Confusing Buddhism with Religion

No, it’s not, and yes, it is, but that is not a problem

by Mike Meyer ~ Honolulu ~ February 9, 2021

I’m not interested in religion. Like many people, perhaps even most people, religion is not something I care to deal with. Religion was humanity's original one-stop-shop for all those things that had no easy answers.

The original unanswerable questions covered almost everything with a sharp focus on finding our next meal and avoiding being someone else’s next meal. Sitting around the fire in the evening was a good time to wonder where we came from. Fantastic stories with endless variations and never-ending subplots resulted and became layered with alternative meanings producing mythology for everything.

Some people got seriously into this and tried to figure out ways to influence their preferred prey to arrive when needed and to wait patiently nearby when not needed. Ritual is the source of all this. To affect things outside our control, not us, maybe we confuse them by imitating them to think we are them and that what we want is what they want. Maybe if they weren’t around when needed, we could draw pictures to make them appear.

Influencing things that couldn’t be controlled because they are not us by controlling indirectly required is what rituals are about. From these come the symbols of that desired item with their observed characteristics defined as spiritual. That close relationship between prey animals and others may join us as a totem giving us their knowledge and strength.

The result of these rituals was very much a mixed bag, i.e., statistically random. But tenacity in the face of failure is a survival trait; who knows, it might work, and we all die anyway, so repeated failures have never stopped a ritual or a religion. As this is a prehistoric trait, no one should be surprised at people repeating the same activity after fifty-eight failures and expecting it to work. Guaranteed. The wind wasn’t right those other times.

Religion is the result of boredom around the campfire, all the things we haven’t yet figured out, and tenacity as an evolutionary trait. No wonder most people take religion as unreliable but, what the hell, who knows?

The inherent presence of religion in human society is not the product of some innate link to theological concepts but our biological tendency to beat our heads against a wall until we fall over rather than admit it isn’t working. The examples of this are ubiquitous.

There are people in the US Congress who are performing rituals now to turn a failed coup into anything else, perhaps a PTA meeting that went wrong. The dead bodies and millions of witnesses are not slowing them down at all.

But Buddhism is a whole different thing, although that same human tenacity has been ritually trying to turn it into a religion from the beginning. Despite repeated claims of success by the religionists to capture it, Buddhism as a philosophical tool always manages to escape. It has become a religion that acts just like a religion, but that is not its origin.

Rituals are magical tools to influence things we can’t control directly. Religion is ritual with mythology: the catalog of how things can go wrong or really bad if you mess with things and their essences ritually that we can’t control or even make sense of our lives. Sometimes things come and mess with you even if you didn’t do anything wrong.

Then you do rituals and ask for help. That asking for help from things beyond our control is the standard tool of religion. It’s always a matter of trying to get something after learning that the world is divided between me and everything else.

Life is very much like a container in which we are trapped. We start wide-eyed and amazed, thinking we can do anything. Then we start getting slapped into shape to fit the box that will hold us. The very first step is walling us off from the universe around us. There is me and the other, and I don’t have much of anything.

That primal separation moves all the things that were part of us to the other side of a wall that makes those things not ours but someone else's. We learn desire for those things that we don’t have whether we need them or not, just because they have been moved away from us. Then we know to fight to get the things we desire. Our can will only grow if we bring more and more things into it, even though that is a painful struggle.

Religion, myth, and ritual give us the language that locks us into our life container. But we are never really told that the box that walls us off is made of language. People begin to discover this as they mature and try to find ways to escape the confines and the pressure that builds with life. But we try to use the tools we have, language, to make things better, but that is like trying to use a tool to fix that tool.

Buddhism is a can opener. While religion works to control language and ritual to separate and contain us, Buddhism has always worked to open that container. Religion tries to make us happy in our can, although that is a later evolution of the myth/ritual combination. Buddhism is the enemy of the ignorance of our arbitrary enclosures. You cannot find an escape if you don’t know you are imprisoned.

Buddhism provides instruction on our containment and how to escape it, not justifications for living with the misery and life’s limitations. That is what makes it so hard for people to understand and why, in its original form, it was a set of tools for a minimal group of people willing to learn how to use those tools.

It gets more complicated because religion teaches rituals as tools, but those rituals become, themselves, mythic and divine, embodying what they represent. There end goal of religion is a justification for its own existence. Not as evil inflicted on us but as an evolutionary accident that was never questioned.

Buddhist tools are only tools. If one doesn’t work, try another. The tools are language, and the boxes in which we are captured are made of speech, so we need to find our own specific trick for breaking out of our box of words. An important step is to make sure we see the words we use as arbitrary. That’s alien to religion.

But Buddhism was never about attacking religion or the divinities that arose in myth and ritual. It was always about how to escape from an artificial condition that may be, based on our experience on this planet, common to sentient beings.

Buddhism may have been the first paradigmatic shift. Religion is a product of early human reality and came slowly to deal with human suffering and morality but only in a limited manner because it never escaped the language box. Again, using the tools of language that is human reality to deal with that reality hence a paradox.

Enlightenment is the realization of the limits of that reality but not an end in itself, whatever you may have thought from inside the religious box.

Educator, CIO, retired entrepreneur, grandfather with occasional fits of humor in the midst of disaster. . .

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