Buddhism for Non-Believers

Flinching away from religious ceremonies may be a good thing for meditators.

silhouette_of_buddha_sitting_clip_art_19688 This is the first in a series of posts about two different aspects of Buddhism that I am calling secular vs. religious Buddhism.

Secular Buddhism is the main teaching of a man called Siddhartha Gautama, aka ‘The Buddha’. It is practical and gives instruction on developing morality, powers of concentration and insight into reality.

If you've been to South East Asia and seen temple-goers worshipping then you will know what I mean by religious Buddhism.
If you’ve been to South East Asia and seen temple-goers worshipping then you will know what I mean by religious Buddhism.

Religious Buddhism has mostly sprung up in the millennia since Gautama’s death. It is belief-centric and involves things like prostrating before golden statues, praying, burning incense, chanting and receiving blessings from monks. Though culturally rich, such practices turn many people away; they may close a person’s mind to meditation for years, even for life.

That’s ironic because as we’ll see, if you find yourself interested in meditation but balking at religious ceremonies, that may actually be a very good thing.

The entire path (Dhamma) is a universal remedy for universal problems and has nothing to do with any organized religion or sectarianism.S.N. Goenka1

Buddhism: technology or religion?

Even the most devout of the Buddhist monks today would agree that meditation is the main thrust of Gautama’s teachings. And meditation, as opposed to prayer, is a practical skill that can be learned and improved upon.

Bear with me and let us briefly go back to the historical life of Gautama himself. Nowhere does he claim to be a supernatural being. Nor does he try to bestow blessings on others. Clearly he had some remarkable qualities: he renounced his noble birth, was notoriously impossible to goad into any kind of anger or spite, touched the heart of multitudes and developed a system of meditation that had never been taught before. For most of his life he taught that system to a growing number of practitioners.2

But he was born a human and eighty good years later, he died. Instead of claiming to be any kind of saviour, he teaches that enlightenment is for everyone. He encourages us to work on our own insight and attain the same freedom he did, the exact same way.

These exhortations have not been forgotten. In modern Buddhist temple life as centuries ago, monks spend long hours meditating. Monasteries throughout Asia nominate meditation masters within their order to teach young novices. Lay people of all backgrounds, myself included, receive instruction within their walls in exchange for only donations.

The process is to firstly eliminate distractions through living simply, secondly to develop concentration power by taming our mind, and finally to use this combination as a tool for investigating our reality. That describes a methodical series of practical steps and has no recourse to faith or belief-oriented invocations. It describes a technology that can be undertaken by most of us, a set of related techniques, skills, methods and processes. Since this is the main point of Buddhism, it can be argued that Buddhism is not at it’s heart in fact a religion.

Penetrating investigations into the minutiae of a simple life leave us fundamentally changed as people. This has given rise to some wise and potent human beings over the centuries and continues to today. Speak with any accomplished meditation master and you will find those same qualities of generosity, even temper, compassion and rational thinking as Gautama did. Perhaps not to the level of full enlightenment — but sometimes, it may even be just so.

This gives rise to respect, and sometimes, to awe. As we’ll see, that can be dangerous.

How rituals help

Lay-people visiting a temple in Thailand on Buddha Day make offerings. Technically, they are "making merit" -- performing meritorious acts in the hopes of improving their lives through "karma", the law of cause and effect.
Lay-people visiting a temple in Thailand on Buddha Day make offerings. Technically, they are “making merit” — performing meritorious acts in the hopes of improving their lives through “karma”, the law of cause and effect.

The main thrust of my argument is that religious Buddhism can and should be de-prioritised in favour of meditation. But it would be unwise to dismiss these rituals entirely.

Being in the presence of a modestly accomplished meditation teacher can help to guide us in times of difficulty.3 We can call on that help even when they are absent by bringing to mind their teachings and positive qualities. In ancient times, this was done through chanting (the culture was mostly illiterate). Vedic customs were also common in Gautama’s region, so gestures like bowing and burning incense arose naturally after his death as a way to keep the memories fresh.

From these humble beginnings, ritual was formed.

If we are not discomfited by these rituals, they can generate helpful qualities in our lives such as equanimity and compassion, just as they did for the ancients. We can adopt peaceful conduct by remembering the Buddha’s humility or that of our meditation teacher. By showing respect and generating feelings of connection and community, we can impress upon ourselves the things we admire in others. This can be a powerful adjunct to any technique that develops insight.

From a modern meditator’s perspective, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this.

“Speak to me only of love.”

