Saturday, August 7, 2010

Buddhism Beyond Religion?

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche stirred up American Buddhists this week with an article at Huffington Post posing the question: "Is Buddhism a religion?" The question touched a nerve, prompting more than 1,000 reader comments in just over a day.

In the article, Ponlop Rinpoche cautioned readers against equating religion with the path to enlightenment:

Siddhartha was a truth seeker, nothing more. He wasn't looking for religion, as such -- he wasn't particularly interested in religion. He was searching for the truth. He was looking for a genuine path to freedom from suffering. Aren't all of us searching for the same thing? If we look at the life of Siddhartha, we can see that he found the truth and freedom he was seeking only after he abandoned religious practices. Isn't that significant? The one who became the Buddha, the "Awakened One," didn't find enlightenment through religion -- he found it when he began to leave religion behind.

Ponlop Rinpoche went on to describe what he called "Buddhism beyond religion," an authentic spiritual path free from the hangups of religiosity. "Like Siddhartha," he wrote, "if we really want spiritual enlightenment we have to go beyond religiosity. We have to let go of clinging to preconceived religious forms and ideas and practices."

Tricycle senior editor James Shaheen, posting on Tricycle's blog, wondered whether Ponlop Rinpoche's proposed Buddhism beyond religion "would include rebirth, let alone reincarnation, and other elements based on belief rather than science."

In a subsequent exchange of comments (edited here for brevity), One Human Journey's Dennis Hunter took on Shaheen's question. Hunter wondered if the question itself might contain a misleading assumption that science and belief are diametrically opposed:

...Not everyone who “believes” in reincarnation/rebirth is just blindly accepting it because it’s traditional, or because they haven’t thought it through carefully. Some very reasonable and well-trained Western scientists (Dr. Charles Tart, for example; and Dr. Ian Stevenson at the University of Virginia) have looked at all the evidence available and done their own analysis and come to the conclusion that you can’t just dismiss rebirth as pure fantasy. I think it’s good to hold a balanced perspective on these things and not to fall to either the extreme of blind faith or the extreme of blind skepticism....

I think Ponlop Rinpoche’s main point in that article is not that Buddhism isn’t a religion, which seems to be the way a lot of people are taking it.... It’s that the essence of the Buddhist path is not about the religious trappings, or being a good religious person: all of that stuff is secondary to what really matters, which is your own open heart and open mind searching for truth and freedom.

Shaheen replied:

I did not say everyone who believes in rebirth is blindly accepting it because it’s traditional. And yes, intelligent people can believe in it, just as intelligent people can believe in transubstantiation. I’m just saying there is no scientific basis for it (it’s not in the same league with, say, natural selection). That’s just a fact....

I would agree with you about what’s important though, and it’s notable that you do not include rebirth or reincarnation. I would also be interested in knowing what “religious trappings” you refer to.

Hunter responded:

...Of course, you are right — rebirth is not included in science’s commonly accepted set of theories about reality, the way natural selection is. But when you jump from there to saying “there is no scientific basis for it,” it sounds like you are dismissing the scientific research that *is* being done on rebirth (which, granted, isn’t a lot, because this isn’t a popular topic of research in Western science — in fact, the bias against it is so strong that it might be perceived as something of a career-killer). Dr. Stevenson at U.Va has analyzed thousands of cases and found many whose particulars cannot be adequately explained except through a theory of rebirth. Is it still a theory, that requires some degree of faith to accept? Yes, but in the same way as having faith that consciousness is purely a material function of the brain. Both are theories. In our society, one of those theories is commonly lauded as The Truth, and the other is most often dismissed as irrational superstition. It concerns me to see many Buddhists falling into that same pattern....

As for what qualifies as “religious trappings,” this is another very interesting question. I suspect it’s very personal: what works for one person as a way to really connect with meaning is a religious trapping to someone else. And it’s cultural: what works for Tibetans doesn’t necessarily work for Americans. DPR’s teachings and writings seem increasingly geared towards finding the expression of genuine dharma (truth) that is most suited to Western minds, as opposed to the expression of dharma that is most suited to Tibetan minds. In his sangha, a lot of what Westerners would commonly regard as Tibetan “religious trappings” are largely absent. He doesn’t encourage traditionally Tibetan religious displays such as being greeted in anjali by his students, or sitting on brocades or high thrones (unless it’s appropriate to the occasion). Instead, he looks for ways to relate to his Western students on their own terms, with less of the cultural baggage of the religion as it was traditionally practiced by Tibetans.

As he suggests, we can even relate to statues of the Buddha as religious trappings. It depends on whether we regard them as icons of something holy and far-removed from us (and nearly impossible to attain), or examples of something that we ourselves can manifest. The former, it seems to me, is religious — and the latter is spiritual.

Read the entire exchange, including Shaheen's follow-up response, and add your thoughts.


Old Man Farm said...

We don't have to dress like someone in order to listen to what they're saying. Nice post. Thanks.

Old Man Farm said...

As for rebirth or reincarnation (not sure of the difference); the present understanding "here in this one"; is that "I" will not be reborn. However, the action that "I" am may be in some way. Maybe even the awareness that shines trough this one, this Brooke thingie, whatever it is :-) To me it's like (but more complicated) those steel balls that hang in a little frame that we sometimes keep on a desk top. More like whirlpools or smoke rings in my mind, but for the sake of a simpler example, it's easier to understand linear mechanics than fluid dynamics (which would also fall short of a true understanding). You pull an outside ball up and then let it go; the energy (inertia) is transferred from ball to ball and it makes the one on the other end pop out and gravity returns it to knock the others and causes the original one to be released to pop back out the other side...and so on until as suggested by the "laws" of thermodynamics the energy to continue this function is lost through sound and heat and friction etc. to entropy. Our awareness is not the balls and the frame or any part of the apparatus; but perhaps it is whatever moves through the thing and presents as movement. The apparatus is just the medium in which that awareness travels. Perhaps karma is another name for that which unseen, transfers from material object to material object, seen only by what it does or how it manifests. I really don't know, I'm just learning about this stuff. What's interesting though, is that it seems possible for this awareness to make "adjustments", so that the ripples it makes as it travels through the material (whatever material is??) create more or less difficulty, whether viewed as centered on that awareness that is a person, or generally not centered anywhere. This no doubt sounds like gibberish (in which I'm fluent); but I can't easily convert what I "see" (these are visual understands for me) into linear things like word understanding. I have such trouble with words as written or read. For me it's all pictures that I can't describe. Even to describe it as pictures is inaccurate and falls far short of what seems to be going on. Anyway, we in this form are only aware, to one degree or another, of how the action moves the world that is within the spectrum of human experience. We are not able to perceive of what is happening in the "background". We only experience the echoes of echoes as they bounce off one another. Our brain is perhaps just a complicated echo chamber and hall of mirrors, around which is created the idea of a boundary in order for the universe to "see" itself. All boundaries are ideas; all ideas are boundaries.

Dennis Hunter said...

Old Man Farm: For someone who claims to have difficulty with words, you are pretty damn eloquent. I like your metaphors.

Old Man Farm said...

Thanks for the compliment on eloquence; but does it make any sense whatsoever to anyone? These are just thoughts and images I have to try to explain and understand the world. In relative isolation I rally don't know how much value these thoughts have. It's why I just recently started "putting them out there". Mind can make up all kinds of nonsense through this particular "prescription". I seek guidance in this seeing. I don't want to end up with wonky glasses that further distort how the world is seen.