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Dennis Hunter publishes a popular website on Buddhism and spirituality, One Human Journey, and writes the weekly feature "21st-Century Buddhism" on the Interdependence Project blog. A long-time resident of New York City, he is currently living as a temporary monk at a Buddhist monastery in Canada.

More than one-fifth of Americans describe themselves as Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR). The SBNR label is one of the fastest-growing spiritual affiliations in the West today. Its popularity suggests a curious paradox. Many people are drawn to spiritual teachings and practices and are seeking spiritual experience, but they are repelled by religious institutions and religiosity. Religion, from this point of view, has become something of a dirty word. Religion is for people who’ve bit the hook, who’ve gone in too far, who’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. It means giving up your autonomy, ceding control to someone else, becoming a sheep in the flock. It requires abandoning your critical intelligence and adopting someone else’s ideas and codes of behavior. 

Our modern aversion to religion, our mistrust of it, is not unfounded. So numerous are the abuses, absurdities, hypocrisies, lies and murders that have been perpetrated in the name of religion, that to attempt to describe them accurately would fill an entire library. Sadly, the faces of the religious are too often exactly the faces of those sheep we do not wish to become.

These days, a lot of people feel more drawn to the Lone Ranger archetype of the spiritual seeker, the adventuresome and independent philosopher who pursues justice and truth wherever he or she may find it, without getting bogged down in the bureaucracy and laws of religion. Yet there is something a bit suspect about this archetype, as well. Without the guidance and structure of religion, the Lone Ranger too easily falls into a habit of spiritual snacking: munching potato chips of wisdom here and there, but never really sitting down to eat a proper meal. This mentality is encouraged by the modern spiritual scene, a multicultural smorgasbord where anyone can, with a little effort, endlessly sample teachings drawn from this tradition and that, putting together a personalized mash-up of little bits of spiritual wisdom from here and there, and dabbling now in this practice and now in that one. There is nothing wrong with exploring the range of wisdom that is out there. But we would be mistaken to think that the Lone Ranger strategy of spiritual snacking is really going to nourish us in any meaningful way. However tasty they may be, potato chips are not the same thing as a real meal, and we can make ourselves sick if potato chips are all we ever eat.

Within every religion, there are always two dimensions: the outer, more superficial dimension, and the inner, more profound dimension. (In academic terms, we would call these the exoteric and esoteric dimensions, respectively.) The inner, profound dimension carries that religion’s genuine spiritual teachings, while the outer, superficial dimension carries its forms and its traditions and its cultural accretions, its outward observances. At the birth of every religion, the inner, profound dimension is dominant, and runs strongly towards mystical, transcendent experience; but over time, this inner dimension is encrusted and hidden within the outer, superficial layer that grows thicker and thicker as the years and centuries pass. The inner, profound dimension never entirely disappears, but it may become hidden to such a degree that only someone who has diligently penetrated through the outer layers and engaged with them fully can really get to the inner core of wisdom that lies at their center.

Oddly enough, it seems to be the case that the inner core of wisdom within every religion puts forward a set of essential teachings that sound strikingly similar to the essential teachings of every other religion. It is usually the outer, superficial layers that look very different from one religion to the next. When you get right down to it, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between the esoteric teachings of mystical Christianity, mystical Judaism, mystical Hinduism, mystical Islam, and mystical Buddhism. The formless Dharmakaya of the Buddhists sounds a lot like the formless God of the Christian mystics, and like the formless G-d of the Kabbalists, and like the formless, non-dual reality of the Advaita-Vedantists. All these systems attempt to describe ultimate reality using different words and cultural references, but they are all fingers pointing to the same moon — there can, after all, be only one moon, regardless of where on Earth you stand. But there can be many fingers, and many ways of pointing, and many disagreements about fingers and ways of pointing — and in the end, there can be genocide to prove that this finger is pointing to the moon more correctly than that one, and genocide can take place beneath the light of that very moon.

