Spirituality in the Anime Blogosphere: Buddha and Religious Criticism

Today in his House of 1000 Manga column at Anime News Network, Jason Thompson describes Osamu Tezuka‘s epic work, Buddha.  As one who rarely watches anime or reads manga created earlier than the 1990s, I know Tezuka only by reputation and not by experiencing any of his works.  As such, and I think this may be true for many of us, I didn’t know about this manga.  Thompson does a wonderful job of describing it, as usual.  The manga sounds very interesting – not what one would expect out of a religious story.  I was also pleased to see Thompson’s mention of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha in the column, since I’ve read the novel (though admittedly, I admire it rather than enjoy it).

On thing that catches my attention in the column that, as with his discussion on the manga Jesus, Thompson’s criticisms of the manga come across as criticisms of a religion:

From the perspective of a nonbeliever like myself, it can sometimes seem like a depressing religion; after all, one of the core teachings is that life is suffering (“Kill or be killed! That’s the world! That’s life!” says Devadatta), and that Nirvana isn’t heaven or paradise but nonexistence, an end to it all.

Thompson’s language isn’t offensive – in fact, in both of the columns discussing religious manga, he approached the subjects with tact and respect.  But when it comes to faith, one can quickly and easily become defensive (Christians moreso, I think, than Buddhists). 

My first reaction was that Thompson should’ve avoided any criticism of religion at all, no matter how mild in tone.  But…that would make me a hypocrite.  After all, my faith embraces the idea that there is only one God, and that all other gods or faiths are, bluntly put, wrong.  When push comes to shove, defending my belief criticizes others.

What do you think?  Are you skittish when critizing religion?  Are you defensive of your own (or lack of)?

Read the entire column: Jason Thompson’s House of 1000 Manga Episode XXXIX: Buddha


16 thoughts on “Spirituality in the Anime Blogosphere: Buddha and Religious Criticism

  1. What is the point of having faith if it cannot be criticized? Perhaps this is my scientist side talking, but if you are unable to break free of your own shackles and “evolve” your mindframe, then what you have is not true, testable faith – you are a robot.

    Likewise, if you cannot criticize another faith just because you don’t share it, then there is no point in having faith. Being afraid of offending others is (in part) self-satisfaction – you are not giving others the opportunity to test their faith, and you will never change your own unless it’s through events of blind chance (which you will probably tend to bias more in terms of your faith since you aren’t testing it).

    Bear in mind that I speak of faith as a personal thing, not in religious terms. If you consider it collectively, then it’s a whole different ball game that depends on how much you care about your personal beliefs (if at all) and how much your faith intends to proselytize and demonstrate it’s superiority.

    1. I think that there’s a constant battle between are own prejudices and/or deep rooted beliefs and our open-mindedness. It works for those who believe in one faith or another, and even among those that don’t have a faith in all. How open-minded are we to other beliefs? How open are we to having our faith tested?

      I really like what you said about criticism of faith – that it challenges others. There are two reactions to criticism of one’s faith – to either think upon that reaction and perhaps make a response or to completely shut out the criticism. Except in cases of trolling, we’re almost always the better for, ya know, actually thinking.

      But again, that can be a hard thing to do because of what I mentioned at first. Faith is, like you said, personal. We all have our belief systems – whether it’s our faith, our belief in what we can see and test, our families, other structures or a mixture of these. They are such a deep part of us that we might have an automatic valve that shuts off when our beliefs are criticized, or at the very least, shuts us off from looking at the criticism with a completely open mind. In other words…criticism can be hurtful, and we react accordingly.

      On a tangent (and barely or not at all related to your comment), I wonder about what it means to be open-minded when it comes to religion. Christianity often attacks the mentality that whatever you believe is your truth – a measure of open-mindedness; thus, Christians are often seen as close-minded. But it’s no different from detractors of the faith. It seems to me that the better kind of open-mindedness is to look at one’s perspective/ideas/criticism with a completely open mind, devoid of our faith or thought system; consider the thoughts and their veracity; and draw a conclusion. After all, a faith that doesn’t stand the test of fire may not be one an individual would want to live by. The Bible, for instance, asks Christians to test their faith.

      Sorry for all the meandering. I was kind of going stream-of-consciousness here. 😛

      1. >> Sorry for all the meandering

        Meander away, if I wasn’t interested I wouldn’t be commenting 🙂

        >> criticism can be hurtful

        Criticism can only be hurtful when you aren’t sure of yourself. And in that case it’s generally a good thing – it means you are not just being challenged, but you are being forced to evaluate yourself beyond your comfortable little niche. If it hurts, it’s generally because you are taking it personally, not because you are hiding behind your religious group.

