As some of you know by now, I’ve been taking graduate classes in Theology and am almost done with a M.A.T.S. degree (praise all that is good and holy and will allow for me to read smutty fiction books again instead of books that are too heavy to carry).  It will be my second Masters in this field and I have to tell you: I cannot stop learning about it.  Growing up Catholic, I honestly never knew the Bible was a story.  Gheese. Had I known that I may have been in for learning about important things a whole lot sooner.

I would have probably also been in for telling people who came at me in various ways that I stood for more than they were offering.  Yes, I’m talking about the time I told my Mom I was “going for a long run” and instead ran only about 3 blocks past the cemetery and up a hill to the car where my high school boyfriend was waiting.  Note to 16 year-old self: a rusted baby poop brown Zephyr and one hormonal teenage boy jamming to Def Leppard off key does not a good afternoon make.  I digress, but you know (and I finally did about 3 years later) that I’m right.  Don’t spend time with people who don’t really care to be spending it with you.

One of the requirements for a class I am finishing this semester included researching a different “religion.”  Religion in and of itself drives people away from churches, from caring, and sometimes, from even believing there is a God at all.  For sure, if you do believe, it’s hard to remember that there are about a billion people in this world who believe in something else.  That can be hard to reconcile.  It also makes for lots of kind-hearted people who are known as inclusivists (the belief that God is present in non-Christian religions to save the adherents through Christ).  I’ll write and share more later on the 3 schools of theological thought on this: pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivism. Interesting stuff.

I happen to be very fond of inclusivists, by the way, since my daughter and husband are definitely in that camp…

Back on track.  I chose to research Buddhism for two main reasons: we were required to explore the “religion” from inside its view, i.e. really try to understand what someone within that religious construct feels about certain customs, beliefs, etc., and the women who own a nail salon I frequent are Buddhist.  Oh and secondly, my husband used to be married to a Buddhist (she <surprise!> either didn’t know or forgot to tell him that ahead of time. Oops.)

Note to 30-something self:  Ha!  Like there’s just one.  Please.  More on that craziness later.  For now just know that I was super helpful to Ryan by helping him redecorate. He’s welcome.

Below is an excerpt from the paper.  Happy Sunday.

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Among all the world religions, Buddhism enjoys a particularly positive reputation, widely respected for its teachings of love and compassion, its promotion of nonviolence, its constancy of a vegetarian diet, and its abdication of war. Ask most practicing Buddhists if they are in agreement with those general tenets and they would nod in affirmation. Yet, the Buddha himself ate meat, did not forbid his monks from doing so, and wars have been fought by Buddhists in the name of Buddhism. So why is there seemingly a dissonance between the commonly held view of Buddhism and its history?

As this paper will set out in part to explore, perhaps that answer has much to do with the Western yearnings for a religion founded by a man who declared that there is no God and whose primary practice is to sit cross-legged on the ground and calm the passions while operating under the premise of living simply and “being a good person.”

When the term “world religion” was first coined by European scholars in the nineteenth century, only two were deemed worthy of the name: Christianity and Buddhism. In fact, they were called world religions because European scholars believed that their teachings had spread around the world by the force of their truths, not by the force of any military armies; all other religions were somehow local. Buddhism has been so highly regarded that it is often claimed as not a “religion” at all – it is rather a philosophy or plainly a way of life, one whose precepts can be selectively adopted regardless of religious affiliation, or lack thereof.

Inquisitively an open-mindedly, I sat down with two Buddhist women in a capacity which, heretofore, we had not known one another. My intent was not only to get to the heart of their views on “being a Buddhist,” but also to delve into a topic which I had heard them in passing over the last few months discussing in heated, painful, and passionate manners.

Amy and Michelle, their Westernized names, are sisters from Vietnam. I have been a regular at their nail salon for the past five years. Over that period of time, we have developed a relationship which centers around our similarities and daily activities including but not limited to: womanhood, mothering, working, dating and marriage, and occasionally – religion.  Suffice it to say, they smile and greet me warmly with a collective, “Hi, Beth!” every time I walk in, and I very much look forward to the days when I see them.  It is an understood relationship, one which has easily moved from acquaintanceship to friendship without any words needing to be uttered or interactions needing to be changed.  We have simply evolved.

For at least the last three years, I have often arrived at V.N. Nails with textbooks in hand. From philosophy and theology titles to the more specific Global Gods: Exploring the Role of Religions in Modern Societies, Amy, Michelle and other employees (all of whom are from Vietnam) would see me reading and yet, never inquire. Mind you, they inquired about everything else – in particular when I was finally going to date again and when I did, how my “tall and handsome man” was doing and when we were going to get married. They enjoyed seeing pictures; I enjoyed the banter while reveling in my receding obstinacy.

So while it did not come of any surprise to Amy or Michelle when I arrived recently and told them I wasn’t there to have my nails done, they were caught slightly off-guard when I instead asked for help.

