Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for November 2019

The puzzle of religious identity

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A while back a clinic at which I had an upcoming appointment called me to ask questions in preparation for my visit. One of the questions was “What is your religious preference?” The question took me my surprise—of what medical relevance could that possibly be to an otorhinolaryngologist? Do the nostrils of an evangelical Christian look different from the nostrils of a Zen Buddhist?

What took me even more by surprise than the question was that I answered it quickly and without hesitation. More surprising yet was my answer: “Quaker,” said I.  After the call ended, I reflected on the fact that for several decades my response to that question, on the rare occasions it has arisen, has always been “Buddhist.” Why, after decades of identifying as a Buddhist, did I spontaneously have a different answer?

As I began to think about this, I began by reflecting on the fact that I have dual citizenship, being a citizen of the United States by birth and a citizen of Canada by naturalization. For years I carried two passports. When entering the United States I always showed my U.S. passport, and when entering any other country I showed the Canadian passport. When traveling outside North America, I always thought of myself and identified myself to others as Canadian. Now that both passports have expired, I don’t travel outside North America. I now live in the United States again and vote in local and federal elections whenever the opportunity arises, but despite exercising the rights of a citizen, I cannot easily think of myself as a citizen of the United States or any other country. I have ceased to believe in countries; they are at best a conventional conceptual structure that I reject but to which practical life requires some degree of acknowledgement, however reluctant.

My attitude toward religions that have names is parallel to my attitude toward countries that have names and borders. The most emotionally honest answer to the question “What is your religious preference?” would be the same as the most emotionally honest answer to the question “What is your citizenship?” The answer to both questions would be “None.” And yet, I do have membership in two religious organizations, both of which I maintain. I have no preference of one over the other. It has mostly been through force of habit that when asked I tend to tell people I’m a Buddhist.

So why did I recently answer the question of religious preference differently? As I thought about this further, it occurred to me that I have always seen myself as a pretty substandard Buddhist, at lest by traditional criteria. I don’t particularly like or get any inspiration from Buddhist rituals. I don’t really believe anyone has ever attained nirvana, which is traditionally said to be the complete eradication of the afflictions of greed, hatred, and delusion. Nirvana is also traditionally said to be the cessation of rebirth, but I have never believed in rebirth in the first place. As far as I am concerned, everyone who manages to die has attained the end of consciousness and has no worry of being born as an animal or a ghost or a denizen of any of the hells or paradises cooked up by the common human reluctance to face oblivion; it follows from my convictions, if they are true, that either everyone attains nirvana, or no one does.

I find it impossible to believe that anyone has ever existed who can accurately be described by the fulsome praise embedded in the formulaic description of the Buddha: “noble, fully awakened, perfect in knowledge and conduct, knower of the world, unmatched teacher of gods and people” and “the best teacher on two feet.” Are there any gods to be taught? Can anyone who is a teacher of people be called unmatched or the best? Surely there are countless thousands of very good teachers, people whose advice it would benefit almost anyone to follow. Why single out one good teachers as the best?None of the traditional praise of the Buddha makes much sense to me.

All told, if being a Buddhist entails going for refuge to the Buddha and the Dharma (which, as an item of refuge is understood as the ultimate goal of nirvana) and the Community, I fail to go for refuge to at least two out of three of the traditional Buddhist refuges. Truth be told, I don’t even believe in the community as it is traditionally understood by Buddhists, namely, as the community of noble persons, those being the people who have eradicated various false views, sexual desires, anger, pride and various other afflictions. My belief is that if one is born human, one dies human and is human every moment in between birth and death, and being human inevitably involves having an amygdala and all the “base” and “animalistc” mental states that originate in that part of the brain that human beings share with other deuterostomes.

By now it must be clear that I fall short of all traditional expectations of what it means to be a Buddhist. So how could I ever have thought of myself as a Buddhist at all? The answer to that is that one key teaching of Buddhism has made more sense to me than any other teaching anywhere, and that is that all internal and external turmoil arises from the presence of greed, hatred and delusion, and the more those afflictions are subdued, the greater the odds of feeling some degree of comfort while alive. While it is true that many philosophies incorporate that same key teaching in one way or another, it just happens that I first heard that teaching clearly articulated by Buddhists, so it is to Buddhism that I habitually give credit, even while acknowledging that Stoicism, along with most if not all of the world religions, and humanism deserve equal credit.

I suppose I thought of myself as a Buddhist because in my own mind it was the standards of Buddhism of which I was most conscious of falling short. I’m quite confident that I am equally far below the standards of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Daoism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Sikhism, but what stood out in my mind, because of the accidents of who got to me first to shape my thinking, was my being below the standards of Buddhism.

What changed recently, I think, is that I have been reading quite a bit in recent months about the Quaker notion that one’s life—the way one lives—is the only real testimony to one’s faith. I admit to being very weak in any kind of faith, but if I did have any of it to give testimony to, I think I’d prefer to give testimony to it in the specific ways that liberal Quakers do, namely, by manifesting integrity, simplicity, peace, equality and community (or at least as much of community as an introvert like me can face). As I look at the reality of how my life has unfolded, I stand convicted of having manifested those ways of testimony rather poorly. And it is, I submit, because lately I have been far more conscious of being a substandard Quaker than of being a substandard Buddhist that I blurted out that my religious preference on that day was Quakerism.

I still do not see what possible relevance my or anyone else’s religious preference has to an ear, nose and throat specialist. Perhaps I should have answered that I am a secular humanist with a deviated septum.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, November 11, 2019 at 15:05

Posted in Buddhism, Quakerism