August 06, 2010

Ponlop Rinpoche takes a stab at "the question that won't go away"

ponlop rinpoche, tricycleOne year ago I wrote a post I called, "Is Buddhism a Religion? The Question that won't go away." I think it's clear now that the question will come round again and again. Along with "religion vs. spirituality," it seems to be a perennial favorite. Now, the esteemed Buddhist teacher Ponlop Rinpoche takes on the question in his recent Huffington Post column "Is Buddhism a Religion?" What he describes (as opposed to Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism without beliefs") is a "Buddhism beyond religion." Since I tend to think of Buddhism as religion, I was very interested in reading his post and found it useful. What's not clear to me, though, is whether a "Buddhism beyond religion" would include rebirth, let alone reincarnation, and other elements based on belief rather than science. My impression from Ponlop Rinpoche's post is that reincarnation isn't a Buddhist sine qua non, but I can't be sure. Bhikkhu Bodhi, among others, is clear that without a belief in rebirth, one cannot properly call oneself a Buddhist.

I'm not so interested in defining who's a Buddhist and who's not, but I do think if we include in our worldview ideas like rebirth (or, in Tibetan Buddhism's case, reincarnation), it would be difficult to argue that Buddhism is not a religion.

Great post, I'd love to hear more.

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Andrew L's picture

The Gospel according to Rebirth

Gone gone gone—yonder, gone. That’s what I come back to every time I reflect, as you’re reflecting, on rebirth. What is it really like to be gone? All of the discussions that I’ve heard at dharma centers, or read in the pages of various dharma zines, seem more comfortable with talking about how uncomfortable the idea of rebirth is to “Westerners.” Or they focus on how to make rebirth plausible to people whose culture doesn’t afford us the luxury of a return trip ticket. Often the language used is that of invitation. Something along the lines of: you might want to entertain the possibility of rebirth, consider it as an option. It’s a good pitch. Americans like options; they make them feel free, like there’s real choice, maybe even a rationally motivated choice, in the matter. Like: I have a say in what goes down.

But the real meat of the issue for me isn’t debating its plausibility or entertaining rebirth as an abstract possibility. Even Voltaire said as much when he quipped that it wasn’t the possibility of multiple births that is so incomprehensible. Being born even once is what’s astounding. The high-stakes question is, What would Buddhism look like if you didn’t subcribe to the doctrine of rebirth? How would that change your practice? And it’s this question that virtually everyone ducks—students and teachers alike. We’re invited to apply our critical capacities to the teachings, to investigate every claim in every teaching. But some tenets never really get interrogated. Rebirth is one.

What happens when you factor out rebirth?

* lineage becomes historical only, it loses a certain numinous quality (this could make it MORE powerful for some);
* relations to deities in Tibetan practice could become problematic;
* intensification of practice, or of nihilism—the “why bother” attitude;
* practices hinging on gaining a better life next time crash and burn;
our end-of-life practice, Sukhavati, becomes moot—your merit won’t stretch beyond this life;
* in taking away one of the seeds of quietism, it could help radicalize the political aspect of dharma: “I must do something meaningful” takes on new urgency;

Multiple lives gives you more time to grow and learn, and more time to be lazy. It codifies the notion of time generally despite the injunction to “be present.” But to be present isn’t a temporal statement; it doesn’t really involve time at all.

Ouch! Without rebirth, we might just have to wake up now. No flip side, no hasta manana—right now.

Andrew

PS With Dennis I learn a lot about my practice by contemplating its relationship to Western material science. I think we all know that while it is a force dominating how we 21st century folks think about ourselves and how we behave, its claims to truth are always subject to debate—that’s part of the scientific method. This includes the theory of natural selection which Shaheen adduced as an example of scientific certitude. There is a broad but vague consensus, no doubt, regarding natural selection. But there are powerful arguments—have been for years—contesting it as an oversimplified anthropomorphism (or in some versions as a remnant of theistic thinking). See Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin for more critical takes on how we regularly misunderstand natural selection. Or more recently Jerry Fodor’s and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini’s _What Darwin Got Wrong._ None of these are arguments for evolution-denying creationism. They are most concerned with making science more precise and less susceptible to the delusions of the belief systems we’ve inherited (e.g., all history including evolution moves toward a goal determined by a divine force). For a Buddhist-inspired take on evolutions, see Maturano’s and Francisco Varela’s _The Tree of Knowledge_ in which evolution is considered from the perspective of biological entities interacting with a dynamic environment itself capable of learning and adaptation to the life forms living “in” it.

Rehn Kovacic's picture

Mark,

First, as for Judaism, yes the religion has a god, but believing in that god does not make you a Jew. A Jew is someone who follows the laws of the Torah, Talmud, and Mishna. If you do that, you're a jew. I know of a number of people who converted to Judaism without a belief in god. Odd, yes, but you can do it. Also, many of the people born as a jews follow the law but don't really believe. Yet, they are still considered Jews. It is Christianity that is based on faith. People often think that there is a similarity between Christianity and Judaism that does not exist. You will also have similar problems with your definition when you look at Native American Religion.

