Buddhism as a religion Barry Magid September 4th 2009

Since it’s the time of the Jewish New Year and High Holidays, I found myself thinking about the question of religious identity, religious practice, about how we view our Buddhist practice as part of a religious identity or not, how we hold it in comparison or conflict or in a different compartment from the religious identity and practices with which we grew up.

For most of us, when we grew up religion was centered around the notion of God on the one hand and around the notion of a group identity on the other. I think it’s very interesting the way religion in general tends to face in these two different directions, one towards something that stands for a universal, whether that universal is of love or meaning or justice, and that we use the notion of God in our life to orient ourselves to those universals. And on the other hand, the way in which we use specific practices and histories and cultural identity with which we practice, to define ourselves in a particular way.

I think that kind of self and group delineation is very fundamental to people. No one seems inclined to be truly cosmopolitan, a citizen of the universe. Everyone naturally seems to gravitate toward an identity whether it’s ethnic or national or regional, and that individual, local identity is always held in some tension with our striving after universals. The virtue of polytheism was that it personified a conflict and pluralism of our allegiances, the way in some aspects of our life we’re devoted to justice, and in other aspects we’re devoted to love. In other aspects we wish for self-protection and the strength to go to war to defend our family or our country. And in many societies, those attributes were personified as gods, and we acknowledged our multiple allegiances to them.

In the West we focus on God as the embodiment of universals, justice and love particularly, and these are qualities we wish to extend to all beings everywhere, and yet at the same time we get into terrible conflicts with other people who try to express those universals in a different way or apply them only to their own group. In Buddhism we speak a great deal about dissolving the boundary between self and other. We strive after that sense of universal oneness, although it’s often seemed ironic to me that we do it with a practice that can make us feel very alienated from everyone around us. We go off and do this thing that seems very strange and peculiar to our families of origin, all in the name of oneness.

It’s the most fundamental fact of biological life that we must separate self from other, self from environment. It’s been said that the thing that defines a living organism most basically is a cell membrane, something that separates inside from outside. We have to always hold in tension that sense of what’s inside and what’s outside, what we include and what we exclude, and not imagine that we’re going to use our practice to somehow once and for all transcend those kinds of differences or boundaries. We’re going to have to find ways to hold them in balance with a sense of the universal, the undifferentiated.

I’ve often talked about the ways in which I think what we do here needs to be thought of as a religious practice, not a self-improvement project or a kind of spiritual gymnasium. It’s much more a church than a health club. And yet I think many people are uncomfortable or ambiguous or maybe just ambivalent about describing themselves as Buddhists. I’m not clear whether you feel when you come here in some sense you’ve converted to Buddhism, the way people speak of converting to Christianity or Judaism. I think people hold those categories in very different relationships. I think there are many people who are able to be both Buddhist and Jew and Buddhist and Muslim and Buddhist and Christian, that they see these identities complementing each other. I think that’s probably a sane and healthy way to do things, to see that who we are has multiple facets, and that we can hold these together.

Personally, I’m not like that. I don’t recommend it, but I’m just not that way myself. I think that my attitude was much more shaped by the old sixties motto, You’re either on the bus or off the bus, and you are what you practice. And for myself I practice Buddhism and I no longer practice Judaism, so I don’t really maintain a foot in each camp. I really did convert. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the most typical experience or the one I would recommend.

Sometimes we hear things like, all religions point to the same truth. That kind of thing always makes me very queasy. I don’t like that at all. I think that points to the truth of the universal, and religions certainly may point to notions of reverence and love and mercy and justice, and they may define and think about them differently, but we could say there’s a way in which they all aim for certain universals. But I think that, to me, it’s like saying, all music and all art point to the same things. This is to homogenize them in a way that I find quite uninteresting at best. Uninteresting is a mild word for it.

I suppose my own experience growing up was with parents who I think I could honestly say loved their son very much but had very little interest in Barry, who was quite an odd duck, and something of a changeling as far as they were concerned, so I think I grew up personally with a sense that I’m not very interested in the generic or the universal. I care a lot about the specifics, the particular, and I don’t think any of us want to be loved generically. We don’t want to be the recipient of just a universal love. We want to be loved by another person. And I think in terms of our practice, we don’t want something that is blandly universal. I think that doesn’t give any traction in our lives, if it’s too all inclusive. I think we have to make choices and commitments to the particular.

The religious practice, I think, is defined, not in terms of what doctrines you believe in, what creed you espouse, and whether you can go down a list of beliefs and match it to the beliefs of someone in another church. It comes down to what do you do every day? Do you go sit in a zendo? Do you go keep kosher? Do you go to mass and receive the host? These practices really give the definition and texture and feel to our life, and I think there’s something that we lose if we try to homogenize them all into something like they all teach love, for instance. That’s like putting all your food in the blender, just reducing it to its pure and nutritional value like astronauts living on Tang or something like that.

I think we have to embrace the particulars, we have to really see that we are choosing to be part of a particular tradition, doing a particular practice which we hold and maintain and take responsibility for. That’s not to say you can’t maintain multiple practices. I maintain the tradition of psychoanalysis and the tradition of Zen. I think there are many people who feel they can maintain both Zen and Judaism and Zen and the other religions. I think that takes a very particular kind of effort, a very particular kind of commitment. I don’t have an answer to the right way to do any of that. I just offer these ideas up to you as a way to reflect on what do you think your religion is? What do you think your identity is? What do you think practice has to do with identity?

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