Friday, November 08, 2013

Science, Religion, and Culture

I was thinking to write an article about the difference between religion and culture, but it doesn't seem like the discussion would be complete without including religion's best frenemy, science. So, here goes.

I'm writing this article both because these three topics are of course of great professional interest to me as a Buddhist monk, but also because of how heavily they weigh upon my practical life. Culture, especially, has been the bane of much of my monastic life and I have yet to find much positive to say of it.

First, some definitions. I'm defining the three terms as follows:

Science is the pursuit of knowledge.
Religion is taking something seriously.
Culture is habitual behaviour.

These are purposefully bare definitions that I doubt would satisfy the proponents of any of the above. The point is to contrast and demarcate the boundaries between the three.

Science and religion can be best friends or worst enemies; if you take science seriously, it becomes religious. This is great when you also take happiness and suffering seriously, as that will help limit your scientific pursuits to those that are of actual benefit. Science without religion is lame, as Einstein famously said. This is true, I think, but I would say it is more importantly untrained. Science can be incredibly beneficial but it requires beneficial religion (i.e. taking beneficence seriously) to train it to be consistently so, otherwise it is unpredictable and mostly useless. Bad religion, of course, makes science a tool for supreme evil, whereas science without religion can only be accidentally evil.

Where science and religions are worst enemies is where religion is blind. Most religions eschew science for this very reason, since they are formed from culture, rather than science.

Culture becomes religion when it begins to be taken seriously, in the same way as science does. Unlike science, however, culture is only accidentally purposeful - though it may seem scientific, it is not purposefully so. Much of the Jewish culture I grew up with is of this nature - some of it, like not eating cloven-hoofed animals, may have been informed by science, and some of it, like not eating meat with milk, seems to be purely religious in origin, but much of it, e.g. holiday rituals like Pesach and Hanukkah, is simply historical tradition that has come to be taken seriously.

Buddhism is similarly plagued by culture; I can't in fact think of any instance where culture has turned religious to the benefit of Buddhism, and have a library full of examples of where it has caused harm.

Take the offering of rag robes to monks, for example. 9 out of 10 Buddhists haven't a clue I'm sure what this tradition means or where it came from; not many Buddhist monks wear rag robes anymore, after all. We are supposed, of course, to try our best to be content with rags for robes; way back when, this lead lay people to seek to gain merit by throwing away good cloth in a place where they knew the monks would find it. The practice grew into a tradition of draping good cloth over the branches of trees by the path monks were known to walk to and from the village on. Eventually, people began to take this practice seriously and voila it became religious.

Now, this wouldn't have been a bad thing if it had stayed simply at throwing robes into the forest but the thing about taking things seriously is that they therefore require structure. Given that there is nothing in Buddhism to provide a set structure for throwing rags into forests, havoc ensueth. One of my most memorable experience of a rags-robe offering ceremony was where the entire village showed up, mostly drunk, with a dead tree in a bucket of sand with money dangling from its branches and... no robe. Seriously, they prepared the ceremony and I asked where the robe is and they didn't know what I was talking about - they thought it was all about money.

Mostly it is, in Thailand. "Discarding a forest robe" has become one of the greatest money-making endeavours for monasteries today. Now, far be it for me to criticize those who would support Buddhist monastic institutions, but it is a bit of a leap from monks scrounging for discarded cloth to cover their private parts to monks scrounging for bills and coins to cover their satellite television costs...

But I digress. The point is that culture seems destined to ruin religion - given our confidence that Buddhism is pretty much perfect, it seems apt to ask how culture could possibly improve it? I suppose the same could be said for science, for that matter - certainly, materialist science has done its share in blinding Buddhist practitioners to, for example, the reality of rebirth. But this seems unfair to science; science is, after all, about knowledge and knowledge and truth are inseparable. That materialist science is blind to certain truths merely makes it unscientific.

The same cannot be said about culture. Culture is habit, which can be wholly detrimental to religion and yet remain cultural. Another example I'm fond of regaling my students with is about a monastery I once stayed at that holds yearly beauty pageants as part of their cultural show. Somehow, culture has eclipsed religion making us blind to the very teachings we are supposed to be promulgating.

On a personal level, culture-turned-religion has made it ever difficult to live among "Buddhists", as they are unable (or unwilling, I guess) to distinguish the aspects of their religion that come from science (i.e. the Buddha's enlightenment) and those that stem from culture. The Buddha himself employed culture, I suppose; the rains retreat, the holy days, the kathina ceremony, etc. could be seen as a sort of Buddhist culture that, while not improving on the religious teachings themselves, may be seen supporting the religion.

Maybe a model could be found here; culture is to be allowed where it supports the teaching without becoming religious. Meaning, it is a merely a tool and should not be taken too seriously, and should absolutely never be used to alter the teachings in any way. Meaning, culture should never be a reason to act, speak, or think in a way that is at odds with religion (at least as far as Buddhism goes, of course).

This seems to be the missing wisdom in Buddhist cultures today, where we find Buddhist monks praying for warlords to be victorious and calling for jihad against non-Buddhist immigrants; where we find lay people controlling monks and forcing them to adjust their practices to fit cultural whims; where we find that Buddhists of all stripes have turned Buddhism into a ritualistic orgy of food, money and power.

I'm hyperbolic, of course. While is much that has crept into Buddhism to make one's skin crawl, I don't personally have to deal with orgies on a regular basis. Still, it is enough to make one want to avoid Buddhists entirely, both Eastern and Western, when one sees how easily they turn culture into religion and use their new religion to turn against Buddhism. As other Buddhist teachers can surely attest, there is something refreshing about teaching non-Buddhists; they are a clean slate, as it were, on which your teaching can be inscribed in unadulterated form. Those indoctrinated in some form of Buddhism through their culture (and here I include Western Buddhist culture insofar as it exists) are often unable to see the forest for the trees.

I guess I would like this article to encourage people to question their steadfast adherence to culture; I doubt that it will, though. There's something comfortable about habits, especially when they "work". Much of "Buddhist" culture is pleasant and non-threatening; it allows us to think we can have our omelette without breaking any eggs. In fact, it seems to actually hinder the breaking of eggs - any part of the religion that threatens the cultural norms is shunned like heresy.

More commonly, though, culture simply makes religion practice awkward. Cultures where societal interaction is important, for example, make a mockery of things like meditation and monasticism; monks are seen as little more than priests or, at best, social workers whose duty it is to solve the problems of the laity. Cultures that emphasize money and power turn monks into politicians and kings. Etc.

Mostly, I think we should be able to expect Buddhists to keep their cultures to themselves, just as we expect people of other religions to keep their religion to themselves. This is the most trying aspect of cultural Buddhism, that Buddhists seem bent on enforcing their culture on people like me who are just trying to practice the teachings of the Buddha. Certainly, I must have my own cultural ideas about Buddhism that colour my own practice; this article is not meant to point fingers, but to argue against those who believe (consciously or not) that culture is somehow an integral part of religion.

Believe me, having travelled around the world and seen Buddhism practised in more varied ways than I can count, I can say for certain that Buddhist culture can never and should never be more than the shell of an egg - it can protect its charge but can never improve upon it. And if it's too thick in its application, it can stifle and kill that which it is meant to protect.

So, there you go. Peace :)