Category Archives: Spirituality

Finding Your Spiritual Path

In truth, finding your spiritual path is simple.  Just look down and see where your feet are. There’s your path.

The cartoon cliché about finding a guru on the top of a mountain and asking for the meaning of life is just that — a cartoon cliché. The genuine spiritual path has no geographical boundaries. There is no wisdom hidden in some far corner of the earth that isn’t already within you. The answers you seek can’t be put into words.

So, what do you do? If the path is everywhere, how do you direct yourself? If wisdom is within you, how do you access it? If answers can’t be expressed in words, how will you understand them?

The Buddhist answer is: Practice. Through practice, we expand our capacity to perceive and understand.

What Do We Mean by “Practice”?

Among Buddhists, “practice” usually refers to a particular discipline, usually engaged in daily, that engages body and mind. The purpose of this is not to stuff new facts in our heads, or re-arrange our mental furniture to accommodate a new belief system.

The purpose is to engage our natural but under-used capacities to understand and perceive in different ways.

Daily meditation is a common practice, but there are also focused chanting practices and ritual practices. The forms these take vary from school to school.

Read More: What Does It Mean to Practice Buddhism?

So there you are, interested in Buddhism and maybe wanting to give it a try. How do you get started?

This seems to happen all kinds of ways. Some of us are drawn into Buddhism because we want to learn to meditate. Some of us are introduced to a chanting practice by a friend. Thanks to modern technology, instructions for both can be found on the Web.

Getting Started in Meditation

Each of the meditating schools of Buddhism has a somewhat different approach to meditation, but Lesson One is nearly always focusing on the breath. If you can breathe, you can meditate.

Sit comfortably erect in a quiet place; the ideal is to be upright and keep your muscles relaxed at the same time. If you aren’t sure what to do with your legs on a meditation pillow, it’s all right to sit in a chair. In most schools you will be told to not close your eyes, but to simply rest your gaze on the floor.

Now, breath normally and focus all of your attention on the sensation of breathing. Feel air going into your nose and down to your lungs, and out again. As thoughts come up to hijack your attention, acknowledge the thought and let it go. Then go back to breath focus.

Some people find it helpful to count breaths from one to ten, then going back to one. If you try this, what often happens is that you’ll realize you’ve gotten to 47 and were lost in thoughts about the utility bill. Acknowledge the thought, let it go, and then go back to one.

Do this for five to ten minutes a day to start. Set a timer so you don’t have to keep checking your watch.

If you do this faithfully every day, you will find that your ability to stay focused becomes stronger. At some point, however, to deepen the practice you’ll need to choose a particular form of Buddhist meditation. Usually there is a kind of progression of practice, in which you leave breath counting behind and go on to more challenging or expanding exercises.

The meditating Buddhist schools you are most likely to find in the West are Theravada (which teaches insight or Vipassana meditation); Zen; and several of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Continue reading

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.

The Limits of Language

I understand psychologists are studying languages to understand how the languages we speak shape our perception of reality. This Psychology Today article provides a basic if probably superficial explanation.

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Having spent the past several years soaking my head in ancient Asian religion, this hypothesis about language makes perfect sense to me. Languages, I realize, are built on culturally based assumptions about how the phenomena of the world are to be classified and thereby understood. Understanding what an ancient text is saying requires having some appreciation of the cultural assumptions of the author. Otherwise, you can miss the point being made by several thousand miles.

The Sanskrit word nirvana is an example of this. Very literally, it means “to extinguish,” in the way one extinguishes a flame. No end of westerners reading that have said, ah HA! Those crazy Buddhists are trying to obliterate themselves!

But, according to Buddhist scholars, the ancient people of the Buddha’s time assumed that the elements — air, fire, water, earth — were present everywhere and only manifested in recognizable form under certain conditions. Fire manifests as flame, they thought, when it is trapped by fuel and becomes hot and agitated. When it is released from fuel it changes into a cool, subtle, and usually undetectable state. Understanding that’s how the people of the Buddha’s time understood things changes the metaphorical meaning of nirvana considerably.

