Buddhism as Religion Versus Philosophy

“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.

The #1 Mistake You Don’t Know You’re Making in Yoga.


And by “yoga,” I mean life.

I know, because I did it for years in my own yoga practice, without even realizing I was doing it. Then I realized I was doing it and I still did it for years, but less and less so over time.

I still make this mistake, sometimes: Beating myself up inside.

It can happen in any moment, anywhere, no matter what situation or what stage of life we are in. As well, it can happen on the yoga mat, and often does.

This internal assault can happen in a variety of ways. Maybe it’s through fed thoughts — those thoughts we dwell on and obsess about and overanalyze, as opposed to the natural, inevitable thought flow that is always passing through our consciousness. Maybe it’s through negative self-talk (“I can’t believe how much I suck“) or destructive behaviors, attitudes and addictions.

About ten years ago, I was at the peak of my physical prowess. Twenty four years old, a bendy, budding Buddhist living the dream in California, eating a raw vegan diet and really falling in love for the first time. A few years later, having gained about 20 pounds, mainly around my midsection, I was no longer able to go as deeply into forward bending and twisting yoga poses.

As I deepened my mindfulness and meditation practices and became more aware of my running inner dialogue, it dawned on me that I was beating myself up in my yoga practice. Sometimes the voice was loud and shrill, other times nothing more than a subtle but condemning whisper, but it was almost always there. I hated my stomach. I hated my body. I hated my lack of discipline which led to the weight gain. I despised my flabbiness and resented it.

Gradually, though, that hatred and resentment softened. I learned to watch the thoughts and self-talk about my body, my fatness, my weaknesses. I learned to notice them without getting all wrapped up and perpetuating thinking about them more.

Eventually, I accepted my body. To accept one’s body sounds like common sense but for many of us (Americans, women, people, almost everyone?) negative self-image is so pervasive in our psyches that we are unaware of it.

I recently read Cyndi Lee’s memoir, May I Be Happy. Cyndi Lee is a well-known NYC (and international) yoga teacher whose studio/brand/style is OM Yoga. She’s Buddhist. I’ve been to her Manhattan studio but have never taken her class. I took a workshop from her husband, Buddhist/musician David Nichtern, in 2004 in SF. He taught us the beloved metta meditation technique.

I could barely get through the first half of the book. It had more to do with body image (namely Cyndi’s extremely negative self-image of her own fit, healthy body) than with yoga or Buddhist practice.

But, the latter half made up for the whiny and self-absorbed tone in the first part. Transformation happens. The most important takeaway from the book—and this article—is this:

There is nothing wrong with you.

Take that, go forth, and practice yoga and live life.

%d bloggers like this: