Buddhism: Beyond Religion

A recent message on the Dalai Lama’s Facebook page has gotten some attention. It reads,

All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.

Well, religion has never been adequate, and Buddhism was never intended to be a religion. Buddha was not a religious figure. He wasn’t a god, a miracle worker, a faith healer, nor was he a prophet like Isaiah or Muhammad, or a law-bringer in the way Moses was – he was a meditation teacher, an itinerant philosopher. The spiritual tradition he belonged to, the sramanas, was not a religious movement, it was outside of religion, and it seems the Buddha was critical of the established religion of his day, with its reliance on ritual, incantations, and prophecies, and he rejected the authority of the priests.

The Buddha’s message was not religious, either. Buddha-dharma says, everyone has problems, and if you want to learn how to deal with your problems more effectively and perhaps even overcome the sufferings your problems bring, then once or twice a day, sit down, be still, and calm your mind. That’s not a particularly religious message. It’s a very practical message. After all, what is the best thing to do when we have a problem? Rush out willy-nilly, higgly-piggly, and try to affect a solution? No, it’s best to sit down, think the problem through, calmly, maybe analyze the causes for the problem, and then work out a solution. It’s the same principal in Buddha-dharma, only we are dealing with deeper levels of the mind.

Buddha was not concerned about the existence of gods, or speculation about how the world was made. He was concerned only with the question of how to solve human problems, how to relieve suffering.

The Buddha asked his followers not to worship him. He actually forbade them from revering his relics. That’s why for several centuries no representations of the Buddha were used, only images of a footprint, an empty seat, the Wheel of Dharma, a Bodhi leaf, and so on. But humans being what they are just couldn’t help themselves . . .

As I see it, Buddha-dharma begins with the premise that religion is not adequate. Buddhism has always been beyond religion.

You are not, O Bhikkhus, to learn–to teach–the low arts of divination, spells, omens, astrology, sacrifices to gods, witchcraft, and quackery.”

– Vinaya Pitaka, S.B.E, Vol. XX

“Let him not use Atharva Vedic spells, nor things foretell from dreams or signs or stars; let not my follower predict from cries, cure barrenness nor practice quackery.”

– Sutta Nipata, IV., 14

“So, Ananda, you must be your own lamps, be your own refuges. Take refuge in nothing outside yourselves. Hold firm to the truth as a lamp and a refuge, and do not look for refuge to anything besides yourselves.”

– Mahaparinibbana Sutta, Digha Nikaya 16

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