Why do you say that to be religious, you must renounce rational thought. Again, you have created for yourself a definition of religion that is very narrow. Many non-Buddhists think that the Dharma is not rational. It is simply in the eye of the beholder. I think that many of the millions of Buddhists throughout history would question your removal of Buddhism from the category of Religion.

And as for the exploitation and abuse committed by religious people. If you study Buddhist history, you will find that Buddhists have committed the same type of violence and abuse that other religions have committed. In Japan alone, there were times when monks of one sect would fight the monks of others sects. And burn down their temples. Look at the support of the Japanese military by Zen monks in WWII. In recent history, you just need to look at Sri Lanka. It seems that you want to place Buddhism above religion, because you don't like what Western Religions have done. Well, Buddhism does not have a clean slate either.

I'm a Zen Buddhist, and I consider Zen a religion.

Mark's picture

Rehn--

This is an old post by now and I should have responded sooner, but I feel compelled to anyway. As far as my definition of the divine, it encompasses Jewish theology; the fact that someone chooses to reject the Talmud and the Torah and still is identified as a Jew doesn't change the fact that Judeism has a theology which includes a metaphysical God (as does Christianity and Islam). I'm not saying one has to define religion this way; I'm saying that is what the religions that have shaped Western culture are.

As far as why the dharma should not be identified as a religion, I hope I made that clear in my post. By requiring adherents to renounce rational thought, and then using their irrationality to exploit and abuse them in a thousand ways (think, for instance, of how the orthodox rabbis and imams in the Middle East stoke the fires of conflict there), religion is a cause of great suffering and divisiveness. It is a premiere example of samsaric attachment. Further, if the dharma is identified as a religion, its many secular benefits will be tainted and it will gradually be forced out of schools, therapy programs, and other places.

Bruno's picture

"Buddhism beyond religion" reminds me somewhat of the nondual principle within buddhism's roots. Buddhist practices are intended to be beyond religious or secular classifications.

As for the rebirth issue, we have plenty of discussions on taking this teaching as somewhat of a metaphor for the various stages of our mental state throughout our lives. Also, think about the countless lives we live within one single day! I myself take the rebirth issue as something very real we experience every moment of our lives.

Gasshô!

Rehn's picture

Mark,

Your definition of religion, "a belief in the divine," is extremely narrow. Basically, it is a description of Christianity. And why should we accept this as the ultimate definition? The problem is that it excludes many of what we accept as the world religions. As an example, and this is true, a belief in the divine does not make one Jewish. Judaism is based on what you do, not what you believe. You don't have to believe in god to be Jewish. (Judaism has very few similarities to Christianity.) That is just one example, I could go on. The question that I have is why don't you want Buddhism to be considered a religion. I think this is the fascinating question.

Rehn

Mark's picture

Much of the discussion here, while learned and thoughtful, is largely hairsplitting. The social scientist's definition of religion may be useful for academic study, but what we are really concerned with here are pragmatic social realities (otherwise, why would we care whether or not Buddhism is a religion?). Pragmatically, we all know what a religion is. It involves a belief in the divine, a divine that can be influenced by our behavior to have effects in the physical world. It involves revealed truth and a hierarchy for managing that truth, including an insistance on the faith of adherents. It insists on dividing humanity into those who have accepted the divine revealed truth, and those who have not (for purposes both benign and harmful). And we must look long and hard for a religion which has not insisted that humans cannot know the divine and therefore must place faith in authority, even when (especially when) it conflicts with their own experience and critical thought. Are other kinds of religion possible? Sure; but the religions that have shaped our culture all share these characteristics. The reason why this question draws such interest is that many people who have embraced the dharma in the West have done so specifically as a reaction against religion. They are seeking a way to confront existential questions without the appeal to irrational mythologies and the power structures religion builds around them. While even a non-rebirth, non-after-death-personal-karma style of Buddhism COULD be defined as a religion, it would be radically unlike the religions we know and that have shaped our culture, and that's part of why so many are attracted to it. For that reason, I think it's important to state that the dharma is not a religion, and is in fact an antidote to religion, one we as individuals and as a global community are greatly in need of.

Vu Nguyen's picture

The Buddha is neither a Buddhist nor the founder of Buddhism. Rather, the Buddha is the teacher and guide of the founders of Buddhism. Based on historical records, the Buddha practiced both spirituality and sciences. The simplest proof is based on a recorded Buddha statement or guidance:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find anything that agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it. (Siddhartha Gautama - The Buddha), 563-483 B.C.

which can imply sincere and resolute truth seeking, efforts, reason, integrity, honesty, courage, honor, altruism, common good advancer, inspirations, passion, freedom and liberation. This statement is most appropriate for spiritual and or sciences practitioner or devote.

