On the Lure of Buddhism

Update: See my full review here.

I’m about half way through Harold Netland‘s Christianity and Religious Diversity: Clarifying Christian Commitments in a Globalizing Age. Since Netland spent many years in Japan and has previously written on Buddhism (see here), I was looking forward to the chapter entitled “Buddhism in the Modern World.”

There is consistent intrigue and, I might even say, a naive “love affair” with Buddhist teachings in the West. Yet Netland’s findings suggest that the Buddhism embraced is actually flawed. Historically speaking and in large part this is due to the work of one person: D. T. Suzuki. According to Buddhist critics, Suzuki’s Buddhism fails to accurately represent essential, historic Buddhist teachings, even the Zen tradition championed by Suzuki. The main point taken up by Netland is not a polemic on Suzuki. Instead Netland illustrates how the “portrayal of a particular religion can be influenced by factors external to that tradition itself” (p 97); so much so that the very nature of the tradition morphs beyond what members of that tradition might recognize. Moreover, Suzuki’s claims are so far-reaching that they encapsulate “Eastern spirituality” as a whole, failing to take into account the diverse expressions and differences of Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Taoism (p 99).

Most interesting is the maneuver by Suzuki of “playing off the East against the West” (p 100). This is to counter sweeping negative generalizations the West had of Buddhism. Ironically, Suzuki himself becomes guilty of broad-brushing his version of Buddhism in a strategy labeled as “reverse Orientalism” — a dialectic process whereby one side vilifies the other through highlighting differences thus creating an antithesis. Netland writes:

The West was then portrayed [by Suzuki] as crassly materialistic, crude, ethically insensitive, violent, spiritually bankrupt, and obsessed with a rationality and scientism that keeps it from recognizing genuine spiritual truth and insight. By contrast, the East was depicted as gentle and nonviolent, ethically sensitive, harmonious, wise, and guardian of an intuitive, mystical spirituality that transcends the superficial rationality of Western monotheism. While such sweeping generalizations are just as misleading as those of the Western Orientalists, they can be highly effective in shaping perceptions about religions such as Hinduism or Buddhism in their encounter with modernity and the West. What was introduced by Suzuki to the West in the early twentieth century as the essence of Buddhism and Eastern spirituality was in part just such a construct of reverse Orientalism. The universality of Zen as the ground of all genuine religious truth, regardless of culture or religion, was thus juxtaposed against the esoteric particularities of “Eastern thought” exemplified in Japanese spirituality, thereby rendering Zen inaccessible to the “Western mind.” (p 100)

Consequently, Suzuki would “devote a considerable portion of prodigious energies tantalizing a legion of disenchanted Western intellectuals with the dream of an Oriental enlightenment” (quoting Robert H. Sharf, “The Zen of Japanese Nationalism“, 100). And so “the attraction of Buddhism in the West is due in part to the skillful and effective use of such discourse to promote a profound and esoteric ‘Eastern spirituality’ as the antidote to ‘Western rationalism and materialism'” (p 101).

Needless to say these are sharp and keen comments about one who left such a legacy of Buddhism for the West. Although there is much more in the chapter that is very telling about why Buddhism has been embraced across the globe, I want to apply the spirit of Netland’s analysis and end on a practical note.

Most of the people I run into who do not embrace the Christian faith have, in large part, rejected a Christianity that quite simply does not exist. Instead they reject a Christianity that has been subjected to “factors external” to itself. It may be a Christianity that masquerades as skillfully meeting the needs of the times, but is not true to what first century followers of Christ would have known. Gospel-like caricatures constructed within the context of economics, politics, failed relationships, etc. may woo us, but in the end serve only to fabricate the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Likewise, apologists who use straw man tactics in an effort to enhance their message end up only weakening its power and cheapening its truth. Negative apologetics hardly wins the day, or the heart, without also a positive apologetic, which is the gospel message proclaimed. Just as there is a different Buddhism, there is also a “different gospel” (Gal 1:6) and lovers of Christ must guard against it. In a word, while all religions are confronted with the forces of modernity and the challenge of change, Christians must ensure that the gospel message remains pure and is consistently proclaimed. Let’s leave a better legacy than D. T. Suzuki!

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