Religiosity in Buddhism (Part 1 of 2).

Uposatha Teaching, Last Quarter Moon, December 29

One common tendency of Western Buddhism is that we pick and choose: “I think meditation is useful, but I don’t believe in karma. I like the Buddha and all, but I don’t know why we need to bow at him all the time. I’ll wait ’til I’m enlightened, then I’ll worry about virtue. I practice in the real world, not on a cushion. Right Speech is, like, so dualistic, man.” We can call this Checklist Buddhism. At the beginning of Buddhist practice, many years ago, I admittedly started by drawing up just such a checklist, a long list, on paper! For more on Checklist Buddhism see my essay, “Picky Eaters in the Land of the Fork.”

A particular kind of checklist defines what has been called “Secular Buddhism,” “Buddhism without the religion part,” or “Non-Devotional Buddhism,” often with the implicit or explicit assumption that Buddhism has been somehow tainted by devotional and ritual practices that make it look appallingly like (other) religions, and sometimes, further, that this is somehow a corruption or the Buddha’s original pure intention. In fact, I know of no convincing evidence that the Buddha promoted anything like a Secular Buddhism, nor that there has ever been such a thing until recent Western times. I want to make the point here, having long since thrown away my own rather naïve checklist, that such a thing would not, in fact, be a rational adaptation of Buddhism.

Religiosity. I think what the proponents of secular Buddhism are getting at is a rejection of what I will call religiosity. In terms of religiosity Buddhism does indeed not stand all too far apart from most other religions. The fact is, religiosity seems to be a universal, found throughout the world. Scholars of comparative religion have probably looked at this in detail, but here are the recurring features I observe in almost all religions:

  • Ritual and Ceremony. These are conventionalized actions and activities.
  • Ritual spaces. Certain places and spatial relations are made significant through ritual or placement at an elevation or naturally central location.
  • Ritual artifacts. A central or prominent altar is common. Sometimes clothing is an indicator of social role in religious activities. Incense, candles, flowers and images are common.
  • Respect, Devotion and Worship. Certain rituals and gestures are used to express degrees of reverence or respect, either to designated people, to ritual artifacts, to abstractions or to otherworldly beings.
  • Scripture. Texts convey the basic doctrine or mythology of the religion and often go back to the founding of the religion.
  • Tradition. Many of the rituals, artifacts, scripture and so on are archaic, that is, bespeak of an ancient time to give a sense of embeddedness in a long tradition.
  • Chanting. Typically this is a group activity and involves reciting scripture.
  • Community, and Group Identity. There is a sense of belonging to a community, often assuming a certain role in a community dynamics and interrelatedness, much like belonging to a family.
  • Common world view or conviction. This is faith in a certain set of doctrines, creeds or values.

Notice that, although I group them under “religiosity,” most of these features are not limited to religion. For instance, table manners and proper arrangements of cutlery and plates and glasses in a proper table setting exhibit a large number of these features. Sports events also involve ritual, ritual spaces, worship, chanting, group identity, and often a sense of tradition. Government functions and places of government exhibit every one of these features, by my count. Armies exhibit most. Even Academia exhibits a lot of these features. And no traditional school of Buddhism I am aware of fails to exhibit any one of them.

In terms of function, religiosity seems to cultivate certain positive states of mind, to define a realm of significance outside one’s own body, to relate oneself to a large community, and people find safety, and comfort in that, and lose their own identity in favor of something other. It also secures social harmony within the religious community (outside can sometimes be problematic). This embeddedness in something greater than ourselves is almost anathema to the individualistic Westerner when he realizes what he is doing. Religiosity can, however, induce strong wholesome feelings of security, stability and calm.

The secularist might find some valid objections to parts of religiosity, however none of them apply across the board. Religiosity clearly involves features of universal meaning and appeal. The contentedly religious person has no more obligation to explain or rationalize participation in them than the secularist has to explain or rationalize why he jumps up and down when excited or rolls his eyes when frustrated, even though all of these are very interesting questions. What appear as objective acts and artifacts in religiosity are in fact a reflection of something deep in the subjective human psyche.

But let me play devil’s advocate for a couple of paragraphs. A feature I left out in the list above, which is fairly common in religiosity, is the attribution of special efficacy to the ritual aspects of this list, particularly powers of healing or control over natural phenomena, or magic. This is sometimes even among the most basic functions or expectations of religiosity. The secularist or rationalist might indeed have a basis not only for challenging this efficacy, where it is asserted, but also for arguing further that belief in it actually causes harm by creating false expectations. On the other hand certain healing powers, in any case, can be accounted for in a modern understanding of the relationship of mental health and physical health, taken together with the sense of safety and calm that religiosity tends to induce.