Perhaps reincarnation is the natural law of what being described as the effects of cosmic or universal consciousness or presently being studied and analyzed in quantum and unify field sciences. Legitimate reincarnation can be the experience and or manifestation of nature interdependent-interconnect-interrelate phenomena such as quantum synchronicity, non-locality, coherence and entanglement between quantum brain/mind and oneness spiritual existence or universal consciousness.

The best way forward to better comprehend or understand natural law is to create global alliances and institutions to collectively study, analyze and research into the sciences of such as the brain, mind, psychology, neurology, biology, meditation, consciousness, quantum and unified field, transcendence and after life. The efforts are necessary and urgent and would greatly benefits and advance societies, humanity as well as the environment.

A few links to discussions and or opinions from the global community on spirituality, religion and sciences:

http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/guestvoices/2010/04/the_buddh...

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dzogchen-ponlop-rinpoche/is-buddhism-a-rel...

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-mcswain/finding-god-after-leaving_b_...

http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/2010/07/are_all_religions_the...

http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith//2010/08/spiritual_but_not_re...

http://ervinlaszlo.com/forum/

http://www.quantumbrain.org/

http://www.spaceandmotion.com/Philosophy-Truth-Reality.htm

Lyn's picture

A monk in Oakland is asked, "Is Buddhism a religion?"
The monk answered, "Buddhism is a way of life." He opens his tunic and displays the Lakers t-shirt he is wearing and says, "This is a religion."

Andrew Cooper's picture

Because I am, sadly, a very slow writer, I have the habit of reusing things I've written previously. Some years back, a Tricycle reader wrote a letter questioning me for referring to Buddhism as a religion and for speaking of faith as an aspect of its practice. I thought the sections below from my response would be relevant to the present discussion:

But of course Buddhism is a religion. It has authoritative scriptures, which are formulated into a body of doctrine; it describes what constitutes a well-lived life, the goal of such a life, and the means to make that life one’s own; it has teachings meant to promote social cohesion; it has ritual forms, styles of iconography, and hagiographic texts that link the individual with tradition and link tradition with the transcendent; it has a rich mythology, which connects quotidian events with the deeper designs of the cosmos; it has—well, you get the point. One might say, as some do, that some or all of these things are incidental, and one could find support for such a claim in isolated sayings of the Buddha or from an eminent Zen master. But that would, I think, entail a highly selective and polemical reading of Buddhist tradition.

On a deeper level, like other religions, Buddhism views its own teachings—moral, intellectual, and spiritual—not as arbitrary but as having a basis in the very structure of reality, however elusive that reality might be. This is what religions do, and to borrow Forrest Gump’s eloquent phrasing, “religion is as religion does.”

The crux of my concern in the article, really, was faith, as distinct from belief. I mean here something akin to Coleridge’s famous definition of poetic faith: the willing suspension of disbelief. But that formulation lacks a certain sense of urgency that is, well, urgent. Living in a world in which stable beliefs, whether traditional or modern, are continually overturned, we postmoderns abide in the sensibility that we are not impartial observers of an objective world. The world we perceive is one we participate in creating. Which, if you think about it, is another way of saying that, whether we like it or not, we live by means of faith. We toss our perceptions and intuitions, however vaguely articulated, into the abyss that lies before us, and then, so to speak, we leap in after them. If our leap is true, the world we have cast is enriched, elaborated, and ratified. Religious tradition still guides us in this mysterious process. It gives us better footing, it helps us jump further and land better, and it makes the world into which we cast ourselves more gracious, precious, and luminous than we could ourselves imagine. So it seems to me that, while our point of departure today is in crucial ways different from, and far shakier than, that of our religious forebears, our encounter with the sacred still begins, over and over, with a leap of faith.

Vu Nguyen's picture

The Buddha is neither a Buddhist nor the founder of Buddhism. Rather, the Buddha is the teacher and guide of the founders of Buddhism. Based on historical records, the Buddha practiced both spirituality and sciences. The simplest proof is based on a recorded Buddha statement or guidance:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find anything that agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it. (Siddhartha Gautama - The Buddha), 563-483 B.C.

which can imply sincere and resolute truth seeking, efforts, reason, integrity, honesty, courage, honor, altruism, common good advancer, inspirations, passion, freedom and liberation. This statement is most appropriate for spiritual and or sciences practitioner or devote.

Perhaps reincarnation is the natural law of what being described as the effects of cosmic or universal consciousness or presently being studied and analyzed in quantum and unify field sciences. Legitimate reincarnation can be the experience and or manifestation of nature interdependent-interconnect-interrelate phenomena such as quantum synchronicity, non-locality, coherence and entanglement between quantum brain/mind and oneness spiritual existence or universal consciousness.