The way we experience the world is based partly on our physiology, especially our senses, and partly on how we interpret and conceptualize things. And that last part is something culture trains us to do. I use the phrase conceptual box quite a bit. It’s possible I coined it; I’m not sure. It refers to how the way we conceptualize things can limit our understanding. If we have a rigidly fixed idea of what a certain thing is — whether, say, religion, music, or chili — and we run into an example of that thing that doesn’t fit our assumptions, most people react in one of two ways. They either deny the new thing really is what it says it is, or else they distort the thing to make it fit into the conceptual box.

There is an obvious third option, of course, which is to change the shape of the box, but few people think to do that.

For example, how many of you are familiar with Cincinnati chili? It’s great stuff; many years ago I lived in Cincinnati and was addicted to it. The basic dish is a plate of spaghetti with a kind of thin sauce that’s closer to Mexican mole sauce than standard chili sauce, topped with shredded cheddar-ish cheese. That’s the three-way. As I remember it (it’s been a few years) if you order a four-way you get chopped raw onions with the cheese, and if you order a five-way you get the onions plus beans. If you want the beans but not the onions, order a “three-way beans.”

So for a while when living in Cincinnati I had a co-worker from somewhere else who could not deal with the chili. It literally messed with her head. If we went out for lunch to a chili parlor she was not only indignant over the assault on her linguistic sensibilities (“this is not chili!“), she would demand the sauce with beans —  but none of the rest of it —  be served to her in a bowl, because that’s what chili was supposed to be. And she would eat this with a puckered frown and wrinkled nose while the rest of us enjoyed our five-ways and hoped the eventual heartburn wouldn’t be too terrible. This is one kind of conceptual box.

Another example, which I discuss in Rethinking Religion, is that in the west we’ve developed fixed conceptual boxes that define religion and philosophy, and these work perfectly well for Christianity and the other monotheisms and for western philosophy. But many Asian religious/philosophical traditions don’t fit into either box. No gods or god worship? It must be a philosophy. Oh, but it’s mystical? Then it’s a religion. But it can’t be a religion, because there are no gods or god worship. Hmmm.

The standard strategy for dealing with Buddhism is to declare it’s a philosophy, not a religion, while slicing off the mystical and religion-y parts so that it fits into the philosophy box. Westerners rationalize this by declaring the religion-y stuff is somehow not original Buddhism, but something added later. Historical evidence doesn’t entirely support that theory, sorry. Certainly Buddhist practices have changed over the years, but it seems there were always religion-y parts to it.

The point is, though, that you can find long and passionate arguments about whether Buddhism is or is not a religion, and the parameters of the arguments are fixed by 21st century western concepts that don’t apply to Buddhism. And most of the time, no matter how patiently one tries to explain this, the arguers cannot see the problem. They’ve been conditioned to interpret and classify reality in a way that conforms to modern English, and that conditioning determines the limits of what they can understand. They literally cannot think “outside the box.”

Language, then, is a reflection of how the people who speak it conceptualize their world, and in turn conceptualization is shaped by language. It’s kind of a self-reinforcing system that’s very hard to break out of.

Buddhism is a process of experiencing and realizing without resorting to concepts. This is an even bigger challenge than breaking out of the linguistic box, and it takes most people years of mental cultivation to “accomplish” this. Note that the word accomplish isn’t exactly right, but it’s as close as I can get. And this highlights the problem of explaining dharma at all — the words don’t fit, because the concepts don’t apply.

So how do you explain it? Most of the time, you can’t. You can take people only up to a point, but they’ve got to go the rest of the way by themselves. You can give people definitions, metaphors, analogies, and hope that some of it strikes a chord, somewhere. But that which is realized through the mental cultivation is genuinely ineffable, because it’s something outside all of our conceptual boxes, and language simply can’t reach it.

