Category Archives: Faith

Rituals? Really?

RRlogo2-copy.gifShortly after I began writing the Buddhism section of, a reader named “Ernie” contacted me to complain about rituals, among other things. He was interested in Buddhism, he said, but he was turned off by the rituals. When I explained that the rituals have a purpose and suggested he give them a try, he angrily replied, “Buddhism, like all other religions, has its rigid robots who know everything about their religion’s ritual and nothing about its heart.”

A person who insists that a centuries-old tradition change itself to accommodate him perhaps is not one to accuse others of rigidity. He also didn’t explain why “ritual” and “heart” are mutually exclusive. Ritual can touch the heart, in fact. if you put your heart into it.

I wrote in Rethinking Religion:

Across religious traditions, ceremonies and rituals function to create a sanctified space, and those who enter that space are dedicating themselves to fulfillment of the ultimate concern of their religion, whatever that is. The space is sanctified by the participants’ own reverence and devotion, and ritual objects such as chalices, crosses, incense and candles give physical presence to that reverence and devotion. …

…I’m not saying that rituals and ritual objects have magic power. I’m saying that rituals and ceremonies, when carried out with care and attention, can have a palpable psychological impact on the participants that really can expand awareness and change perspectives.

Modernity has become very anti-ritual, for some reason. Like my correspondent “Ernie,” the very idea of participating in ritual is unacceptable to many. This may spring from a fear of loss of autonomy or individuality; to participate in group ritual is to relinquish doing one’s own thing, even for just a little while. Or, we may shrink from ritual because we think they are superstitious; we chant some words and perfume the air with incense and perhaps unseen spirits will listen to us. But there are a lot of ways to think about ritual.

Part of the reason I wrote Rethinking Religion was to open up the definition of “religion” so that it applies to traditions other than the Big Three of monotheism — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In thinking about what all traditions considered “religions” have in common, it seemed to me that the One Constant Thing is that they are all about connecting to or realizing something beyond the individual, finite self. The something might be God, although not necessarily. The practice might involve prayer and worship, although not necessarily. And, yes, the discipline or practice probably is framed by doctrine that cannot be verified objectively but which might be personally verified in one way or another. But merely believing in the doctrine is not the point. Religion is also something that we do, and how we live and experience ourselves and our lives.

Rituals are also about making something visible or tangible that is invisible or intangible. A wedding ceremony is a tangible expression of a couple’s love and commitment, for example. Rituals can help us express and share joy and sorrow, grief and hope, in a nonverbal way. Mindfully practiced, a ritual can bring the teachings of a religious tradition “into the body,” as we say in Zen, making the religion something more than some ideas or beliefs we carry around in our heads. The physical activity of ritual brings the religious tradition into your body and life in subtle, subconscious ways.

Rituals are not necessarily religious. I was thinking about ritual after attending the recent funeral of my brother, a retired U.S. Army officer, complete with an honor guard and three-volley salute. To me, this part of the ritual spoke of continuity — that my brother was part of a tradition that extended into the past and will continue into the future. There are rituals expressing patriotism and loyalty to sports teams. Again, rituals are a way to make tangible one’s connection to something larger than oneself.

Alice_par_John_Tenniel_04In modern times much of Christianity de-ritualized worship services. In some Protestant denominations little is expected of the congregants other than to sing the hymns, hear the sermon, and occasionally  bow their heads. I saw a video of communion inside one of the big Christian megachurches and found the entire spectacle annoying, from the congregants who received the bread and grape juice on trays and consumed them as if they were party hors d’œuvres to the schmaltzy organ music that oozed over the proceedings like pancake syrup. The minister’s wife talked nonstop through a microphone, reassuring the congregants that by receiving communion they would also receive God’s blessings and various other benefits.

But the congregants just sat there. There was no expression of devotion or commitment to their religion’s ultimate concerns. There was no mindful expression of the mystery of life and death or (important to Christians) the sacrifice of Christ. It was a transaction; drink the magic potion and become one of God’s Chosen People.

At Patheos, a student of religion at Boston University named Connor Wood wrote of the importance of ritual to religion. His use of the word index is puzzling to me, but I think he’s using index in the sense of measure or indicator. He argues that while words are purely symbolic, indexes are inseparable from the thing indicated. And rituals are indexes. Modern internet culture, however, is purely symbolic and disembodied, and people of that culture are more than ever baffled by the idea of ritual.

