Article originally posted on Medium – I Suffer by Dan Hanly

leafI feel like I’ve always been a spiritual person. I use the word spiritual here, and not religious — in-fact, I’ve had a vehement dislike of religious trappings for as long as I can remember. I am and have always been an atheist — averse to the belief of any sort of higher being, deity, or divine creator.

I hear you; how can I be both spiritual, and atheist? Well to me, spirituality and religion are separate entities, but they are both most-often found as a pair. With me, it’s not quite like that. One of the (granted, many) definitions of spirituality is a connection to something bigger than ourselves, typically manifesting in a search for purpose or meaning. It’s almost a distaste for the preconceived notion that I’m born, I live and I die, with no discernible reason. This is why spirituality and religion go hand-in-hand, because most religions make a grand attempt at providing this reason.

More aptly-put perhaps is that religion is often outward, whilst spirituality is inward; outward given that religion looks to a deity to provide answers, inward given that spirituality is looking within yourself to provide answers.

I am looking within myself to provide answers, and I always have; the reason is because I suffer. This is not a comparative statement. I don’t suffer any more or any less than those around me. It’s simply part of the human condition. Thus, spirituality itself is part of the human condition.

It is perhaps this spirituality that first attracted me to Buddhism. However, I was challenged initially by my staunch atheism, and found it difficult to reconcile the two. Over time, as I began to nurture a solely academic interest in the religion. I could see the obvious benefits, as they would apply directly to myself. Buddhism provided the truth that suffering is a necessary and unavoidable feature of life, but also supported this knowledge with a prescription for this lifetime ailment.

I began a practice.

I started with a wonderful book by Steve Hagen — Buddhism Plain & Simple. It stripped away the fetters of ritual and tradition, instead opting to teach the core of Buddhism; the Dhamma. I learned of the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, Impermanence and the Views of Self. It doesn’t claim to be a catch-all book that covers everything, but what it does cover is enough to set in motion a greater quest for knowledge — it did exactly that. From this, I read the Dhammapada (Translation by Gil Fronsdal), then onto the Suttas themselves, beginning with Digha Nikaya (Translation by Maurice Walshe).

I’m a software engineer by trade, and have been for over a decade, this has instilled within me a mindset of logic and rational thought. It was this rational mindset that I found did not work in concord with the more metaphysical aspects of the religion, namely, rebirth, karma, and the pantheon. I reached an impasse. If I wasn’t able to put faith into these aspects, then what was the point in going further?

Over the evolution of Buddhism, there have been many schools and traditions that have adapted entirely to the culture of the local area. There is no One True Buddhism — it doesn’t exist. When Buddhism entered many of the Asian cultures, it changed — the Chan tradition in China differs from Theravadan tradition which has it’s home in Sri Lanka, different again is the Zen tradition from Japan.

This fact in and of itself allows you to think of Buddhism in a different way. It’s a core set of teachings, that has been deftly integrated with a target culture, or system of local thought.

Furthermore, there is a deep cultural difference between the West and the East; from history, to philosophy, writing, art and even sport. So it stands to reason that a Buddhism that works in the East will not work quite so well in the West.

The Secular Buddhist, a podcast run by self-described ‘Atheist who practices Buddhism’, Ted Meissner provided me with perhaps the most valuable connection to Buddhist study. He is not only another who shares my views, but this podcast, and the connected Secular Buddhist Association, also represented a larger group of practicing Buddhists all under the banner of rational, unaffiliated thought. Through this association, Buddhism has been cleverly integrated with a system of local thought that applies directly to me — it’s adapted in a way to make it appealing and helpful to those who are secular, from the West.

It changed the way I thought of Buddhism, but did so in a very respectful and honest manner. It felt less like a religion, and more like a practice, or a philosophy. It was something that I could bring forward into my life to have a better control over my state of mind, and more importantly, how I conduct myself with others.

So on goes my study and my practice. I’m an atheist, with all associated values; rational, logic based thought, questioning, learning, dismissal of the untested or untestable — but I practice Buddhism. I’ve found an acceptable way of marrying the two, without disrespect to either, and this is critical for me.

Through all of this, I’ve come to realise that I do have a spiritual home. It’s a way for me to satiate myself on those big life questions, a way for me to conduct myself in a more respectable way, and a way for me to share these thoughts with other like-minded individuals.

It’s important for me to understand my own suffering and the suffering of those around me. Though perhaps more importantly, I need to own it.