But writing has long since replaced chanting. And bowing to a Buddhist idol will arouse skeptical thoughts and discomfort for those with a modern scientific background or a non-Buddhist faith. These matters make the acts unlikely to have the intended benefits. They will just cause distraction and resistance.

Even for those who do not flinch at them, such as those born into Buddhist cultures, these rituals should not be considered a replacement for meditation itself. However in religious Buddhism that’s often exactly what happens: ritual, originally a side-dish to meditation, ends up becoming through a sense of awe the whole meal. Or at least, the main course.

That is a big problem, and here’s why:

The good side-effects of ritual and remembrance don’t last.

Equanimity- or compassion-by-association is transient. At night we may make our peace before the altar and (if we’re lucky) fall asleep unworried about what we did or did not achieve. Yet the next morning, we wake with a to-do list that worms around inside us.

Think of the New Age trend of making affirmations in the mirror. “I am worthy of being loved.” But the resulting magnanimity quickly turns into out of line reactions when our buttons are pushed. We cut out the trivia nights at the local pub because we cannot resist the temptation to drink excessively. Over-zealous yogis and new religious converts may withdraw from their friends and family to avoid cynical remarks (the “yoga bubble” effect).

This is a tragedy. In the name of world peace, we shrink our world to just the bit we can tolerate. “Speak to me only of love,” goes the song. We limit our interactions because we cannot keep our hearts open when the shit hits the fan.

Meditation, practised often and well, does not just temporarily remind us of the qualities of peace and compassion; it causes permanent changes in how we perceive the world. As we progress on the path of insight, those changes bring increasingly more peace and compassion to every situation, no matter how fraught.

An accomplished meditator need not avoid the local pub because they will no longer be swayed by habits and addictions.

There is a wonderful Zen story about the Soto Buddhist monk Tanzan that illustrates this beautifully.

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was falling. As they came around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross at an intersection.

“Come on, girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he could no longer restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”

Meditation is experience practice

On the path of insight, ritual and remembrance practices are unnecessary. In fact, they can be a hindrance even to those who accept them. They are helpful to some people; but insight, not remembrance, is what liberates. We create insight by experiencing our own life clearly, not by trying to make our behaviour reminiscent of another person’s, whether they are enlightened or not.

Meditation is “experience practice”. It is dedicated time where your only goal is to experience life without resistance. That is, to experience your life clearly.

This teaches us to be generous and feel things completely even after we end our meditation session. The lessons from meditation remain with us in the most trying of circumstances.

It is not easy, but it really is that simple. That was the Buddha’s great genius and his gift to the world.

Conclusion

If your goal is to live a happier, calmer and more loving life, then rituals like bowing, chanting, burning incense, or a morning run all help to smooth the ride of meditation, providing fresh energy and inspiration when motivation starts to flag.

But if you don’t meditate in the first place you may be smoothing a ride that hasn’t started yet. Many people perform their individual rituals daily, and yet nothing much changes in their reactions when life gets complicated.

On the other hand, lucid experience is what liberates and therefore meditation alone is enough to both start the ride, and once started, to keep on truckin’.

This will be not only beneficial in your own life but also that of your loved ones.

Heard of a practice that has similar goals as meditation? Mention it in the comments!

Let me leave you with a quote from that wonderful, rational, human being, the Dalai Lama.

If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.Our Faith in Science by Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama 4

Afterthoughts: Is there no other way?

I’ve established that insight comes from experiencing life clearly. Given that, shouldn’t it be possible to attain all the insights of meditation simply by being alive and paying attention? After all, that must be how the great saints and sages of the past arrived at enlightenment without access to meditation practice.

It is common for people with an observational nature, with high levels of concentration and a passion for understanding life, to take some steps on the path of insight. But I would say that for most of us the chances of getting enlightened without some kind of formalised practice are very small.

Other forms of “experience practice” exist in other traditions; anything that helps us watch the movement of our own minds is going to lend itself to insight. I’m convinced that there is plenty of overlap with other practices (and have experience with eight-limb or Tantric yoga and t’ai chi). But not being a practitioner of many others I cannot speak to their efficacy or their efficiency (which are not the same thing).

I take a pragmatic approach here: if your goal is enlightenment then no, meditation is not essential; but it helps immensely.


  1. Retreat Code of Discipline

  2. The tradition states that Gautama didn’t create vipassana meditation, he only “rediscovered” it, after it was lost for thousands of years. An intriguing legend; if you have any information on this please leave a comment.

  3. By “modestly accomplished” I mean twenty+ years of dedicated practise with plenty of long-term retreat experience.

  4. *Our Faith in Science*. New York Times 2005.