Not a Religion Twice in One Day

I was walking down Washington St. near Polk a few years back, and passed a small church that had been taken over by the Chinese.  An elderly gentleman standing in front asked me “do you know Jesus?”  My answer was  “do you know Kuan Yin?”

The life of an American Buddhist.  I almost envy this immigrant population who could so easily toss their cultural heritage on the scrap heap to accept whatever was being sold to them as part of “being an American.”  Do they envy me being born into a Christian culture and indoctrinated for 14 years?  Probably they simply envy me being born an American, something like winning the Birth Lottery.  I suppose they wouldn’t envy my 30 years of floating before finding my “true faith.”

14 years old is a long ways back;  late sixties, living in San Diego.  That would be when I read “The Way of Zen” by Alan Watts.  No big transformation or sudden “enlightenment,” just not much interested in going to our Presbyterian Church anymore.  I read more in Buddhism over the next 10 years, but also read through the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita (yes, I had to look up the spelling on that), the Tao Te Ching and most other religious texts that came my way.

It was “The Three Pillars of Zen” by Phillip Kapleau that put me back onto that “Buddhism kick,” as my mother liked to call it.  It was more than a book explaining Buddhist ideas or history.  It was by an American who had truly become a Buddhist.  It spoke to me directly, as I’m sure Roshi Kapleau had intended.  I started a meditation practice in my tiny college apartment and considered traveling to Rochester to train.

“Consider” was most of what I did.  Life not changed, collegiate drinking binges not avoided; just a bit more thoughtful about it all.  It was ten years later that everything fell together at once.  Living in Los Angeles with a career in the traveling entertainment business (OK, I was a Roadie) and a burgeoning cocaine habit, it all changed at once.

I read “Being Nobody, Going Nowhere” by Ayya Khena;  I packed up everything I owned and drove towards Vancouver; I settled in Bellingham, WA because that’s where my car broke down;  I began attending meditation and services at Lion’s Gate Buddhist Priory in Vancouver.

Does that all seem to blend together.  It does in my memory.  I can hardly pick any of the threads out of that time.  I won’t say that Buddhism saved my life.  It was the key to a transformation that other recovered addicts might attribute to Jesus, to Bill W or to the “love of a good man/woman.”  It culminated in taking my Lay Vows at a Ju Kai retreat at Shasta Abbey in Mt. Shasta CA, followed by months of Lay Practice at the Monastery.  I might have stayed.  I didn’t.

All being prelude to today.  By some trick of fate, I was told twice in one day that “Buddhism isn’t a religion.”  Once in the comments of The Friendly Atheist and once while listening to (of all things) Bertrand Russell’s “What I Believe.”  It’s a bit late to argue with Professor Russell, not to mention intellectually intimidating.  I did put up a small fight in the comment section, just to point out that the majority of Buddhists would beg to differ.

Where did this idea come from?  I was once told that the Baptists had started it and it made sense to me.  Instead of converting the competition, make them cease to exist by definition.  But this doesn’t hold up for me.  I find that most of the “Buddhism is just a philosophy” rhetoric coming from Western Buddhists.  Or Western admirers of Buddhism like Professor Russell.  See, for example, Stephen Batchelor’s “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.”

What’s my opinion?  I am a reverent, devotional, practicing Buddhist.  Whatever I am practicing, it sure feels like a religion to me.  What does Webster have to say:

  1. a : the state of a religious <a nun in her 20th year of religion> b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
  2. : a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
  3. archaic : scrupulous conformity : conscientiousness
  4. : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

What about that is hard for the “not a religion” crowd to accept:  it’s 1.b(1) “…God or the supernatural.”  So many in the West have broken free or radically departed from Christianity.  They associate Christianity with “God and the Supernatural,” and they have terminated their faith with extreme predjudice.  This is not their fault.  Christianity is an insidious and sticky miasma.  In most cases it takes a great effort to get free after a lifetime of soaking in it.

