Friday, November 09, 2012

Buddhism as a metaphysics for lived religion

In my first year course we've started reading Jeff Wilson's Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual comes to America. As I should have known to expect, nobody knew anything about Buddhism, so I had to trot out my canned history, carefully eschewing derogatory terms like 'Hinayana'. Hard to resist the four noble truths in this context!

It was too early to question if 水子供養 mizuko kuyo - the subject of Wilson's book - really is a "Buddhist ritual" so I slipped in a cameo for William LaFleur's book Liquid Life and the wisdom and humanity of a tradition which understands that there are no bright lines in life, its beginnings or its endings, and - LaFleur eloquently if somewhat wishfully rhapsodized - acknowledges this fluidity with opaque ritual. (By contrast  LaFleur accuses Americans of thinking they can master the contingency and complexity of life with "definitionism" and silence).

Since we were heading toward 地蔵菩薩 the bodhisattva Jizô I capped it with a brief ode to upâya (方便 hôben), the "skillful means" of enlightened beings who take whatever forms necessary to reach suffering deluded beings in their delusion. There is no length to which a bodhisattva will not go, even using untruths strategically in helping suffering beings break through to the truth. This was a subject which intoxicated me when I learned about it in graduate school, and seemed to me at the heart of the sacred mysteries of teaching (you might remember it from here). Hardly germane to lived religion, or?

In the context of this class on "lived religion" other things came to mind, or fell in place. Wilson describes the way "water baby ceremonies" have been taken up in American convert Zen, especially in monasteries led by women. He describes in detail a ceremony at Oregon's Greater Vow Monastery (images of whose Jizô Garden I show here), whose inclusion of a statue of the Virgin Mary is my favorite icon of lived religion. The ceremony's structure and participants' roles, even its "Zen" aesthetics of nature, are American. But Buddhist ideas made it possible.
 
The last class reading (while I was away), Neil Gaiman's fantasy novel American Gods, let us think about "lived religion" from the perspective of hungry gods struggling against obsolescence. With Wilson's help, perhaps we can consider lived religion as guided by bodhisattvas!

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