So we are right to be a bit wary of religion. Over the centuries, or millennia, religions have a tendency to become too heavily encrusted in their own exoteric forms and cultural accretions, perhaps even losing touch with the meaning of the essential teachings that lie at their core. Religions are human institutions, after all, and are subject to human corruption and ignorance and greed and avarice. And sadly, many decent people who embrace religion — even with the best intentions — do so only at the outer, superficial level. Too often, they embrace the forms and the traditions without comprehending their meaning — because nobody explains it to them — with an overly simplistic belief that by doing so they will somehow be saved. Sadly, Buddhism is no exception. “Even basic Buddhist teachings such as refuge are now being taken theistically because of inadequate explanation,” says Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. “When we chant prayers like ‘I take refuge in the Buddha,’ we barely mention – and we therefore ignore – its essential meanings such as knowing that one’s ultimate nature is the Buddha.”

Lacking the proper training to interpret the mystical, symbolic descriptions of ultimate reality that often appear in religious texts, people often take these descriptions literally, at face value, and in doing so they become blind to the true meaning of the teachings. They become fixated on the finger, and forget all about the moon — like dogs, who simply stare at your finger when you point at something. Instead of looking where you’re pointing, dogs wait for the snack, the reward for being a good dog, which they are convinced is hidden within your pointing hand. Quite a few people, too, are simply obeying one religious code of behavior or another while staring at the hand and waiting for their reward. If you have any doubt about this, turn on the TV and watch the news, and see what religious people around the world are doing to each other. If they had any idea of the meaning of the teachings they claim to be following, it would be impossible for them to do such things.

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  1. avatar A nectar by any other name says:

    Some might say there is nothing new under the sun… but what do they know?

    “Furthermore, the unfolding of the Dattātreya icon illustrates the development of Yoga as a synthetic and inclusive body of ideologies and practices. Although fundamentally a jñāna-mūrti, Dattātreya is a “honey bee” Yogin: one whose character and teachings are developed by gathering varieties of Yoga’s flowers. For all religious groups whose propensity it is to include ideas, practices, and teaching from the ocean of traditions, Dattātreya is truly a paradigm.”

    • avatar SvR says:

      @ a nectar by any other name: As a beekeeper, I especially appreciate the “paradigm of the Dattātreya” – thank you for the very interesting insight.

  2. avatar Karma Yeshe Gyaltsen says:

    Your description of the lone, solitary seeker describes Lord Buddha, yet you seem to have a problem with it?

    The arguement that exploring and employing spiritual techniques from differing traditions is akin to snacking on potato chips seems to be a disparagement of other traditions. In fact HH Dalai Lama has recommended such practices. Many non Buddhists have benefited, for example, by bringing Buddhist techniques of Mindfulness into their own traditions and practices. You therefore seem to be making the case that mindfulness is not nourishing, is spiritual junk food.

    The various spiritual techniques of the many world religions are the collective heritage of humanity, and should not be disparaged. A common delusion of the “newly converted” is that they cling to the ego illusion that they are somehow superior in having found a superior teaching or teacher. Folks should ignore this at their own peril.

    Rather, we might attempt to get over the notion that our particular path is more correct than others. It is this very view that led to religions becoming “too heavily encrusted in their own exoteric forms and cultural accretions” in the first place. Perhaps we should try to follow His Holiness’ lead and tear down those walls.

    Lord Buddha, in advising the Kalamas on how to address the various contending teachings advised them in so many words to examine them, and determine whether they lead to the good, to awakening, or not.

    Of course, as with any learning process, a knowledgable guide is helpful.

    An interesting worldly example: A while back, various professional sports teams started to give ballet lessons to their athletes, something previously unheard of, but with good results. Those coaches were skillful, and not bound by tradition or labels or by the common notion that you can’t mix traditions.

    In today’s global society, one hopes that our guides will not repeat the errors of the past, and will be open to good and “conducive to awakening” explorations, wherever found, be they artistic, scientific, or so-called spiritual.

    To do otherwise is to risk deviating from the very Buddhist teachings that you are advocating, in that bodhicitta is the common inheritance of humanity, and we are not separate from one another.

    Indeed, the “different fingers pointing to the same moon” metaphor can be quite misleading and suggests the question:

    Who is qualified to lead others on this quest? I would say anyone who has realized that there is no distinction at all between the finger and the moon, and at the same time has overcome their conditioning to clinging to any particular form of disseminating the teachings. Who have the courage and insight to simply walk away from the accretions of the ages and to use whatever means will work.

    In other words, those who are effective.

