Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Commercialization of Buddhism, or Eaten Any Dharma Burgers Lately?

I was talking recently with my friend Doug Todd, the spirituality and ethics columnist at the Vancouver Sun,  about how trendy Buddhism has become for many Canadians—even though few people know very much about what it really is or entails. It reminded me of a column I wrote a few years ago about how western society has appropriated Buddhism to achieve fitness, health, self-fulfillment and to sell stuff. Also check out my columnon this blog about how Hindus want to take back yoga and help people understand its religious roots. 

Have you heard about the Buddha Bar?

According to an ad in the Winnipeg Free Press, people who patronize Winnipeg’s newest drinking establishment can expect to find “chic interiors” and “exotic electronic beats” to go along with the usual cocktail, beer and wine specials.

One thing they shouldn’t expect to find there, though, are actual Buddhists.

At least, they won’t find any who take their faith seriously—adherents of this ancient religion are forbidden to drink alcohol.

Winnipeg’s Buddha Bar is just one more example of what has come to be called “Dharma Burgers,”  a phrase made popular by Rod Meade Sperry of the Buddhist pop and culture website The Worst Horse. 

According Perry, a Dharma Burger is “any example of Buddhist ideas or imagery in the marketing or production of (usually non-Buddhist) services and consumables.”

Other examples on Sperry’s website include Guru energy drinks, Buddha beer, Buddha briefs, “Zendough” (a new way “master your finances”) and Karma soap, to name just a few.

How do Buddhists feel about seeing their religion used to sell stuff? I posed that question to Sensei Fredrich Ulrich of the Manitoba Buddhist Temple.

“Most Buddhists don't relish them, but seldom take offense,” he says.

They did draw the line a few years ago when Victoria’s Secret introduced a “Buddha bikini,” with an image of a Buddha-like figure on the crotch.

“Using the Buddha to sell erotic garments is a misuse of the Buddha image,” Ulrich states.
As for all the other “Dharma Burgers,” Ulrich is resigned to seeing more businesses using his religion to make money.

“As Buddhism becomes more popular, such things will become more numerous,” he says.
Some Buddhists, like Scott A. Mitchell of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, are worried by the growing trend.

“Far from being harmless kitsch, these products “redefining Buddhism in terms palatable to a consumer driven, capitalist culture,” he says in his essay, “Buddhism, pop-culture, and the homogenization of the Dharma.”

One of the ways Buddhism has been redefined by non-Buddhists is by the way it is so often linked with meditation.

“What these representations of Buddhism do is reinforce the stereotype in the West that all Buddhists meditate,” he says, noting that it is just one practice among many for Buddhists.

At the same time, it promotes the idea that Buddhism is a passive and detached way of life characterized by “not rocking the boat, not upsetting the status quo,” he says.

In fact, as he points out, Buddhism promotes a serious critique of consumerism and materialism. 

“If Buddhism were to stand its ground, to so speak, and define itself in its own terms, it might suggest something radically contrary to the capitalist system,” he states.

It’s not just Buddhism that is being co-opted by consumer culture; it’s happening to other eastern religions, too, as British religion scholars Jeremy Carrette and Richard King point out in their book Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion.

“From feng shui to holistic medicine, from aromatherapy candles to yoga weekends, spirituality is big business,” they write.  

What bothers Carrette and King is how these great religions have been cheapened by using them as ways to personal self-fulfillment, health and fitness.

In fact, Asian religious traditions can be “easily read today as profound critiques of
consumerism and a ‘spirituality of the self’ rather than an endorsement of them,” they say.

But instead of looking for that critique, they have been adapted by a “western society that is oriented toward the individual as consumer and society as market.”

For Christians, all of this is old hat. The Christian faith has been used and mis-used for centuries in the service of commercialism.

Who hasn’t seen ads for what is called “Jesus junk”—things like the Stock Car Racing Edition Bible, “fruit of the spirit” health drinks, Christian flip-flops, a Jesus air freshener, Gospel shoes, Jesus guitar picks, disciple sunglasses, biblical breakfast cereal and the Jesus night light (not only is he the light of the world, but now he lights up bathrooms, too).

What—if anything—can be done?
The simplest course of action is not to buy anything that cynically trades on religion to sell merchandise.
Which means that if you feel like having a drink, don’t go to any place called the Buddha Bar.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Phyllis Tickle and the Great Emergence

Sadly, the news came last week that Phyllis Tickle is dying. The author and speaker was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. Over the past few decades she has written deeply and widely about spirituality and the future of the church. Now, at 81, she is working on her final chapter: Her own.

