Religion progresses, essence remains

11 Jul 2011

The Dalai Lama, who is in Washington, DC for a ten day event, has written: “I have come to the conclusion that whether or not a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be a good human being.”. . . “That is why I sometimes say that religion is something we can perhaps do without.”

It seems many in the West agree with the spiritual leader, as millions report that they incorporate Buddhist practices such as meditation or mindfulness into their own spiritual activities without necessarily adopting Buddhism as their religion.

Does religion aid or hinder the spiritual journey? Can you practice Buddhism without becoming Buddhist?

Religion has three aspects: values, rituals and symbols. While values are something that could be incorporated by everyone, rituals and symbols are optional. It is the values which constitute the core of spiritual teachings. The symbols and practices, those rituals and customs that form a way of life within a religion, are what distinguish one tradition from another. However, while religion has laid emphasis on symbols and rituals, over the period of time it has ignored the value of spiritual practices. The symbols and rituals are like the banana skin, and the spiritual values - the quest for truth and knowing deep within us that we are part of divinity- are the banana.

It is very timely that with the technological and scientific advances, people tend not to be limited by religious symbols or rituals. They want the liberty to experience the values which form the core of any faith. For example, while yoga is an integral part of Hinduism, all those who practice it don’t convert to Hinduism- they continue with their faith as they adopt yoga and meditation. Religion and tradition can bring emotional and social support system but spirituality increases life in an individual. While religion has its own value of reasserting identity and bringing a sense of community, spirituality brings elevation of one’s spirit and well being.

When attention is given to the spiritual aspect of one’s life, it brings responsibility, a sense of belongingness, and compassion and caring for the whole of humanity. Spirit upholds and sustains life. It breaks down the narrow boundaries of cast, creed, religion and nationality and gives an individual an awareness of life present everywhere. It is only through this awareness, this uplifting of consciousness, that wars taking place around the world today in the name of religion can be eliminated and human rights restored. In many traditions, people tend to hold what is time bound- the symbols and rituals that give them an individual identity- before the values. Putting religious concepts before human values creates havoc. However, if one could focus on the moral and spiritual values, the larger truth that the symbol represents, most of the conflict in the world could be resolved.

Symbols and rituals vary between religions because they have to do with the relative factors of location, environment and time. Both are relative, but they are intended to lead us to something beyond the symbol- to the essence of religion- to a deeper value. In returning to the spiritual and moral values, much of the misery that has come into the world in the name of religion can be avoided. The timeless values of a deep caring for all life, a responsible attitude towards the planet, compassion and love, generosity and sharing, integrity, honesty and sincerity, service, non violence, commitment and responsibility, peace, contentment and enthusiasm form the very foundation of social order, justice and progress. Human values are social and ethical norms common to all cultures and societies, as well as religions. They represent a melding of social progress and spiritual growth.