Today’s morsel comes from Buddhism and Psychotherapy Across Cultures: Essays on Theory and Practice. This collection explores the creative possibilities emerging from the synergy of Buddhism and psychotherapy. The selection below is from Richard K. Payne's chapter, “Individualization and Awakening: Romance Narrative and the Psychological Interpretation of Buddhism.”
A Personal Reflection
Several years ago, while still a struggling doctoral candidate anxious for things that I could add to my curriculum vitae, I was asked to participate in a day-long session for the general public conducted in Berkeley by a group whose name I seem to have purposely forgotten. I was requested to act as a representative not of Japanese Buddhism, a topic with which I had some personal experience, but rather of Shinto, with which I had only a rather general familiarity. Despite my demurral, the person inviting me persisted, and I finally agreed.
As the day unfolded I found the unspoken theme was the unity of all religions. It is popular in some circles—not only among New Age adherents but alsomore generally amongmany of the religiously liberal—to claim that all religions ultimately teach the same thing, that all of the great mystics have accessed the same higher truth, and that these higher, mystical teachings form the true essence of each and all religions—an esoteric teaching or “perennial philosophy,” accessible only to the initiate. One of themost common metaphors for this view is that although there are many paths up the mountain, they all lead to the one peak.
I resisted fitting Shinto into this view. Although one can find some traditional shrines and some new Shinto-derived religions that do have spiritual traditions and practices—often characterized by traditional concepts of purity and pollution—these seem to be the exceptions. The vast majority of the shrines popular both with native Japanese and with tourists offer no program of individual perfection, no esoteric truths to be acquired by meditative practice, no mystical texts revealing the experiences of ancient masters. From my own admittedly casual observations it seemed that the concerns of the vast majority of visitors to Shinto shrines are highly pragmatic—good health, safety, prosperity, progeny, admission to a desirable university, success in business (or warfare), and so on. Indeed, I have been shown one shrine whose deity specializes in curing insomnia, and another—reputedly popular with geisha—whose deity specializes in preserving feminine beauty. Buddhism is also filled with petitionary prayer, and Japanese Buddhism in particular has been further characterized as overly preoccupied with death rituals, hence the term soshiki Bukkyo, or “funerary Buddhism.” My point is not to define Buddhism as spiritually superior to Shinto but rather to point out that Shinto priests and shrines themselves generally do not make some kind of path to spiritual realization integral or central to their mission, as Buddhists do, at least formally, through doctrine and their training centers.
During the discussion period, one of the audience members commented that all of the speakers made sense to her—“except that fellow who spoke about Shinto.” It seemed that the perennialist assumption was so strong that any other view was simply incoherent to her. It was not a topic the session leader wanted to follow up on.
While I can hardly claim that this one event produced a sudden and blinding change in my way of thinking, it has contributed to my own present insistence that being a Buddhistmakes a difference, and to my own project of attempting to peel back the layers of the popular view of Buddhism. After all, if all religions are ultimately the same, then why should one adhere to one rather than another? Why actually expose oneself to a tradition that is radically different, one that challenges many of the fundamental assumptions of popular religious culture? If one prefers not to be challenged, one can assume that one already knows, because one knows that all religions are ultimately the same. Although the metaphor is at least dubious, if not fatuous, it seems to me that not only are there many paths but that there are also many mountains—as well as no shortage of swamps, dead ends, charlatans, poison oak, and mosquitoes along the way.