The best way forward to better comprehend or understand natural law is to create global alliances and institutions to collectively study, analyze and research into the sciences of such as the brain, mind, psychology, neurology, biology, meditation, consciousness, quantum and unified field, near death experience, after life and transcendence. The efforts are necessary and urgent and would greatly benefits and advance societies, humanity as well as the environment.

A few links to discussions and or opinions from the global community on spirituality, religion and sciences:

http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/guestvoices/2010/04/the_buddh...

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dzogchen-ponlop-rinpoche/is-buddhism-a-rel...

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-mcswain/finding-god-after-leaving_b_...

http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/2010/07/are_all_religions_the...

http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith//2010/08/spiritual_but_not_re...

http://ervinlaszlo.com/forum/

http://www.quantumbrain.org/

http://www.spaceandmotion.com/Philosophy-Truth-Reality.htm

Vu Nguyen's picture

The Buddha is neither a Buddhist nor the founder of Buddhism. Rather, the Buddha is the teacher and guide of the founders of Buddhism. Based on historical records, the Buddha practiced both spirituality and sciences. The simplest revelation is based on a recorded Buddha statement or guidance:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find anything that agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it. (Siddhartha Gautama - The Buddha), 563-483 B.C.

Which implies sincere and resolute truth seeking, reason, integrity, honesty, courage, honor, altruism, common good advancer and inspirations. This statement is most appropriate for spiritual and or sciences practitioner or devote.

Perhaps reincarnation is the natural law of what being described as the effects of cosmic or universal consciousness or presently being studied and analyzed in quantum and unify field sciences. Legitimate reincarnation can be the experience and or manifestation of nature interdependent-interconnect-interrelate phenomena such as quantum synchronicity, non-locality, coherence and entanglement between quantum brain/mind and oneness spiritual existence or universal consciousness.

The best way forward to better comprehend or understand natural law is to create global alliances and institutions to collectively study, analyze and research into the sciences of such as the brain, mind, psychology, neurology, biology, meditation, consciousness, quantum and unified field, near death experience, after life and transcendence. The efforts are necessary and urgent and would greatly benefits and advance societies, humanity as well as the environment.

A few links to discussions and or opinions from the global community on spirituality and or religion:

http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/guestvoices/2010/04/the_buddh...

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dzogchen-ponlop-rinpoche/is-buddhism-a-rel...

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-mcswain/finding-god-after-leaving_b_...

http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/2010/07/are_all_religions_the...

http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith//2010/08/spiritual_but_not_re...

James Shaheen's picture

That I will.

I'll read his book and let you know what I think! I'm interested in his approach to teaching Western students. He has brought the teachings to so many people, and judging by the response to his column, he'll continue to.

Rehn's picture

Ponlop Rimpoche would need to be clear about his definition for me to be interested in reading his book. I personally like reading the many definitions of religion. It is a field of study in itself. Again, I think that it would be interesting if you could ask Don Lopez to comment on the subject.

James Shaheen's picture

Hervieu-Leger's definition is not in conflict with the definition Cooper sites, however different their emphases.

I don't think defining religion is terribly different from trying to define any category, and the definitions, whatever their differences, seem to have more in common with each other than they don't. But I think Ponlop Rinpoche has something specific in mind when he asks whether Buddhism is a religion, and it seems to be very different from what any of us here is talking about. Again, he seems to be associating religion with beliefs we cannot demonstrate (by this definition, I would still include Buddhism). On the other hand, your preferred definition of religion would include Buddhism. I agree with that.

Rehn's picture

I have a graduate degree in Religious Studies, so I understand the difficulty in defining religion. As I stated, there are many definitions, not just one. Cooper's definition is a good one, but there is no one accepted definition in academia. It's a paradox. We have a field of study without a definition of that field. Broad definitions are good because they are inclusive, but sometimes over inclusive. Narrow definitions leave out some religions, but are used when needed. I would suggest asking Don Lopez, who is contributing to the poetry site, what he says about defining religion. He is an excellent scholar, and I would appreciate his opinion.

The definition that I use is from the French sociologist Hervieu-Leger. She suggests that religion is a "lineage of believers." THe definition simply means that we attach ourselves to a group of people over a period of time. It does not say that it is a lineage of beliefs, because beliefs change over time. We simply attach current beliefs to people in the past as a way of legitimizing what we believe now--whether anyone believed it in the past or not. Buddhism is a lineage of believers, and although understandings and practices have changed over the centuries, we legitimize what we do by attaching ourselves over time to the Buddha through a lineage of people. Most religions do this in some manner. I like this definition, and it worked for my research.

James Shaheen's picture

I think Andrew Cooper addresses your concerns. He argues that, in fact, there is a definition of religion that academics who study it do use. As Cooper writes,

"For those who study religion—social scientists, historians, etc.—it refers to a particular field of human endeavor dealing with ultimate concerns. For those who study religion, from various disciplines, this is what religion means. It doesn’t matter what any particular person thinks religion should mean; this is what it does mean."

