I remember my first visit to Thailand. I suppose that, prior to that visit, I had something of a romantic notion about Buddhism. Growing up immersed in a culture infected with fundamentalist Christianity and having read a bit of the teachings of Buddha, I admit to having had some of ‘the grass is greener on the other side of the fence’ notion which people often develop either out of curiosity or dissatisfaction.
However, when I saw Buddhism at ground zero in Thailand I found that it was no different than being Catholic in Rome, Jewish in Jerusalem, Muslim in the Mideast or Baptist in Georgia, USA. I found – as they say in Spanish “El mismo burro con otra montura.” – the same donkey with a different saddle.
One of the things I came to realize is that human beings, for the most part, need religion, and organized religion – whatever the flavor – is about 95%
cultural. I have noticed that people tend to take those customs, or issues, which were prevalent at the time and in the place where the religions founder lived and enshrined these as divine directives.
Most of the laws, rules and regulations are no more than human customs that were enshrined by the followers who organized a religion around the very basic teachings of the spiritual master. The Creator of the Universe could care less as to what you wear, what you eat or drink, where or with whom you sleep or the thousand and one other ‘laws and rules’ you feel are necessary to appease God. While many of them may be useful, they, as well as the organized religions for which they serve as a foundation, are human creations.
Don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t make them bad. Organized religions, like governments and other human organizations, serve a purpose in society. They often provide vital social services, helping those who are having a hard time. They can provide a moral framework that serves as glue in holding society together and providing a guide star for socially approved behavior or even serving a prophetic role with governments. Organized religion may even provide a garden-variety kind of spiritual guidance and leadership for the masses who might otherwise have no interest in things beyond food, shelter and material security. So it has its purpose.
The down side, however, is when it is used – as it often is – to suppress freedom of thought and behavior simply because they go against cultural tradition. I think of those religious sects who ‘shun’ members who leave the fold and refuse to sit at the same table or even speak to those who have left. Or consider those who – in the name of religion or morality – would kill their own daughter, niece or other female family member because they ‘dishonored’ the family and religion by kissing a boy.
There is nothing spiritual in this, it is all about control, and the keepers of organized religion do not have a good history when it comes to exercising their power of control over the masses. Too often they have shared the same bed with oppressive governments and sanctioned unspeakable horrors in the name of God.
But we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the wash, nor should we condemn all for the behavior of a few. As people are different, so are the organizations they create. Do not believe what the various spiritual teachers or religious leaders tell you. Look at their lives and the products of their religions. As the wise saying goes “judge the tree by its fruit.”
All of this brings me again to some of my favorite quotations from the Tao Te Ching, written by Lao Tsu who lived 2,500 years ago in ancient China:
“Do not go about worshiping deities and religious institutions as the source of subtle truth. To do so is to place intermediaries between yourself and the Divine, and makes yourself a beggar who looks outside for a treasure that is hidden in his own heart.” (#17) Or again…
“Dualistic thinking is a sickness. Religion is a distortion. Materialism is cruel. Blind spirituality is unreal. Chanting is no more holy than listening to the murmur of a stream. Counting prayer beads no more holy than simply breathing. Religious robes no more spiritual than work clothes. If you wish to attain oneness with the Divine don’t get caught up in spiritual superficialities. Instead, live a quiet and simple life, free of ideas and concepts.”
“Find contentment in the practice of undiscriminating virtue, the only true power. Giving to others selflessly and anonymously, radiating light throughout the world and illuminating your own darkness, your virtue becomes a sanctuary for yourself and all beings.”
Bottom line? Avail yourself to many perspectives, both spiritual, political, scientific and otherwise and then use your left brain logic and your right brain intuition to decide what makes the most sense to you and what works the best for you at this moment in your life. But don’t let any individual or any organization, whether religious or political, think for you. Religious and political tyrants thrive on the shoulders of unthinking, uncritical followers.