Religion and Dukkha

Since we’re taking the new server for a spin, I thought I’d post a piece I originally published on the Tricycle Ning community blog way back on August 23, 2010, which explains the vintage of the headlines I quote in the beginning.  It contrasts a bit from the live-and-let-live attitude toward religion that typically prevails on the SBA site, and it gets the “Is Buddhism a Religion” kerosene close to the fire, so perhaps it will provoke some discussion.

Three news stories this morning as I surf the interwebs:


  • The angry confrontations near the site of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” yesterday, where lingering anger over the Al Kaida attacks is being vented at Muslims who want to build a cultural and prayer center;
  • A story in the La Crosse Tribune (WI) about the painful fractures among Lutheran churches in the wake of the acceptance of gay clergy by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America;
  • The New York Times review of the Eido Shimano Roshi sex scandal and the perception that American Buddhists don’t deal effectively with clergy misconduct.

When atheists speak up about the harmful effects of religion, we’re often asked, in effect, what our problem is. How are we so sure we’re right? What about our own dogmatic beliefs? Isn’t it enough for us to reject religion, without actively opposing it? Why are we, as even Stephen Batchelor says, so “humorless’? These charges are even more pointed for those of us who are secular dharma practitioners. When we inveigh against the religious trappings of Buddhist traditions, we are accused of disrespecting the tradition and its teachers, indeed even of threatening the survival of the dharma in the West (see the interview with Tim Olmsted in the Fall 2010 Tricycle for a good example of this). Why don’t we just relinquish this fixed view and be more open-minded?

The canonical Gotama taught that sīlabbata-parāmāso, attachment to religious views and practices, is one of the fetters that keeps us chained to the wheel of samsara; and every day seems to bring fresh examples of the dukkha that religion brings. Of course, greed, hatred and delusion taint all of our karmic actions. But I would argue that religion is particularly insidious, because it presents itself as transcendent, sacred truth. We can’t understand that truth with our rational minds, we are told, because we lack the divine wisdom to do so; the answer is to lay down our rationality and accept, surrender to, the revealed truth of the Book or the Prophet or the Roshi. And so, as feeble as our rational minds are at separating the wholesome from the unwholesome, even that weak tool is to be cast aside — can we be surprised at the mischief and suffering that results?

This is a particular problem for dharma practitioners, because we do encounter in our practice an experience that goes beyond what we can cognize or speak about. We see clearly the limitations of rationality, and know that, but for the practices such as those Buddhist tradition has brought us, we might have no hope of touching real wisdom. None of that promotes confidence in one’s rejection of Buddhism’s religious traditions, and it’s not surprising that many practitioners go along with activities and beliefs they can’t really embrace.

Ultimately, though, Gotama doesn’t ask us to withdraw from or reject our thoughts and actions in the conventional realm, but to direct them skillfully from the wisdom born of mindfulness. Just as it is appropriate to engage against other causes of suffering — social injustice, substance abuse, a culture of violence, and so on — it’s necessary to take seriously our confrontation with religious greed, hate and delusion, to witness the suffering it causes, and to act and speak from that witness.