If you go to Asia and visit a wat (Thailand) or gompa (Tibet), you will enter something that looks very much like an abbey, a church, or cathedral, being run by people who look like monks or priests, displaying objects that look like icons, enshrined in alcoves that look like chapels, revered by people who look like worshipers.

If you talk to one of the people who look like monks, you will learn that he has a view of the world that seems very much like a belief system, revealed a long time ago by someone else who is revered like a god, after whose death saintly individuals have interpreted the revelations in ways like theology. There have been schisms and reforms, and these have given rise to institutions that are just like churches.

Buddhism, it would seem, is a religion.

Or is it?

When asked what he was doing, the Buddha replied that he taught “anguish and the ending of anguish.” When asked about metaphysics (the origin and end of the universe, the identity or difference of body and mind, his existence or nonexistence after death), he remained silent. He said the dharma was permeated by a single taste: freedom. He made no claims to uniqueness or divinity and did not have recourse to a term we would translate as “God.”

Gautama encouraged a life that steered a middle course between indulgence and mortification.  He described himself as an openhanded teacher without an esoteric doctrine reserved for an elite. Before he died he refused to appoint a successor, remarking that people should be responsible for their own freedom. Dharma practice would suffice as their guide.

This existential, therapeutic, and liberating agnosticism was articulated in the language of Gautama’s place and time: the dynamic cultures of the Gangetic basin in the sixth century B.C.E. A radical critic of many deeply held views of his times, he was nonetheless a creature of those times. The axioms for living that he foresaw as lasting long after his death were refracted through the symbols, metaphors, and imagery of his world.

Religious elements, such as worship of the Buddha’s person and uncritical acceptance of his teachings, were doubtless present in the first communities that formed around Gautama.  Even if for five hundred years after his death his followers resisted the temptation to represent him as a quasi-divine figure, they eventually did so. As the dharma was challenged by other systems of thought in its homeland and spread abroad into foreign cultures such as China, ideas that had been part of the worldview of sixth-century B.C.E. India became hardened into dogmas. It was not long before a self-respecting Buddhist would be expected to hold (and defend) opinions about the origin and the end of the universe, whether body and mind were identical or different, and the fate of the Buddha after death.

Historically, Buddhism has tended to lose its agnostic dimension through becoming institutionalized as a religion (i.e., a revealed belief system valid for all time, controlled by an elite body of priests).  At times this process has been challenged and even reversed (one thinks of iconoclastic Indian tantric sages, early Zen masters in China, eccentric yogins of Tibet, forest monks of Burma and Thailand). But in traditional Asian societies this never lasted long. The power of organized religion to provide sovereign states with a bulwark of moral legitimacy, while simultaneously assuaging the desperate piety of the disempowered, swiftly reasserted itself—usually by subsuming the rebellious ideas into the canons of a revised orthodoxy.

Consequently, as the dharma emigrates westward, it is treated as a religion—albeit an “Eastern” one. The very term “Buddhism” (an invention of Western scholars) reinforces the idea that it is a creed to be lined up alongside other creeds. Christians in particular seek to enter into dialogue with their Buddhist brethren, often as part of a broader agenda to find common ground with “those of faith” to resist the sweeping tide of Godless secularism. At interfaith gatherings Buddhists are wheeled out to present their views on everything from nuclear weapons to the ordination of women and then scheduled to drone Tibetan chants at the evening slot for collective worship.

This transformation of Buddhism into a religion obscures and distorts the encounter of the dharma with contemporary agnostic culture. The dharma in fact might well have more in common with Godless secularism than with the bastions of religion.

The force of the term “agnosticism” has been lost.  It has come to mean: not to hold an opinion about the questions of life and death; to say “I don’t know,” when you really mean “I don’t want to know.” When allied (and confused) with atheism, it has become part of the attitude that legitimizes an indulgent consumerism and the unreflective conformism dictated by mass media.

For T H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, agnosticism was as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed.  Rather than a creed, though, he saw it as a method realized through “the rigorous application of a single principle.” He expressed this principle positively as “Follow your reason as far as it will take you,” and negatively as “Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”  This principle runs through the Western tradition: from Socrates, via the Reformation and the Enlightenment, to the axioms of modem science.  Huxley called it “the agnostic faith.”