This is something the Buddha himself realized. It’s said that after his enlightenment he debated with himself whether to teach at all, because he knew there was no way to explain what he had come to realize. Instead, he devised a means for people to realize it for themselves. That was the best he could do.

And even today, in the Zen tradition (and probably others) , people are warned not to go about blabbing about a kensho or opening experience to the general public. This is for several reasons, but a big reason is that as soon as your words hit their ears they’ll shove everything you say into their standard conceptual boxes, and it will all be misunderstood.  And this has nothing to do with general intelligence. Sometimes very bright people get very huffy when they express some concept about dharma that’s way off the mark, and you say no, that’s not it, and then they feel insulted and demand that you explain it.

But, sometimes, it can’t be explained. As soon as you try to render it into language it gets sorted into subjects and objects and verbs that connote things that have nothing to do with what you’d like to say, but it’s as close as language gets.

So a lot of the process is training the mind to stop clinging to concepts. This is done in various ways. The infamous koans of Rinzai Zen, for example, are intended to break the habit of conceptualization by frustrating our standard linear, logical thought patterns. Students present their understanding of the koan to the teacher in a formal interview that ends as soon as the teacher rings a bell. I’ve been told that if a student ever began a presentation with “I think the koan means … ” the bell rings, because the student is about to launch into an intellectual interpretation. Just concepts.

Of course, my favorite moments are when someone in a discussion forum demands an explanation of some doctrine, and you preface your explanation with “this is very difficult and often takes people years of meditation and study before they appreciate what the doctrine is pointing to, but it’s something like …” but that’s never enough, and they want to be CONVINCED. Right now. In 25 words or less.

It doesn’t work that way.

See also Ryutan Blows Out the Candle.

Have Some Fries With the McJesus

Victoria Osteen, co-pastor with her husband Joel of the massive Lakewood Church of Houston, is catching flack for something she recently said that was posted on YouTube. Here’s the juicy bit:

When we obey God, we’re not doing it for God…we’re doing it for ourself. Because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. Do good ’cause God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God, really. You’re doing it for yourself because that’s what makes God happy.

And here is the video:

And boy howdy, have we ever come a long way from Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Other Christians were shocked at Mrs. Pastor Olsteen’s words. An op-ed in the Christian Post slammed Victoria Osteen and Her Joy-Robbing Brand of Cheap Christianity, for example. And this is from the Houston Chronicle:

At Christian News Network the sermon was labelled indicative of a “me-centered” church.

“She honestly believes that God exists to make us happy rather than holy,” Pastor Steve Camp told the network, “She honestly believes that worship is about our fulfillment rather than His glory. That’s the bottom issue here.”

Note that I do not endorse the positions of the Christian Post or the Christian News Network, either. But American public religiosity has long been a content-free celebration of Me Me Me.

The late Susan Sontag said that religion American style is  “more the idea of religion than religion itself.”

True, when, during George Bush’s run for president in 2000, a journalist was inspired to ask the candidate to name his “favourite philosopher,” the well-received answer — one that would make a candidate for high office from any centrist party here in any European country a laughing stock — was “Jesus Christ.” But, of course, Bush didn’t mean, and was not understood to mean, that, if elected, his administration would actually feel bound by any of the precepts or social programs expounded by Jesus….

… This modern, relatively contentless idea of religion, constructed along the lines of consumerist choice, is the basis of American conformism, self-righteousness, and moralism … .   [Susan Sontag’s acceptance speech for the Friedenspreis peace prize, Frankfurt, Germany, October 12, 2003]

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For many, it is enough to declare oneself Christian, and one is Right With God. No sacrifice is required, no personal struggle or self-examination, none of that dark night of the soul stuff. Just say the name Jesus and all the rewards of tribal membership and smug self-righteousness shall be thine.

Of course, through most of the history of Christianity that’s not how it worked. This is one of the reasons I wrote a book about religion.

I wrote in Rethinking Religion that the megachurches appear to have turned Christ into McJesus — God rendered into a consumer product designed to validate, affirm and gratify ME.  This is what they’ve been selling for a long time. Mrs. Pastor Olsteen is just being honest about it.

