Buddha out of Bounds

For a few years now, I have shared a lovely office suite with a marvelous assortment of helping professionals, although I am the only minister in the lot. The diversity among us is impressive – we have psychiatrists, psychotherapists, couples counselors, chiropractors, acupuncturists, naturopaths, and nutritionists practicing side by side. We hail from a variety of faith traditions, including Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and that perennial favorite of ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’, in addition to other, increasingly popular hyphenated-hybrid categories. So I was startled one morning to open up the front door of our suite and come face to face with a huge Buddha head.

Our office is secular space, and while those of us who live in major metropolitan areas have in recent years become habituated to seeing the Buddha used as ubiquitous adornment in public and private spheres, the sheer size of this particular Buddha stunned me. His outsized countenance was cast in metal (bronze?) and stood at half my total height. He was so much larger than life that it would be impossible to overlook him. In our suite, Buddha would not merely greet all our guests; Buddha would confront them in a test of tolerance – because contrary to popular opinion, Buddha is not a secular figure.

A new client who had just begun coming to me for counseling told me that she was reassured by the sight of the office Buddha; I noticed, when I came to collect her from the waiting room, that she liked to sit in the chair closest to him. I’m glad she was able to appreciate the latest addition to our suite. Yet I have clients with a wide range of faith commitments, some of them quite significant, who could have very different feelings about the Buddha head. Frankly, I was having some immediate feelings of my own.

Because I am a licensed mental health clinician in addition to being an ordained minister, I often move in circles where the Buddha’s fan base is considerable. I have been trained to detect stains of devotion wherever and whenever they appear, the Buddhist strain is unmistakable our contemporary culture. At clinical workshops and psychotherapy conferences alike, Buddhist meditation has become not only commonplace, but compulsory. Long Buddhist mala beads drape around the presenters’ necks; glinting Sanskrit mantras encircle their wrists in bracelets. Such displays I could welcome, but if only we could all agree that these were the accoutrements of religious devotees and not the obvious markings of enlightened beings.

Somehow, Buddha has become the de rigueur deity of psychotherapy; extensive hype seems to suggest that there is no psychospiritual ailment more Buddhism cannot alleviate. Yet Buddhist practitioners no longer qualify religionists like the rest of us. They have come to comprise a class apart, a distinct brand, so total is their trust in the efficacy of Buddhist teachings. The strange assumption here is that Buddhist beliefs are transcendent to a degree that should make them entirely unobjectionable. Even pastoral types such as myself hardly dare declaim that Buddhist truth claims can be at odds with our own religious worldviews. Buddhist practice is now considered to be the universally acceptable O- of spiritual transfusions; presumably, it could return the lifeblood to even the world’s most despairing soul.

The people who seem most convinced of this are – of course – the more recent converts in the West. They bring a new twist to the term “zeal of the convert.” Because it has worked for them… the thinking goes. But at the heart of sincere Buddhist practice is the ethic of non-attachment. In fact, a famous Buddhist adage advises believers to kill the Buddha, should they meet him out on the road. But many people today appear exceedingly attached to Buddha in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Forget the open road: now I see Buddha in both nook and cranny. Buddhist altars appear to be erected nearly everywhere I look – in wooded groves, local establishments, and waiting rooms.

Suddenly, I recognize my allegiance with Muslims and other minorities in the Bible Belt who are put in that discomfiting position of challenging the assumption of one universal religious culture. Never would I encourage the desecration of this almost endless series of makeshift Buddhist sites, but I would love the occasional break from them. Because I myself do not venerate the Buddha, I resent these constant indicators that I might. However reluctant as I am to employ the Judeo-Christian charge of idolatry, I cannot think of a term that better described this present-day excess, especially in shared and supposedly secular settings.

Explicitly religious contexts are comfortable to me; covert ones bother me to no end. Honestly, I admire several of the sacred scriptures of Buddhism; I have used them in preaching from the pulpit and teaching religious education. They have informed my evolving thought, both in terms of the pastoral care I provide and my approach to psychotherapeutic practice. When I read the work of great Buddhist monks and teachers, I do so in eager interfaith engagement. One of my very favorite books is Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ; I’ve even recommended it to students.

So Buddhism does resonate with me, but in a fairly modest way, roughly in proportion to Taoism, say, and I cannot brook its present triumphalism in certain circles. The time has come to admit that casual displays of Buddhism have gone beyond reasonable bounds. Since we all inhabit religiously pluralistic environments these days, we ought to do so in ways that remain moderately mindful of others. What I object to is Buddha after Buddha attempting to browbeat the rest of us into spiritual submission. It’s unseemly and (I would argue) beneath the dignity of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, the first.

People who resist embracing Buddhism themselves are not sucker chumps or stubborn types. They are not religious zealots boycotting superior spiritual insight from outside sources. They do not categorically oppose the psychologically minded. Instead, very often, they are persons with deeply considered — and dare I suggest, altogether valid — belief systems and psychospiritual orientations. It’s a terribly passive-aggressive evangelism that disguises itself as a value-neutral ideology, or an Eastern aesthetic, or total enlightenment, or worst still, the ultimate measure of mental health.

Next month, my colleagues and I will have to disband our professional suite, unfortunately, because our landlord declined to renew our long-standing lease. I will be sorry to leave this motley band of helpers that I have grown to admire, and I will miss the laudable diversity in our group, but I also find some relief in finding myself forced out of the office. Recently, I was feeling compelled to initiate a forthright exchange about the huge Buddha head occupying our common area. It was only a matter of time before we would be forced to talk about that Buddha in the waiting room. I wish I could say otherwise, but try as I might, I just could not imagine the conversation going well.

© 2013

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2 responses to “Buddha out of Bounds

  1. Brad Lichtenstein

    Good luck finding new office space! Perhaps because I don’t look for them, I think Cambridge, MA only has Buddhas on display in Asian restaurants. Usually alongside the dang waving cat, but once again, I’m biased.

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