First and foremost the Buddha taught a method (“dharma practice“) rather than another “-ism.” The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do. The Buddha did not reveal an esoteric set of facts about reality, which we can choose to believe in or not. He challenged people to understand the nature of anguish, let go of its origins, realize its cessation, and bring into being a way of life.  The Buddha followed his reason as far as it would take him and did not pretend that any conclusion was certain unless it was demonstrable.  Dharma practice has become a creed (“Buddhism”) much in the same way scientific method has degraded into the creed of “Scientism.”

Just as contemporary agnosticism has tended to lose its confidence and lapse into skepticism, so Buddhism has tended to lose its critical edge and lapse into religiosity. What each has lost, however, the other may be able to help restore. In encountering contemporary culture, the dharma may recover its agnostic imperative, while secular agnosticism may recover its soul. An agnostic Buddhist would not regard the dharma as a source of “answers” to questions of where we came from, where we are going, what happens after death. He would seek such knowledge in the appropriate domains: astrophysics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, etc. An agnostic Buddhist is not a “believer” with claims to revealed information about supernatural or paranormal phenomena, and in this sense is not “religious.”

An agnostic Buddhist looks to the dharma for metaphors of existential confrontation rather than metaphors of existential consolation. The dharma is not a belief by which you will be miraculously saved.  It is a method to be investigated and tried out. It starts by facing up to the primacy of anguish, then proceeds to apply a set of practices to understand the human dilemma and work toward a resolution. The extent to which dharma practice has been institutionalized as a religion can be gauged by the number of consolatory elements that have crept in: for example, assurances of a better afterlife if you perform virtuous deeds, or recite mantras, or chant the name of a Buddha.

An agnostic Buddhist eschews atheism as much as theism, and is as reluctant to regard the universe as devoid of meaning as endowed with meaning. For to deny either God or meaning is simply the antithesis of affirming them. Yet such an agnostic stance is not based on disinterest. It is founded on a passionate recognition that I do not know. It confronts the enormity of having been born instead of reaching for the consolation of a belief.  It strips away, layer by layer, the views that conceal the mystery of being here—either by affirming it as something or denying it as nothing.

A Pillar of Cloud by Day by Gloria Ortiz Hernandez, mixed media on masonite, 1996.

In a famous parable, the Buddha imagines a group of blind men who are invited to identify an elephant.  One takes the tail and says it’s a rope; another clasps a leg and says it’s a pillar; another feels the side and says it’s a wall; another holds the trunk and says it’s a tube. Depending on which part of Buddhism you grasp, you might identify it as a system of ethics, a philosophy, a contemplative psychotherapy, a religion. While containing all of these, it can no more be reduced to any one of them than an elephant can be reduced to its tail.

That which contains the range of elements that constitute Buddhism is called a “culture.” The term was first explicitly defined in 1871 by the anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Since this particular culture originates in the awakening of Siddhartha Gautama and aims to cultivate a way of life conducive to such awakening, Buddhism could be described as “the culture of awakening.”

Dharma practice is more akin to artistic creation than technical problem solving. The technical dimension of dharma practice (such as training to be more mindful and focused) is comparable to the technical skills a potter must learn in order to become proficient in his craft. Both may require many years of discipline and hard work. Yet for both such expertise is only a means, not an end in itself. Just as technical proficiency in pottery is no guarantee of beautiful pots, so technical proficiency in meditation is no guarantee of a wise or compassionate response to anguish.

The art of dharma practice requires commitment, technical accomplishment, and imagination. As with all arts, we will fail to realize its full potential if any of these three is lacking. The raw material of dharma practice is ourself and our world, which are to be understood and transformed according to the vision and values of the dharma itself. This is not a process of self- or world-transcendence, but one of self- and world-creation.

The denial of “self” challenges only the notion of a static self independent of body and mind—not the ordinary sense of ourself as a person distinct from everyone else.  This notion of a static self is the primary obstruction to the realization of our unique potential as an individual being. By dissolving this fiction through a centered vision of the transiency, ambiguity, and contingency of experience, we are freed to create ourself anew. The notion of the world as an alien reality composed of stubborn, discrete things is likewise the primary obstruction to world-creation. In dissolving this view through a vision of the world as a dynamic and interrelated whole of which we are an integral part, we are likewise freed to engage with the world afresh.

To realize such visions requires acts of imagination. No matter how deeply we understand the transient and empty nature of existence, how vividly we experience the intrinsic freedom of reality, how passionately we long to appease the anguish of others, if we cannot imagine forms of life that respond effectively to the situation at hand, we will be limited in what we can do. Instead of finding a voice that speaks to the unique contingencies of our own situation, we repeat the clichés and dogmas of other epochs. Instead of creatively participating in a contemporary culture of awakening, we confine ourselves to preserving those cultures of a vanishing past.

Self-creation entails imagining ourself in other ways. Instead of thinking of ourself as a fixed nugget in a shifting current of mental and physical processes, we might consider ourself as a narrative that transforms these processes into an unfolding story. Life becomes less of a defensive stance to preserve an immutable self and more of an ongoing task to complete an unfinished tale. As a coherent narrative, the integrity of our identity is maintained without having to assume an unmoving metaphysical center around which everything else turns. Grounded in awareness of transiency, ambiguity, and contingency, such a person values lightness of touch, flexibility and adaptability, a sense of humor and adventure, appreciation of other viewpoints, a celebration of difference.

After his awakening, the Buddha spent several weeks hovering on the cusp between the rapture of freedom and, in his words, the “vexation” of engagement. Should he remain in the peaceful state of Nirvana or share what he had discovered with others? What decided him was the appearance of an idea (in the language of ancient India, a “god”) that forced him to recognize the potential for awakening in others and his responsibility to act. As soon as his imagination was triggered, he relinquished the mystical option of transcendent absorption and moved to engage with the world.

Thus the Buddha set out on a path that started from a vision, was translated through ideas into words and actions, and gave rise to cultures of awakening that continue to inspire today. This development is analogous to the process of creativity, which likewise starts from an unformed vision and is translated through the imagination into cultural forms. The course of the Buddha’s life offers a paradigm of human existence, which has been realized in diverse forms throughout Asia over the past two-and-a-half thousand years. The genius of the Buddha lay in his imagination. He succeeded in translating his vision not only into the language of his time but into terms sufficiently universal to inspire future generations in India and beyond. His ideas have survived in much the same way as great works of art. While we may find certain stylistic elements of his teaching alien, his central ideas speak to us in a way that goes beyond their reference to a particular time or place. But unlike ancient statues from Egypt or Gandhara, the wheel of dharma set in motion by the Buddha continued to turn after his death, generating ever new and startling cultures of awakening.

As Buddhism encounters the contemporary world, it discovers a situation where creativity and imagination are central to individual and social freedom. While Buddhist traditions have consistently affirmed freedom from craving and anguish as the raison d’etre of a culture of awakening, they have been less consistent in affirming the freedom to respond creatively to the anguish of the world. Both internally, through becoming religious orthodoxies, and externally, through identifying with autocratic and even totalitarian regimes, Buddhist traditions have inclined toward political conservatism. This has contributed, on the one hand, to a tendency to mysticism, and, on the other, to the postponing of personal and social fulfillment until a future rebirth in a less corrupted world.

At the heart of Buddhism’s encounter with the contemporary world is the convergence of two visions of freedom. The Buddha’s freedom from craving and anguish is converging with the autonomous individual’s freedom to realize his or her capacity for personal and social fulfillment.

In today’s liberal democracies we are brought up to realize our potential as autonomous individuals. It is hard to envisage a time when so many people have enjoyed comparable freedoms. Yet the very exercise of these freedoms in the service of greed, aggression, and fear has lead to breakdown of community, destruction of the environment, wasteful exploitation of resources, the perpetuation of tyrannies, injustices, and inequalities. Instead of creatively realizing their freedom, many choose the unreflective conformism dictated by television, indulgence in mass-consumerism, or numbing their feelings of alienation and anguish with drugs. In theory, freedom may be held in high regard; in practice it is experienced as a dizzying loss of meaning and direction.

Part of the appeal of any religious orthodoxy lies in its preserving a secure, structured, and purposeful vision of life, which stands in stark opposition to the insecurity, disorder, and aimlessness of contemporary society. In offering such a refuge, traditional forms of Buddhism provide a solid basis for the ethical, meditative, and philosophical values conducive to awakening. Yet they tend to be wary of participating in a translation of this liberating vision into a culture of awakening that addresses the specific anguish of the contemporary world. Preservation of the known and tested is preferable to the agony of imagination, where we are forced to risk that hazardous leap into the dark.

Excerpted from Buddhism without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, from Riverhead Books.

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