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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

transplanted faiths

I seem to be in a time of painful, unsettled emotions. It’s probably not due to any one cause, or if it is, that cause is buried within the structure of my psyche.

In years gone by, meditation was a leveling influence in my life. When I was working on The Odyssey in the early 1990s, I was under tremendous pressure and stress for months on end. I used to cycle up to the rec center early in the morning for an aerobics class, and I practiced meditation as much as I could, which sometimes was not much. Even so, I was more irritable and beleaguered than usual for myself.

Meditation practice gradually enables one to see one's own insanity. Not real insanity, of course, but the everyday neuroses, which I once defined as "causing needless pain for oneself and others." I've been a huge beneficiary of that practice, but I haven't done it now for several years.

I got away from it, not because I wanted to stop meditating, but because I felt that my relationship with Buddhism had changed fundamentally. I realized that in order to be fully who I was, I could not accept the teachings holus-bolus, even though I had found them to be so profound, helpful, and fulfilling. Maybe it wasn't so much a decision as a recognition: I was not fully with the program.

Spiritual traditions cannot be transplanted unchanged. To move a religion is to transform it, possibly into something unrecognizable. This is a point made very well by Hans Jonas in his excellent book The Gnostic Religion. He notes that after the conquests of Alexander the Great, the worlds of East and West mixed to an unprecedented degree. People of widely different culture and belief found themselves crammed together in the new Hellenistic cities that arose in Alexander's wake. To the extent that they interacted, their ideas started to compete directly with each other.

One effect of this was that spiritual beliefs often came to be stripped of their local, cultural content. In the case of Judaism, for example, the notion of its message applying only to a tribe of people descended from Jacob would have made it of no interest or use to people from other backgrounds. Jews found themselves having to assert the universalism of their God and their religion against other traditions--Yahweh was not just a local, Jewish God, after all; He was the king of the universe! Persuading other peoples of this message meant emphasizing the aspects of Jewish belief that were "portable"--that could be accepted as valid by non-Jews.
So Judaism, like other religions, entered the marketplace of ideas. When it was taken up by certain Romans in Rome in the century before Christ, it was taken up in a selective and incomplete way, which would have been dismissed as completely invalid by pious Jews in Palestine. The Romans were drawn to the non-Israelite aspects of the system, its universal ideas.

In a similar way Buddhism has come to the West. If it is to survive here, it must undergo more or less radical change. The aspects of it which are ethnically or culturally Asian won't survive, since these elements are foreign to Westerners. The universal aspects are not foreign to Westerners, and it will be these that form the basis of Buddhism in the West.

Meanwhile, my own relationship with it is unclear to me. I have let that unclarity jam my relationship with meditation. Meditation in itself is not "Buddhist." And yet it also does not happen in a vacuum; teachings surround the practice, and they must surround it if it is to be of any real benefit.

So: still stuck.

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