This column from the Houston Chronicle is a few years old, written by a Unitarian Universalist minister who visited Lakewood Church:

So, imagine 10,000 people (at least) standing for almost an hour dancing and singing, hands in the air, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, with loud pop music playing (including a very strong bass beat that literally shakes your insides). Three big screens project the performers and the lyrics to the songs, which are simple and repetitive. No, this wasn’t the Jimmy Buffett concert at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion last week (I went to that too), but it might as well have been…I’ve never left a church service before with temporary hearing loss…Lakewood was LOUDER than Jimmy Buffett.

Many of my readers know that I was a professor of educational psychology prior to switching careers to ministry. I have a PhD in educational psychology, am a member in good standing of the American Psychological Association, and teach a seminary course on psychology and religion. From a psychological point of view, worship at Lakewood is basically intentional desensitization, stimulating natural endorphins and dopamine in the brain with extended physical activity and emotional stimulation.

I looked up desensitization, and in the psychological sense, when intentional, it is a treatment approach in clinical psychology used to treat trauma, fears and phobias. I’m not sure how this works, but the point is to make the patient less emotionally sensitive to stimuli. But what are the Lakewood congregants being desensitized to? Life? Themselves? Each other?

This desensitizing went on for nearly an hour, followed by the  offering (of course), then prayers, then the sermon. The UU minister, the Rev. Matt Tittle, wondered how long the emotional fix lasted.

I wrote in Rethinking Religion,

Yes, it’s exhilarating to be part of a group having a big, rowdy, cathartic experience, That’s why people like to watch big sporting events like the Super Bowl in groups, because if your team wins — wow. How much fun is that, right? Watching the same game by yourself just isn’t the same experience.

At their peak, such experiences can give you a temporary sense of being liberated from yourself, as some part of your identity forgets itself amid the collective excitement. I’ve been talking about experience or perception beyond the limits of the self, and intense group experiences where everyone gets emotionally high together can give you a fleeting taste of that.

However, a church with rousing services may generate the high every time and attract a huge following, but without also allowing for personal reflection, contemplation and questioning, it’s feeding the congregation spiritual junk food. You might be better off sticking to being a sports fan.

I don’t want to slam the Olsteens too much, though, because at least they don’t seem to have gone the hateful way of Franklin Graham. And does anyone remember Ted Haggard? It could be worse.

Killing the Spiritual but Not Religious Buddha

Sam Harris is coming out with a new book called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, as if the world needs another “spiritual but not religious” book. I did a search in Amazon books for “spiritual but not religious” and easily got more than 2000 results.

As I complained awhile back (“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.

Brilliant as ever, in the New York Times, Frank Bruni congratulates Harris for recognizing a growing trend —

Harris’s book, which will be published by Simon and Schuster in early September, caught my eye because it’s so entirely of this moment, so keenly in touch with the growing number of Americans who are willing to say that they do not find the succor they crave, or a truth that makes sense to them, in organized religion.

Next up: Bruni discovers Crocs!

I devote most of a chapter in Rethinking Religion to why I think the trend of separating religion and spirituality, while understandable, is a bad idea. Of course, spirituality is ever a vaguely defined thing, and often what is really meant is closer to one definition of mysticism. From Rethinking Religion:

…a mystical experience in this sense is one that is neither sensory nor conceptual. It is not dependent on seeing visions or hearing voices. It is not generated by reason or intellect. Through this experience, one may feel an intimate connection of existence beyond self, or realize something about the nature of reality not perceived before.

The spiritual-but-not-religious crowd calls these spiritual experiences, but it’s the same thing. Prominent atheist Sam Harris (author, neuroscientist, co-founder of Project Reason) has written quite a bit about spiritual experience, such as —

There is no question that people have “spiritual” experiences (I use words like “spiritual” and “mystical” in scare quotes, because they come to us trailing a long tail of metaphysical debris). Every culture has produced people who have gone off into caves for months or years and discovered that certain deliberate uses of attention—introspection, meditation, prayer—can radically transform a person’s moment to moment perception of the world.