    This whole thing boils down to problem inherent in the notion that the teaching needs a container. For me, that is entirely open to question. That proposition has been stated, but never examined or proven.

    Perhaps only the awakened mind can contain that which can’t be contained?

    Original Buddhism, democracy and Christianity, for example, all thrived and spread without need of an institutional container. The container in each case was the hearts and minds of those who realized those teachings.

    best wishes

    KYG

    • avatar Robert Bullock says:

      Those are excellent points, Karma Yeshe.

      However, I feel that the institutions are beneficial in many ways. They preserve, translate and disseminate teachings from our various traditions. They often engage in charitable activities (Catholic hospitals, for example, which provide a lot of low cost or free health care to the poor).

      Regarding spiritual snacking, I don’t think there’s anything to be lost exploring various traditions, only something to be gained. However, if we only take a little taste of each and never go very deep, how much can we really benefit? I think that was the point, not that there’s any single tradition that has exclusive claim to the truth.

      Your post is excellent, though! The kind of thoughtful back and forth exchange that I find so stimulating and beneficial for my brain. ;-)

  3. I have taken to telling people lately when asked, “Yes, I am a ‘spiritual’ person but I also happen to be very religious.”

    First, the “spiritual person” phrase sounds so trite to me, but I know what they mean. Yet, I question our naming ourselves that. It’s kinda like a literature SAYING it’s post modern…well…that’s for literary history to discern.

    Second, religions are maps but people mistake them, as you point out (ha), for the territory. Without a map of SOME SORT, you are going to get lost or you’ll find yourself wandering around on the edges.

    That map will take you deeper and deeper into the territory.

    This is why the Dalai Lama tells people NOT to “become” buddhists. He says you were born into a religion this time around for a reason and that it may just be your JOB to figure out why. He tells people that they are all essentially the same and will get you to the same place, so work with what you have.

  4. avatar Robert J. Bullock says:

    Wow, Dennis… that’s brilliant! Exactly what I’ve tried to explain to my friends and family who are so down on religion.

    I understand where they’re coming from… Religion has often been used to control and exploit people and they are justifiably paranoid for that reason.

    However, we need to realize that religion is not going away, and we’d be worse off if it did. We don’t need to reject it, we need to evolve it.

  5. avatar SvR says:

    Of the three jewels of Buddhism, the “sangha” is the often the most troublesome of the lot. What, and who, does it, or should it, include? Is it really necessary, and if it is, at what point in our spiritual journey is it necessary? Does it’s importance in our journey wan, like the moon? The historical Buddha, for example, seems to have experimented with various sanghas, and found it necessary to part from them at some point to go it alone, only to emerge as the center of a new sangha which developed around his enlightened presence.
    I like Karma Yeshe’s call for tolerance with respect to religious traditions, while at the same time, pointing out the need for non-attachment with respect to those forms. Likewise, the individual is also a unique expression of “the collective heritage of humanity.” We are all a product of that which came before us, and we all carry with us the impulse to create the world anew. To my mind, it is natural that our journey toward self-liberation should draw on those structures and forms most familiar to us, which are then radically transformed through our mindfulness of the present moment.
    It seems that by its very nature, mindfulness is a solitary practice; no one can do it for you, and the experience of any moment is very difficult to convey to others. In that sense, the spiritual journey inward is always a solitary endeavor. No one else can experience the Self, except the Self.
    Paradoxically, however, that solitary journey often ripens a deep sense of interdependence and compassion towards others. Generosity – the willingness to share ourselves with others, also arises. To their credit, religious structures create, to varying degrees, opportunities for individuals to share themselves with others: through communal prayer and worship, through charity, and through the creation of collective traditions. In this regard, they deepen the human expression of spiritual experiences.
    Perhaps this is essence of “sangha”: the sharing of ourselves with others. To the extent religious structures enable a greater level of human expression and sharing, they benefit us along an otherwise solitary journey.

    • avatar Karma Yeshe Gyaltsen says:

      SvR said
      “To my mind, it is natural that our journey toward self-liberation should draw on those structures and forms most familiar to us, which are then radically transformed through our mindfulness of the present moment.”

      Sometimes a skillful teacher can deliberately present us with structures and forms that are ~not~ familiar. Habitual tendancies can indeed fall to the sword of mindfulness, but leaving our comfort zone can be a great expedient.

