Monday, September 15, 2014

Chicago-style Buddhism: A Review of Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey by Stephen T. Asma, Ph.D.

What questions would I like to have addressed concerning Buddhism? What perspectives would I find most helpful in better understanding Buddhist tradition and practice? What do the author and I share on our paths toward Buddhism? Let me offer a checklist and apply it to this book. 

How did the author first come into contact with Buddhism? 

Like many Western Buddhists, I first came to understand the fundamentals of the dharma by reading books. Most Western Buddhists have grown up in families that were monotheistic, culturally speaking, and we discovered our Buddhism via the printed word rather than at the neighborhood temple or war or shrine.

Stephen T. Asma. Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey (Kindle Locations 45-46). Kindle Edition.


How does the author perceive Buddhism? 

Buddhism is not a set of beliefs to be adopted by faith, but a set of practices and beliefs to be tested and then employed in our pursuit of the good life.

Id. 64-66

How does the author address the issue of temptation? 

The trained mind can rise above distraction and craving, but the normal mind is fraught with temptations, agitations, and diversions. The idea of not looking at a beautiful woman (or man) when we are clearly drawn in that direction may sound rather puritanical. But the point of the simile is not to denigrate beauty, but to isolate the tension between natural inclination and discipline. It is perfectly natural to look at beautiful people, and Buddhism doesn't require the forfeit of such trouble-free pleasures. I suspect that our very biology ensures that we'll take a quick gander at any attractive prospect, and such radar abilities probably had some evolutionary advantages for our ancestors. But if I simply cannot help myself from gawking at a stunning model on the street, then I have overturned a division of labor inside myself. I have become the servant of my desire, rather than being the master of my desire. I am being led, rather than leading.

Id. 90-95

Check. (And would I ever have such a problem? Please, no speculations here. I disavow any admissions against interest.) For mere mortals, the issue of desire is the crucial issue in life, is it not? How do we attain our desires? Should we attain our desires? How much should we pay for our desires, not just in terms of money, but also in terms of time, energy, effect on relationships, and so on? 

Does this author share a perspective with Robert Wright and me that Buddhism (and aspects of other traditions as well) is intended to overcome inheritances from natural selection that don’t work in a civilized society? 

Buddhism attempts to give us a second nature-one that writes over the old genetic and psychological code.

Id. 98

Does the author come from a religious tradition that I can identify with? 

I was ripe for such communion because I had been raised as a devout Catholic. Some people think that the conventional and conservative experience of Catholicism and the eccentric, lefty spiritualism of hippy culture are worlds apart. But, in fact, Catholics have a deep sense of mystery in the very belly of their religion. Unlike most Protestants, Catholics give themselves over to the irrational mystery, miracle, and authority. There is an undeniably conventional and institutional aspect of Catholicism, but beneath its traditionalism is a robust mystical approach to God. When I was in primary and middle school I was an altar boy and even a lector. When I began to ask philosophical questions in my early teens, my blue-collar parents knew of no other outlet for such precocious intellectualism except perhaps the priesthood. I was dutifully driven to the local seminary to meet with priests and be interviewed to see if I had the calling. I didn't.

Id. 157-163

Check. Indeed, one of my friends was once a candidate for the priesthood and now finds himself in the Buddhist camp. (N.B. Perhaps because of my Presbyterian father, or perhaps the local priest sensed that I’d was far too randy, I was never recruited. After all, the priest heard my confessions: one impure thought after another.)

Did the author explore traditions other than his native Catholicism and Buddhism? 

I . . .  graduated to a tougher-minded mysticism, reading Aldous Huxley, Krishnamurti, and Thomas Merton.

Id. 191-192 

Check. Merton, by the way, was a Catholic monk who explored the Buddhist and Daoist traditions and wrote eloquently about his encounters with them from his position as a Trappist monk.

If we reject the metaphysics of the monotheistic religions, is there another path that shows the way to a good life and that provides some sense of spiritual wholeness? 

Many people like myself come to Buddhism through the arts, because crafts, arts, and even meticulous chores can be expressions of spirituality. The secular and the sacred are collapsed in Zen, and that is a very attractive integration for many of us who are dissatisfied with the two-world thesis of most religions.

Id. 324-325

Can the author explain the different types and processes of Buddhist mediation?
Check. He does. 

Does the author recognize the affinity between Buddhism and some of the Western tradition, such the thought of Spinoza? 

The Dutch/Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) offered a very Buddha-like theory (despite having never heard of the Buddha) of human happiness through intellectual enlightenment. In his famous Ethics (part V), he says that when the mind comes to understand the real causes of things—how some things could not have been otherwise and simply lie outside the realm of our control—then we cease to worry and fret over them.

Id. 724-725


Does the author recognize the affinity between Buddhism and Stoicism?

