TheOpenWay - Buddhism a path beyond religion

Buddhism is a journey beyond religion – a deepening awareness into our own nature relying on reason and direct seeing, free from all forms of clinging – theistic, atheistic or agnostic. If we try to practice it like a religion, we would be missing the very crux of Buddhism.

 

At one level, the teachings of the Buddha provide practical tools for us to get to know our own mind, manage emotions and cultivate qualities. There is nothing religious about it. Anyone can benefit from that without having to totally rework their belief systems. At a deeper level, to fully benefit from his teachings (towards Nirvana and awakening), we have to break out from all forms of religions and belief systems – theistic, atheistic or agnostic. It has to be an open journey of awareness – that of reason and direct seeing. We have to learn to skilfully work with experiences and yet not fall into dogmatization of those sublime experiences.

 

The Buddha encouraged people to walk away from blind religious thinking into a journey of genuine investigation. He did not reveal a sacred book. He gave advices suitable for various individuals. He did not speak about a God to follow. He did not say everyone has to follow the same path. For every person who sought his guidance, he gave a unique advice suited for that person. Yet, it all fits together nicely as what we call Dharma – the teachings of the Buddha.

 
Yet, since the topic that Buddhism deals with – understanding ourselves – is so close to the topics every religion deals with, often it gives rise to confusion that Buddhism is also a religion. Further, if we miss the crucial point of wisdom awareness and non-clinging, the notions of goal, path, guidance, etc. and the skilful applications of many colourful methods to work with mind may all be confused as religious. Then, we end up practising it as yet another religion. Here, we shall analyse this more deeply for the benefit of those who are new to Buddhism and also for those seasoned practitioners who may be turning it into a religion.

 

Now, let us look at it more systematically. What are the hallmarks of religion? According one of the definitions, they are its creed, code, ceremony and community. None of these apply to Buddhism. There is no creed (dogma) of Buddhism, as there is not even a single word of the Buddha that we are expected to follow without analysis. As we shall see, a Dharma practitioner has to break free from all belief systems and travel a path of open investigation. One should have the readiness to accept what is proven right and reject what is proven wrong. Moreover one’s view (the way one perceives the world and oneself) should be continuously refined and revolutionized as one gains greater insight. The more the view is refined, the more one let go of the clinging on views.

 

Unlike religion, there is no code of conduct monitored by an authority for you to be a Buddhist. Ethical discipline in Buddhism is that of self-discipline and not of enforcement by someone else. We choose ethical discipline based on our own analysis and the level of refinement on the view. In other words, ethical discipline is one’s resolve to live a wholesome life guided by wisdom.

 

A Dharma practitioner has to break free from all belief systems and travel a path of open investigation. One’s view should be continuously refined and revolutionized as one gains greater insight. The more the view is refined, the more one let go of the clinging on views.

Dharma is not at all about ceremonies, customs or cultural identities. Of course, there are many ceremonies you may come across in Buddhism. However, these are just skilful means to facilitate the cultivation of mind. These are not mandatory and are not uniformly followed.

 

As for community, Dharma enables us to connect not only with the entire humanity but also with every sentient being with loving kindness and compassion, completely transcending ego boundaries. Then, where is the question of communal identity? As we shall see, the Sangha principle of Buddhism is very different from communal identity.

 

Now let us look into it in further detail.

 

Buddha is neither a God nor a prophet

As we stand in front of a statue of the Buddha we don’t ask for favours or magical interventions, but we bring to mind the sublime qualities that he displayed and take a resolve to traverse the path and discover those qualities in our own Buddhahood.

He is one who walked the path ahead of us – a trailblazer – one who dedicated his life to find a way to end the misery of beings. He succeeded in making breakthrough discoveries. He did not invent a magical device that can end our miseries, but he found the conditions that bind us and a way of inner transformation through which we can not only end miseries, but also perfect our being. He did not offer to wash our sins or take us to a distant heaven. He did not claim he has the power to control our course of life. All he did is to share his insights to help us in our journey of inner transformation.

 

As you go deeper into Buddhism, you find that the Buddhahood is not about just one special person. Buddhahood is the state of complete awakening that every being is capable of attaining. As it is said by Maitreya in Uttaratantra-śāśtra (The treatise on the sublime continuum),

Unconditional and spontaneous presence

Is the realization that is not other-dependent;

Wisdom, kindness and ability are its endowments;

That is Buddhahood with its two purposes (one’s own and others’).