Remember that indexes are efficient; simply showing up for temple each week conveys much more information than words realistically could. But words are also rational. Logical arguments require language, not actions. And so our culture, which highly values logic, elevates reasoning and language over bodily habits, a preference rooted in historical Protestant emphasis on Scripture over rituals. Rationalism trumps efficiency.

This Protestant anti-ritual attitude is staggeringly amplified in Internet culture, the most de-ritualized social space in history. We can’t see each other; others can’t see us. There’s no way for social conventions that involve the whole body to take root. And so the way we communicate online is almost purely abstract and discursive, and thus extremely symbolic.

Religion divorced from the body becomes something entirely abstract and symbolic, and the symbolism itself is increasingly detached from anything but ideas. Like “Ernie,” who felt attracted to Buddhism but was outraged at the idea of practicing it,  we forget the simple truth that religion is about experience, in particular our experience of living and dying. It is about trust in things we may not understand intellectually. It is about dropping away the hard shell of self and becoming vulnerable — to God, or enlightenment, or whatever your tradition calls its ultimate concern.

When religion becomes just about ideas or beliefs, is it still religion? How may intellectual theory cause us to transcend the self? Where is the commitment, the sacrifice, in mere loyalty to belief? Indeed, what seems to happen more often than not is that religion becomes fused with ego and becomes just an attribute of the self. Through ritual, religion becomes fully embodied, and we learn how to experience it, not just how to think about it.

Buddhas and Buddhas

In the last few posts I’ve been looking at Master Dogen’s Vow. Please note that a dharma master could probably write about this text for weeks. I’m just beginning to look at it myself. But I’m happy that several of you have found this text inspiring. So here’s a little more of it:

The Chan Master Lung-ya said:

“Those unenlightened in past lives will now be enlightened.
In this life, take care of the body, the fruit of many lives.
Before Buddhas were enlightened, they were the same as we.
Enlightened people of today are exactly the same as the ancients.”

(Note: “Chan Master Lung-ya” is Lung-ya Chii-tun, an important patriarch of Soto Zen who lived from about 835  to about 920 CE. Among Zennies he is associated with the famous question “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?”)

The Chan Master is trying to encourage us. “Take care of the body, the fruit of many lives” reminds us that while past actions have caused a lot of obstacles, past actions also have given us this body with which to practice.

And here’s the end:

This is the exact transmission of a verified Buddha, so quietly explore the far-reaching effects of these causes and conditions.
Repenting in this way, one never fails to receive help, deep and unending, from all Buddhas and Ancestors.
Revealing before Buddha one’s lack of faith and failure to practice  dissolves the root of these unwholesome actions.
This is the pure and simple manifestation of true practice,  of the true mind and body of faith.

This part may be a little jarring to those who are quite certain Buddhism — especially Zen — is not a religion. Because this part of the text sounds awfully religious.

When I first began to practice Zen, a lot of people were making a big deal about “self power” versus “other power” in Buddhism. Zen, they declared (with some chest-thumping) is about self-power. Other schools of Buddhism, such as Pure Land, are more devotional and rely on other power. But here we have the great Dogen himself talking about receiving help from Buddhas and Ancestors.

First, after all these years, I no longer think the self-power/other-power dichotomy really means anything. Although practice takes personal commitment and effort, you’re never really practicing by yourself. (How is that even possible? Where is the autonomous self that practices?)

We may begin through devotion to Amitabha, or faith in the Lotus Sutra, or trust in our own practice. But after awhile the self-and-other power thing all blurs together.

Those of you who are familiar with the Lotus Sutra may recognize some of that sutra’s influence here. Somewhere in the Lotus it says that only a Buddha together with a Buddha can fathom the great reality of all existence. Dogen — and 0ther Mahayana teachers — said that ordinary people do not turn into Buddhas. Rather, enlightenment is possible because Buddha-nature is already present. This is the exact transmission of a verified Buddha.

One of Dogen’s fascicles from Shobogenzo is called Jinshin Inga, or deep faith in cause and effect. This one’s as yet out of my depth, I fear, but the line “far-reaching effects of these causes and conditions” make me think of it. If you are feeling adventurous, there are translations of Jinshin Inga online.

