The Conservative Buddhist: Is Buddhism a Cult?

 

zenrockgardenThat’s not exactly the question that Naomi asked me several weeks ago. To be precise, she asked me how one could discriminate between a legitimate Buddhist group and a cult. I’ve explored the question before, and I’d like to address two questions: (1) What is a religious cult; and (2) What would make a Buddhist community a cult?

In my research for defining a cult, I found there are several different kinds, e.g., political, social, cultural. Although these areas overlap with religious cults, I’m limiting my focus to a religious cult.

What is a Religious Cult?

  1. The religious group is often seen as extreme by the mainstream religious community. A cult is different from a sect, since there are sometimes spin-offs from the original religion that are generally accepted. For example, Vipassana, which has eliminated many of the Buddhist rituals and trappings, comes out of Theravada Buddhism and is widely accepted.
  2. The leader is shown unquestioned devotion by the community and is often idealized. Everything from misuse and abuse of community members, administration, financial operations, and violation of the law are included here.
  3. No one is allowed to question the organization’s religious tenets or mismanagement. Any doubt voiced by practitioners is immediately discounted, and members may even be ostracized or kicked out of the community.
  4. Members are often isolated from friends and family, and even from the greater community. The insistence in exerting this type of power is a danger sign.
  5. Demands that members give all their money to the organization or ask members to participate in illegal or life-threatening activities are the actions of a cult.

Some of you may say that religious communities don’t have to be extreme to this degree to be a cult. And certainly many of the items above can be subdivided into further examples. My concern is that people tend to assign the word “cult” to any groups that they dislike, don’t understand, or find frightening. I’m using this forum to suggest, through my investigation of the meaning of “cult” and of Buddhism, that the word should be used appropriately and discreetly.

Can Buddhism be a Cult?

It can be. But the Buddhist religion or philosophy has a 2,000-plus year history and, especially in the West, is becoming better known and more accepted. Here is what I’d look for in a Buddhist community to determine if it might be a cult:

  1. Buddhism has reached the point in this country where it is becoming more mainstream. American or Western Buddhists are working to find a way of adapting the practice to our culture by dropping some of the traditional Japanese practices completely, or substituting them with Western practices. Also, many Buddhist communities are born out of well-known lineages; asking about the lineage and the background of the teachers (to see if they have simply hung up a sign or have been trained as teachers) is helpful. Since I didn’t complete my training to be a sensei, I tell people in my meditation group that I’m the group’s teacher, but not a Zen sensei. That may seem like an unnecessary distinction, but it is important to me.
  2. I often use self-deprecating humor when we have discussions after meditation or have other activities. I try to be kind and approachable with everyone. Since the participants are responsible for their practices, I only meet with them if they are interested. Since most people only come to meditate, I don’t take attendance or insist that they participate in the group or meditate at home. Of course, I encourage them to have a regular meditation practice, but that’s up to them.
  3. There are communities that have ignored the behavior of teachers who drank, had affairs with students, or misused their power. At one time I worked with a teacher who, I found out, was having an affair with another student. She also happened to be a casual friend of mine. When I talked to the teacher shortly after I learned of his actions, I bluntly told him that he was no longer my teacher, and I was no longer his student.
  4. The meditation group participants know that they can challenge anything I say. Or disagree with me. Or add their own perspectives. I remind them that the foundations of Zen are great faith, great doubt, and great determination. At the risk of oversimplifying, great faith is choosing to practice because it’s meaningful and valuable to the participant; great doubt are those moments when we question the practice and ourselves; and great determination is what we practice to get us through the tough times.
  5. Although we don’t have many social activities, I always enjoy those times when I can meet spouses and significant others. Since the participants live in this 55-plus community, it’s likely that I will run into couples at the gym or café or just walking. I want to be engaging with people, and I want them to know that our meditation group is a safe place to visit. Many Buddhist communities have family get-togethers where people can get to know the teachers and other people in the group.
  6. Most Buddhist communities have very affordable fees. The last community I was in charged $40 per month for membership; a person could also choose not to pay at all, although they didn’t have the same benefits of paying member rates. A person can choose to donate for other purposes, such as a building fund. But there should never be pressure to do so.

There are communities that have brought attention to abuses by teachers or management. If they make corrections hold people accountable, communities can recover their integrity. Grievance procedures should also be written up and publicized to members so they know that they have options when there is wrongdoing.

I feel compelled to add one final note. I think the larger Buddhist community (perhaps a little less so at the sangha level) is becoming a leftist cult. The most popular magazines have liberal themes. They have almost, without exception, adopted leftist political philosophies in ways that can be separated from the Buddha’s original teachings. Certainly there must be sanghas that refuse to have political discussions, but they often think that ideas that conservatives consider to be liberal are mainstream are factual (such as man-made climate change). So although I love Buddhism and its original teachings, I no longer participate in the larger Buddhist community.

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  1. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    My point of view is that religions are an expression of a culture, much like language, cuisine, and dress. Buddhism is an Asian thing. When Caucasians who have been raised in the more usual faiths of Christianity or Judaism become Buddhists, it can seem to the casual observer like an affectation. I’m not saying it is one with you because I don’t know you and you seem sincere.

    I had a friend who was raised Catholic in an upscale suburb who became a Buddhist in college. I went to his “temple” with him once, and the guru or whatever you call the guy in the white robes who’s the spiritual leader was also Caucasian. He went by the name of Kriyananda. I later learned his real name was something like Mel Hutchins. Everyone in the whole place were Caucasians. They all ran around saying “Namaste” instead of “hello” at every opportunity. They looked to me like a bunch of social misfits just looking for a place to belong. Nothing wrong with that. And maybe it was the zeal of the recent convert. But to me, it seemed more like a club than a religion. If people saw it as a cult, it might have been as you say due to not understanding something that’s foreign to them.

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  2. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju
    @SusanQuinn

    RightAngles: But to me, it seemed more like a club than a religion. If people saw it as a cult, it might have been as you say due to not understanding something that’s foreign to them.

    Well, RA, I think a lot of Americans are attracted to the exotic stuff. (I was actually put off by it at first.)During intensive retreats I wore a black, later a brown robe. The advantage of the robe is that there are no distractions during long meditation periods, and they’re comfortable. I heard a monk one time say that Zen folks wore black because it was boring. I had a dharma name, too, that I received when I received the precepts–the closest Zen gets to becoming a lay Buddhist. And you don’t have to give up whatever you’ve practiced previously. My dharma name was Jyokai, which meant “compassion to the ends of the earth.” (Yeah, try to live up to that.) But we rarely used dharma names and many communities don’t use them anymore. I think Americans join up, often, due to their disillusionment with their birth religions, which is unfortunate. That wasn’t true for me. Some folks in these communities are pretty normal; some are not. Thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt–I think! ;>) When you meet Buddhists up close, and actually become acquainted, you find the whole gamut of personalities.

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  3. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Susan the Buju:

    RightAngles: But to me, it seemed more like a club than a religion. If people saw it as a cult, it might have been as you say due to not understanding something that’s foreign to them.

    Well, RA, I think a lot of Americans are attracted to the exotic stuff. (I was actually put off by it at first.) … Some folks in these communities are pretty normal; some are not. Thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt–I think! ;>) When you meet Buddhists up close, and actually become acquainted, you find the whole gamut of personalities.

    I agree re being attracted to the exotic for sure. And I meant it when I said I thought you were sincere. Maybe more of us could benefit from the serenity Buddhism seems to provide.

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  4. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju
    @SusanQuinn

    RightAngles: Maybe more of us could benefit from the serenity Buddhism seems to provide.

    I don’t know that it’s Buddhism. I’m a big believer in making time for stillness and quieting the mind. And trust me, mine isn’t always quiet!Every religion has a meditation practice–every one of them. But most people don’t know about them. It’s the meditation that has changed my life, and I’ve taught it to Christians and Jews. Of course, it does take discipline, over time, for it to make a difference.

