Tuesday, March 3, 2009

St Mary's 3

I had hoped by now to write on the media and St Mary's but I wanted to address another issue about what's been happening there, what I would term syncretism as neo-colonialism. For some time now St Mary's has had a regular Buddhist meditation group. I only found out about it last year.

Of course the obvious question arises why Buddhist meditation at a Christian church? It's not as if there aren't Christian traditions of meditation. Indeed there is a world wide movement for Christian meditation which comes out of the work of a Benedictine monk, John Main, and under the currrent drection of his student the Benedictine, Laurence Freeman. They have many groups in Brisbane including one at St Francis church in West End but nothing listed at St Mary's. Furthermore there are rich meditation traditions in both eastern and western Christianity, including the Jesus Prayer of Eastern Orthodoxy. So I am curious as to why a Buddhist meditation group.

I'm not criticising Buddhist meditation. Of all religions, Buddhism is the most adaptable and can sit together with just about any other religion. I further appreciate how mutually enriching inter-faith dialogue of Christian, Buddhist, Hindu monastics has been. Long may it flourish! But I also know that there are varieties of Buddhism and of meditation practices. One of my friends and colleagues while doing my PhD was Patrick a practitioner and teacher of Vipassana or insight meditation. So I wonder what sort of Buddhist meditation is being taught at St Mary's?

Very recently I found out that it is the unofficial priest, Terry Fitzpatrick, who runs this group and presumably is the meditation teacher. Now I have a number of friends who are Buddhist practitioners. some of whom have entered the sangha. I think I have a grasp of what is going on in Buddhist meditation. Patrick especially taught me much about vipassana and I think I can understand its dynamics. Patrick learnt much of it in monasteries in southeast Asia. So I also know that there's a lot of work involved before someone can teach this stuff. I might have a grasp of what's going on but I would never set out to teach it although I could teach people about it which is a different thing altogether.

So what's happening at St Mary's. Is it a case of trendy neo-colonial appropriation as was the case with the supposed 'native american dance for peace' we were invited to join at the opening of the Good Friday liturgy back in 2003? If there were Native Americans in the congregation at the time I would have but St Mary's is one of the whitest congregations I've been in in Brisbane. So my friend and I walked out and went to the cathedral because that was clearly a case of Native American = 'spiritual' = cool, lets appropriate it. I wonder if the Buddhist meditation is more of the same. And I wonder what credentials, if any, Terry has to teach it or whether this is just another case of appropriating neo-colonial spiritual cool.


  1. Michael,

    Thank you for the St Mary's discussion which has been very interesting. Just a few notes on the Buddhist meditation:

    Any number of Buddhist traditions would have a different interpretation of St Mary's meditation classes. As far as Western Buddhism goes, it's pretty much 'anything goes' as Buddhism has been appropriated and interpreted to serve a myriad political and philosophical interests.

    I think though, that for any Buddhist tradition that pays serious attention to scripture, the sort of theosophical stuff practiced at St Mary's belongs more to new-age mysticism than Buddhism. I notice that in the West there are a lot of attempts made to harmonise 'their' (oriental) practices with 'our' religious traditions. This, culturally, stems from the fact that early Western understandings of Buddhism were in fact heavily influenced by Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society. Early western refractions of Buddhism - which were inherently theosophical and humanist - in turn influenced the way that some traditions practice their Buddhism to the extent that, for example, some Japanese traditions embraced the new Western popularity surge and became more humanist and rationalist to accomodate it.

    I'm fairly hardline, but I think that it is entirely inappropriate for people to co-opt Buddhist terminology to add trimmings to something. For someone to do this on a good-faith basis consistent with the enormous scriptural context of any discernible Buddhist tradition, they would have to at the very least train under a meditation master. Strict adherence to the Pali Canon would regard Christiano-Buddhist-y meditation as an exercise in frivolity and indulgence. If I were in an unforgiving mood I would say that for the Catholic Priest at St Mary's to be teaching Buddhist meditation practices is entirely disrespectful to both the Catholic Church and Buddhist religions. I think the most grating thing about this is that meditation is not simply a Buddhist thing, as you pointed out, and people can teach meditation in an unequivocally Christian context without trivialising and diluting Buddhism. Buddhist meditation can not be compartmentalised separated from the exegetical organism in which it exists, and that includes unavoidable and probably blasphemous consequences for the understanding of Jesus Christ, for example.

    In saying this, Western Buddhism is so appallingly mystical, theosophical and humanist that a case can be made for absolutely anything. I think when push comes to shove, outside of the rubric of Western Buddhism it would be difficult to construct a scriptural basis for these sorts of new-age trends. It's kind of like when people name their hairdressing salon or bar "Zen" or similar - it's the mistaken belief that Buddhism is simply a funky, mysterious, design principle that can be used to dress up anything, but just because it's popular doesn't make it okay (just like St Mary's).

  2. Hi Emerald, I think you're spot on. There's been a lot of western appropriation of Buddhism in some kind of romantic way. What's happening is not Buddhism at all, As I said I know Budhist practitioners from different traditions. I know the work they've put in most have spent some time in the sangha so I'm concerned that someone who to the best of my knowledge has never been in the sangha is teaching "Buddhist" meditation. What sort of Buddhist meditation is it - there are many forms of Buddhism and a variety of practices

    I strongly beleive that religions can be mutually enriched through interfaith dialogue but that sort of dialogue should be carried out with mutual respect

    Some of that really bad sort of approrpiatng ideology can be found in this piece linked from St Mary's website

    I left a very critical comment but the author has not responded

  3. Thanks for your analysis so far, Michael, which I find refreshing in its honesty and in the fact that you have first hand experience of St Mary's from which to speak.

    I would disagree with you on so many things that I could hardly begin to list them, but I fully respect the angle from which you are coming, and want to acknowledge your consistency in carrying out your analysis from this point of view.

    In short, I found myself constantly thinking as I read your analysis that you are either right for the wrong reasons or wrong for the right reasons!

    But in one thing you are quite right: the Eucharist is the central issue, and neither the folk at St Mary's nor the media seem to have grasped this.

  4. Hi Michael,

    As a Zen Buddhist but a non-Christian, I have a couple of remarks.

    If St. Mary's is conducting a Zen meditation group, then I can see no problem (provided they have a qualified teacher). Zen initially grew out of Buddhism, but Zen is not Buddhism or any other religion. Zen is entirely different from religion. So you can be a Zen Buddhist (most commonly), but also a Zen Christian or a Zen Atheist. Practice of Zen does not imply Buddhism. There have been great Zen masters who lacked basic knowledge of the sutras. Zen practitioners emphasise "direct experience" over knowledge of scripture and doctrine.

    I also slightly disagree with Emerald about the mystical nature of Western Buddhism. Western Zen Buddhism is entirely grounded in the here/now. There is no mysticism. Zen is just THIS! Yes there are lots of "Zentertainment" books out there and a misuse of Zen in the popular culture. But for people actually practicing Zen, there is no mysticism. Sure you can have mystical "enlightenment" experiences, but these are best ignored. They are not the fundamental point of Zen. (Here I am taking the view of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism. Other sects give more weight to "enlightenment". I think they are misguided.)

    I should also admit that anything I said about Zen is incorrect on some level. As I said above, Zen practitioners emphasize direct experience. You must experience Zen in order to know it. You can't "get it" by talking about it or reading about it in books. As one Zen master said, "Even one word is too much." So I am sorry for all the above mistakes.



  5. Simone, I don't quite know what form of Buddhist meditation is being taught and I agree Zen can be Christian, Buddhist or anything. However my concern is that to the best of my knowledge there are no credentialled teachers in any Buddhist tradition running the group. So given what I've seen of syncretistic appropriation at St Marys my concern is that this is yet another example of such neo-colonialism.

  6. Schutz: In short, I found myself constantly thinking as I read your analysis that you are either right for the wrong reasons or wrong for the right reasons!

    I'd be really interested in you elaborating that. I'm intrigued :)

  7. Simone and Michael, I see where you are coming from with regard to Zen not being Buddhism or not being religious. But I have to most strenuously disagree! Zen is a form of Buddhism no matter how you look at it. I think it's like saying that Quakers are not Christians because their primary method of worship is silent, unstructured meditation. But just like the Quakers, Zen sits within an enormous body of scriptural tradition, an enormous pantheon of deities and demi-deities, and is located within a highly complex and faith-based meta-cosmological framework.

