Monthly Archives: June 2010

Fundamentalist Objections to Buddhism

In critiquing any subject, it is essential to know what one is criticising.  That is, one must not attack straw men: one must critique a subject for what it is, rather than what one imagines it to be. Most fundamentalist criticisms of Buddhism usually fall into this fallacy of misidentification.  The misidentification is frequently fueled by ignorance and by preconceived biases learned from particular demoninational statements and creeds. In this article I would like to refute some commonly-held misidentifications and misconceptions by which many biblical literalists attempt to condemn Buddhism.

1. True religion is based on revelation. Buddhism has no revelation and is therefore a false religion.

My first response begins with an objection to the notion of divine revelation. One’s personal revelation(s) may be invaluable to oneself, but of little use and meaning to others (unless of course revelation can somehow be a shared experience). The issue centers around the question, How can one test another’s private revelation? How do we decide between a true, valid revelation and the rantings of a hallucinating, delusional person? How can we tell a real revelation from an outright, manipulative lie? How do we know that God has revealed truth to one person, while another person is making an equally sincere claim to divine inspiration?

Moreover, in Buddhism’s favor, the Buddha taught that the experience of religious truth is open to all, not merely to selected “favorite children” of a particular deity. The experience of truth in Buddhism is not the result of accepting anyone’s revelation nor is it a consequence of belief in a set of doctrines based on a revelation. Instead, Buddhism claims that spiritual truth is based on the seeker’s own experiences, which are gained through a variety of contemplative/meditative methods. Faith is not a requirement in Buddhism. Rather, Buddhism invites the seeker to “try this”: complete the spiritual injunction, perform the meditative experiment, and share the conclusions with others who have also adequately  performed these steps. Since faith is not a spiritual requirement for Buddhism, Buddhism does not depend on anyone’s belief-claims, or on anyone’s puported revelations, or on any divinely-inspired texts.

Therefore, the objection that Buddhism is a false system because it does not depend on revelation is really something of a back-handed compliment: “belief-in” has been supplanted with direct experience and hands-on testing.

2. True religion claims the reality of an Absolute and offers a means of connecting with that Absolute. Buddhism claims no Absolute and therefore is not a true religion.

This objection is simply false, and a misidentification of what Buddhism really claims. There is Buddhist Absolute, namely, the Dharma. Buddha conceived of the Dharma as a universal law, the understanding of which is the highest spiritual goal.  Under this law are subsumed all other Buddhist truth claims. Moreover, especially in Mahayana Buddhism, the Absolute goes by many names and descriptions, such as the Buddha Nature, Sunyata, the Plenum-Void, the Buddha Mind, the Dharmakaya, etc.

Buddhism claims that correct action and meditation lead to direct experience of the Ultimate within oneself. Further, Buddhism claims that correct understanding and practice actually result in the observable and experiencable embodiment of the Absolute in people and therefore in the world. Like the Christian Kingdom of God, the Buddhist Absolute is “here, but more than here”, it is “within us”, and the arhats, Boddhisattvas, and Buddhas “incarnate” the Ultimate in a way not dissimilar from the way that Christianity claims that Jesus embodied God and the Spirit. Therefore the claim that Buddhism has no Absolute, and no means of reaching the Absolute, is false.

3. The Buddha was a sinful human being who left his wife and family for the sake of his own spiritual benefit, and later, his missionary career.

My main objection here is that Christianity – even fundamentalist Christianity – claims that experience of God or the Spirit is “the pearl of great price” for which many sacrifices are called for and many social expectations are overturned. Did Buddha leave his family? So did Jesus, who also said that his followers must “hate” their families, and who expanded the definition of family to include anyone who obeys God (“Who are my mother and my brothers? Those who obey God,” Jesus said… in the presence of his mother and his brothers). Did Buddha recommend celibacy? So did Jesus, who said that the highest service to God’s Kingdom is to make a eunuch of oneself. Saint Paul in an important sense echoes this sentiment when he damns marriage with the faint praise: “It is better to marry than to burn [with lust].”

Fundamentalistists who condemn Buddhist celibacy and monasticism do so without reference to their own Christian tradition’s counsels along the same lines.  Here a fatal lack of self-inquiry, if not hypocrisy, raises its ugly head.

4. True religion must claim universality. However, Buddhism does not claim that it is for all people. Therefore, Buddhism is a false religion.

