By Michelle Margaret Fajkus
“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 systems and institutions that surround this longing.” ~ Joan Sutherland
Roshi Buddhism can be, and is, practiced as a religion by many people worldwide who don robes, ring bells, burn incense as they bow, chant and meditate.
Yet, as the popularity of meditation continues to advance in mainstream culture, an ever-growing number of secular Buddhists practice mindful meditation without incorporating any of the bells and whistles (or gongs) of traditional monastic systems, such as Zen.
In light of this evolving understanding, Buddhism can be considered a living, breathing religion that promotes conscious living, for the benefit of all beings. Buddha dharma demands interactivity from its practitioners. We are prompted to doubt, question and investigate the teachings for ourselves.
In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha teaches:
“Do not accept anything on (mere) hearsay—(i.e., thinking that thus have we heard it for a long time).
Do not accept anything by mere tradition—(i.e., thinking that it has thus been handed down through many generations).
Do not accept anything on account of mere rumors—(i.e., by believing what others say without any investigation).
Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures.
Do not accept anything by mere suppositions.
Do not accept anything by mere inference.
Do not accept anything by merely considering the reasons.
Do not accept anything merely because it agrees with your preconceived notions.”
Blind faith is not an option here.
Nothing is to be taken for granted just because it has been stated by a holy or learned man. J. Krishnamurti, decidedly not a Buddhist, nor a man of any organized religion, echoes these sentiments:
“The many religions throughout the world have said that there is an enduring, everlasting truth, but the mere assertion of truth has very little significance. One has to discover it for oneself, not theoretically, intellectually, or sentimentally, but actually find out if one can live in a world that is completely truthful. We mean by religion the gathering together of all energy to investigate into something: to investigate if there is anything sacred. That is the meaning we are giving it, not the religion of belief, dogma, tradition or ritual with their hierarchical outlook. But we are using the word ‘religion’ in the sense: to gather together all energy, which will then be capable of investigating if there is a truth which is not controlled, shaped, or polluted by thought. Religion, then, takes on a meaning distinct from the mainstream definition. Religion is the movement toward personal and collective transformation, and it is not bound to any particular institution or church.”
We can redefine religion. We can take back the power of the word, and the practice.
I agree with controversial scientist and author Richard Dawkins that young children should not have a religion forced upon them. There are no Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Muslim children—there are just children—who naturally radiate pure light, love, and innocence that transcends any narrow definition of God.
My mother would be appalled to know that my daughter recognizes Buddha and Ganesh by name, but calls both Jesus Christ and Mother Mary, “Buddha.”
My daughter has never been to Mass. I would prefer that she not go until she is a teenager, or at least 10 years old. Maybe then she will not be disturbed or scarred by the macabre imagery of the gaunt, dying Jesus on the cross or the somber, esoteric words of the priest, like I was as a young girl.
Like all major religions, Buddhism offers an ultimate reality, whether it is labeled as nirvana, satori, or Buddha nature. The key difference is that each of us has the innate potential to awaken and become a Buddha.
All schools and sects of Buddhism offer a clear path to the attainment of ultimate reality. From the noble eightfold path in Theravada Buddhism, to the bodhisattva path of Mahayana, practitioners are provided with a framework of daily life practices and meditation techniques.
Buddhists who approach or attain the experience of ultimate reality become transformed by these experiences.
Our ethics and behaviors change organically as we become more conscious, present, kind and compassionate. The modern classic, Mindfulness in Plain English, identifies Buddhism as a whole to be “quite different from the theological religions with which Westerners are most familiar. It is a direct entrance to a spiritual or divine realm, without assistance from deities or other ‘agents.’ Its flavor is intensely clinical, much more akin to what we might call psychology than what we usually call religion.”
While it is notably distinct from most other major religions in terms of deity and dogma, Buddhism is a religion, in the newly defined sense of the word—the movement toward transformation. At the start of his spiritual quest, Prince Siddhartha left his sheltered life seeking answers to life’s big questions.
Are we born just to suffer, grow old, and die? What’s the point?
After years of experimenting with a wide array of ascetic religious practices, he abandoned all beliefs and doctrines and finally understood the workings of the mind in a state of clear awareness and sublime bliss under the Bodhi tree. From then on, during the four decades until his death, the Buddha taught what he had learned through so many years of trial and error.
The Awakened One discovered the ultimate truth of authentic religion when he let go of organized religion, and Buddhist practitioners, both secular and religious, continue to follow his wise path to this day. Isn’t it wonderful that this path can be approached from a secular route or a more traditionally “religious” one?
Perhaps the spiritual versus religious divide a false dichotomy? What isn’t spiritual? What isn’t sacred? I am most grateful for Buddha’s reminders having infiltrated my daily life: presence, compassion, kindness, equanimity. T
hese virtues are the basis of all religion, whether we label our spiritual practice as such or not.
Michelle Margaret Fajkus is the founder of Yoga Freedom and co-creator of EnlightenEd. She is a 30-something gringa Gemini in Guatemala where she lives with her life partner, daughter and black cat. Michelle learned hatha yoga from a book at age 12 and found Buddha in California at 23. Read her books, or come down for a retreat! Connect with Michelle on Google+ or Facebook.
Editor: Peter Schaller