Buddhism As a Practice, Not A Religion

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:

  1. Religious communities, of any kind, are coercive by nature; some worse than others
  2. Never allow yourself to become dependent on a teacher or community in any way, spiritually, socially or materially.
  3. 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?
  4. You need to be closely involved in a community (or a few) until you establish your own path;
  5. Once you establish your own path, you can detach from the community and practice on your own;
  6. The community then becomes an inspiration and a guide for your own path.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.”
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
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20 thoughts on “Buddhism As a Practice, Not A Religion

    1. This is what I agree with . It corresponds with my ideas of autoresponsability to be taken by humans .buddhism is by far related to that in its essence not by how slowly religionlike aspects have undermined its basics.

  1. Well Said!
    This is precisely why I am a solitary witch. Regardless of how one connects to that which is The Greater or how one envisions Deity, it is all too easy to get caught up in the power games that are organized religion. I think that you are absolutely bang on with all of these insights.

    It is so easy to get caught up in jumping through hoops and trying to feel accepted within a group. I think true connection happens when you stop caring about fitting in and simply find the place where your heart feels at peace.

    Though there is beauty in a hundred voices dancing in the wind, no less beautiful in a single voice finding it’s own song.

    Blessed Be,
    Memy

  2. Yes, yes, there are dangers with organised religion. But sigh. Ok, let’s modify the famous lines by Haley Joel Osment from The Sixth Sense: ‘I see white people… Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re white.’

    That quote about how Taiwanese Buddhists only had to identify themselves through the governing category of ‘religion’ when they migrated to the U.S. In a similar way, over the course of Western colonialism, the Euro-Christian-centric governing category of ‘religion’ was used to denigrate non-Western, non-white lifeworlds, to justify violence of all sorts. Indigenous peoples everywhere were either judged (not by native standards but by Euro-Christian standards) to lack ‘religion’ or to have false ‘religion’ — hence, in need of Christian missionisation and colonial civilising rule.

    Yet, it is also by way of the Euro-Christian-centric construction of ‘religion’ that non-Western, non-white peoples could resist colonial oppression by insisting on the legitimacy of their inherited ‘religion’ — Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, or whatever. The tool of oppression — ‘religion’ — has also become a means of resistance. Today ‘religion’ still offers a means for them to seek justice or simply to attain social recognition, like those Taiwanese Buddhists mentioned above.

    So I am not denying the dangers of organised religion. I’m simply asking for historical, ideological mindfulness of how we make assertions like ‘This or that is not religion’ or ‘Let’s leave religion behind.’

    We can think about this analogously with the construct of ‘race’. It is a construct which has no objective biological referent. But historically it has been and continues to be used as a means to oppress, marginalise, and exclude others — non-Western, non-white others. Yet, as we are witnessing right now with #BlackLivesMatter the construct of ‘race’ also provides the means for the oppressed to seek legitimacy and justice.

    So if we transpose the rhetoric here to the context of race: ‘People are human beings, they are not this or that race!’

    What effect does this assertion have? Who or what does it impact on? For what purpose? In whose interest?

    Let’s be very honest. There are people asserting this right now. Who are the ones making this assertion? Who are the ones who can do so without suffering any consequences?

    White people.

    1. Sorry, I typed the previous comment on the fly just now, I should have expressed my thanks for making this post, Shaun.

      To be very, very clear, I think the points you raise about being careful about how religious organisations make this or that demand, etc, — these are important and helpful practical advice.

      You are absolutely right to say the there is a dominant Western, Euro-Christian-centric concept of ‘religion’ that shapes our understanding. And I am in fact picking up on this point.

      But f there is this Westerncentric concept of ‘religion’ at work, then, to take its ethico-political implications seriously, I think it is important that we be critically mindful of the multiple and contradictory ways in which ‘religion’ has been and continues to be used as BOTH a totalising category of oppression AND a mode of counter-discourse and means of resistance.