More generally, since a particular system of religiosity most often also includes some doctrinal assumptions, the secularist has a basis for challenging, for that particular case, the veracity of those assumptions. However, the contentedly religious person needs simply to point out that it is not the function of religion to do good science, and she would be right. Mythology has a remarkable capacity for fulfilling religious functions, and even non-religious functions. Besides, hardly any area of human interest does science wellscience does not always do science wellso why should religion? The desperately religious person, on the other hand, is likely to argue back, ill-advisedly, in favor of the veracity of doctrinal assumptions, which would be a lucky break for the secularist intent on debate. I discuss the question of religious truth in more detail in “Buddhism with Beliefs.

Religiosity in Buddhism. Buddhism is a flower. The problem with Checklist Buddhism is that a flower is an organic whole, a system of interrelated inter-functioning parts that is much greater than the sum of the individual parts. Each part has a function and, regardless of whether or not you recognize at first what that function is, the whole flower would die if it were missing just one major part. To complete the metaphor, here is how Buddhism would map onto the major parts of the flower:

  • The blossom of the flower is Nibbāna.
  • The stem that supports the blossom is the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path, the basis of Buddhist practice and understanding.
  • The leaves and roots that collect nourishment of sun, water and soil in order for the flower to thrive, constitute religiosity.
  • The sun, water and soil that nourish the flower are the Triple Gem, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

Now, here is the same thing in more detail:

Blossom. This is the highest attainment of human character, liberation from suffering, perfect wisdom, virtue, enlightenment, awakening, all those good things.

Stem. This is the most uniquely Buddhist part. The Buddha drew on many elements of the religiosity of his day and combined this with a astonishingly sophisticated, surprisingly modern, understanding of the human psychology and the human condition, to craft the training defined in the Nobel Eightfold Path, what someone has called a technology of enlightenment, that systematically moves the practitioner toward the perfection of human character in its aspects of serenity, virtue and wisdom, toward what the Buddha himself attained. The stem is made of three strands, which are Paññā, Sīla, Samādhi, that is, the training in wisdom, the training in virtue and the training in meditation, each of which bundles two or three smaller strands to give the eight folds. All the strands work together and, when taken up with conviction, energy and a sense of urgency, guarantee growth. There is nothing like this in its practicality and sophistication in almost any other religious tradition.

An easy way to identify religiosity as a separate level in Buddhism is to ask, What aspects of Buddhism cannot be categorized easily under one of the folds of the Noble Eightfold Path? I used to wonder myself why many aspects of Buddhism did not fit into the Eightfolds. The answer seems to be a set very close to what I described above as the universal of religiosity. From the perspective of the stem, religiosity is a kind of launch pad, a preliminary stage that brings confidence and other qualities of mind together in preparation for the ascent up the Noble Eightfold Path.

Leaves and roots. This is the religiosity of Buddhism, ritual, devotion and conviction, entangled in a community context. In its particular case it includes placing the hands together as a gesture of respect, circumambulating burial mounds, prostrating to images of the Buddha, sometimes to mythical figures and to adapts (roughly monastics and trained lay teachers), recitation and often memorization of ancient texts, confidence in the efficacy of Buddhist practice, that is, the stem of the Noble Eightfold Path and in those that have progressed far, commitment to codes of ethical conduct, a community life driven by generosity and close and repeated association with adepts.

The stuff of religiosity was amply present in the Buddha’s India, he as a teacher had only to tap into that energy and shape it a bit to support the program of training he advocated to progress toward Nibbāna. His teachings do not dwell exhaustively on religiosity, but he was at points very critical of some of the excesses of the religiosity he found around him and at others very interested in slanting in a healthier direction. He pruned and staked where he saw fit. Here are some hallmarks of the Buddha’s take on religiosity.

  • Admirable friendship (kalyanamittatā). Hang with persons consummate in virtue, in generosity or in wisdom, or in all three, if you can find them. The following dialog expresses the critical importance the Buddha attached to this:

As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”

“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, he can be expected to develop & pursue the Noble Eightfold Path. – SN 45.2.

The Buddha originally required of monastics that they be in daily contact with laypeople as a means of securing a reserve of admirable friends for the laity, and asked that they be, “worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect.”

  • Respect. The Buddha advocated respect for parents, teachers, the elderly and monastics, even monastics of other traditions, expressed through the range of ritual gestures of respect. One way he enforced this in the case of monastics is to stipulate in the discipline that monastics not teach in the presence of someone who is acting disrespectfully. Within the monastic community the Buddha completely eliminated the prevailing caste system in terms of a hierarchy of respect based entirely, and somewhat arbitrarily, on ordination date. The importance of respect is not only in opening oneself to the influence of admirable friends, but also in the wholesome mental factors that arise in the very exercise of respect.
  • Generosity (dāna). This is the fundamental social value in the Buddha’s thought and is almost everywhere the lifeblood of the Buddhist community. This is partially enforced in the discipline by taking monastics entirely out of the exchange economy, leaving them vulnerable and unable to live in the absence of the freely offered generosity of others, but free to practice generosity themselves in their deeds and words. Generosity on this basis becomes pervasive throughout the Buddhist community, which becomes a kind of economy of gifts, this in contrast to the brahmanical tradition of paying for the enactment of rituals.
  • Discouragement of magic and special powers. It is however significant that the Buddha downplayed the magic or efficacious side of religiosity, while by no means abandoning it. The magic tends to creep back at least a bit in probably every Buddhist tradition, to surprising degrees in some, occasionally triggering revisionist movements, for instance, that led in Thailand in the Twentieth Century by Ven. Buddhadāsa, to restore the rational basis Buddhism. In general the Buddha did not want monastics to predict the future, exhibit extraordinary powers, heal the sick. While not denying that such powers exist (every indication in the scriptures is that he believed they did), he put them outside the Buddhist life and considered their cultivation a distraction from the real practice.

It is important to note that much of religious ritual involves enactments that lend themselves in the West to paranormal interpretation, but in Buddhist are merely enactments for their symbolic value. In the West we tend to look for objective interpretations, whereas the value of virtually everything in Buddhism is found in the subjective world. For instance, food offerings to a representation of a Buddha, or in some schools to mythical bodhisattvas, are very common, but there is generally no understanding in Buddhism that someone is actually accepting the offering and eating the food; it is play, but play that does make a difference in the practitioner’s state of mind. We do the same when we put flowers on the grave of a dear departed.

  • Confidence and investigation. The Buddha reached an advanced understanding, a level of insight and knowledge that he knew would be very difficult for others to achieve. As a teacher he had to consider the process whereby others can reach that understanding, and recognized that it requires a combination of confidence (saddhā) in the teacher and teachings, and direct experience of what these are pointing out. Faith is necessary to open oneself completely to a network of direct understandings, unblemished by competing notions one is likely to have accrued. But confidence, for the Buddha, was useless in itself, unless it is backed up by personal investigation. Confidence is a natural product of religiosity, prior to thorough investigation, ready to be put to use in the Noble Eightfold Path. It is significant the Buddha was very parsimonious in his teachings, giving nothing as an object of conviction or investigation that did not have a function in the Path.

Nourishment. Conviction is the part of religiosity that allow the roots and leaves to absorb the nourishment of the sun, water and soil. Conviction focuses on the Triple Gem of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. These nourish our entire practice, and in fact the beginning of Buddhist practice is generally considered to be refuge in the Triple Gem.

  • The sun is the Buddha. Conviction in the Enlightenment inspires our deeper practice. The Buddha stands an an example to emulate, an admiral friend, alive in accounts of his life and in the Dharma-Vinaya, his teachings.
  • Water is the Dharma. The teachings of the truth that the Buddha directly experienced and the instructions for perfecting the human character constitute the water that flows into every aspect of our Buddhist life and practice, into the roots and leaves and up into the stem, to inform us what to embrace and what to reject on our way to Nibbāna.
  • Soil is the Sangha. This is the contemporary community of adepts, whose task it is to understand and develop personally along the path, and to accurately interpret and convey and embody the teachings, thus serving as admirable friends to the Buddhist community. The Sangha is alternately identified with the visible monastic community (bhikkhusangha), or with the Noble Ones (ariyasangha), more difficult to identify but individually more precisely qualified in having reached a certain minimal level of attainment on the Path. They are the soil that transports the water and ensures that the entire practice, roots, leaves, stem and blossom, will not blow away in years to come.

In short, the stem and blossom of the Buddhist flower nourish the roots and leaves, and the roots and leaves nourish the stem and blossom. The Buddha presupposed a culture of religiosity, but adjusted it in many ways. In particular, ritual, scripture, devotion, world view and the rest all point actually toward the higher practice represented by the stem and blossom, not to some kind of external agent or force. This is probably also uncommon in world religiosity.

To be continued. Thus ends the first part in this two part series on Religiosity in Buddhism. Next week we will look at some examples of how religiosity works together with the other parts of Buddhism for optimal results and a variety of scenarios for establishing conviction and where that takes our practice, and thereby will gain hopefully an increasingly practical appreciation of the importance of religiosity in Buddhism.

I would like to invite readers to raise questions about religiosity, particularly from a secularist viewpoint. This is a blog, after all, albeit a very civilized blog. I realize that many are attracted to Buddhism precisely because they perceive it as lacking religiosity, even while others are attracted to it precisely because of its rich religiosity. I do not want religiosity to be a stumbling block or deal breaker that inhibits anyone from higher attainment. I am probably aware of the range of viewpoints on this and can anticipate issues that can be raised, from indoctrination of children to opiates and inter-religious violence and am completely willing to discuss these.

Part Two

3 Responses to “Religiosity in Buddhism (Part 1 of 2).”

  1. Mike Says:

    Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu! Thank you Bhante, excellent counter-point to the prevailing secularist trend in Anglo-American circles.


  2. Adrien Says:

    Dear Bhante,

    Thank you very much for this article, indeed a counterpoint to some western Buddhism currents, especially within Theravada (because Mahayanist are more likely to be attracted by the religiosity part instead).

    The religiosity factor has actually been very important in my choice to leave Mahayana and embrace a kind of simplified Theravada (S.N. Goenka-style, to be more explicit). Having a Western culture and scientific background, I naturally tend towards “secular” Buddhism. But through practice, I do understand more and more about the importance of Saddha, and of a structured Bhikkhu community. The coherence and interrelatedness of the teachings are also increasingly clear. So my point is that you may not need to accept the “package” all at once, it can probably come gradually as well. Actually, one may wonder if religiosity with insufficient practice in the first place is not riskier than the opposite.

    I fully acknowledge that the monastic order is the best way forward for the individual and the society as a whole, but I believe it has to be implemented slowly and gradually in places where it does not exist yet. Don’t get me wrong, I find what you are doing in the US remarkable, in that you truly are the “head of the comet”. But there is probably room as well for an “in-between” Buddhism, for people who are coming from a very different background than the one where Buddhism originated, and who need a kind of neutral space, open to other ways of thinking, in order to eventually evolve towards a more comprehensive engagement and develop Samma Saddha (faith based on personal experience). In the tradition I am following, introductory courses are usually very general and neutral, while more advanced courses tend to go deeper within theoretical aspects, which could probably put off people with little theoretical – and most importantly – practical experience of Dhamma. Unfortunately, even with such a progressive approach, you can find quite a few people who apply the “checklist” filter to it ! Westerners are indeed not very keen on letting go of their right to think “freely” ;).

    By the way, I read somewhere that during the early days of the Buddhist Sangha, monks were less systematically organised than nowadays (for example they would wander alone on the roads during the dry season). I would appreciate any comment you may have on this statement, I have always wondered about that.

    Anyways, thanks for your inspiring Uposatha talks, highly appreciated !

    Much Metta,


  3. bhikkhucintita Says:

    Thanks, Mike and Adrien. I like the phrase “counterpoint to secularism” to describe what I am trying to convey. I certainly do not intend to squash secularism with the force of brilliant and irrefutable argument. In fact secularism has its own internal logic that works as far as it goes. Many people start with a secular model, of Buddhism I started with a secular model. As Adrien points out people do start with one perspective and it takes time to develop a broader view of something as large as Buddhism. People should take their time, and critical thinking is something that serves Buddhism well in the end. So my point is to point to a broader perspective. My main concern with secularism is that people not get stuck there and stop asking the important remaining questions.

    About the organization of the monastic sangha, Adrien: The Buddha’s original ideal seems to have been that of the wandering mendicant, enjoying solitude but having daily contact with laity for mutual benefit. For certain functions, like ordinations, monastics would have to gather together, but governance was very simple and democratic; monastics made decisions by consensus. There was little hierarchy. There are many monks in Asia who still live according to these principles. Challenges to this simple model began to emerge already in the Buddha’s life. For one thing there got to be too many monastics, and for another wealthy donors offered large plots of land and even buildings to support large groups of monastics. Eventually huge monasteries developed, such as monastic universities like Nalanda. In China people did not like wandering mendicants for cultural reasons, and monastics were forced to organize themselves to be more self-sustaining. At different points in history governments have become involved in reorganizing the monastic sangha. This happened in Thailand in the 19th Century, when King Mongkut (of “The King and I” fame), a former monk who worried that monastic discipline had become lax, set up a hierarchy much like the Catholic church. But I think the Buddha’s original ideal is still widely embraced if not always realized.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: