In his expansive study of Mythology (which he wryly described as “other peoples religion”) author Joseph Campbell made an interesting observation. Namely that all past religions were in accord with the science of their day. The rules that governed the world of ancient peoples were not in conflict with the faith that these people practiced. To an ancient Egyptian the story of Horus in no way conflicted with the Egyptians ideas of how the Earth was formed, why certain events occurred throughout it and how the miraculous was made understandable. To an ancient Mayan the world really did require human sacrifice and the ritual games that were an integral part of their culture had cosmic significance. These people didn’t have to believe in their religion, they lived it! it was all around them, and it explained their world, their place in it, and their role in the society in which they existed. It would have been completely useless to try to make a Hellenic Greek believe the religion of the Zulus, it wouldn’t have agreed with the Greeks knowledge, his scientific understanding of his world.
Campbell went on to say that if your Myth, your religion, doesn’t agree with the science of your world, then it just isn’t working for you. You can not reconcile the story of a 4000 year old culture with that of ours today, and to try does a terrible disservice to both. No matter how fervently you believe, some part of us knows that the world took longer than 6 days to build or that a woman could not really be formed by a rib taken from a man, we may want to believe, but believing is not the same as knowing. If you want to see what happens to a world full of people know one thing scientifically and are told to believe another thing on faith just take a look at the world of religious violence we have today. It is the schism that comes when ones own mind is at war with itself, it is turned outward, toward everyone who wont help us to fool ourselves that what we really know isn’t what we really know, but at heart the problem is that Belief cannot overtake Knowledge. Faith is another world for believing the unbelievable.
Zen Buddhism is uniquely able to address the concerns that Joseph Campbell explains, and Western Zen Buddhism even more so. For me the first experience of this was when I realized that I didn’t have to reject any of the science that explains my world today at all to be a Buddhist. How pleasantly shocked I was the first time I read of a zen teacher telling a student that all the weird ghost stories ans supernatural stuff in the old zen stories was “just stories to prove a point” and not to be taken as facts. There has never been a point in my years of practice where I had to push away the facts before my eyes in order to swallow a “belief”. We live in a world where seeing is believing, if you feel that this is a sad state of affairs or a great one is no matter, that’s simply the way it is now. We are given the choice to embrace the real world as it is now or to try to shoehorn ancient non-factual myths onto our lives today. We can see what happens with the latter, it isn’t pretty and it isn’t necessary.
At the same time there is in the Buddhist community a popular idea that as Buddhism has traveled “west”, that is to traditionally non-Buddhist countries, that it is in danger of losing its essential nature. In most of the Buddhist “press” there is repeated the idea that we western practitioners in dispensing with the rituals and accessories of traditional forms of Buddhism that we are turning it into a “self-help” exercise. Obviously though, there is the problem of “mistaking the cup for the tea in it”, that is, of falling in love with the chanting, incense, robes, and ritual and forgetting the essential core of real Buddhism. Most of the comments about western Buddhists failings are said and published by people with a vested (if subconscious) interest in preserving the older form of Buddhism, if you own a magazine that is full of ads for companies that sell statues and expensive retreats and some punk western Zen guy comes along and says “you don’t need any of that stuff” then as a seller or supporter of “that stuff” you get a little nervous. Understandable. Fortunately Buddhism is a big (and rather tolerant) umbrella, there are, they say, 84,000 doors into the Dharma. Put another way, in Buddhism there is no one true way, only the way that is true for one (you).
In this sense western Buddhism should become a “self-help” exercise. Frankly that type of thing makes a lot more sense to the western world than reincarnated Lamas and transcendental floating do. The wonderful thing is that the essential character, the method that brings one into accord with the world carried on even as Buddhism traveled from one culture to the next.It is no mere coincidence that as Buddhism traveled away from India toward Japan that more and more it began to be pared down of its ritual elements til it was a solid core of stripped bare of all distraction. It was making that journey in time as well as distance and each culture was in the process itself of divesting the primitive science of their day for what they had newly come to realize. Today zen Buddhism is able to give me the spiritual contact with the world without asking me to ignore the facts in front of me. The fact that it has been able to do so throughout history (a history with remarkably less war and death than any other ‘religion’) while constantly being able to agree with the “science of our day” for over 3 millennia should give those concerned with whether western Buddhist are “doing it wrong” reason to relax and enjoy ever-changing and yet always essential nature of Buddhism.