Is the Pope Catholic?

In considering the disparaging views on Buddhism in the Pope’s recent book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Donald Lopez identifies their source as “nineteenth-century mis­sionary literature,” which reflects the assumptions of our “colonialist and Orientalist past.” While this is indeed the case, a more immediate source appears to have been much closer to hand. This was the Jesuit scholar Father (later Cardinal) Henri de Lubac, who is mentioned twice in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, (pp. 159 and 174) as an adviser to the Pope. Henri de Lubac is also the author of two books on Buddhism, one of which, La Rencontre du Bouddhisme et de l’Occident (The Meeting of Buddhism and the West) is something of a modern classic, although it has never been translated into English. As a promis­ing young theologian, de Lubac ran afoul of the Vatican in the late 1940s and was unable to publish his theo­logical work. For some years he turned his attention to Buddhism and, despite his scholarly knowledge of the sub­ject, considered it much in the same negative way as his Jesuit predeces­sors. During the Second Vatican Coun­cil, de Lubac  encouraged the Pope (then Archbishop of Krakow) “to persevere in the line of thought” that he had taken in the drafting of the doc­ument “Gaudium et Spes.” “From that moment on,” recalls the Pope, “I enjoyed a special friendship with Father de Lubac.” While it is possi­ble that the two men never discussed Buddhism—de Lubac died in 1992, before the Pope began working on his book—it is probable that the Pope’s book was influenced by de Lubac’s views.

Stephen Batchelor
Sharpham, England


Barbara Roether’s article [“The Heartbeat Sutra: Chaos Theory, Karma, and other Fluctuations,” Summer 1995] is a disservice both to science and to Buddhism. It is part of a long tradition of forced connections between physics and religion.

Theosophists in turn-of-the-century America were inspired in part by the recent discovery of radio waves. They drew upon Maxwell’s old picture of electromagnetic waves traveling in a medium, the “aether” (now known as ether), to justify belief in extrasensory perception. In fact, they adopted the term medium to denote a person who facilitates supernatural phenomena. Clever experiments by Michelson and Morley demonstrated, however, that ether did not exist. And Einstein’s theory of special relativity showed that ether was neither needed nor desirable in the theory of electromagnetism. Unfortunately, these scientific discoveries did little to diminish belief in the occult.

Since the 1970s, much has been said about how quantum mechanics supposedly confirms various Eastern religions. Capra’s The Tao of Physics exemplifies this sort of thinking. Many different connections are made, but in general the idea seems to be that quantum mechanics liberates us from classical, deterministic (read “bad”) Newtonian mechanics. Suddenly all things are possible—at least, that is the popular conception. Vacuum fluctuations are seen as manifestations of Buddhist concepts of form and emptiness. Physical symmetries realize I Ching hexagrams. In reality, quantum mechanics is an incredibly precise mathematical theory that makes concrete predictions. There is nothing vague about it at all. The Schrödinger equation is just as deterministic as the equations of motion of Newtonian mechanics. For example, the different wavelengths at which hydrogen atoms emit and absorb light can be computed with great accuracy and agree with experiment. To see great mysteries in the statistical aspects of quantum theory is a delusion.

(It is amusing to note that The Tao of Physics is based upon the now discredited “bootstrap theory” of elementary particles. Undeterred by that inconvenient fact, an enlarged version of the book was reissued.)

Chaos is the current fad. In her article, Roether cites a strange mix of chaos and quantum theory, despite the fact that chaos is most clearly seen within the framework of the old Newtonian mechanics, not quantum theory. Much of the discussion is sloppy and incorrect. The identification of matter with form and antimatter with emptiness shows that Roether has been misled by terminology. Physicists understand antimatter as just another form of matter, nothing so special as “emptiness.” Later Roether quotes Minh Duong-Van as saying “But chaos theory tells us that the real reason for such erratic driving is that the man found out the night before that his wife is having an affair.” Such statements “are not even wrong,” as Wolfgang Pauli once said.

Distorting science to justify preconceived religious notions is harmful, whether it be the physics of electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, or the chaos of turbulent water. A better lesson in Buddhism would be provided by the practice of drinking a glass of water attentively. Contemplating the “spontaneous generation of local-spatial temporal chaos” of moving water, or rushing off to Las Vegas to play slot machines, entirely misses the mark. A more effective lesson in science could be found by learning in detail, with the use of calculus, how Newton’s theory of gravity leads directly to the three laws of planetary motion that Kepler found by precise measurements of the position of Mars. As a physicist, and as a practicing Zen Buddhist, I find efforts to directly connect these two realms of human inquiry disingenuous.

