Post-Buddhism: No Religion

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Buddhists teachers will often say that Buddhism is not a religion. But when you enter a temple or join a sangha, what you are confronted with is something that looks and feels very much like a religion. It’s every bit as dogmatic and oppressive as any religion, plagued by rigid narrow-mindedness, fraught with power trips and control issues. My experience has been that Buddhism-as-a-religion is just awful, the worst religious experience I have ever had. Having been born and raised a Roman Catholic, that’s saying a lot. So now I practice post-Buddhism. This is something akin to post-modernism: the “post” being “what comes after” modernism. Post-Buddhism is “what comes after” Buddhism-as-a-religion. It’s something akin to Speculative Non-Buddhism, but that’s a very academic form, defined within a tightly structured philosophy. The Non-Buddhist blog covers similar territory but is geared toward the non-academic. Matthew O’Connell’s Post-Traditional Buddhism blog and “Imperfect Buddha Podcast” is another post-Buddhism, but from an experiential view as a practitioner. Stephen Batchelor’s After Buddhism (a book I highly recommend, review here ) outlines a secular—i.e. non-religious—Buddhism that is thoroughly grounded in the Pali canon. It’s my belief, based on experience and what I’ve studied in the suttas, that the Buddha (whoever he was) never meant to start another religion. In fact, what Buddha came up with was a cure for religion. He devised an ethical spiritual practice that doesn’t involve gods, heavens, hells, rituals, or even beliefs of any kind, only ordinary human experience. What the Buddha’s teachings say to me is that full awakening, full human and spiritual development and great wisdom is possible within ordinary human experience. Post-Buddhism, to my mind, is really closer to what the the Buddha had in mind originally, and Batchelor’s After Buddhism confirmed that for me.  But since then his followers have turned everything the Buddha taught into a religion.

People who discovered Buddhism 2500 years ago, also discovered what I did, that Buddhism is empty. So what did they do? They made a religion out of emptiness. Tibetan and other forms of the Mahayana turned emptiness into a religion. Which completely misses the point. So now today we have Dzogchen, which is a religion of emptiness, and we have the gurus of emptiness, and lamas and teachers who write books on emptiness. Even Nargarjuna sort of didn’t get it because he tried to turn emptiness into a philosophy. And yes, he did the math and came up with the right answer {e=e ± (0)}, but even his philosophical form became solidified into the dogma of shunyata. And today we are still trying to turn emptiness into a religion, only now we do it through cosmology and quantum physics. But again, that’s not the point. The point is that Buddhism is empty, and it’s designed to be that way so that Buddhism deconstructs itself. Buddha devised a spiritual and cosmological system that self-destructs, that deconstructs itself into emptiness so that you don’t become dependent on yet another religion, another religious worldview.

Same thing with early Buddhist psychology. Philosophers of his culture thought that consciousness only arises when it comes into contact with a sensate object (eye consciousness, ear consciousness, so on), and that mind consciousness only occurs when it contacts an object of mind (e.g. a memory). All of that got solidified into “the way it is”; but of course we know now that what they were teaching were just the basics of sensate consciousness. We know now that sensate consciousness is far more complex. Later, northern Mahayanists came up with the idea that “consciousness of mind occurs even before there is an object of consciousness.” In other words, our conscious mind is operating even when it does not contact an object, either internal or external. Today of course we know this to be empirically true, because we have so much more knowledge about the brain and how consciousness works.

In the following video, Andrew Olendzki gives a lecture on basic concepts of early buddhist psychology, and simplifies it: 

But when the northern Mahayanists “discovered” that consciousness exists prior to contact, they made this into a religion. They called it “true nature of mind”. Dzogchen in particular is loaded with this idea as religious dogma. It was reified as a concept that became a religion, the “science of mind” or the “religion of the true nature of mind” or rigpa. Your whole journey through Dzogchen is supposed to be your discovery and experience of this “true nature of mind.” But it’s nothing more than ordinary consciousness, reified to the level of a religious experience.

Every time Buddhists turn a dharma concept into a religion, they totally miss the point. It’s really all very simple and mundane. Your average high school student knows these basic facts of general knowledge. Take for example, the Buddhas teaching on ’cause and effect’, “because this, that”, “when this arises, that arises; when this ceases, that ceases.” Folks, this is nothing more than everyday, run-of-the-mill ’cause and effect.’ It’s not mysticism. It’s just the most basic facts of existence. But there are communities that have turned these phrases into chants, like  turning ‘because this, that’ into a Vedic chant somehow elevates it to the level of a great mystical insight.

Same thing with “thinking” and “not thinking.” “Not thinking” means that you have so internalized the teachings that you don’t have to think about them anymore. For instance, I have been practicing the 12 Steps for so many years (25) that I rarely think about them anymore. It’s now just the way I am, the way  I live my life. I’m doing a lot more thinking about Buddhism right now because I’m still in the process of learning and internalizing these teachings. After a couple of decade of this, I won’t have to “think” about Buddhism anymore either. My ethical choices will be mostly automatic. I will have so thoroughly internalized buddhist teaching and ethics, I will “just do the right thing”, naturally, without even thinking about it. This is the idea of “non-ethics” that tantra teaches. Doing what’s right becomes a natural response, rather than something you have to struggle with. Even more so with Buddhism, because it’s a body-practice, meditating in the body of a certain posture, it becomes muscle memory. Every time you meditate, you practice “slowing down”, “not reacting”, “letting go”, all practices which are conducive to inner peace and ethical behaviour. It becomes muscle memory, something you don’t have to think about at all. But it’s not this kind of magical “not thinking” as if “thoughts defile the mind” or “thoughts defile pure consciousness” which you find in a lot of later Mahayana and tantra teachings. This is utter nonsense, and again, it’s a reification, turning these very simple ideas into a religion. And it totally misses the point. In secular Buddhism, there is no magical thinking and there is no magical “not thinking.” It’s just practicing until it becomes a natural way of life.

Shambhala hounds on “experience” as the sacred and the only way toward awakening (even while they hawk deities and magic). But it’s the experience they want you to have, not the one you are actually having. Your own experiences don’t count, only what is proffered by Shambhala. And they exclude any other kind of thought or concept that might inform your experience. But that’s reifying it to the level of a religious experience. All the teachings on experience are saying something simple: religion is based on a mind-created fiction. All religious experience begins in the mind, not in the realm of physical and phenomenal experience. It’s religion that’s “mind created”, not the physical world.

Again what is mindfulness? It’s just paying attention. Period. That’s it. It’s not magical or supernatural. It’s just paying attention. When you walk, pay attention to the fact that you are walking. When you are feeling something, a physical sensation or emotional state, just feel it. Simply pay attention to it. Simple awareness. Again, turning this into some kind of mystical experience totally misses the point. It’s not mysterious or supernatural, it’s completely ordinary. Even Zen teachings that place so much emphasis on the mystical experience of ordinary sensations are turning it into a religion. It’s nothing more than simple awareness.

Having gone through the suttas over the last couple of years, I discovered something important: there were no rituals in the practice of early Buddhism. Nowhere in the suttas does it say that the Buddha ever performed a religious ritual, or instructed his followers to do so. There are no rituals of any kind.

I’ve been saying this for years now: what the Buddha discovered was that the religious world view of his day was a sham. The religious world view did not liberate anyone, it was empirically wrong and misleading, full of bigotry and delusion, and it caused immense personal suffering, violence, war and oppression. What the Buddha devised was a way to END RELIGION. He invented a way to live an ethical and spiritual way of life WITHOUT RELIGION, without a belief in Gods or anything eternal. He devised an ethical atheism.  He devised a way to achieve inner peace, love, compassion, and social justice without resorting to supernatural beliefs, gods, heavens or hells. People keep taking what he taught and they keep turning it into a religion. And it completely misses the point.

The thing is, what the Buddha taught was so simple, and everybody makes it so goddamned complicated. Keep it simple.

Dhammapda Chant

Sabbapapassa akaranam, kusalassa upasampada, sacitta pariyodapanam etam Buddhanasasanam.

In avoiding all sins, cultivating good deeds and cleansing ones own mind alone lies the true meaning of the Dispensation of the Buddha. (Dhammapada)



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