I don’t view Buddhism as a religion, and I refuse to practice it that way. By “religion”, I mean in the usual Western sense, being one’s main system of belief and spiritual practice, one’s main source of spiritual connection with others, to the exclusion of other beliefs, practices and associations. There’s too much pressure from other people to be a certain kind of person of a certain class; to be a “buddhist”, whatever that means. Too much emphasis on courses and retreats as a lifestyle. As a spiritual practice, it’s wonderful; it solves all my problems. But I don’t think Buddhism was ever meant to be practiced as a religion in the western sense, joining a church and practicing together every week.
Michael Jerryson, in his recent article in Buddhadharma magazine, described the differences between Asian and Western approaches to Buddhist practice:
For many Buddhists in Asia, the buddhadharma is not a “religion”. This extinction is exemplified in the reflections of Taiwanese immigrants to the United States, who have noted how they “became” Buddhist once they arrived. There was no identification for this in Taiwan.” (M. Jerryson, “The Rise of Militant Monks”, in Buddhadharma, Fall 2015, p. 81).
The early Buddhist monks were pretty much on their own. They were only required to come together during the rainy season, which lasted three months, and otherwise monthly at the full moon. They didn’t sit in meditation together every Sunday. They didn’t go on retreats together for weeks and months like they do in many sanghas. They conducted their Buddhist way of life alone in a state of continuous meditation and contemplation, study and practice.
Here are some things I’ve learned from two previous communities:
- Religious communities, of any kind, are coercive by nature; some worse than others
- Never allow yourself to become dependent on a teacher or community in any way, spiritually, socially or materially.
- Never get involved with a Buddhist organization in which you have to spend thousands of dollars on retreats and courses, or fly to distant locales, in order to participate in the group’s activities. These extreme financial burdens and physical barriers are unnecessary and counter-productive to the spiritual path. You’ll be working overtime to make enough money to go on retreats that tell you not to be attached to the material world. Does that make any sense?
- You need to be closely involved in a community (or a few) until you establish your own path;
- Once you establish your own path, you can detach from the community and practice on your own;
- The community then becomes an inspiration and a guide for your own path.
- You have to walk that thin edge between being involved enough to receive (and give)the guidance that you need, but not so involved that you become constrained by and dependent on the community.
- As Krishna Das said, “Learn from many different teachers and communities, but never join anything. If you join, you open yourself up to being exploited.”
- Hang lose and travel light. If you join a Buddhist organization, you will be expected to cough up membership fees, donations, volunteer hours, etc. to keep the organization running. Unless you feel that is your specific spiritual calling, don’t burden yourself with all that stuff. Stay free of organizational demands and burdens.
- Don’t practice Buddhism as a religion, or a lifestyle. Practice Buddhism as a practice that you do on your own, with support and guidance from other practitioners.
- The practitioners you need to share and support your practice are often not found in Buddhist organizations. They are often single individuals that you meet in a variety of circumstances.
- All Buddhist communities have a collective or group neurosis. It’s the “shadow” side of the group that they are not aware of, yet it deeply affects the members of the group and their relationships. Before you get sold on all the good things that the community has to offer, continue to investigate the group until you find it’s “shadow” side. Then decide if membership is worth it.