Oh, that I may live for but one breath
As is the fate of most poorly understood Eastern religions, Buddhism in the West increasingly attracts those who identify as “spiritual, not religious.” And it’s easy to see why; the Buddha’s teachings are undeniably oriented more towards inward personal development than external submission and find their base in experiential inquiry rather than dogmatic acceptance. Although ritual, tradition, and authority have their place in Buddhism, it is as a religion uniquely focused on individual effort and decidedly free from many of the trappings so likely to turn young, free-thinking, or otherwise nontraditional spiritual seekers away from the Abrahamic faiths – and considering that these predominantly white, middle-class liberals make up the large majority of Americans who engage with Buddhism, it makes sense that Buddhism in the West has begun to cater more and more to this “spiritual, not religious” mindset.
So what’s the problem? In the end, it’s one based on the conflict between connotation and denotation; while a good Buddhist should indeed be far more spiritually engaged than religiously minded, the expression itself has become shorthand for a self-centered, relativist approach adopted by those who are unwilling to follow the implications of real, sustained belief to their logical – and challenging – conclusions. It is an approach to life that uses spirituality not as tool for discovering deeper truths but for avoiding them, an indulgent miscellany of vaguely positive but ultimately meaningless assumptions that exist as means to an end – usually a warm feeling – instead of independent realities that have the capability of profoundly influencing the way we interact with the world around us.
The “spiritual, not religious” approach focuses on the joy of knowing a vague, always supportive God; it is, of course, quite unenthusiastic when it comes to discovering exactly what that God might want of his creation. It delights in the idea that we are spiritual beings with eternal souls; it won’t, however, have much to say about how you should honor such a possession. Such a worldview, one essentially anarchic in its rejection of any standard of behavior, spiritual or otherwise, obscures itself with a repeated emphasis on its freedom from the oppressive, rules-and-regulation dogma of organized religion; however, it’s hard not to think that the true root of this self-directed divestment from traditional religious institutions has far less to do with a desire for authentic, untethered spiritual seeking and far more to do with a fear of ever being asked to do much of anything with a spiritual belief besides utilizing it as just another drug – something to give a quick, empty rush.
Buddhism has gained an especially impressive set of scars from its collision with a generation so adverse to actual instruction besides the creed of “Do what thou wilt.” In the modern secular world, traditional Buddhist tenants of dispassion, self-restraint, and samvega have been largely toned down or removed completely in favor of an American Dhamma more focused on social activism, secular humanism, and vague spiritual exercises more aligned with New Age stress relief than traditional Jhana – things that, while perhaps valuable in and of themselves, have very little to do with the Blessed One’s teachings. The hard truths of Buddhism, truths about the dangers of sensuality and indulgence, truths about the futility of life and the emptiness of the individual, are nowhere to be found; in the place of revulsion towards the body and daily reflections on death is imprecise moderation and endless self-affirmation.
This “Romantic Buddhism,” as Thanissaro Bhikkhu deemed it in a fabulous essay on the subject, is not only dangerous for the future of American Buddhism itself but also for the spiritual seekers who are content to be sold branches and clippings when the liberating freedom of the heartwood is waiting for them; after all, every man or woman who feeds their own predetermined notions with empty platitudes or self-congratulatory transcendental tourism is a human being who will not find the real peace that lies at the heart of an authentic, honest spirituality – a transformative penetration of ignorance, one that challenges our assumptions and pushes us to align ourselves with what is wholesome and good instead of our own selfish desires and material obsessions.
It’s undeniable that this heartfelt striving is oftentimes strangled by religious dogma and empty ritual, and I sympathize greatly with those who have found joyless repetition and unquestioning obedience where they expected spontaneity and bliss. I know too well the feeling myself. But the same striving can be strangled just as easily when we cast aside the wisdom and supervision of those who came before – the precepts and parameters that guide us, confront us, and even test us – in favor of comfortable, insipid affirmation. Real spirituality is a not a warm blanket that helps you sleep; it’s a fire that burns you until you wake yourself up. It’s a slap in the face. It’s a constant push to find what matters and seek it without reservation. Real spirituality is a confrontation with the big questions, the hard truths, a journey of honesty and conviction that barrels past “It makes me feel better” so that it might just reach “It makes me better.”