Is Buddhism a Religion?



This question comes up periodically. I also discuss it periodically, but then something is said somewhere by someone and the question comes up again. For some, it's not an issue. But for those who have a religion, viewing Buddhism as one can become problematic. How can you learn to practice another religion when you already have one that is working for you? Others who do not have a religion may have made the conscious decision not to have one. Why should they accept one now ?

So how does Buddhism fit into such a picture? Is it or isn't it a religion?

Once, the Buddha was asked if he was a god. The Buddha replied that, no, he was not a god. Then was he an angel? No. A spirit? No. Then what was he? The Buddha replied that he was awake. So by his own assertion, the Buddha was not a god. He was a man who had awakened to universal truths—to the Dharma.

What about our meditating on a Buddha's name? Isn't that a religious practice? No, it is meditative concentration. In Pure Land practice, we chant "Amituofo," the name of a Buddha, to focus our thoughts on him, to become one with him. Whatever we are focusing on, we are.

For example, I could chant "peace," or "compassion," or "unconditional love." I wouldn't be worshiping peace or compassion, I'd be meditating on them—focusing my thoughts on them to quiet my mind and to develop these qualities. Whatever I think, I will become.

By focusing on the name of a Buddha, in this case on the name of the Buddha of Infinite Light and Infinite Life, I am focusing on perfect peace, compassion, unconditional love, and all the other perfect virtues of a Buddha. I am not worshiping these virtues, rather, I am trying to perfect them in myself by having them in my mind. 

So our practice is not the worship of the Buddha or his name. We practice to awaken to the truth.  


Guilt and Regret

"I wish I had not said that to him." "If only I had made her go to the doctor sooner." "I could have been nicer and more patient with him." "Why didn't I tell her I loved her more often."

Perhaps you have had these or similar thoughts. After our loved one dies, we may find ourselves rethinking things we said or did not say. We may become frustrated and possibly feel guilty for what we did or did not do while they were alive. We can get entangled in "I should haves," "I could haves," and "if onlys."

Are we judging ourselves too harshly and unrealistically? Human beings are not perfect. No matter how hard we've tried, things may occur to us after the death that we wish we could go back and change.

It is important to understand the differences between guilt and regret. We feel guilty if we intended to hurt or harm someone. We feel regret if we did something we wish we could change, but we did not mean to harm or hurt our loved one.

Our guilt or regret can teach us to do better now and in the future. It can make us more positive and caring people. There are some things we can do to make amends and to make us feel better about what has happened:

  • Write a letter-to the-person who died to say-the-things­ that you need to say to them or to apologize.
  • Tell those who are still alive that you love them and care about them. Say "I'm sorry" when you need to.
  • Forgive yourself. Tell yourself over and over that you did the best you could at that time and under those circumstances. It is likely the person who died would forgive you for your unintentional mistakes and shortcomings. Say it as often as you need to.
  • Forgive the person who died. Our loved ones were not perfect either. Forgiving them allows you to find peace.
  • Do kind things for others in your loved one's name.

With time our guilt and regrets fade. Our burden lightens and we are able to put our feelings in perspective.

~ Reflections, Issue 2 2007, Publication of The Center for Hospice and Palliative Care 


They Do Work

956849-786785-thumbnail.jpgIn a new class this week, a young man asked how he could use Buddhist principles in daily life. After all, he wasn't a monastic. He lived in the real world, a world filled with deadlines, competition, and people who didn't agree with him.

What a wonderful ice-breaker!

Once I quit laughing, I explained that my life has many deadlines, human nature is rife with competition, and we monastics also have people who don't agree with us. I explained I had been working since 7AM and had eaten my meals at my computer. Actually, it was two computers since I was making CDs of a talk for the Amitabha Buddhist Library in Chicago on my desktop while doing my other work on my notebook.

With all this, I really did have a good idea of the world he lived in. And I also had a good example of how Buddhist principles can be successfully applied in the workplace.

A good friend recently told me of a situation where he realized someone had made a mistake in quoting a price on something. Instead of taking advantage of this situation and purchasing the commodities at the wrong price, he called the individual and asked if he had not made a mistake. The individual had and very grateful that my friend had called him, immediately adjusted the price so it was correct.

My friend could have made a lot of money for his clients. The price was there. He would simply be buying at the stated price. But he didn't because doing so would not have been "right." It would not have followed the teachings of the Buddha. My friend is trusted by this individual and has a position of responsibility that is unique in his company. He holds that position because he is ethical. He works in the securities industry in Singapore. About as real as the workplace world gets.

In this real world of deadlines, competition, and egos, my friend manages to do what is right. It hasn't hurt him. In fact, he is doing very well. He has a successful career and rests easy knowing that his success comes from both skill and character.

Even in the "real world" the principles in Buddhism work.


Pain and Suffering, Part Two

Yesterday, I wrote that "pain will always be with us. It comes with having a body. When there is pain, suffering follows." But pain also comes to us because we have hearts and minds.

The little pains are the easy part of the practice. Having a painful knee can be handled pretty easily with various practices.

The deep pain of losing someone we love is very different. Knowing we will no longer see the person we miss so much washes over us at the most unexpected moments. The loss hurts all the more because a second ago we were happily doing something, and then in an instant, we feel like we are drowning in a sadness that will never end, will never stop torturing us. The ground has suddenly fallen away from under us and we are flailing away in space, feeling insecure and alone. Our pain of having lost someone we loved very much and still miss very much is made worse by our continued suffering.

Pain is the loss, suffering is our sadness.

We cannot stop the loss. We will lose all those we love. Perhaps to  death. Perhaps to separation. Pain is inevitable, but the degree of our suffering is not. 

At some point, when our time for mourning is over, we have the ability to stop the suffering. I still walk around apologizing to my mother, saying that I'm sorry but to think of her is just too difficult. That I am stopping the thoughts of her not because I do not love her, but because I do and because I miss her very much.

Then I gently close the door to suffering, just as she would want me to. And gradually, I find myself opening another door instead—the one that leads to happy memories, just as she would want me to.


Pain and Suffering, Part One


Pain will always be with us. It comes with having a body. When there is pain, suffering follows.

A week ago, I went blithely (but alas, NOT mindfully) out the door when Deb came to pick me up to go to the morning class at the Unitarian Fellowship here in Elkhart. I didn't see the thin layer of ice on the concrete walkway. For a moment I was airborne. Then, unfortunately, gravity took over. So, one moment I was walking and the next I was sitting on the walkway. Apparently, there was a middle segment in the acrobatic routine because my knee was extremely painful and I needed a few minutes before I could stand up.

We continued to the class, where I immediately received first aid. (Medical hint: a group of mothers is a good as—and much faster than—an emergency room when it comes to knowing what to do for falls and injured knees.)

My knee is still a cause of pain, but using various practice methods, I am no longer suffering from the pain. One method that works for me is what I said to Deb while driving to the class—I am repaying some of my past karmas!

Another method is to distract myself. I chant or get involved in my work. Chanting helps me to relax, and that helps to stop the physiological reaction to pain. Also, chanting helps me to be happy so the pain recedes. Working distracts me from thinking of the pain. 

Understanding helps me to know that when I joked "I am repaying some of my past karmas!", I wasn't really joking. It's better to repay some negative karmas now when I understand why things happen.

So, at least in this instance, I can actualize the reality that even though we undergo pain, we can choose to not continue suffering.