Read more about the spiritual quest in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

[A version of this post was published on Buddhism September 19, 2013.]


Still looking at Master Dogen’s Vow — the last post was on the third paragraph, and now I want to go back to the second —

Past negative actions accumulate and cause the arising of many obstacles to the practice of the Way.
May all Buddhas and Ancestors who have realized the Way extend their compassion and free us from these karmic effects, allowing us to practice without hindrance. May they share with us their boundless compassion, and fill the universe with the virtue of their enlightened teaching.

The last post reflected on Dogen‘s understanding of past, present and future, and of Buddhas and Ancestors. The important point is that these things are not really separate from us and from our present moment. So when we call upon the Buddhas and Ancestors for help, we are not trying to dredge some Holy Other Beings out of a deep abyss of time. They are already here.

I want to say something about “past negative actions.” This is a big sticking spot for a lot of us, I’m sure. We may bounce from blaming others, or blaming “bad luck,” to beating ourselves up over boneheaded things we’ve done.  Neither extreme is helpful.

While fully acknowledging past negative actions, we can do so with compassion and forgiveness toward ourselves. We are imperfect; we have limitations. In this way, the old, negative stuff can drop away.

Just a quick note about atonement — which seems fitting, since we’ve just passed Yom Kippur — the word atonement in general usage means “reparation,” but at etymology dictionary tells me it originally meant “the condition of being at one with others.”  Literally, at-one-ment. So, as we reflect, take time to consider how both denial and guilt separate us from others. Seek at-one-ment.

Read more about the spiritual quest in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

[A version of this post was published on Buddhism September 18, 2013.]

Master Dogen’s Vow

Master Dogen’s Vow is part of the common chanting liturgy of Japanese Soto Zen.  Dogen is the 13th century master who brought Soto Zen to Japan, and in Soto Zen he’s a  big deal.  But you might enjoy the vow also, even if you aren’t into Soto Zen. This is just the first verse:

From this life throughout countless lives,
we vow with all beings to hear the true Dharma.
Hearing it, no doubt arises, nor is faith lacking.
Meeting and maintaining it, we renounce worldly affairs,
and together with all beings and the great earth
realize the Buddha Way.

I’d like to unpack this just a little. Reading this, you might think this vow is way beyond where your practice is right now. Maybe you have lots of doubts. Maybe you’re nowhere close to renouncing worldly affairs. But here is another way to look at it.

As a young monk Dogen was driven by a particular question. His teachers told him that all beings possess Buddha Nature. If so, he wondered, why is it necessary to practice? His resolution to this question is central to his teachings.

We usually think of practice and enlightenment as a  linear process — we practice for awhile, and then maybe we “get enlightened.” However, Kazuaki Tanahashi writes that Dogen also saw this process as circular —

For him, each moment of practice encompasses enlightenment, and each moment of enlightenment encompasses practice. In other words, practice and enlightenment–process and goal-are inseparable. The circle of practice is complete even at the beginning. This circle of practice-enlightenment is renewed moment after moment. . . . In this view you don’t journey toward enlightenment, but you let enlightenment unfold.

So faith — in the sense of trust or confidence — is already present. Enlightenment is already present. You don’t have to “get” it;  just let it unfold. The vow is an expression of what already is, even if we aren’t aware of it.

Read more about the spiritual quest in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

[A version of this post was published on Buddhism September 12, 2013.]

Religion and Science: Four Perspectives

The 14th Dalai Lama is said to have said, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” I agree with the quote, but I also think it’s not that revolutionary. Buddhism has made a lot of adjustments to science in the past couple of centuries without being traumatized about it.

I very often run into news stories and articles that frame “religion” as a monolithic thing that is intractably opposed to “science,” another monolithic thing. But the truth is that most of religion is not at war with science (which is not so monolithic, but that’s another rant). Consider evolution, which “religion” is said to disbelieve. Catholicism never issued a formal opposition to evolution and declared decades ago that the faithful were free to make up their own minds. Judaism is largely supportive of evolution science. The “old line” Protestant denominations of Christianity mostly either accept evolution or leave it alone.

In America, the fight against evolution is coming mostly from the extreme religious Right. Yes, conservative evangelicals mostly oppose evolution, although there are exceptions to everything. Yes, there are a lot of them, and they make a lot of noise. But they don’t represent all of Christianity, never mind all of “religion.” And outside of Abrahamism I’m not aware that evolution is an issue at all. It certainly isn’t in Buddhism.