It is true that the Buddha limited his own experience of the Dharma to his own teaching and meditative practices, yet he never denied that the Dharma is available to all. After all, the Dharma is an absolute and would not be likely to be limited to a single human being or religious order or contemplative practice. What Buddha claimed was that the spiritual injunctions worked for him – and for his followers who successfully performed them. The experimental nature of Buddha’s injunctions can be summarized, as previously mentioned, “Try this. If ‘this’ doesn’t work, then try something else, and test your own experience against what I am teaching.”

The injunction’s experimental nature therefore makes the Buddha’s attitude relativistic toward method, but not toward the absolute Dharma underlying his – and all authentic teachers’ – methods. Therefore the objection that Buddhism’s claims are not universal is a partial truth at best, because while the methodology may be relativistic, the truth-claim is universal, just as the Dharma is universal.

5. Buddhism claims that the universe is eternal, and is therefore an atheistic system.

Simply illogical:

Atheism is the denial of God’s existence or reality, not simply the denial of a Creator-deity.

Theism is the affirmation of God’s existence or reality, not limited to statements about a Creator-deity: that depends on the religious system invoked.

Along with many “new” atheists, fundamentalists’ view of God is narrowly focused on God as a Creator. If God as a Creator is refuted or denied (they think), then God generally defined is also denied. This limited “God must be a Creator or God is unreal” view makes colorful, if grotesque, bedfellows of fundamentalists and atheists.

The problem is that “God” has many more definitions and functions than “His” narrow fundamentalistic, “biblical” consignment to the role of Creator. Granted, if God as a Creator is refuted or denied, then obviously, “God” is deleted. That is, God’s definition as a Creator is deleted. God’s other definitions and functions, however, remain untouched. Therefore, to claim that the universe is eternal, is probably to deny the existence of a Creator. But it is not to deny the existence of God.

Moreover, it should be noted that several of the interpretations and meanings applied in Buddhism to Nirvana, the state of Bodhi, Buddha Nature and Buddha Mind, etc., are actually functionally equivalent to several important (“non-Creatorist”) God-definitions in Western faith and mysticism.

That fundamentalist critics of Buddhism seem mostly unaware of these two major God-issues speaks volumes about the bias and ignorance with which they approach the subject.

6. Buddhism is negative and fatalistic because the Buddha claimed that life is suffering.

This objection is simply a result of laziness. The briefest exposure to Buddhism exhibits the fact that the Buddha said, “I teach suffering, and the end of suffering.” Fundamentalist critics’ inability or unwillingness to read the rest of the sentence beyond the comma is as baffling as it is intellectually suspect.

7.  Buddhist prayer is illogical because it attempts to change fatalistic karma.

Fundamentalists may see Buddhists standing or kneeling with their malas in hand, chanting and/or reciting verses, and they come to the conclusion that Buddhists pray. This is mostly a false conclusion. Only a relatively little-educate minority of Buddhists pray to Buddha, or his manifold manifestations, as to a g0d. There is no Creator in Buddhism, so even this petitionary, supplicative form of prayer is usually a request for merit, not for miracles. It approximates the type of prayer that devotees in some Catholic countries direct to their saints.

Instead of prayer,, Buddhists practice meditation, some of which takes the outward appearance of Western, theistic prayer. But instead of attempting to engage the will of a sky-father-Creator, Buddhist meditators seek to focus their mind; to cultivate peacefulness, compassion, and calm; to better understand the teachings; and to accumulate merit, which is said to impact their karmic “debt”.  Common sense dictates that a dept that can be modified, influenced, worked off or shortened cannot at the same time be termed absolute and defined fatalistically or  deterministically. Therefore the claim that a belief in karma is necessarily fatalistic is false when objectively observed in its actual Buddhistic philosophy, interpretation, and practice.

8. Buddhism is a religion of despair and negativity because its highest goal is Nirvana, the extinction of the self in nothingness.

The Buddha did not describe Bodhi as a zombie-like state of living death. On the contrary, he invoked it as a living, calm, alert, witnessing kind of consciousness, a kind of still center of perception at the “hub” of the bodily/egoic/samsaric “wheel”. The Buddha taught a life centered in this non-egoic awareness.

Moreover, Jesus himself taught the death of self and described the path to godliness as a daily taking up of one’s cross. He also said that to find oneself, one must lose oneself.  And, to cite New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, Jesus taught a life centered in this spiritual mode of dying-to-self –  for the purpose of rooting oneself in Spirit rather than in culture (or in any other “samsaric” set of values).

So again in this case we can observe that  fundamentalist objections to Buddhism are based on a combination of ignorance and a definite, sometimes glaring, lack of self-questioning.

Finally, Jesus said that we are to remove the log from our own eye before we dare to remove the speck from another’s eye. Fundamentalist condemners of Buddhism would do well to follow their Lord’s injunction.

