Recently, while reading Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche’s blog entitled “Is Buddhism a Religion?” I was surprised by the number of comments below the blog post that seemed to have a strident or combative tone. I was reminded of what my Buddhist teachers taught about how to relate to questions and the art of inquiry.
There are many perspectives you can take on the question, “Is Buddhism a religion?” A good Buddhist response to the question might be, “So what if it is? So what if it isn’t?” Once when asked “What is Zen?” my teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi answered, “Whatever you say, that is Zen. Whatever you say, that is not Zen.” Then, Roshi would say, “Do you understand?” Our blank stares gave the answer.
With a mischievous chuckle, Roshi would begin to explain that words can’t contain the whole truth. When we use words to talk about the truth, it’s like pointing a finger at the moon. So becoming attached to a particular answer to a question is like thinking that only your finger – and no one else’s – can point at the moon. If two people think this way, they end up fighting about their fingers, and forget all about the moon.
In the stream of comments on Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche’s blog post, there was more than one instance of furious finger-fighting. (Oh my god. I hope I’m not finger-fighting right now.)
An important element in a Buddhist approach to this or any question is to be mindful of the effect the question has on you. How and where does your mind move when you hear it and consider it? In what way are you invested in getting an answer to this question?
When I think of the question, “Is Buddhism a religion?” I see how answering either “yes” and “no” would leave out important aspects of Buddhism that are extremely rich, aspects I wouldn’t want to lose. As long as I keep in mind that yes is not a jail and no is not a jail, I’m free to appreciate that the answer is both yes and no. Yes and no are each a valid entryway into what Buddhism has to offer.
One person may hear a statement like ‘Buddhism is a religion’ and feel very comfortable, while another may hear it and “go ‘round the bend.” If you remember that words only have the meaning we give to them, then you can appreciate any question (or statement) as a mirror that you look into, to see how your mind is working.
If you try to settle a question with a final answer, or start defending a particular statement, you destroy the mirror. You miss the opportunity to see more deeply into the workings of your mind.
A while back, one of my hypnotherapy students became extremely angry at her fellow students for their lack of punctuality in coming to class. When she couldn’t take it another minute, she began voicing her frustration with them, defending her position with ideas of right and wrong, rude and polite, considerate and inconsiderate, and so on. Everyone in class became annoyed with her for making a mountain out of a molehill.
Because it’s an experiential class, I asked her to focus on her anger and look into it, to see if the anger might have a deeper cause than being offended by others’ rudeness. With a little help, she soon remembered being a little girl in Germany during World War II. She had been visiting her grandparents in the country and had missed the train home. Back in the city, much later than usual, she arrived to find that her home had been destroyed by Allied bombs and her parents killed. If only she had been on time! Maybe she could have had those last precious moments with her parents. She broke into sobs.
When her classmates heard this story and witnessed her grief, their irritation with her dissolved. And because she had discovered the real reason for her irritation with them — the real answer to the real question — she was released from her desperate obsession with being on time.
Everyone in the class now changed their attitude about being on time. Punctuality stopped being a rule to be enforced by some and selfishly ignored, or rebelled against, by others. Classmates stopped seeing each other as being right or wrong, or good or bad depending upon their choice to be on time or to be late to class. Because choosing to make the effort to be punctual was no longer a point of contention, it became an opportunity to support each other with compassion.
If you think of questions as a way to greater clarity and freedom, it changes the way you relate to them. Instead of trying to defend one right answer (for example, “punctuality” being the answer to “lateness”) you contemplate. You ask yourself, “Is this my real question? Is this the real answer?” In this inquiry, your questions and answers become stepping stones to a more profound Q & A.
Questions and answers in Buddhism are not meant to settle any matter. Their purpose is to sharpen the intellect and to awaken the best in the human heart/mind by removing confused thinking. When you use Q&A in this way, you find both healing and liberation.
So . . . Is Buddhism a religion? Is it important to be on time? Is reality for or against you?
May you discover why you care about the questions and answers you really care about. May you go beyond enforcing, ignoring, and rebelling against rules and doctrines. May your questions and answers become contemplations that bring you healing and freedom.