In other words, from a first-person perspective the Buddhahood is the realization of one’s own unconditional and spontaneously perfect nature that does not depend on anything else. And, from the perspective of others, the Buddhas are those endowed with perfect wisdom and kindness along with the ability to benefit others. Thus, the Buddha is what we can become for the benefit of oneself and others, and not a religious object of worship.

 

As we stand in front of a statue of the Buddha we don’t ask for favours or magical interventions, but we bring to mind the sublime qualities that the Buddha displayed and take a resolve to traverse the path and discover those qualities in our own Buddhahood. When we place the statue in the most exquisite ambience and make choicest of offerings in front of it, there is never a thought that the real Buddha is going to give us some special favours in response. It is done simply as an opportunity to vividly bring to mind the qualities of the Buddha and to engage in its appreciation with our body, speech and mind. Thus, our own minds are strengthened in the journey to discover in our own being that peace, evenness, inner strength, clarity, kindness and compassion, and above all that ability to benefit others in the appropriate ways. This is not a religious mandate, and the Buddha does not feel offended even if you do not make offerings and pay homage.

 

Guidance in the journey

Since the Buddha is neither a God nor a prophet, does that mean with Buddhism you are on your own? Or, is there someone whom you can rely on? In one way, it is so. In another way, it is not. Unlike religion, Buddhism does not peg its hopes on an unseen metaphysical concept to take care of us. Unlike the religious notions of gods, the Buddha is not a reliance to cover up problems or to act as opiate to overlook suffering with eternal hope. We need to take steps forward with our own effort and wisdom.

The Buddha is not a reliance to cover up problems or to act as opiate to overlook suffering with eternal hope. He is of reliance as the guide who shared his discoveries and showed the efficacy of the path through his own life.

Yet there are authentic sources to rely on, known as the triple jewels of refuge. There is the Buddha, the guide who shared his discoveries and showed the efficacy of the path through his own life. He is indeed of reliance as a noble teacher whose words are out there for us to validate and make use of. And, the remembrance of him brings confidence in our own journey. He is also of reliance as the noble example of the ability and perfection that every one of us is capable of attaining. Thus he reminds us of the ultimate reliance – of discovering our own innate perfection of abilities and being able to stand on our own.

 

The Sangha that the Buddha envisioned is not that of a divided section of humanity that identifies itself as a religious community fighting for their communal rights within a larger society, but those who take a vow to benefit every being in whichever way that is suitable, at the same time, propelling their own journey in the path forward with the joy of being able to benefit others.

There is also the reliance on dharma itself – the teaching that we listen, scrutinize, develop certainty and then train in to make it into a direct realization. This is the reliance on the path – the effort that we put on to develop wisdom and other qualities.

 

Then, there is the sangha of practitioners that includes those who walked ahead of us and gave rise to tremendous wisdom, compassion and loving kindness. We can have the members of such a sangha as our guides and support when we wish so. The sangha that the Buddha envisioned is not that of a divided section of humanity that identifies itself as a religious community fighting for their communal rights within a larger society, but those who take a vow to benefit every being in whichever way that is suitable, at the same time, propelling their own journey in the path forward with the joy of being able to benefit others. The members of such a noble sangha do not limit beneficiaries based on their belief systems – whether they are theist or atheist. They try to bring benefit by combining wisdom and compassion and doing whatever makes sense to reduce the suffering of beings according to their individual dispositions. The sangha also promotes an environment where it is easier to calm one’s mind and then taming and transforming it. Thus a sangha of practitioners also provide support for each other in bringing their innate qualities to blossom.

 

Further, the Buddha uttered this as the final advice to his disciple Ananda (in Mahā-parinibbāṇa-sutta),

Therefore, Ānanda, dwell as a lamp unto yourselves,

Refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge;

With the Dharma as your lamp, the Dharma as your refuge,

Seeking no other refuge.

So, all the external sources of reliance and refuge are only envisaged as temporary, till we discover the glimpse of inner wisdom and the Dharma of one’s own realization.

 

Guru in Vajrayana Buddhism

Guru of Vajrayana is neither a godman nor a magician. He or she  instils confidence in us regarding our innate abilities, guide us and help us to stand on our own. Guru does so by helping us to discover our own perfection.

