judgmental attacks on their loved ones caused them considerable anxiety.

Later that week I got together with the new couple to hear their story. “It’s kind of weird how we met,” they explained. “You see, we met last year through our fathers who became . . . partners. When we get married, we want to be sure they will be welcome at our wedding. That’s why we asked you that question on Sunday.”

Welcome to our world. Being “right” isn’t enough. We also need to be wise. And loving. And patient. Perhaps nothing short of that should “seem good to the Holy Spirit and us.”

“Being right,” especially in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, is a lot of work. Over time, maintaining that level of certainty — with the threat of eternal damnation and hell itself yawning before you — would have to be anxiety-inducing. Wouldn’t it? And, given the stakes, how strongly might one react to a threat to that certainty?

I keep going back to the Pema Chodron piece I’ve quoted over and over again on this blog.

To think that we can finally get it all together is unrealistic. To seek for some lasting security is futile. To undo our very ancient and very stuck habitual patterns of mind requires that we begin to turn around some of our most basic assumptions. Believing in a solid, separate self, continuing to seek pleasure and avoid pain, thinking that someone “out there” is to blame for our pain — one has to get totally fed up with these ways of thinking. One has to give up hope that this way of thinking will bring us satisfaction. Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide.

Hopelessness means that we no longer have the spirit for holding our trip together. We may still want to hold our trip together. We long to have some reliable, comfortable ground under our feet, but we’ve tried a thousand ways to hide and a thousand ways to tie up all the loose ends, and ground just keeps moving under us. Trying to get lasting security teaches us a lot, because if we never try to do it, we never notice that it canít be done. Turning our minds toward the dharma speeds up the process of discovery. At every turn we realize once again that itís completely hopeless — we can’t get any ground under our feet.

The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God. It is an issue that applies to everyone, including both Buddhists and nonBuddhists. Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us. It means thinking there’s always going to be a babysitter available when we need one. We all are inclined to abdicate our responsibilities and delegate our authority to something outside ourselves. Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves. We sometimes think that dharma is something outside of ourselves — something to believe in, something to measure up to. However, dharma isnít a belief; it isnít a dogma. It is total appreciation of impermanence and change. The teachings disintegrate when we try to grasp them. We have to experience them without hope. Many brave and compassionate people have experience them and taught them. The message is fearless; dharma was never meant to be a belief that we blindly follow. Dharma gives us nothing to hold on to at all.

Nontheism is finally realizing that there’s no baby sitter that you can count on. You just get a good one and then he or she is gone. Nontheism is realizing that itís not just babysitters that come and go. The whole of life is like that. This is the truth, and the truth is inconvenient.

For those who want something to hold on to, life is even more inconvenient. From this point of view, theism is an addiction. We’re all addicted to hope — hope that the doubt and mystery will go away. This addiction has a painful effect on society: a society based on lots of people addicted to getting ground under their feet is not a very compassionate place.

Maybe it’s just the difference between saying “We know,” and being willing to day “We don’t know” and being at peace with not knowing. At first “We know” is comforting, and “we don’t know” is dangerous because it threatens to pull the rug out from under us; or yank “the ground from under our feet” to borrow Chodron’s theme.

“We know” quickly morphs into “We know best,” which is a short jump to “We know best for you.” The first takes a lot to maintain in and of itself. The second is where the anxiety begins, when the first assertion is challenged. The third brings even more anxiety, as well as exhaustion, because it has moved from assertion to enforcement.

So, are all of the people losing their religion? Or voluntarily laying down the “burden of certainty” and learning to make peace with uncertainty? To sit, in order words, with the initial anxiety of not having “ground under your feet”; the anxiety of uncertainty, which itself originates from and is strengthened by the insistence on certainty, not just for yourself but for everyone else too.

What might be the consequences of losing that?

One Comment

  1. Excellent post! You do a great job of making explicit the challenges, the uphill battle, of fitting Christianity into a contemporary world-view. Interestingly, the way around that battle is to skip it altogether and enter/remain on the path of the mystics, which is the same path, I believe, for Buddhist or Christian or Islamic or any other brand of mystic, and always has been so. In modern times, the Jesuit, Teilhard de Chardin is a wonderful example, and in earlier eras in Christianity there were, of course, many, as well. They did not waste time parsing dogma, doctrine, or canon law. They went straight to the heart of the matter, to Big Mind.

    I will be publishing excerpts of your wonderful post on my own blog, crimlawdoc.blogspot.com, and have put a link to your blog, on mine.

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