"I'm religious but not spiritual." The hard work of engaging the particulars of life. Barry Magid September 27th 2014

It has become common for a large number of people who practice meditation or mindfulness to describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. I’d like us to try to explore together something of the meaning and implications of that distinction. Most everyone who comes to this kind of center was not born into a Buddhist family or community but left their family religion in order to explore meditation and to explore Zen and Buddhism in some form, and religion often became a word for what those people found either oppressive, authoritarian, or irrelevant about the religion of their family of origin. Spiritual developed a connotation of something higher or essential, something that was personal and inward, not subject to the authority, dogma and tradition of a particular church or religious group.

So there’s a strong and healthy impulse towards the spiritual which we try to find for ourselves in authentic experience, not simply paying lip-service to the experience of a previous generation in the spirit of Emerson’s self-reliance, and say the Age of Revelation should be now, not something we study about in books, something that happened to people centuries ago, but something that is immediately present and available to us.

So that sense of making it our own, having an experience that isn’t second hand, I think, is what’s most positive about that turn to spirituality. But I think it also has particular down-sides that we initially tended to bypass or overlook. Spirituality was something that did not attach itself to any particular tradition but was often thought of as what all these different traditions would have in common. It became a catch-phrase for a particular kind of inner experience, where what we’re aiming at is something personal, private, inward, often associated with a particular state of consciousness which might be blissful or oceanic or perhaps just calm and serene. But very often by its very inward nature, it’s cut off from any particular ethical, social, or communal expression, and its privacy was emphasized.

Also, because it was a personal experience, it became associated with something quasi-therapeutic. My favorite professor of religion, Ann Gleig, says she likes to tell her class in Buddhism, that Buddha did not give a damn about your stress level. Now it’s certainly true that Buddha addressed the problem of suffering but he did not teach meditation as a relaxation technique. Meditation itself was only one aspect, one strand of the Eight-fold Path, which was an all encompassing transformation of our form of life, and in Buddha’s day that meant a life of being a homeless mendicant ascetic, where one’s life of having no possessions, no fixed abode, dependent entirely on day-to-day alms, embodied Buddha’s realization of impermanence and interconnectedness. And in these original religious communities, it was taken for granted that that realization needed to be expressed fully in every aspect of one’s life. It was not simply an inward experience that one had on a cushion.

As Buddhism evolved and moved into other cultures, particularly in China and Japan, it evolved away from homelessness and the begging of alms and settled down into fixed monastic forms, but there too the presumption, particularly in Dogen, is that the truths of impermanence and interconnectedness must be manifest in every aspect of daily life, in the form and ritual of the monastery.

Now as Buddhism came to America it became increasingly secularized, practiced in places like this instead of monasteries. The question became: How does it get integrated into the whole of life, or can it? For a teacher like Joko, that integration took place through a kind of ongoing psychological awareness of our tendencies of avoidance and clinging in every aspect of our life. But that way of thinking about practice tended in many quarters to devolve into a kind of meditative therapeutics.

The mindfulness movement in America more explicitly attempted to separate itself as a technique of awareness from any suggestion that it was a Buddhist religious practice. You didn’t have to be a Buddhist to practice mindfulness, and a generation of teachers who studied with forest ascetics in Southeast Asia came back to teach Buddhism in a completely different context, where people did not want to identify themselves as Buddhists, did not want to be home-leavers, but who wanted very much to have a teacher who cared about their stress levels and would help them find a technique of relaxation.

Now I think that as each generation engages what it inherits from the previous, particularly when it involves transferring what we’ve inherited from an Asian culture to a Western one, something has to change. Something has to allow it to adapt in the way it was radically transformed from a mendicant culture in India to a settled monastic culture in China and Japan, a very radical difference, and as Zen comes to America it must undergo equally radical changes. When we speak of spirituality rather than of religion, I think one danger is that we too quickly fall into a way of thinking that there are such things as ahistorical timeless truths that we tap into regardless of our cultural context, regardless of our personal experience.

Part of what it means to engage Buddhism as a religion is to see it as a historical, cultural phenomenon that is under tension from many different directions, tensions toward secularization, toward turning it into a therapy, turning it into a technique. We have to be aware of to what extent Buddhism exists in a community, in a social network, to what extent is it involved with families, with passages of life, of birth and death, with weddings, all the ways with which religions are embedded in communities.

Spirituality tends to be a way for us to have a private experience that floats somehow above and beyond all those particulars. I think the engagement with those particulars is the real hard work of our practice. Spiritual too often can mean the pursuit of some kind of transcendent, special inner experience. So for myself, when I’m asked, I prefer to say, I’m religious but not spiritual.

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