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  1. steve mareno on October 7, 2016 at 7:17 pm

    It sounds like you are very attached to atheism, and very attached to pushing away any form of spirituality. This will not work. It may SEEM like it is working, but that is simply the mind’s fondness for delusion.

    As long as we are attached to anything, or grasping and pushing away anything, we are still trapped in duality. That is where suffering lies. You know, the eight fold path and the three jewels, along w/ the four reasons for suffering, contain not even one allusion to god, religion or spirituality. To my knowledge, Siddhartha never uttered a word about religion other than to say that it does not help w/ this path.

    So by following this marvelous blueprint for living a fulfilled life w/ little to no suffering, you don’t have to believe anything. Nothing, not one thing. So you can drop the spirituality objections. They do not exist, but are only hindrances that our mind forms to prevent us from following the path. All we need to do is practice awareness meditation and bring mindfulness to our activities when we’re off the cushion. I probably sound like a broken record because I say this over and over, but it’s true.

    We don’t have to learn any Buddhist scriptures or learn Tibetan, Sanskrit or Pali. Nor do we have to sit in a lotus position endlessly (a chair is fine too), or learn complicated visualization meditations. Everything we will ever need is right here in front of us at all times, yet we don’t see it because we chase our tails endlessly through our desires. We are already awakened, yet don’t see it because our ego has kept us so busy fulfilling it’s endless wants and desires that we can’t see anything beyond those desires, those opinions that we hold so dearly, and grasp them like a dying man grasps a life preserver. But this life preserver of opinions and desires drowns us, it doesn’t save us. And it takes it’s time drowning us, so we don’t notice that we’re drowning.

    When we sit in meditation, then we understand the present moment, if only for a second. That’s where the magic is and the end of duality, but we live in the future and in the past in our heads, always missing eternity, which is in each moment.

    • Ted Meissner on October 8, 2016 at 5:28 am

      Hi, Steve. It may sound like attachment to atheism and aversion to spirituality to you, but to me this exactly reflects my own experience. I am also an atheist; that’s not an attachment, it’s a statement of fact like identifying as (in my case) male. I’m also uncomfortable with what is typically thought of as spirituality, understanding that there are many different definitions of it.

      That *is* the present moment, lived experience for many of us, and it’s working just fine.

      • Dan Hanly on October 8, 2016 at 11:26 am

        I’d agree with Ted, I’m hesitant to say atheism is an attachment or aversion to anything. Atheism may seem, on the surface, like an aversion to spirituality, however The Buddha often teaches experience is more important than belief, so my atheism very much a rejection of a belief system in favour of what can be experienced. Atheism is a choice to accept only what you see as real over what you’re told is real.

        On the other side of this coin, I feel very much as if I do indeed have spirituality – I’m not averse to it, in-fact, this article was intended to be a depiction of my own journey to connect with my spirituality. It’s religion that I reject, not spirituality, and there are key differences between the two. I’m trying to combine what I know and what I’ve experienced into a method of living that works for me – which is something that lots of Buddhist teachers wholeheartedly support.

    • Mark Knickelbine on October 10, 2016 at 12:19 pm

      Steve, the thing is that as we begin practice we are always, every one of us, in the grip of delusion; and unless you have some magical kensho experience, most of us have to continue to have to call out Mara throughout our lives. It may be that when we come to the perfect experience of enlightenment, we will be able to dispose with all dualities, theism/atheism included. But I and the people I know have come to an aversion to supernaturalism quite honestly, and we want a place to practice where that isn’t going to be frowned on, either explicitly or implicitly.

      And the Gotama of the Pali scriptures goes on endlessly about the supernatural soteriology that became foundational to traditional Buddhism, which is why it became foundational in the first place. He certainly did tease the Brahmins about THEIR religion, but to suggest that one can reject supernaturalism casually and still be a Buddhist will be news to most of the world’s Buddhists, including many Western converts. That’s why we’re bothering to do what we do at SBA.

  2. jscottanderson on October 20, 2016 at 10:02 am

    In the Bhagavad Gita, there is an enlightening discussion of this matter. Three general inclinations of nature are offered, Rajasic, Tamasic, and Sattvic. When one leans to rajas, one is attached to control of one’s environment. When one leans to tamas, one tends to see things as happening to oneself by outside agency. The sattvic posture is one of observation and understanding. Knowing that our awareness is not knowable as to causes brings one’s awareness to a sort of bluff from which only contemplation is possible. There is a sense of wonder there. Shall we?

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