When it comes to Vajrayana Buddhism where one directly takes the glimpse of inner wisdom and perfection as the path to train on, there is also the reliance upon a Guru as the living Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. In the other paths of Buddhism we gradually cleanse the confusions and emotional defilements of the ordinary mind using the same confused mind. In Vajrayana, the direct light of inner wisdom (the pristine quality of awareness that even our confused minds have) is used to swiftly realize the true nature of confusion as wisdom. To do so, a practitioner of Vajrayana needs to discover and relate to that state of perfection with the help of a Guru.

 

However, the Guru of Vajrayana is also quite different from religious and spiritual notions of Guru prevailing today. Guru here is neither a godman nor a magician. He or she is one who instils confidence in us regarding our innate abilities, guide us and help us to stand on our own. Guru helps us to discover our own perfection. Guru is a person who has progressed ahead of us in the path and discovered the wisdom nature. He or she shows the perfect example that we can aspire to realize. Moreover, the Buddhist scriptures advise not to follow the Guru blindly. One has to examine and evaluate the Guru over a long period to gain confidence in his wisdom and actions. Through the investigation of the Guru, we need to reach a point where the confusions of mind melt away by the mere thought about the Guru, and we recognize the pristine quality of our own awareness as the Guru. As the Vajrayana texts say,

May my own awareness arise as the Guru!

Are we simply aiming for elusive goals?

Often, religions promise to take us towards a goal which has no clear evidence for its existence – such as assurance of an everlasting heavenly afterlife, protection by an unseen God, or avoiding the punishments by an unseen power. In contrast the goals of Buddhism are pragmatic and non-religious.

 

The teachings of the Buddha may be categorised as towards three goals. One, it shows a way to tame our emotional turmoil and to face the situations of life with increased openness, compassion and peace. This goal is not unique to Buddhism and there are many religious and secular methods to accomplish the same. However, Buddhism provides its own unique solutions that are based on developing understanding, cultivating mindfulness and dissolving the inner tension through the light of wisdom. As the second goal, Buddhism shows a way to be completely free from dukha (suffering and discontentment) and to face the world in a state of pervasive inner peace and contentment no matter what situation one goes through. This is Nirvana, the freedom from Samsara. Third, it shows a way to awaken to the full potential of the innate nature of awareness – that of luminous clarity and spacious openness free from conceptual proliferations and emotional clutters – so that we perfect our ability to be of benefit to all. This is awakening or Buddhahood. To list them,

  1. Wholesome life (peace and skills for emotional management in this life)
  2. Nirvana (freedom from Samsara) – the goal of Śrāvakayāna
  3. Awakening (to the full potential of the innate nature of awareness) – the goal of Mahāyāna

So, you choose the goal, you choose the path, you experiment with it, and gradually gain conviction to pursue it ardently. It is not a package.

The first goal can be universally appealing. The second and the third goal are formulated in a particularly Buddhist way which requires a clear understanding of the discoveries the Buddha made. Therefore, these latter goals may not be of relevance to a beginner.

 

At first, it may sound similar to religion in that we engage in a path with a hope to reach a state of perfection that we have no first-hand knowledge about. Are we simply fantasising about such a state of perfection and freedom from suffering? If so, that would be religion. If not, it should be possible to verify the viability of the resultant state and the potency of the path to take us there. This is indeed the case with Buddhism and that is why the goal of Buddhism is not religious.  Moreover, the Buddha said (from ghanavyūha sūtra – sutra of the dense array),

O bhikshus and wise men,

Just as a goldsmith would test his gold

By burning, cutting, and rubbing it,

So you must examine my words and accept them,

But not merely out of reverence for me.

So, there is no expectation to accept these goals without examination. There are no commandments to follow as the path. When one has analysed enough, has conviction and motivation to attain one of these goals, one decides oneself to experiment and see whether it is working practically. Then one follows a suitable path ardently. So, you choose the goal, you choose the path, you experiment with it, and gradually gain conviction to pursue it ardently. It is not a package. It is not like entering a religion and not even like joining a social movement. One just follows whatever goal and path is appealing to oneself, that too after careful investigation.

 

The Buddha also said (from lalitā-vistāra-sūtra – sutra of the elaborate display),

Profound and peaceful,

Free from conceptual proliferation,

Uncompounded luminous clarity –

I arrived at a nectar-like Dharma.

If this were to be revealed to anyone,

It will be beyond comprehension.

