The difference between spirituality and religion, says Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, is that spirituality begins with questions, whereas religion often begins with answers. A lot of people are hoping for easy answers to life’s difficult questions, and are therefore quite content to cling to the outer forms of religion, which seem to provide those answers. Wear certain clothes, say certain words, avoid certain behaviors, and perform certain rituals, they’re told, and you’ll be guaranteed happiness and salvation. That certainty can be so comforting and seductive, like a warm, fuzzy blanket on a cold winter night. But the inner, esoteric dimension of religion — what we could think of as true spirituality — is full of questions, and questions are not warm and fuzzy.
To really engage with those questions, to go into them, is to embark upon a process of waking up that can be profoundly unsettling, because it provides little or nothing in the way of certainty or outward forms to which one can cling. As Thomas Merton once said, “In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is.” Neither waking up, nor being born, nor being truly born again, are necessarily pleasant to go through — they all involve leaving our comfort zones and entering a scary, unfamiliar world with harsh lighting. Few people have the stomach for such an undertaking; most would rather stay in the womb, in the dream, for as long as possible. Thus, the external forms of religion — the ones that seem to provide all the answers neatly tied up with a bow — appeal to those who prefer an easier, more comfortable path.
But for all of religion’s glaring faults, and despite our modern way of distancing ourselves from religion’s outer aspects, we are still drawn to its inner dimension. We are drawn to spirituality, and we yearn for meaning and for greater understanding and happiness. Although we are still attached to the comforts of the womb and the dream, we also long to finally be born, to finally wake up. And many of us are compelled to take up and follow the spiritual path because we feel a tremendous, instinctive revulsion towards the nightmare of materialism and nihilism and negativity that surrounds us today. Intuitively, we know that there has to be a better way. There has to be more than the hamster wheel on which we’ve been spinning out our lives. Something essential is being overlooked, and is in danger of being lost altogether. The inner, esoteric core of meaning that lies at the heart of religion calls to us, and we know it has something to teach us. And we know, too, if we’re honest with ourselves, that the modern Lone Ranger strategy of holding ourselves aloof from religion while still trying to dabble here and there in spirituality will give us broad coverage but probably not much depth.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there are three dimensions of spiritual experience: in addition to the outer and inner, there is also the “secret” dimension. It’s called secret because no one except you can really understand it or experience it. It is the innermost dimension of your own experience and your own nature — in other words, it is the moon itself, beyond all fingers and pointing. It’s also called “self-secret,” because it can be staring you right in the face (and it is, by the way) and you still won’t see it if you don’t know how to recognize it.
In an ideal world, all the forms of religion, and all our ways of engaging with them, are aimed at helping us learn to recognize our awakened nature — and, once recognized, to fully wake up and help others wake up from the collective nightmare we are having. If, on the other hand, we have convinced ourselves that we’re actually having a pleasant dream, and that having pleasant dreams is what life is really about, then waking up (and all the effort it requires) may not sound very appealing. Why bother? But people generally don’t come to the spiritual path — the true heart of religion, beyond religiosity — if they are happy and content with things as they are. They come because they are unhappy, and malnourished — and if they know what is good for them, they come seeking more than potato chips.