Buddhism is a religion. It has beliefs, rituals, altars, offerings, bells, candles, metaphysics, clergy, devotees, prayers, meditation, visions, visitations, celestial beings, other worlds, other lives, moral law, and salvation. All these are found in Zen Buddhism, in Theravada Buddhism, in Tibetan Buddhism, in Pureland Buddhism, in the other schools of Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhism, in fact, in all of Buddhism all over Asia. Buddhists probably burn more candles and incense than the Catholic Church. These are not degeneration or cultural accretions. The founder himself gave us robes, taught ritual and contrition, revealed other lives and worlds, and spoke with the gods. Secularised and rationalised variants of Buddhism exist, but it is these that are partial forms and cultural products of later derivation.
Sometimes it is said that Buddhism is scientific. This assertion would put Buddhism somehow within the frame of science, but Buddhism has much that would not fit into that frame. However, although we cannot really say that Buddhism is scientific, science is Buddhistic. Science is Buddhistic in that science is a way of knowing some things. Buddhism can accommodate everything that science perceives, but science can only perceive a fraction of what Buddhism encompasses, the fraction that appears within the frame that the restrictive rules of science impose. Distinct from science itself, there is also scientism, which is a modern philosophy. Scientism is not Buddhistic because it is the attempt to make the restrictive rules of science into the dogmas by which the whole of life should be governed. Scientism is a different religion and a rather narrow one and it would be a tragedy if Buddhism in the West were reduced to it.
The common ground of all schools of Buddhism is a religious act called taking refuge. We take refuge in the Three Treasures, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Buddha is the supreme source of teaching, love, compassion, and wisdom. Dharma indicates the fundamentals of life and being. Sangha is the church. Taking refuge in these three has salvific power. The spiritual pathway is a succession of deepenings of this act of refuge. Each of these is an awakening of faith. Each deepening of refuge is a lessening of ego. More faith, less ego. Thus Buddhism finds salvation beyond oneself. The devotee is encouraged to be ever mindful of the objects of refuge, to bow to them, make offerings, revere and worship them. Being mindful of their supreme qualities one becomes more aware of one's own deficiency. Becoming more aware of the deficiency of self, one's need to take refuge increases in intensity. Finally one lets go of self entirely, takes refuge wholeheartedly and enters nirvana. Thus, along the path, one is led to a deeper enquiry into one's own being with all its limitation, fallibility, weakness, vulnerability and waywardness of passion. The more clearly one is aware of these deficiencies the more in need of refuge one realises oneself to be. One examines the deficiencies of worldly life, the limitations of reason and of the secular world.
Thus, Buddhism is a religion. Its foundation is faith. This faith is based in real, close-to-the-bone, experience. We find that the body is not reliable. The mind is not reliable. Thoughts are not reliable. Emotions are not reliable. Circumstances are not reliable. Social status is not reliable. The present moment is not reliable. Direct awareness of the present and of the sequence of things occurring demonstrates to us the unreliability of all that the worldly mind considers as self and that it pursues. Awareness alone would leave us frightened and helpless. Therefore we need mindfulness and the other factors of enlightenment that flow from it. We need mindfulness of the treasure that is available to us. Initially we may think it is our own treasure, but this is just the conceit of the self reasserting itself. The treasure is universal and unconditional, but each encounters it in a unique way. Buddha speaks to each of us in our own language. Thus everybody has some spiritual treasure to rely upon if they will just heed it.
There is one treasure and there are three treasures and five treasures and immeasurable treasures. The one treasure is the Buddha. Only in meeting the Buddha in some way is there a refuge. The three treasures are Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The Buddha gave us the Dharma and the Sangha so that we can meet him. The Dharma is the mind of Buddha. The Sangha is a body of Buddha. The five refuges are the three treasures together with the Spiritual Buddhas and the Pure Abodes. These, too, the Buddha has revealed to us so that we can meet him. We may meet him as Shjakyamuni or as Amitabha, or as Quan Shi Yin or Tai Shih Chi or in the form of those to whom the Dharma has been transmitted, or in a direct encounter with the deeper reality. The immeasurable treasures are the myriad Buddhas in their myriad transformations. The Buddha is capable of infinite transformations so that we can meet him and thus find a true refuge.
Buddha is always trying to reach us. That he does not always succeed is because our hearts and minds are closed. They are closed by conceit. Conceit means that we take refuge in ourselves. Being full of ourselves, there is no room for Buddha to get in. We believe that “I” am a special case, that I will not reap the consequences that others reap, that I am justified, that I can control my life, my thoughts and my emotions. This belief in self invades even our spiritual life. We turn the teachings into a means to mastery of self by self or the means to achieve a narrow happiness for ourselves. This, however, is like trying to lift oneself off the ground. The effort to do so only sets us against ourselves and increases our inner conflict. We torture ourselves seeking a self-made salvation. Salvation does not come from self. Salvation comes from Buddha. Buddha does not require us to torture ourselves. Buddha loves us already. Buddha's compassion is measureless. Buddha has fellow-feeling for us as he was once as we are now. He loves us as the weak and ordinary human beings that we are.
We are all Angulimala. We all wear a necklace of trophies for which we feel guilty, but we do not know how to stop. The necklace is our ego (bhava), and the guilt is our self-destructive tendency (vibhava). These two are ever as mirror images one of the other. Ever feeding them we go round and round in the circles of samsara. We are like one in a burning house fascinated by the flames. Meanwhile the myriad Buddhas try to entice us to leave the conflagration, but we are too entranced to heed them. Then we wonder how it is that we keep getting burned. In order to ease our pain we foolishly plunge deeper into the flames believing them to be our salvation. It is self that is burning.
To the extent that we take refuge we join the Buddha in his work. We become extensions of his saving grace. In ourselves we are nothing but he works through us and we trust him to do so. The aim of life is not mere ordinary happiness. It is the salvation of all sentient beings. It is participation in the higher evolution of life, ever striving toward universal, unconditional love. This is a religious vision.
The way out of the fire is, on the one hand, to admit our frail nature and, on the other, to bring to mind our treasure. Turn to the Buddha and make our life, weak as it is, into an offering. By prostrating ourselves and making offerings to many Buddhas we give up the conceit of self and rely upon their saving grace. We trust them to do their work and feel grateful. We pray to them to stay in the world until samsara ceases and turn the wheel of Dharma for us. Then we discover a life surrounded by their grace. We can feel gratitude that the Buddha is reaching out to us, that the Dharma has already been given to us, that there exists a great sangha of loving, compassionate, joyful and steady companions upon the path, that we receive every day immeasurable material, spiritual and ultimate benefits.
It is not by satisfying the ego's belief in our own super-human nature and limitless self-entitlement that we find salvation. That way lies only frustration and a burdensome life of one crisis after another. Only when we see our poverty can we find the treasure, for the treasure does not lie inside oneself. Investigating the reality of our own case and holding the treasure before us work together. We cannot find the treasure without finding our poverty first, but we cannot face our poverty without having a treasure to rely upon. This is the impossible situation of samsara where the conceit of self allows no chink of light to enter. There is no way out of this prison by logic or effort or self-perfection. Only faith can open the door, faith that yields wisdom. Buddhism is a religion that opens the door. Buddha is a power that is not oneself. Be mindful of this refuge. One who acts with such a mind finds that bliss follows as a shadow that never fades.
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