These people are left empty.  They have a gap that was once filled, what philosophers have called a “thirst for meaning.”  Coming upon Buddhism, they do find meaning and many find peace, but…they will not define what they have found as a religion.  A religion is what they left behind.

As for the many Atheists who wish to claim that Buddhism is not a religion, I can only assume that they want to swell their ranks with a quick semantic trick, while taking millions out of the “opposition.”  I understand.  It’s a lonely world for professed Atheists.  Here in America, they are one of the last “acceptable” oppressed minorities.  We have a constitutional right to “freedom of religion” but no right whatever to freedom from religion.

My experience was different than all of that.  I like religion(s), almost all of them.  I like Cathedrals in Europe, Bach Cantatas, Sufi Poetry, the Tales of Arjuna.  I like silk robes, incense and chanting the Prajna Paramita.  In grandeur and in simplicity, I feel closer to the religious than the mundane.

What about that “God and the Supernatural” part?  Do I believe that the Buddha visited the Tushita Heaven and preached to the Gods?  Do I believe that the Bodhisattvas surround us and answer our calls.  I don’t really know.  When I look for faith or belief my focus slips away from an answer.  That doesn’t keep me from defining my practice, and the practice of millions of others, as a religion.  What else could it be?  One simply doesn’t offer incense and 108 bows to a philosophy.

Well…that was a long way to go, but I guess when an obscure question is so pointedly addressed to you, it must be time to answer it.  Is Buddhism a religion?  YES!

Thanks for reading.  Comment if you like.


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Know lots of stuff about (mostly) meaningless things.

6 thoughts on “Not a Religion Twice in One Day”

  1. Very insightful article. If I can ask, when/how did you talk to your parents about your Buddhist faith? I’m a soon-to-be college freshman. Do you have any advice or experiences you could share?

  2. Unfortunately, I could tell my parents where I was at, but I could never explain it to them. They weren’t even very religious people, but had spent their whole lives as Christians. I kept thinking there would be one book or article or something that I could ask them to read and a light would dawn.

    My father passed away without that moment coming. Maybe I’ll find some way to talk to my mother.

  3. Great post. I think Buddhism is a big enough idea to contain a wide range of practitioners, adherents, and admirers. There’s no contest to win with regard to the symantic argument about the word “religion”.

  4. I too am a practicing buddhist. My path was similar in nature of exploration. My full awakening came when I attended a Lecture by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, on the National Mall in Washington DC. It was the closest thing to a conversion, Saul on the road to Tarsus, moment anyone can hope to experience. The tears just ran down my face. The rest is history. I have attempted many times to explain this in these same Christian terms to my Protestant parents and they will not accept the validity of my experience. I have even lent them a couple of books about Jesus and the possibility of his having studied in the East on the “spice trail’. I have discussed the notion of Christ as a teaching Buddha… they’re not having it. I just keep it on the down-low for the sake of family peace.

  5. Unfortunately, many Christians don’t know very much about their religion. They cloak their lack of knowledge with more “faith.” It makes it hard to have an open discussion.

    The Dalai Lama is a marvelous speaker. He makes the case for Buddhism as few others can do. Did you carry on from there in the Tibetan tradition? I’ve always found that to be a bit too esoteric for me 🙂

  6. I try to get to the Dalai Lama’s teachings in the US when I can afford to. Mostly when he is in NYC.

    I think the esoterica appealed to me. LOL Yes, I have continued in the Tibetan tradition and am really blessed to have a temple within seven miles of my home. It is the headquarters of the Buddhist Society of America and home to the largest indoor Buddha in the Western Hemisphere. Took my young granddaughters there this summer and they were awed. The seven year old was very eager to learn all about Buddhism. I think she is a really old soul. When she was about three months old and I was holding her on my shoulder, she shifted position, put her forehead against mine and look directly into my eyes for a long time. We’ve had a special connection ever since.

    BTW- came to your blog post via PMC, so I knew you were a kindred spirit. Namaste

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