Most of Christianity processes science in one of two ways. One is to oppose it, for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons are unrelated to religious doctrine — think climate change denialism — but are more about loyalty to the Right as a political-religious tribe. I’ve written elsewhere that this group harbors a kind of faithless faith. This faithless faith rests on the proposition that the reality of God depends on a literal interpretation of scripture. If evolution is true, for example, then God is not real. That’s why it’s a faithless faith; it’s a faith with conditions.

The other, and more common, means for the religious to process science is through a kind of compartmentalizing. Because science simply cannot measure God, or heaven, or angels, for example,  it’s not thought to be unscientific to believe in such things. This perspective assumes it is all right to read Bible stories allegorically, which is actually how they were read for most of history. Atheist folklore to the contrary, an insistence on biblical literalism is a relatively recent development.

That works for some people, although it never seems to stop the incessant arguments about whether God exists. No matter how elegantly or logically they are argued, arguments claiming to be “proof” of God always carry a whiff  of unsupported assumption and end up chasing their own tails. They are unpersuasive to anyone not already inclined to believe them, and are therefore a waste of time. Not that anyone listens to me. But if you are a God-believer, please just accept that you believe something that can’t be proved by any known means and try to come to terms with that. Thanks much.

Among Abrahamists there is also a less common way to deal with science, which is to assume that scriptures and doctrines are all imperfect attempts to explain something ineffable, and in truth God is not only beyond the measure of science but also beyond the limited ability of humans to conceptualize and describe him/her/it. This group doesn’t believe in literal angels or unseen spirits and may deny that God is a being at all, anthropomorphic or otherwise, although God still is. This is a perspective championed by Paul Tillich (1886-1965), considered to be one of the great Christian theologians of the 20th century. It’s still a kind of compartmentalization, but a looser one that creates little or no conflict with science.  This group is arguably closer to older concepts of “faith,” in which faith was less about believing things and more about trusting a God that is beyond human understanding. This perspective also is utterly incomprehensible to most activist atheists, who simply can’t get around that word “God” and not think “sky fairy.”

I’ve been speaking about the people engaged in these three ways of understanding religion and science as if they were three distinct groups, but it’s probably more of a continuum of understanding, with the extremely and rigidly literal on one end and the extremely and loosely not-literal on the other. Most American Christians and Jews fall somewhere between those two poles, and the poles will probably continue to shift.

There’s a weird belief among many American atheists that Abrahamic religion has always been rigidly literal, and those who are not are “cherry pickers” or “hypocrites,” but again, the bulk of theological and historical scholarship says literalism crept in with modernity, not the other way around. And, anyway, religion has always been a kind of ongoing, collaborative creative effort, albeit usually a conservative one, that really does change over time. For example, God as described in the older parts of the Old Testament really is a very different guy from the one described in the newer parts. Just over the past couple of centuries there have been a number of new developments in American Christianity, from Unitarianism to fundamentalism. So, in fact, understanding of doctrine is not so rigidly fixed as in a slow state of flux.

Buddhists are in a slightly different, and slightly more interesting, place. Buddhism did go through a period of doctrinal upheaval about three centuries ago, as science made hash of a lot of old assumptions about the cosmos. But for the most part Buddhism was able to reconcile itself to a more allegorical interpretation of many scriptures and doctrines without going to war about it. This is not to say there aren’t teachers out there explaining the Six Realms, for example, as real physical places, but they are a minority.

Buddhists don’t have to spin their wheels over the existence of a creator God. For the most part we don’t need to believe in a bunch of supernatural things to be assured the Buddha’s teachings are true. The Buddha’s teachings are mostly about ourselves and our lives, and we can verify them through our own practice and experience. Believing things is not that important in Buddhism.

On the other hand, some of the metaphysical theories in support of doctrine and practice might someday be revised by science. For example, the Buddha proposed the skandhas as a way to explain the biological organism that experiences itself as “I.” I’d love to see a neuroscientist who practices Buddhism review the skandhas and propose revisions to make them more accessible to modern thinkers. Seems to me it’s not so important to memorize that recognition is samjna and biases are samskara as it is to appreciate how the body, brain and nervous system work together to create the illusory experience of a self.  Reading about neuroscience actually helped me understand Yogacara philosophy, which utterly mystified me for a long time.