    I recognise that there is a /particular/ tradition of Zen that deemphasises "religiousness" and emphasises raw experientialism, but it is in fact an example of a niche Japanese Zen tradition that has found huge popularity in the West, precisely because of its adaptability and its appeal to humanism and rationalism.

    In fact, Zen concepts of ever present mindfulness by philological necessity sacralise every moment of daily life (the here and now), Zen has a rich literary history, is replete with prayer, chanting, invocation, devotion, affirmation of faith, reverence toward the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas. Mahayana Buddhism broadly, and particularly Ch'an and Zen, also sit upon a necessary foundation of Suttas which in many cases are exponentially more legendary and 'religious' than the Pali Canon.

    The question I would ask, Michael and Simone: how is Zen or Ch'an /not/ Buddhism or religious!?

    I suggest the following as food for thought:


  8. I realize that Zen Buddhism has a rich literary history. But when it comes down to it, the literature is useless. It's like cooking: There are a lot of great cookbooks out there, but you can't eat them. But if you actually cook then there are amazing meals awaiting! In Zen, all that matters is direct experience, which pretty much means a lot of meditation plus maybe some koan study (if you like koans). Yes there are deities in Buddhism, but for a Zen practitioner, they are entirely beside the point, and you don't have to believe in any of them. You don't have to believe in the "truth" of any of the sutras either. But if you find meaning in them, well maybe there is something there to take notice of... You certainly don't need to take any of them literally. In fact all the sutras and ceremonies are just window-dressing. They are ultimately useless, although they do provide a colour and movement show for the general public. They are not the essence of Zen.

    I like your example of the Quakers. I think they are very close to Zen practice. They are clearly Christians, however!

    I disagree that Zen requires faith. You can try Zen practice for yourself and decide whether it is useful to you! Yes there can be chanting. I'm in a Zen Buddhist group, so it makes sense to chant the Heart Sutra. I imagine a Zen Christian might instead say the Lord's prayer at some stage during sitting.

    I've never been a part of any devotion or affirmation of faith, although we do venerate Buddhas and Bohdisattvas. But we don't worship them, as they are not God(s). Even old Shakyamuni Buddha himself is not worshipped, as he explicitly said that he was not a god. I've never prayed to any deity. Yes, every moment is sacred and equally, every moment is defiled. In Zen, to set up such a dichotomy is already a mistake.

    Why is Zen not Buddhism? Well, you don't have to read sutras or chant or believe or do anything except practice meditation, and bring the results of your meditation into your everyday life. The meditation practice does not involve saying a mantra or other practice that can be linked to a religious tradition: The simplest form of Zen meditation involves repeatedly counting your breaths from one to ten! That's it! Nothing mystical there.

    If anything, I think Zen practice could be considered as a kind of psychological theory, with a strong practical focus.



  9. Thanks Simone for this great discussion. It's been very challenging for me! I'm afraid, being as persistent as I am, I'm going to have to continue to disagree!

    First, I think there is a logical paradox underpinning the idea of the disposable nature of the Suttas and other Zen and Ch'an literature. On the one hand, Zen and Ch'an /are/ the literature. The Mahayana Suttas, which were mysteriously disclosed a significant time after the Buddha's death legitimise and sacralise all aspects of Zen Buddhism and certify them, if you like, as being teachings of the Buddha (hence Buddhist). On the other hand, the literature and the Suttas also qualify and authenticate the experientialism of Zen. That is to say, at the very least, an allegorical interpretation of Suttas and associated literature is necessary to approximate what Zen is, even if it is reduced to bare experience.

    IN terms of the deities being beside the point, I think this is entirely illogical. I don't know if in your tradition devotees still take the great vows, but these are an integral part of Zen and CH'an more broadly. The importance of the deities enters here - they are the ideal and the goal of Zen practice - the realisation of Bodhisattva capability, in order to ensure the liberation of all human beings. They are entirely /the point/ precisely because they are the meaning of the practice and they are the essence of the 'universalist' soteriology that is supposed, in part, to distinguish Mahayana from Theravada and early Buddhism. I think that the disposability of the deities is just another aspect of the rationalist 'post-BUddhism' that has been imported to the West - stripped of all its complicated faith elements and rendered, as you describe it, a psychology and a practice.

