Hyphenating Traditions (written 2002)
We are accustomed in North America to hyphenated identities. Women, myself included, not desiring to give up the names of their family of origin, hyphenate their last names, keeping their own surname and adding the surname of their husband. This acknowledges both person and couple and feels right to many people. As well, immigrant Canadians may speak of themselves as British-Canadian or Australian-Canadian or Dutch-Canadian. And those of ethnic origins other than Caucasian may be referred to as Indo-Canadians or Chinese-Canadians or Afro-Canadians.
But I was taken aback the first time I ran across terms likes Jewish-Buddhist, Christian or even Catholic-Buddhist, agnostic Buddhist. What could this mean, I wondered? Wasn’t this some kind of contradiction? My only understanding was by analogy to households with two religions…one partner Jewish and the other Buddhist, but this did not seem right given the context in which these terms were used. And so I took this to mean that somehow a person, once Christian, for example, now considered herself to be Buddhist, but honored that from which she’d come by forming such a dual category for herself.
It has taken awhile to come to a clearer understanding of this. And this understanding illustrates for me what first drew me to Buddhism itself. It is said in traditional teachings that on the subject of “God”, the Buddha was silent. Traditional Buddhism is therefore agnostic in nature. While recognizing the sacred unity of all life, and the meaninglessness of “I” apart from all, this tradition does not contain the notion of a supreme being apart from all. My personal understanding has been to take the word “God” to be a synonym for this sacred unity. God is in us all. So, though at first I wanted to change a word I felt was too loaded with images of an old-man-with-a-beard, I am now comfortable with this term. Speaking of the spiritual we must always be satisfied with approximations. This one will do.
But now I see in the hyphenated identities which many other Buddhists claim, that in the Buddha’s silence on the subject of God, there is infinite space. Buddhism is, instead of a system of belief, a form of mind training. So, one who is comfortable with Jewish beliefs, or Christian beliefs in any of their myriad manifestations, may also discover truths through this system of internal investigation. The truth of the interdependence of all beings, for instance, is revealed in the stillness and insight of meditation. And meditation supports the practice of mindful living, and the growth of compassion. So that forms of worship, reverence and direct knowing melt one into the other. Hyphenation is an attempt to make this semantically understandable. It is an approximation of this melding of world views.
This is much of what it is to awaken. To know that even in our terms and labels and systems of belief we are all one, all on a shared path. Thus, the discomfort I felt in earlier years with organized religion, perceiving it to cause divisions, is simply released with the breath as we begin again together.