The Buddha encouraged us to know our problems closely than ignoring them with hopes. We should not only know just the tip of the iceberg that projects out, but the entire mass hidden underneath. Only then, we will be inspired to totally rework the mess instead of looking for patchworks.

So, he was indeed aware that if he were to describe his own direct experience of the resultant state, it can only lead to imaginations and mere religious hope to reach some miraculous state in a distant future. That is not a clear goal. It would have also lead to merely speculative philosophy and we would have been left with mere words such as transcendental, inconceivable, ineffable, non-conceptual, etc. So, he chose not to present these up front so as to avoid a fantasy trip. You don’t have to believe in any of his direct experience. Instead of verbalizing his experience and making us wonder, he compassionately and wisely shared insights at a level that any ordinary person can comprehend and take baby steps forwards. He taught goals and the path through a method that is highly rational and empirically sound – in a way that can be conceived, analysed and implemented systematically with verifiable results.

 

Dharma is rooted in the present

If we were to ignore our real problems and their causes and simply hope for a miraculous realm of nirvana or awakening, that would have been like what religion end up being – an opiate for the masses to cover up suffering with eternal hope. If the Buddha were to offer just some meditations to bliss out and be oblivious to pain, that would also be no different. The Buddha did not go that way. He taught to be rooted in the present and be fully aware.

 

If we were to ignore our real problems and their causes and simply hope for a miraculous realm of nirvana or awakening, that would have been like what religion end up being – an opiate for the masses to cover up suffering with eternal hope. If the Buddha were to offer just some meditations to bliss out and be oblivious to pain, that would also be no different. The Buddha did not go that way. He taught to be rooted in the present and be fully aware.

Often, people criticise Buddhism saying that it emphasizes too much on suffering instead of always talking about the bliss of meditation. This is indeed a speciality of Buddhism and what makes it not an opiate. The Buddha encouraged us to know our problems closely than ignoring them with hopes. We should not only know just the tip of the iceberg that projects out, but the entire mass hidden underneath. Only then, we will be inspired to totally rework the mess instead of looking for patchworks. Only then, we can actually discover the causes clearly and eliminate them from the roots so that they never recur.

 

With this intention, the Buddha introduced unique meditation methods through which we can closely observe our own experiences, emotions, perceptions, and thoughts to understand them and see what is going wrong. Then he showed ways in which we can find the causes and conditions for that state. Through the direct knowledge of these conditions, we can also envisage the possibility of a state of freedom and perfection that results if we eliminate those causes and conditions. Then, the Buddha gave numerous methods as possible paths – the methods to go about eliminating those causes and conditions. So, the approach of Dharma is, first understand the problems that we face, and then choose to abandon their causes and then realize the freedom from those problems through following a suitable path to that result. This is also the essence of the four noble truths (dukha-samudaya-nirodha-mārga – suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path)

 

Is the very notion of a path religious?

You may ask, “So, it sounds like you have to live on a prescribed lifestyle and path, and you are saying the Buddha’s path is what takes to the Goal. Isn’t that religious? – rigid and excluding others’ paths”

 

No matter which path of Buddhism we take, it is a path to simplicity – where we learn to dissolve the garbage of confusions and emotional defilements and open up to a profound, peaceful, blissful and clear state of wisdom awareness. This indeed distinguishes a path of Buddha-dharma from other paths – it is always about dissolving confusion and reaching a spontaneous presence and never about craving for more spiritual glories, reaching somewhere, seeing miracles or living with the fear of punishment.

In fact, there is no single path of Buddhism. The Buddha introduced many paths to travel to the goal. There are many paths because which one works more effectively depends upon the individual’s particular dispositions. In fact, many variants of the paths (in its details) came up even after the Buddha, depending on the specific socio-cultural contexts and suitability of time. Thus, Buddhism is not defined by a specific path.

 

In Buddhism, we transform our experiences, thoughts, emotions and perception – right here and now. In general, it involves cultivating the correct view through study, analysis and contemplations, and then gaining a direct insight through meditation and also integrating that direct insight with post-meditation actions. This is called the three aspects of the path – the view, meditation and conduct.

Nevertheless, the Buddha also taught the common principles of a successful path. In essence, all paths aim to deepen the direct understanding about one’s own nature and thus eliminating some level of clinging (that otherwise leads to confusions and defiled emotions). Some of the common threads across all the Buddhist paths are some level of understanding of impermanence and selflessness and the practice of cultivating insight (vipashyana). No matter which particular path of dharma we take, it is a path to simplicity – where we learn to dissolve the garbage of confusions and emotional defilements and open up to a profound, peaceful, blissful and clear state of wisdom awareness. This indeed distinguishes a path of Buddha-dharma from other paths – it is always about dissolving confusion and thus reaching a spontaneous presence and never about craving for more spiritual glories, reaching somewhere, seeing miracles or living with the fear of punishment.

