Tag Archives: What Is Religion?

The Christian Conceptual Box

One of the challenges in explaining Buddhism to people amounts to breaking through the Abrahamist — and mostly Christian, in the U.S. —  conceptual box into which people compulsively shove all things “religious.”

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I discussed conceptual boxes in the last post. In brief, our conceptual boxes are the mental filing system our culture and upbringing build for us, and by which we sort and classify all phenomena so that we can recognize it and know it.* This is a mostly workable system for navigating the world and probably has a lot to do with how human brains evolved to secure the survival of our species. However, the filing breaks down when confronted with something that actually doesn’t fit. What usually happens, then, is that instead of adjusting the filing system we distort the new thing so that it fits the existing system. This is one way to understand what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” but what I’m thinking of is actually a bit broader than that.

Western culture in the 21st century has arrived at fairly narrow and rigid conceptual boxes for “religion” and “philosophy,” and for the most part the “religion” box only accommodates Abrahamism.  Anything else you shove into it, whether Buddhism or Vedanta or something else, has to be rather grossly distorted to make it fit. Those who do recognize that Buddhism doesn’t fit into the “religion” box often then decide it must belong in the “philosophy” box, but it actually doesn’t fit that box either, unless you slice big chunks of it off first. Many Buddhist teachers have attempted to get around the conceptual box problem by explaining Buddhism in terms of psychology, but that’s turning into another kind of problem — see the older post “Dark Nights and Dukkha Nanas.” **

This post was touched off by some propositions written by a philosopher named Edward Feser, who has a very nice blog for those of you who are philosophy nerds. The propositions, which I found on Facebook and may be paraphrased, are how he conceptualizes objections to  religion  —

Consider first the different attitudes an atheist might take to the theoretical side of a religion. There are at least three such attitudes, which, going from the most hostile to the least hostile, could be summarized as follows:

1. Religious belief has no serious intellectual content at all. It is and always has been little more than superstition, the arguments offered in its defense have always been feeble rationalizations, and its claims are easily refuted.

2. Religious belief does have serious intellectual content, has been developed in interesting and sophisticated ways by philosophers and theologians, and was defensible given the scientific and philosophical knowledge available to previous generations. But advances in science and philosophy have now more or less decisively refuted it. Though we can respect the intelligence of an Aquinas or a Maimonides, we can no longer take their views seriously as live options.

3. Religious belief is still intellectually defensible today, but not as defensible as atheism. An intelligent and well-informed person could be persuaded by the arguments presented by the most sophisticated contemporary proponents of a religion, but the arguments of atheists are at the end of the day more plausible.

My primary issue here is that “religion” is defined primarily as “belief,” which is the chief issue with the Abrahamist box. In many other religions, not just Buddhism, doctrines are propositions to be confirmed through mystical or other practices. Merely believing them serves only a provisional purpose. In Zen, it’s best to not believe them at all, but rather let doctrines inhabit one’s body for awhile to see how they work. For that reason, intellectual arguments for or against the propositions are also beside the point, since it is understood that what is to be realized cannot be reached by intellect. So these three propositions are hopelessly stuck in an Abrahamist conceptual box.

This is not to say that Buddhists don’t argue, but the arguments can take very odd forms, from a western perspective. See, for example, and old post on a koan from the Mumonkan, “Ryutan Blows Out the Candle.” See also the story of Miaoxin and the koan about flag, wind, and mind.

A Facebook participant paraphrased  Edward Feser’s propositions this way:

  1. Theism is still intellectually defensible — but not as defensible as non-theism.
  2. Theism has no respectable intellectual content at all and obviously never had any.
  3. Theism’s prior intellectual content has been refuted by science and philosophy.

From my perspective the propositions all have an Abrahamist bias, and it could be argued it’s a modernist Abrahamist bias. I don’t call myself an atheist (although many western Buddhists do), but neither am I a theist or an agnostic. I am a nontheist, by which I mean the existence of a God or gods is irrelevant to my religion.

I wrote a long ‘chapter about the existence of God in Rethinking Religion, which boils down to “The question “Does God exist?” cannot be answered until you (a) define “God”; and (b) define “exist.”‘

Buddhism simply does not deal with a person-God or creator-God or a judge-God. Even if such a being existed, in Buddhism, he/she wouldn’t have anything to do. All of the functions of such a God have been assigned to forces or energies that are something like natural law and are not being operated by a supernatural being or intelligence. However, I can appreciate the standard Abrahamist God-concept as something like an archetype of those natural laws.

On the other hand, if you wander into Paul Tilich’s “God as ground of being” territory we might have some agreement. If we define God as something like the force or essence or ineffable something that pervades everywhere in time and space and makes existence possible, we’re looking at what Mahayana Buddhists would call the dharmakaya or Buddha-nature. That’s also one definition of the word dharma as used in Theravada Buddhism as well as Vedanta.

However, worshiping the dharmakaya is kind of pointless. We’d only be worshiping ourselves. There are also huge issues in Mahayana about making the dharmakaya a bigger deal than conventional reality, or the phenomenal manifestations that we recognize as trees, toasters, and us. One is no less, or more, important or “true” than the other. As the Heart Sutra says, form is exactly emptiness; emptiness is exactly form. There is no separation.

And that takes us into the sticky question, “What is existence?” We speak of existence and “reality” as if we all agree what these things are, and we don’t. Trust me.


*(Buddhists will recognize that this is a function of the third skandha, although our opinions or feelings about what we “know” are a function of the fourth skandha.)

**(A big reason I wrote Rethinking Religion is to redefine religion in a way that actually takes in all of the world’s major religions, not just monotheism, without distortion. This is going to be an uphill slog, but I think all religions will benefit.)

Trust and the Kalama Sutta

The Kalama Sutta may be the most quoted Buddhist scripture in the West. Even people who don’t know the Perfections from potatoes can quote the Kalama Sutta to support whatever they want to believe about Buddhism.

If the title Kalama Sutta isn’t ringing a bell for you, you might recognize this quote of the Buddha —

“Don’t blindly believe what I say. Don’t believe me because others convince you of my words. Don’t believe anything you see, read, or hear from others, whether of authority, religious teachers or texts.”

This is the Buddha speaking to a clan of people called the Kalamas. People cite the Kalama Sutta to argue that the Buddha advocated logical reasoning to arrive at the truth, or that people should decide for themselves what is true, and of course the all-time favorite — Buddhism is not a religion.

I bring this up because I have found an essay on the Kalama Sutta by Thanissaro Bhikkhu that I hope everyone reads. Let’s take a look —

The Bhikkhu writes that the many variations of the quote above that are plastered all over the Internet (and possibly also T-shirts and coffee mugs) seem to cancel out everything else the Buddha taught.

“Taken together, these quotes justify our tendency to pick what we like from the old texts and throw the rest away. No need to understand the larger context of the dhamma they teach, the Buddha seems to be saying. You’re better off rolling your own.”

The Bikkhu provides his own translation of the text, bolding some words —

“So in this case, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical deduction, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.'”

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There are several different translations of the Sutta sluicing about the Web, but Thanissaro Bhikkhu is a respected scholar and teacher of Theravada Buddhism, and I trust that he’s positioning the English as close to the original Pali as it can be positioned. And here, the Buddha plainly is warning us to put blind faith in neither external nor internal authority.

In other words, do not put blind faith in teachers or texts; and do not put blind faith in logic, or the odds, or “figuring it out.” The Bikkhu continues,

“When the Buddha says that you can’t go by logical deduction, inference, or analogies, he’s saying that you can’t always trust your sense of reason. When he says that you can’t go by agreement through pondering views (i.e., what seems to fit in with what you already believe) or by probability, he’s saying that you can’t always trust your common sense. And of course, you can’t always trust teachers, scriptures, or traditions. So where can you place your trust?”

“Where Can You Place Your Trust?” is a great dharma question. The Bikkhu answers his own question in his essay, but it’s such a good question I want to come back to it later this week. Please feel free to add your own thoughts.

[This post originally appeared on About.com Buddhism on September 3, 2012]

Ritual, Modernity and Citta

One of the arguments I make in my book Rethinking Religion is that religion is not about adopting supernatural belief systems. Instead, religion is about changing the way we experience and understand our lives and our selves, especially as part of everything else — the whole universe throughout time.

I realize western monotheists may struggle with that definition, but I think if you look beyond the specifics of doctrine and understand religion’s effects, I say that’s what it is. Those effects are achieved in many different ways, and in many religions belief in an actual God is essential to those ways. But in many other religions gods often are more like learning aids; just believing in them or praying to them isn’t the point.

In trying to come up with a definition of religion that is inclusive of the whole world’s religious traditions and not just the Big Three of monotheism, the great underlying commonality I could see was was this: Religions are about engaging in many kinds of practices that help us experience and connect to something beyond the confines of the limited self. That something may be God, but not necessarily.

It’s important to understand that this connection is not primarily intellectual or conceptual, and again, I think this is common to all religious traditions, and it also sets religion apart from philosophy, as westerners usually use the word.  Both religion and philosophy address questions of how we humans relate to life and death, time and being, but they address these questions in entirely different ways. Philosophy gives us conceptual and theoretical answers that engage the intellect. Religion primarily engages what Buddhists call citta — the mind of subjective experience, sometimes described as an awareness that is more emotive than intellectual, or something like what westerners call “heart.”

And, personally, I think the reason large parts of the Abrahamic religions are going through an identity crisis now is that they have no concept of citta.  The parts of monotheism that are not fundamentalist seem especially unsure about what it is they actually are doing, or why. They may still believe in God and have high regard for the Bible, but then what? If religion is not just about believing things, then what is it?

Many practices can engage citta, from praying to meditating to yoga and martial arts. But right now I just want to say something about ritual.

In many religious traditions there was a time that laypeople weren’t expected to know much about doctrine. Instead, religion was all about ritual. Through ritual, people reenacted and actualized the myths and symbols of their traditions and thereby came to “know” them on an intuitive level. This in turn made the myths and symbols feel relevant and the mysteries they represented seem immanent. They may not have been able to explain original sin in any coherent way, but religion still had an impact on their experiences and perceptions.

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Possibly because it has no concept of citta, much of Christianity has downplayed ritual in modern times.  If one does not believe literally in evoking spirits or whatever the ritual claims to be doing, then what is the point? Rituals are not rational. They seem to be about performing some kind of magic — we light a candle and say the magic words and everything will be better. People today often are uncomfortable with ritual.

But I found a great quote by Carl Jung —

Offerings are made to the invisible powers, formidable blessings are pronounced, and all kinds of solemn rites are performed. Everywhere and at all times there have been rites d’entrée et de sortie whose magical efficacy is denied and which are impugned as magic and superstition by rationalists incapable of psychological insight. But magic has above all a psychological effect whose importance should not be underestimated. [Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self, 1957]

Put another way: The myths and rituals of religion are meant to transform citta. They are not (necessarily) meant to evoke magic powers. They are not intended to supplant reason and intellect. Mindfully done, however, a ritual can affect citta and thereby have a real impact on how a person experiences himself and everything else. And that’s no small thing.