Sunday, November 22, 2009

Spirituality or Religion?

The Lone Ranger

These days, everybody wants to be spiritual but nobody wants to be religious. Religion is a dirty word. Religion, we think, is for people who've bit the hook, who've gone in too far, who've drunk the Kool-Aid. Religion, we think, means giving up your autonomy, ceding control to someone else, becoming a sheep in the flock. Religion, we think, means 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, we feel more drawn to the Lone Ranger archetype of the spiritual seeker, the adventuresome and independent philosopher who pursues justice and truth wherever he 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.

All Paths Lead to God

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 millenia, religions have a tendency to become too heavily encrusted in their own exoteric forms, to get too caught up in their own bullshit and forget 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. 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. Lacking the proper training to interpret the mystical, symbolic descriptions of ultimate reality that often appear in religious texts, they 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. The majority of religious people, too, are simply obeying the rules of behavior 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.

The difference between spirituality and religion, says the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, is that spirituality begins with questions, whereas religion begins with answers. The outer forms of religions tend to be full of answers; many religious people are looking for easy answers to life's questions, and are therefore quite content to cling to the outer forms. 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 is so comforting and seductive, like a warm, fuzzy blanket on a cold winter night. But the inner, esoteric dimension of religion -- what we 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 engage in 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. 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 comforting, external forms of religion -- the ones that provide all the answers -- are much more appealing to the masses.

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 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. 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 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 spirituality -- or religion -- 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 will come seeking more than potato chips.


Stephen said...

Dennis - It occurs to me that your readership are likely to be a quiet and contemplative lot, given the nature and subject of your writing. If we don't often pipe up with rants, raves, and "me toos", at least know that we're out here appreciating your thoughtful discourse. -Stephen

Televoid said...


Stephen said...

...and then there's Randy. :-)