A guest post by Scott Mitchell, who teaches at the Institute of Buddhist Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and is co-host of the DharmaRealm podcast.
Drats. It would appear I could soon be out of a job, and thanks to Stephen Colbert, no less. Right now, Colbert Nation – the website, of course, of Comedy Central’s Colbert Report – is featuring a “5 x Five” video introducing us to Buddhism. Its summary reads: “Stephen explores the origin and fundamental teachings of Buddhism – which mostly involve suffering.” The video is comprised of five short clips from various Colbert Report episodes that featured Buddhism and depending where you live, you can watch it here.
|The Colbert Report||Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|5 x Five – Colbert on Religion – Buddhism|
So why might I be out of work? Well, because this video might just tell you all you need to know.
It starts out with a quick overview of the Four Noble Truths — suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path. Stephen reminds us that if you don’t like suffering, you can just be Catholic instead, as Jesus did all our suffering for us already! This idea of suffering recurs in a clip from an interview with religion scholar Stephen Prothero, with Prothero explaining that Buddhists are attempting to alleviate it and attain nirvana. And right there, in those ten seconds of video alone, my work is done. That’s a whole semester-long Buddhism 101 course, really.
So, suffering’s got a cause and a solution. What’s left? According to second guest Lama Surya Das, there’s inner peace. But Stephen’s not convinced that Americans really want peace, of course. What they crave is rage, he argues, and there’s no room for that in Buddhism, is there?
Moving on, Stephen thinks some might be relieved by Buddhism’s differences from other religions. For example: Buddhism’s stories lack, well, prostitutes — but that’s not quite right. (Check out the Parabhava Sutta.) Continuing through a yawn, he notes that Buddhism’s version of the end-times is downright boring compared to other religions’; Buddhists sit around waiting for centuries for the next Buddha to arrive, and when he does, he does the same thing as the last one.
But wait! Has Colbert found Maitreya, the future Buddha? Yes and no; as the video shows, one group believes the Buddhist messiah can be found today in, yes, writer and activist Raj Patel! Patel denies it, but one of the marks of the messiah is that he’ll deny being the messiah, so it must be true. Raj Patel is Maitreya!
So, to recap: Buddhism is all about suffering, inner peace, and putting your faith in the world-saving Buddhist messiah, Raj Patel. My work is done.
…I actually rather like Colbert’s irreverent spin on Buddhism, his mixing of pretty standard Buddhist concepts like suffering with Raj Patel as Maitreya. I sort of appreciate the way Prothero tries his best to keep up with Colbert and assert that there really are differences – differences that matter – between religions. And I like that Surya Das, when asked “And what’s [inner peace] do for you?” all he can reply is “Not much, admittedly.”
Those of us who take the study and practice of Buddhism seriously can run the risk of being, well, serious. A little levity and irreverent humor and sarcasm now and then can be a good way to start a conversation about Buddhism, its teachings and practices, its contours and its limits. I think asking “What’s inner peace do for you” is a great question for a Buddhist teacher. What does inner peace do, really? And is there a place in Buddhism for its opposite? Are we allowed to be angry? I really like that he talks about suffering – and not duhkha – because that forces us to answer that tricky question: what is suffering? What does suffering mean? And how do we talk about suffering in the contemporary world without turning people off?
I’ve joked here that I could be out of a job, but actually, I can see myself using this video in my classes. Where I teach my students come from a really diverse set of backgrounds, some with a lot of prior experience and knowledge about Buddhism, some with absolutely none. Approaches like Colbert’s can offer us a fun way for us to start a conversation about what we know, what we don’t know, and what we think we know about Buddhism — a good palette cleanser to get us started off on the right foot before delving in to Buddhism’s juicy details.