I think it's safe enough to go with the definition he provides above and in the rest of what he writes, which I've posted. I agree with him that it's useless to define religion according to one's own personal notion of what religion is.

When you say Zen is a religion, if you don't have a definition for it, what do you mean? I don't ask in a provocative way, I ask only to point out a problem I'm having with your argument that religion cannot be defined. I would agree with Cooper that it has been.

Rehn's picture

I'm sorry, but a discussion about Buddhism being a religion without defining what religion is to me is pointless. You have everyone responding based on their own understanding of what religion is. How can two people--or more--speak to each other intelligently if they are each talking about two different things. Perhaps there is discussion going on but does it make sense as a whole. Coming from an academic background, such a discussion would simply frustrate me. It is like talking about "good" and "evil." Perhaps we separately understand the terms but without definition, our discussion would simply be an argument. If the point of the discussion is to be a forum to allow everybody to express there own understanding of religion, that's great, but is that the point. Maybe it is. I don't know.

James Shaheen's picture

And yet when Ponlop Rinpoche asks, "Is Buddhism a Religion?" at least on some level, everyone knows what he means--and many have responded. Absent is any explicit definition, which has given rise to this discussion and others. But because he does not mention beliefs like rebirth and reincarnation, it seems to me by religion he implies practices based on beliefs that are not scientifically supportable (he mentions a belief in god, which for monotheists, is also "just the truth"). It's why I would like to hear more.

Rehn's picture

I will conclude with the statement that religion has many definitions--not one. Each will include some acknowledged religions and exclude others. We don't want to be like Christopher Columbus who in writing back to Queen Isabella stated that the native people would be easy to convert to Catholicism because they had no religion. In actuality they did have what we now recognize as religion, but for Columbus it did not fit into the category of religion created by Christians with a Christian model. Let’s be careful what definition we use. And remember that before any discussion can begin, a definition must first be established. And that may be difficult.

Thank you

James Shaheen's picture

Rehn & Dennis,

A New York federal judge concluded Joyce's Ulysses was not pornographic because he did "not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist." The material was not intended to sexually excite. So, a definition of pornography did come in handy and it was based on the intent of the author, although the far more clever—and humorous—measure is the purely subjective response of the reader.

Like pornography, religion does have a definition, although the "I'll know it when I see it" approach, much as I find this delightfully useful to each of us individually (and perhaps in our own practice), is hardly useful if a discussion is meant to lead to any kind of consensus or mutually understood definition. Likewise, "the truth is just the truth" is good for the individual practitioner, perhaps, but if you consider the number of competing truth claims in a pluralistic society, the truth is hardly something we all agree on. So it isn't "just the truth," it's one claim among many.

As for theory, rebirth--at least in the scientific sense--does not rise to the level of theory, whereas natural selection does. I don't mean to diminish religious belief at all, and agree that science is full of assumptions. It does work, though, and so does religion, but to different ends.

Like Rehn, I'd be careful about what I call a theory, otherwise we'll be dealing with creationism in the science classroom. There is a distinction between a scientific theory and an assumption or a belief, but like both of you, I don't use one to devalue the other.

I do feel this is relevant to DPR's discussion because not mentioned in his column are those beliefs we would consider "religious," beliefs that if included, would have raised many questions about why we might think otherwise.

This is an interesting discussion and I'm learning from—and stand corrected by—both of you.

Many thanks,

James

Rehn's picture

Dennis,

Thank you for the wonderful post. Science is a grouping of theories based on a great deal of evidence. However, even theories accepted as fact today--such as gravity--are now being questioned. But in the end I maintain that we should not use science to justify religion. They are two separate spheres. In the same way that I don't think that we should you religion to justify science. When you do so, you come up with very strange findings--like the earth is 6000 years old and fossils were placed here to test our faith.

Rehn

Dennis Hunter's picture

Hi James,

Thanks for your clarification. What I was really reacting to is the polarization between what we think is "science" on the one hand and what we think is "belief" on the other. Sometimes "belief" is used, in that way, as a pejorative (not saying YOU were using it that way, but I do think it gets used that way a lot). This is a false dichotomy that clouds the issue. A lot of what we assume is hard science rests on a bed of assumptions and beliefs that are often not really questioned by scientists. For example: the implicit assumption in neuroscience that the brain and nervous system are the entire basis for the arising of consciousness/mind. As Charles Tart put it: "It's as if people think that science has somehow proven that only the physical processes in the brain constitute consciousness. And, that hasn't been proven. That's all right as a working hypothesis, but there's lots of things that say, 'No, that's an inadequate hypothesis. That won't explain everything.'"

