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Lions Roar : November 2013
that most Americans took their religion for granted. You were born into a religion, you lived in it, and you died in it. Except for a few daring freethinkers, that’s the way it was as recently as the 1950s, and that’s still the way it is in most of the world today. It’s the way we’ve related to religion for thousands of years. Until now. Today, a significant and growing number of Amer- icans do not identify themselves as members of any religion. According to a Pew Research Report, 20 percent of Americans— one-fifth of the adult population—describe themselves as reli- giously unaffiliated. That’s up from 15 percent just five years ago, and the percentage goes higher the younger you are—up to 72 percent for Generation Y. There are many different reasons why people become disen- chanted with organized religion—the litany is long and depress- ing—but most continue to yearn for something more than a life of materialism, for something that gives deeper meaning and happiness, for something they describe as “spiritual.” About a third of the religiously unaffiliated describe themselves as atheists. But the rest—some thirty million Americans—main- tain some type of spiritual belief and practice, even though they no longer feel at home in a church, synagogue, or mosque. These are the famous “spiritual but not religious,” philosophi- cally the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S. Generally, they’re educated, liberal, and open-minded, with a deep sense of connection to the Earth and a belief that there’s more to life than what appears on the surface. Perhaps this describes you. Perhaps, as a reader of the Shamb- hala Sun, you’re one of the many people who has discovered that Buddhism has a lot to offer your life and spiritual practice, with- out some of the downsides of institutionalized religion. To put it another way: Is Buddhism the religion for people who don’t like religion? Buddhism is unique among the world’s major world religions. (In a few pages we’ll debate whether Buddhism is in fact a reli- gion, but for now let’s assume it is.) Buddhism is the one world religion that has no God. It is the nontheistic religion. That changes everything. Yes, like other religions Buddhism describes a nonmaterial, spiritual reality (perhaps the realer reality) and addresses what happens after we die. But at the same time, it is down-to-earth and practical: it is about us, our minds, and our suffering. It’s about being fully and deeply human, and it has something to offer everyone: Buddhists of course; but also the spiritual but not religious, members of other religions, and even those who don’t think they’re spiritual at all. Because who doesn’t know the value of being present and aware? First, a couple of cautions. Like other religions, Buddhism is practiced at different levels of subtlety, and sometimes it can be just as theistic as any other religion. Buddhism is practiced by peo- ple, so there’s good and bad. We come to Buddhism as we are, so there’s definitely going to be ego involved. That’s no problem—it’s the working basis of the path. The key is where we go from there. Also, much of what I’m saying about Buddhism also applies to the contemplative traditions of other religions. In fact, con- templatives of different faiths often have more in common with each other than they do with practitioners of their own religion. It comes down to how much we personify or solidify the abso- lute—whether it’s a supreme being who passes judg- ment on us or an open expanse of love and awareness. In their experience of God, Thomas Merton, Rumi, and Martin Buber had more in common with the Bud- dha (and each other) than with most practitioners of their own faith. The difference is that meditation is the very essence of Buddhism, not just the practice of a rarified elite of mys- tics. It’s fair to say that Buddhism is the most contempla- tive of the world’s major religions, which is a reflection of its basic nontheism. Buddhism is about realization and experience, not institutions or divine authority. This makes it espe- cially suited to those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious. Here are ten reasons why: MELVIN MCLEOD is editor-in-chief of the Shambhala Sun. It wasn’t so long ago SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2013 44