“What’s your major?”
“Oh. Interesting.” Pause. “Are you religious?”
The question is nonsensical, but I get it every time I tell someone my major. It’s a little bit like asking an Asian Studies major whether or not he is Asian or asking a Horticulture major whether or not he is a vegetable.
“Yeah, actually, I'm a Buddhist.”
“Oh, cool!” Pause. “Do you think of Buddhism as a religion, or as more of a way of life?”
This question is almost as popular as the “Are you religious?” question, but it takes longer to answer.
So is Buddhism a religion? We should start by defining religion, and that's where we first run into trouble. Religion is ... well, there's the old myth about George Washington and the cherry tree. And if you've ever stuck around for the second half of a Glee Club concert, you've heard those Cornellians in the crowd belt out the Alma Mater. And here's me, putting out biweekly statements on what I believe is right and wrong in the world. Opinion columnists are preachers. The Alma Mater is a ritual. George Washington is a mythical saint. We just don't refer to him as such, because we've been on a secularity kick ever since the Enlightenment.
My point is that, from a sociological point of view, these sorts of thoughts and practices are all that religion is. Rituals, myths, metaphysical doctrines, ethical injunctions, mystical experiences, social institutions, all the rest of it, they're just things we do and thoughts we think. Occasionally we look at a bunch of thoughts and behaviors, clump them together and give them a name: religion. Buddhism fits about as comfortably into this category as Christianity, or, for that matter, American nationalism or Cornell pride.
But when people try to tell me that Buddhism isn't a religion, they mean something else entirely. The claim mostly serves to distinguish Buddhism, which is hip and exotic, from all those boring Western religions their parents practiced. For the “spiritual but not religious” who consider themselves too clever and skeptical for the faiths of their forefathers, religion means blind acceptance of dogma and meaningless performance of devotional ritual. Buddhism, they claim, doesn't have any of that silly religious mumbo-jumbo.
Well, maybe not the Buddhism for sale in the check-out lane of Barnes & Noble. Spend some time in a Buddhist community, though, whether in Asia or right here in Ithaca, and you'll get your fill of incense and chanting. Buddhism has its fair share of priestly bureaucracy, too. This is not to condemn Buddhism, but only to help it down from its Orientalist pedestal. Many Buddhists, just like many Christians, mechanically mumble along their prayer beads while thinking of decidedly mundane affairs. Asians are not inherently more “spiritual” than white people, and Buddhism is not inherently more “spiritual” than Christianity.
So why does it matter? What's at stake in that banal, meaningless proposition, repeated to me every time I tell someone I'm a Buddhist, that Buddhism is not a religion?
For one thing, if Buddhism isn't a religion, it's open for business. None of us bat an eyelash at “Nirvana: Positively Pure,” a popular brand of bottled water, but we might think twice before endorsing “Jesus Christ Cola” or “Mohammad Corn Pops.” Nirvana is the complete cessation of all suffering and desire. But yeah, I guess bottled water is nice too.
More importantly, if Buddhism is not a religion, spiritual consumers can pick and choose the parts they like and ignore anything inconvenient. If Buddhism is just some sort of vaguely wholesome spiritual path, we can take all the metaphysical doctrines and codes of ethics with a grain of salt. Rituals and myths can be promptly disposed of, and the existence of a clergy is, of course, out of the question. Let's just sit around and read the latest books by the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn. Maybe the Tibetan Book of the Dead will make for an exciting acid trip.
What troubles me are the implications of approaching religion not as religion, but as a “spiritual marketplace.” Such a pick-and-choose mentality makes us consumers of truths, rather than devotees of Truth. When Eastern religion is repackaged for Western consumption under the name of spirituality, I think we lose something. In a certain sense, we lose everything. The potency of religious traditions is in their particulars, in the daily practices and concrete understandings that transform the mind.
So if you ask me if I’m religious, I will answer, yes, I’m a Buddhist. I know it might be unfashionable for a modern young man to count himself as part of a flock, but I think that’s part of the problem. In an era of proud individualism, humility and submission to a tradition greater than oneself is out of fashion. Religious content, when severed from religious tradition, becomes just another consumer good.
Tom Moore is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at email@example.com . What Even Is All This? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.