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:
- 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
- : a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
- archaic : scrupulous conformity : conscientiousness
- : 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.