      If this concept of ‘religion has been imposed upon the world by Western colonial powers over the past few centuries — one implication that we cannot avoid is that it is no longer up to the West to decide or control what qualifies or not as ‘religion’.

      To put it hypothetically and bluntly: if a traditional Asian Buddhist who chooses to practice Buddhism as a ‘religion’ encounters yet again (as their ancestors did when Western colonialists and missionaries first encountered the inherited practices of their ancestral heritage), ethnocentric denigrating remarks about how they are doing Buddhism wrongly because they treat it as a ‘religion’, and they respond to such a dismissive attitude by saying “Well, suck it up!”

      Even if one does not follow or adopt what they do, is one nevertheless prepared to think through the historical and ideological reasons that might have prompted their response?

      This is a difficult ethico-political challenge of being mindful of how one can allow others or make room for others — especially non-white, non-Western others who have had this concept of ‘religion’ imposed upon them — to maintain their inherited customs and sense of belonging in the world through this category of ‘religion’ — even if, especially if, one does not find this category helpful for one’s own practice.

      This is an analogous ethico-political challenge to the ethico-political of checking one’s (white) privilege.

      I write this as someone who has been a postcolonial Christian convert, turned atheist, turned ‘Western Buddhist’ convert.

      Kind regards
      Edwin

      1. Edwin: may I repost all three of your comments as a blog article? Your response is really well thought out and substantiated by reference to other authors. It makes a really good read all on it’s own. Don’t worry about the casual language. That’s what blogs are for.

      1. Thanks Shaun.

        It is not a recent or contemporary phenomenon. ‘Religion’, as a conceptual framework/governing category, is a Euro-Christian invention that only took hold in the 16-17th centuries. At base it was a way for the West to deal with the encounter of difference, to police the other. But it is through this very tool of oppression that subjugated others could say ‘f–k you’ to the oppressor.

        Like the notion of ‘sexuality’, as Foucault pointed out, ‘religion’ is a fictitious unity. But just as the regime of truth surrounding ‘sexuality’ was able to produce ‘homosexuals’, ‘deviants’, etc, by defining and classifying them, and in doing so enabled those subjects to wield those subjectivities — in an analogous way the defining and classifying of ‘world religions’ as Buddhism, Hinduism, and so forth enabled non-Western, non-white peoples to consolidate collective action around another category.

        Tomoko Masuzawa’s book title sums it up very nicely actually: The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism.

        So for me, certainly as some who inherits the colonial legacy (not of my own choosing, since no one chooses their birth name or language or time and place of birth — hence, a responsibility), I refrain from saying that Buddhism is not a religion. In fact I would say that it *is* a religion. But I do so not to insist that it must and can only be practiced in a dogmatic institutional way, but because this is a fact of our colonial legacy — there is too much at stake, especially for the countless others who have long lived under the shadow of Westerncentric greed, hatred, and delusion, to efface ‘religion’, in the same way as saying ‘I don’t see/need race’ is to be part of the problem rather than the solution.

        Elizabeth Castelli has a wonderful concise essay entitled ‘Religion and Theory: What’s the Difference?’ that’s worth a read, if you haven’t already read it.

        Cheers
        Edwin

  3. > For many Buddhists in Asia, the buddhadharma is not a “religion”.

    And yet for most Buddhists everywhere it *is* a religion. The many temples and Buddha statues in Taiwan bear witness to this. Very often people immersed in a culture don’t see it until they leave it.

    > “In the old days, Buddhist monks were pretty much on their own.”

    This view is idealised and Romanticised. Those “old days” almost certainly never existed. It’s a literary myth for which there is no external evidence. Such myths, of which there are a number, were designed to make Buddhism seem more authentic *as a religion* for an audience which was by that time immersed in Brahmanism. Hence also the Buddha comes to have a set of high status Brahmin names: Siddhartha (or Sarvarthasiddha) Gautama.

