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Friday, August 06, 2010

Is Buddhism a Religion? Yes, and No. How's That for a Koan?

We often talk about Siddhartha, the young man who became known as the Buddha, as if he were a god. The fact is that he was just a simple Indian guy, a human being like you and me. We think of him as some kind of super-genius for having attained complete spiritual awakening, but in fact his real genius was in showing how any one of us can attain the same awakening as he did. We describe him as a prince and a member of the elite royalty of his time, and we think that must have given him an advantage over us -- but the reality is that most of us today are probably better off, in material terms, than Siddhartha was. The point is, we shouldn't mythologize Siddhartha's life and think that his spiritual awakening was due to his special circumstances. Most of us today actually live in conditions very similar to Siddhartha's, in terms of our material situation.

James: This is something that many in the West don't understand. They think we worship Buddha when we bow to his statues. I think a segment of this misunderstanding stems from the Western idea of what a religion constitutes. The main religions practiced in the West all have the common denominator of a belief in an omnipotent being that rules over all humanity--a "God." Combine that with a relative cultural isolation of many Americans and you have a recipe for misunderstanding Buddhism and other non-Western belief systems.

Siddhartha was a truth seeker, nothing more. He wasn't looking for religion, as such -- he wasn't particularly interested in religion. He was searching for the truth. He was looking for a genuine path to freedom from suffering. Aren't all of us searching for the same thing? If we look at the life of Siddhartha, we can see that he found the truth and freedom he was seeking only after he abandoned religious practices. Isn't that significant? The one who became the Buddha, the "Awakened One," didn't find enlightenment through religion -- he found it when he began to leave religion behind.

James: I don't think this means that we should abandon monasteries, temples and teachers but it is a necessary caution in reminding practitioners that these things are tools to help us along the path that only we can walk. For example, I think we deify our teachers a bit and lean upon them sometimes too much like a crutch. Yet Buddha was clear that we can know the Dharma like the back of our hand but all that is worthless unless we set out on our own and put them into practice. No one can walk the path for us. No teacher can cure us of our suffering--regardless of how enlightened and talented they may be. So, in that sense Buddhism isn't a religion in the Western sense but rather, perhaps, a spiritual school. Let me be clear, however. It doesn't hurt to practice with others in a physical sangha because it offers us support and encouragement but just remember that Buddha had none of these things. And if he can do it, so can we.

After all, what would you do if you were the last Buddhist on Earth? Would you stop practicing because there were no more teachers, temples, statues and sanghas? Of course not. These things are maps but they aren't the path itself. Spiritual materialism and attachment to it's trimmings is just as sure a pitfall as falling into the delusional hole that we don't need any teaching or guidance at all. Ironically, fittingly and beautifully we come back to the conclusion that Buddhism itself should be approached with the middle-path mindset. The way we view it should be balanced between traditional practice and freelance adaptation to an individuals particular karma.

Neither wrong to attend a temple or monastery nor wrong to be more of a hermit Buddhist as Buddha initially was. Some teachers I have read will actually recommend certain students leave the monastery to study on their own as a hermit. So, there are many paths but only one Dharma. That said, neither I, nor Rinpoche are advocating we do away with Buddhism as a religion but rather to go beyond Buddhism as a religion. This means having the structural integrity of the Dharma as our foundation but we shouldn't let organized religion hold back our practice to where we simply copy someone else's practice. In my years of practice I have found that mimicking the path of someone else is simply yet another delusion.

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13 comments:

Sabio Lantz said...

I think changing the monastic structure inherent in Buddhism could ironically result in the growth of those benefiting from the Dharma.

Julia said...

I enjoyed this article thoroughly and found it really helpful in understanding my faith.
I grew up in a Western setting and was born into a Buddhist family and our practice of it seemed rather lax to me. We had altars in our homes but we rarely went to temple and I only recently became curious about what I was part of when I attended two funerals that were carried out by Buddhist monks. Seems like living in a Judeo-Christian society made me focus on all the wrong things! As I learned more about the philosophy of Buddhism, not much of it reaffirmed or explained what I was exposed to, which I now see as cultural (Vietnamese) practices with religious roots. What I found instead was a brighter way of living that was really unlike any other religion I was familiar with.
I find refuge in the idea that Buddhism is far better described as a philosophy than a religion. A few years ago when I was 16 I suffered from obsessions (part of my O.C.D) and paralyzing guilt from irrepressible "evil" thoughts. I was unable to go into churches or temples for fear of having my mind bombard my consciousness with blasphemy. Years later, I learned that the idea of blasphemy contradicted Buddhism's renouncing of idolatry and rigid and demanding religion and was thus not relevant in attaining higher spirituality. The more I learn about Buddhism the happier I feel. I feel like I belong to a faith that understands me and my humanity. Simple-minded as it may sound, I felt that having a faith that didn't accuse me because of my illness made the recovery all the more possible. I am better mentally when I don't have to focus good and bad and thus guilt, where I can instead just focus on existing and co-existing.
I am still really new to Buddhism and I'm a mixture of confused, ignorant, and excited at this point but I hope to read more about my adopted faith. This is a wonderful blog you're keeping.

Mumon said...

James: the idea of worshiping statues is a caricature of certain people in certain religions; there simply is no major religion in which this is done.

I do beg to differ with him: Buddhism is a religion.

I would be first up to banish the term "spiritual not religious" if I could. When I hear it, especially in regards to Buddhism, I'm reminded of the Jennifer Saunders character Eddy Monsoon, who practices Buddhism "almost religiously."