    On the topic of faith, I find it extremely interesting that you say that Zen does not require faith. I know of no construction on enlightenment principles anywhere in the broader Buddhist literature which references a faithless enlightenment. I agree that empty devotion or meaningless worship is not beneficial (for all schools of Buddhism), but I'm of the view that all Buddhism views faith (particularly in the Buddha's teaching) one way or another as being an integral aspect of liberation. Perhaps it might be useful here to substitute 'belief' for 'faith', as that might carry less linguistic baggage in that regard.

    In terms of the minimalism of Zen Buddhism that you describe, I think you could easily be describing the fringe of most sorts of historical lay Buddhism, or alternately the vast majority of contemporary lay Buddhism. The simple and occasional practice of meditation is the life of the lay Buddhist, as compared to the involved and more adorned monastic lifestyle. I would also point out that the simplicity of meditation practices can not be separated from the psychological and cosmological context in which they exist. That is to say: what it means to meditate in a Zen tradition, and why you do it, are inseparable from the worldview and belief systems which create and arbitrate those meditation practices. I would also point out that 'counting breaths' is a practice which I believe was first described in Buddhaghosa's "Visuddhimagga" which is an enormous treatise on Buddhist meditation and is now the cornerstone of Theravada BUddhism. IN it, Buddhaghosa describes counting breaths as an aspect of mindfulness of breathing meditation under the broader study of concentration meditation. According to the greater body of Buddhist literature, and teachers across the different traditions, there is nothing simple about counting breaths!

    Finally, the points you make about Zen being merely psychology or philosophy I think could equally apply to any religious practice stripped of its legends and reduced to a system of ethics. But the truth about Zen is that it is understood as special teachings of the Buddha transmitted in a special way, to special people who were uniquely capable of receiving the teachings. The words we use are linguistic tools, and Buddhism means at the very least an adherence to the teachings of the Buddha. If your Zen teacher has removed Buddha, Buddhism, Zen, and all the extraordinary depth and complexity of this wonderful tradition, refer them to me because I'd like to have words!

  10. Hi Emerald, I'm very sorry it was not my intention to say that Zen as not Buddhist. It certainly is. But I was acknowledging that there is now Christian Zen, meanng that Zen practices can potentially be fitted to different traditions. THanks to you and Simone for a great discussion

  11. Michael, I wrote a long comment here and then I managed to do something and the browser ate it, so I guess it's a sign that brevity is called for...

    In short (really this will be the short version), I'm wondering if with your academic background and such if you know of key literature on Christian Buddhism, or I guess specifically Christian Zen. I've been scouring the databases and even the broader intertubes for good stuff today, but the stuff I find is not really helping.

    I guess most of what I find keeps your earlier words about syncretism as neo-colonialism in my mind. Plenty of the literature seems to discuss the disposability of the Buddhist trimmings and there's this developing post-Buddhist Buddhist Meditation praxis. So what I'm really looking for is Christian-Buddhism syncretism or interreligiousness that /doesn't/ necessarily involved denuded Buddhism.

    I'll continue my search but if you know of anything off the top of your head I'd really appreciate it. I'm loathe to say it, but the nature of what Christian-Buddhist meditation/Christian-Zen interreligion actually is seems to be suggesting more assimilation than syncretism.

  12. Emerald, off the top of my head I don't. Much of what I've read has been Merton and various anthologies on Buddhist-Christian inter-monastic dialogue. I suspect a lot of Christian Zen is practice rather than writing. But I'll keep my eyes peeled and if anything turns up post it here

  13. With respect to the discussions above, I think we need to be very careful when discussioning labels - especially in terms of eastern religious traditions.

    Certainly, there are a number of Buddhist meditative techniques (particularly those stemming from the early texts) which are not particularly doctrinally Buddhist in their objective. In fact, many of these techniques are referred to in other contemporaneous Indian religious literature - ie. early "Hindu" & especially Jaina material.

