Buddhism and the dangers of pick’n’mix religion

From The Guardian

What is wrong with pick’n’mix religion? Ed Halliwell rightly points out that any system of belief must change as it interacts with different places and new times. As has been said, the genius of religion is evolving whilst appearing eternal. But that’s not quite the point.

Rather, it’s what any mother knows, when trying to curtail her child’s desire for chocolate buttons and jelly beans – or perhaps we should add, the sugared buddhas and candied saints of the pick’n’mix approach to religion. The problem is not freedom of choice, but that the child wants to satisfy its hunger on sweets, and sweets alone.

In business, it’s called cherry-picking, and it makes for a very good sell. You identify the product with immediate appeal, minimal costs and instant returns, and take it to market. For contemporary western Buddhism, that often appears to mean packaging up a subtle and often dark struggle with life as the fast path to felicity. The brand is easyHappiness. It can even be wrapped in the orange of saffron robes.

But the worry is this: such a consumerist confection is not enough to live by. It reduces the Noble Truths to mawkish truisms. It leads to the fixed smiles of those who have donned enlightenment as effortlessly as a hemp shirt or woven bracelet. It makes those who assert that the self is empty, with no more substance than the crest of a wave, remarkably self-obsessed. Equating Buddhism with happiness, to stay with that particular association, will dumb it down.

Take the Buddhist writer Matthieu Ricard’s book, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. This French monk, who has spent years living in Nepal, has also written a sophisticated tome on philosophy and a penetrating volume on the interface between science and religion. But his happiness book is a huge disappointment. It trades in the more or less obvious, and seems mostly concerned to align Buddhism with positive psychology, presumably so as to gain from the good PR of the so-called science of happiness.

The concern is that Ricard knows better. Right at the end of his book he explains why the science of happiness actually won’t do. However commendable and altruistic its goals, he explains, it bases its analyses “on a rather fuzzy assessment of the nature of happiness, lumping together superficial pleasures and deep-felt happiness.”

Contrast Ricard’s book with Stephen Batchelor’s introductory classic, Buddhism Without Beliefs. Batchelor was a monk for many years too. He speaks Tibetan and reads Pali. He is also heavily engaged in bringing Buddhism into the west. So what does his book have to say about happiness? Precisely nothing. The word itself appears exactly once in his text, and then only to dismiss it.

That absence speaks volumes. Batchelor’s approach to the construction of western Buddhism could not be more different from the pick’n’mix approach, the search for the tastiest bits. He not only suggests that Buddhism has little to do with happiness. He is also engaged in a struggle to separate western Buddhism from its associations with reincarnation, with vegetarianism, with romantic conceptions of enlightenment, with the psychobabble reading of mindfulness practice.

The reason he is going to all that trouble, and courting trouble on the way, is that he cares. He knows that if Buddhism is truly to address the human condition as manifest in modernity, it must resist the temptations of the quick sell. It needs to dig deep. When Buddhism appeared in Japan, it took three centuries for its Zen manifestation to emerge. Buddhism has been a part of western culture for about half that time, since philosophers like Schopenhauer first encountered it; which perhaps explains why it can appear a little half-baked.

The serious point is that it takes centuries to re-make a tradition, to rediscover the roots, and to do the hard work of discerning what matters.

In the meantime, it seems there is hardly a course you can take, barely a conference to go on, that does not include lessons in happiness – especially in these recessionary days. Then there’s mindfulness CBT or the proliferation of self-help books that have latched onto it. People right now are slowly eating raisins in a workshop somewhere near you. My favourite euphemism to date was created by The Young Foundation. It held a conference that included sessions on “Wellbeing Services”.

Maybe this is doing people some good, and it is certainly unskillful of me to mock it. But there is this worry that comes with selling spirituality.

To put it another way, there is surely a reason the Buddha’s prescription for dealing with life comes in an eightfold package – including the need for right understanding and intention, for a care with how you live and earn a living. I’ve heard the defence that doing one part of the programme is better than doing none at all. Though I’m not sure that this is what the Buddha would have said, not because he was puritanical, but simply because pick’n’mix religion is of questionable effectiveness and efficiency.

The eightfold path is often represented as a wheel with eight spokes. Pick a wheel with just one or two and it won’t take you very far.

One Comment

  1. Buddhism Without Beliefs is still one of the best books I have ever read, and he is as equally insightful in person.

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