Monday, November 16, 2009

Readings on Pluralism: a Response

Mason Brown
Professor Miller
Contemplative Learning Seminar, Sec. F
Preparation Paper 6

I found all the readings from “Speaking in Silence,” very interesting and instructive. I didn’t have a strong response to Chogyam Trungpa’s chapter, having read it repeatedly and being in complete agreement with it. This is my tradition: internalized from my youth—but, as always—Trungpa’s words remain fresh and inspiring. He delivers another concise, elegant description of the practice and process of meditation in absolutely ordinary language: mindfulness and awareness join together (200), aggression subsides (201), and we are able to help others (201). Of course, it’s not always so simple in the real world, or “on the ground” as the current phrase goes. This process seems to have a lot of ebb and flow to it; it has the inevitable backsliding. The kind of insights Trungpa describes have happened for me as flashes of perception which, if anything, have slowly grown closer together in frequency over the years, but still sustain me through long intervals of ignorance. I don’t see any real discussion in the text itself of “exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism, diversity, relativism and/or syncretism,” But I can relate my own feeling that I do have a twinge of exclusivism in myself when I read these teachings: so much more correct than any others I have encountered. I don’t necessarily buy into the twinge, and it soon fades. I do think that the process Trungpa describes, if followed completely, will unavoidably lead to inclusivism and pluralism, and honest acceptance of the diversity which surrounds us, without reliance on the dubious compromises of relativism and syncretism.

I have always loved and respected the Quaker tradition. With its uncannily Buddhistic silent meditation, justice-based social activism, and community values of respect for the individual as a part of the whole, it strikes me as one of the most beneficial forms of Christianity. I have even visited the oldest continually used Quaker church in the United States, said to be America’s oldest frame building, in Easton, Maryland, and seen its rough wooden benches; its spare interior, devoid of an alter of any kind. Quakers I have known have been very inclusive and embracing of diversity—often to the point of putting their bodies in harm’s way to stand in solidarity with people of other faiths and cultures—but I suspect that, like many Buddhists, they harbor unspoken feelings of exclusivism. The relative superiority of their spiritual tradition almost demands it. However, They probably also go through those feelings and do not rest on them. They have too much to do, and that doing includes not-doing. I think that the problem with Quaker contemplative practice is its lack of any real methodology or pedagogy of consciousness. There is no concrete description in this text of how to do it [Quaker scholars were even persecuted for trying to syncretize such methodologies (Yungblut 203)]. Practitioners are simply told to “wait upon the Lord in silence (202).” It would take a true spiritual genius to reach the highest levels of understanding through this system—which is strikingly like Zen—and I imagine that it was founded by such geniuses.

I have long been acquainted with the contemplative traditions within the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and I have great respect for Tessa Bielecki, David Stendl-Rast, and George Timko. It is not surprising that the meditative techniques developed by the Church are the some of the most thorough, subtle, and refined in the European culture. In spite of this, I feel my exclusivism: Their contemplative practices are somewhat advanced, but their explanation of reality is utterly fanciful. This fact makes pluralism problematic, especially when one considers that the contemplative Christians featured in these readings, although representing a spiritual elite within Christianity, and holding some of the religion’s oldest and deepest forms, are a tiny minority of Christians in the world. Most adherents of Christianity take inflexible-belief-in-the-Bible-as-literal-Truth, and “faith in Jesus” as comprising the “practice” of Christianity, with nothing but a telephone call with God for their prayer (215), and disdain for true internal investigation. Bielecki describes a process of syncretization of her own (209), and I think it’s a good thing. She is taking knowledge which was discovered and transmitted by Buddhists to enrich her Christian practice, which is obviously deep and penetrating, but she is not giving up her Christianity; on the contrary, it seems to be strengthened.

How do I, who have acknowledged strong opinions about the shortcomings of other religions, and expressed visceral exclusivist tendencies also claim to be a pluralist? Because while I do hold those opinions and, on occasion, defend them, I do not really believe them. I know that my understanding is imperfect, and that inasmuch as my belief system does not perfectly depict reality, it is just as flawed as any other, no matter how primitive or outrageous that other might seem to me. Judith Simmer-Brown says that “in learning lessons of openness, the great yogis failed again and again (Simmer-Brown, n.p.).” This gets to the heart of the issue: “They were willing to risk, willing to fail, and willing to learn (Simmer-Brown, n.p.).” If we open to others as no different from ourselves, we will eventually realize the truth of that condition experientially, and, in the words of the Baptist hymn, there will “be no distinction there.”

Work Cited:
Simmer-Brown, Judith. “Chapter 6/Commitment and Openness: A Contemplative Approach to Pluralism,” in Glazer, The Heart of Learning, pp. 97-112.

“Natural Dharma,” “Corporate Mysticism,” Long, Loving Look at the Real,” and “Letting Go if Thoughts,” in Speaking of Silence:Christians and Buddhists in Dialogue, First Edition. 200-203;206-221.

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