Buddhism: Religion, Philosophy, or Spirituality?

When I visited New York a couple of months ago, a student at Columbia University asked me this question: Would you consider Buddhism a religion or philosophy? I don’t remember what I said, but I do recall it being a half-baked answer skirting on the edges of classifying Buddhism as a philosophy. After all, many young people in the West do consider Buddhism as a doctrine about cause and effect, seeing most rituals and chants as moot. I grew up in a Buddhist household, attended temple rituals and ceremonies, yet still found myself doubting that Buddhism should be considered a religion. For me, religion was connected with worshipping god(s), like Christianity or Islam. But in Buddhism, there was no god to praise or worship. I’m sure that many would agree that Buddhism is in fact a way of life.

However, my view has come to change on this during my stay here at a monastic program (Woodenfish) in the Longquan Monastery in Shanxi, China. Let’s begin with the term spirituality.

I think it’s a fairly modern concept, and most people I know would rather be aligned as spiritual rather than a radical religious. Karl-Stéphan Bouthillette, a professor at Woodenfish, opened his lecture about spirituality that spirituality had an attitude of “whatever.” It puts the individual at the center of the universe, makes people selfish and unhappy. It allows people to cherrypick whatever you like, but the dangerous part is that it can lead to dismissing what we don’t yet understand or what challenges us. If we are trying to learn, we need to relinquish our authority. For example, if we are learning how to make a chair, we would go to somebody who already knows how to make a chair. If we want to learn how to meditate, we should go to a monastery where they have established practices to teach meditation. This motivation behind cherrypicking in spirituality also translates over to the fractious nature of religions institutions and political parties. There is a loss of commitment to something greater, especially something that challenges us. And being our own authority can put a lot of stress on ourself to make the perfect decisions among a sea of options.

Philosophy, from Greek φιλοσοφία, philosophia, literally translates to “love of wisdom.” And refers to the study of things like knowledge, existence, what we should or should not do, language, reason, etc. And from my experience of studying philosophy in college, has a categorical/classifying nature that can seem cold.

Religion, from Latin religio, means “that which binds us together.” As opposed to philosophy, religion feels more warm and human, dealing with things like love, death, passion, birth, etc. And religion can ben seen as having 7 dimensions.

7 Dimensions of Religion

1. Practical and Ritual – In Buddhism, rituals are seen not as an end in itself. Sacrifices, baptism, etc.

2. Experiential and Emotional – Meditative jhanas, metta (loving kindness), desire to convert others

3. Narrative and Mythic – Religions have rich, emotional narratives or myths. While myths are generally looked down upon in the present because of their lack of proof, these stories motivate us to strive for things greater than us. They give us hope.

4. Doctrinal and Philosophical – I believe this is where many people would put Buddhism into, but Buddhism is much more than just a philosophy.

5. Ethical and Legal – 5 Precepts, 10 Commandments, etc.

6. Social and Institutional – monasteries, interactions between laymen and monks/nuns, interactions between people and priests.

7. Material – artwork, clothing, bowls.

And having these 7 dimensions implies that there are many different ways we can enter into religion. For me, my entrance into Buddhism came from the experiential and philosophical dimensions.

For me, this added a lot more depth to religion. Religions are in fact deeply rooted in history and culture. There are also many recurring themes among religions, for example, how the mythological monomyth (hero’s journey) is apparent in many religious narratives. Studying Buddhism academically in the Woodenfish program has been very interesting and challenging, making myself ask questions that I would have never asked myself before, which I will answer in future posts.

What if the Buddha never existed? Does it even matter?

What would be the advantage and disadvantage of believing in the narrative?

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TTL Confucius and Lao Tzu: How to live your life

“Swarthmore is very yang – it needs more yin. People are not busy getting dumb.” – Steven Hopkins

This is the second of my series of Through the Lens (TTL), I posted my first one a while ago talking about how one could essentially create creativity called Through the Lens of Music: Engineering Creativity. In this post, I will try to understand what it means to be authentically human and how to live in harmony with the Tao through the lens of Confucius (Confucianism) and Lao Tzu (Taosim).

The idea of yin 阴 and yang 阳 is deeply rooted in many Chinese religions, especially focusing on the balance between the two. The yang is associated with the sun, a masculine / outgoing power, external displays, visible appearances. The yin, on the other hand, is associated with the moon, a feminine / inward power, weakness, flexibility, invisible, and the interior. While reading the Confucian Analects, section 26 in Book 11 confused me and started this questioning of what it meant to be authentically human.

In 11.26, Confucius is asking his disciples why somebody would be appreciative of them in order to appoint of them to lead a state:

After asking, Zilu speaks up immediately, saying that if he “were given charge of a state of a thousand chariots – even one hemmed in between powerful states, suffering from armed invasions and afflicted by famine – before three years were up [he] could infuse its people with courage and a sense of what is right.”

Zilu is dismissed disapprovingly by Confucius and is not chosen to be the leader probably because of his abrupt manner in answering him as well as the inauthentic, willful nature of his answer.

As opposed to Zengxi, who stated that he would choose to do something quite different from any of the other three disciples. Zengxi answered that “in the third month of Spring, once the Spring garments have been completed, [he] should like to assemble a company of five or six young men and six or seven boys to go bathe in the Yi River and enjoy the breeze upon the Rain Dance Altar, and then return singing to the Master’s house.”

When Confucius ultimately picked Zengxi, I was confused. Wouldn’t a ruler or leader want to have a strong sense of authority? Why would he pick somebody that would just go to the river and sing songs? I discussed this with my professor (Steven Hopkins) and started to understand why Confucius picked Zengxi.

