Monday, 22 October 2007

Greetings from the (Progressive) Buddhist Society of Lebanon

Hi all,

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Paul Jahshan, Lebanese, currently teaching American/English Studies at Notre Dame University in Lebanon. A Christian by birth and upbringing, I have been interested in Buddhism for the last twenty years and, probably like many of you, went through the different Buddhist "flavours," beginning with Theravada, then Mahayana, then more specifically Zen, and now back to a personal form of Theravada (Reading Brian Victoria's Zen at War has made me a little wary of Japanese Zen, helped shed many illusions, and has made me adjust my stance noticeably).

Last year, I thought that founding a Buddhist society in Lebanon would be a good idea. Traditionally, Lebanon recognizes only three religions (for legal and administrative purposes): Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, so becoming a Buddhist is a little bit difficult, and this does not even cover the fact that becoming a Buddhist is probably unheard of here. I am sure that there are a lot of "closet" Buddhists in Lebanon, but nobody has gone as far as openly professing it. Not that we would be persecuted or anything; it is just something that has not been done. We do have many Buddhists, but they are overwhelmingly among the domestic helpers coming from Sri Lanka and other Far Eastern countries.

So, with an additional member, my cousin, the society was born.

We do not think, however, that Buddhism, the way it is practiced both in the East and in the West, is a viable alternative to contemporary, rational minds. My stay in the UK during my Ph.D. (Nottingham U.) and a few trips to the United States convinced me that Buddhism, in its present form, is in danger of becoming (or has already become) just another fad, and yet another form of mass consumerism. The idea of forced donations, both in the UK and in the USA, so obviously and so arrogantly demanded by Buddhist centers, is just abhorrent to us. Not only does it violate the principles of Buddhist teachings, but it also makes the whole noble act of striving for enlightenment a purely monetary exchange.

This was not, however, the only misgiving we had about modern Buddhism. As Dr Ambedkar aptly remarked, Buddhism is weighed down by many contradictions and faults, such as social passivity, the belief in Karma and rebirth, and other unpalatable issues. In the absence of scientific evidence, it is very difficult for us to blindly accept, on the basis of tradition, hearsay, and mere faith, such imponderables like the above, in addition to superstitions like the different realms of being (devas, asuras, etc.), obvious gender discrimination, and so on.

The advice to the Kalamas still holds true, and Justin's early posting in response to Bikkhu Bodhi's own interpretation of the sutta in question is excellent. B. Bodhi would have us believe that the Buddha's exhortation was just a trick, albeit a valid and rational one, in order to entice or convince the Kalamas to join the Sangha. Once this is done, he says, faith takes over and rational testing can take a nap.

Nonsense. Even if Siddharta Gautama actually believed this, I would say nonsense again. Faith is something, trust is something else. Trust is built on experimental bases, the way faith is not. Do I have faith in the Buddha? Absolutely not! Do I trust him? Absolutely. The difference is huge.

Indeed, rational inquiry should never stop; it is active and vigilant, just like vipassana attention is vigilant and checks incomers and outgoers in a continuous gaze that observes and dissects in order to understand. Observation is made by us, the observer, and never by somebody else. Our reason is the only "weapon," if I may use the word, to combat superstition, ignorance, blind obedience, and the centers of power so actively busy controling us. If Buddhism is not a method of liberation, in the full sense of the word, a liberation from brainwashing (initiated by others and then self-imposed in panopticon-like fashion) then it is nothing, and we will be the first to repudiate it. If B. Bodhi is afraid of freethinking and of freethinkers, there must be a good reason for it.

We strongly hold that Buddhism, sometimes despite Siddharta Gautama himself, is one of the best vehicles for intellectual emancipation, and that the practice of attention is one of the best tools created in order to wade through the morass of acquired, automatic set(s) of beliefs only necessary for our childhood upbringing. Freud's celebrated essay, "The Future of an Illusion," delineates the process by which humans, ideally, should begin to think for themselves after maturity. Siddharta Gautama was, to us and to many others, one of the first freethinkers, and it is as such that we value him and his--eminently practical--teachings.

It is high time that we wake up and regard Buddhism not as an exotic, Far-Eastern, mysterious way of life replete with treasures and secrets and strange realms, but as a psychological method capable of carrying us--if we exert ourselves, that is--into understanding the way we perceive things and thus into understanding the phenomenal world around us.

We accept the fact that Buddha was imperfect, and that his teachings were partly coloured by his culture, his age, and the idiosyncrasies inherent to them, and we also know that we are also weighed down by our own idiosyncrasies. Nobody is perfect, nobody was perfect, and nobody will be.

