Thursday, December 27, 2007

What is your genuine interest in religion or spirituality?

I use very broad and generous definitions for terms like religion and spirituality. While inner reflection shouldn't be confined to a few days or weeks per year, this is in some cultures and societies a time of year when people tend to be more open to such self-examination, so I put it to us all. What is the reason - the deep down real reason - why you are in any way involved with religion or spirituality? Let's get past the reflex answers - what draws you to be or want to be or to feel or to want to feel religious or spiritual?


  1. "The popular thing nowadays is to be pro-spirituality and anti-religion. Well, I have no objection to using the word spirituality, but it has the downside of speaking about something privatised and individual whereas religion is about something communal and shared. We do not have to buy into the individuated approach." - Dharmavidya David Brazier

    I have to say that that resonates strongly with me. Spirituality and religion are words that can carry a lot of baggage and many people are allergic to the latter!

    My favourite quote on "spirituality" is by Ronald Rolheiser in his excellent book “Seeking Spirituality” (I think it is known as "The Holy Longing in the US") in which he cautions about our contemporary, and in his view, misguided understanding of what spirituality is about.

    "It is no easy task to walk this earth and find peace. Inside of us, it would seem, something is at odds with the very rhythm of things and we are forever restless, dissatisfied, frustrated, and aching. We are so overcharged with desire that it is hard to come to a rest. Desire is always stronger than satisfaction.

    Put more simply, there is within us a fundamental dis-ease, an unquenchable fire that renders us incapable, in this life, of ever coming to peace. This desire lies at the centre of our lives, in the marrow of our bones and in the deep recesses of the soul. We are not easeful human beings who occasionally get restless, serene persons who once in a while are obsessed by desire. The reverse is true. We are driven persons, forever obsessed, congenitally dis-eased, living lives of quiet desperation, only occasionally experiencing peace. Desire is the straw that stirs the drink.

    At the heart of all great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology, and religion lies the naming and analysing of desire. Thus, the diary of Anne Frank haunts us, as do the journals of therese of Lisieux and Etty Hillesum. Desire intrigues us, stirs the soul. We love stories about desire - tales of love, sex and wanderlust, haunting nostalgia, boundless ambition, and tragic loss. Many of the great secular thinkers of our time have made this fire, this force that haunts us, the centrepiece of their thinking.

    Sigmund Freud, for example, talks about a fire without a focus that burns at the centre of our lives and pushes us out in a relentless and unquenchable pursuit of pleasure… Karl Jung talks about a deep, unalterable, archetypal energies which structure our very souls and imperialistically demand our every attention… Doris Lessing speaks of a certain voltage within us… James Hillman of a blue fire within us and of being so haunted and obsessed that neither nature or nurture, but daimons, restless demanding spirits from beyond, are really the determinative factors in our behaviour.

    Whatever the expression, everyone is ultimately talking about the same thing - an unquenchable fire, a restlessness, a longing, a disquiet, an appetitiveness, a loneliness, a gnawing nostalgia, a wildness that cannot be tamed, a congenital all-embracing ache that lies at the centre of the human experience and is the ultimate force that drives everything else. This dis-ease is universal. Desire gives no exemptions.

    It does, however, admit of different moods and faces. Sometimes it hits us as pain - dissatisfaction, frustration, and aching. At other times its grip is not felt as painful at all, but as a deep energy, as something beautiful, as an inexorable pull, more important than anything else inside us, towards love, beauty, creativity, and a future beyond our limited present. Desire can show itself as aching pain or delicious hope.

    What we do with our longings, both in terms of handling the pain and the hope they bring us, is our spirituality.

    Today there are books on spirituality everywhere. However, despite the virtual explosion of literature in the area, in the Western world today, especially in the secular world, there are still some major misunderstandings about the concept. Chief among these is the idea that spirituality is, somehow, exotic, esoteric, and not something that issues forth from the bread and butter of ordinary life. Thus, for many people, the term spirituality conjures up images of something paranormal, mystical, churchy, holy, pious, other-worldly, New Age, something on the fringes and something optional. Rarely is spirituality understood as referring to something vital and non-negotiable lying at the heart of our lives.

    This is a tragic misunderstanding. Spirituality is not something on the fringes, an option for those with a particular bent. None of us has a choice. Everyone has to have a spirituality and everyone does have one, either a life-giving one or a destructive one. No one has the luxury of choosing here because all of us are precisely fired into life with a certain madness that comes from the gods and we have to do something with that. We do not wake up in this world calm and serene, having the luxury of choosing whether to act or not act. We wake up crying, on fire with desire, with madness. What we do with our madness is our spirituality.

    Hence, spirituality is not about serenely picking or rationally choosing certain spiritual activities like going to church, praying or meditating, reading spiritual books, or setting off on some explicit spiritual quest. It is far more basic than that. Long before we do anything explicitly religious at all, we have to do something about the fire that burns within us. What we do with that fire, how we channel it is our spirituality."

    I’m fond of that passage. The Four Noble Truths shine out in the passage above. Indeed, in a commentary on the Third Noble Truth, Nirodha, in a chapter from "The Feeling Buddha" entitled "Taming the Fire", Dharmavidya David Brazier writes-

    "There is a close association between fire and emotion or passion. Spirituality is the art of mastering our fire."