        The phrase “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” applies here. I would recommend not engaging in debates if you are too weak to have your views challenged. But if someone else is forcing the issue via proselytizing, that’s a different ballgame. At that point you are well within your rights to tell the other person you’re unwilling to play at the given time.

        There are, of course, many who would label *any* criticism as “hurtful”, simply because they are too weak to be challenged in any way. It’s sad, but ultimately it is their choice. It’s when they forget what hypocrisy is, and try to do the same thing to others, that things get troublesome. That is when it stops being an enlightened “act of spirituality” and a simple act of “us vs. them” warmongering (ie, it’s no longer personal).

        >> I wonder about what it means to be open-minded when it comes to religion

        As far as I’m concerned it simply means you are willing to honestly explore alternate belief systems as seriously as would your own. You are always willing to seriously “convert” (change your mind about things), and aren’t hiding behind numbers and ignorance, but are rather exposing yourself to the possibility that you may be hurt all on your lonesome.

        >> The Bible, for instance, asks Christians to test their faith.

        But how many of them truly ever do? How many truly are willing to do so, rather than simply pretending to do so in order to tick off the little mental box that says “today, I was a good Christian?”. That’s the tricky part. Religion ultimately de-individualizes in favor of building a community (for better and worse). That is why debates need to be careful about whether they are speaking about “religion”, “spirituality”, or their faith in either.

        1. Thanks for all the insightful comments. I’ll just add one thing – when you ask how many Christians test their faith, you’re implying that many (if not most) don’t. I totally agree. And it’s certainly something that we of this faith need to do.

          1. >> Thanks for all the insightful comments.

            Well, thanks for raising the points to begin with.

            >> it’s certainly something that we of this faith need to do.

            It’s something every religion/faith needs to work on. It’s just far too easy to be intellectually and spiritually lazy in most religions, because “policing” a person’s adherence to a faith is a nebulous thing that can lead to consequences as horrible as what is policed against.

  2. I don’t know–I suspect I’m somewhere in the middle. I think religions do need to be able to accept criticism at times. I mean, take a look at some of the things in the Bible (yes, I’m Christian, just to be clear)–some of the laws in there are pretty awful. I don’t care where they came from, but I don’t want to be seeing that my father is allowed to sell me. So things like that can be criticized, certainly.

    1. I wonder what the Christian God thinks of all this. I imagine that maybe, to the surprise of many Christians, he welcomes criticism. He wants us to be honest about our doubts and about our disagreements. He would rather have us challenge Him, I think, than to just live a life in which we don’t question or ponder much on God.

  3. You have a lot of trackbacks from scrapers on this post — I suggest you delete them.

    I don’t know if Thompson’s remark really counts as a full-blown criticism. That Buddhism ‘can sometimes seem like a depressing religion’ is just a report of the impression Buddhism makes on some people. Thompson then says why it can make this impression. He doesn’t really say that that impression is correct. (And even if it is a depressing religion, that doesn’t have any bearing on whether or not its claims are true!)

    As for your closing questions, yes, I am skittish about criticising religion (three years studying at a university where half the students identify themselves as Muslims will do this), and yes, I am defensive of my own (three years studyi– oh, I’ve said that already).

    1. Thanks for the suggestion. 😉

      You’re right – it’s not a full-blown criticism. If anything, it’s a slight critique that may not be even taken as such by practitioners of Buddhism. True enough.

      Do you mind if I ask what your religion is?

        1. Ha – I had no idea quiche was such a big part of the Anglican church. 😛 Sound similar to the Southern Baptist obsession with pot lucks.

  4. All Buddist monks are well disciplined, and Animanachronism did you said any thing against Muslims i will fuck u if say something against Muslims. Arianna yes you are right. there are black sheep in every committee.

    1. Munib, I think you’re supporting his point, which is that reactions from (some? a few? many? most?) Muslims, in his experience, has been very negative when criticizing Islam.

      1. Only a few, I would say. The vast majority of Muslims I’ve met have been as or more respectful, peacable and open to discussion as the next person. Unfortunately, as with any other group — including Christians! — those who shout loudest tend to get the most press.

        In some ways, I suppose, my uni campus was a place much more aware of the power, good and bad, of faith and tradition. Compared to your standard European campus, where religious belief is automatically regarded as an absurd anachronism, that’s not such a bad thing.

        1. That’s nice to hear. I used to live in Europe, but that was a lifetime ago, and so I feel as foreign to it as the typical American. And what I always hear and read is just how secular and even anti-religious much of Europe is. It’s nice to hear that at least your campus was a bit more “aware.”

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