 

Dharma is of course not a path that we travel externally, but a path that we cultivate within, that reflects soon in our relationship with the world. What do we cultivate? We transform our experiences, thoughts, emotions and perception – right here and now. In general, it involves cultivating the correct view through study, analysis and contemplations, and then gaining a direct insight through meditation and also integrating that direct insight with post-meditation actions. This is called the three aspects of the path – the view, meditation and conduct. (See Living in Spacious Expanse for details)

 

Are multiple views and paths of Buddhism divisive?

Dharma is not merely conceptual knowledge. It requires experiential comprehension. With that, one’s confusions and clinging should dissolve in its own space. That happens only when the knowledge touches the heart. 

Dharma is not merely conceptual knowledge. It requires experiential comprehension. With that, one’s confusions and clinging should dissolve in its own space. That happens only when the knowledge touches the heart. Now, there could be another question. As the saying goes, “Science unifies while religious divides”. When Science makes a discovery, it is universally established. Anyone can do the same set of experiments to reach there. Whereas, every religion has a different viewpoint and there is no way to resolve and get to a common ground. So, it is natural to have a question, “Since you say that within Buddhism there are so many views and so many paths, isn’t that like religion? Or, even worse – it is as if Buddhism itself is divided into so many religions!”

 

In fact, Science deals with conceptual knowledge. Whoever has the knowledge of mathematics and scientific methods can use the same arguments and experimentation to reach the same result. Dharma is not merely conceptual knowledge. It requires experiential comprehension. With that, one’s confusions and clinging should dissolve in its own space. That happens only when the knowledge touches the heart. To give an example, the teaching on impermanence can be conceptually understood by everybody. Yet, it may not touch the heart always. And, what touches the heart varies from person to person, depending on one’s mental state and predispositions. The variety of paths in dharma is due to this. Given the variable sensitivities of people, it shows the non-fanatic and broad-based approach Buddhism take.

 

For example, if a person’s mind is extremely disturbed and running here and there without control, it may not be an effective path for that person to directly observe thoughts and emotions. He or she would have to first take some other steps to calm the mind down to a level where observations are possible.

 

Faith in the path

The way we develop faith in the path is also in a non-religious way. We may compare it to how humans commit to a mission to the moon for the first time. At first, we don’t know whether the goal is viable, but without putting effort it is also not possible to assess viability.  We don’t want to waste time, effort and resources if it is not viable. Yet, if we ignored it all together, then we could never reach the moon. So, we analyse, first from the ground by observing, by doing some local experiments, by measurements and calculations, by developing and testing parts of the vehicle to travel to space, and thus gradually develop confidence and commitment to fully engage in the path. There is a cautious, but definitive and progressive engagement. We don’t just sit doubting all the time, without taking a step forward. We also don’t take arbitrary steps back and forth so that nothing moves forward. This is also how we develop engagement with Dharma, one step at a time in a definitive way, gradually deepening confidence and taking on higher goals. It is absolutely different from how one enters a religion.

 

If something looks religious leave it aside

There are certain sublime findings of the Buddha that are hard to digest in the beginning. If some path of Buddhism is built upon that finding, it will look absurd and religious when we do not have necessary foundation to understand it. In such cases, you can leave it aside than follow it religiously. We can continue to maintain an open mind of investigation till we are able to resolve one way or the other. We can reject it when proven wrong, and accept it when proven right.

 

The most of what hear about mind, awareness and consciousness comes from religious, philosophical and spiritual sources, full of speculations, absurdities and inconsistencies. So, it is only to be expected that many beginners feel averse to the idea of the cycle of births and deaths without even knowing what it means in Buddhism. No need to accept that, but with an open mind, investigate about mind and its continuity.

Let us take the example regarding the continuity of experiences beyond this life (the cycles of births and deaths). The Buddhist understanding on this is free from the faults of positing some impossible ways of metaphysical entities such as self or a soul moving from one body to another. At the same time, it is also free from the faults of imagining the qualities of awareness and sensations arising from unconscious matter that has no basis for such qualities.  Moreover, the Buddhist understanding of the cycle of birth and death is verifiable in a first-person way through meditation and perfectly logical. Yet, this is hard to digest for most people in the modern day and they do not even spend enough time evaluating.

