Buddhism Without Buddhism

By Robert Thurman


DON'T WE ALL LOVE the buddhadharma! It serves as our ground-a realistic prescription for sanity and happiness; as our path-the mindful arts and sciences that bring us nearer to our true, selfless selves, step by step; and as our fulfillment-the anticipation and/or actualization of the realm of reality as the bliss-freedom-indivisible that it is. It is hard not to be enthusiastic, since we feel so much better for any amount of its practice. We see how others could break free from their compulsive habits, confusions, and fears, and relax into their real situation. We want to hug them warmly, then pull back, hold them gently by the shoulders and reassure them-no need to get so stressed out, refuge is all around.

Yet we must be careful. A paranoid feels a hug as an assault, a hold as a trap, and reassurance as a plot.

We are in a strange time. Reason is wrongly thought to have failed us, since scientific materialism's "march of progress" has brought serial disasters. We cower before the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Technology has intensified death, plague, famine, and war into mega-deaths, mega-plagues, mega-famines, and mega-war, with its terrors coming from the threat of WMD"s looming overhead. All of this is wrongly thought to be the fault of reason gone berserk. But actually it is the unreasonable misuse of knowledge in the service of greed, hatred, and delusion.

Blaming reason and science, intellectuals talk about the hubris of the Enlightenment. People of all religious persuasions- and even many secularists-retreat from science's realistic pursuit of wisdom, and turn to the irrational, the fanatical, the mythological. They talk themselves into holding their chosen Scripture as literally true, and join extremist organizations. This happens all over the world. Various kinds of monotheists are the most salient. They simplify the issue of "What is real?" down to their notion of and word for God (in whatever language). They assume an absolute power beyond the world, beyond the chaos, yet all-powerful and able to control the chaos and save the poor believer caught in its whirlpool, whenever that power (usually "He") decides to do so. They pray for mercy, ignoring the simple logic that if there were any such supreme power, it must lack all concern. They follow high priests and atavistic slogans, and so hate, ostracize, and try to annihilate nonbelievers, thinking they are enacting "God's will." Even we Buddhists, a bit more immunized to fanaticism by clearer definitions of "absolute" and "relative," and by not overestimating "God" or the gods, are still not fully exempt from this disease.
Sowhat can we do in this situation, we, the Buddhists? Isn't it obvious? We must make it our practice not to clutch so tightly to our "Buddhisms." We must restrain our own tendencies to dogmatism, and stick to our practice of the three spiritual educations of wisdom, meditation, and ethics; realize the nature of reality; open the focus of mind to allow things to be themselves, beyond rigid doctrine or credo; and act bravely, coolly, and sensitively, and be tolerant and friendly.
! remember years ago sitting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at an American divinity school and hearing him call for tolerance. He confessed that when he was younger he couldn't imagine how anyone could believe literally in a Creator, that it seemed so silly. But now, especially since meeting the late Father Thomas Merton, he had come to see that such beliefs could be truly helpful to some good people with certain kinds of cultural backgrounds. He went on to say that he still did not believe in any such God. He wanted the audience to know that up front, since otherwise they might get to like him at first, and then when they learned that he was a godless person, they might even faint. They all laughed, somewhat uneasily. In that way, he appealed to that startled audience to understand that it might also be easier for some people to develop spiritual qualities and insights without adopting the belief in a Creator God.

Long before the last few decades' rise of fundamentalism and violent fanaticism all over the world, His Holiness appealed to all religious leaders not to push their own religious ideology on others. When he gives teachings outside the Tibetan community in Western countries, he always emphasizes that he hopes people can learn something from Buddhism and become better people for it, but still keep their own religious affiliations, in harmony with family and culture. He denies any motive of wanting to make people into Buddhists. I used to think he was just being clever, deep down holding such an intention but using indirection to accomplish it. But now I do not think so.

I am just beginning to understand him emotionally, still trying not to be too attached to my Buddhism, still catching myself thinking that since it has been better for me in this life, it would really be better for everyone. But I gave some lectures in San Francisco years ago in which I said more than I fully understood, when I said that Buddhism's greatest contributions to the world would only emerge when it offers its human services without insisting on there being "Buddhism." We must learn to practice Buddhism without Buddhism, not just Buddhism without beliefs. Like any human being, we can live up to our beliefs. But in this pluralistic world, we must practice our "Buddhism" as the engaged realism it has always been: the pursuit of the deep understanding of reality, from the faith that realism is more salutary than delusion, and the effort to think, feel, and act realistically.

We do love Buddhism, and so we should, if it works for us and enables us to work for others more effectively. We have our refuge in it, we relish it, and we thrive in it. But we should never give up trying to see how others find their refuge and relish and sustenance in their own religions, or even in nonreligious ideologies. Manjushr~ once asked Vimalakirti, "Where is the enlightenment of the buddhas to be found?" The old sage replied, "The enlightenment of the buddhas is to be found in the sixty-two [non-Buddhist] convictions." In that sutra, it's called "the reconciliation of dichotomies." And there's the challenge for us today!

Source: Buddhadharma magazine, Winter 2005