This is where I suspect His Holiness the Dalai Lama was going when he said “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” He engages in dialog with scientists often, mostly in relation to “mind science” and the nature of consciousness and theoretical physics. He seems keenly interested in reconciling the “support” theories with scientific thought, and he appears to have great faith that science will support the Buddha’s teaching. As  long as science doesn’t discover a soul, it may very well do that.

Read more about religion and science in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World


Submission or Surrender?

(Following up the last post) I want to say a little more about the new book by Zen teacher Barry Magid, Nothing Is Hidden: The Psychology of Zen Koans. This book is not primarily about teacher scandals, but there’s a lot in it that speaks to why they happen.

Available at Amazon!

The chapter on surrender versus submission shows the issue from the students’ perspective.  The koan discussed in this chapter is Tung-shan’s Cold and Heat from the Blue Cliff Record. Very basically, it’s about things we try to avoid. A monk asked Master Tung-shan (Tozan in Japan) how to avoid cold and heat. Master Tung-shan said, “Let the cold kill you. Let the heat kill you.” This is metaphorical killing; the death of discriminating mind that is averse to discomfort — surrendering to cold and heat. There’s a lot more to it, but let’s leave it at that for this discussion.

If you do a keyword internet search for “Buddhism surrender” you get a lot of articles and quotes about the importance of surrender. We surrender our egos to wisdom; we surrender our lives to dharma. As part of that, many of us enter into a formal practice in a particular tradition, with other students, and with a teacher.

So here we are, in some kind of institution participating in long-established practices with other people. We choose to submit to this, even the parts that are boring or make our legs hurt. Our reasons and motivations may differ, but usually we submit to this in the beginning because our lives are bleeped up and we want to make them better. We may also have deep and inexpressible spiritual yearnings for something else that “normal” life doesn’t seem to offer us.

So we submit to a path of practice. What seems to happen next, in some sanghas, is that people sink deeper and deeper into submission. If the teacher is exploitative, students wall up the parts of themselves that are uncomfortable with it. They get caught up in the role of good little soldier dharma students and laugh about the woman who complained that roshi groped her in dokusan.

Roshi may encourage this submission by telling his students that it will help them kill their egos. However, submission and surrender are not the same thing. Barry Magid, who is also a psychoanalyst, writes,

“Psychoanalyst Emanuel Ghent has suggested that the longing for liberation inherent in genuine surrender lies behind the maladaptive compromises involved in submission and masochism. He went so far as to call masochism a ‘perversion’ of surrender, a way in which our longing for genuine release at the deepest level is hijacked by submission to another person’s will.”

Drawing upon Ghent’s work, Barry Magid lists the characteristics that distinguish surrender from submission. I’m not going to go through the whole list in this post, but I want to mention the first couple of items.

First, although the process of spiritual surrender may be guided by another, spiritual surrender is not to another.

Second, surrender is not voluntary. Submission is something you choose to do, but spiritual surrender happens when conditions are ripe for it. This reminds me of the Buddhist understanding of renunciation. In Buddhism, renunciation happens naturally when we thoroughly perceive how our grasping and clinging is causing our difficulties. It’s an act of liberation, not self-denial.

I want to emphasize that the solution to the pitfall of masochistic submission is not to avoid teachers and dharma centers. That’s just another avoidance, another kind of clinging, and it’s not going to help you surrender. And I sincerely believe the majority of teachers and dharma centers in the West are not exploiters. But there is a difference between what is nourishing and what isn’t, spiritually speaking, and it’s good to be able to tell one from another.

[This post originally appeared on Buddhism on October 2,2013.]

Religion Doesn’t Need Miracles

I recently read an online discussion of the intersection of science and religion. The discussion very quickly turned to talk of miracles and proposed that religion and science would be reconciled when science either acknowledges miracles or somehow verifies the connection between miracles and some divine agent.

In which case, science and religion will never be reconciled. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

One of the things that I’ve realized through Zen is that our conceptual division of  “natural” and “supernatural” is based largely on a failure to appreciate the truth of the “natural.” We take the natural world for granted and call it mundane, and we look for shiny, sparkly whoo-dee-doo out-of-this-mundane-world stuff to confirm our hope that the ordinary, common world isn’t all there is.

