Friday, August 06, 2010

What's wrong with "Buddhism is a religion?"

Other than what non-Buddhists assert about it, which I think incorrectly identifies Buddhism as a practice oriented religion, as opposed to a creedal-based one, I can't think of why one might not want to say Buddhism is a religion.

But Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche says:

A lot of people prefer to think of Buddhism as a religion. It's easy to see why, when Buddhism abounds with religious trappings: the rituals and the chants and the golden statues sitting on the shrine. Buddha himself never wanted to be deified in any kind of icons; at the beginning, he told his students no icons, no worshiping. But it's said that he had a very devoted student who kept pestering him, requesting his permission to make a statue of him, until finally the Buddha gave up and allowed the first image to be made. And now we have all these elaborate golden icons that look like they were dug out of an Egyptian pyramid. It's nice to have these reminders, but we must remember that's what they are: reminders of something, an example to be followed, not idols to be worshiped.

If our goal is to turn Buddhism into a religion, that's fine -- in America we have freedom of speech and the Bill of Rights. We can make Buddhism into a religion, or a branch of psychology, or a self-help program, or whatever we want. But if we're looking for enlightenment, we won't find it through relating to the Buddha as a religious idol. Like Siddhartha, we'll find real spiritual awakening only when we begin to leave behind our fixed ideas about religious practice. Seeing the Buddha as an example and following his example -- recreating, in our own lives, his pursuit of truth, his courage and his open mind -- that's the real power of Buddhism beyond religion. 
 The good Rinpoche is evidently ignorant of this definition of religion:

any specific system of belief and worship, often involving a code of ethics and a philosophy: the Christian religion, the Buddhist religion, etc.

Now admittedly the "belief" part of Buddhism is a bit less than the monotheist variety, but it is there, smack dab with a code of ethics and a philosophy.

But I think the good Rinpoche really misses the point when he says,

It's nice to have these [images of the Buddha as] reminders, but we must remember that's what they are: reminders of something, an example to be followed, not idols to be worshiped.
The Romans didn't worship their gods that way, and I don't know any Buddhists who do.

The author further goes on to say that the Buddha got to seeking the truth after he abandoned his religious practices, but this is incorrect: the Buddha was able to seek the truth after he let his religious practices penetrate the tiniest interstices of his existence.

And that's the only way a religion - or a "spiritual" practice - is going to help you anyway; in the same way you won't get good at tennis if you don't play..

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