Buddhism, like Stoicism in the West, seeks to reduce suffering, in part, by managing human emotions. There are several tactics for getting one's emotions under control. One tactic that both Buddhism and Stoicism recommend is the adoption of the long-range perspective. I'll refer to this as eon perspective. When we are feeling overwhelmed by anger, or despair, or fear, the Buddha asks us to think about the impermanence of our problems and ourselves. Similarly, Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius asks us to contemplate the human drama of families, cities, and even nations that lived hundreds of years ago. They all did just as we do. They married, worked jobs, had children, loved and lost, felt great joys, killed each other, and engaged in every other emotional human endeavor. But, Marcus Aurelius reminds us, "Of all that life, not a trace survives today." It will be no different with the dramas of our own generation.

Id. 869-874

Check. Asma also notes an affinity with Epicurus, so gets even more points on my score chart. I’ve yet to find a careful, book-length exposition about the correlations between Buddhism and Classical philosophy, which someone with more skills and knowledge (and time and money) than me ought to write. 

All of these thinkers can be very austere. I cherish my loved-ones, my family, my friends. Do I have to surrender all of these relationships and go live in a forest monastery to avoid all attachments? 

Does this mean that I cannot be attached to my son? Well, if that's what it means, then I wouldn't call myself a Buddhist. No, I think the Buddha is pointing out something that we all understand at some level. He means, rather, that I cannot possess my son.

Id. 784-786

Check. I understand that. 

I know that modern science gives us the most concrete, tangible knowledge of nature. It’s far from complete, and it’s imperfect, but between a belief taken on faith, custom, or an ancient metaphysics, and natural science, I’ll take natural science. So do I have to surrender that choice to follow a Buddhist path? 

One of the reasons why I'm a Buddhist is because Buddhism makes friends of the sciences, and the sciences are the best methods we have for understanding nature.
. . . .
For Buddhism and for science, the mind is a natural rather than a supernatural entity.
. . . .
Buddhism and science share a similar approach to phenomena, an approach that can be called naturalism. Naturalism rejects (or at least brackets) supernatural explanations of the world and its occupants (e.g., us). Unlike many other religions, Buddhism does not find itself in the awkward position of having to reconcile the metaphysical assertions of faith with the experimental findings of science.
Id. 879-881; 988-989; 1064-1066

Check. The natural world doesn’t make sense without Darwin, Einstein, and the quantum thinkers, to mention just a few fields of investigation. 

What about karma and reincarnation? That stuff seems pretty spooky to me, at least in some sense. 

[T]he only really compelling interpretation of karma—one that doesn't conflict with science—is the radical reinterpretation that asks us to think about karma as a psychological fact rather than a metaphysical one. For example, it is possible to say that one's early lack of mental control and discipline results in a later batch of suffering—perhaps I never disciplined my cravings for fast food as a young man, and now I'm an obese older man who lives like a slave to French-fries. Or my younger taste for drama and negative attention has resulted in a later relationship pattern wherein I only try to date married women. This more naturalized version of karma is the only one that seems reasonably defensible.

Id. 1123-1128

Check. Although some Western Buddhist thinkers, I believe, would argue with this limited conception of karma and reincarnation, such as B. Alan Wallace. However, this more conservative approach is the easiest to accept and incorporate into our life and thought. 

Let’s go back to the austerity and detachment thing for a moment—such scary words! What about some of the good things in life, like art? Must we surrender our appreciation for beauty and meaning to non-attachment? 

Appreciating art and making art are meditations that liberate us from self-absorption.
I think the role of art is especially important in Buddhism, because Buddhism embraces a nondualistic metaphysics. In some supernatural religious frameworks art is a gateway or communication to a divine realm, but in Buddhism the artistic experience is "naturalized" like everything else. This is why Buddhists have always been more interested in the psychology of art. Art is a meditation that brings one in contact with the formless nondiscursive mind. So, it's not a mere communication with a transcendent reality, it is a transcendent reality. As an analogy, I think "memory" becomes more important in the secular Confucian framework of the Chinese, because there is no supernatural immortality—only an "afterlife" in the memories of your descendants.

Id. 1064-1066; 1173-1177

Check. In fact, Buddhist art runs a gamut from the detailed intricacy of the Tibetan tradition to the negative fields of a Zen garden. As Asma notes: 

Mandalas, for example, are wonderful examples of the Indian idea (in both Hinduism and Buddhism) that the macrocosm can be found inside the microcosm. To paraphrase Gottfried Leibniz, "every single substance is a perpetual living mirror of the universe." And in Tibetan Buddhism the mandalas also convey the Buddhist teaching of impermanence (anicca), because when the elaborate and agonizing sand-paintings are finally finished, they are immediately and intentionally swept away and destroyed. . .  . [T]he Far Eastern traditions of Daoism and Zen Buddhism, on the other hand, have turned away from the spiraling complexity of forms. Negative space and the aesthetics of minimalism help to convey the equally powerful emptiness.
Id. 1189-1192


Can Buddhism help me deal with the difficult people (or chose your more apt and colorful description) that I struggle with? I need help!

If I don't feel genuine kindness (metta) toward the bully who's browbeating me, that's understandable—but I can still act as if I feel it. There's nothing disingenuous about this. We're so hung up by our Romantic ideas about acting from our authentic feelings, and expressing ourselves authentically, that we forget how new habits of behavior can slowly transform our internal habits of the heart.
. . . .
Spinoza noticed the same thing and gave the same reasons for recommending the goodwill strategy. "He who lives according to the guidance of reason strives, as far as he can, to repay the other's hate, anger, and disdain toward him, with love or nobility" (Ethics IV.46).

Id. 1419-1421; 1458-1459

Can that work? 

Spinoza, like the Buddha, adds that a kind and noble person will be more joyful (because joy is a harmonic state of the healthy psyche), so such a person will be more powerful and effective in pursuit of his goals.

Id. 1461-1462

Check. It seems like it can work--most of the time.

But what if either on a personal level or on a political level, returning loving-kindness to mistreatment or exploitation doesn’t stop profound harm, even death? 

[T]he overall critique-Buddhism is too peaceful-is worth examining. . . . The Buddha and the dharma also represent sources of strength. Power is necessary, because life is struggle. Even the ultimate goal of detached equanimity can only come after substantial struggle.

Id. 1740-1741; 1748-1749

Stop! Only half-credit (I don’t know how to give a “half-check”). Buddhism, even less than Christianity, doesn’t have a complete and compelling theory of politics to govern political actors on issues of war and peace. This challenge isn’t unique to Asma. As far as I know, Buddhism simply doesn’t have an articulated theory of politics. Islam melds politics into religion, and this can lead to great problems, as we see around the world today. Christianity skirts the issue with the doctrine of the Two Swords (sacred and secular) and the Two Cities (St. Augustine), which are based on a couple of sayings in the Gospels that provide a shaky foundation for any definitive doctrines. Among those who call themselves Christians, we see a spectrum that runs from pacifist to warmonger. I believe that the tragic, ironic, and realist views of Reinhold Niebuhr and Max Weber (commenting from a secular perspective) provide the most compelling responses to these ethical concerns, but no easy answers. I don’t know that Buddhism offers any authoritative answers. Someone, help me here! (I will be investigating the work of William (Patrick) Ophuls, Western political scientist-philosopher and Buddhist practitioner-teacher. I will report what I find in his work The Buddha Takes No Prisoners, which includes an essay on “The Politics of Meditation”.) 

The author came to my attention in the NYT writing an article about John Dewey’s pragmatism and its reception in China, where the Asma has lived and taught. So how does contemporary China relate to Buddhism? 

In previous ages, one would, if gripped by a philosophical mood, simply turn to the great indigenous works of Chinese intellectual culture: Kongzi's (Confucius's) Analects, Laozi's Daodejing, the Buddha's Sutras, and so forth. But these days such fountains of wisdom are like trickling rivulets in the landscape of religious competition, and the Christian Bible is often more readily available to the average spiritual searcher.

Id. 1823-1825

Check, but I’d like more. I suspect an entire book—or more—could be written about culture, ethics, and religions now afield in China and how these are changing—as the very landscape is changing—at a dizzying speed. What ethics work for hyper-capitalism, hyper-consumerism with Chinese characteristics?  

But can I retain what’s valuable in my Western Christian-liberal tradition if I take this Buddhist path? 

Buddhism, like Christianity, pushes us away from the natural biases of human nature-it pushes us beyond the usual concentric circles of value that surround our own families and seeks to expand the circle to include all people, all animals, all beings. The West has been pursuing this same model, in secular form, for several centuries now. We can trace the development from Luther's Reformation up through Enlightenment Kantian morality that asked us to treat all people equally as "ends in themselves" rather than "means" to some end. And after Immanuel Kant, we have the utilitarian tradition that asked us to maximize the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, and finally the "fairness" philosophy of John Rawls and the rejection of personal bias, nepotism, favoritism, preferential treatment, and partiality. Discordant on almost every other point of comparison, Buddhism, Christianity, and Western liberalism all make strange bedfellows on this one point of egalitarianism.


Finally, I like red meat and I cannot lie. Must I limit myself to rabbit food if I want to follow the Buddhist path? Can I follow a Chicago diet of brats and beer? 

Animal suffering is to be avoided at all costs. But the idea that Buddhists have always been, and always should be, vegetarians is pure myth. The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, ate meat—he even died eating meat.[SNG: not a great plug for Buddhist meat-eating.] My Buddhist friends in Cambodia eat meat. Most Tibetan Buddhists eat meat. Meat, contrary to popular opinion, is not the problem for Buddhists. The problem is causing unneeded pain to animals, so if we can kill them humanely, then the ethical transgression is averted. In the West these days, you will meet many Buddhists who are smug lettuce-nibblers, and that's fine. But be assured, it is not Buddhism per se that compels their diet.

Id. 300-304

Check, thankfully. I didn’t see anything about whiskey except in the title, but I take the ban on intoxicants to be a ban on intoxication, so a beer or glass of wine—or whiskey if you’re made of sterner stuff than I am—seems to me okay.

I trust that it comes as no surprise that at the end of this review I say that I enjoyed and benefited from this book a great deal. It’s always nice to meet a fellow seeker exploring the same paths.