Confucius ultimately picks Zengxi because as opposed to Zilu, Zengxi was not trying to impose a sense of authority onto other people. Zengxi exemplified a wu wei 無爲  (non-action) harmony, as opposed to Zilu’s willfulness of his ego. Confucius could tell this by Zengix’s musical bent, timeliness of not answering abruptly, having reluctance to speak about his aspirations, and his sense of spontaneous joy in the cultivated life conveyed by his answer. The idea of wu wei, doing things effortlessly and with flow, appealed a lot to me because it resonates strongly with the music improvisation and also ultimately seemed like the way I want to live my life.

Confucius could see that Zengxi understood himself and was not putting on a face, while the answers of the other three disciples seemed vulgar (very yang, prevalent in competitive colleges like Swarthmore). Li Chong described Zengxi as the only one having transcendent aspirations, with words that were pure and remote, meaning lofty and fitting. For Confucius, true government is effected through the superior virtue gained by ritual practice, and the task of the gentleman is to focus on self-cultivation and attaining a state of joyful harmony with the Way, Tao. In the Tao Te Ching (4), a similar shedding of ego is shared.

Tao is empty…

It blunts sharp edges,

Unties knots, Softens glare,

Becomes one with the dusty world.

Lao Tzu characterizes the sharp edges as the faces we put on to build up and defend our identities. The Tao breaks down this ego-fortress, which offers a false sense of security, because when one is too focused on his ego, life becomes a “me vs. everybody else experience” which isolates him from the natural whole. The awareness of the natural whole and wu-wei harmony exemplify both the ideal Confucian values of being “authentically human” and the Taoist sense of enlightenment when living in harmony with the Tao.

With regards to education and learning, Taoism and Confucianism seem to be at odds with each other. For instance, Lao Tzu claims in the Tao Te Ching that not knowing is supreme while knowing is faulty. In the Analects, Confucius claimed that one who thinks without learning will fall into danger. However, a deeper look into their philosophies of education reveal that they share the same beliefs on self-education as a means to deepen the awareness of the self. The Taoist seeks to understand the naturalness of everything as it exists at the present.

Knowledge is dangerous in the sense that it clogs the mind and makes it prejudiced.

From the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching:

Names can name no lasting name.

Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth.

Naming: the mother of ten thousand things.

Empty of desire, perceive mystery.

Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.

Naming the things we observe creates a schism and rips our awareness away from the original whole. Instead of trying to know each separate piece, the Taoist tries to understand the whole, for the whole is the Tao. In Taoism, the key is not to know something, but to understand it. One goes about this through self-education. Furthermore, this kind of education is also natural; it just needs to be recognized as such and be developed to its fullest throughout one’s lifetime.

On the surface, the Analects seem different from this idea, Confucius stated:

“I once engaged in thought for an entire day without eating and an entire night without sleeping, but it did no good. It would have been better for me to have spent that time in learning.”

Confucius stresses the dangers of thinking in isolation. Rather than attempting to pointlessly reflect on one’s own, Confucius argues that  accumulated wisdom of the classics should form the very basis of one’s thinking. Thinking without the context of learning is comparable to randomly banging on a piano in ignorance to the conventions of music. A million monkeys given a million years might produce something, but it is better to start with the classics. The Xunzi gives an analogy, that climbing a hill and waving your arms does not make your arms any longer, but they can be seen from farther away. Shouting downwind does not make your voice any louder, but it can be heard more clearly. Someone who borrows a carriage and horses does not improve the power of his feet, but he can travel a thousand li. It may seem that Confucius is encouraging the pursuit of knowledge in the classics as the ultimate goal, yet it is that mastery and understanding of the classics that will allow one to fully practice the Tao and have an awareness of the self in relation to the world. Idle thinking without any guidance is a waste of time, and the Tao that arises from this type of mastery Confucius discusses parallels the Cook Ting and the Ox story from the Chuang Tzu (which s you should take your time to read, it is an amazing story).

In the story, Cook Ting seamlessly cuts an ox and states that he follows the Tao, here is a short excerpt from the whole, starting with Prince Wen Hui praising Cook Ting.

“Your method is faultless!”

“Method?” said the cook

Laying aside his cleaver,

“What I follow is Tao

Beyond all methods!”

“When I first began

To cut up an oxen

I would see before me

The whole ox

All in one mass.

“After three years

I no longer saw this mass.

I saw the distinctions.

“But now, I see nothing with the eye.  My whole being

Apprehends.

My senses are idle.  The spirit

Free to work without plan

Follows its own instinct

In order to act with wu wei (non-action) and follow the Tao, Cook Ting needed the mastery of having cut oxen for many years before. One cannot achieve this level of flow from aimlessly hacking at an ox without any training – that resembles banging on a piano without knowing the conventions of music. It is only after Ting attains mastery through years of training that he is able to step back and let the cutting happen naturally, he is then able to cut without cutting. The mastery of the classics (in the defense of a liberal arts education) is, in a deeper sense, used to understand wu wei and the nature of the present. For the Confucian, the understanding of the classics is a necessary vehicle to attaining true understanding of the Tao.

So this was my attempt at trying to make sense of and relate to a portion of what I’ve been studying in my Asian religion class. This is most intriguing class I have taken so far, and I have learned so much about myself. But the best part is that it will only get better as I read more about Eastern religions.


* I was working with Stephen Addiss’ and Stanley Lombardo’s translation of the Tao Te Ching and Edward Slingerland’s translation of the Confucian Analects.