Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Buddhism is Not a Religion: The God Problem

I am posting this because I thought it was relevant to one's search for their sense of their own spirituality. You know what they say, "take what you like and leave the rest."


Live well,

Buddhism is Not a Religion: The God Problem
Wednesday September 23, 2009
Categories: Buddhism, Hardcore Dharma
by Jerry Kolber

I am going to continue exploring where I left off last week with my question: is Buddhism a religion or a way to approach living? The ONLY reason I think this question matters is that the ideas that the Buddha presented 2,000 years ago - a path to non-violence, compassion, mindfulness, and "right" behavior - are urgently relevant to our world today, and I have encountered no other system of personal exploration that offers such a straightforward approach to liberating one's mind from a swamp of craving and grasping.

Unfortunately inaccurately calling the system we refer to as Buddhism a religion means that a huge portion of the world's population will never bother to explore the teachings, because they already have a religion. But back to why this matters. I see little likelihood that people who have not learned to at least make a real effort to be present, in this moment, have any chance of long-term implementation of the behavior changes we need to stop recklessly destroying our own mental and physical environment. Talking about "saving the planet" or "personal/communal evolution" with a list of actions to do and behavior (and lightbulbs) to change, without the tools to internally calibrate your mind to how to ACTUALLY change your behavior, is no different than buying plans for a house and a set of tools and hoping you can build it with absolutely no training or instruction in carpentry, electrical work, or plumbing. You're just going to end up making a mess of things. Buddha was careful to not present dogma, or rules, or external authority; his techniques simply create a mental environment in which you are far more free to make informed choices about your own behavior, by showing you where your own mind is stuck in habitual grooves and shining a light on the tricks of your ego.

The Buddha's teachings offer a uniquely useful way to learn to take responsibility for your own mind, your own actions, and your effect in the world. We start from the basic assumption that all acts of destruction and violence stem from desire, which leads to craving. Craving happens when you drift from the present moment, because the present moment is pure, complete, thick, and inseparable from "you". You are in the present moment, and alive, and compete - there is nothing wanting in the present moment. Leaving this moment by wanting, desiring, regretting, or fantasizing will by definition lead you to crave, to dissatisfaction, because you have left the only place in the timeline (THIS moment) that truly offers satisfaction and completion. This is what the Buddha discovered, and he offers a pathway to discovering it for yourself. It isn't religion, or new age stuff - it's hardcore, on the ground, slap in the face and wake you up to reality stuff. Most religions require that you believe there is a god or gods, said god(s) who created earth and the universe and all creatures in it, and that this god(s) also created your religion - and that following god(s) rules will lead to a good outcome in this world, and the next.

The creation myth at the center of each religion is challenging, because it takes both a broad view - God created everything; and it simultaneously takes a narrow view - THIS religion is the one true way. Even the most tolerant religions, when pushed to the edge, have to say that their religion is accurate and their creation story accurate and their description of God correct, because to say otherwise would unravel the very fabric of the religion. Buddha offers a path for anyone who seeks to walk it, regardless of other beliefs; religion sometimes offers a beautiful path, but it is most often in a gated community. This is why people fight in the name of religion - this identity with creation myth and god-identity can be so central to a person's life that it becomes impossible to tolerate someone taking an opposing view. Sometimes innocent belief becomes twisted into an idea that true allegiance to the god(s) requires destroying as many non-believers as possible. The fact cannot be avoided that with all the religions on planet Earth, most of them chosen not by logic but by birth, we essentially have numerous bloodline tribes, each with their own belief system, and not all of them (if any) can be right. Where major world religions begin with creation myths, creators, and assertions that "this religion" is the right way because that religion's creator made it so, Buddha begins from recognizing the common traits of the human condition and offering a precise, logical, almost clinical, prescription for how to overcome this basic dissatisfaction. In the process you will likely become a more compassionate, less violent, less destructive human being.

There is no creator posited in the core teachings of the Buddha - but he does not expressly say there wasn't one. You might postulate that to him, in this present moment, the human condition at this moment alone is the only thing that matters, and to concern himself with gods, creators, and the past was the opposite of what he was teaching, no different than concerning himself with how well he slept last night or whether to have red or white wine with dinner. It's not an error of omission - it's an omission of the unnecessary. Put another way, Buddhism followed to the logical conclusion suggests that you are inextricably linked with everything else in this present moment - there is no "you", there is just "moment" which includes "you" and everything else in this moment, and so you by definition are also everything that you usually consider "not you" (including, for instance, trees, beer, and God) - "you" cannot be "removed" from the present moment without making it not the present moment anymore.