Brad Marston
Physics Department, Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island

Eggsistential Questions

I would like to respond to some of the points raised by William LaFleur in his thoughtful and sensitive article on abortion practices in Japan [“The Cult of Jizo,” Summer 1995].

Buddhism generally accepts that a fetus is a sentient being from the moment of fertilization, and the Vinaya states that the fault of killing a human applies also to the killing of a human fetus. Thus any postfertilizational method of birth control is considered to incur the fault of killing, and while the ethics of a particular abortion may be viewed individually according to the specific circumstances and with compassion for all parties, nonetheless it is generally assumed that an act of killing has occurred, for which intense remorse and reparation are naturally appropriate, LaFleur’s article doesn’t question this view. However, the implications of certain observations of medical science suggest that it is in fact unlikely that the subtle consciousness (very subtle wind and mind,“alaya vijnana,”foundation consciousness—whatever you want to call that continuum of being that experiences existence in accordance with its karma throughout many rebirths) could be present until at least fourteen days after fertilization, and perhaps not until even later. This would mean that postfertilization contraceptives such as the IUD and the morning-after pill, and perhaps even very early abortions, may not in fact constitute the act of killing a human and therefore the automatic assumption of the need for such intense remorse and reparation may be mistaken in these cases.

LaFleur sees contraception as a move “up the slippery slope” in that it reduces abortions, and this is obviously true in one way. However, it’s also important to recognize that, as no method of contraception is 100 percent reliable, people may be misled by a false sense of security; then, when contraception fails, they find themselves in an unbearable position and out of shock and desperation turn to abortion as the least appalling of the available options. I wonder if it would be too idealistic to suggest expanding the definition of sexual misconduct to include engaging in any activity which could result in pregnancy unless one is truly willing to accept that pregnancy?

Lastly, the Jizo ritual unfortunately has its negative side: it can be misused as a means of extorting money by playing on women’s guilt to extract large “offerings” for priests and temples.

Caitlin Collins
Chichester, Sussex, England

Professor LaFleur’s article seemed mostly concerned with reducing the guilt of people involved with committing abortions, but what of the real experiences of the children who are killed by abortions? What really happens to them when they lose their precious human lives? They have no chance to speak for their rights. They are helpless victims in cruel and calculated procedures.

Buddha taught that future suffering comes from having committed negative actions. In particular, taking life leads to rebirths in lower realms, shortened future lives filled with misery, and a tendency to continue taking lives. That’s the truth, plain and simple.

Cyclic existence, of course, is full of suffering and unwanted dilemmas. Buddha was very clear that the secret to present and future happiness lies in nonharmful actions born from mindfulness, compassion, and insight.

Thubten Sherab
Fairfax, Virginia

It seems that our society sees only two sides to the abortion issue—the right of the mother vs. the preservation of life at any cost. Concern for the most auspicious circumstances for the child-to-be should be paramount. If circumstances are such that a child cannot have a good chance to realize the best this life has to offer, the most unselfish thing a parent can do might be to let the child’s spirit go ’round again.

Cecily Westermann

Buddha and the Beast

I just wanted to commend you on the comprehensive and inspiring job your magazine does of covering American Buddhism, that strange and ever-changing beast. It’s not easy to lead the way, but you do it with a great deal of grace and grit.

Michael Auerbach

Shin Splints

I have been a member of the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) for seventeen years. And although I find that while Alfred Bloom’s article [“The Western Pure Land: Shin in America,” Summer 1995] makes many valid points, I do not entirely agree with his analysis of the crisis in which the BCA now finds itself. The organization has not failed “to make the transition into another culture,” either in presentation of doctrine or in institutional trappings. On the contrary, our temples have become such typical American religious institutions, complete with Sunday schools, potluck dinners, etc., that the spectacle often upsets counterculture converts to Buddhism. That most members are Japanese-American scarcely makes those temples “foreign.” It merely makes them ethnic religious organizations, which have always been the heart and soul of American minority communities.

No, the crisis is caused by the very identification with the Japanese-American community that has historically been the BCA’s great strength. For one thing, that community is shrinking. For another, so long as language barriers and racism kept the community isolated, being simultaneously Japanese-American community organizations and Buddhist organizations caused no conflict for Shin temples. But now, precisely because making Shin accessible to nisei and sansei civil servants, architects, etc., has meant making it accessible to other Americans too, some of us other Americans have joined the BCA. Some longtime members are supportive, others are appalled, and the largely unarticulated conflict leads to paralysis. But at least the BCA sometimes acknowledges the problem, unlike largely Euro-American dharma centers, which generally do not perceive their complete failure to reach out to racial minorities, even to the Asian-Americans who make up the religion’s natural ethnic base here, as a problem at all.

