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Monday, September 07, 2009

Skepticism in Buddhism is Good.

I think skepticism is very admirable, and rather unusual. The history of the world reveals that people are drawn to those who provide a strong, uncompromising teaching. We're drawn to those who say, "This is it, and everyone else is wrong." Certainly we see this pattern in contemporary politics, but we also see abuse of this sort within spiritual circles. It makes you wonder: Do we really want freedom? Can we handle the responsibility? Or would we just prefer to have an impressive teacher, someone who can give us the answers and do all the hard work for us?

–Larry Rosenberg, from "The Right to Ask Questions," Tricycle, Fall 2003

James: Buddhism is by nature a skeptical belief system. Buddha was very much a skeptical being who discovered enlightenment because of a healthy questioning of the accepted explanations of reality at the time. He dared question the great Brahman leaders of the day and was thus seen as a rebel of sorts. We are descendants of that tradition as taught by the Buddha within the Kalama Sutra where he teaches and even encourages thinking for yourself and not believing something if it doesn't ring true through your own experiences. The Kalama Sutra is the keystone of my Buddhist beliefs because without the freedom of inquiry and acceptance of differences as a foundation; Buddhism is just another intolerant, rigid, controlling belief system.

I feel that Buddhism treats me like an adult and allows me greater freedom. Whereas in the brand of religion that I was raised with (Mormon Christianity) it felt the complete opposite. I felt like it saw me as a child not to be trusted with thinking for myself and I felt like I was constantly being talked down to and seen as a threat or "evil" when I questioned the "parents" (church leaders, doctrine, etc). I didn't feel trusted and that made me frustrated, angry, confused, cynical, resentful and ultimately I left feeling completely deceived. I felt like I was being punished for thinking for myself. Of course the monotheist religions, (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) like all forms of religion have their good qualities but for me personally it was too controlling and domineering. It's only natural to feel that way when you don't feel trusted or ever good enough by any group, organization or ideology.

A teacher in Buddhism will give you pointers and advice but you won't be somehow kicked out of Buddhism if you don't follow it word for word or even at all. Unless of course you're a monk but becoming a monastic who actually seeks out such a strict code of living and practicing is a decision made individually for the most part. Even then a monk might be asked to leave the monastery but they are still allowed to practice that form of Buddhism. Whereas in my former, monotheistic religion I felt like everyone was held to such a standard and if you wanted to practice in a less rigid way you were considered weak, inadequate and all too often reprimanded and even excommunicated.

After leaving that religion I was looking for a belief system that was more tolerant for such reasoned scrutiny. As well as allowing for a lot more personal freedom in tailoring the teachings to each person's unique and particular life. I found that in Buddhism, which is anchored in how our karma varies from being to being. Karma demands greater freedom to explore and personalize one's practice. So doubt in Buddhism isn't a "sin" (there is no such thing as sin anyway in Buddhism). In fact doubt can lead to some very powerful insights into spirituality as the exploration is personal and not spoon fed to you. This is not to say that monotheistic religions don't have aspects of personal exploration but it is very limited I have found in comparison to Buddhism.

There are, however, fellow converts in Buddhism that I find from time to time who do practice with similar rigidity, exclusivity and over-bearing reverence, which I saw so much in my monotheistic past. I have found that these people are often former monotheists as well who might have adopted Buddhism but they practice it by the way they use to practice their former religion. I believe that Buddhism isn't just about adopting different beliefs but changing one's entire approach to how religion is practiced.

Addendum: Special thanks to Phillip Ryan over at Tricycle for the quote.

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Kyle said...

I believe that Buddhism isn't just about adopting different beliefs but changing one's entire approach to how religion is practiced.

Perfectly said James!

Lawrence Nosan Grecco said...

Very well said--Buddhism is experiential indeed and the best teachers don't try to force you to 'believe' in anything, but rather they encourage you to experience it.

Hannah said...

And that is why I respect (and am drawn toward) Buddhism so much :-)

They call him James Ure said...


Thank-you. Part of the reason I say that in part is because Buddhism doesn't really fit into the western idea of religion.


Experience is exactly the key. Personal experience can not be replaced with any amount of faith.


Me too. Thanks for commenting.

Sabio Lantz said...

"I feel that Buddhism treats me like an adult"

"A teacher in Buddhism will give you pointers and advice but you won't be somehow kicked out of Buddhism if you don't follow it word for word or even at all."

Thought the main idea of this post is freedom and skepticism, which I applaud loudly, both of these quotes hint of a huge desire to belong and be owned and to have identity in a name. Such a desire is very normal, and has a very healthy component to it. Thus our dilemma.

Our bonds with others by necessity limits limits our freedom and shuts down skepticism. There is no answer for this, there will always be tension if we seek freedom. We must therefore choose our friends and associates carefully. We must watch ourselves to see if freedom and skepticism are priority or commitment, trust and tribal allegiance is safest at the moment.

Ahhhh, no easy answers. Darn.

Marco said...

Buddhism - where the drop meets the ocean. replica swiss

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