And so if there is a God, it is you, even though you are not God. More to the point - you can follow what the Buddha taught, and also believe in God, or not believe in God, or not care either way - it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter because it's totally irrelevant to your experience of the present moment. When you start to really pay attention to everything that's NOT happening between your thoughts, even if it's only for a tiny fraction of a second, you have started truly taking responsibility for being right here, right now, and to stop worrying about all kinds of stuff that's totally out of your control. Though Buddha's teachings migrated to and were adopted by various cultures and people throughout history - including many of us in the West today - the whole myriad of theistic and non-theistic Buddhist traditions are collectively called Buddhism.

This leads to the inevitable conclusion (because God always wins these arguments) that because some Buddhist traditions have incorporated deities and theism into the teachings, therefore only Buddhists who incorporate deities and theism into their practice are "true Buddhists" and everything else is just a light. And just like every other highly codified religion, there are Buddhist lineages that include gods, that have run into the same problems that other religions do - smacking face first against the wall of defensibility. But the fact that you can be Buddhist without having to follow one of those lineages - you can follow Buddha's teachings and believe or not believe in God - is an important point. Can you be Christian and not believe in that religions description of God?Jewish? Muslim? You cannot. Buddhism uniquely does not present a unified version of god(s) - because god(s) are not essential to the practice.

The fact that Buddha himself was careful - in a time when theistic religions were all the rage - to neither embrace nor reject the existence of god(s) is not a winning argument with those who want to dig in and label Buddhism as a religion, to the detriment of the accessibility of the Buddha's teachings. They often seem more interested in defending the particular cultural attachments that THEY have decided are "truly Buddhism" than they are in the actual teachings of the Buddha himself. When confronted by a non-Asian person with the unassailable fact the Buddha himself so precisely did not accept or reject the presence of god, they often claim racism, imperialism, even ignorance. But this does not change one simple thing. For Buddha's teachings to work, no god is necessary - no creator, no higher power - simply the desire to evolve your mind away from craving and into non-craving.

This is not a rejection of god or religion - Buddha's teaching are not theist, nor are they atheist. Though most of the people who practice Buddhism today do so exclusively (largely because of the label of religion), there is no reason to presume that his teachings are incompatible with following a religion like Judaism or Christianity. Though his teachings may lead a religious person to a different understanding of themselves and their relationship to god, I would consider that a deepening of spirituality rather than a contradiction. Because Buddhism, by default, has been described as a religion, it is unlikely to achieve the kind of widespread acceptance that the Buddha's teachings would require in order to achieve the kind of sea change our world so badly needs, from a mindset of selfishness to one of selflessness (or at least less-selfishness). I know, based on last week's response, that I'm going to get comments that start with "What a load of crap, I don't know where to begin" or "Another ignorant post from the Interdependence Project" or "Let me tell you why you're wrong".

But I'm not writing this to start a fight or to push buttons. I'm writing this because my personal experience with Buddhist teachings has been so transformative and relevant and provided so many specific tools to "build a new house" in my mind, one that is indisputably creating better conditions for myself and others on this planet. I cannot take credit for this change - I must credit practicing Buddhism for beginning to reveal something that was already within me, and within everyone. I only came to study the practice because I fortunately live in a cool spot and happened to stumble on a community who also saw the value in applying Buddha's teachings to our daily urban lives. I think it's a huge shame that his teachings will remain unavailable to so many people who could benefit from them, simply because a large portion of the Buddhist community is so attached to a label.

So before you start piling on, ask yourself this - if you are taking the position that Buddhism absolutely is a religion, and I am taking a position that Buddhism does not have to be a religion but can be practiced as one if you choose to follow a religion based on the Buddha's teachings, why does my inclusionary approach cause you such stress? And those of you that agree, or have a personal experience with an overlap between Buddhism and religion, please share your stories too.

Comments (113)
Filed Under: Buddha, Buddhism, God, Meditation, Religion, Resurgence

posted by Jerry Kolber @ 4:29pm Permalink Email This Add to »
Add to
Add to Technorati
Add to Digg
Add to Newsvine
Add to Facebook
Add to StumbleUpon

No comments:

Post a Comment