In 2009, I was part of a group that brought Phyllis to Winnipeg to speak; a couple of years ago I was able to have lunch with her with a group of friends when she was back in the city. I have also interviewed her twice. The first article, about her idea of a Great Emergence that is changing the face of western Christianity, is below.  

Declining church membership, the breaking down of denominational loyalty, the rise of new "emergent" churches that blend ancient rituals, litanies and hymns together with contemporary forms of worship and calls for social action—something is happening out there in the world of faith in North America.

But what is it? And why is it happening now? 

For Phyllis Tickle, author of the new book The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, what’s happening is as old as religion itself. I had a chance to talk to Tickle about the link between the church's history of change and the new face of the church today. Here’s a bit of that conversation.

What is the Great Emergence?

Tickle: The Great Emergence refers to a monumental phenomenon today that affects every part of our lives. The world is changing rapidly, and in so many ways, that we can hardly keep up with it.

In the religious sphere, many people have observed that these kinds of changes seem to happen every 500 years—a period of upheaval followed by a period of settling down, then codification, and then upheaval again because we do not like to be codified.

For western Christianity, the Protestant or Great Reformation was about 500 years ago. Five hundred before that you hit the Great Schism, when the church divided between east and west. Five hundred years earlier you have Pope Gregory the Great, who helped bring the church out of the Dark Ages.

During these 500-year episodes the church has what Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer calls a giant rummage sale—it takes a look at its old stuff and decides to sell what it no longer needs. We are going through this kind of giant sale today.

What happens to the church during this giant rummage sale?

Tickle: History shows that at least three things always happen.

First, a new, more vital form of Christianity emerges. 

Second, the organized expression of Christianity, which up until then had been the dominant one, is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of its former self. 

Finally, every time the incrustations of an overly-established Christianity is broken open, the faith has spread dramatically.

How is this change evidencing itself in the church today?

Tickle: Evangelicalism has lost much of its credibility and much of its spiritual energy of late, in much the same way that mainline Protestantism has. In their place is a new approach called the Emergent Church. 

The Emergent Church is a mix of Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, the mainline Protestant churches and the liturgical tradition, together with an emphasis on head and heart—not just one or the other—along with the deep commitment to social justice. 

This new style of western Christianity is not hierarchal or based on a certain doctrinal system. It’s more about community and conversation. It’s incarnational, not creedal.

How is this current upheaval different from what the church has experienced before?

Tickle: For the first time we are doing it in an age of instant media. The Internet makes it very easy to talk to each other across national and denominational boundaries. 

But the Internet isn’t causing this change; it’s enabling it, just as the printing press assisted the growth and development of the Protestant Reformation.

What are people looking for during this Great Emergence?

Tickle: People are looking for a new and different encounter with God. The strength of Protestantism was its rationalism—it took religion to the head. 

But today people want religion that also touches their hearts. It’s not anti-intellectual; mind and reason are still very important. But people want something that moves them emotionally, as well.

How might Christians respond to these changes?

Tickle: We need to respond prayerfully and carefully. This change isn’t happening all at once—it will occur over many years. How we should respond is not always clear on a day-to-day basis.

How do you feel about the changes you are seeing today?

Tickle: I am optimistic about the future of the church. For me, Christianity has never been more alive and vigorous than it is right here and right now. 

The kingdom of God is coming in many forms and many places these days. All I can say is: “Thanks be to God!” 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Making Room for People Struggling With Mental Illness

UPDATE, Feb. 6/17: Vince Li is seeking an absolute discharge so he can live freely in the community. The question asked two years ago is still germane today.

Vince Li, who was found not criminally responsible for the beheading death of Tim McLean on a greyhound bus in 2008, has been given the OK to to be transferred to a group home in Winnipeg. Some are outraged, but many people are fine with it—Li, who has schizophrenia, has experienced “profound improvement” to his mental health and has been judged ready to be integrated back into the community. But I wonder: What would happen if Li decided to attend a Winnipeg church as part of his recovery? Would he be welcome? I explored the subject in my Free Press column earlier this year.

Do people with mental health challenges feel welcome at your place of worship?

The question is prompted by the recent decision to give Vince Li day passes from the Selkirk Mental Health Centre.
Many people are familiar with Li, who was found not criminally responsible for beheading Tim McLean on Greyhound bus in 2008.
Li, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, has described himself as a devout Christian.

“I believe in Jesus Christ. He is my Saviour,” he said. “I try to follow God.”

