Some Things About Something: A Buddhist Memoir From Tartu

Chipamong Chowdhury is a visiting lecturer at the University of Tartu’s Centre for Oriental Studies. His main research interests include Theravāda studies, Pāli Buddhism, and anthropology of Buddhism.

Last year someone in the Toronto subway asked me: “Can you give me enlightenment”? “My friend”, I said, “I am also looking for the same thing”.

Chipamong Chowdhury

Baking ginger cookies during the Christmas season in Tallinn.

During my stays in Tartu, many people expressed their great interest in Buddhism − some of them in intellectual aspects of Buddhism, others in psychological or therapeutic teachings, and still others in deep meditation. Strangely, some do not know in what or why they are interested − perhaps they are interested for the sake of interest! Nevertheless, despite being an alien and Oriental spiritual bio-product, Buddhism found its safe home in Estonia. His Holiness Dalai Lama visited Estonia thrice, suggesting that there is something special about ‘Estonian Buddhism’ and something beautiful about Estonia as a home for Buddhist spirituality.

When I walked in the streets of Tartu, people came to me with some stereotypical questions. Some common questions were: Are you Buddha? (which I am not, nor do I want to be); do you drink? (to which I said yes, but when they find out I drink only coffee or Coca-Cola, they look shocked); and what is Buddhism? This last one is the question I always avoid answering because it is no longer appealing to me.

The meaning of Buddhism

Buddhism can mean different things to different people or even nothing to others. In fact, the concept of emptiness or nothingness is one of the central philosophies in Buddhism (see the book by David Kalupahana). To understand the complexity of Buddhism – as a religion, commodity, idea, epistemology, philosophy, psychology, ethics, history of ideas, or as a cultural product – I am more interested in the question of what Buddhism does.

After all, Buddhism encourages one to go beyond dualistic views of life and living. In this sense, the definition of Buddhism has no essential value in defining meaning. The true meaning is that it has no special meaning to hold onto. People are often caught up in what is right or what is wrong, in what is or what is not.

Applied Buddhism proposes a realistic approach to the way of life. This realistic way of living a social, political or spiritual life is grounded on the Middle Way philosophy, which Theravāda of South and Southeast Asia and the Theravāda diaspora in the West call pragmatism. This Buddhist pragmatism, as described in the Pāli canon, is an experiential, practical and therapeutic teaching to transcend the duality of good and bad, right and wrong, happiness and unhappiness. Beyond dualism lies liberation — the word  ‘liberation’ is nothing but an idea — the idea that drives one crazy.

Buddhism and science

One particular phenomenon of contemporary Buddhism is its interaction with modern science. That’s why I am not surprised to see popular conceptions of Buddhism in Estonia. Like most Western Buddhists, and to some extent also Eastern Buddhists, Estonian Buddhists see Buddhism as rational and non-dogmatic, and romanticise it as a scientific religion.

Conceived as non-theistic faith, Buddhism opposes creationism for being superstitious; hence, it has no issue in accepting Darwin’s theory of evolution. Anagarika Dharmapala, the founding figure of Buddhist modernism, and a writer and religious revivalist, once said that “The theory of evolution was one of the ancient teachings of the Buddha”. The Pāli Aggañña-sutta has been considered the Buddhist version of the theory of evolution that presents a model of cosmology. The sutta explains the expansion and contraction of the universes, formation of Earth, and the process of human civilisation.

Nineteenth-century history reveals that many great European thinkers, including Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Arthur Schopenhauer, Robert Oppenheimer, and Albert Einstein claimed Buddhism to be a scientific philosophy of religion. For most cases, yes it is true, but we still ask: How scientific is the scientific Buddhism? How rationalistic is the rationalistic Buddhism?

There has been progressive dialogue between Buddhism and Western science led by the Dalai Lama, Alan Wallace, Daniel Siegel and other neuroscientists. While it has been acknowledged that Buddhism and science are compatible, as they are both supportive of scientific inquiry as a basis for knowledge, this compatibility, particularly the issue of science and rebirth, has also been challenged and questioned by some Buddhist scholars like Donald Lopez.

Vipassanā meditation

However, popular conceptions of Buddhism, including Buddhist phenomenology, epistemology, theory of language and psychoanalytical profundity, share many commonalities with modern scientific knowledge and philosophical thoughts. The dhamma, the teachings of Gotama Buddha, is defined as timeless truth (akāliko) that is verifiable not through personal faith, but through open scientific inquiry and practical empiricism (sandiṭṭhiko). For the most part, Buddhadhamma is the experiential philosophy that has to be experienced through personal practice.

A global leader of Theravāda Vipassanā, S.N. Goenka, describes Buddhism as pure science of mind and matter. Today, his version of Vipassanā meditation is taught in many prisons in America to transform the prisoners’ minds and their violent behaviour (see the documentary, The Dhamma Brothers).

