This is the second serial installment of my recent ebook draft. I couple of people who posted comments to the first installment see value in focusing on one segment at a time as a readership community. I encourage critical feedback and comments. I don’t expect what I write to be wildly popular; I wrote it precisely because it runs counter to dominant but improvident trends in Western Buddhism. The complete ebook is here.
Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework
Chapter 1. Introduction
Is Buddhism a religion? Of course the answer depends on one’s definition. I see three options:
A religion involves worship of God. This works for the Abrahamic faiths familiar in the West. Clearly Buddhism fails this criterion.
A religion is a way of life. That is, it informs our life choices at the most fundamental level, our ethical standards, our values, our attitudes, our aspirations. Clearly Buddhism satisfies this criterion.
Many suggest Buddhism is not a religion because it is rather a way of life. It seems to me this is exactly what is expected of any religion when embraced fully: it should be a way of life. But let’s go on:
A religion is a matter of family resemblance,1 that is, if it looks like a duck it is.
This last seems at first like a sloppy criterion, but family resemblance underlies the better part of language; firm definitions are the exception, even for scientific terminology. Maybe to determine if Buddhism is a religion we should try for two out of three. This would make the family resemblance criterion the deciding factor.
The degree of this family resemblance, or the elements that indicate this family resemblance, are what I will call religiosity. Surely Buddhism in all of its traditional forms seems to have something of religion about it–for instance, devotional, ritual, liturgical and institutional features, to supplement what I will call Path elements–the somewhat unique and therefore more “secular” doctrinal aspects and program of personal practice. Yet some have argued recently that Buddhist religiosity is rather a product of cultural accretion that began after the Buddha and has little to do with the core message of the Buddha. Indeed, if we take the core message of the Buddha to be the Four Noble Truths, which includes the Noble Eightfold Path of practice, this view has some merit, as these indeed are rather short on elements one would be inclined to call “religious.” For instance, there is in the Noble Eightfold Path
- No “Right Bowing,”
- No “Right Robes,” and
- No “Right Ecclesiastical Governance.”
My response to this will be something of a middle way. The evidence, which will be reviewed here, makes it undeniable that many elements of religiosity were an intrinsic and functional part of the early Buddhist message, albeit carefully circumscribed in many ways. However through cultural adaptation in virtually every tradition the degree of religiosity has grown more prominent, sometimes exceedingly more prominent. On the other hand, this fortified religiosity, I will maintain, seldom obscures the core message of early Buddhism, in spite of appearances.
In this book I will outline the important aspects of religiosity in early and authentic Buddhism and will illustrate its enhancement in a sample of later traditions. I will then turn to the process of cultural adaptation that shaped these historical traditions and its implications for modern Buddhism. Buddhism stands out in the following two ways: First, if it is a religion it is the earliest world religion, succeeded only substantially by Christianity and Islam, which means that it has historically successfully adapted to often radically new cultures. Second, the integrity of the highly sophisticated core teachings of Buddhism has been remarkably well preserved through these cultural adaptations. This combination of resilience and tolerance to adaptation is likely what made Buddhist the first world religion. I will locate the mechanism, as a matter of fact, outside of the Path elements, in the more religious elements.
I count as one of those who see in Buddhism – in spite of all its doctrinal variants, sects, innovations, cultural manifestations and so on ̶ a common core, that is, a set of unifying features that allows us to talk of “Buddhism” in the singular. In fact, it seems to me that a remarkable aspect of Buddhism – in spite of exhibiting much more scriptural variation than most of the other major religions – is that it seems to have much more consistency of purpose and understanding than, say, Christianity. Somehow, transmitted through many centuries, through many traditions and cultures, and in spite of its accrued variety, Buddhism has managed to preserve the integrity of its early functionality throughout the Buddhist world in spite of enormous variation. The essential core preserved in the traditions includes, for instance, a more-or-less common understanding of liberation and of the Path of training toward liberation which focuses on virtue, wisdom and development of mind, and a recognition of greed, hatred and delusion as the primary qualities of mind to be relieved. It also includes placing trust in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, a prominent role for the monastic order and particular emphasis on the practices of generosity and virtue.
I realize that many people see in Buddhism exactly the opposite: They find it extremely fragmented, dispersed over an impossible range of doctrinal positions, beliefs, practices and rituals. For instance, any given Buddhist tradition considers itself almost invariably the almost unique heir of Buddhist authenticity. Yet in exploring other lands and other sects it is faced with peculiarity and anomaly in the practices and beliefs of the other laity, the garb of the other monastics, the style of other liturgy, the presence of unfamiliar figures in temple statuary, unfamiliar rites at temple altars, unknown scriptures on temple bookshelves, and hocus pocus all around. For many in the West who first come to Buddhism and survey the entire array of traditions, unbiased by any particular tradition, the variance is even more striking and it is easy to see how they might throw their hands up in despair and perhaps entertain the hope that Baha’i or Sufism is easier to sort out.
I hope to gain in this book a recognition and explanation of the great resilience of Buddhism in retaining the integrity and functionality of its authentic teachings that exists alongside a great tolerance for adaptation and change.
Religiosity in Buddhism
Religiosity seems to be a universal, found throughout the world. Scholars of comparative religion have looked at this in detail, but here are the recurring features that I observe in almost all religions and that contribute to the family resemblance of Buddhism and “religion”:
- Ritual and ceremony. These are conventionalized actions and activities.
- Ritual spaces. Certain places and spatial relations are made significant or sacred 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 sacred 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. Scriptures are often regarded as ritual artifacts.
- 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 or confidence in an authority.
- Salvation. The ultimate goal is generally some form of transcendence of this one worldly life.
- Clergy. There is often a class of professionals who dedicate themselves to understanding and practice of the religion, who generally conduct or lead the rituals and who take care of the community and sometimes enjoy the status of ritual artifacts themselves.
- Institutions. The community is generally organized according to certain principles and this organization sustains the clergy, owns ritual spaces and objects and provides some degree of governance and authority.
A shorter list of topics I will focus on here is as follows:
I make no further attempt to define religiosity than to provide this list and its summary. The common statement, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” seems generally intended to sweep aside many of the elements on this list, particularly the more institutional elements. Why this list comes together as something requiring special attention, evoking even alarm, in the Western mind is discussed in a few chapters.
It is worth noting parenthetically that each of these features listed here to as characteristic of religion is nonetheless found also in what would normally be regarded as secular contexts, or at least their close counterparts are. 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 typically a sense of tradition. Government functions and places of government exhibit almost every one of these features, by my count, with appropriate substitution of terms, elected officials for clergy, etc. Armies likewise exhibit most, with analogous substitutions, maybe because they need to be equipped to deal with fundamental issues of life and death. Even Academia exhibits a lot of these features. We are, in other words, far from a definitive definition of religion, but this characterization will suffice for our purposes.2
These elements in Buddhism that I collect under religiosity, or under devotion, community and salvation, we will see, have a unique flavor in Buddhism that doubtlessly originated with its founder. In their early manifestation they are functionally very rational, systematic and clearly articulated. The functions they serve are as follows:
- They provide methods of practice that help purify and develop the mind in wholesome ways, but that lend themselves to community, casual and even children’s practice.
- They provide a social infrastructure in support of off-the-deep-end types of intensive practice and study and for its propagation and transmission to future generations in its full integrity. That is, they support the Buddha–Sasana, lived Buddhism in all of its dimensions, including historical and social.
- They provide an attitudinal context that gives rise to individual aspirations to undertake the intensive practice and study that can culminate in Awakening.
To purge these religious elements across the board from one’s understanding is simply to miss the larger context in which the Path of practice is sustained; it is to fail to appreciate the past and to take responsibility for the future. If Buddhists of the past had purged religiosity from Buddhism in this way, had been consistently spiritual but not religious, there would be no baby left for us in the twenty-first century befuddlement to throw out with the bathwater.
My reasons for writing this book are as follows:
- Buddhist elements of devotion, transcendence and community tend to be poorly comprehended and unappreciated in the West, producing a limited and lopsided system of understanding and practice. I hope this book will contribute to a more well-rounded practice and understanding within a still incipient Western Buddhist movement.
- Religiosity is deeply implicated the sometimes wild culturally conditioned variations observed among and within the various Buddhist traditions. I hope that by bringing some order to these variations, I hope this book will provide a perspective that will make the Buddhist landscape easier to navigate.
- The non-Path elements of devotion and community provide the mechanisms that underlie, as I will show, Buddhism’s remarkably tolerance of variation including its capacity for absorbing many elements of local cultures, alongside its amazing resilience with regard to maintain its authentic functions. I hope this book will serve to articulate this important yet rarely recognized aspect of the genius of Buddhism.
I will begin with religiosity in early Buddhist doctrine, drawing on early sources, particularly the Pali discourses and monastic code, to show the functional role of devotion, transcendence and community in early Buddhism. I will make use of a botanical metaphor, in particular its physiological aspect in order to bring out the functional interrelatedness among the various elements of practice and understanding. I will discuss how the religious elements are integrated into an organic whole in clear and rational roles.
I will I then seek to deepen our understanding of these roles progressively as I turn to historical, sociological and personal aspects of these religious elements. Just as we turn from botany to plant genetics in order to understand change and variation through time, we will turn from doctrine to history in order to see how Buddhist traditions have taken on many different forms, particularly embellishing under cultural pressures the religious elements that concern us, yet remarkably preserving for the most part the early physiology. Just as we turn from botany and genetics to hortoculture in order to understand the role of human intervention in the well-being of the plant and in the breeding of domestic variants with desirable features, we will turn from doctrine and history to the sociology of Buddhist communities in order to understand the role of an adept subcommunity in domesticating and maintaining an authentic Adept Buddhism, alongside which a wilder Folk Buddhism inevitably exists. This is the source of Buddhism’s resilience.
Finally, just as the gastronome must make choices among the great varieties of domestic and wild foods at hand in the culinary world, the would-be student and practitioner of Buddhism in the West must find his way among the great variety of Buddhisms, Eastern and Western, spiritual, religious and secular, early and traditional, Theravada and Mahayana, village and forest, folk and adept, in the modern landscape. Having brought the reader from the field almost to the dinner table, I will conclude with tips on navigating the Buddhist buffet counter.
1This term comes from Wittgenstein.
2See Tweed (2006) for a discussion of the many attempts to define religion, and a recent bold attempt at a new one.