Religiosity in Buddhism (Part 2 of 2)

Uposatha, New Moon, January 4

Last week I described religiosity as having an integral role in Buddhism, as the leaves and roots of the flower of Buddhism that thrive nurtured by the sun of Buddha, the water of Dharma and the Soil of Sangha, producing the strength to sustain the stem of Buddhist practice stretching upwards toward the blossom of Nirvana. If you are new to this discussion, please read last week’s episode here before proceeding.

This week I would like to flesh out the role of religiosity in Buddhism in quite practical terms. First, we will see, following a specific example, the development of selflessness, how it contributes to higher attainments along the Noble Eightfold Path by inclining the mind already in a beneficial direction. Second, we will see how religiosity provides the most effective entry for the individual into Buddhist practice through the generation of conviction and energy.

Working Together. Religiosity is one part of the Buddhist whole. Usually when something has multiple parts it is so that the parts can work together and performance diminishes or is lost altogether with the loss of any one part. For instance, you have two feet for walking; with one foot you could not even walk half as fast. The engine of your car has many parts. Remove a spark plug and performance will degrade noticeably, remove the fuel pump and it will fail altogether. Your washing machine is also something like that. A flower has many parts. Remove the leaves and roots and the flower would have no way to acquire nourishment, in fact I’m not sure what would hold the stem up. To understand how the various parts of Buddhism work together, let’s consider how they conspire to cultivate one quality, selflessness, or the realization of anattā, an essential attainment on the Buddhist path.

First let’s begin with nutriment, the Triple Gem, the sun, water and soil that sustains the Buddhist flower. The Buddha exemplifies selflessness in his virtue, and inspires emulation thereof, in that his attainment represents the complete relinquishment of any sense of self. The Dharma teaches the philosophical basis of anattā and how to work with it in practice. The Sangha provides living examples of anattā in that it exhibits, or follows vows that restrict, self-serving behaviors. It is also the vehicle through which the teachings of anattā, and all other Buddhist teachings, have been successfully conveyed and taught through the hundred generations of Buddhist history to the present day.

Entering the roots and leaves, that is, religiosity itself, confidence in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha opens the Buddhist to the teachings of anattā and inspires him to develop its qualities as a part of dedicated Buddhist practice destined to blossom in Nirvana.

Those who have joyous confidence in the highest, the highest fruit will be theirs. (AN 4.34)

In addition, many practices running through all religiosity, including Buddhist, are physical expressions of selflessness, including bowing, which seems to be a natural embodiment or enactment with deep roots (consider that lesser dogs make a similar gesture to express submission), and including the various expressions of respect or veneration. The degree of resistance many Westerners new to Buddhist religiosity initially have to bowing is in fact clear evidence for its capacity to confront self-centered attitudes.

When a noble disciple contemplates upon the Enlightened One, at that time his mind is not enwrapped in lust, nor in hatred, nor in delusion. … By cultivating this contemplation, many beings become purified. AN 6.25

The Buddhist community has generosity in its veins and for the member of that community the need to protect personal interests wanes. All of these things serve to weaken that entrenched sense of self. We have seen the capacity of religiosity to encourage wholesome mental factors such as kindness and tranquility. This is the beginning of qualities further developed in the Noble Eightfold Path, which will itself as a whole further develop selflessness.

Ascending the stem, we enter the Noble Eightfold Path along which the mind is tuned, honed, sharpened, tempered, straightened, turned and distilled into an instrument of Virtue, Serenity and Wisdom. The sense of self, tweaked, twisted, thinned, stretched, readjusted and spun, does not make it through to the end of the Path. This is the ultimate triumph of selflessness.

The Growth of a Buddhist. A flower, out metaphor for the entirety of Buddhism, is one kind of plant and it grows in a certain way. We can compare it to three other kinds of plants that grow differently.

The flower grows from a seed that finds itself in soil. With exposure to water and soil, roots grow into the ground, and leaves sprout above the surface and begin to absorb sun. Pretty soon the flower, thriving with confidence and energy, pushes a stem upward, ultimately to bloom.

Grass also grows from a seed that finds itself in soil. With exposure to water and soil, roots grow into the ground and blades sprout above the surface and begin to absorb sun. Pretty soon the grass thrives with confidence and energy, but produces no stem and does not bloom.

The tyke born of a devout Buddhist family will likely become either a flower or grass. In either case, his spiritual growth will begin the same way. The little seedling is brought into the presence of the Buddha, and monks and nuns and taught the forms of respect. He is exposed to the feel of a Buddhist community, and begins to absorb some Dharma. With growing conviction he becomes increasingly involved in the community life, developing merit in taking care of the temple and the monastics, in chanting vigorously, and such things. Maybe he takes refuge and begins to follow the precepts. Now, the prospect of advanced personal development in the Buddha’s way may or may not start to seem appealing as he reaches a critical decision point. If he undertakes meditation practice, study of the teachings and continues to deepen the practice of virtue, he will find himself firmly on the Path, and reaching upward toward Nibbāna. In this case he has become a flower, otherwise he will remain grass, nonetheless green and healthy.

Mistletoe grows from a seed that is deposited in a bird dropping on a branch, stem or trunk of an existing plant. It develops enough of a root to absorb water and minerals from the host plant, but sprouts leaves and even flowers. It is a parasite.

A graft is a branch or stem that is through human intervention cut from its original stock and attached to a lower part of another plant. Like mistletoe it absorbs water and minerals from the new stock, can sprout leaves, produce fruit and flower. It is a transplant.

For the chap who comes to Buddhism later in life, spiritual development is commonly, but not necessarily, like that of mistletoe or of a graft rather than like that of a flower or of grass. Typically a Buddhist-to-be begins by reading about Buddhism, inspired perhaps by a vague sense that Buddhism is a good thing, maybe having seen the Dalai Lama on T.V. and thinking that was pretty cool, or inspired by celebrity Buddhists, or Buddhism’s reputation as “peaceful,” or by reading “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse.

Now, this chap may or may not come from a previous religious tradition, possibly with a rich religiosity. The graft characterizes the first case. For instance, many who come to Buddhism have a degree of development in religiosity in the Jewish or Catholic tradition. Much of the growth of the roots and leaves has already been experienced and is, probably with mixed degrees of success, translated into Buddhist religiosity.

The chap without a strong religious background, on the other hand, once my own case, is mistletoe. I suspect secular Buddhists are are almost always such chaps. As a result little attention has been given to the roots and leaves. Now, mistletoe grows slowly and does not really thrive the way the host plant would were the mistletoe not attached (this is a guess on my part—I’m not much of a botanist—but it supports the metaphor). Yet it can potentially bloom. In the meantime it gazes down upon the grass with disdain, little comprehending the roots and soil and the spiritual growth that is happening down there. It is common for Western hubris to see little value in Asian religiosity, little realizing how mistletoe is nourished through the roots and leaves of another, just as religiosity has sustained Buddhism for all of these years so that we can be nourished by its highest teachings. It is difficult, but that is where mistletoe needs to put down roots if conviction and zip are flow freely into practice.

Most Buddhists world-wide are centered in religiosity, in the roots and leaves, not in the stem. They are aware of the stem, consider the Path upward, maybe make forays in that direction, and — this is almost uniquely significant in Buddhist religiosity — support generously the aspirations of the many who dedicate themselves completely to the path. However Buddhist religiosity alone — and this is probably true of most forms of religiosity — seems capable of achieving remarkable results. I see this in most Asian Buddhists I’ve known. I also see it in other religious traditions, which one way or another seem to produce some people of great attainment, even without a Noble Eightfold Path or anything resembling it! Admittedly there arises sometimes a dark side in religiosity; it can move toward exclusion, fundamentalism and superstition; I don’t want to discount that. But it also has a remarkable capacity for generating confidence, zip and many wholesome mental factors in its adherents, and can produce centered, composed, kind and insightful people, and do that all alone.

Conclusion.The Noble Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s own checklist for personal practice. Secular Buddhists are right when they see in this teaching something way beyond common religiosity, in fact one of the most remarkable achievements in human religious, psychological and philosophical thought.*  However that personal practice exists in a human, a communal, an historical context in which religiosity has always played an indispensable role. A good part of the Buddha’s genius is found in how he shaped that religiosity to ensure that Buddhist practice would thrive, maintain its integrity and be transmitted to future generations. We have all been its beneficiaries.  Buddhist religiosity is the ideal platform from which to develop smoothly and decisively according to the Buddha’s instructions, along the Noble Eightfold Path toward the attainment of Nirvana.

* I won’t address some of the very narrow modern checklists which seem to missing whole flagstones in the Path of individual practice.

4 Responses to “Religiosity in Buddhism (Part 2 of 2)”

  1. Christine Mauro Says:

    A few thoughts on how religiosity has played out in my practice. I guess I’m a graft. I had a strong Catholic upbringing but in my early 20’s rejected it and became a committed adherent to the religion of rationality (if it can’t be empirically falsified or verified, it’s meaningless). So maybe I’m a mistletoe.

    I sat my first vipassana retreat seven years ago this month. I’m one of those people who experienced love at first dharma talk. This was unexpected. I had thought I would have to tolerate the talks to be able to have the time for meditation. But the teachings on the Four Noble Truths resonnated so deeply and created such a confident sense of rightness that I was propelled into the enthusiastic embrace of a relatively intense practice period that has not let up.

    While my committment has never wavered, elements of the practice have. In the beginning I was pretty much your secular Buddhist. I was almost offended by people who bowed. I refused to do it and it would have been a charade if I had done so. The only one of the triple gems that I conncected with was the Dhamma. It was my refuge. But slowly over the years this has changed. I found that a small standing bow before a sit allowed for a settling and presence that felt skilful. Gradually that bow became longer and deeper. This last year I have joyfully embraced full kneeling bows – before and after each sit. It feels like a bodily manifestation of surrender. Not submission, but a beautiful release. It leads me into a mind state of bright, gentle openness, to a sense of safety and being held — all of which seems supportive of clarity and the ability to be with and allow the difficult (and beautiful) states that can arise in meditation.
    The other aspect of growing religiosity has been my relation to the Buddha. For the first five or six years of practice, the Buddha was not a refuge for me. Part of that was resistance to relying on or deifying another human being. Later it was the fact that the predominant emotion that would arise when I contemplated the Buddha was that of the implaccable judge. Nothing I could do would be good enough. But on a month long retreat last year, there was a powerful shift. Sitting outside in front of a statue of the Buddha at the Forest Refuge in Massachusetts, I was overcome with a sense of compassionate caring. It tore away layers of armouring from my heart. It allowed me to open to levels of vulnerabily that would have been difficult without accessing that experience of being unconditionally cared for. Since then, the Buddha is most definitely a refuge. This isn’t a belief that there is a Buddha somewhere that cares about Christine. I don’t need to know exactly what it is. (That’s been another develpment over the years of practice — an easing of the need to know, an allowing of mystery). I know that it helps in my ability to see with greater clarity and in my ability to let go of clinging. In my books, that makes it wholesome.
    More detail then I had intended. Enough.
    With deep care,


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Thank you so much for your very clear, moving, and insightful account of your coming out of the branches. I kept thinking things like ‘exactly!’ and ‘that’s what I should have written’ when I read it. I like your point about ‘an easing of the need to know.” This is necessary because we really don’t know what religiosity is (at least I don’t). But the wholesome properties are as clear as can be (if we just stay clear of the pitfalls that give religiosity such a bad rap), and that ‘opening to levels of vulnerability’ is a necessary part of ‘greater clarity’ and ‘letting go of clinging.’ Well said.
      Many who come to Buddhism from the Catholic faith report dealing with feelings of guilt. I am not qualified to comment on why that would be the case or how extensive that is among non-Buddhist Catholics. But maybe that is the source of your early aversion to the first Gem. I have from the beginning thought of the Buddha as very clear about the direction he would like us to move in, but very gentle and forgiving in his instructions.


  2. Visakha Kawasaki Says:

    Marvelous, rich metaphors!

    We’re realizing how fortunate we’ve been to have so often found ourselves in devout Buddhist communities, whether Japanese, Korean, Khmer, Lao, Vietnamese, Thai, Sri Lankan, or Burmese. We’ve always felt at home in Asian Buddhism, but because we’ve not been limited to one culture, there’s been little temptation to mistake cultural packaging for the religion itself.

    I’ve taken the liberty to post your discussion of mistletoe and secular Buddhists on Ven. Sujato’s blog and suggested he and his readers might do well to read “Religiosity in Buddhism.”


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      I only subscribe to a handful of blogs and Ven. Sujato’s blog is one of them. I had actually seen his mistletoe picture, then forgotten about it. But it probably stuck in my mind subconsciously to give rise to the metaphor I used. Thanks for pointing out the connection.


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