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  5. Umbra Fractus Inactive
    Umbra Fractus
    @UmbraFractus

    Susan the Buju: I think Americans join up, often, due to their disillusionment with their birth religions, which is unfortunate.

    I think this is the main reason Buddhism has a bad reputation in the West; it’s the default position of the “I’m not religious, but I’m very spiritual” nitwits. (Disclaimer: Like RA, I take you at your word that you’re not one of these.) It seems to be popular among young, naive-but-think-they’re-wise types because it seems to be a religion which requires very little effort on their part; they can sleep in on Sunday and then do their walk of shame guilt free afterward. (Disclaimer 2: I know this isn’t accurate, but it’s what I get the feeling a lot of young self-proclaimed Buddhists believe.)

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  6. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju
    @SusanQuinn

    Umbra Fractus: I think this is the main reason Buddhism has a bad reputation in the West; it’s the default position of the “I’m not religious, but I’m very spiritual” nitwits. (Disclaimer: Like RA, I take you at your word that you’re not one of these.)

    I appreciate your comments because it gives me a chance to clarify what I think are misperceptions on your part (and probably the part of many people). First, Buddhists tend not to use the word “spiritual”; a person may practice meditation but that doesn’t mean they’re Buddhist. I too am put off by the “spiritual but not religious” crowd; they often wear that designation as a medal of honor instead of realizing that it signifies they probably have some kind of nature-based, superficial practice. Second, young and naïve people are probably not practicing Zen Buddhism in particular. A fairly committed Buddhist probably belongs to, and attends a community at least weekly. Seriously committed Buddhists attend week-long or longer retreats, 1-4 times per year, meditating 8-10 hours per day–not a practice for lightweights. People can declare themselves anything; that doesn’t make them serious practitioners. Some of the most ardent practitioners are very engaged with regular meditation practices but never formally become Buddhists. Finally, most communities have a dearth of young people, from my own experience. I’d say 40+ is typical; and most are white folk. I hope I haven’t gone on too long, but I assume that if you went to the trouble to comment, you’d like to clear up misperceptions, and I appreciate the chance to do that! (And I also wonder what perceptions people have of me as a Buddhist Jew–oh man!)

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  7. Umbra Fractus Inactive
    Umbra Fractus
    @UmbraFractus

    Susan the Buju: Second, young and naïve people are probably not practicing Zen Buddhism in particular.

    Yes, this is part of your biography that I missed. Like I said, my post was not meant to be accusatory toward you.

    Susan the Buju: (And I also wonder what perceptions people have of me as a Buddhist Jew–oh man!)

    I’ve heard of similar; George Lucas self-identifies as a Buddhist Methodist. As far as I understand (a single semester of “Asian Religions” in college!) Buddhism is one of the more easily syncretized religions. This is one of the reasons it caught on in the Sinosphere; the locals didn’t have to give up their own gods in order to seek enlightenment.

    The monotheism of the Abrahamic religions makes this a bit more difficult, but you’re not the first to claim to have squared that circle.

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  8. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju
    @SusanQuinn

    Umbra Fractus: Yes, this is part of your biography that I missed. Like I said, my post was not meant to be accusatory toward you. Susan the Buju: (And I also wonder what perceptions

    Seriously, I don’t feel accused. People may feel that I can’t have both practices, and I respect their opinions. My primary practice is Zen, and Judaism (I’m sad to say, in some ways) has taken a lesser place in my life. Recently I’ve asked if that was a wise decision, and so am contemplating the choice I made.

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  9. Tom Riehl Inactive
    Tom Riehl
    @TrinityWaters

    Susan, I don’t have any particular comment on your post, other than it is very enlightening.

    Wouldn’t it also be interesting for someone to approach Islam from the cult perspective, someone with a personal background similar to yours with Buddhism?

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  10. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju
    @SusanQuinn

    Tom Riehl: Wouldn’t it also be interesting for someone to approach Islam from the cult perspective, someone with a personal background similar to yours with Buddhism?