Of course, you are right -- rebirth is not included in science's commonly accepted set of theories about reality, the way natural selection is. But when you jump from there to saying "there is no scientific basis for it," it sounds like you are dismissing the scientific research that *is* being done on rebirth (which, granted, isn't a lot, because this isn't a popular topic of research in Western science -- in fact, the bias against it is so strong that it might be perceived as something of a career-killer). Dr. Stevenson at U.Va has analyzed thousands of cases and found many whose particulars cannot be adequately explained except through a theory of rebirth. Is it still a theory, that requires some degree of faith to accept? Yes, but in the same way as having faith that consciousness is purely a material function of the brain. Both are theories. In our society, one of those theories is commonly lauded as The Truth, and the other is most often dismissed as irrational superstition. It concerns me to see many Buddhists falling into that same pattern.

I appreciate the opportunity to talk about this. It wasn't particularly germane to DPR's original article -- but you brought it up, and I think it's a terribly important question that Western Buddhists are wrestling with at this juncture. I hope that in the growing encounter between Buddhism and Western science, we will begin to explore this question in a more truly scientific way, not a "scientistic" one. Stephen Batchelor may ultimately be right, though, in that answering this question is not particularly relevant to how we practice on the path here and now.

As for what qualifies as "religious trappings," this is another very interesting question. I suspect it's very personal: what works for one person as a way to really connect with meaning is a religious trapping to someone else. And it's cultural: what works for Tibetans doesn't necessarily work for Americans. DPR's teachings and writings seem increasingly geared towards finding the expression of genuine dharma (truth) that is most suited to Western minds, as opposed to the expression of dharma that is most suited to Tibetan minds. In his sangha, a lot of what Westerners would commonly regard as Tibetan "religious trappings" are largely absent. He doesn't encourage traditionally Tibetan religious displays such as being greeted in anjali by his students, or sitting on brocades or high thrones (unless it's appropriate to the occasion). Instead, he looks for ways to relate to his Western students on their own terms, with less of the cultural baggage of the religion as it was traditionally practiced by Tibetans.

As he suggests, we can even relate to statues of the Buddha as religious trappings. It depends on whether we regard them as icons of something holy and far-removed from us (and nearly impossible to attain), or examples of something that we ourselves can manifest. The former, it seems to me, is religious -- and the latter is spiritual.

- Dennis

Morning Star Dhamma's picture

Questions like this do go away, as soon as one realizes that they are not particularly useful for practice.

As Ponlop Rinpoche wrote, the truth is just the truth. Right here and now, in this very moment, just as it is, up close and personal. We might apply the label "religion," or we might not. In the end, the labels we apply all have the same characteristic.

Rehn's picture

I think that religion is much like the Supreme Courts declaration about pornography: “I’ll know it when I see it.” Scholars of Religious Studies find that creating a blanket definition for religion is difficult. Therefore, we would most often use a definition that works well for our particular area of research. I believe that Mr. Cooper’s definition, “Religion is that sphere of human life concerned with questions of meaning,” probably sums up religion quite well. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about belief or about god or about unanswerable questions. It is simply the question of meaning. Does Buddhism fit into this definition? Yes. However, someone could—and people have—included professional sports under this type of definition. So, it’s still a problem. It all comes down to the definition. Is the definition too broad or to narrow? What I’m really trying to say is why ask the question in the first place. What is the purpose of type of inquiry? Whether or not you call Buddhism a religion will not affect my practice of Zen. Nor will it probably affect the practice of millions of Buddhists throughout the world.

James Shaheen's picture

@ Rehn - re whether one can properly call oneself a Jew - I'm only saying that this seems to be another one of those discussions that won't go away, so I should have used a religion other than Judaism as an example.

James Shaheen's picture

@ Rehn - Thanks for the clarification. I posted Andrew Cooper's response and wonder how you would respond to that. Also, if all definitions are deficient, what then is religion and how or when can we apply the term, or call any system of beliefs a religion, as we do Zen? I think a definition—and agreed, no definition is perfect—would help.

You're right to point out that the definition I cited from Merriam Webster is woefully deficient, and I won't try to define the term myself, but if "religion" is a field of study, and since we decide to use the term, isn't a definition or an attempt at one necessary? Like you, I consider Zen a religion, but in this process I've come to understand how sloppy my own definition and understanding of religion is, and it's why I posted Cooper's comments.

As for the question itself, as I think Carlos suggests, the way people respond to the word is a more interesting issue than the question itself. It must mean something to people because, as I said, it's a question that won't go away.

In the context of Ponlop Rinpoche's post, my impression is that religion is being characterized in part by beliefs that cannot be scientifically supported, which is why I noted the absence of any discussion of rebirth or reincarnation in it.

@ Carlos - Abraços!

Rebecca Holton's picture

Personally I think rebirth is a bit of an "add-on" to Buddhism. If we believe in rebirth then there must be something specific that is reborn, an entity that we can absolutely identify as our "I" that will continue in the same form after we die and was there before we were born. This seems to me to be at odds with Emptiness in which we come to understand the mind and therefore our "I" as being "everything else". For me personally I find the concept of continuation much more authentic because it means that I do not have to cling onto an "I".
Just as a wooden chair was once a tree and could sometime become ash, then soil, then a worm, then a bird etc... our "I" continues but is everything, it can't be pinned down to something constant and specific.