But some parts of science are telling us the world we see around us isn’t all there is, and indeed, the world we see around us isn’t even around us. It’s a fabrication of our brains and nervous systems. What’s really “around us,” or the stuff from which this temporary confluence of mind-and-matter fabricates the world, is to us a mystery. And the temporary confluence of mind-and-matter we call “I” also is a mystery. We assume we know what it is, but we don’t.

Science, particularly in such areas as theoretical physics and neuroscience, is gradually putting together a picture of reality that tells us everything we think we know about it is wrong. The Buddha said the same thing.

Thich Nhat Hanh said, “The true miracle is not walking on water or walking in air, but simply walking on this earth.” People interpret that to mean something like “don’t forget to stop and smell the roses,” but that’s not what I see. When you begin to appreciate the truth of reality and the truth of our existence, you see he means that literally.

This so-called “mundane” world is a bleeping five-alarm wonder. Looking for miracles “out there” is like sitting at a table at Maxim’s with a plate of gourmet food in front of us, wishing we had something to eat. And appreciating the wondrous nature of our existence does not require the mundane world to behave in ways that are scientifically inexplicable.

Soyen Shaku Roshi, who as far as I know what the first Zen teacher to set foot in North America, carried on a productive correspondence with some Christian critics of Buddhism. This is from a latter he wrote to Dr. John Barrows in 1896:

I have not as yet been able to see that mankind can be benefited by believing that Jesus Christ performed miracles. I do not deny the miracles nor do I believe them; I only claim that they are irrelevant. The beauty and the truth of many of Christ’s sayings fascinate me, but truth does not become clearer by being pronounced by a man who works miracles.

This is a very Zen perspective. As a Zen student I don’t interpret was the Roshi said to mean that what Jesus said was just philosophy, or just intellectual or conceptual. He’s saying that the truth of reality — the amazing, brain-bending truth — is not proved or disproved or otherwise revealed by what we call miracles. Miracles are, literally, irrelevant, whether they happen or not.

Buy the Book at Amazon

It’s certainly true that early Buddhists enshrined the Buddha’s memory in stories of his supernatural exploits, but that was a common thing to do in the ancient world. No powerful person did anything important without tales of the event being embroidered with miraculous signs and wonders. As I wrote in Rethinking Religion, in ancient times “truth” was about meaning, not facts. Accounts of important people and events often were dressed up with fantastical details that expressed how people felt about, or understood the significance of, this important thing. Equating truth with what is factual is something that happened gradually, beginning about the 15th century or so in western culture.

And now much of religion is stuck in conceptual cul-de-sac that mixes up mythos and logos and demands literal signs and wonders that science can measure. This is ass-backward, people. I sincerely believe that even the monotheistic religions don’t need miracles to be valid.

This is not to say that Buddhism and science don’t butt heads over some things, especially in the area of materialism. But I don’t necessarily think science and religion have to see things the same way, especially since the two disciplines are operating within different parameters. There are places Buddhism goes that science does not, and vice versa. In all these years as a Zen student, however, I’ve never been asked to believe anything I knew contradicted science, and I honestly don’t see why that would ever happen. It just isn’t necessary.

My Heresy on Spiritual but Not Religious

“Spiritual but not religious” has become a new orthodoxy. In some circles one cannot say anything positive about “religion,” even in a generic way, without being informed one is behind the times.  Religion = bad. Spiritual = good.  Religion is divisive and dogmatic and corrupt. It is riddled with sexual predators and scam artists. It is interested only in its own power. Spirituality, on the other hand, is all about free thinking, self-affirmation and happy folks tripping down the path of love and light.

Yeah, whatever. I’m spiritual and religious. Sue me.

I’m also an old lady who has been around the block a few times. And I have seen many things. I agree that affiliation with an established “church” is no guarantee of quality or even decency. But neither is non affiliation. Religious history is full of charismatic freelance “gurus” who turned out to be sexual predators and scam artists.

I’m thinking of people like James Arthur Ray, who charged up to $10,000 to attend his “spiritual warrior” retreats, and who was convicted of negligent homicide after three attendees died in one of his sweat lodges. Native Americans criticized Ray because he’d had no training or experience whatsoever in sweat lodge traditions and didn’t know what he was doing. Did I mention he charged up to $10,000 per person?