— although Harris is determined to not connect these experiences to religion in any way, because of the “metaphysical debris.” People might erroneously think they’re having an experience of God or Brahman or some such, which is atheistically incorrect. Of course, God or Brahman can be understood in many different ways, to be discussed in the next chapter.

There is no question that religious doctrines provide a context in which people make sense of mystical experience. A few days ago I wrote a post about disturbing meditation experiences, which often seem to happen when people have intense mystical (as I’m defining it) experiences with no context or guidance.

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It may be that once practice-realization has ripened all the contexts drop away, like dropping the raft once on the other shore. But that has to happen in its own time. If you’re still living in a fog of concepts and projections you need some context.

In some religious traditions mystical experiences are interpreted to support and confirm doctrine. In others, however, doctrine plays a supporting or guiding role for mystical experience.  Sometimes doctrines are not to be “believed in” but are understood to be provisional explanations of the great ineffable thing one may realize directly through mystical experience. And sometimes gods, angels, dharmapalas and bodhisattvas are understood to be metaphors or archetypes rather than sky fairies.

Sam Harris will have none of that metaphysical debris, however. Frank Bruni asked him about this.

“You can have spiritual experience and understand the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s secular and universal and not freighted with dogma,” he said when we spoke on the telephone last week.

In short, Sam Harris demands of the cosmos that it not bother him with anything that rocks his chosen worldview, and that’s his doctrinal context.

Some years ago Harris wrote an essay called “Killing the Buddha” in which he wrote,

The ninth-century Buddhist master Lin Chi is supposed to have said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Like much of Zen teaching, this seems too cute by half, but it makes a valuable point: to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught. In considering what Buddhism can offer the world in the twenty-first century, I propose that we take Lin Chi’s admonishment rather seriously. As students of the Buddha, we should dispense with Buddhism.

One suspects old Lin Chi (Linji Yixuan, d. 866) would have given Harris several smacks in the head for this. In Zen, “killing the Buddha” means to let go of all concepts and preconceived ideas about Buddha — including the idea that Buddha is a separate thing that could be “met” — because such expectations get in the way of realizing Buddha. Harris is not killing the Buddha; he is merely replacing a version of Buddha he doesn’t like with one he does.

I’m sure many would argue that Harris’s self-imposed doctrinal parameters are at least rational, as opposed to belief in imaginary spirits. But in the context of mysticism they are both fabricated interfaces imposed on a reality beyond the limits of concepts and intellect, impediments to the grace of not knowing, and I don’t know that one is any more or less opaque than the other.

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.

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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.

Taking the Path of Woo: Jesus in Tibet?

Recently an intelligent and thoughtful person of my acquaintance posted on Facebook about some new and exciting connection between science and spirituality. I followed the link to this wondrous new thing, and it took me to a page about … Edgar Cayce?

You young folks may not have heard of him, but many people — usually the same people who took chain letters seriously —  still believed in Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) when I was a young ‘un. Cayce was, basically, an upscale circus sideshow act. His shtick was to go into trances where he issued predictions for the future . Be advised that someday the earth’s poles will shift to somewhere along the equator. And 1933 will be a great year for the economy! Oh, wait …

I take it Cayce is making something of a comeback in New Age circles. Or perhaps he never really left. So much of what he went on about, such as the healing properties of crystals, out-of-body experiences, channeling knowledge from the dead and legends about the Lost Continent of Atlantis was the stuff 1960s and 1970s-era New Age was made of.

It can be argued that maybe crystals do have healing properties, and maybe someday we’ll find the remains of the Lost Continent of Atlantis. OK. But what would that have to do with spirituality? A grab bag of random beliefs is not a path, or a process, no matter how much those beliefs tickle our imagination.

Beliefs about mysterious happenings, ancient and recent, are shiny, sparkly things that are hard to ignore. I don’t know why that’s true. In Rethinking Religion I wrote a chapter called “True Believers and Mass Movements” that discusses why people cling so tightly to beliefs, including ridiculous ones, and can’t be talked out of them.

Our brains are wired to look for connections and meaning, and so we see connections and meaning whether they are there or not. Our experiences are framed by our personal, mythical (and usually self-flattering) narratives, not data. We feel emotions and impulses, generated in the subconscious, that we cannot explain, so we make up stories to explain them. We create our stories from our biases, however, not from objective fact, and that’s how we interpret the world. And we all do this, religious or not.

But why some fantastical stories are more shiny and sparkly than others, I can’t say.

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One of the most persistent shiny, sparkly stories that people take seriously is that Jesus studied Buddhism in Tibet, or maybe China, or maybe India, during the years of his youth that were not recorded in the Bible. Possible?

James Ford discusses the origins of the Jesus-in-Tibet story on his blog, Monkey Mind. In the late 19th century a book titled The Life of Saint Issa was claimed to have been found in a monastery in Tibet. The book was about the life of Jesus — Saint Issa — and claimed that from the ages of 13 to 29 Jesus had gone off to India to study religions. He studied with the Jains and with the Hindus, but apparently he wasn’t satisfied until he found the Buddhists, and he spent his last six years before returning home learning the Pali Canon. And for many reasons that James Ford presents on his blog, the book clearly is a work of fiction.

Over the years I’ve run into a lot of people who fervently believe that Jesus studied Buddhism. The standard arguments for this claim are (a) Jesus taught things he could only have learned from Buddhism; and (b) some variation of the Life of Saint Issa story — somebody found a book or a scroll or an engraving in some temple or monastery, usually in Tibet or India, that proved Jesus had been there. A third argument that pops up occasionally is that some of Jesus’ parables were taken from older Buddhist sutras.

None of these claims holds water. In order:

First, if we assume Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels accurately reflect what he taught — and if they don’t, I don’t know what else might — there’s nothing in there that he only could have gotten from Buddhism. As James Ford (Unitarian Universalist minister, Zen priest and lineage holder, MA in religion) says,

While it would be an absolute delight for me to learn that Jesus studied Buddhism, the fact remains there was nothing in his teachings, as best a cool read of the normative texts give us, that wasn’t already contained within the Judaism of his day. Well, okay, that very late text John does offer a non-traditionally Jewish Jesus, but even that Jesus is easily contained with a rather more boring and obviously already there gnostic influence or reaction.

Indeed, the one incontrovertible thing you can say about Jesus is that he was a monotheist, through and through. Even a little Buddhist influence would have muted that, I think.

Second, the rumored archeological evidence of Jesus’ travels in the Much Further East can never be traced back to anything real. And as far as Tibet is concerned, Buddhism didn’t reach Tibet until the 7th century CE. Jesus would have had to wait.

One of the most inventive variations on the Jesus-in-Tibet story I ever heard was that the Three Wise Men were Tibetan monks who declared that Jesus was a reborn high lama. Not only were there no Tibetan Buddhists in Jesus’ day; the tradition of identifying the rebirths of high lamas didn’t begin until the 12th century.

Third, there are a few places in Buddhist scripture and commentary that seem to resemble something in the Gospels (such as the prodigal son story from the Lotus Sutra), but in every example I know of the Buddhist text was written at least a century or two after the life of Christ (including the Lotus Sutra).

There may have been some scriptural cross-pollination going on, but remember, the Silk Road was wide open. Merchants were traveling from the Far East to the Roman Empire all the time, and some of those routes went through places where early Christians lived.

For that matter, if Jesus had been so all-fired eager to study Buddhism, he only had to go as far as present-day Afghanistan. That was a Buddhist kingdom in his day.  But I see no reason to think he did.

Postscript: Someone once asked Edgar Cayce, who was in a trance, if a reincarnation of Jesus was influential in the development of Buddhism and other religions. The answer, which you can read yourself, was word salad.

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.

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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.