Religions of Man

Religious scholar Huston Smith is 92 today. A very happy birthday to him.

Smith is best known for his book “The Religions of Man”, first published in 1958, which evidently is now titled “The World’s Religions.”  It’s a classic primer to comparative religion.

I have always thought his section on Buddhism was rather good. I especially like the way he starts off:

Buddhism begins with a man . . . While the rest of the world was wrapped in the womb of sleep, dreaming a dream known as the waking life, one man roused himself. Buddhism begins with a man who shook off the daze, the doze, the dream-like inchoateness of ordinary awareness. It begins with a man who woke up.”

Unlike other religious philosophies, Buddhism is not concerned with magic or the supernatural. Buddha-dharma is about human beings, human affairs, earthly events. The experience Gautama had beneath the Bodhi Tree was neither mystical nor mysterious; it was a human experience. It has to be, or else we could never hope to have the same experience ourselves.

Smith tell us that the Buddha’s teachings were earth-bound, rational, and pragmatic. He lists six corollaries of religion and then gives six reasons why Buddha-dharma is “almost entirely disassociated” with them:

1. Buddha preached a religion devoid of authority.

2. Buddha preached a religion devoid of ritual.

3. Buddha preached a religion devoid of speculation.

4. Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition.

5. Buddha preached a religion of intense self-effort.

6. Buddha preached a religion devoid of the supernatural.

Then he presents six terms that summarize the Buddha’s approach to religion:

1. It was empirical.

2. It was scientific.

3. It was pragmatic.

4. It was therapeutic.

5. It was democratic.

6. It was directed to individuals.

[Smith offers an explanation to each of these, however it would too lengthy to include them here.]

This is the humanistic aspect of Buddhism, which I feel is its main characteristic.  A philosophy given by a human being to human beings. Teachings that address human problems, the human malaise, human suffering. Although there may be gods in the background, the dharma Buddha taught was not about them. The mystery he was seeking to solve was the mystery within the human mind.

Earlier in the book, Smith writes,

Finally religion brushes with mystery. It is always mixed up with magic and mysticism and miracles; with the occult, the esoteric, and the uncanny; with things like spiritualism and the supernatural. Rationalists may complain and all will deplore its credulity and excesses in some of these directions. Religion’s final business is the infinite, the beyond, the beckoning, and its coin is ecstasy. It will always, therefore, lie tangential to what is mundane, ordinary, and prosaic and move away from these even when it can only grope in the direction of their alternative.

If by “tangential” Smith means that Buddhism hardly touches upon the “mundane, ordinary, and prosaic,” I would disagree. Those things lie in the direction the Buddha encouraged us to head toward. It is the mystical that is tangential. Mysticism may be employed, but it is only a tool. Supernatural powers may be on display within the literature, but for us in the modern world, they should be taken as metaphors.

In “The Religions of Man”, Huston Smith says, “Religion’s final business is the infinite.” Interestingly, Rabindranath Tagore, whose phrase “the endless further” I took for the title of this blog, is well known for his book “The Religion of Man.” It was published some 27 years before Smith’s book and while it was not on the subject of comparative religion per se, Tagore did discuss at length his ideas on the universality of religion. This passage conveys what I think Buddhism means when it talks about the infinite. Here, Tagore is discussing

[What] Buddha has described as Brahmavihara, “living in the infinite”. He [Buddha] says . . . ‘To be dwelling in such contemplation while standing, walking, sitting or lying down, until sleep overcomes thee, is called living in Brahma’.

This proves that Buddha’s idea of the infinite was not the idea of a spirit of an unbounded cosmic activity, but the infinite whose meaning is in the positive ideal of goodness and love, which cannot be otherwise than human. By being charitable, good and loving, you do not realize the infinite, in the stars or rocks, but the infinite revealed in Man. Buddha’s teaching speaks of Nirvana as the highest end. To understand its real character we have to know the path of its attainment, which is not merely through the negation of evil thoughts and deeds but through the elimination of all limits to love. It must mean the sublimation of self in a truth which is love itself, which unites in its bosom all those to whom we must offer our sympathy and service.

On one hand, to say that religion is “of man” is curious, for what creatures on this planet other than ‘man’ or humankind have religion?  On the other hand, it points to the bothersome truth that all religions, all gods, and the supernatural were created by humans.  Here is where, in my opinion, Buddhism has an advantage, because of its secular and humanistic qualities, Buddhism can be viewed as a path that goes beyond religion.  This is where I think we should all go, beyond the misty realms of the divine and into the world of humanity . . . beyond illusion and into the real.

Huston Smith writes,

Buddhism begins with a man . . . a man who woke up.”