Jason Lee said...

Nice website, I will visit more often.

In Asia, there is this misconception that Buddha is god.

Lawrence Grecco said...

Excellent post, thank you. It's important to remember that the Buddha was just a man and no more predisposed to awaken than anyone of us here and now.

Julia said...

I am still really new to Buddhism and I'm a mixture of confused, ignorant, and excited at this point but I hope to read more about my adopted faith. This is a wonderful blog you're keeping.
I grew up in a Western setting and was born into a Buddhist family and our practice of it seemed rather lax to me. We had altars in our homes but we rarely went to temple and I only recently became curious about what I was part of when I attended two funerals that were carried out by Buddhist monks. Seems like living in a Judeo-Christian society made me focus on all the wrong things! As I learned more about the philosophy of Buddhism, not much of it reaffirmed or explained what I was exposed to, which I now see as cultural practices with religious roots. What I found instead was a brighter way of living that was really unlike any other religion I was familiar with.
I find refuge in the idea that Buddhism is far better described as a philosophy than a religion. A few years ago when I was 16 I suffered from obsessions (part of my O.C.D) and paralyzing guilt from irrepressible "evil" thoughts. I was unable to go into churches or temples for fear of having my mind bombard my consciousness with blasphemy. Years later, I learned that the idea of blasphemy contradicted Buddhism's renouncing of idolatry and rigid and demanding religion and was thus not relevant in attaining higher spirituality. The more I learn about Buddhism the happier I feel. I feel like I belong to a faith that understands me and my humanity. Simple-minded as it may sound, I felt that having a faith that didn't accuse me because of my illness made the recovery all the more possible. I am better mentally when I don't have to focus good and bad and thus guilt, where I can instead just focus on existing and co-existing.

Arhat Ariyashakya said...

It is necessary to add the following: the only path that Buddha teaches is His Aryas [noble] Eight-folded path:

Right Belief
Right Aim
Right Speech
Right Action
Right Living
Right Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Meditation

Consequently, if you are interested in following the Foot-prints of The Tathagata, 'meeting the Buddha', following His example, lovely in its beginning, lovely in its middle, lovely in its permanency, then renounce the world, and be a Bhikshu [Buddhist Monk] or a Bhikshuni [Buddhist Nun], in the Buddha Sangha, for life.

G said...

Agree with you wholeheartedly, James, that Buddhism is both a philosophy (for some) and a religion (for many).

Eching Jason Lee's comment above, I'd add that Buddha is considered a god, or god-like, by many, amny Asians born into the Buddhist religion. Even here in Thailand where the Pali Canon forms the basis of Buddhist doctrine, many Thai Buddhists pray to the Buddha to assist them in their lives. And they do this despite their religion teaching them that he no longer exists as a separate entity since his parinirvana.

The irony is, of course, that the primordial Buddha exists right here, right now. We simply have to look back and see him, a shining clarity that contains the world.

Nasa Images said...

Hope you would add my blog. Thanks a lot. Keep blogging....

Love your blog and you are added :) Keep up the good work and thanks for the kinds words. -- Kristen

dharmageek said...

What would be your response to Buddhism being an agnositc school of philosophy, and that rebirth and karma were simpy part of Buddha's "world view" at that time, and are not necessarily relevant in this day and age? This was the thesis of Stephen Batchelor's book "Buddhism Without Beliefs", and I feel this was as much a misinterpretation of Buddhism as believing that "Buddhists worship Buddha."

They call him James Ure said...

@Sabi Lantz...I have thought about that subject several times before but still think the monastic culture is important. Still, I think there could be some changes that would be helpful.

@Julia...Thank-you for sharing your story. It sounds like you had an interesting path to Buddhism. I came from a Judeo-Christian background as well and it kept me from exploring Buddhism for some time but I don't think I was ready at the time for the Dharma.

I had the same experience with being able to heal and deal with a mental health issue through Buddhism. It doesn't help when a religion accuses you of being possessed by demons as Judeo-Christianity sometimes does. Thank-you for your kind words about the blog and I hope to hear from you again!!

@Mumon...He isn't denying that Buddhism ISN'T a religion but rather saying it is more than just a religion.

@Lawrence...That is such a hopeful and inspiring thought, isn't it?

@G...You said, "The irony is, of course, that the primordial Buddha exists right here, right now. We simply have to look back and see him, a shining clarity that contains the world." Agreed, and all we have to do is look within as well. The Buddha is within us as well.

@Dharma Geek...I think that is a bit too watered down of a view of Buddhism but I am no expert. I personally find a basic foundation to be helpful more than an amorphous philosophy. But, I also think sometimes we take the mythology of Buddhism to literally. Such as the six realms.

Sabio Lantz said...

PS
@ Arhat Ariyashakya
Your blog has "comments off"
I don't follow blogs with comments off.
If you care to know.
I think lots of folks are like me.

Eric said...

Q:"How's That for a Koan?"
A: Perfect! Thank you, James :)

Julia: Thank you for your posts about your background. On one hand, I'm saddened to hear that you too have shared the confusion and contradictions that all of us have from growing up in a Judeo-Christian society. But on the other hand, your story reminds me of my youngest daughter, who is 17 now. Perhaps for her sake I should reawaken my dormant Buddhist faith and should include her in it as well so that she can avoid some of that confusion in the future... Thank you for that!

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