“Exorcist” Misconceptions Addressed

The Exorcist, both the novel and the film, have been subject to various misconceptions, some of which this post attempts to correct.

Father Merrin’s archeological dig disturbed the ancient sleep of the demon Pazuzu, who went on to seek vengeance on Merrin via the demonic possession of Regan Macneil.

This is wrong for several reasons. First, Pazuzu is not a demon at all, but rather an ancient Neo-Assyrian deity. His functions are to bring pestilence and to control the southwest wind. His most famous act was to vanquish the evil goddess, Lamashtu, who was considered to be the cause of miscarriage and childhood illness. Hence the Iraqi museum curator’s comment on seeing Merrin handling the Pazuzu amulet he has uncovered from the dig, “Evil against evil.”  Neither author Blatty nor director Friedkin suggest that Pazuzu is a demon or is any way involved in the MacNeil possession.

Second, the Pazuzu amulet and later the large Pazuzu statue, figure in the Prologue as projection carriers for Merrin’s mounting sense of dread. Merrin’s unconscious mind seizes on these ancient pagan symbols, which begin to trigger premonitions and feelings of dread within the old priest. They are the stimuli, not the causes, of his apprehensions. The Iraq dig becomes for Merrin an omen, a foreshadowing that he must soon “face an ancient enemy”. This enemy is not Pazuzu, but a nameless demon that Merrin confronted and defeated in Africa some twelve years previously. Nowhere in the novel or the film is the demon named. Certainly if Merrin thought the demon was Pazuzu, he would have called it by that name. Instead, Merrin c0nsistently refers minimally, curtly, to the possessing entity merely as “the demon”.

Film director Burke Dennings was molesting Regan MacNeil.

This is wrong because Blatty goes out of his way to depict Dennings’ murder as despicable and  inexplicable, and to portray Dennings as a genuine friend of the MacNeil household. In point of fact Blatty describes Dennings as a kind and thoughtful person, except when inebriated. Moreover, even when inebriated, Blatty describes Dennings as a loud, insulting, obnoxious drunk, not a child molester. In one scene Blatty has the film-wrap dinner party hostesses remove (a briefly unsupervised) Dennings from the premises (i.e., before he would have time to sneak up to Regan’s room for nefarious purposes). But perhaps the most telling argument against the Dennings molestation theory is Regan’s own attitude. Her only objection to Dennings is that her mother might marry him and therefore further displace Regan’s father, Howard MacNeil. Even so, Regan tells her mother Chris that “Mr. Dennings” is welcome to attend her birthday celebration. Obviously, Burke Dennings is no molester. The Exorcist’s only molester is the demon itself.

The pale “demonic” face-flashes seen in Father Damien Karras’s dream and during the exorcism represent Pazuzu.

This is incorrect because Pazuzu, as mentioned above, is not a demon and is not possessing Regan MacNeil. The demonic face is that of actress Eileen Dietz, who was a body/stunt double for Linda Blair (who played Regan). Therefore it would be preferable to call the “flash face” instead “the Dietz Face,” in order to avoid the confusion of calling it “Pazuzu” or “Captain Howdy”.  Moreover it must be noted that the Dietz Face in no way resembles the Pazuzu amulet and statue.

The Dietz Face represents Captain Howdy.

This is wrong, at least in terms of the film’s original release. “Captain Howdy” is the name that Regan calls the demon during its initial introductory phase. It is unknown if the name is Regan’s own title or if the demon has so introduced himself. In any case, it is unlikely that the face could represent Howdy, because Karras dreams of the same face, which  shows up later in the exorcism.  We have no idea what Captain Howdy looks like (if indeed he even has human features).  Director Friedkin never visually takes us inside Regan’s mind. We only know that a demonic face – the Dietz Face – appears to Karras in a dream and then later on in the exorcism. Again, this applies to the film’s original release.

However, in The Version You’ve Never Seen (TVYNS), Friedkin does enter Regan’s mind just once, during her initial medical examination, during which her eyes widen and she “sees” the Dietz Face. This establishes that the demon manifests internally at least once to Regan, and at least once to Karras, and it is wearing its Dietz Face.

Even so, there is no reason to think that the Dietz Face is Captain Howdy, since – again – the same face also appears in Karras’s dream. There is no reason that Karras should be seeing the face of Regan’s “imaginary” (demonic) playmate – he has not yet even met Regan or heard her Howdy fantasies;  moreover: obviously, Karras is a sophisticated adult, and the demon would likely appear to the priest in a much different form than it appears to the child Regan.

