A few weeks ago I was trying to explain my particular slant on yoga to a friend, and made the comment that I’m not religious. She was surprised by this because I often talk about Buddhism in my posts, and her understanding was that Buddhism is a religion. So I thought if she finds that confusing no doubt other people do as well.
I have always been curious about religion and its relationship to suffering, since I started working in hospitals and nursing homes as a teenager. I was raised in the Catholic church, but left it once I moved out and grew old enough to have opinions about what I saw as the disconnect between teachings and behaviour. Later I realized that that disconnect was common to all religions, and more a factor of human nature than any particular faith. I studied “World Religions” in High School and some theologically-based electives in university and often wondered if religion is of net benefit to the world or just another cause of injustice, wars, and more suffering. Far greater minds have spent decades working on that question, and agreement is unlikely. At the moment I would classify myself as an agnostic, who is, on occasion, “agnostimistic.”
People often ask me if yoga is a religion, and the answer to that is complicated. It is practiced that way by some, whereas others treat it more as a philosophy, or arguably—a type of psychological model. Even deciding what defines a religion is a thorny issue.
The truth is that the way yoga is practiced in the West is mostly just a form of exercise. Since yoga became a commercial enterprise, the other seven limbs (ethics, observances, breathing practices and stages of meditation) can be a hard sell. Most yoga teachers learn that the physical practice is the “loss leader” that gets students into the room. The students who are curious about the other aspects will stick around, and the ones who aren’t will eventually switch to Cross-fit.
In 2004 during my yoga teacher training I met my teacher, Michael. He was a Buddhist as well as being Jewish, and very interested in the intersection of yoga, Buddhism and Western psychology. I was very taken by Michael’s broad approach, sense of humour and brilliant mind, so I became a regular student of his, and spent the next thirteen years studying with him along with many others in the community that became known as “Centre of Gravity.” We dove into ancient texts, Sanskrit, psychology (particularly Carl Jung) and studied ethics, mindfulness, art, and Zen poetry. He invited teachers and intellectuals from all over the world to come and speak. As a curious person, it felt like I’d found my spiritual and intellectual home. But like all wonderful things, it came to an end: First, when he moved out west for personal reasons and could only visit a few times per year, and then, tragically, when he passed away last summer. But he is the reason I became a Buddhist.
Buddhism can be studied and understood in a completely secular light. Hence, it is absolutely possible to be a Christian Buddhist, a Jewish Buddhist, or an atheist Buddhist. Like all spiritual paths, there are huge variations in practice depending on the time, place and culture that you are looking at. Tibetan Buddhism looks nothing like Zen Buddhism, for example. Depending on geography and other historical factors, different variants arose and disappeared, and like every other spiritual path, the living and the teaching often don’t line up. Burma, for example, is a Buddhist country, but the practice of non-violence isn’t going very well.
Regardless, as a secular Buddhist I find lots of useful psychological tools in what the Buddha taught (known as the dharma). To summarize his teachings in a nutshell you could say:
- Life is tough. At some point every one of us will experience some suffering.
- We can make it worse for ourselves by trying to control and manipulate situations (clinging and/or avoiding).
- We don’t have to suffer as much as we do (because we have some control over part 2).
- There are practical things we can do to set ourselves up for less suffering. He named eight practices that essentially boil down to morality (sila), meditation (samadhi) and wisdom (prajna).
These teachings became part of yoga in the Yoga Sutras (200 C.E.) but were less prevalent in later texts.
To break the eight-fold path down into a little more detail, the moral practices are divided into right speech, right conduct and right livelihood (dealing in drugs or weapons is frowned upon, as is butchering animals for a living). The meditation practices include right effort, right mindfulness and right samadhi (practicing the four stages of meditation). Finally, the wisdom practices revolve around “right view” (our actions matter, we are all interdependent, and also impermanent) and “right resolve” which has to do with our willingness to learn, change and grow.
The teachings of the Buddha as described in the Pali Canon go on for thousands of pages. He taught for a very long time before he died (possibly of stomach ulcers, possibly he was poisoned, nobody knows for sure). I have done a disservice by describing them so briefly, but my purpose in writing this is to assure you that I have no interest in indoctrinating or converting anybody. I am interested in these teachings because they have helped me. In the times we’re living in, a little meditation can go a long way, and discussions about ethics and right speech (think before you tweet!) are more relevant than ever. They are not better than, or less than any other spiritual tradition—they’re just another way of coping with day to day existence.
As the Zen saying goes, here’s to “opening the hand of thought.”