    Research by Buddhist textual scholars like Lambert Schmithausen & Johannes Bronkhorst has fairly conclusively shown that the importance of smRti/sati ("mindfulness") was taken over from the Jaina tradition, the formless (arUpa) meditations were taken over from Jaina & Bbrahmanical techniques whilst my own research shows that the sequence of the very common four jhAnas/dhyAnas also appears in early Jaina literature. Early Buddhist texts like the BrahmajAla sUtra refer to a number of brahmanical/heretical traditions who utilise meditative traditions which have since become known as quintessentially Buddhist.

    My point here is that even the traditions of meditation that are now referred to as "Buddhist" emerged from an early Indian milieu of introspective traditions where various techniques were shared between the various spiritual teachers and their followers. Some of these traditions were openly theistic, others were atheistic, others were non-theistic.

    The extent to which modern Buddhism/Jainism or Hinduism has preserved these traditions with fidelity is open to debate. However, my point is that we should be careful when referring to Buddhist texts as authorities for particularly "Buddhist" meditative techniques. Often those very techniques appear with an albeit different rhetorical slant in other early Indian texts.

    With regard to the "Buddhist" content of SOtO Zen, the soteriological aim of sOtO Zen introspective practice (attaining a state of non-discursive, non-bifurcatory, non-conceptual thought) does appear to align to the philosophical position of Madhyamaka MahAyAna Buddhism. Certainly, sOtO zen monasteries in Japan are "Buddhist" in character and more particularly *Japanese* Buddhist in character. I do think that there is something neo-colonial about seeking to strip sOtO Zen of its Buddhist and esp. Japanese character.

    Recent textual discoveries demonstrate that this tradition of Buddhist practice has a significant historical pedigree from as far afield as 8th century Tibet later becoming the rdzogs chen practices in (esp) the rnying ma pa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. I think the entire point of certain Zen practitioners shirking the "Buddhist" label is in order to avoid discursive labelling and thus bifurcation (Buddhist vs "other").

    I am not a Buddhist nor a Christian but I think it is possible to hold theistic positions and practice many "Buddhist" meditative techniques up to the point where certain particularly Buddhist soteriological goals are anticipated. The early Buddhist texts clearly anticipate a society where theism is prominent. However, it should be noted that belief in the soteriological efficacy of Gods is openly ridiculed and denied.

    I wonder how this significant philosophical chasm can be bridged between Buddhist meditation and Christian believers in a way that respects the authenticity of both traditions.

  14. AFJ77, I think you've nailed it. A good author in this area is Robert H. Sharf. He would probably kick my normative butt, though.

  15. Hi Michael,
    As the friend who walked out of St Mary's in 2003 over the appropriation of Indigenous religion I'd like to say I agree with all that you have said on this matter. As a past student of both Christianity and Indigenous religion it is depressing the complete lack of rigorous intellectual thought that manifests in practices that while are well intended are deeply offensive to both the Indigenous people and catholics alike.
    I once went to St Marys with another friend for a 5 pm regular mass in ordinary time in which a baptism was performed. The baptism began with the whole congregation invited to join in a Australian Aboriginal dreaming dance.In some Australian Aboriginal Anthropologies humans are pre-existent in spirit form (though not in a western sense as these "spirits" require physical sustainence)the dance was performed in some mish mash of Catholic and Aboriginal anthropologies were the spirit child was necromanced into the body of the catholic baby.The aboriginal tradition would involve the spirit child entering the womb of the mother at conception so the St Marys ritual would be unintelligible to the first people especially the dualism of the St Marys ritual that is lacking in the Aboriginal Anthropology. For Catholic Anthropology the Pauline-Plato debate on the nature of the self is still somewhat unresolved but the necromantic dualism of the St Marys ritual is still unintelligible to the entire spectrum of Catholic Anthropology. This deeply offensive rite meant that as a catholic who also has a skin name I had no other choice but to remove myself from the church. The theological confusion of this ritual is exacerbated by the political confusion in it as well. As you have alluded to many times St Mary's is a well to do Anglo-Saxon and Celtic community that exists in a suburb with a very visible Indigenous community that are noticeably absent from this church.