Separating culture from religion

In class this Tuesday, we talked about how Buddhism might change in America to form a distinctly American tradition. I was wondering exactly how we could possibly separate culture from religion.

Does a Buddhist in America have to dress in robes? Does a Buddhist in America need to practice the same form of meditation that is practiced in Asia or is there an American equivalent? Does the balance between asceticism and excess change because of the large amount of excess we have in this country e.g. would sleeping on a hard mattress be okay because a straw mat in this country might be too ascetic?

It seems hard to see a tradition for its spirit rather than its particular manifestation in a country or time period.

Councils and Buddhism

After reading in the Gethin book about the meetings that happened after the Buddha’s death about his teachings I began thinking about the various councils in the Christian world that established some of their orthodox beliefs.

I think the councils in both religions were necessary for determining the bounds of each faith, but there seems to be a difference in how Buddhism developed versus Christianity based on how the meetings were conducted.

In Christianity there were several early councils which met to determine things like which books were considered canonical and what the basic tenets of christianity are.

The Christian councils were able to come to some pretty determinate conclusions about these things and the books of the Bible and answers to what exactly the trinity is are still grounded in these early councils.

Buddhism didn’t seem to come away with such strong conclusions and the great variety in Buddhist traditions is a result of not having such a direct authority.


Where is the middle?

It seems the middle path is placed somewhere between two binary opposites, indulgence and asceticism. Based on our discussion in class on Tuesday it left me wondering how you decide what is the moderate option. It seems like as more luxuries are available the middle can shift. We were discussing the monks sleeping on mats with a little padding, but in the context of modern mattresses the middle path could be seen as more luxurious because the highest luxury has increased. Sleeping on a straw mat would seem to be incredibly ascetic from our perspective.

I guess the way out of the problem of judgment is looking at how sleeping on something more comfortable than a mat affects you. If you start to take your more comfortable bed for granted and you’re drawn to other excesses then you should probably sleep on the mat.


I was also thing about the places where moderation comes up in other ways. How do you determine which binaries you should take the middle path between? There is a binary between being a fully committed buddhist practitioner and not being a buddhist at all. Does that mean you should only halfway commit to Buddhism?

I guess you could find the answer to this by understanding the “buddhist spirit” and trying to make judgments according to the spirit of the religion, but that seems very subjective and the spirit of the religion may shift through historical time and depend on the sect of Buddhism that you’re involved with.


Also if Buddhism is a description of how the world works apart from human understandings is it possible that Gautama Buddha was mistaken about some things? Should a buddhist defer to Gautama Buddha’s own understanding when he has a question or an idea? Should he treat the Buddha’s teachings as infallible like Christians do with the Bible?


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I ran into this video a few days ago and felt it was relevant to the class. It makes some of the same mistakes that come from people misunderstanding neuroscience, and makes meditation into a sentimental practice.

One of the problems I had with the video was him thinking that the reptilian brain and the neocortex are somehow divided into easily recognizable parts of our experience. We know that the neocortex is required for our spatial reasoning and language, but it is definitely in use in what he calls our “lower consciousness”. The reptilian brain on the other hand is merely responsible for things like breathing, temperature regulation, instinct etc. It has almost nothing to do with out day to day “lower consciousness”.

The other problem I have with this video is that it makes meditation and mystical experiences into some kind of sentimental experience where you stop hating everyone and feel like everything is okay. While these kinds of thoughts may be present in some mystical experiences they are definitely not the whole of these experiences. I think that some kinds of mystical experiences take time and training and can’t be achieved by the average person when they’re feeling somewhat euphoric at 2am.

The real problem that I guess I have with this video is that it devalues a lot of spiritual practices and treats them as familiar to your average YouTube viewer. As if every mystic was just using fancy, obscure language about something relatively simple.