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Lions Roar : March 2018
No: It’s Spiritual but Not Religious by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche IF YOU SEARCH “world religions,” you’ll find “Buddhism” on every list. Does that make Buddhism a religion? Not necessarily. I can argue that Buddhism is a science of mind—a way of explor- ing how we think, feel, and act that leads us to profound truths about who we are. I can also say that Buddhism is a philosophy of life—a way to live that maximizes our chances for happiness. What Buddhism is, at this point, is out of the Buddha’s hands. His teachings passed into the hands of his followers thousands of years ago. They passed from wandering beggars to monastic insti- tutions, from the illiterate to the learned, from the esoteric East to the outspoken West. In its travels, Buddhism has been many things to many people. But what did the Buddha intend when he taught? At the start of his own spiritual quest, Siddhartha left his royal home determined to find answers to life’s most perplexing ques- tions. Are we born into the world just to suffer, grow old, and die? What’s the meaning of it all? After years of experimenting with different forms of religious practice, he abandoned his austerities and all his concepts about his spiritual journey—all the beliefs and doctrines that had led him to where he was. Then, with only an open and curious mind, he discovered what he was looking for: the great mind of enlightenment. He saw beyond all belief systems to the profound reality of the mind itself, a state of clear awareness and supreme happiness. Along with that knowledge came an understanding of how to lead a meaningful and compassionate life. For the next forty- five years, he taught how to work with the mind: how to look at it, how to free it from misunderstandings, and how to realize the greatness of its potential. Today those teachings still describe an inner journey that’s spiritual, yes, but not religious. The Buddha wasn’t a god; he wasn’t even a Buddhist. You’re not required to have more faith in the Buddha than you do in yourself. His power lies in his teachings, which show us how to work with our minds to realize our full capacity for wakefulness and happiness. These teachings can help us satisfy our search for the truth—our need to know who and what we really are. Where do we find this truth? We start by bringing an open, inquisitive, and skeptical mind to whatever we hear, read, or see that presents itself as the truth. We examine it with reason and we put it to the test in meditation and in our lives. As we gain insight into the workings of the mind, we learn how to recognize and deal with our day-to-day experiences of thoughts and emotions. We uncover inaccurate and unhelpful habits of thinking and begin to correct them. Eventually we’re able to overcome the confusion that makes it so hard to see the mind’s naturally brilliant awareness. In this sense, the Buddha’s teach- ings are a method of investigation, or a science of mind. Religion, on the other hand, often provides us with answers to life’s big questions from the start. We learn what to think and believe, and our job is to live up to that, not to question it. If we relate to the Buddha’s teachings as final answers that don’t need to be examined, then we’re practicing Buddhism as a religion. In any case, we still have to live our lives. We can’t escape having a “philosophy of life” because we’re challenged every day to choose one action over another—kindness or indifference, generosity or selfishness, patience or blame. When our decisions and actions reflect the knowledge we’ve gained by working with our minds, that’s adopting Buddhism as a way of life. As the teachings of the Buddha pass into our hands, what determines what they will be for us? It’s all in how we use them. As long as they help clear up our confusion and inspire confi- dence that we can fulfill our potential, then they’re doing the job that the Buddha intended. Siddhartha was a truth seeker, nothing more. He wasn’t look- ing for religion, as such; he wasn’t particularly interested in religion. He was searching for the truth. He was looking for a genuine path to freedom from suffering. Aren’t all of us search- ing for the same thing? If we look at the life of Siddhartha, we can see that he found the truth and freedom he was seeking only after he abandoned religious practices. Isn’t that signifi- cant? The one who became the Buddha, the Awakened One, didn’t find enlightenment through religion—he found it when he began to leave religion behind. * Yes, No, Kind-of: It’s a Big Tent by Joan Sutherland, Roshi Buddhism covers many traditions, evolving over vast stretches of time and geography and accommodating everything from a statue of Lord Buddha on a taxi dashboard to some of the most abstruse philosophical treatises ever written. The religious, the agnostic, and the completely irreligious, as well as those inclined psychologically, mystically, shamanically, or sociopo- litically, can all find a home in the very big tent of Buddhism. So is Buddhism a religion? My seat under the tent is in the Chan and Zen koan section. From this perspective, the answer is a resounding “Yes-no-kind-of,” inside of which might be one of Buddhism’s most powerful possibilities. At its etymological root, religion is what rebinds or reunites us with the sacred. Many of us long for this return from exile and then discover that it leads us toward existential danger— the deconstruction and rearrangement of our very sense of self and reality. In common usage, religion often refers to the belief LION’S ROAR | MARCH 2018 56