Carlos's picture

James, thanks.

I'm not a researcher, and personally I don't think that much about Buddhism being a religion or not, but:

1. it somewhat bothers me the emphasis with which many Buddhists I meet or know about try to distance themselves of any religion. I think that exploring the meaning of this may be interesting.

2. more than thinking about definitions of religion, sometimes I think about "religious experience" and "religious institutions". If a Buddhist institution has rules or procedures discouraging open dialogue or critical thought (not necessarily in relation to themes like reincarnation or devotion, but even in relation to internal financial issues, or to how we relate to other religions), I can't avoid perceiving the institutions as collaborating to make Buddhism a religion.

As I've said these are personal thoughts... and personally I have the tendency of seeing Buddhism as a religion, but not because of the quality of one's practice and study, or because of one's beliefs, but basically because of this urge to deny religion and most of all because of how some institutions I know more about work.

Abraços!

Rehn's picture

James,

As for the having to believe in god to be Jewish. You can believe all you want and not be considered a Jew. It has to do with what you do. I know of people have converted without a belief in god.

Rehn

Rehn's picture

James,

I think you really misunderstood me. I don't think that religion has to have something to do with god. I'm simply saying that not all religions have to do with belief. And not all religions have to do with god. My main point is that all definitions are deficient. So why bother. I think that the question is a waste of time. Many Westerner over the last 15 to 20 years have come to hate organized religion--that is why they created the category of Spirituality. They can be religious without calling it religion. Some Westerners are drawn to Buddhism because it's, in their mind, not a religion--it doesn't fit neatly into a Christian understanding of religion. I practice Zen, and I consider it a religion.

Rehn

James Shaheen's picture

Contributing editor Andrew Cooper writes to me:

"I wrote the below in response to someone who dismissed religion as an attempt to assuage 'existential' doubts and compared it unfavorably with science. But the reason I think you might find it useful is that it emphasizes what religion means when social scientists speak of it. I think that is the best way of approaching the question of what is meant by religion. This is not a matter of “it depends on how you define it” since words cannot just mean whatever we want them to. For those who study religion—social scientists, historians, etc.—it refers to a particular field of human endeavor dealing with ultimate concerns. For those who study religion, from various disciplines, this is what religion means. It doesn’t matter what any particular person thinks religion should mean; this is what it does mean."

Okay, so here is Andrew Cooper's response to someone who dismisses religion as a mere means to assuage existential doubt:

"While the forms of culture are not innate, humans are indeed culture-bearing creatures. Our genetic programming is so general that without the long process of enculturation, a human being is not, in any full sense, human at all. Such an individual would be unable to survive, to communicate, to be part of a social group, and his or life would be an unintegrated sequence of unshaped thoughts and random emotions. In other words, the capacity and necessity for culture is indeed innate.

"Social science research tells us that religion is not a matter of theory, though that has entered the picture over the past two or three thousand years. That is, it is not, at its heart, an attempt to answer questions, existential or otherwise, it is a reflection and expression of a social groups deepest sense of what the world is and how humans can come to find their place in it. Theory was a very valuable addition, as it allowed for those concerned with religious matters, such as the Buddha or the Hebrew prophets, to reflect critically on the way religion was being practiced. And within this context, meaningful religious questions arise. Existential questions, as that term is typically understood, don’t really enter the picture until the early modern period in the West. This is one reason Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy is so remarkable. It is a contemplation of mortality that is haunted by a degree of uncertainty that probably was, generally speaking, a new experience of the world.

"Science, by which we usually mean quantitative, materialist, reductive science, is not at all synonymous with rational thought, but is, rather, one very limited application of it. It has been extraordinarily effective at demonstrating how things work. But by its nature, it is unequipped to deal with meaning, the concern with which is one of the very qualities that make humans human. Indeed, the reductive methodology is designed to strip events of meaning. This is but one critique that those in fields such as anthropology, sociology, and psychology—at least those who advocate studying human being as human beings—raise in relation to applying the methods of material science to human experience. There are many other critiques in this rich body of literature.

"Religion is that sphere of human life concerned with questions of meaning, at least that’s how social scientists see it. It is not science, and to understand it that way is to make a category mistake. That horrible things happen in religions should not surprise us. Horrible things happen in all spheres of life where much is at stake. Still we have to make each sphere the best we are able. Horrible things happen in economics, the sphere concerned with the distribution of resources and wealth, and horrible things happen in politics, the sphere concerned with governance, but we can’t very get rid of them. And I don’t think we can very well get rid of the need find and create meaning with others in this life. Science won’t cut it, because the moment it starts creating structures of meaning, value, and purpose, it ceases to be science."

Carleene's picture

Hi, I can't believe this didn't go more in-depth, too. Looking for more...

James Shaheen's picture

@ Rehn, I concede it may be a bad definition, especially if you're partial to the view that religion must include a belief in God.

As for: "You can be a Jew or convert to Judaism and not have a belief in god."

Not everyone would agree with this. I'm sure you've heard the arguments.

@ Bija--I agree.

@ Dennis Hunter--I did not say everyone who believes in rebirth is blindly accepting it because it's traditional. And yes, intelligent people can believe in it, just as intelligent people can believe in transubstantiation. I'm just saying there is no scientific basis for it (it's not in the same league with, say, natural selection). That's just a fact.

But again, what Rehn says is correct--it will really depend on how you define religion. It seems to me, though, that a belief in rebirth or reincarnation is a religious belief, and saying so will diminish its value only if you think religion is a bad thing. It also seems to me that distinguishing it from other religious beliefs by claiming it is more "real" or "scientific" than a belief like transubstantiation is to imply it is somehow a superior belief.

I would agree with you about what's important though, and it's notable that you do not include rebirth or reincarnation. I would also be interested in knowing what "religious trappings" you refer to.

Dennis Hunter's picture

James writes: "Buddhism as it has come to us includes a belief in rebirth (again, in Tibet’s case, reincarnation), which is a matter of belief or faith, not empirical fact."

Yes, but not everyone who "believes" in reincarnation/rebirth is just blindly accepting it because it's traditional, or because they haven't thought it through carefully. Some very reasonable and well-trained Western scientists (Dr. Charles Tart, for example; and Dr. Ian Stevenson at the University of Virginia) have looked at all the evidence available and done their own analysis and come to the conclusion that you can't just dismiss rebirth as pure fantasy. I think it's good to hold a balanced perspective on these things and not to fall to either the extreme of blind faith or the extreme of blind skepticism. Sounds sort of like the Buddha's middle way, in fact!

I think Ponlop Rinpoche's main point in that article is not that Buddhism isn't a religion, which seems to be the way a lot of people are taking it (his post has drawn close to 900 comments in a single day, and a lot of the comments echo that interpretation). It's that the essence of the Buddhist path is not about the religious trappings, or being a good religious person: all of that stuff is secondary to what really matters, which is your own open heart and open mind searching for truth and freedom.

Bija Andrew Wright's picture

I feel like the insistence that Buddhism is not a religion seems to imply there's something wrong with religion, something misguided about the human race's tendency to have faith, to read scriptures, to commune with fellow believers.

An analogy: suppose that a culture had a tradition of wearing something on one's head. You mentioned this and called the thing a hat, but members of that culture said, "No, our culture does not have hats. This that I'm wearing on my head isn't a hat. You must be careful not to call this a hat." You might comply, but wouldn't you find it a little strange?

So when I compare my life to the life of religious people I know, I see that we have differences in the way we approach religion, but within the spectrum of "religions" I find myself clearly identified as Buddhist. It would be a strange hangup to say, "Angela's religion is Christianity, Saif's religion is Islam, Jeremy's religion is Judaism, but as for me, I don't have a religion. I have Buddhism, but it's not a religion, cause I'm not one of those religious people."

Rehn's picture

"a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith"

This is a perfect example of a bad definition. Judaism is not a belief system. You can be a Jew or convert to Judaism and not have a belief in god. To be a Jew depends on what you do not what you believe. Therefore, it doesn't fit the definition. Should we not call it a religion now. See where this can go.

Rehn

James Shaheen's picture

Hi Carlos,

Buddhism as it has come to us includes a belief in rebirth (again, in Tibet's case, reincarnation), which is a matter of belief or faith, not empirical fact. There is also talk of realms beyond our own, devas, hungry ghosts, and so forth, some of which is taken literally.

Here's one definition (Merriam-Webster), and one I think that fits, whether or not faith claims like rebirth are held:

4 : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

I think because religion has had a bad name among many, those who have dismissed it and who have taken up Buddhism would like to draw distinctions beyond philosophical differences and differences in belief. Check out Huston Smith on this. Or see the link to Robert Bellah in the earlier post I link to.

But like Rehn says, it depends on how you define religion. I would still ask why, say, Judaism is a religion and Buddhism is not.

Ponlop Rinpoche's post does indeed describe a method of investigation that does not appear to be religious, but it also does not include references to Buddhist beliefs like rebirth, say, or reincarnation.

All best,

James

Rehn's picture

It all comes down to what your definition of religion is--and there are many. Most all definitions will leave out some religions. Is it about a god? Is it about beliefs? Is it about meaning? Why bother creating a category in the first place? I spent many years academically studying religions, and I came to the realization that a definition of religion is like the proverbial raft. It is useful in some situations, but when you are finished with it, throw it away. Holding on to it is a burden. Who are we to make a judge what is a religion. The best thing to do is simply ask the practitioners. And go with that.

Carlos's picture

James, it'd be great to know more about the reasons you tend to think of Buddhism as a religion.