If you have been a reader of my musings, or a follower on social media, you may be questioning my apparent decision to leave religion behind. "But Hendel," you may say, "you were such a strong believer! I really looked up to you as a bulwark of scriptual knowledge and wisdom!" Well, maybe you wouldn't say that, but regardless, I feel I must at least address this change. In fact, I have been addressing this trajectory of my life for a while. Back when I was part of a God-fearing congregation I was questioned heavily about my fascination with Star Wars, Jedi philosophy, and the practice of yoga - all of which have given me much pleasure, by the way. In my mind, I saw no interference or contradiction between the faith I was walking at the time and those philosophies that may appear to have had roots in Far Eastern philosophy. Mindfulness and Buddhism are not religions, I said, because there was no deity to which to give worship. For me, it was that simple. Quickly jumping to the end of the story - I am no longer in that, or any other, congregation due to, in part, for the lack of respect and regard for the actual scriptures and doctrines of love and compassion commanded (demanded) by the Torah and Apostolic Scriptures (aka the Bible), not to mention the complete and utter lack of respect and compassion for me and my family as a member of that community.
As I have continued since that time, I have studied and read much about religion - different strands and reforms of Christianity and Judaism, the history of various religions both here and abroad, and the social implications, influences, and impacts of the what is sometimes referred to as the Judeo-Christian traditions. I have found myself gravitating steadily toward Far Eastern philosophies more and more as I have become increasingly dissatisfied and disheartened by the knowledge I have gained. (Note: this does not mean that I disrespect, in any way, anyone who currently or in the past claims Jewish or Christian faith as their own.) I fruitlessly wish that I could have had more information about the faith traditions I was saying 'yes' to prior to that decision; however, my personal religious experiences have been nothing but a benefit during my studies in religion as an academic. I have have to affirm that, for me, the study of mindfulness, with its roots in Buddhism, has brought me much peace, joy, happiness, and a path to continued growth and freedom (that was not found in any other flavor of religion). So much so that I am hopeful to be accepted for post-graduate work in a Mindfulness Training masters program.
That was a very long lead-in to what I truly wanted to share, which ironically, isn't even my own creation. It does, however, echo the very logic and argument in defense of mindfulness practice that I have given multiple times to various curious souls who have expressed concern for my eternal soul and salvation. I would like to share with you an excerpt from a little book written by Gerry Stribling entitled Buddhism for Dudes; A Jarhead's Field Guide to Mindfulness (published by Wisdom Publishing, 2015). This small tome with a snarky name is a quick and entertaining read, and I recommend it. Read the following and I trust you will make your own determination.
IS BUDDHISM A RELIGION OR NOT?
Now, the notion that the Buddha was not divine confused the heck out of me when I first took up residence at a Buddhist temple in Asia. I hung out exclusively in the company of monds for months, during which time I saw a lot of what looked to me a heck of a lot like religious rituals. Several times a day monks would chant what seemed to be prayers, and they frequently behaved toward statues in a way that any Orthodox Rabbi would call 'bowing down to false idols.'
Dozens of Buddha statues sat around the temple's campus, but the main one, the big guy in the shrine was humungous - at least triple life-sized, and covered in gold. In many parts of Asia, you can't turn around without seeing a Buddha image - a little Buddha here, a big Buddha there, even Buddhas carved out of entire mountains. Every shop in Sri Lanka and Thailand has its own little shrine, and every home has one, too. You'll encounter roadside Buddha shrines wherever you go. The Buddha is everywhere.
One night at the temple I had the chance to ask some fairly hot-shot Buddhist theologians about what the monks were up to during their services. Revealing my confusion, I asked, "If the Buddha was just a dude and not a god, then why do people bow down and pray to his image? What does all that worship have to do with Buddhism?"
Buddhism, I was informed, is not a religion. It is a moral philosophy. Buddhist 'worship' isn't really worship, chanting isn't the same as prayer, and Buddha images are ubiquitous because we need to be reminded that there is a code of conduct to live by, and that this guy figured it out. When Buddhists sit before the Buddha's image they are reminded of the inner peace that they should enjoy if they live meditative, compassionate, and moral lives. The Buddha said that there was no reason to venerate him personally. His message is what's important.
By chanting we repeat the Buddha's message in order to remind ourselves of what we already know. Bowing and holding one's hands together in a prayerful way are Asian traditions. You see people make these gestures all the time over much of Asia, as well as any yoga class you might care to attend. To greet someone with a bow and your hands together is almost like shaking hands in the West, only there is an added element of reverence and respect. Showing respect is not worshiping. It's also more sanitary than shaking hands.
Most of us need ritual and tradition, even some form of 'worship,' if you want to call it that, whether we get it from religion or not. When it comes to ritual and tradition, NASCAR and the NFL and a standing tee time with your foursome might meet that need. But for those of you who do especially derive comfort from participating in religious rituals, the good news is that some Buddhist traditions meet the 'old-time religion' requirement that many people seem to need in order to feel like they are a part of something bigger. In the Buddhist world you can 'go to church' every day if you like, and on the full moon of every month there is a religious holiday to celebrate.
...If you're a Judeo-Christian type of guy, you might think that embracing Buddha's wisdom constitutes a negation of your present beliefs. Does studying the Dharma and following the Buddhist path actually make you a traitor to your religion? Well, the Buddha never took a stand on whether there's a central intelligence in command of the universe - a God, so to speak, with a capital G - because, he said, he wasn't concerned about that. But you have to look at that statement in context. As a dude and not a god, he couldn't claim to know anything more about metaphysical stuff than anyone else. The Buddha also said that everything should be questioned, including what he himself said. That's because, to quote an old country-and-western song, "You've got to walk that lonesome valley...You've got to walk it by yourself...Oh, nobody else can walk it for you..."
Nowhere in the Buddhist world did people impose the Buddha's philosophy on other people, and those who spread the Dharma throughout Asia tended to respect the deities and beliefs of those to whom they preached. Buddha's take on religion is that if the religion teaches peace and compassion, then by all means follow it. If it teaches hatred, then (as they say in Jersey) 'fuhgeddaboudit.'
You're responsible for your own life. You have to make good choices to obtain wisdom on your own. And you can only gain real wisdom through personal experience. If you put your faith in what others say instead of what you have learned for yourself, then you are a patsy.
So here's my take on the whole can-a-Christian-be-a-Buddhist issue. There is nothing about Buddhism in its most essential form that contradicts anything espoused by any other religion. The idea that Buddhism is an 'atheistic religion' doesn't stem from some 'there is no God' core belief. Buddhism just doesn't go there. Studying the Dharma is about gaining wisdom about how to get the most out of your life, about Being All That You Can Be. You can be Christian or Jewish and Buddhist at the same time. Lots of people are. Just bear in mind that Buddhism recommends skepticism about anything that other people tell you is true. If God has touched your life in some way, that's proof enough of His existence because it comes from your own experience.
I really like how Stribling expresses the very things that I have said myself. No one should have to defend their beliefs and/or practices, nor feel judged for their personal spirituality. No one's spiritual practice, whatever that looks like, should make anyone else ever feel so spiritually threatened (or arrogantly superior) that they need to intervene with the intent to manipulate or control. To do so is disrespectful and unloving - I know, it happened to me. Now, if they are asking, then feel free to share your beliefs - perfectly acceptable.
So, that is what I wanted to share. A little piece of my history and a little religious information all rolled up into one. And, just for fun, I will leave you with one more thought, directly from the non-divine Buddha himself:
no matter where you read it
or who has said it,
not even if I have said it,
unless it agrees with your own reason
and your own common sense.