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.