For someone like Li, who is seeking to return to a normal and productive life, finding a church home would provide a supportive and caring community.

But are churches ready to help someone like him, or anyone else struggling with a mental health challenge? A 2014 study by Lifeway Research in the U.S. suggests the answer is no.

The study of 1,000 Protestant pastors found that they and their churches are unprepared to deal with people experiencing mental health challenges.

According to the study, 66 percent of pastors seldom speak to their congregation about mental illness, only 27 percent of churches have a plan to assist families affected by mental illness, and only 14 percent have someone on staff who is skilled to deal with it.

According to Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, “pastors need more guidance and preparation for dealing with mental health crises. They often don't have a plan to help individuals or families affected by mental illness, and miss opportunities to be the church."

For James Friesen, CEO of Eden Mental Health Centre in Winkler, offering help to people with mental illness is the right thing for churches to do.

“The church has a higher calling to show forgiveness, grace and love,” to people who struggle with mental health challenges, he says.

“For Christians, those things should be at the front ends of our hearts.”

And how can churches assist people with mental health challenges?

“Listen,” says Friesen, noting that people with mental illness say they just want to be treated as normal. “They tell me, ‘help us find a place to live, a job, friends.’ That is 90 percent of what people ask for.”

Education is also important, says Ron Falk, who directs spiritual care at Eden and who visits churches to help them respond to people facing mental health issues.

“Churches need to learn about mental illness, how to support people and their families,” he says.

As for Vince Li, his was an extreme case; even so, mental health experts say he poses a low risk of reoffending. He has been described as a model patient who is humble and remorseful for what he did—and determined to stay on his schizophrenia medication.

It is estimated that one out of every four or five Canadians who will face a mental health issue in their lifetime. This means people who are struggling are in every congregation. 

Since the heart of the Christian message is forgiveness, new life and restoration to the community, your church has an opportunity to help people experiencing mental health challenges right now.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Good News or Bad News? Religion in Canada Not Declining as Fast as Some Think

Religion in Canada isn’t declining nearly as fast as we think.”
That quote, part of a headline in Maclean’s magazine about religion in Canada, is either faint praise or a cause for alarm—depending on your point of view.
It was used to introduce the results of a new Angus Reid survey that found that 30 percent of Canadians say they embrace religion, compared to 26 percent who say they reject it. 
Forty-four percent are somewhere in between—they could go either way.
If you are in the camp that is alarmed, then you can worry about how the number of people who say they are religious is down 15 percent from 30 years ago, and  about how the number of people who say they reject has has increased 22 percent since 1971.
On the other hand, there is cause for hope since many people in the middle—the so-called ambivalents—haven’t abandoned religion. 
Eighty-seven percent of Canadians continue to identify with a religious tradition, 64 percent believe in God, 40 percent say they pray, and over 40 percent say they are open to greater involvement with religious groups—if it was worthwhile.
As for those who reject religion, the pollster notes they are not hostile toward it; it would be better to say they are “bypassing faith.”

Overall, the survey also found that over 70 percent of Canadians believe in a “Supreme Being” and 66 percent believe in life after death—figures that haven’t changed much since the 1970s.
Summarizing the findings, the pollster observes that increasing secularization is occurring in Canada against a backdrop of persistent spirituality.
What’s behind the slower than assumed decline in support for religion in Canada? Immigration, says the pollster.
“One of the keys to understanding the current state of organized religion in Canada is to look at immigration patterns,” the study states.
It goes on to note that the reason groups such as the United, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Lutheran denominations are declining is because they no longer get immigrants from Britain and Europe.
As immigration patterns have shifted, so too has growth in different religions.
With greater immigration from Asian countries, the main beneficiaries are Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and other faith groups. This has the affect of offsetting decreasing interest and participation from native-born Canadians.
As Reginald Bibby of the University of Lethbridge put it: “The reality is that groups depending on natural increase are dead in the water. There’s just not enough people being born to offset the number who are dying.”

But even immigration won’t keep up the numbers forever. 

Said John Stackhouse, a professor at Vancouver’s Regent College: “There aren’t enough immigrant Christians to make up for the vast majority of Canadians who have become less enthusiastic, indifferent, or even hostile to Christianity.”

For Joel Thiessen, associate professor of sociology at Ambrose University in Calgary, the survey results aren't a surprise.
Secularization in Canada,  he said, is “the overarching trend,” coupled with “less affinity by Canadians with religious groups.”

Added Paul Bramadat, Director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria: “If the statistical patterns continue, and that seems fairly likely, historians will look back on the period in which we now live and characterize it as one of massive upheavals in the ways individuals and the broader public think about and involve themselves in religion.”
What does this mean for religous groups? For Thiessen, it means  that people of faith “need a new way of being religious in society.”

They also need to change the perceptions of religion by Canadians. 

“Many people have negative perception of religion,” he said. “It is seen as being against things. We need to talk more about the things that are good and beneficial about religion to counter the negative stories.”

For Bramadat, religious groups also need to find new ways to engage their communities, do more interdenominational collaboration, and address social justice issues.

So the good news is that religion in Canada isn’t declining as fast as some might think. The challenging news is that faith groups need to re-think their place in this increasingly secular landscape, and prepare themselves for greater challenges in the future. 

As Bramadat put it: “Religion in Canada is in the midst of a truly massive, categorical shift. We can’t underestimate the consequences of these changes. The next five to ten years could be significant ones for Canadian religious groups.”

Click here to read the full survey. Click here to read the Maclean's article.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Meaning of Suffering After the Nepal Earthquake, from a Nepalese Point of View

When a disaster like the earthquake in Nepal strikes, people deal with the effects in many ways—including through their faith. Since about 80 percent of Nepalese are Hindu, and many of the remainder are Buddhist, they view the disaster through those lens. I explored how people from those religions deal with disasters after the southeast Asian tsunami in 2004 and the Japan earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

On November 1, 1755, an earthquake devastated Lisbon, Portugal. It devastated the city, killing around 60,000 people.

It not only shook buildings—it also rocked the very foundations of religious belief. It sparked vigorous debate throughout Europe about the nature of the universe (is it really benevolent?) and God (is God really good and loving?). 

In particular, the earthquake challenged the popular idea—promoted by the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz—that if God is good, then the world that God created must be the best of all possible worlds.

(To this the French philosopher Voltaire offered a sarcastic reply: “One would have great difficulty in divining how the laws of movement operate such frightful disasters in the best of all possible worlds,” he wrote to a friend.)

The Lisbon earthquake occurred a long time ago. But today, in western countries that are heavily influenced by Christianity, many people still ask how God could allow such a thing as the Nepal earthquake to happen.

But that is not the kind of question being asked by people in Nepal, where most of the population is Hindu and Buddhist.

Adherents of both religions have a more fatalistic and stoic approach to life. It's not that they can't control what happens in their lives. But many things—both good and bad—are beyond their control. It’s how people respond to them that is important.

Nepalese Hindus can see the disaster and the suffering it caused as part of the broader context of a cosmic cycle of birth, life, destruction and rebirth—a process call samsara.

Of course, there is grief over the destruction and loss of life. As Atish Maniar, a Winnipeg Hindu priest, put it following the southeast Asian tsunami: “We grieve over the deaths of all those people killed,” but grief is tempered by the knowledge that they will “be reborn.”

As for God’s role in the earthquake or other disasters, Hindus don’t believe they are caused by God as a way to show displeasure with humans.  

“God is full of mercy—he would never punish anyone,” Maniar said.

Similarly, Buddhists don’t believe disasters are caused by God. Rather, they are part of a cycle of suffering that is to be transcended by followers of the Buddha.

Like Hindus, Buddhists also grieve the loss of life. But as former Winnipeg Buddhist pastor Fredrich Ulrich puts it, “the important thing is how we react to it.” 

Buddhists also believe in a process of rebirth, but they don’t believe people have eternal souls. There essence, or Karma, is passed on to a new human being who is born after they die.

This eastern view of responding to disasters was summed up by Shravasti Dhammika, a Buddhist monk from Australia, following the southeast Asian tsunami.

“How does Buddhism explain natural disasters like the tsunami?” he asked. 

“In a sense it does not have to explain them. It is only belief in an all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful God that compels us to try to explain and explain away all the evidence that seems to contradict this belief.”

When God is taken out of the picture, he said, “the answer is really very simple. The universe does not conform to our desires and wishes. It takes no notice of us and our aspirations.”

Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, drought, disease, accidents—all these things just happen, he stated.

“We live in a dynamic universe and sometimes events are to our benefit, and at other times to our detriment. That’s the way the world is.”

Buddhism, he adds, “is not concerned with explaining why this is so. It simply makes the common sense assertion that the universe is sometimes at odds with our dreams, our wishes and our desires.”

For Canadians watching the response to the earthquake, knowing how different religions view suffering can help us understand the way they respond—and maybe even cause us to examine our own responses to similar bad experiences in life.