    I think people bring different experience when they talk of religions and religious thought. I know thatI would have never been attracted to buddhism if i had thought it was a "religion". Like a lot of people who come across buddhism in the west, I was attracted by meditation. The first book I read was Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism without Beliefs" - I am still very fond it, and I went on my first day retreat with him 7 years ago. I was attracted to his agnostic, "stripped down" approach. None of that religious symbolism! Looking back at this book, it is telling how he sees religion -

    "Historically, Buddhism has tended to lose its agnostic dimension through becoming institutionalised as a religion (i.e. a revealed belief system valid for all time, controlled by an elite body of priests". BWB,p16

    Now,warning against the institutionalisation of religions is perfectly valid, but does this necessarily mean rejecting religion altogether?

    Rev Alfred Bloom has an online course introducing shin buddhism. In his introduction he offers five points to consider in approaching the subject of religion, and of religious traditions. First, He is a believer in history. Everything must be seen in its relation to history and the context from which it emerges. Second, he is also a believer in concrete, personal existence as the central issue of religion and thought. Whatever abstract ideal or theory we accept must have its roots and relationship in our immediate experience of life. Third, he believes in metaphysical and philosophical thinking. Metaphysics attempts to clarify the mystery of existence. It is never complete, but open. Even though few questions have final solutions, it is necessary to question and explore. It has been said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Fourth, he says, for him, religion means openness, sharing, compassion, love, justice, and community. To be open does not mean to be apathetic or uncritical. Sharing does not mean squandering. Compassion and love are not sentimental emotions, but fundamental life values. Justice is not legalism; community does not require conformity. Fifth, as he believes it was in the life of Shinran, tradition should be a stepping stone to deeper insight and experience, and not a barrier to growth. Tradition should not become ingrown, but it should be out-growing as it correlates to the ongoing times. He modifies a quote of Dr. Radhakrishnan concerning Hinduism, saying that we should consider Buddhism in the following way:

    "Buddhism is a movement, not a position; a process, not a result; a growing...tradition, not a fixed revelation."

    Elsewhere, he has cautioned thus _

    Shinran recognised “that religion itself is a danger to one's spiritual development. The belief that one may achieve enlightenment through one's own practice leads to comparisons, self-righteousness and the elitism that infects all religions (including later Shin Buddhism). Shinran's view of Other Power altered the understanding of religious life by transforming it from a religion of self-perfection or self-benefit to a religion of gratitude and commitment. Religious faith became an end in itself and not a tool or means to some other end. For Shinran, one becomes religious because one is aware of the compassion that embraces one's life and expresses it in gratitude and sharing. The essence of religious faith is altruism. One lives to convey compassion to others."

    Personally, I don't think that buddhism necessarily has to be seen as a religion, but I do feel that a religious expression of buddhism can also be an authentic path, and one, somewhat to my own surprise, that I have now found myself embracing.

  2. I take it then you prefer the interpretation of the parable of the leavened bread in which leaven=symbol of moral corruption and leaven in three measures of dough=monumental moral corruption? Sounds like a Shin-sympathetic reading of that imagery.

    (For those who don't recall this story, it is found in Matthew 13:33 and Luke 20:21 - Jesus simply says that the Kingdom of God is like some leaven a woman mixes in with some dough. He gives no further explanation.)

    That is, I take it from your posting that you don't presume to look at only pretty things, or rituals, or fixed states of perfection as the places where spirituality is at work. It is as much if not moreso among the broken, the incomplete, and the unwanted. Or as I am fond of saying, when people talk about non-duality they love "being the rainbow", but they forget that also means they are the landfill.

  3. Ooops - my above comment was intended for a different post in which ray and I were discussing Buddhism and Christianity.

    While many people are allergic to terms like religion and spirituality, what they are really reacting to is their own baggage, as you put it. I once wrote a "Is your path a good path?" poll that echos a lot of what you cite from Bloom's Shin pages on religion, and I think the a great way to help people with their baggage is to provide a counterexample, to illustrate that religion and spirituality are intimate parts of the human condition and as such they can take on the best and worst elements of our thoughts and feelings. Kind of like a big magnifying glass, religion and spirituality can amplify the contents of our hearts, and hence effective spiritual and religious traditions emphasize the condition of our hearts.

    Here is an example of what I mean about helping people with emotional and intellectual baggage tied up with ideas and symbols associated with religion. I have found, and have also heard by anecdote, that in many UU (Unitarian Universalist) congregations, the tension between not wanting to offend "damaged" or "sore" people carrying around baggage for words like "God", "faith", and "religion" and wanting to have a diverse spiritual backdrop can to varying degrees neutralize the very healing and transformative experience of Ultimate Reality that they (generally) claim to be seeking. Which is why, I have heard, some UUs say (to paraphrase), "Hey, we should be giving people a comfortable place to re-aproach or re-engage with religion, not shelter people from it." That is, to use the terminology above, rather than walking on egg shells so to speak to keep from reminding people of the heavy burden they are carrying around for those concepts, the goal should be to help them let go of that baggage.

  4. If there would be no sickness, no old age and death, I would have no interest in religion. Also if I could be forever with the people I love.
    My spiritual journey started with impermanence, and from there on I discovered many things that I am not so good to explain in words. Religion (Buddhism) is, for me, the only real action I can do in a life where I can find no permanent refuge. This is my sincere answer.


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