Buddhism without the Buddha


This blog post by Vince Horn of Buddhist Geeks strikes a lot of notes that I hear people asking about when they are curious about Buddhism in Western countries. Or maybe I should say, people who are not familiar with Buddhism — and who live in non-Buddhist countries — frequently ask about these matters:

Secularizing Buddhism — Making It Accessible, or Stripping the Roots?

One of the clearest things I ever read on this topic was in Brad Warner’s book Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate — which I lent to a friend and may never see again, so I’m not able to quote it exactly. Warner is not the most reverent or traditional Buddhist teacher you’ll ever meet (not by a long shot!), but at one point in the book he goes off on a short tangent about people who believe you can reap the benefits of Zen meditation without including any Buddha-Dharma.

He finds that idea baseless and unsupportable, basically saying that the people who are trying to do that are eating a sandwich made of bread with nothing in the middle.

Warner is a Zen teacher who’s not fond of days-long silent retreats, endless chanting, or even wearing his official teacher robes (this is all in the book). He’s not talking about rituals; he’s talking about Dharma, about fundamental teachings, when he says it’s no good to cut the religion out of Buddhism.

Vince Horn is on the same track when he writes about secularization of Buddhism in the West. But at the same time, he points out that Buddhism, in its 2,500 years of practice, has been adapted to many different cultures:

If you’ve spent anytime studying the history of Buddhism, you’d see pretty quickly that it is an ancient and constantly evolving religious tradition. It has a series of both practices and beliefs that have spread and mixed with many other influences. Buddhism as it entered Tibet from India melded and mixed with the Shamanistic Bon tradition there. As it entered China it mixed with Confusionist and Taoist influences, and now as it enters America it is mixing with our scientific culture and strange beliefs about the extreme difference between religion and science.

I feel distinctly uncomfortable whenever I hear someone say, “Buddhism is not a religion.” Horn wrote:

… there is a kind of violence in trying to strip something from its historical roots, and also a kind of arrogance in thinking that we can even do that successfully.

Yes, yes — that matters, and it matters very much.

Now, just as Protestants started practicing Christianity without the Latin Mass, without celibate clergy, and without swinging a censor full of incense around inside their churches, I think Buddhists in the West can change some of the external practices of Buddhism as well without destroying (or forgetting) the foundations and the essential teachings, such as the Four Noble Truths. There is a living, breathing baby who must not be thrown out with the bathwater.

This is not to say that secular practices adapted from Buddhist practices (e.g., Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) should be scrapped or changed. However, I think it’s essential to make a distinction and say clearly that there is Buddhism, which is a religion, complete with practices and beliefs and history — and there are other techniques and programs, possibly inspired by Buddhism, which are neither religious nor based in religion.

So, don’t say, “Buddhism is not a religion.” If you’re doing something that’s not a religion, please don’t call it “Buddhism.”



6 responses

  1. The Buddha referred to his teachings as *shiksha* – a term that means “system of training.” (Source: Red Pine)

    In my view, this puts a very different light on the teachings and practices.

    What are we training for?

  2. Very interesting analogies here, and I am not sure that there is a conclusion or point, which by the way is not bad (or good for that matter.) I like it, it raises questions, and afterall only we can answer such personal questions as this. Thanks.

  3. Thanks for reading and commenting, everyone. I have even heard Dharma teachers say Buddhism is not a religion, and I really wish they would phrase that differently — maybe say it’s not like Western religions, in that there is no God as a central figure, etc.

    Sort of following after what Barry wrote here — if you’re a Dharma teacher, then what are you teaching?