Early this month, I flew to Long Island, NY for the funeral of my last uncle, Martin Gans, my father’s younger brother, who died at the age of 86. My parents, through a not altogether fortuitous combination of protectiveness and religious indifference, kept me away from funerals when I was young and refused their own when they were old; this was actually the first time I attended the funeral of a close relative.
Marty was Jewish and his wife Catholic, a not atypical combination in mid-century New York City (remember Abie’s Irish Rose?). Although hardly true believers, neither ever dreamt of denying their respective heritage. Yet the plastic memorial card given out at the funeral home contains, on one side, a prose rendering (unidentified) of Max Ehrmann’s poem “Desiderata” (written in 1927, popular in the sixties, and all over the Internet), whose first sentence reads, “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence,” and, on the other, a lotus-like image of the Buddhist eightfold path above the word “Peace.”
Thus a couple of educated but not hypereducated, aware but not trendy, and surely not New-Age New Yorkers, raised in two great Western religions that share a common holy book, chose to express themselves through a Buddhist image and what Westerners (if not real Buddhists) would think of as Buddhist-like spirituality. No doubt this is a Buddhism reduced to the merest symbolic gesture, but that does not explain why the materials for this gesture were not drawn from within the Judeo-Christian tradition.
What has made the Buddhist perspective attractive to Westerners since the days of Schopenhauer is its rejection of desiring individuality. Few in consumer society practice the systematic denial of desire, but many include in their consumption practices signs of this denial to display to themselves and others. Yet this recuperation of “Eastern” values by “Western” consumerism is not altogether complete. As the popularity of Ehrmann’s poem illustrates, there is a peace to be gained from renouncing the Judeo-Christian drama of salvation. Although not overtly competitive, the quest for individual salvation unavoidably smacks of the desire for centrality. In the Buddhist equivalent, one renounces all desire and with it, the desiring traits that make up one’s “self.”
I am not unmindful of René Girard’s point that the Judeo-Christian tradition conveys the sharpest vision of the anthropological function of the mimetic violence that all religions seek to expel into the realm of the sacred. The prophetic denunciations of sacrificial violence that culminate in the Gospels display more awareness of its anthropological function than the turning away from all violence characteristic of Buddhism or Jainism. It is easy to make the argument that the West’s greater awareness of culture’s function in deferring violence has oriented it toward developing secular alternatives to the sacrificial mode rather than merely turning sacrificial violence inward against one’s own desire. When the Western tradition renounces worldly desire, it is in the service of the individual soul’s spiritual desire–a desire that can still arguably enter into an inter-human dialogue–rather than the search for Nirvana.
Perhaps the most striking contrast between Buddhism and Christianity is in the career of their respective founders. Where the former rejects sacrificial violence, the latter both rejects it and falls victim to it. This dramatic element in Christianity (prefigured many times in the Old Testament) has no place in Buddhism. Like Jesus, Buddha lives and dies, but he is neither a divine being nor a sacrificial victim–characteristics that we know to be two moments of the same history. The contrast is all the more telling in a cultural context where everyone knows the story of Jesus but few know much about Buddha; ignorance only enhances the attraction of the undramatic.
The contrast between Buddha and Christ is reflected in the religions’ respective models of sanctity. The Christian makes a sacrifice of his desire; the more heroic his suffering, the greater his celestial reward–witness Saint Anthony (Flaubert’s patron) with his nightly temptations in the desert. The Buddhist approach, as I understand it, is that the sage doesn’t struggle to extirpate his desires, he merely learns to avoid suffering by not acting on them. Without the Satanic personalization of the figure of temptation, learning to resist desire, however arduous, is no more dramatic than learning to play the piano.
Christian dramatization of the soul’s struggle for salvation, along with its secular derivatives, is arguably the driving force in the West’s historical success. The more advanced the exchange system, the more individual participants are obliged to invest in their own “story.” Does the preference for undramatic “Buddhist” moral exemplarity over Western personal-historical drama suggest, then, a turning-away from this investment? I think not.
Let us read “Desiderata” as an expression of American “Buddhism.” The work, more a homily than a poem, consists almost entirely of a series of imperatives. We are told to go placidly, to speak quietly (and to listen), to avoid comparing ourselves to others, to remain interested in our careers, to accept aging, to be cheerful, to strive to be happy. Yet the strongest statement of the poem is in the indicative mode: “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.” Only one penetrated by Western romantic alienation and Geworfenheit (“thrown-ness”) could conceive, or require, such reassurance. I’d be willing to bet that the average Buddhist would find this poem inappropriately focused on protection of self rather than loss of self.
The most striking feature of Ehrmann’s text is the constant backing and filling in an effort to reconcile asceticism and hedonism, to defer the violence of worldly desire in such a way as to forestall a resentful reaction. This attitude is perhaps best illustrated by the line, “Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.” The ancient ne quid nimis (nothing in excess) is here applied, not to desire, but to the self-discipline that controls desire. Or: “Whatever your labors and aspirations in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.” We have come a long way from the moral striving of an earlier phase of market society, illustrated by Henley’s “Invictus,” Kipling’s “If”–best of all, by Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life”:
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.
A more mature market society balances consumption with production, “discipline” with “gentleness.” It cultivates the drama of each life, but, in order to maintain the energy required for this cultivation, it gives us a fall-back position, a way of looking at our lives in which nothing need be won or lost. What we think of as “Buddhist” is really a perspective that, by reassuring us of the availability of this position, permits us to invest yet more energy in worldly ambition.
Perhaps the twenty-first century will discover that this kind of spirituality is more helpful than the Christian variety in the mature global marketplace. But it is more likely that the market system, and the globalizing culture that accompanies it, is evolving toward a pluralistic synthesis of (at least) Western historicism and Eastern transcendentalism. We were already Christians, and now we are Buddhists too.
Born in 1915, my uncle Marty, a Jew who sang in church choirs and wanted to be remembered with a Buddhist image, was already a citizen of the twenty-first century.