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.