Marx was wrong: religion as the compass of the massesWhen religion comes up in a conversation people can react either negatively or positively depending on their individual background with certain faith traditions and its respective community.
When I speak with a person about religion, my mode of interaction can vary. Depending on the religion and the attitude of the person I am speaking with, I can be avoidant or open to discussion. I have invested a large amount of time in religious groups studying and observing different paths of spirituality and philosophy. I have also spent an equal amount of time, and exerted more mental energy, with the social groups of agnostics, anti-theist/atheists, and champions of reason.
I will have to declare at this point that I side with reason. Compared to a religious person, an individual whose primary mode of engaging with the world is through reason and rationality, in my opinion, is more open and intelligent.
If a label need be applied to my thoughts about God, the creator master of the universe and everything therein, then I would call myself an agnostic. I do not know if God is a she, an it, a he or a force. I am neither certain of God’s existence nor am I 100% sure that God does not exist. In the same essence, I am not sure how God wants us to behave.
As it goes, I have learned that God is all about the behavior of members in a society: according to sociologists, religion is the moral compass humans need to live in a harmoniously society. It tells us how we should behave in our respective societies. It is important to have a religion or be part of a religious community. To have a common moral compass, a sense direction in life and of belonging, and to be a functional part of society.
The nightstand Buddhist and the streamOf all the major faith traditions I have chosen to side with Buddhism as my moral compass and refuge. When I think of Buddhism, I gain a sense of freedom from religion. When I think of Buddhism, I think of freedom of religion. I think of the ways in which other faith traditions trap their followers. I think of the liberty I have to practice my religion anyway I want. As a western adherent of Buddhism these are the finer parts of the Shakyamuni lineage.
Such ideas are right and wrong. In the secular American mindset, liberties of the individual are of high priority. One should have the freedom to be atheist, agnostic, and free of religion if they want. Should they choose to practice a particular religion, their freedoms should still be protected. They should be able to practice the religion of their choosing anyway they want within limits, lest their practice become something completely different. Thus is born the nightstand Buddhist.
Nightstand Buddhists nitpick and choose the parts of the Buddhadharma which they wish to understand and follow with ease. They may like to subscribe only to the four noble truths and observe only two components of the eightfold path. They may read sutras and listen to lectures but never once sit shikantaza or meditate. And that's fine. We are afforded such rights. It is the 'Murican way.
The issue with this is that they cannot really call themselves a Buddhist. As they have not distinguished themselves from the person receiving psychotherapy nor from the Religious Studies university student, so too shall the nightstand Buddhist be undistinguished as a Buddhist.
Of course they may have reasons as to why they do what they do. Maybe their social environment is unwelcoming of Buddhist rituals and ways of life, maybe they have no sangha near them, maybe they are only beginning on the path and want to test the waters first, jumping from one side of the stream to the other, gaining more information about the stream, wondering how cold is the dharma? How deep is the dharma? How do I jump into the dharma without becoming completely submerged and disoriented, they wonder.
The lifestyle of nitpicker is usually one of quick means to enlightenment. I personally began as a curious teen, then a serious practitioner in university, then a nightstand Buddhist. The former of my experience on the path proved to be much more fruitful than my current wavering approach.
As noted in my recent posts, I have been visiting a Nichiren temple and have had a hard time adjusting to their doctrine and practices. It seemed too religious and for me. I am too used to process of quiet meditation, then dharma talk, then mindfulness in daily life practice.
I went back to visit yesterday and had an epiphany or change of heart, whatever you want to call it. I found that the very things that I rejected in Nichiren were also in my Zen vipassana practice (should I be using the term Buddhist punk?) In Nichiren, there are mantras and chanting (mental noting, wishes of metta); there is faith in karma, patronage to and reverence to teacher and founder (dharma teacher, and historical Buddha). The list goes on. Nichiren was too religious, but so is my Buddhism if practiced right.
Taking the time to step out of the stream has brought me some perspective. Having tested myself and tasted the flavors of dharma, I now further understand what I need to do. It is simple: follow the religion.
Still, for each individual following the Buddhist path will be a different combination of approaches and practices.
For me, I have chosen to begin simply by taking refuge in the Three Jewels (Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha) and taking up the lay practitioner's precepts that I took five years ago in college (a set of moral edicts to be read every day in the morning and in the evening before and after meditation).
To the best of my ability, I will live mindfully and with diligent intent:
To refrain from killing or harming other sentient beings. And instead to nourish and not only have compassion toward other sentient beings but also to show it when I can.
To refrain from consuming intoxicants and harmful material in excess. And instead to be moderate and mindful in what I choose to consume and to consume that which is beneficial to my heart and mind and lead to better between myself, those around me, and my environment.
To refrain from sexual misconduct. And instead to treat with respect those with whom I interact and to obey the proper rituals when it comes to courtship.
To refrain from indulging in greed and jealousy, and from taking that which is not freely given. And instead to be satisfied with what I have and to show gratitude and joy for those who do have their needs met.
To refrain from speaking falsehoods. And instead to communicate messages which are true, beneficial, and timely, to speak with great discretion.
I expect the greatest challenge will be striking a balance between upholding secular ethics, my personal faith, and respecting the fervently religious around me. I will surely work through any trouble with diligent observance of the Buddhadharma in conjunction with continual cultivation of compassion for all sentient beings.
Readers of Emergent Dharma: Young Buddhists Blog are welcome to take up these precepts with me. You are also welcome to contribute your story and, if you wish, to join our humble sangha in this corner of the internet. Send an email with subject line "New Contributor" to Emergent.Dharma@gmail.com. Alternatively, you may leave a comment below.
Happy Chinese New Year