For an essay I’m writing, I had occasion to take a look at Thomas Merton’s Asian Journal. I am a Zen practitioner & I grew up in the 1960s – 70s at a time when Merton, Alan Watts & others were popularizing Buddhism in general & Zen in particular. (Watts became a leading exponent of Zen without ever practicing zazen, sitting meditation, which is at the center of Zen.) Merton was a Trappist monk who interested himself in many other religious traditions; like Watts & Aldous Huxley, he tended to elide distinctions between Buddhism & Hinduism, which strikes me as intellectually sloppy. This may be an unfair judgment based on slim acquaintance, but Merton strikes me as kind of a drip. Self-involved, declamatory, aggressively synthesizing–a spiritual tourist. At least in these journals. But then, having fled from the Christians who harried me in my childhood, I have never understood, either before or after becoming a Zen student, the desire to bring Jesus & Gautama into harmony. I’m a pretty thorough-going pluralist, too, so I just don’t see the usefulness of this sort of religious syncretism.
Not a conversion experience, really. More like waking up one morning with the realization that I had become a Buddhist. William James said of religion that it is the “fruits not the roots” that are significant markers of belief and if that’s true, then I can say I practice Buddhism at least as much as most American Christians practice their religion. I have a shrine in my house to the historical Buddha and to Quan Am, the goddess of mercy. I meditate most days. I have been reading Buddhist texts and listening to Buddhist teachers on CDs. So, as the Vietnamese put it, Toi teo dao Phat Giao. I am a Buddhist.
My hotel is right across from Hanoi’s St. Joseph’s Cathedral, built by the French in, I think, 1889. It is a gray concrete hulk without much charm, it’s two towers modeled on Notre Dame. I hear the bells strike the quarter hours and a little faint singing from morning mass; but Sunday evening mass, it turns out, is a big occasion in the city. The church fills and there is a long service with music, chanting and at least two homilies. Because the priest enunciates for his congregation, I find I can pick out words and phrases from his flow of words. Not only does the church fill with worshipers, but the square in front of the cathedral also fills — with families on motorbikes and standing groups of worshipers. The service is broadcast on loudspeakers — the Vietnamese have a particular love of audio amplification — and there is a screen on the front of the cathedral so that the worshipers can see the priest at the alter.
I listened to the first part of the mass in my hotel room and then went out for dinner and heard the conclusion of the service booming through the open windows of the Moca Cafe. As the mass wound down, balloon sellers began to appear with their huge drifts of helium balloons in the shape of Mickey Mouse and other Western cartoon characters, for mass is a family affair and there were many families with small children streaming through the narrow streets when church was over. Only about ten percent of Vietnamese are Catholics, but the cathedral here and the ones in Hue and Saigon concentrate their visibility whereas the Buddhists and more general followers of Tam Giao are more dispersed.
Religion permeates Vietnamese life without dominating it and people seem genuinely tolerant of others’ beliefs, but I, as an outsider, can’t help seeing Catholicism as pushy and overly assertive — as taking advantage of Vietnamese tolerance. Probably because the Church is centralized whereas the temples and shrines are dispersed. (And I freely admit to a strictly personal bias against “organized religion,” being myself something of an American gnostic.) I have a great respect for that dispersed sort of religion — it’s one of the things I first noticed about Vietnam, that the sacred was not confined to official places and practices, but could be found anywhere, so naturally I find Vietnamese Catholicism a little froward, however sincere. And yet, as the service lets out, there is a feeling of goodwill and relaxed celebration among the worshipers and the non-worshipers — for commerce goes on around the cathedral even as mass is celebrated.