Monday, March 04, 2013

Is it Buddhist?

"It's just like Aboriginal Australia!" groaned one student in "Exploring Religious Ethics" today, to the confusion of his classmates. What J meant was that, as in the course I taught on Aboriginal Australia last year, I had just lured the class down the garden path with an appealing image of what a foreign tradition was and then raised serious questions about its veracity. He was thinking of the rude shock of seeing the making-of documentary around "Ten Canoes" - this was the student so shocked and even affronted to discover that the people of Ramingining went to supermarkets and worse basketball jerseys that he accused me of killing Santa.

In the current class it was my revealing that the "Japanese Buddhist ritual" of mizuko kuyô, an inspiration to people on all sides of abortion discussions in the US, is in fact not very widespread in Japan and barely Buddhist. We spent last week with William LaFleur's influential Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan and I did the hard sell for a "Buddhist" appreciation of the fluidity and transience of life, for the sorrow which inevitably attends life in the world of samsara, and for LaFleur's argument that ritual may be a more mature and healing response to this than the quest for the final perfect definitions. But for today we read a chapter from Helen Hardacre's take-down of LaFleur, Marketing the Menacing Fetus in Japan, and a chapter from Jeff Wilson's account of the spread of stateside LaFleur-inspired discussion and practice, Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America - all works I've described here before. (Yes, when a shoe fits, I wear it, and sometimes also when it doesn't fit.)

I knew the class wouldn't be satisfied with my laconic observation that, whatever it was or was not in Japan, mizuko kuyô became Buddhist in America! But it did plant some good hard questions. What should count as Buddhist, and why should it matter? Who gets to decide? Should or could there be only one conception of Buddhism? And why can't there be a made-in-America Buddhism? Japan, as I've stressed, is a Johnny-come-lately to most Asian traditions, and found ways of turning this into an advantage: by the time traditions showed up in the Land of the Rising Sun, they were ready to reveal their full meaning, and the Japanese were alone ready to hear it. Similar arguments could be made for Tibetans, but here I was suggesting that this pretty accurately describes "Western Buddhism" too.

And one of these days we'll ask ourselves how "Buddhist" it is to expect Buddhism to have an essence...

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