Beyond Religion

Today’s entry incorporates material from several previous posts.

In “The Dalai Lama: A Policy of Kindness”edited by Sidney Piburn, the Dalai Lama is quoted as saying,

“Buddhism does not accept a theory of God, or a creator. According to Buddhism, one’s own actions are the creator, ultimately. Some people say that, from a certain angle, Buddhism is not a religion but rather a science of mind.”

Several times during recent years, the Dalai Lama has also expressed his dissatisfaction with religion as a whole, suggesting 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. He said, 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 Buddhism, only we are dealing with deeper levels of the mind.

The Buddha did not direct the attention of his followers toward some higher, holier being but rather toward their own human nature, their inner-being, their 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.

And he asked his followers not to worship him. He expressly 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 human beings, being what they are just couldn’t help themselves and made Buddhism a religion and Buddha a god.

Non-Buddhists, when trying to get a handle on what Buddhism is about, are often confused because they try to analyze Buddha-dharma from a religious perspective.  They are unable to fathom the idea of not having a supreme being to rely on and answer prayers.  This is perfectly natural, but not helpful.

Buddhism begins with the premise that religion is not adequate. Buddhism has always been beyond religion.  Buddhism does not really fit any category we have in the West.  It has religious elements; it is a discipline, a philosophy, a way of life, a way of mind, a path, a Way but most of all, Buddhism is beyond religion.

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One thought on “Beyond Religion

  1. Quite right, David. I am reading “ Secular Buddhism, Imaging the Dharma In an Uncertain World” in which Stephen Batchelor offers a similar argument.

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