What is the essence of a religion? That is, how can we tell whether someone is a "real" Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, or whatever? What degree of supposed heresy is beyond the bounds of a belief system?
These are tough questions to answer, in part because they are religion-specific.
Hinduism seems to be a lot more accomodating of alternative viewpoints than Christianity is. Yet Mormons usually are considered to be Christian, even though they stretch the gospel truth (so to speak) in some far-out directions.
I got to thinking about this after having a comment interchange with Todd on my "Buddhist atheism irks B. Alan Wallace" post. In his last comment, Todd claimed that there is a consensual core to Buddhist teachings on which all real Buddhists agree.
My impression is that there's a heck of a lot of room under the Buddhist tent.
After all, to me the essence of Buddhism is finding a way to deal with the downsides of the human condition, a.k.a. suffering, unfulfilled desires, and other causes of us saying "Ouch!"
This also is how Stephen Bachelor sees Buddhism. Here's some quotes from his "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist" (namely, him).
Gotama's awakening involved a radical shift of perspective rather than the gaining of privileged knowledge into some higher truth. He did not use the words know and truth to describe it. He spoke only of waking up to a contingent ground -- "this-conditionality, conditioned arising" -- that until then had been obscured by his attachment to a fixed position.
While such an awakening is bound to lead to a reconsideration of what one "knows," the awakening itself is not primarily a cognitive act. It is an existential readjustment, a seismic shift in the core of oneself and one's relations to others and the world. Rather than providing Gotama with a set of ready-made answers to life's big questions, it allowed him to respond to those questions from an entirely new perspective.
To live on this shifting ground, one first needs to stop obsessing about what has happened before and what might happen later. One needs to be more vitally conscious of what is happening now. This is not to deny the reality of past and future. It is about embarking on a new relationship with the impermanence and temporality of life.
Instead of hankering after the past and speculating about the future, one sees the present as the fruit of what has been and the germ of what will be. Gotama did not encourage withdrawal to a timeless, mystical now, but an unflinching encounter with the contingent world as it unravels moment to moment.
This sure sounds Buddha-like to me.
Recently I started using the Zen Timer iPhone app during my morning meditation and I feel more enlightened already. Every minute or two I enjoy moving from head-phoned silence to a marvelously realistic bell sound of a Tibetan singing bowl.
There is the bell. Then there isn't. Then there is. And so the meditation goes, just as life goes. Stuff coming and going. Experiences arriving and leaving.
If this isn't Buddhism 101, I've just spent $1.99 on an iPhone app that should have "Zen" stricken from its name. Yet many Buddhists persist in believing that the Buddha's focus was on a supernatural realm, just as other religions teach.
Bachelor has a different take on the Buddha's teachings which resonates well with me.
Gotama declared that his awakening to the contingent ground of life went "against the stream." It was counterintuitive. It went against the instinctive sense of being a timeless witness of one's experience. It contradicted the belief in an eternal soul and, by implication, in the transcendent reality of God.
Rather than disassociating oneself from the world in order to achieve union with God, Gotama encouraged his followers to pay close, penetrating attention to the rise and fall of the phenomenal world itself. The way in which he presented the practice of meditation turned the received wisdom of the day on its head.
Instead of instructing his students to turn their attention inward to contemplate the nature of their soul, he told them to be acutely aware of their bodies, to be calmly mindful of whatever was impacting one's senses in that very moment, noticing its emergence and disappearance, its ephemerality, its impersonality, its joy and its tragedy, its allure, its terror.
There's nothing here about karma that extends over multiple lives, rebirth, and the survival of consciousness in some form after one's death. Yet some Buddhists consider these supernatural notions as essential to their faith, which leads them to view Bachelor -- who doesn't believe in them -- with deep suspicion as an "unreal" Buddhist.
He talks in his most recent book about what happened when "Buddhism Without Beliefs" was published in 1997.
Instead of being the non-contentious introduction to Buddhism that was initially conceived, Buddhism Without Beliefs triggered what Time magazine, in its cover issue on Buddhism in America the following October, called "a civil but ferociously felt argument" about whether it was necessary for Buddhists to believe in karma and rebirth.
I had proposed in the book that one could hold an agnostic position on these points, i.e., keep an open mind without either affirming or denying them. Naively perhaps, I had not anticipated the furor that this suggestion would create.
The ensuing controversy showed that Buddhists could be as fervent and irrational in their views about karma and rebirth as Christians and Muslims could be in their convictions about the existence of God. For some Western converts, Buddhism became a substitute religion every bit as inflexible and intolerant as the religions they rejected before becoming Buddhists.
Strange. Paradoxical. Illogical. Yet not surprising.
The essence of Buddhism is recognizing the contingency, interrelatedness, and ever-changing nature of life. But the human desire to survive as an ego-encapsulated being is strong.
Just because someone says "I'm a Buddhist" doesn't mean they've left behind the supernatural fantasies that the Buddha warned against embracing.
I feel strangely elated the next morning as I visit the shrine in Kushinagar that marks the place where Gotama died. A black stone statue of the reclining Buddha, draped with a yellow robe, lies along the length of the somber room.
...This is where Gotama would have lain down between the sal trees, received Subhadda, and uttered his last words. And this is where those who had not yet achieved freedom of mind "wept and tore their hair, raising their arms, throwing themselves down, twisting and turning, crying 'All too soon! All too soon! The Buddha has passed away!'
While others endured it mindfully and said, 'All compounded things are impermanent -- what is the use of all this fuss?'"