    I’m willing to give it a try, after a little thought. I’d preface my remarks by saying that I am not an expert on Islam, but have studied it extensively. Also, I suggest that rather than talking about Islam with too broad a brush, we look at three groups in America: (a) mainstream Muslims, such as M. Zuhdi Jasser; (b) groups that purport to be mainstream but are not, such as CAIR and ISNA; and (c) Islamism/radical Islam. If we use the criteria above, here’s how I’d assess each group:

    The religious group is often seen as extreme by the mainstream religious community–since Jasser and his ilk are the mainstream, he sees the other groups as extreme and says so. And I agree.

    The leader is shown unquestioned devotion by the community and is often idealized–since Islam has no centralized authority, attitudes toward an overall leader can’t be assessed. It’s strictly a guess that mainstream Islamic communities are respectful of imams, and in some of them, imams could be idolized (as in any religious community), but not necessarily. The pseudo-moderate organizations are also not centralized under one leader. I think it could be said, though, that men like bin Laden and Baghdadi were highly exalted.

    No one is allowed to question the organization’s religious tenets or mismanagement–since mainstream Islam is working on revising the Koran, they clearly are willing to question. This attitude is not true for the pseudo-mainstream organizations who say that any questioning of Islam is Islamophobic. And Islamists, of course, take every word of the Koran literally and demand that others do the same.

    Members are often isolated from friends and family, and even from the greater community–the family is central to mainstream Islam. It’s hard to know what the pseudo-Islamic organizations would say. And of course, Isis has no qualms about breaking up families, here or abroad, to carry out their mission.

    Demands that members give all their money to the organization or ask members to participate in illegal or life-threatening activities are the actions of a cult–charity is encouraged by mainstream Islam, but I’ve heard of no demands for giving up their money. Again, CAIR is an unknown in this area, but they have been affiliated with organizations that support violent jihad. The Islamists are more than happy to speak for themselves.

    There you have it. From my unscientific and superficial assessment, mainstream Islam is not a cult. Islamist organizations are cults. I’d venture to say that so are CAIR and ISNA. But they’ll never admit it. So what do you think?

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  11. Autistic License Thatcher
    Autistic License
    @AutisticLicense

    I think Buddhism has had a lot of appeal for the Left because it emphasizes simplicity, directness, and pacifism.  And:  they don’t get it.  Pacifism for Buddhists is (my take) because the world is irrelevant and personal practice matters, not because you entertain a great sympathy for gun-totin’ third worlders.  The simplicity and directness also has appeal for the wrong reasons; I believe it was meant to turn attention away from the senses, but has become for many a pious set of gestures one performs before leaving the Sangha and getting back into the Tesla.  “Real” Buddhists are out there, but it’s hard to distinguish them during practice.

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  12. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju
    @SusanQuinn

    Autistic License:Thanks for sharing your views, AL. I’m finding myself once again responding, due to what I think are misperceptions. If you think I’ve off base, I’d be happy to hear from you.

    First you used the terms, simplicity, directness and pacifism to describe Buddhism. Unless you take celebrity Buddhists into account, I think simplicity is an appropriate word, since I think most of the Buddhists I’ve known live relatively simple lives. We don’t cling to the need for the material (unless you count the celebrity Buddhists). I’m not sure what you mean by directness, since I don’t think that is necessarily an attribute of Buddhism (although it’s certainly true of me). Regarding pacifism, although most of the Buddhist left is pacifistic, not all are. The Buddha himself killed many pirates on a boat in a previous lifetime to keep them from killing other innocents. The Dalai Lama, re Bin Laden, understood that this type of action is sometimes necessary. For some other distortions that have developed by way of Western Buddhism, go here.

    You also said:

    Pacifism for Buddhists is (my take) because the world is irrelevant and personal practice matters, not because you entertain a great sympathy for gun-totin’ third worlders. The Buddhists I know have learned that the real world is the place where we practice; “sitting on the cushion” help us function there effectively.

    Finally you said:

    The simplicity and directness also has appeal for the wrong reasons; I believe it was meant to turn attention away from the senses, but has become for many a pious set of gestures one performs before leaving the Sangha and getting back into the Tesla. The Buddha doesn’t ask us to turn away from the senses, but not be trapped by them. By that I mean that our senses are part of  being human; if we become obsessed with satisfying them, we suffer as do  others in our lives. I hope this is helpful.

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  13. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Susan, I have trouble with this because of God’s command “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Don’t Buddhists sort of worship the Buddha? I mean there are those statues of him, and in addition to adding to the idea of worshiping, wouldn’t they constitute graven images?? I think these two are my biggest problems with this whole thing.

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  14. Umbra Fractus Inactive
    Umbra Fractus
    @UmbraFractus

    RightAngles:Susan, I have trouble with this because of God’s command “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Don’t Buddhists sort of worship the Buddha? I mean there are those statues of him, and in addition to adding to the idea of worshiping, wouldn’t they constitute graven images?? I think these two are my biggest problems with this whole thing.

    I think part of the confusion regarding worship vs. reverence is that Chinese and the peripheral languages it has influenced do not have a separate word for “religion;” the word meaning “philosophy” is applied to both secular and spiritual schools of thought. It’s part of the reason so many in the west refer to Confucianism as a religion when it’s more of a philosophy. I don’t know how much this applies to Susan’s situation, but it’s entirely possible that Siddharta is merely a teacher to them.

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  15. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju
    @SusanQuinn

    Don’t Buddhists sort of worship the Buddha?

    Great question! First, the Buddha is not “worshipped,” even by the most ardent Buddhists, e.g., Theravadans. In Zen in particular, the Buddha was a man and not a god. I will admit that I had a hard time putting a Buddha next to my lit candle because of what you point out. But then I realized the statue was no more important than the candle and flowers I laid out. In fact, when I told my Zen Teacher I was hung up about putting a Buddha out, my teacher said “Kill the Buddha!” meaning, don’t make that little statue into more than it is. On one of the Jewish sites, here’s what was written:

    Over time, this commandment has been interpreted in a variety of ways. The most common prohibition, and the one that’s most obvious from the text, is against creating sculptures of people, animals, or planets for the purpose of worshipping them. One of the primary messages of the Torah is that worshipping idols is not allowed, so it’s not surprising that creating pieces of art that could be used as idols was prohibited.

    From my perspective, the key is whether images are created to be worshipped. I believe the image reminds us that we are all Buddha, already enlightened, we just don’t realize it.

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  16. Tom Riehl Inactive
    Tom Riehl
    @TrinityWaters

    Susan the Buju:

    Tom Riehl: Wouldn’t it also be interesting for someone to approach Islam from the cult perspective, someone with a personal background similar to yours with Buddhism?

    I’m willing to give it a try….

    There you have it. From my unscientific and superficial assessment, mainstream Islam is not a cult. Islamist organizations are cults. I’d venture to say that so are CAIR and ISNA. But they’ll never admit it. So what do you think?

    I think that any distinction between radical or so-called mainstream Islam has no merit.

    The source documents for Islam in general espouse intolerance, violence and Jihad.  Even worse, the whole culture prescribed by their “holy” texts is virulently anti-Western and incompatible with our personal freedom based society.

    Pew, no pinch hitter for conservatism, has published many poll results showing broad support by Muslims for violence towards non-Muslims.

    Thanks for your effort, but I am still of the strong opinion that Islam is a cult, albeit huge and enduring.

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  17. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju
    @SusanQuinn

    Umbra Fractus: I don’t know how much this applies to Susan’s situation, but it’s entirely possible that Siddharta is merely a teacher to them.

    I think my response to you disappeared–I said you are exactly right, UF. And reverence is the precise word, not worship.

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  18. Umbra Fractus Inactive
    Umbra Fractus
    @UmbraFractus

    Susan the Buju:

    Umbra Fractus: I don’t know how much this applies to Susan’s situation, but it’s entirely possible that Siddharta is merely a teacher to them.

    I think my response to you disappeared–I said you are exactly right, UF. And reverence is the precise word, not worship.

    Don’t worry. I inferred that from your response to RA.