“Amy, remember when you mentioned a long time ago that you are Muslim?” I asked her, books in hand.

She nodded, her facial expression indicating she knew where I was going with this.

“You’re actually Buddhist, right?” I pressed again gently as I looked quickly over at the shrine, incense filling the air.

Before she could confirm what I already knew, I assured her by asking for her help with “school.” I’ve met her daughter several times – a wicked smart and precocious sixth grader who always asks me to quiz her over weekly glossary definitions. I know how important school is to their family and, coupled with Amy’s kindness and trust in our relationship, I was hopeful she would be willing to continue our conversation.

She came out from around her usual chair and sat next to me in a row of seats reserved for waiting customers. As Amy carefully listened to what I was asking, every now and then she would also carefully place her hand on my knee indicating she needed a few seconds to type a translation into her iPhone. Once she began to follow fully, I began – honestly for the very first time in over forty-three years – to finally understand how a Buddhist views their “religion.” I also overwhelmingly started to feel even more emotionally connected to both Amy and Michelle, listening and grieving with them over their deeply conflicted views on Buddhist death rituals.

First, what is it that makes someone a Buddhist? Are there defining characteristics, and if so, do they differ between theory and practice? Those questions, while not rhetorical, were stemming from my ineptitude, my solely Christian experience, and the fact I knew they must be addressed in order to set the stage prior to jumping off the springboard into a deeper dive. Before I could begin to grasp the difficulties and nuances associated with Buddhist death rituals, it was imperative that I had a solid understanding of the fundamentals of Buddhism.

There are upwards of 375 million Buddhists around the world.  It is not a static religion; rather throughout its history its fortunes have ebbed and flowed much like all other religions. Buddhism has been transplanted to new cultural settings and adapted, it has flourished under the favor of rulers and been repressed when such favor was granted elsewhere, it has settled, expanded, grown stagnant and stale, declined and been revived – again, not dissimilar to other religions. This continuing cycle of Buddhism (or, more correctly, ‘Buddhisms’ as there is no one set form) is an ongoing characteristic of the countries of Central Asia (Tibet and Mongolia), South Asia (India and Sri Lanka) and Southeast Asia (Myanmar [Burma], Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam). While this list is only a partial one, the prevalence of Buddhism in the country Amy and Michelle still call “home” is stunning. Vietnam comprises over half of the world’s Buddhists, proportionally ranking eighth out of the top ten countries where Buddhism is the predominant religion. Based on United Nations estimates, as of February 21, 2016, the population of Vietnam was 94,085,859, or equivalent to 1.27% of the entire world population. Almost 53% (49,690,000) are Buddhist.

Of supreme importance, and something which I learned very early on during my discussion with Amy and Michelle, is that Buddhism in Vietnam as practiced by the ethnic Vietnamese is mainly of the Mahayana tradition. (Amy and Michelle confirmed that they are of the Mahayana tradition as opposed to the Theravada form of Buddhism.) Even though most practicing Buddhists are of the Mahayana tradition, Vietnamese Buddhism has had and definitely still very much has, a symbiotic relationship with certain elements of Taoism, Chinese spirituality, and the Vietnamese folk religion.

As we continued our dialogue, it became apparent to me that there was perhaps a combining of Buddhism and Vietnamese folk religion insofar as Amy and Michelle’s struggle with Buddhist death rituals. The latter, having many similarities with southern Chinese folk religion, is not an organized religious system, but rather a set of local worship traditions devoted to the th~an (I don’t have the proper keys on my keyboard to type correctly), a term which essentially can be translated to mean “spirits,” “gods,” or even “generative powers.”

“After our daddy died a few years ago, our mother turned away from Buddhism and is now Catholic,” Michelle began explaining.  “We don’t know what to do.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, unsure of the correlation, other than I was raised Catholic and never had any idea of what to do either.

“Our mother is in a nursing home and is not going to be alive much longer. She refuses to have a Buddhist ceremony when she dies. But that is all we know, the only way we know.”

Amy chimed in, “There is no Buddha in Catholic, Daddy won’t be happy, we don’t know what to do.”

At this point, they both had tears in their eyes and simultaneously as if on cue, looked over at the statue of the Buddha at the front of their store.

Religious beliefs are important in Buddhism, but its central doctrines are not necessarily the same as those of other world religions. Buddhist beliefs very clearly include multiple gods, ancestors and the afterlife, but the most important Buddhist beliefs are about suffering and how to escape it. Amy and Michelle were unbelievably distressed, visibly shaken, and almost paralyzed with fear as they do not know how to help their soon to be deceased mother “escape suffering.” They adore her, their one and only mother – and their hearts are broken and troubled every day at the thought of her “being in hell” permanently as no longer a Buddhist, but a self-professed Catholic with no possibility for escaping samsara – the suffering-laden cycle of life, death, and rebirth, without beginning or end.