 

There are many reasons for this. Firstly, in comparison to the tremendous progress made in other fields of the modern Science, scientific knowledge on consciousness and phenomenal experiences are still very rudimentary. This is due to the fundamental difficulty in studying first-person experiences through the scientific methodology focussed on third-person observations. The lack of details from modern science makes people sceptical about the presence of mind itself. Secondly, the most of what we hear about mind, awareness and consciousness comes from religious, philosophical and spiritual sources with high level of speculation, absurdities and inconsistencies. So, it is only to be expected that many beginners feel averse to the idea of the cycle of births and deaths without even knowing what it means in Buddhism.

 

Visualizations and mantras are skilful means to develop this view of purity and insubstantiality. However, if this is not understood correctly, there is a danger that the practitioner concretizes the deity visualizations of Vajrayana as religious gods. Then, instead of Vajrayana, it becomes religion and wrong path.

In such a context, the second and the third goals (Nirvana and awakening) may not be fully convincing. Even in that case, one can derive tremendous benefit from the Buddhist teachings towards the first goal (of whole living in this life). Then, keep on investigating regarding mind and its continuity till there is a resolution. Gradually, you will see that the Buddhist understanding of the continuity of mind and the cycle of births and death are based on what is observable and logical.

 

To give another example, let us look at Vajrayana Buddhism that involves visualization of deity forms and recitation of mantra. When one is formally introduced to Vajrayana, it starts with a deeper exposition of the view of emptiness and interdependence of all phenomenal experiences. As we cultivate a fine understanding of the insubstantiality of all phenomena and practice non-abiding engagement (that of not clinging to anything as substantial), all phenomenal appearances are also innately pure – just a play of one’s own awareness no matter how it appears. Beautiful and ugly, peaceful and wrathful, etc., all become of one taste as the play of awareness. Visualizations and mantras are skilful means to develop this view of purity and insubstantiality. However, if this is not understood correctly, there is a danger that the practitioner concretizes the deity visualizations of Vajrayana as religious gods. Then, instead of Vajrayana, it becomes religion and wrong path. In that case, it is better to leave Vajrayana aside till you have better appreciation about it.

 

The measure of progress

The mingling of one’s mind with the path of Dharma also brings some results more or less immediately. There is a direct indication of the path working towards the result as you see your mind becoming lighter and lighter with more openness and spaciousness, and as you see that there is an increasing ease, evenness and compassion in dealing with the world. Thus, unlike religion, there is a direct measure of the path working, and not simply a hope of someone rewarding you after the death.

 

Dharma requires parting away from religion

To fully benefit from Buddhism, to take it beyond tips and tools for day to day life and to traverse the path of Nirvana or awakening, you have to part away from all forms of religions and religious clinging – no matter it is theistic, atheistic or agnostic. In fact, during the path, you not only have to reject other belief systems, but also any remaining beliefs of Buddhism itself.

By now, we have seen that Buddhism is not a religion. In fact, in many ways it is also the opposite of a religion. To fully benefit from Buddhism, to take it beyond tips and tools for day to day life and to traverse the path of Nirvana or awakening, you have to part away from all forms of religions and religious clinging – no matter it is theistic, atheistic or agnostic. Parting away from all religious notions, the Buddha showed how to live a life of lucid awareness – clearly seeing through the arising and vanishing of experiences and not holding onto anything rigidly as a religion. Every form of clinging – to belief systems, customs, habituation, etc. – becomes a barrier in going beyond the bondage of habits and reaching the perfect wisdom of clear seeing.

 

Let us be clear. Parting from religion is not so important for the first goal, of using the methods of Buddhism towards a wholesome and peaceful living in this life. People of any religion as well as those atheists and agnostics can pick tips and tools from Buddhism towards this goal. For example, one can meditate a little bit, learn a wholesome way of life, apply mind-training methods to tame emotional defilements and thus experience more peace.

 

However, to fully benefit from Dharma, particularly towards the second and third goals (Nirvana and awakening), we need to be ready to question our own belief systems. We need to break away from all such belief systems and religions.

 

If you hold on to the belief that a God will save you, how could you go beyond hopes and see the real causes of your plight and work on resolving it!

