A reader writes:
Like you, I mainly side with the comments of your readers. But I can understand those who turn away from Buddhism (at best, I could call myself a philosophical Zen Buddhist today, so I guess I've turned away from it in some respects).
Yes, there is much more to Buddhism than living a monastic life among chanting monks, just as there is so much more to Catholicism than the desire to become a priest or Cardinal. But it doesn't serve anyone well to pretend that many of the things associated with Buddhism aren't caricatures -- the reader who thinks searching for true enlightenment is a sham conveniently forgets those who choose the Theravada path toward achieving the status of arhat. Zen may have gotten the biggest foothold here in the West as being more of a philosophy than a religion, but in its home continent, Buddhism has all the same trappings and dogma as any other faith (for instance, abstaining from alcohol is more like a guideline for lay followers, but it's much closer to a Commandment/rule for a monk in a monastery).
As long as the strict monastic life exists in Buddhism -- especially in its birthplace, with the oldest branch practicing it -- people will associate some of the more remote religious aspects with the whole (like living as a devout monk practicing abstinence, or the concept of a "self" not existing as it is understood in other faiths). It works that way with every religion. Many Catholics are pro-choice and think birth control isn't something to be frowned upon, even if the infallible Pope says otherwise. Some stay with the religion in spite of disagreements. Others leave.
Steve Hagen was my introduction to Buddhism, and a central point in one of his books is that Buddhism is like a raft. It gets you somewhere, but when you get to the shore, you don't carry your boat across a continent. That's a non-dogmatic view within Zen (that at some point, you may even move on from Buddhism itself), which certainly isn't as well-publicized to non-Buddhists as some of Horgan's critiques are. But there is dogma elsewhere in other noteworthy branches that can turn people away from the Buddha Dharma. If no quarrels were to be had with any faith, we'd only have one to follow.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.