The American Yen for Zen

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May 17 2001 3:00 AM

The American Yen for Zen

How I fell in and out and back into love with Buddha.

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I suppose I was frightened, but mostly the letters made me depressed. Was this Buddhism in action? And what happened to my perfectly detached nun friends?

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They had never been perfect, of course. Or inhumanly mellow and kind. The nuns were people, just people—just like you and me and the 14th Dalai Lama. They would have preferred some whitewashing of their life stories—and the story of their lama. That's pretty human, I guess. And they would have preferred a little whitewashing of Buddhism too. For them—and indeed, for many of us—it's the last refuge, the one remaining hope. After so much religious corruption, so many flawed hierarchies, and so many sobbing televangelists who seem always on the take, Americans want to believe that Buddhism is free of such problems—free of ego and hierarchies and money-grubbing.

We want Buddhism to be pure, unassailable. We almost need it that way. So we tell ourselves it's a philosophy, a set of teachings, not really a religion. It's simple. It's calming. You buy a little Buddha for your mantelpiece and feel better. You drink some green tea and feel cleansed. We're afraid to know much about it—about the demons, the 18 various kinds of hell, or the 108,000 prostrations you need to do just to get through the beginner's phase. Reality might ruin the fun. And it might spoil the good shopping too.

Buddhism has brought meaning and happiness to the lives of millions of people for thousands of years, of course. And—even after my exposure to its lightest and darkest sides—Buddhism has brought a great deal of that to me too. But it's a religion, probably no better or worse than the other great ones. And like other religions, Buddhism is a very nice thing, as an idea, as an exercise in extreme optimism, but in practice it can get a little ugly and strange and distorted—the way things do when people get together and contemplate what might happen to them after they die. People are people, and even with the best intentions, weird things happen. Didn't Buddha say that?

Martha Sherrill is the author of The Buddha From Brooklyn: A Story of Spiritual Seduction, just released in paperback (click here to buy it). Her novel about Hollywood will be published next year.