 

If you are not ready to critically examine the views expressed in Holy Scriptures (such as belief in a metaphysical soul or self), how could you develop direct wisdom!

 

If you hold on to your childhood habits and family tradition as the final truth, how could you eliminate habitual conditioning and experience the spontaneous nature and freedom!

 

If you hold on to your belief in a materialistic essence and remain hesitant to observe and study subjective experience subjectively, how could you penetrate experiences and gain mastery over it!

 

If you hold on to an agnostic and non-committal position for ever, how could you take a step forward and not be a victim of the torrent of circumstances!

 

To live a life of direct wisdom, we need to break free from every such holding.

 

This readiness to abandon the view and path that helped us earlier, and to move on to finer and finer views and paths is a hallmark of a true Buddhist practitioner. That is simply not religious, and paralleled probably only in Science. If a practitioner does not see the need for such abandonments, it is possible to get stuck somewhere on the path as if it were a religion to its own end.

Questioning your belief systems does not mean you have to adopt a new belief system. Moreover, abandoning of belief systems need not happen all of a sudden. Before cultivating wisdom, it is impossible to even notice the finer points of clinging. Further, when direct insight is not yet cultivated, to engage in the world in wholesome way you may find some good belief system (whether it is theistic or atheistic) beneficial than having no belief system. So, the breaking away from various forms of religious clinging often has to be gradual. The path of Dharma helps with that. You just need to be open to direct investigation and analysis. When investigation produces evidences and our belief systems show inconsistencies and the signs of breakdown you need to be open for change.

 

In fact, the path of Buddhism is also about going beyond all kinds of clinging, and that includes clinging on all belief systems. (There are four types of clinging to abandon: clinging on desirables – kāma-upādāna, clinging on belief systems – drṣṭi-upādāna, clinging on discipline and rituals – śīla-upādāna and clinging on a notion of self – ātmavāda-upādāna). Usually, this is not possible in a single shot. Non-clinging develops when there is a deeper sense of freedom and perfection without having to conceptualize and cling on such notions. This results from deeper understanding and practice.

 

Sometimes, clinging on something may be utilized as a skilful means to let go of the harder clinging on something else – like how applying soap-water cleans hard dirt. However, all forms of clinging needs to be eventually eliminated – like having to remove soap-water.

 

Thus in the path, we not only have to reject other belief systems, but also any remaining beliefs of Buddhism itself. As the Buddha said (from vajra-chedika-sūtra, Diamond-cutter sutra),

By knowing that the Dharma taught by the Tathagatas (Buddhas) is similar to a raft,

One abandons even the Dharma, then what needs to be said about non-dharma!

As we saw earlier, there are many levels of subtleties of views in Buddhism that correspond to individual’s habitual disposition and capacity. Also, there are paths corresponding to every view. As we progress, we need to be able to abandon earlier views and move on to much more refined and revolutionized views, and gradually traverse to utter openness and clarity. This readiness to abandon the view and path that helped us earlier, and to move on to finer and finer views and paths is a hallmark of a true Buddhist practitioner. That is simply not religious, and paralleled probably only in Science. This is about gradually finding the middle free from extremes as we refine our sensitivities. The Buddha has completely abandoned all views as he no more needs a view to see. If a practitioner does not see the need for such abandonments, it is possible to get stuck somewhere on the path as if it were a religion to its own end.

 

Vipaśyanā (Insight Meditation)

At the centre stage of any path of Buddhism is the practice of vipaśyanā (pronounced as vipashyana, in Pali vipassanā, roughly translated as ‘insight meditation’). Literally, it means ‘vivid seeing’. The equivalent Tibetan term (lhag mthong) means ‘surpassing seeing’. In vipaśyanā we train not to get stuck with what is apparent, going beyond and clearly seeing the way experiences arise, abide and vanish. Without stopping with the conceptualization of whatever appears to mind, vipaśyanā goes beyond to directly see its finer details. Vipaśyanā is cultivated through meditation and also practiced post-meditation.

 

Let us take a figurative example. Let us consider a tree just outside our window. Every day we see it. We take it for granted as the same old tree. In fact, we look at it with the idea that it is the same old tree. So, we don’t see it right. In fact, the leaves have fallen, fresh sprouts have come up, and blossoms have come and gone. When we don’t see beyond our concept of the ‘same old tree’, we don’t see the freshness of today’s tree. In fact, the ‘same old tree’ is just not there.