      Indeed it’s not hard to see examples of how some folks can become too familiar with the knowledge base of a teaching, and use that to sheild the ego against any real change. On the other hand a voyage into unfamiliar territory can sometimes wake up even the most jaded.

      best wishes

      KYG

      • avatar svr says:

        @ kyg so true, but even when presented with unfamiliar forms and structures, it is our natural tendency to perceive them through the lens of whatever has become most familiar to us.

        Sometimes a very skilled teacher, a traumatic event, or loss, can enable us to perceive the world in a truly new way. Sometimes it happens more gently, as a ripened moment of grace.

        I’ve traveled all around the world, but seldom have I seen the world anew, and the times when I’ve been startled by the world’s freshness, have been very ordinary moments indeed.

        regards!

  6. avatar carloslokko says:

    CONFESSION TIME…

    I agree with everyone’s so I won’t repeat what’s been said already. My first inclination is to align/take sides and further solidify the conceptual separation (dualistic perspective) religious path vs lone ranger path.
    Seems to me that this are great topics to discuss with an open mind and keeping in check our “us vs them” tendency on the topic.
    When my drive/intention for engaging, discussing and analyzing this topic feels tight and ‘juicy’, it’s most likely to strengthen the conceptual walls (team building) of pro religion or anti religion. Can we really draw a line in the sand (famous words “you’re either with us or against us”)? I have to confess that my (spiritual) pride and arrogance, are the main obstacle to an open investigation of this topic. I don’t want to define/label/oversimplify MY journey with a particular religion and at the same time, I have invited myself to criticize/label/define THEM.
    Hmmmm… Woody Allen said in “Annie Hall”,
    (paraphrasing) I don’t want to belong to a club that has me as a member…

    Looking in the mirror while not wanting to accept that we are key component of that reflexion, is the root of my conflict – ignorance.

  7. Thanks for all these insightful comments. Like Carlos, I agree with almost everything people have said so far (even when that would seem self-contradictory!). Be sure to look for Part 2 of this piece in the blog section, as it carries some of these ideas a little further. Of course no single or even two-part blog post could really do justice to this profound topic, which goes to the very heart of the spiritual path. Maybe the best approach, as Carlos suggests, is to sit with these as open questions, and let them remain open. I like the way the editors captured those essential questions at the top of both posts. Food for contemplation.

    Happy reading!
    Dennis

  8. avatar Gloria says:

    A Sikh friend (actually more elder sister than friend) calls me a butterfly. Her husband calls me a frog. They are saying the same thing. And i would probably be categorized as spiritual but not religious, so far…happily so. While i was born into Catholicism (mom was Italian Catholic but of Jewish ancestry) and father was adamant atheist but of Jewish ancestry…i explored various religions until in each one i hit a WALL. The wall was a matter of resonance. The longest period in study was undergone in studying India which included many paths…it was not strictly all academic to ‘my’ mind. Ultimately i arrived at the realization that the path of the Boddhisattva called like a Siren to heart and Vajrayana made most sense to this mind.

    i share all this personal information because though just one human being i do not believe ‘my’ story is unique at all. Being born into a religion doesn’t mean the religion fits…it can be extremely ill-fitting. Resonance matters.

    What i do resonate with in what i read above is that one can arrive at a point where one realizes to go deepest one must not only open up to synthesis and expansiveness but yes…depth. For depth…for the roots to go to the center of Truth a commitment may well be entailed. One can have experiences…peak experiences and still be left wandering in the proverbial desert. i cannot speak for everyone…i can only speak for myself and to my own understandings of lived-in experience but i feel guides who have gone wider and deeper are most useful and for some of us, most needed.

    A great guide can see where your mind is at and put up a mirror so you can see what is mere reflection. A great guide can take you further though it is you that must keep undertaking the journey. A great guide will speak to you truthfully and use skillful means.

    This can take place in any religion. i feel it is a matter of listening to Life as Guru and then being open to all the many gurus (who is not guru) but also being potentially open to Gurus/Teachers who have insight and help us continue along in our journey.

    i don’t reject the value of religion and/or spirituality…the value of Guides is above all price, imo.

    Pranams to everyone. :o D

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