    Thanks, though. ^_^

    • #18
  19. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju
    @SusanQuinn

    Tom Riehl: Thanks for your effort, but I am still of the strong opinion that Islam is a cult, albeit huge and enduring.

    Kinda thought you’d say that . . .   ;>)

    • #19
  20. Tom Riehl Inactive
    Tom Riehl
    @TrinityWaters

    Susan the Buju:

    Tom Riehl: Wouldn’t it also be interesting for someone to approach Islam from the cult perspective, someone with a personal background similar to yours with Buddhism?

    I’m willing to give it a try….

    ….There you have it. From my unscientific and superficial assessment, mainstream Islam is not a cult. Islamist organizations are cults. I’d venture to say that so are CAIR and ISNA. But they’ll never admit it. So what do you think?

    I think that any distinction between radical or so-called mainstream Islam has no merit.

    The source documents for Islam espouse intolerance, conquest, violence and Jihad. Even worse, their whole culture as prescribed by “holy” texts is inimical to western civilization in general, and to our personal freedom based nation.  Even Pew, hardly a conservative fellow traveler, has published many poll results showing widespread, worldwide acceptance of violence towards civilians by Muslims.

    So, I’m unconvinced that Islam is not a cult, albeit a large and enduring one.

    Thanks for your effort, Susan.

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  21. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Thanks for the explanation, Susan. I’m Protestant, so we’re REAL sensitive to the graven images thing. We don’t even like the dying Christ on the cross. In our churches. you’ll find only empty crosses, signifying worship of the risen Christ. So anyway, if God doesn’t mind then I guess I don’t haha,

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  22. MJBubba Inactive
    MJBubba
    @MJBubba

    I think the nuance between reverence and worship is lost on a lot of Buddhists.    I had an opportunity to observe the Sunday morning meditation time at a Vietnamese Buddhist temple near me.    To me it failed the duck test as far as worship of graven idols goes.

    In a very large room there was a dais on one end.    The space was filled with a gold plated statue of Buddha, the seated figure being about 20 feet tall.    The statue dominated the room.

    The rest of the dais was filled with arrangements of fresh flowers, and four additional statues of the Buddha, about life-sized.    In front of the large statue was a table with food and fresh fruit offerings to the Buddha.

    Mats were arrayed in rows in the large room.    People came in silently, rolled their own prayer rugs out onto the mats, and sat cross-legged, all facing the Buddha.    There was no music or talking;  only meditation in silence, with everyone facing the enormous Buddha that dominates the space.

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  23. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju
    @SusanQuinn

    MJBubba: I had an opportunity to observe the Sunday morning meditation time at a Vietnamese Buddhist temple near me. To me it failed the duck test as far as worship of graven idols goes.

    I can’t speak for those Vietnamese Buddhists–I don’t know what kind of Buddhism they practice. It’s unlikely with a Buddha that large that they are practicing Zen. I guess we all have our idea of what worship is. How would you make a distinction between worship and reverence, MJB?

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  24. MJBubba Inactive
    MJBubba
    @MJBubba

    Susan the Buju:

    MJBubba:  … Vietnamese Buddhist temple  …

    …it failed the duck test as far as worship of graven idols goes.

    I can’t speak for those Vietnamese Buddhists–I don’t know what kind of Buddhism they practice. It’s unlikely with a Buddha that large that they are practicing Zen. I guess we all have our idea of what worship is. How would you make a distinction between worship and reverence, MJB?

    Well,  the size of the statue, the gold plate, the offerings on the table, flowers, the length of time spent in the presence of the image, the solemnity and careful sense of proprieties all lent themselves to a sense of worship.

    I would think of something more casual for “reverence,”   but I am pretty unfamiliar with Buddhist traditions.

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  25. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju
    @SusanQuinn

    MJBubba: I would think of something more casual for “reverence,” but I am pretty unfamiliar with Buddhist traditions.

    I can see what you’re saying about the setting you were in. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I realize that distinctions between worship and reverence are not easy to make. I can say that to me, worship implies a god, a divine figure. Maybe others have some thoughts on this.

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