What we can strive for, in full honesty and humility, is to better understand ourselves and the functioning of our thought processes in order to better understand our brethren and the world we are living in. Tolerance, forgiveness, and love can only be achieved after a long and arduous process begun inside of us. We believe that Buddhism, adapted to us now (the famous "here and now"), and cleansed as much as possible of its understandable accretions, can offer much in the way of personal and worldwide salvation.

We do believe, just like you do, that Progressive Buddhism is the future of the Middle Way.

Thank you for listening to our views, and thank you Justin for inviting us to join the blog!

Paul

(For more on our views, please read our "Statement of Principles" on the society's webpage at http://www.bsoleb.org/statement.html)

15 comments:

  1. Welcome to the blog Paul and many thanks for a great, thought-provoking post.

    My own background is in Japanese Zen along with Theravada and share your concerns about the distortion of Buddhism for violence.

    I'm just finishing a book which I'm sure would interest you. I'll write a short review here soon.

    Justin

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  2. Paul,

    I greatly support what you are doing and agree 90% with your sentiments in your post here and in your organization's Statement of Principles. Hooray, You!

    Even though, in the wake of the Burma news, I am revealed as a militant Buddhist -- perhaps I should say: an oxymoronic Buddhist -- I am much less concerned about the state of Buddhism (as it is understood or practiced) in the world today than many.

    People have probably usually come to Buddhism for twisted reasons. Buddha had trouble with his followers; I don't think these circumstances will ever abate.

    Those who stay with it are likely to come to, increasingly, have a better understanding of the taste of the teachings and what being a Stream Enterer is all about. I tend not to worry about it. People are like what they are. What can be done?

    Also, there are a thousand routes to Enlightenment. While most would never work for skeptical old me, I accept that other methods may work for others.

    What you have outlined for Progressive Buddhism is inline with my route.

    Also, while I have great concern regarding greedhead practices by notable Buddhists in America, I think things can also be taken too far in the other direction. There are prominent Buddhists who lecture and write about Buddhism who also must eat; I have no beef against them trying to make a buck off their activities. "Capitalists in the occupation of Buddhism" may be weird, but I don't think it is too lucrative to raise enormous concern.

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  3. Welcome Paul!

    My question, prompted by your mention of Ambedkar, and this goes out to everyone (and may eventually be formulated into a full post itself), is: to what extent can we/should we abandon parts of the early (Pali) Buddhist teachings?

    Karma and rebirth for instance, are taken for granted throughout early Buddhist thought. If these were false doctrines, surely the Buddha would have shown their falsehood rather than using them in his teachings. Are we to disbeileve them until experience confirms them? Can it ever? Or are these beliefs (or 'understandings') necessary to the Buddhist path itself? The Buddha does teach that karma is an aspect of right resolve, essential for a concern with morality in the first place ( AN 10.176).

    It will be important in the continued evolution of Buddhism to know what to teach and try to understand and what can be dismissed. At one extreme is a dogmatic conservatism, at the other is something like a hippy-styled 'take what works for you man' attitude. How do we draw the line? And where? - like I said, probably a whole post on its own. But I'll be interested in hearing your thoughts in the meantime.

    Best wishes - Justin Whitaker, London

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  5. I would submit that much of what the Buddha instructed re karma and rebirth, early on, is skillful means to prod people along the path.

    Suffice to say that, I, for one, find no need to worry about karma or rebirth. I'm agnostic on the matter. Disinterested, even.

    While I should behave better than I do, it is because being a kinder fellow is its own reward [in behalf of others!], not because I hope for goodies in future births.

    I think that it is Stephen Batchelor who, rather famously, found he could not believe in karma and rebirth and that blunted his progress as a Tibetan Buddhist. Unless one is seeking to become a lama, or a doctor, I think it is safe for Buddhist Schmoes, like myself, to have no opinion on some matters.

    [I am sure some people would be surprized to learn I have no opinion on some matters, btw.]

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  6. Justin, Tom, and Justin,

    Thanks for the welcome!

    Tom, you're right about the mundane side of life. Siddharta himself was a practical man who advised the lay people on how to use money wisely. What annoyed me--and it's a minor bug, really--is the hypocritical way of dealing with the issue. Since teaching should be for free, but "we can't live without your money," then "let's call it a donation" and by this sleight of hand we get the money but remain clean. I would have much preferred a straightforward, no-nonsense approach which says: "Listen guys, I'm opening a Buddhist centre, and I can't do it for free. Here are the membership details." Full stop.

    This problem is linked to Justin's posting about abandoning parts from the Pali/Buddhist teachings.

    I don't think it's really about abandoning; it's rather about "re-considering," i.e., "considering again," which I see as the rational seeker's epistemological method. When the teachings are thousands of years old, hundreds of years old, even decades old, when they are in a foreign language (Pali, Sanskrit, or even Old English), when the geography, the customs, the mores, and the whole social setup are different, isn't it our duty to "re-consider"?

    I read the "Long Discourses of the Buddha" (Walshe) a few months ago, and I'm now reading the "Middle Length Discourses" (Nanamoli and Bodhi), and I can say, quite frankly, that many of the suttas are a waste of time to me as a modern, educated reader.

    Blasphemy? Not at all. I think we must have the courage to say: "Ok, this is interesting, it tells me (not "it teaches me," mind you) a few things about the ways in which people dealt with each other at the time of the Buddha, about how they sat, about their etiquette, about their addressing each other, about the rules of preseance, about figures of speech, about hierarchy, about the treatment of women, about deference, and so on. These matters have only historical value to me, not more.

    Do I read the suttas with a bowed head and a reverent posture, outwardly and internally? Not at all. I read them with the same attention and respect I would if I were reading Plato, Aristotle, Freud or Foucault or any other important thinker.

    As with all, I will take what I believe is most suitable to me as a rational person, and relegate the rest to the equally valuable but less relevant--to me--domains of history, anthropology, and ethnology.

    Again, Gautama's advice to the Kalamas provides a practical answer to this question about what to take and what to--always respectfully--leave:

    "Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition...nor upon what is in a scripture...nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them."

    (The word "abandon," interestingly, is the one used by Justin).

    As a 21st-century rational person, I will subject "tradition," "scripture," and "teacher" to the test devised by Siddharta himself, but I will go further: not only will I abandon what is bad, blamable, censured by the wise, and leading to harm and ill; I will also re-consider what is outlandish, exotic, out-of-place, superfluous, promoting superstition, discriminatory, haughty, and not belonging to my way of life.

    All of these I will acknowledge, but ultimately leave aside, for the more urgent task of enlightenment, a practical endeavour which begins anew every time I make the conscious effort of being present. As in Zen Buddhism, all the scriptures mean nothing--or, better, mean the same thing--when Satori comes.

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  7. ciao Paul.
    come stai? perché sei diventato buddista? cosa c'é con il cristianesimo che non ti convince piú? Lo sai che qui in italia stanno dissotterrando i corpi dei santi? cose da pazzi!!

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  8. Dear Paul , I was a maronite , infact I was involved in the maronite youth group but being so involved in the church ,I felt it was all just ritualistic , contrived and routed in the dark ages. BUDDHISM IS NO FAD , its THE RELIGION OF THE TIMES because its so flexible , adaptable. I have a combined buddhist and hindu faith . Problem with christianity and other semitic religions like islam and judaism is that their scriptures were written by pretty ordinary people, the bible was not written by jesus but interpreted by his disciples whose ideals fit only with the time they live in . The problem with semetic religions in general , is everything is black and white , your god my god , idol worshipper non worshipper good and evil , buddhism and hinduism , buddhism more specifically believe , there is black white and GREY , and most of the world is grey . If jesus trully died for the sins of humanity ,why is one person born exteme povert and another in wealth? No semitic religion answer has the answer. I love jesus and mary , to me represent forms of divinity of a supreme conscious,which has becoming to earth in various forms from krishna to buddha to jesus.

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  9. nice posting for this site..
    really a wonderful blog...its really good comments ,nice posting

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  10. I'm lebanese and I like to know how I can enter in contact with you.
    Thank you.

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  11. i t is wondurful to hear about buddhism in lebanon.i live in spain 23 years ago but my origin is lebanese.i m buddhist since 2008.
    it is the most blessing and enlightened experience i ve ever lived.my life is an eternal selfgrowing and i feel a real peace inside me. i would like to meet buddhist persons in lebanon.i m going to beirut on april.my phone number in spain is:34649156685.
    email:den.naturopatia@gmail.com.

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  12. I have been Very interested in learning more about buddhism for years now, but unfortunately in Lebanon, we do not have any buddhist center. Does anyone know of a place where i can learn???

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  13. Namaste'
    It brings me great joy to find this thread being posted from Lebanon and the material is simply great.
    I hope this group can flourish in Lebanon, Although I am not yet in contact with them or any Buddhist groups in this country, yet it is one of my greatest aspirations at the time. http://dharmabeirut.com/index.html

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  14. dear paul, how are you? iam very interested to know more about buddism , is there a way i can contact you.thxs
    maya
    email : maya_7roses@hotmail.com

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  15. Hi Paul,

    Excellent initiative! I am a Lebanese Buddhist and I would like to get in touch with you and meet with the members of the Buddhist Society of Lebanon. Do you hold regular meetings? Where do you meet?

    My email is abirtaha@hotmail.com.

    Awaiting your reply,

    I send you my best wishes.

    Abi T. Audi

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