Saturday, November 23, 2013

More On Culture

Really, it's not that I have a problem with culture, per se... I think that was a misunderstanding with my last post, though I have to assume it was willful since I'm pretty sure the article was clear that the problem isn't with culture, but with religion that stems from culture.

Hints that attacking culture-based religion is somehow ungrateful or disrespectful. The idea that criticizing the adherence to Buddhist culture of one's supporters might be somehow be "biting the hand that feeds you" is familiar, if somewhat disheartening - comparing as it does monastics with domestic animals. I'm not sure how to best respond to such accusations, except to point out that the analogy goes both ways; treat someone like a dog and you might just get bitten.

Harsh? By dog, I mean in the best sense possible... a domesticated wild animal that is forced into obedience by threat of starvation. Familiar in all the wrong ways...

Monks aren't dogs, of course... well, not 'of course', really, and that's the disappointing thing, that there might be an expectation for monks to pander to the whims of culture or even worse, the whims of secular materialist society. I would say this only happens when culture or consumerism become religious.

So there, the point isn't that culture is bad or ugly or whatever; as long as you keep it to yourself, it shouldn't ever become an issue. The point is that religion (i.e. that which we take seriously) should never, ever, ever, never be based on anything but scientific observation of reality. Culture and secular affairs have no right to be taken as seriously as they have by otherwise rational religious individuals.

In Thailand the greatest difficulty was in regards to money; many Thais have quipped to me in the past that there are two lords in Thailand - the Buddha and money. Again, this isn't about people, but about the pressure culture places on religion - Thailand abounds with generous individuals. Unfortunately their generosity is routinely reduced to economic terms where giving equals giving money.

Giving money is about the lowest form of giving in my estimation; sure, you've worked hard to produce the money, that should count for something, shouldn't it? Not in a karmic sense, I would argue, since ones mindset while performing the work wasn't likely to be inherently wholesome. Compare to offering a home-cooked meal to religious mendicants, where the entirety of the work performed is related to the act of giving. Or, compare to giving instruction on meditation practice, where the benefit is an order of magnitude greater than a full stomach. Unfortunately, the blinders of materialism have created a sort of tunnel vision that is only able to see value in economic terms.

This isn't really a problem for lay people; the exchange of material goods is a part of secular life. As a monk, however, the culture of giving (money) presented practical problems on a routine basis; bribes to local monastic and governmental officials, donations to abbots, and monetary support of workers and underlings are all activities that, even if one were inclined towards them, do not lend themselves to easy performance by Buddhist monastics. Simply put, it always felt like money was the only currency in Thai culture, and being a penniless mendicant put one at a distinct disadvantage in a society where most mendicants were not so penniless. Culture got very much in the way of religion, as far as I could see.

In dealing with Sri Lankan culture, there was less of an issue; for the most part because of far less interaction between monastics and laity. I'm not sure whether that means Thai Buddhists are overly concerned with monastic activities or that Sri Lankan Buddhists are overly neglectful. Neither one seems problematic in itself. It's the nature of the interaction that rubs errant, so to speak.

It was a shock to see how critical some Sri Lankan Buddhists were of monastics in Sri Lanka, after the overly polite Thai culture; but over time, that too began to seem innocuous - as a Canadian, politeness is more familiar, but a slap in the face can be refreshing as well, de temps en temps. No, the issue again is what is behind all the slapping. Being called ungrateful is one thing; certainly a serious charge, but therefore all the more worth taking seriously. When the evidence of ingratitude is an unwillingness to perform certain rituals or provide certain services, it again becomes an issue of religion.

Simply put, when I am supported by Thai people, I am expected to adhere to Thai culture; when I am supported by Sri Lankan people, I am expected to adhere to Sri Lankan culture. For students and devotees, this can easily be remedied by explanations and injunctions - those who hold respect are ever pliant; for others (those with money, power, etc.), there is an ever-present expectation of compromise.

Compromise. An interesting word. Being uncompromising is dangerous. Certainly, every time culture rears its foreign head, we have to ask ourselves whether and how to compromise our practices to fit the culture. Where our practices are as well cultural, it may certainly do to compromise them in favour of assimilation; where our practices are religious (at least scientifically so), I would beg to differ.

That meditation practice is a subtle thing goes without saying; it's clearly more than just sitting cross-legged with one's eyes closed. Cultivating a proper meditative environment is important for all concerned; one where giving is without expectations, morality is without conceit, and meditation practice is without views. Attachment to rites and rituals (which, it must be admitted, culture of all sorts is) for their own sake is a danger to proper meditation practice and therefore true religion.

I guess that's it, then; culture seems to have a way of weaseling its way into religion, conflicting with and even supplanting more scientific-based practices. That's why I find it problematic. But the worst is that this sort of reasoning is likely to fall on deaf ears; we are all blind to our own love of our own culture.

So, for the record; I have no problem, personally, with Thai people or Sri Lankan people; I don't think Canadian people are better or worse than either. I favour Canadian culture, probably because I'm Canadian, but I would never think to let it consciously interfere with my practice of the Buddha's teaching. On the other hand, this isn't about me or you or anyone in particular; it's about the difference between culture and science and how seriously we take them. I am of the opinion that culture is a danger to science and of no intrinsic benefit to religion; at best it can be a benign structural support, if and only if it is not taken too seriously.

Finally, for the record, all is well here. I write these things because I think about them, not because I'm drowning in cultural oppression :) In December I'll be heading back to Ontario and New York to visit Wat Khmer Krom and my parents. In January, I'm off to Thailand and maybe Sri Lanka - being a visitor in a foreign culture is pleasant enough and both countries have hordes of pleasant people (to say the least).

Thank you to everyone who has supported me and my work, especially those who have sent things from my wishlist, since I am normally unable to express my thanks directly (often I don't even know who it was who sent the item). I may have need of a means of at least one-way transportation from Ontario to Rochester, NY to see my mother; any support in the form of a bus ticket would be much appreciated.

Tonight is Monk Radio at 7 PM Winnipeg time. Dhammapada videos and Sutta study are back on schedule until at least Ontario. Otherwise, it is quiet here.

Be well :)