Perhaps the Dietz Face is the demon’s archetypal linkage or  interface with the human psyche, or perhaps this is how the human psyche reacts to the demon’s presence. And in any case – as already mentioned –  the Dietz Face bears no resemblance whatsoever to Pazuzu, a fact which further strengthens the claim that the demon and the ancient deity are two entirely separate individuals.

Lieutenant William Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) finds fragments of a clay Pazuzu sculpture at the base of the Hitchcock Steps outside of the MacNeil house. How did the Pazuzu amulet get from Iraq to Georgetown?

This is incorrect. What Kinderman finds at the base of the steps leading to “M” Street are simply Regan’s innocent clay sculptures; they are not heads, amulets, or any other representation of Pazuzu. Presumably these were knocked off her window sill when Dennings was defenestrated. The film does not make clear, but the novel does, that Kinderman takes a sample of the sculptures for analysis, which reveals that the same clay was used to desecrate a Marian statue in a nearby Catholic Church (Regan, possessed, or semi-possessed, was carrying out this “satanic” abuse of holy objects).

How does Karras’s mother die in the hospital when the script has her dying at home?

Mary Karras does not die in the hospital. Rather, Karras comes to visit her and to tell her that he is getting her out of the hospital. It is only after a stay of unknown time at home that Mary sickens again, this time fatally. This is what Father Joseph Dyer refers to at Chris’s dinner party in saying that Mary had been dead for several days before it was discovered that she had passed away.

How does the Saint Joseph medal get from the “Pazuzu hole” in Iraq to Damien Karras’s neck?

It doesn’t. These are two separate medals. Assumptively, the first has been reverently placed in the “Pazuzu hole” by some Christian in order to ward off evil influences of what, to that Christian’s (or Christians’) mind, was an unholy pagan shrine. The second is simply a medal worn by Karras, a Catholic priest, and as such is unremarkable. It’s there to provide resonance with the Prologue’s medal. On a purely symbolic level, once the Iraq medal is removed from the hole, Merrin discovers the Pazuzu head and begins to experience a feeling of growing evil; once the possessed Regan rips away Karras’s medal, the demon manifests “full force” and Karras pulls the demon into himself. This obviously signifies the removal of a symbol of holy protection, followed by the appearance of unholy presences.

The demon killed Merrin, which means that the demon won.

This is erroneous because the demon did not kill Merrin, and the demon considered Merrin’s dying a cheat and a defeat for itself (the demon). Merrin simply died of heart failure. The demon had no influence on Merrin’s death (despite the ludicrous assertions of Exorcist II: the Heretic). Moreover, the demon wanted to kill Regan in Merrin’s presence and in spite of Merrin’s best efforts. That Merrin died before the demon could defeat him (the demon rages that Merrin “would have lost”) galls the demon mercilessly – i.e, Merrin’s dying before the demon could kill Regan is a  huge defeat for the demon, not for Merrin.

Karras lost because he was possessed and killed himself.

This is wrong because Karras deliberately invited the demon to possess him. Possession by invitation is not the same thing as (for example, in Regan’s case) possession by sheer victimization. Karras wanted to fight the demon himself, and the demon 0bliged.

That Karras won the fight is obvious because when first possessed, Karras’s features take on the demonic “look” that has haunted Regan throughout her own possession. In this possessed state, Karras advances on Regan – who is now no longer possessed. Friedkin shoots this scene with Regan framed between Karras’ would-be strangler’s hands. Then the shot moves to Karras’s face, as he shouts – in his normal, non-possessed voice – “NO”.

Immediately, the demonic scourge vanishes from Karras’s face, and while Regan is still unpossessed, Karras leaps through the window, taking the demon with him. When Karras impacts at the foot of the steps, it is clear that both he and Regan are now free of the demon.

To underscore this fact, Friedkin shows us Karras making “a good act of contrition” to Dyer, and also shows Regan, once more herself, crying and talking to her mother in her normal voice (this is witnessed by Kinderman as well – as if to cement the objective reality of Regan’s liberation).

Therefore it is clear that Karras won over the demon. In a valid sense, what has happened is “demonicide,” not suicide. Karras has taken on the demon, freed Regan, saved her life… at the cost of his own. To Karras goes the accolade of a self-sacrificial, even Christlike, death. The demon has lost. Human love, and in the novel especially, divine love,  have won. Any doubts about this issue can be removed by Blatty’s own repeated statements that the demon did not win, and he does not want readers and audiences thinking that the demon won.

I’ll try to address other misconceptions about this film as they come to me, but for now I believe the major questions have been dealt with.