 

To be awakened … running away from life’s experiences does not help. Living with eternal hope does not help. Closing the door to experiences that challenge our belief systems does not help. Believing in miracles does not help. Rejecting extraordinary experiences does not help. We need to engage  in vipaśyanā – clear seeing with non-grasping openness, ease and going beyond labels. Let confusions melt away.

Likewise, vipaśyanā helps us see beyond the same old “I”. Many appearances come and go. Feelings come and go. Likewise, the moments of consciousness, perceptions, mental formations such as thoughts, emotions, etc. come and go. We miss seeing them for what they are, because we cling on to the same old “I”, “me” and “mine”. In vipaśyanā we learn to go beyond the concept of “I” and see what arises for what they are. We start to see, ‘this form arises’, ‘these concepts I superimposed’, ‘this feeling of pleasure or pain arises  in consequence’, ‘these emotional reactions arise in consequence’, etc. With the deepening of vipaśyanā, we see the interdependent and insubstantial nature of all experiences. This naturally frees us from bondage because the darkness of confused emotions and conceptual clinging cannot stand in the clear light of wisdom. Then, we can be at ease with all that arise and go about compassionately benefiting others without any hindrance.

 

At the very centre of Dharma practice is vipaśyanā – vividly seeing, not just believing. Isn’t that completely opposite of religion?

 

To be awakened, we need to gain complete mastery over our experiences. Running away from life’s experiences does not help. Living with eternal hope does not help. Closing the door to certain phenomena just because it does not fit into our belief system does not help. Believing in miracles does not help. Rejecting extraordinary experiences also does not help. We need to engage  in vipaśyanā – with non-grasping openness, ease and going beyond conceptual labels. Let confusions melt away.

 

The skilful means that is religious-like

Dharma is not about social customs or rituals. It is not about what you wear. It is not in your name. All of these work to enrich the mingling of mind with Dharma, provided the original simplicity, spaciousness and vipaśyanā remain at the centre stage.

The essential part of any path of Buddhism is vipaśyanā (insight meditation) to gain direct wisdom. That is utterly free from any religious notions, cultural context, etc. However, it is possible and effective to weave in some methods of habituating, mind-training, prayers, liturgies, visualization and other paraphernalia in to the practice of Dharma to make it work deeper and swifter. These are called skilful means – it is like using soap-water to clean hard dirt, though soap-water is not our goal. These may look religious if you do not understand the intent. Dharma is not about social customs or rituals. It is not about what you wear. It is not in your name. All of these work to enrich the mingling of mind with Dharma, provided the original simplicity, spaciousness and vipaśyanā remain at the centre stage.

 

If we cling on to such skilful means rigidly and religiously, then they are no more skilful means and we turn the practice of Buddhism into a religion. Then we are making a mistake. We should be careful about that. The real purpose of skilful means is to make the mind suppler and open to deeper and subtler experiences so as to make vipaśyanā’s penetration easier. The suitable skilful means for a person depend upon one’s habitual and cultural inclinations. Many such skilful means were given by the Buddha and many were added later by other masters in India. When Buddhism travelled to other regions of the world, skilful means were tweaked to suit to their specific inclinations. Skilful means may be borrowed from prevailing practices of religions or cultures. However, when it comes to the Buddhist context, a skilful mean is always practiced in tandem with vipaśyanā . Moreover, a skilful mean is understood to be merely a practice towards a goal and nothing to be taken as an absolute way.  It is always abandoned at a later stage as one sees the innate qualities of one’s mental continuum flourishing naturally without having to rely anymore on contrived means.

 

If there is anything religious that is compassion!

Finally, if there is anything religious about the Buddhist practice, that is the practice of compassion to all. If there is a religious duty to be performed, it is to be compassionate to all. Of course, even compassion is not a religious mandate, but a natural outcome of cultivating wisdom. When the fictitious notions of ego boundaries melt away, there is no difference between oneself and others, and compassion is quite natural. However, for a beginner, separately training on compassion through effort is necessary to cultivate wisdom beyond self-boundaries. Hence, there are beautiful religious expressions for training on compassion. As the Buddha said (from sattva-ārādhana-stavaṁ, In praise of worshipping sentient beings),

Devotion to me is only in benefiting sentient beings, there is none other.

Whosoever is not giving up on compassion is worshipping me.

Yogi Prabodha Jnana
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Yogi Prabodha Jnana
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