BG 130: Buddhism and the Evolution of Religion

Episode Description:

Zen teacher Norman Fischer—a teacher in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi—joins us again to speak about the religion, evolution, and Buddhism’s unique role in both. The conversation begins with an overview of American sociologist Robert Bellah’s schema on the evolution of religion throughout the ages. We then discuss the important role that Buddhism can play in the evolution of religion in the West.

This is part 2 of a two-part series. Listen to Part 1, Buddhism May Need a Plan B.

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Vince: You recently gave a talk about the evolution of religion, and at first, I was going “What does this have to do with Buddhism?” Then it became clear that it was, in fact, related. I wondered if you could talk about this developmental schema that you mention in that talk, by sociologist Robert Bellah. I was wondering if you could describe that model briefly, because I found it really interesting, and also why you find it valuable.

Norman: This connects to something I was saying a little earlier. The fact that, basically, our society has a 19th century idea of what religion is. There’s a lot of talk, and a lot of debate, and a lot of books written on both sides of this question about religion, but all of them assume, not examining the assumption at all, but assume a 19th century idea of religion.

So, that got me to thinking. Well, religion, like everything else in human society, religion has changed drastically over the millennia. What was religion like 1,000 years ago? How did people understand it 1,000 years ago, and before that, and how did they understand it 100 years ago, and how do we need to understand it now, and 100 years from now?

That got me interested in researching the idea of how religion has changed. Robert Bellah is a great American sociologist of religion. He’s interesting himself, because he’s a committed Protestant, churchgoing guy. So, he has a sympathy for religion, as a religious person, as well as a social scientist of tremendous dress and intelligence.

So, I was reading his essay on the evolution of religions, and then applying to my own experience as a person who teaches meditation and Buddhism, and my own speculations as to what religion has to look like in the future, and why Buddhism has something to contribute to that.

So, it’s a very kind of a complicated discussion, because Bellah starts in pre-historic times, in very basic societies, pre-writing. In religions before…, before Plato and Aristotle, before the Torah and the Bible, Judaism, Christianity, and so on. Basically, in earlier religions, there’s much more of a connection to the earth, and to, in effect, one world — the world of the spirits, the world of the gods, the world of the ancestors is living now. It’s alive now. Our ancestors are here now. Death is not such a big transition; it’s sort of an almost mythic life.

With the advent of writing and texts, you have, and this comes out also out of Plato, you have a big gap between the invisible world, the world of God, the world of heaven, and the material world. With a devaluation of the material and natural world, and an elevation of the invisible world, the world of God, the world of pure intellectual contemplation, as in Plato.

Then, this sort of evolves eventually into Protestantism. There’s been a lot written about the relationship between Protestantism and modernity. That it took Protestant ideology to kind of allow modernity to unfold. You know, the Catholic Church is still trying to deal with that.

Then you have religious institutions as we’ve understood them in the last couple of hundred years, but still, there’s a big gap between religion and religious life, and ordinary life. So, I think that religion has to evolve into a position where that gap gets closed. Instead of seeing religion as being in the church, and for Sundays, and being a private, inner part of one’s life, that really, in a way doesn’t have much to do with daily life. I think we have to evolve into a kind of melding of psychology and religion in daily life, and see that spirituality and our religion is operative every single day. You can’t really have a successful, healthy life in a complicated world, and successful, healthy relationships without some serious attention paid to inner life, inner development, and that means spiritual life.

So, I think all the kind of distinctions and structures, and as I was saying earlier, you know, the box, inside the church, all that needs to be opened up, and we need to put that together with our ordinary life, and with our social life, and our personal life, and our work life, into one whole thing.

But that depends on the recognition, and this is really important, that religious truths are not literal exclusive truths. Somebody could be a complete faithful believer, believing Catholic let’s say, but they need to understand that that is not a literal and exclusive truth, that’s a spiritual truth, and it may have to take other forms. It may take the form of a different religion. It make take the form of another whole other formulation of the truth.

So, in a religious dialogue and understanding and the recognition that all of our religions are languages, rather than absolute truths. That needs to be understood, and I think that mid-to-late 20th language philosophy makes that very very clear, but it’s not clear to average people. That makes all the fighting and all the trouble.

Vince: Do you see that as part of this evolutionary description?

Norman: Completely. Absolutely. Yeah, it may be one of the most important elements of it. I mean, the simple way to look at it is that in religion in the future, its most important component has to be love and radical tolerance for other people’s beliefs, or lack of them. By tolerance, I don’t mean just tolerating them, but embracing — Being able to really appreciate other people’s language for spirituality and positions for spirituality. That’s what we don’t have now.

You know, to me… I was listening on the radio the other day to some Islamic guy who has emerged as an Islamic spokesman for creationism. He’s really adamant about arguing against Darwin and evolution. Darwin and evolution to him are the bad guy, because it completely denies that God created the world.

Well, to me, when I hear those conversations, I mean, I don’t understand what’s the problem. You know what I mean? What’s the big contradiction between evolution and Darwin, and someone who completely believes in God, and believes that God created the world? What’s the contradiction there? If you understand God in a sophisticated way, and you look at Darwin clearly, where’s the problem? People are arguing and fussing over something that is a non-event, as far as I could tell.

Vince: That’s interesting. It makes me thing of a quote from an adult developmental psychologist I like named Robert Kegan, where he says that people often have consciousness conversations at cross purposes. Meaning, they’re not really speaking at the same level to each other, and so they really don’t understand what’s going on between each of them.

Norman: Exactly. It’s like that. There’s so much wasted effort and wasted time, and also twisted effort, and dangerous effort that comes from people not really knowing what they’re talking about.

