What attracted me to Buddhism in the first place was its emphasis on the ‘eternal present’ – the here-and-now. It was like a welcome slap in the face, the shoulder pummelling of the Zendo; a wake-up call. It was therefore disappointing that, looking at the various strands of Buddhism current in the West today, I am struck by the degree to which the majority of them appear to be fascinated to a greater or lesser degree by what, in the old days of the British Empire, was termed ‘Orientalism’, that is, by the ‘Long ago and Far Away’ of the imported schools. This varies in degree from the use of Buddha images and shrines from the different Asian countries to, at the extreme, dressing in Asian robes and even taking Asian names. Imagine the situation if Christianity had adopted these practises! I have the suspicion that there is an element of desiring to appear different in some practitioners. Perhaps this is necessary for some people – it emphasises their commitment by stepping outside of the day-to-day world, but this hardly encourages outsiders to look at the Moon – not the finger. Remember that the last of the ox-herding pictures indicates a return to the everyday world.
I feel strongly that Buddhism will never become a mainstream religion in the West until it can be practised fully in the local language, without reference to Chinese, Japanese or even, in the end, Sanskrit or Pali. I am also being only slightly flippant when I say that Buddhism will not have really arrived in the West until there are Western Buddha figures. Why not? The Chinese have Chinese figures, the Japanese have Japanese figures etc. – but even my own, by default, is Indonesian!
I think this post points out a few things about all religions. It not only applies to Buddhism in the West but to Southern Baptist in the large Southern Cities, The Lutherans, Anglicans, and Catholics throughout the states. They are all trying to catch that new, hip, young, CONTEMPORARY crowd by abandoning some of the rituals and traditions that made them so important to their parishioners across the years. There are churches meeting in concert venues with rock bands and movie screens, projecting a party atmosphere rather than a ceremony of reverence and respect for the God they are to be worshipping.
What is wrong with tradition? I don't want to see the Pope give Easter Mass in an expensive Italian suit. He is SUPPOSED to be dressed in robes and garments that Popes have worn throughout history – he’s the Pope not a preacher or a salesman.The Dalai Lama wears monk's robe because he's a monk - a monk from an Asian order. What else is he supposed to wear? As Buddhism spread throughout America there were many Americans who took vows in these Tibetan, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, etc orders and wear robes because they are monks in Asian monastic orders and how they separate themselves by wearing those robes means something.
I guess it bothers me that we try so hard to take the point of ritual out of our religion sometimes. Churches of all faiths have relegated the "Traditional" service to the 8 AM crowd. The may as well call it "OLD Fogey Service" as my younger relatives have lovingly called it. Why can't we have the "Contemporary" (better known as the "I don't really want to be reminded that I am at Church”) service at 8 am?
In our efforts to bring faith and spirituality to the Here and Now we lose touch with the rituals and traditions that tie us together as a congregation, a sangha, a gathering of friends - whatever we chose to call ourselves. Certainly the traditions and ceremonies or even the traditional lack of ceremonies provides the basis and fundamental structure to understand that we aren't dealing in a ‘here today gone tomorrow’ realm. Our spirituality and beliefs go back throughout time and we remind ourselves of that every time we chant a Tibetan mantra or recite liturgy in Latin, when we decorate our assembly halls in images and artifacts that seem outdated, when we sing 200 year old hymns that our great-grandparents sang in church. Removing such things from our faith practice makes it more like a fad, a practice that is new and cool but has no basis, no structure, and no foundation to prove its worth.
So for me this is what church looks like now and I really don't want it any other way.
Images courtesy of Google Images except H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama courtesy of Drepung Loseling Monastery Atlanta, GA