In Mahayana Buddhism, the universe is populated with celestial buddhas, bodhisattvas, and deities that assist and inspire the Buddhist practitioner in all ways, especially on behalf of the dead. Among the most popular (which Amy and Michelle could not name, only recognize visually) are Kuan Yin, the Medicine Buddha, the Laughing Buddha, and the Green and white Taras. Amy and Michelle burn incense daily to any number of these celestial buddhas, but also around shrines venerating their deceased family members.

The veneration of the dead, including one’s ancestors, is based on love and respect for the deceased. In some cultures, it is related to a view that the dead have a continued existence and may possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living.  Ancestor reverence is not the same as the worship of a deity or deities, such as the Buddha or other buddhas which Amy and Michelle have in their store and homes; yet, combining these practices is highly common especially in southeast Asian cultures, and is one of the most unifying aspects of Vietnamese culture. A denoting distinguishing feature of Vietnamese ancestor veneration is that women have traditionally been allowed to participate and co-officiate ancestral rites, unlike in Chinese Confucian doctrine, which only allows male descendants to perform such rites.

Most cultures who practice ancestor veneration do not call it “ancestor worship.” In English, the word worship usually pertains to the reverent devotion and love bestowed upon a deity (god) or God; however, in other cultures, this act of worship does not allocate or confer any belief that the departed ancestors have become some kind of deity. Rather, the act is chiefly a way to respect, honor and generally look after loved ones who have preceded the worshipping family member in death. Not only is this a way to “do” something on behalf of the departed insofar as giving them a good afterlife is concerned, but it is also a way to seek their ancestor’s guidance as they continue to live on this earth. While others do not believe that the ancestors are even aware of what their descendants do for them, it is the expression of filial piety which remains significantly meaningful.

In this regard, what Amy and Michelle explained to me is more accurately conveyed as ancestor veneration, which again, is not uncommon given their Buddhist-influenced culture, upbringing and belief system. Although there is no generally accepted theory considering the actual origins of ancestor veneration, this social phenomenon appears in some form in all human cultures documented so far (i.e. going to grave sites in Western cultures). Michelle indicated that they believe their father can benefit from her chants because, as she directly put it, “Our minds are connected then as we chant, and it transfers to him.”

They cannot bear to think of being unable to connect with their mother in the same way. In all Buddhist countries today despite many regional differences, death rituals are the exclusive acumen of the sangha (the Buddhist community of monks, nuns, novices, and laity) and a crucial time when monks delineate core teachings and receive Daana, which is the practice of cultivating generosity. Buddhist mourners attentively dispose of the corpse, relying on ritual to ensure that the dead person does not become a hungry ghost (preta) or, worse, a demon (yaksha). They also seek to fend off bad destiny for the deceased by making merit, then transferring it to the dead person. Merit-making is highly important to Buddhist practice as it is seen as bringing good and pleasant results, determining the quality of the next life, and contributing to a person’s growth towards enlightenment.

Michelle and Amy shared stories with me at length of how their mother imbued generosity to everyone whom she encountered over the course of her lifetime.  This is what is so excruciatingly painful for them as they are reminded daily of her impending death – since she is no longer a Buddhist, they will not be able to share merit with her in order to lessen the suffering in her new existence. According to her daughters’ Buddhist beliefs, a woman who was nothing but generous in this lifetime will not receive any reciprocation in the next lifetime because she is now a “Catholic.”

“Religion” is tearing their family apart, I thought to myself. 

“There is nothing we can do. Nothing to be done. We have Buddha in our hearts and we don’t know if she still does,” Michelle struggled to complete the words as the final thoughts of her mother’s destiny overcame her with understandable emotion. Interestingly, some research indicated that ancestor veneration may have served a group coordination role during human evolution, and thus it was the mechanism which led to religious representation fostering group cohesion.

And so it is we come full circle, both with regard to humanity and “religion.” Isn’t fostering a community of group cohesion under the auspice of “religious representation” what practitioners within most if not all religious systems are essentially after, including Buddhism? Sure, there is a much larger and entirely consequential picture of salvation within some systems, yet in general it would seem that individuals simply want to belong to something, to matter both in the here and now and beyond.  Perhaps that Western yearning for a religion founded by a man who declared there is no God and whose primary practice is to calm the passions has everything to do with the uncertainty which come from the potential of not belonging to a group…to a family – and worse yet, feeling devoid of the one true God.

Given the state of extreme divisiveness within our world today, I would offer that perceived religious dissonance within any belief system is a self-inducing situation, not solely a culture-inducing one.  What individuals across the globe or even down the street at a local neighborhood establishment believe may be very different than what they say or practice; yet at the end of the day and certainly at the end of a loved one’s lifetime, what matters most is how well we have loved and cared for one another – regardless of location, regardless of nationality, and certainly regardless of any religious affiliations.

How enlightening.