I met some Goenka’s Vipassanā practitioners who regularly sit and meditate in an apartment in Tartu. Terje Toomistu, a PhD researcher at the University of Tartu and now a visiting scholar at the University of California Berkeley, is one of such energetic Vipassanā enthusiasts in Estonia. Toomistu has assisted me in weekly Vipassanā meditations at Tartu’s Genklubi. Vipassanā meditation is an insight meditation that teaches how to purify consciousness and the subconscious mind (cetasika) to achieve insight into the true nature of reality and eliminate all conditioned suffering.

Buddhism and psychology

In scholarly consensus, Abhidhamma Buddhism of the south and Yogācāra Buddhism of the north present the most systematic and detailed version of the theory of consciousness and humanistic psychology. The venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Theravāda monk and scholar, considers Theravāda Abhidhamma as philosophical and phenomenological psychology.

It may be so. But today, Buddhism is most famous in the fields of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Many psychoanalysts and psychologists, such as Carl Jung and Erich Fromm, as well as German existential philosopher Martin Heidegger, integrated Buddhism into their existential philosophy, somatic psychology, and healing therapy.

Many other psychotherapists, clinicians and meditation teachers, including Jon Kabat-Zinn, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield explicitly incorporate Buddhist mindfulness practices in various psychological treatments, humanistic psychology and psychotherapy. Americans are not alone in integrating Buddhism in professional and personal therapy − it is rather a global phenomenon.

Feeling lost and sad one freezing evening, while I was meditating on the difference between lonely and loneliness with a coffee at Viru Keskus in Tallinn, one woman came to me, introduced herself and claimed that she was a psychotherapist who practices Buddhism. It was a blessed karmic connection, at least for the moment.

Buddhism in Estonia

The historical decline of Christian orthodoxy, the rise of modern science, collapse of the Soviet Union, and globalisation all contributed to the awakening of Buddhism in Estonia. I met many Buddhists who enjoy positions of some prestigious note in Estonian society. I found some Buddhists in Estonia who are leading orientalists, politicians, musicians and physicists. Indeed, Buddhism is the fastest-growing religion in Estonia, as it is in Australia, America, Brazil, and in other places. I find Estonian Buddhists to be highly educated individuals who belong to elite groups in the areas of science and arts.

Three major attractions of Buddhism for Estonian intellectuals are the Buddhist contributions to the fields of analytical philosophy, psychology and applied meditation. These are reflected in the academic works of the late Linnart Mäll who, as the founder of the Estonian Institute of Buddhism, contributed to the popularisation of applied Buddhism in Estonia. Today, the Estonian Institute of Buddhism, led by Märt Läänemets, a faithful student of Linnart Mäll, is becoming a global Buddhist network and dhamma educational centre with many international guest lectures.

The future of Buddhism

Despite not knowing the future of Buddhism, Albert Einstein predicted that it would be the cosmic religion of the future. He wrote: “If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism”. As an imagined concept, the future Buddhism is nothing but a speculation. So how true is Einstein’s conviction of Buddhism’s survival in the future?

Given the problematic nature of scientific Buddhism, it seems appropriate to ask: To what extent and in what sense would scientific Buddhism be conceived and identified? Where do secular Buddhism, agnostic Buddhism, digital Buddhism and other forms of Western Buddhism, led by Stephen Bachelor and others, fit in the category of scientific Buddhism?

The futuristic aspects of Buddhism have been the central concept for some Estonian Buddhists. With a concern for the future of Buddhism, a group of Estonian Buddhists at Triratana Buddhist community in Tallinn organised a Vesak celebration in May at which I was invited to give a small talk. The theme and the Vesak celebration suggest that Estonians are very progressive Buddhists in their creative thinking and engagement.

As a visionary person who enjoys watching scientific movies, I love to imagine unimaginable things. I often envision that one day machines and robots will meditate and achieve enlightenment. Maybe these machines will one day teach us to be more humans than humans.

Buddhism as a commodity

Upon closer analysis of the different faces and practices of globalised Buddhism, I feel it is necessary to redefine it. When I look at how different people perceive Buddhism in their own unique ways, I see Buddhism as a commodity. As such, Buddhism gives different meanings, values and flavours to different people, geographies, and identities. More importantly, it offers hope to the hopeless, and inspiration and motivation to those who need them.

Speaking of hope and motivation, one story reminds me of hope in hopelessness: One early spring morning around 3 am, I went out for a walk, and on my way back someone asked me about the purpose of life and dying! I reluctantly said what I said. While I was talking to him, two girls standing next to us overheard me and started crying. I asked them to walk with me and they did. We sat down on a bench on Küüni Street, and holding each other’s hands, I narrated a story. Then we all cried. Then we did crying meditation, which I called “happy-crying-meditation”.

This entry was posted in Estonia, General, Tartu and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.