So there are no guarantees. Religion, organized or not,  is a wide-open field for many kinds of predators and scam artists, because unlike with other kinds of scams there is rarely objective proof that the product doesn’t work; that the medicine in the bottle is snake oil.  With charm and the right sales pitch you can string your marks along indefinitely, assuming you don’t get them killed.

That said, I partly agree with “retreat leader” Bruce Davis, who says,

It is the human need for meaning, intimacy, joy that is driving many to leave institutions with too much theology and too little care and devotion. When religion is more about correct thinking and less about love and understanding, people feel something missing. When religion is more about judging others and less about humility and the path of looking inward, it loses the spirit of what church is suppose to be about.

Yes. However, then Davis gushes on about the bliss of “spirituality,” and please forgive me if I’m not sold on that, either. I’ve been closely observing unaffiliated countercultural “spirituality” since the 1960s. Whether you call it New Age or Body-Mind-Spirit or something else, it seems to always devolve into one of three things.

One, what I call “spiritual tourism,” or the practice of treating religion as a tasting bar. Spiritual tourists dabble in many traditions and enjoy a variety of spiritual adventures, but they never stick to one tradition long enough to get more than a superficial impression or experience anything genuinely transformative. But at least spiritual tourism usually is harmless, if you can afford it.

Second is the DIY Mystic, who doesn’t need a teacher and doesn’t need a congregation; he can find the Great Ineffable Whatever all by himself, thank you. “Enlightenment” then becomes just a projection of his own ego, or his own craziness, or probably both.

And finally you’ve got the sort of person who would actually spend as much as $10,000 to spend time with a freelance guru whose only discernible talent is self-promotion. The delusion that there must be someone out there who could sell you the magic bean that will give you whatever you imagine you are missing is very common, and it’s also the reason why “religion” and “scam” so often travel in the same circles. But in that regard “spirituality” really isn’t any better.

Buy the Book at Amazon

I argue in Rethinking Religion that religion and spirituality need each other.  Religion stripped of all mysticism and spiritus is empty. It becomes a stupid, supernatural ideology perpetuated more out of tribal loyalty than devotion, and religious institution become exercises in maintaining authority for authority’s sake. But DIY spirituality/mysticism seems to nearly always devolve, at best, into an ego-driven but directionless quest to feel better about oneself. Too often it’s more palliative than curative. 

Spirituality and religion need each other. It’s the spiritual element that liberates us from the conventional and makes possible some sense of union with the Great Ineffable Whatever. Religious tradition challenges the supremacy of the ego, gives the quest some direction and puts traffic cones around the potholes.

However,  I do think it’s mostly up to religious institutions to make themselves alive and relevant and return to their mystical roots. Otherwise people will continue to float away in pursuit of something else.

What Is Faith?

Here is something about faith from a Buddhist perspective. The first chapter in the book How to Raise an Ox by Francis Dojun Cook is titled “The Importance of Faith,” and it begins, “Practice is not possible without faith.” Dojun Cook continued,

“Prior to the experiential realization of the truth of the Buddha’s teachings, one must proceed with practice in the faith that the teachings are true and that through practice we will realize our Buddha nature. Without this faith, there is no support for the practice, and if there is doubt or lack of assurance, one will either not begin practice or will not continue it through one’s inevitable difficulties.”

Having faith the teachings are true is not the same thing as “believing in” doctrines. This is an important point. Buddhism proposes that the way we understand and perceive ourselves and our lives is an illusion, and that through practice we can realize this for ourselves and thereby break the chains that bind us to dukkha. So, in this sense, the faith is more a matter of trust than of belief.

Buy My Book at Amazon

Dojun Cook writes that when students of the dharma “begin to verify the teachings of Buddha in their own experience, faith is superseded by direct knowledge.” This is in contrast to other spiritual traditions, in which “the tenets of their belief are not experientially validated in the same way as the doctrines of Buddhism.”

Even though Buddhist faith is not about belief, I think sometimes it requires a suspension of disbelief. Sometimes people make up their minds too quickly about what’s possible, or about what’s “natural” and what isn’t. Trusting the teachings means it’s okay to not understand them right away, and to remain open to “not knowing” without forcing it all to make sense. When we insist on stuffing the dharma into our existing cognitive database, we strip it of its power to teach us.