    In these same myths monks were absolutely dependent on communities for food, clothing and shelter. They were no independent in the sense you are trying to suggest. Such people played an important religious role in Indian society – they attracted the devotion of lay people whose main source of merit, and hope for a better rebirth was to minister to monks. Monks for their part exploited this economy of merit for their living.

    Anyone with ideals influenced by a Romantic view of history will be disappointed. Taking literally particular aspects of myth that appeal to and reinforce an ideology, while ignoring the rest of it, is dangerously naive.

    Re some of your other points

    We are social animals. Our communities are successful because they created and enforce behavioural norms, often through the actions of supernatural monitors. All groups establish and enforce norms. Some, of course, are more disciplinarian than others and one must choose a community that suits one’s own proclivities if thinking about joining one. As social animals we are always dependent on groups, both materially and emotionally.

    Seems to me that some of your later points have better foundations. Groups that require large expenditure are doubtful. But basically all this view is, is Libertarianism applied to Buddhism. This ideology certainly appeals to many people, particularly in America, but there is no evidence that it is better than more involved approaches. Indeed America is a society that few of us outside America are keen to emulate – and those who are tend to be wealthy and powerful and thus have a great deal more to gain from Libertarianism than those of us who are still reliant on the community.

    I’ve seen all kinds of people with different levels of involvement in religious organisations of many kinds. There is no one formula. Libertarians always end up on a wide orbit. Communitarians end up at the centre of things. Both seem to be happier playing such roles. But just because Libertarians are averse to the compromises required by group membership, does not mean that others do not happily make those compromises.

    A Romantic view of the past and a Libertarian view of the present. It will no doubt be attractive for some, but as a general prescription it is naive at best.

    1. I don’t have a romanticized view of the past or the present. Actually, I’m trying to counteract the romanticization of Buddhism.

      I see much romanticization in the white Buddhist sanghas around me, who romanticize Tibetan and Himalayan culture and try to adopt a western form of it as their own culture.

      “In these same myths monks were absolutely dependent on communities for food, clothing and shelter. They were no independent in the sense you are trying to suggest.”

      Yes, but they were dependent on the broader community, which was a diverse collection of people of all different religions and cultures. They were not exclusively connected with members of their own sangha. That’s what I mean by practicing Buddhism as a religion in the western sense.

      Read my post on “Occupy the Neighbourhood: Practicing as a Post-Buddhism Buddhist.”

      https://engagedbuddhism.net/2015/03/02/occupy-the-neighbourhood-practice-as-a-post-buddhism-buddhist/

      I’m not a Libertarian, I’m a Communitarian. But I define the “community” as that already-formed diverse collection of people that live in my geographic neighbourhood, my city. They are all different religions and no religion.

      My neighbourhood has large populations of Black, First Nations, queer, disabled and poor people. These are people you would never meet at the three local Buddhist sanghas in the same city, which are largely white, straight, upper middle class, abled-bodied.

      That’s what I mean by practicing Buddhism as a religion in the western sense–people all of one class and social status who only relate to each other and ignore the larger community, which is far more diverse. It amounts to a silent exclusion of anyone who doesn’t fit their standards.

  4. “We are social animals. Our communities are successful because they created and enforce behavioural norms, often through the actions of supernatural monitors. All groups establish and enforce norms. Some, of course, are more disciplinarian than others and one must choose a community that suits one’s own proclivities if thinking about joining one. As social animals we are always dependent on groups, both materially and emotionally.”

    Precisely, and this is exactly what Enage! is writing about. But some of the norms that are enforced are particularly racist, classist, ableist and queer-phobic. No one in the sanghas in my city want to confront the inherent racism in their own sanghas. None of them want to confront the class structure that is institutionalized. If you don’t have the wealth of leisure and money to go on month-long retreats in distant locations, if you are not able to spend thousands of dollars on retreats, courses and trips to shrines in exotic locales, there is simply no place for you in any of these sanghas. You are structurally barred and limited to a marginalized token membership in which you never advance along their prescribed path. It’s insidious, and it’s not entirely unconscious. There is a way in which the leaders of these sanghas know that they are exclusive, and they prefer it that way.

    This is not a theory: Someone actually said to my face, “This works for us, and it’s our wealth that makes it possible for these sanghas to thrive. If you don’t have the money to go on retreats, that’s your own fault.”

  5. Gary Snyder said, in a recent interview in Tricycle, that Buddhism has to work within a natural society, a natural setting. He prefers working within a community that has grown up on it’s own land, and within that, has developed it’s own local culture:

    I don’t think Buddhism can function in a way that’s truly beautiful, truly interesting, until it has a natural society as its ground. . . So that’s why I divide my time between what you may call culture building, or community building, and Buddhist teaching. It would be really easy to live in the city and teach at a Zen center and do nothing but Buddhist teaching. I wouldn’t want to do it that way. I’d rather go out and start working in the neighbourhoods as much as I could, because I think you have to work the ground for a Buddhist society first. You can’t just leave your society the way it is and say “We offer this as one of the teachings.” You’ve got to help the society get its feet on the ground before those teachings can begin to flourish. (Snyder, Tricycle, February 2015).

    Instead of creating an intentional community of Buddhist believers, which Snyder contends is an artificial community, engaged Buddhists go out and work with an existing community. We work on helping the community liberate itself from structural oppression and it’s own internalized oppression. We help heal it’s historical and social wounds, foster it’s culture, skills and talents. We help it to become resilient, able to withstand and overcome adverse conditions.

    1. Great conversation. It seems to be popping up everywhere I go. I have a couple of unrefined thoughts that are not very fleshed out as of yet. Prepare for word vomit.

      The debate as to whether Buddhism is a religion or not seems so western. So American. We can only comprehend things first in duality and then in antagonism. Instead we could be perfectly content with Buddhism being both a religion and not a religion. Or maybe I got that backwards. 🙂

      My experience with Buddhism seems like the odd man out from many people I talk to or read. I needed to try meditation to resolve my inner angryhaterman and so I went to a Taiwanese monastery in my working class neighborhood that is filled with buddhist temples and monasteries from a variety of Asian immigrant communities.

      I haven’t had the rich white Buddhist experience very much at all really. The folks who attend the monastery are primarily mandarin speakers. There’s a growing westerner set built from deliberate outreach (I discovered the place from the “FREE ZEN CLASSES” yard signs they put up everywhere) but that group tends to be more women and more people of color and more working class than the general tales of American Buddhism I hear of. Maybe I just lucked out. I love where I sit.

      On the other hand, this sangha is not built or oriented towards activism in anyway. In fact it has a very conservative take on injustice in my opinion. I wish there was more of that but my couple of forays into activism with local Buddhists put me into this privileged world of rich white flaky activists and it wasn’t a good fit. I’m a blue collar union lefty who lucked into the middle class. I’m used to diversity and organisation. The local Buddhist lefties seem averse to those things.

      I’ve mostly come to the conclusion that I’m just going to be the solid activist I’ve always been and bring my Buddhism along with me on the journey rather than try to cram myself into a neat Socially Engaged Buddhism Box©. And I’ll keep enjoying the broad and diverse community I get to sit with.

      1. Duke PA: I often start with word vomit and then clean it up as I go. That’s the nature of blog writing.
        On religion vs. practice: sure it can be both and it is both. I just refuse to practice it as a religion. I’m more than satisfied with the 17th Karmapa’s suggestion that Buddhism can be practiced as a ‘humanist spirituality.’ I find this incredibly liberating, and I’ve decided that’s how I’m going to practice it from now on.

        I also attend meditation services at a non-white, non-western sangha here in Halifax. It’s a Theravadin sangha of immigrants from Sri Lanka. The resident monk is also from Sri Lankha by way of Toronto. Everything is in Sinhalese, but I don’t mind–the chanting is beautiful. I’m often the only white person in the room.

        “I needed to try meditation to resolve my inner angryhaterman” Yeah, right on Duke. I totally identify with this. That’s why I started meditation also. It sort of works. I’m a bit less resentful than I used to be, but not much. I have a long way to go.

  6. I completely disagree.

    How many contemporary practitioners are required to spend one/fourth of one’s life (i.e. three months every year) in the same building with other Buddhist practitioners, eating at the same time, and following a precise hierarchy in accordance to strict guidelines offered by the Buddha? Even the extent to which monks were *required* to spend time alone during Vassa is questionable and a complex matter. Wasn’t Bhikkhu Aananda always in the company of the Buddha?

    The question becomes even more obvious when we consider the Sutta’s advice to householders, i.e. to the non-ordained. Their main duty is to *attend upon* (upaasanaa) the needs of the ordained Sangha.

    Thus it seems that those which the authors describes as “religious” aspects were, if anything, crucial to the Buddhist teachings, from the very outset. This is not to say that modern Dharma Centers are the genuine way to embody those social/religious aspects of Buddhist: but it seems to me that the author is not familiar with the (more authentic) alternatives that are found in Buddhist societies throughout Asia.

    1. You are perhaps right about my lack of knowledge of the history of Buddhist monastic orders in Southeast Asia. I’m somewhat more familiar with the history of monastic Buddhism in India. The monastic system did take several hundred years to develop. So the institutional forms at the height of Buddhist power and popularity were probably quite stable and complex. The age of Nalanda and the great Buddhist centres of learning and practice were the zenith of Buddhist “religion” in India. That period lasted several hundred years before Buddhism was wiped out in India, after the first millennium.

  7. I was actually referring to the history of Buddhist in India as well. What monks did outside of the Vassa period is far from clear, and we must be extremely cautious in making strong and confident statements about what was precisely happening 25 centuries ago in South Asia. Sources are scant, and historical reconstruction is a complex matter of tentative speculation. That said, most of the Buddhist sources indicate that monks had a good level of mutual socialization, and that, most importantly, specific social interactions between lay people and ordained Sangha were encouraged. In my opinion, your reconstruction of the Buddhist past could make little sense of Suttas such as the following:

    This was said by the Blessed One, said by the Arahant, so I have heard: “Monks, brahmans & householders are very helpful to you, as they provide you with the requisites of robes, alms food, lodgings, & medical requisites for the sick. And you, monks, are very helpful to brahmans & householders, as you teach them the Dhamma admirable in the beginning, admirable in the middle, admirable in the end; as you expound the holy life both in letter & meaning, entirely complete, surpassingly pure. In this way the holy life is lived in mutual dependence, for the purpose of crossing over the flood, for making a right end to stress.”

    Householders & the homeless
    in mutual dependence
    both reach the true Dhamma:
    the unsurpassed safety from bondage.

    From householders, the homeless
    receive requisites: robes, lodgings,
    protection from inclemencies.

    While in dependence on those well-gone,
    home-loving householders
    have conviction in arahants
    of noble discernment,
    absorbed in jhana.

    Having practiced the Dhamma here
    — the path leading to good destinations —
    delighting in the deva world,
    they rejoice, enjoying sensual pleasures.

  8. P.S.: this means, I am in agreement with some of Jayarava’s remarks, although I do not share his view on myths, on the Romanticization of the history of Buddhism, on naivete, on legitimization-theory, or on the relationship between Buddhism, Brahmanism, and names.

  9. From my perspective the core teachings of the Buddha can be well explained as a Transendence psychology. I have written several books on this to explore and share this perspective for everyone’s wellbeing and happiness. If that sounds interesting I invite you to check Amazon and the titles… The Buddha’s Gift: A Life of Well Being and Wisdom and The Buddha’s Radical Psychology: Explorations.

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