Friday, 17 August 2012

Buddhism in 21st Century Lebanon

The Buddha-Statue that you see in these images has been defaced, in every sense of the term.

The photograph was taken in Lebanon, and I found it floating around the internet, along with other fragments of the effort to create a Buddhist community in that country (I do not know who the photographer was, but he or she retains the credit).  There's no reason to assume that this statue was connected to those efforts, but one at least illustrates the other.  It's entirely possible that some unrelated (overseas) Buddhist charity created this monument in Lebanon that, evidently, the local populace did not appreciate.

The Buddhist Society of Lebanon still has a listing online (here) but if you click through to its former website, you'll find that it is missing (and has been replaced by an advertising page for utility vehicles).  Beiruit's Daily Star newspaper published an interview with the founder of the group in 2007 that can still be found online (here), along with one stray blog-entry that the same man contributed to a blog on "Progressive Buddhism" (here).  Paul Jahshan (the name that all of those prior websites have in common) has a website devoted to poetry (in English, some of it of his own authorship, but not all) on a separate blog (here).

This was not (and is not) the only attempt to create a Buddhist tradition in 21st century Lebanon: there is an unrelated (Tibetan-traditionalist) group that reports it is now translating Mahayana Buddhist texts into Arabic over at DharmaBeirut.

There's a clear contrast between these two examples in so many different ways: Jahshan offered a starkly "modernist" retelling of Buddhism, borrowing excerpts from different traditions at opposite ends of the earth through the medium of English translation.  He picks and chooses from Theravāda and Japanese Zen textual sources, and throws the results together in a package that celebrates "rational inquiry" and rejects what he considers superstition or blind faith.

By contrast the Tibetan traditionalist group seems to be embracing all the tropes and trappings of their version of Mahayana Buddhism --or, at least, the same made-for-export version of the Tibetan religion that has reached the decadent West.

The followers of Goenka also have a branch within Lebanon, reportedly (here).

For anyone who is old enough to remember the newspapers of the 1980s, Lebanon (and the city of Beirut especially) has an iconic status: the photographs of the ruined buildings of Beirut were a major part of the apocalyptic aesthetic of the times --perhaps especially for those of us who were too young or too ignorant to understand what the conflict was about (it never fit neatly into any of the cold-war categories that then dominated propaganda and education alike).

It would indeed be interesting to know how certain core doctrines of Buddhist philosophy (non-violence, no soul, etc.) are received in that post-war context; hopefully, they're not as badly received as this statue.