Diane Ames
Editor, “Sangha,” newsletter for the Wider Shin Buddhist Fellowship
El Cerrito, California

Dr. Bloom replies:

I appreciate Ms. Ames’ comments from her experience and do not find myself in serious disagreement with her analysis. Undoubtedly, issues of interpretation could result in endless exchange, since we all have different experiences.

Nevertheless, the serious decline in membership is rather sharp and suggests that other factors are involved than the diminution of the Japanese-American community alone. As she notes, conflict within Shin temples has arisen when external barriers have been lifted. We might add that problems in this transition have appeared as the educational level of the laity has risen and contrasts considerably to that of the clergy. While the external features of acculturation are evident, there are other underlying cultural and religious elements which have carried over from the Japanese setting and have affected the Shin approach to American society.

The statement to which she responded might have been more accurate if I had made it clear that the transition has not been completed, thereby producing stress in the community.

Alfred Bloom

Gere Alert

A few comments about Donald Lopez’s interesting article on Gendun Chopel [“Madhyamika Meets Modernity,” Spring 1995]. Lopez mentions Gendun Chopel’s birth in Amdo; surely this had some influence on his later opposition to the Lhasa establishment. Amdo was a border area, much more exposed to Chinese and other foreign influences than Central Tibet; the Amdowas speak a Tibetan dialect barely intelligible to Lhasa speakers, and were only in the most nominal sense subjects of the central power. Lopez’s views on the ineffability of emptiness may have been brilliantly and radically presented, but they were hardly unique; it is rather the Geluks, who insist that the ultimate is within the sphere of the intellect, who are the odd monks out. It is surprising that Lopez repeats the old canard about Gendun Chopel’s latex female surrogate: as Heather Stoddard points out in her biography, no one has ever reported personally seeing this doll, and in any case Gendun Chopel hardly needed one, having had devoted female companions until the end of his life. Finally, Lopez poses the rhetorical question of whether Gendun Chopel was “a traitor or a patriot.” Certainly most Tibetans these days, particularly the younger intellectuals, consider him a tragic culture hero and national martyr, and his progressive ideas have been praised by H. H. the Dalai Lama and many others. A wonderful subject for a movie (R. Gere, take note!).

Michael Sweet

The Ultimate Taboo

Thank you for having the courage to print the article on Stephen Hayes, the Buddhist priest from Ohio who teaches martial arts [“Blade Over the Heart: American Ninja,” Spring 1995]. I am a martial arts practitioner who is painfully embarrassed by all the attention given to the brutal macho violence that passes for martial arts in the movies and on pay-per-view TV channels. It was wonderful to read your description of the work of Stephen Hayes. He shocked me into remembering all the reasons I got involved in the martial arts in the first place years ago.

It would not surprise me if some of your readers were quite uncomfortable with the directness and utility of Hayes’ vision of Buddhism. His reference to addressing the potential for violence within us all certainly is the ultimate taboo in the Buddhist circles I have found it necessary to leave in the past. Hayes so casually plays with that ultimate taboo that it is almost eerie to read such an article in Tricycle.

I was moved by the clear pragmatism and cheerful confidence of Stephen Hayes as one who is not afraid to acknowledge the shadow side of human nature without having to apologize for it. His Buddhism certainly has guts, and for some of us, to be shown that it is OK to have guts is the height of kindness that a Buddhist teacher can extend.

Jack Hughes
Marco Island, Florida

Like it or Not

Julie S. Kim is profoundly mis­taken if she thinks that any Asians are “born Buddhist” [Letters, Summer 1995]. One can be born a Hindu or a Jew, but not a Christian, a Muslim, or a Buddhist. Ms. Kim fails to make the distinction between religions which are rooted in a particular region of the world and the culture of that region, and whose concern is pri­marily for the group rather than for the individual; and those whose only concern is for the individual, and which are accordingly open to any­ body, anywhere, at any time. The for­mer are religions of a race and, strict­ly speaking, you can only be born into them. The latter are not exclusively identified with any race or culture,but universal, and you cannot be born into them. To put the matter anoth­er way, you are a Jew or a Hindu whether you like it or not,but you have to make a personal decision to live the life of a Christian, a Muslim, or a Buddhist.

Ken Robinson
Portishead, Bristol, England

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .