“At its etymological root, religion is what rebinds or reunites us with the sacred. Many of us long for this return from exile and then discover that it leads us toward existential danger — the deconstruction and rearrangement of our very sense of self and reality. In common usage, religion often refers to the belief systems and institutions that surround this longing.” ~ Joan Sutherland Roshi
Buddhism can be and is practiced as a religion by many people who don robes, ring bells and burn incense as they bow, chant and meditate.
Yet as the popularity of meditation continues to advance in mainstream culture, an ever-growing number of secular Buddhists practice mindfulness meditation without incorporating any the bells and whistles (er, gongs) of traditional monastic systems such as Zen.
In light of this evolving understanding, Buddhism can be considered a living, breathing religion that promotes leading of a conscious life for the benefit of all beings.
Many people associate “religion” with Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism exclusively.
Buddha dharma demands interactivity from its practitioners. They are prompted to doubt, question and investigate the teachings for themselves. In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha states:
“Do not accept anything on (mere) hearsay — (i.e., thinking that thus have we heard it for a long time).
Do not accept anything by mere tradition — (i.e., thinking that it has thus been handed down through many generations).
Do not accept anything on account of mere rumors — (i.e., by believing what others say without any investigation).
Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures.
Do not accept anything by mere suppositions.
Do not accept anything by mere inference.
Do not accept anything by merely considering the reasons.
Do not accept anything merely because it agrees with your preconceived notions”
Blind faith is not an option here. Nothing is to be taken for granted just because a holy or learned man said so.
Krishnamurti echoes these sentiments:
“The many religions throughout the world have said that there is an enduring, everlasting truth, but the mere assertion of truth has very little significance. One has to discover it for oneself, not theoretically, intellectually, or sentimentally, but actually find out if one can live in a world that is completely truthful.
We mean by religion the gathering together of all energy to investigate into something: to investigate if there is anything sacred. That is the meaning we are giving it, not the religion of belief, dogma, tradition or ritual with their hierarchical outlook. But we are using the word ‘religion’ in the sense: to gather together all energy, which will then be capable of investigating if there is a truth which is not controlled, shaped, or polluted by thought”
Religion, then, takes on a meaning distinct from the mainstream definition. Religion is the movement toward personal and collective transformation, and it is not bound to any particular institution or church.
Like all of major religions, Buddhism offers an ultimate reality, whether it is labeled as nirvana, satori or our buddha nature. The key is that each individual human being has the innate potential to awaken and become a buddha. The multitude of schools and sects of Buddhism all offer a clear path to the attainment of ultimate reality. From the noble eightfold path in Theravada Buddhism to the bodhisattva path of Mahayana, Buddhist practitioners are always provided with a framework of daily life practices and meditation techniques that culminate in enlightenment. Buddhists who approach or attain the experience of ultimate reality become transformed by their experience — their ethics and behaviors change organically as they become more conscious, present, kind and compassionate.
The modern classic, Mindfulness in Plain English, identifies Buddhism as a whole to be “quite different from the theological religions with which Westerners are most familiar. It is a direct entrance to a spiritual or divine realm, without assistance from deities or other ‘agents.’ Its flavor is intensely clinical, much more akin to what we might call psychology than what we usually call religion”. While it is notably distinct from most other major religions in terms of deity and dogma, Buddhism is still a religion, in the newly defined sense of the word explored in this essay.
At the start of his spiritual quest, Prince Siddhartha left his sheltered life seeking answers to life’s big questions. Are we born just to suffer, grow old, and die? What’s the point? After years of experimenting with a wide array of ascetic religious practices, he abandoned all beliefs and doctrines and finally understood the workings of the mind in a state of clear awareness and sublime bliss under the bodhi tree. From then on, during the four decades until his death, the Buddha taught what he had learned through so many years of trial and error.
The Awakened One discovered the ultimate truth of authentic religion when he let go of organized religion, and Buddhist practitioners both secular and religious continue to follow his wise path.