Thursday, February 24, 2005

Blame the Buddha!: The thought came to mind as I read the interview with Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun and best-selling author, that is posted today on Belief Net. In it Chödrön discusses her discovery of Buddhism, explains how pain can be a great spiritual teacher, and then dispenses these words of wisdom:

We need to let the story line [of our problems] go and have an immediate experience of what's actually happening, without blaming ourselves or anyone else. This is an important message for Westerners, because we get hooked on a story about a problem.

In Tibetan Buddhism this hooked feeling is called shenpa [Listen to an audio clip about shenpa.] It's an urge, a knee-jerk response that we keep repeating over and over again. We lose our balance and intelligence. But you can notice when it happens. You can acknowledge it. You can catch yourself. You can do something different, choose a fresh alternative. Because if you do what you've always done, you're never going to get unhooked.

What's so interesting about this statement is the suggestion that westerners resort to self-blame when things go wrong while easterners do not. My own brief study of medieval Japanese history in college, however, would lead me to believe that one could just as fairly argue that the reverse is true. The well-known Japanese practices of seppuku and hara-kiri, for instance, condone suicide as not only an appropriate response to personal shame, but one that, in certain circumstances, is the only honorable thing to do.

How, I wonder, does Chödrön square this with her suggestion that in Buddhist cultures people don't fall into the trap of "get[ting] hooked on a story about a problem"? Surely suicide is not the sort of "fresh alternative" for dealing with one's sense of shame that she would recommend.

Again, my understanding of Buddhism is limited. But I suspect that the Japanese glorification of suicide cannot be understood apart from the Buddhist emphasis on personal enlightenment as opposed to the communal practices of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation which lie at the heart of Christian salvation. This difference, it seems to me, goes a long way toward explaining why the church, unlike Buddhist culture, has traditionally condemned suicide as the gravest of sins.

Lending further support to this claim is the fact that, even today, Japan continues to suffer from one of the highest suicide rates in the world. It's a problem, moreover, that appears to be growing worse with the advent of internet-based suicide pacts. As one Japanese author who has written a best-selling handbook on suicide recently told the BBC:
'There's nothing bad about suicide. We have no religion or laws here in Japan telling us otherwise. As for group suicides - before the internet people would write letters, or make phone calls... it's always been part of our culture.'
It's a shame Chödrön did not discuss any of this in her interview. I would have been genuinely interested in learning what light, if any, western Buddhists might be able to shed on this very important subject.

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