Vince: One thing I was wondering about, because I liked the way Robert Bellah talked about how each stage of religious evolution presented, on the one hand, more freedom and more individuation or differentiation, and on the other hand, it presented all these new issues or tensions. You had talked about them as anxieties.

Norman: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. I mean, in a way, it’s an interesting thing, just to take the index of anxiety. It would appear that the earliest human religions existed in society with a minimum of anxiety. You know a tremendous sense of belonging less of a fear of death and so on and so forth. And as the religions have evolved and as humans self consciousness has evolved because it’s really one evolution, the evolution of human religion, and the evolution of human self consciousness, is truly the same thing. As that’s evolved there is much more anxiety and alienation as we’ve become more autonomous and more responsible for our own sense of who and what our lives are. And now, you know anxiety is really a problem of epidemic proportions in our society. So that’s why we need an evolution of religion that returns us more to a sense of belonging and to a sense of community and to a sense of connection to one another because we desperately need that to reduce our anxiety.

Vince: Right and what is interesting using a developmental model is that wouldn’t happen by going back to pre-language religion, but it would be by going forward somehow.

Norman: Exactly, you can’t unknow what you know, and this the great fallacy of the fundamentalist religions. Is they all claim, and this is true of the accross, and all the traditions, when you study, read religious scholarships about the fundamentalist traditions they all claim to be going back to an earlier stage that was abandoned, so they’re all sort of against the modern world, but in fact none of them are going back to an earlier stage, they are all new creations based on the fiction they are returning to the past. You can’t really return to the past. Mid-aged crisis of somebody that tries to pretend they’re young again is sadly pathetic. You know, so you have to go forward and you have to take responsibility for that and you have to think about it.

Vince: One other thing that I found kind of interesting was in reading that article, or reading your talk where you talked about this you made some connections between Buddhism as it’s change and evolved and then this evolution of religion that’s kind of general.

Norman: Yeah, yeah

Vince: And I thought it was really fascinating you talked about early Buddhism as being what Bella would call a historic religion in that it was universal by nature and that it really emphasized this split that you are talking about between this world and ultimate reality. Which in early Buddhism, some sara and nirvana. I was wondering if you could say a little bit about that and also how you see Buddhism changing because historic religion in Bellah scheme is really just the third of five stages that he’s kinda talk about.

Norman: Oh yeah that site, thanks for reminding me about that because that was one of the important points of the article was why Buddhism has a particularly unique role to play at this point in the evolution of the religions. And I think its because Buddhism comes to the West pretty late. I mean Christianity went to the East in the 19th century so it was absorbed in that period. But Buddhism comes to the West in the modern, postmodern period and it comes without really any of its cultural trappings. I mean as much as westerners will try to emulate the Eastern cultures from which Buddhism comes, and as much as westerners sometimes complain that, “Oh this is too Japanese,” or, “This is too Tibetan,”. In fact, 90% of the cultural baggage the way that religion is embedded in the society is missing. Which means that the religion can be viewed fresh, and it will inevitable be viewed fresh, whether you like it or not because it just doesn’t come with all that history and all that embedded-ness in the culture. And so it becomes a very powerful catalyst for a new view of religion.

Besides the whole approach of Buddhism is really different because it is not a theistic religion, it’s more a religion focused on by and large human suffering then it is on the absolute, per se. It’s very different from what we’re used to seeing as religion and because of that it can give us a very different look at our own religions. And this is something that the Dali Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, the great sort of Buddhist sages of the era, have both said and both promoted and not because of anything particularly great about Buddhism. I mean I think Buddhism is very great but just the historical accident of Buddhism being introduced to the West at this particular period when religion is in a state of flux and needs to be re-envisioned, it has a special role to play I think in that re-envisioning.

And also, because, in a way, the avant-garde of Buddhism is now Buddhism in the West and even in Asia where Buddhism is practiced, it’s been influenced by Westerners approaches to Buddhism. So in other words if you go to a monastery in Burma even if everybody in the monastery is all Burmese they’re aware of and it’s embedded now in their culture of the West and of how the West views Buddhism and that is influenced the leading monastic innovators and all the ancient traditions were innovating influences by the West somehow. So this means that Buddhism is changing and developing out of its previous incarnation into a kind of postmodern style of Buddhism different in the West than in the East but in both cases doing that. So it’s a very interesting time for Buddhism and for religions in general.

Vince: One last question I had to try and tie together, or weave together some of the different things we’ve talked about is just to ask how you see on the one hand this notion of Plan A and Plan B and Plan A being of course teaching Buddhism in kind of its more Buddhist flavored way and Plan B being all of the things you mentioned earlier of teaching in businesses and teaching as kind of meditation coaches instead of just traditional teacher role and all these different ways of translating the language that it’s not a Buddhist language as much as it is a more secular language that still has potency and power. And I’m wondering how these two Plan A and Plan B relates to what we’ve been talking about as the evolution of religion. Do they fit together, do they make sense together? Obviously you’re interested in both, so I’m guessing in your mind there’s a thread that connects them.

Norman: Yeah. No absolutely I mean I think that that is the whole idea. Plan B is religion outside the box, but it is religion. Right now, I think that the way the world views it is that Plan B is secular and Plan A is religion. When we get to the place where we all realize there is no Plan A and Plan B, there’s just religious life. And religious life has many many different manifestations and many different languages and many different applications and that it all works together and that every human being by nature of being human, by nature of having language and thought is a religious person. There are no not religious persons as far as I’m concerned. If you’re born, and you die, and you’re trying to understand how to love in this lifetime, you are a religious person. To me, that’s the place where I’d like to see us go and I think that is where we are going and this sort of differentiation between Plan B and Plan A is kind of a stage in that development but I think that it will come together.


Norman Fischer