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.

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.

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  1. avatar torches for Dharma Cave says:

    Practice reveals all, but little monkeys love to dance.

    They get to wear funny outfits, and climb over the audience.

    Should they earn more than a penny for it? Its debatable, and most likely a job for PETA. The ad campaign would be delicious.

  2. avatar Judith says:

    I didn’t understand a word you said. Define what you think spirituality is. Spirituality to me is being at peace within myself; appreciating the world in which I live; accepting all people no matter who they are; and living a life of integrity.

    In my journey of life, I always questioned the religion on which I was attached. No one could give me any answers or direction, therefore, it took me 70 years to find out for myself. Now I understand that my spirituality is finding peace within myself and not worrying about what other folks think of me.

    The Christian church was the worst offender in trying to find myself. How can one find spirituality when one is always told they are sinful and unclean and there is nothing one can do to please a Creator?

    Well, I found peace. No thanks to the Christian Church. I like what Saint Francis de Sales is quoted as saying, “Do not wish to be anything but what you are, and to be that perfectly.”


  3. avatar Jonathan says:

    totally with you on all this. ‘Start with questions and not answers’ – that is a great way of putting it. The ‘secret dimension’ – I am totally with you on that one. This has become very clear to me recently.

    A lot of the reaction against religion in all its forms is actually a problem in its own right. It is one thing to be intelligently skeptical but there is a strong current of anti-anything-spiritual around also. ‘Hatheism’ I call it – ‘hates anything religious’. That is definitely a delusionary state. Einstein said ‘atheists are those who still feel the weight of their chains’. It is part of the same syndrome.

    Also different religious forms and levels of teaching appeal to different people, Face it, few can deal with esoteric spiritual instruction. It takes dedication, commitment, intelligence, and the ability to read between the lines. Buddhism overall appeals to intelligent and self-motivated people because you have to be like that to get on board. Not everyone is the same way though.

    Anyway – great articles, your writing is excellent.

  4. avatar Gloria says:

    This article resonated with this heart and this mind utterly. Can only offer pranams and heartfelt gratitude for it.


  5. avatar Warren says:

    I enjoyed reading about the “secret dimension”.
    When I became aware of this within myself a brand new level began in my life. A inner peace that was only available to me. I now try to encourage this awareness in others and continue to grow my own. A well spoken article. Thank you for spending the time.

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