Why You Are Not Enlightened Yet

by Kenneth Champeon, Jun 18, 2002 | Destinations: China / India

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Review of Gerald Roscoe's The Triple Gem: An Introduction to Buddhism, Silkworm Books, 1994.

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Perhaps the greatest difficulty for a Western practitioner of Buddhism is that Buddhism discourages selfishness and competition, whereas Western societies tend to encourage these very qualities in the name of excellence and "progress." From kindergarten on, you are told that you are special and important; and you spend the greater part of your life trying to be the envy of the world. If you then decide to become a Buddhist you will have to go about dismantling the great and quite durable altar to yourself so long in the making.

In his book The Triple Gem: An Introduction to Buddhism, American Gerald Roscoe notes that as of 1992 there were more than a half million Buddhists in North America. To him this is an encouraging sign of Buddhism's westward progress. But perhaps it is only a sign of Asian immigration. North America remains monotheistic to a startling degree. And the United States, despite official freedom of religion, is de facto a Christian state, under God, in Whom we trust.

Westerners tend to treat Buddhism as a discipline to be studied rather than practiced. For one thing, study is easier: reading a book on piano playing is easier than learning how to play the piano. Study is also more justifiable in a society obsessed with achievement, in which meditation (and even reflection) is seen as shiftlessness. If you only read books about Buddhism, and yet you continue to be greedy, aggressive, intolerant, unhappy, and so on, then this is not Buddhism's failure, but your or your society's failure. No matter. There are plenty of other isms to read about.

Westerners want quick fixes, regimens, X-step programs - a goal, an action plan, results - and preferably at a minimal cost. This makes sense if you're building a bridge or engineering a moon shot. But it doesn't make sense if you are trying to become kinder or happier. It's small wonder that Buddhism has found so few Western adherents. How to practice concentration in a society so geared for distraction? How to be tranquil amidst such hyperactivity? How to make a goal of having no goal?

At first glance, Gerald Roscoe's resume suggests that he may find the Buddhist path a hard climb. Harvard grad. Writer for the Boston Globe. New York ad exec. This looks like careerism, not Buddhism. But then Roscoe went to Thailand, and perhaps like many first-time visitors he had a revelation. A society based on selfishness and competition is not a society. It is a state of war. So Roscoe moved to Thailand - "permanently", thunders his resume.

Though hardly the first of its kind, Roscoe's book is excellent for what it is - a lucidly written and comprehensive introduction. It is also well organized, divided in terms of the "Triple Gem" of the title: the Dhamma (teachings), the Buddha (man), and the Sangha (monastic order). He also provides a collection of advice for the lay Buddhist and a compact "Buddhist's Creed."

Aspirants familiar with Buddhism may be able to do without Roscoe's book. But his emphasis on certain aspects of this quasi-religion is welcomed. Buddhism does not proselytize. It is neither "dogmatic nor catechistic." It traces human suffering not to sin - awful word - but to ignorance. It is the very antithesis of selfishness. And its emphasis on mental liberation via meditation predates psychoanalysis by 2400 years.

Roscoe demonstrates that a very complicated and often contradictory religion has evolved from simple and fairly consistent precepts. He discusses the contradictions between different Buddha biographies and the byzantine rules and rituals of the monastic order. He points out that there are almost 30,000 temples in Thailand, and that lay Buddhist husbands "should make their wives happy by giving them clothing and jewelry"!

Our beloved Thomas Jefferson attempted to reduce the New Testament to an ethical code free of religious trappings. This was a noble task for a founder of what was to have been a secular republic. Aside from the Dhammapada, I know of no equivalent secularization of Buddhist ideas. This is too bad, for a skeptical Westerner is just as likely to be put off by a book like Roscoe's, with all its fables and rules, as by the New Testament, with all its parables and decrees.

This is not Roscoe's fault. He has fastidiously described the baffling tree that sprung up from the small seed planted by the Buddha. But it is the seed that should be the focus of study, not the tree. It doesn't matter whether you are meditating, chanting, standing on your head, or juggling chainsaws, as long as you try to be aware that "you" are not one thing, but many things, nothing, everything.

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