Iceberg Buddhism – By Jim Pym

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I have been wondering about the Buddhism that is represented by the BCN. Is it a holistic view, or is it what I call ‘Iceberg Buddhism’, that is, a Buddhism that only represents the heights and most pure philosophical and practical aspects – the peak of the iceberg – ignoring all that is below the waterline?

This thought was sparked off by a comment made to me by a Christian friend, who said that she enjoyed the last issue of the Network Newsletter, but felt that we misrepresented the differences between Christianity and Buddhism. “With Christianity you talk about the whole package, warts and all, where you only talk about the pure meditation practices of Buddhism. Where is a mention of the ‘church politics’, where do you consider the role of devotion in Buddhism, where are the superstition and the cultural beliefs and practices that are a part of Buddhism within Buddhist countries? What about the role of women in Buddhism, or whether Buddhism is true its essential non-violence?”

I had to admit that there is much in what she said, and I have reflected on this ever since. Most Western Buddhists tend to emphasise meditation as being the essence of Buddhism, whereas for most of the Buddhist world, it is not. For most Buddhists, Buddhism is the precepts and other ethical considerations – whether in their adherence or otherwise – the visits to the temple, the devotion of offerings, listening to sermons, and various other practices that are usually dismissed as superstition. As an ordained Buddhist priest, I wonder what I would do if someone approached me to bless their new car or house. I do not think I could bring myself to say, “We don’t do that sort of thing”. It is even difficult to find a traditional Buddhist wedding ceremony (though funerals are better catered for).

Buddhism has only just begun to look at the needs of society, and the possibility of organised religious response to them. True, the movement for Engaged Buddhism is gaining ground, and Buddhists are now to be found responding to many of the needs of social welfare and change. But the response of organised Buddhism, even allowing for the difference in numbers, is far less than that found within Christianity. And as for the devotional aspects of Buddhist practice, they are hardly being addressed at all. Such attitudes are a basic need within the human psyche, but except for the Pure Land traditions, this need is hardly even considered within Western Buddhism. In fact, many Western Buddhists – and I include myself – will still exclaim “Oh God!!” when faced with some horror.

What can we do about this? Or, indeed, do we need to do anything? I think that if we are honest in acknowledging our needs, whatever they are, then Western Buddhism will grow naturally to fill them. Such growth will almost certainly include elements of Christianity. It will be enough if Buddhists are aware that the Dharma has an impact on all levels of our daily lives, and yet such is the complexity of these lives that there are many questions for which it cannot have an answer. Christianity has evolved in parallel with those lives and may have more answers, but it in turn must admit its lack of satisfactory insights into other needs.

Let us not expect either Buddhism or Christianity to answer every problem. Focusing on the strengths of each will help us to integrate these into daily life. But there may even be some that need the insights of other faiths, science or psychology.

Above all, let us above all remember that both Jesus and the Buddha taught that the Path of Love is – on its own – enough to take us to the Goal, whether that goal be the Kingdom of Heaven or Nirvana. This simple fact will help us solve all problems.

If only ‘simple’ also meant ‘easy’. If only!!!