Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy or WTF?
I’m not a very religious person. It wasn’t always that way for me. For many years I self-identified as a Christian. I was raised a Catholic and went through all the usual childhood rites that accompany such a status, Baptism, First Holy Communion, Confirmation, the whole enchilada. Looking back it wasn’t that bad. In fact, I probably owe my existence to the Catholic Church since I’m pretty sure I was what you’d call a “mistake”. When I came along in 1966 my parents already had three kids aged 17, 16 and 10. They were almost at the finish line, kids-wise. They could see the light at the end of the tunnel! Then along came me to screw the whole thing up. So thanks, Vatican, for ensuring that my folks didn’t just cancel their subscription to American Pregnancy Magazine.
My folks split up when I was a small child, and religion took a spot on the back burner for our family. Then, as a teenager, I got heavily into Christian rock bands like Stryper, Bloodgood and Barren Cross. I know, I know. I was 14, okay? That led to a revival and I began attending a Southern Baptist church, where I was baptized (again!). I got pretty deep into God and stayed that way for a long time. Once I discovered booze and girls Jesus took a back seat for the most part, but that foundation was always there in the background.
Eventually, there came a day of reckoning, when I had what you might call a midlife crisis. Or maybe it was a nervous breakdown. Or even a Vision Quest. Take your pick. I wrote about this experience at length in my book ALL IN: How To Become An Overnight Rock N Roll Roadie Success In Just 20 years, so check that out if you want the details, it’s available on Amazon, Kindle, and my website therealjeffmann.com. Spoiler alert: It was some crazy, life-changing shit. In any case, I finally got to the point in my life where I put everything on the table and took a hard look at it all. All of it. Religion, politics, favorite Star Trek captain, sexuality, societal norms, you name it. If it wasn’t working for me it was going on the trash heap or getting traded in for a new model. That’s when I got interested in Buddhism.
The appeal of Buddhism to me is that it’s not a religion, at least not in the way that the major religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam are. There’s no “god” or deity running the show. There’s no “Buddhist Heaven” where you sit on a cloud and hang out with the Buddha after you die. Adherents are encouraged to test the Buddha’s teachings to see if they really work, rather than accepting them on faith. That part really appealed to me. After so many years of being asked to “take it or leave it” spiritually, the idea of being able to test drive this stuff sounded pretty damn awesome to me. Turns out, it’s solid stuff. Accepting suffering as an inevitability, realizing that attachment to outcomes is the basic foundation of most of that suffering, and working to find a way to let that shit go are all great steps for anybody, regardless of which invisible sky king you happen to believe in. Sure, Buddha talked about 31 Realms of Existence and supernatural beings in other realms and some other crazy mumbo jumbo. I’m not sure if that makes Buddhism a religion or just confusing. At its core, Buddhism is rooted most deeply in an individual’s journey. It emphasizes personal practice rather than acceptance of any definitive knowledge or concept.
To me that sounds like it’s much more of a philosophy, a way of viewing and interacting with the world, rather than a religion based on some sort of deity based creation/salvation myth. There are lots of people who disagree with me. I can’t really blame them. This some complicated shit we’re talking here, and disagreement is all just part of the trip. And all this stuff is based on ancient writings that have been handed down and translated and re-translated and mistranslated for thousands and thousands of years. So it’s all a crapshoot any way you slice it. In light of all that, I’ll close this thing by echoing what the Buddha supposedly said and encourage you to try it out for yourself. See what works and what doesn’t, keep the stuff that works and chuck the rest.
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