‘No Religion’ A Buddhist Monk’s Approach to Universal Religious Harmony
By Yoginder Sikand, New Age IslamJust the other day I visited a Buddhist temple in Bangalore, where I now live, and dropped in at the temple’s bookshop. Imagine my surprise at spotting a little book there on sale bearing the seemingly-provocative title ‘No Religion’! And, even more surprising, the book was the work of a notable Buddhist monk, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, from Thailand!
I read the book in almost one long sitting, and by the time I finished I was convinced that what the Venerable Bhikkhu had to say was about the most sensible thing I’ve ever read on how to develop an understanding of religion/spirituality that can accommodate all religions, bringing people of different religious paths together to sink their deep-rooted conflicts and hatreds for each other.
The Venerable Bhikkhu begins by discussing the problem of language and its use. There are two distinct types of language, he notes. One is what he calls ‘people’s language’, the language of ordinary folk, people who typically take a literalist approach to religious texts and traditions. On the other hand is what he calls the ‘Dhamma language’, or what he also refers to as the ‘Inner language’. This is the language of people, no matter what their religious background, who are on the spiritual path and have penetrated into the inner truth of religious texts and traditions and discovered their fundamental unity. ‘Dhamma language’ or ‘Inner language’ need not necessarily take the form of sounds or words, the Venerable Bhikkhu writes. In this language, even a raised eyebrow can indicate something and its meaning is understood by spiritually-advanced people.
Based on this distinction between the two types of language, the Venerable Bhikkhu writes, the phrase ‘No Religion’ is understood in completely opposite ways by two sets of people: by people whose lives are impelled principally by material urges, on the one hand, and by those who have far advanced on the spiritual path, on the other. The former, whose understanding of religion tends to be extremely narrow and literalist, would be offended by the phrase, seeing it as anti-religion, while the latter, penetrating into its actual meaning, would comprehend and fully agree by what it intends to convey.
What, then, does the Venerable Bhikkhu intend when he calls for ‘No Religion’? As he progresses with his presentation, it becomes clear that what he appeals for is for us to overcome our obsession with our very limited and literalist understanding of religion, one that is formulated in such a way that we come to believe that the various religions that exist are not just different from each other but are also mutually conflicting and that our own religion alone is true and the others patently false. But he goes beyond this, too, and argues for us to give up our attachment to religion as such, for it is not a thing to be grasped at, through clinging to ritual and dogma, but, rather, something to live by.
Our conventional, but false, understanding of religion, the Venerable Bhikkhu indicates, is rooted in delusion, in the notion of the ego or ‘I’, which, when deeply analysed, does not really exist. And, from this false sense of the individual ego or self comes the equally false notion of ‘mine’—in this case ‘my religion’, which is erroneously presumed to be, at root, different from, opposed and far superior to, other religions.
Ignorant and worldly people, shaped by what the Venerable Bhikkhu terms ‘people language’, understand their religions in very literalist terms, focusing on their externals (dogmas, rituals and so on) rather than on their inner essence (which is common to all religions). And so, they see the various religions as being not just different from but also as being mutually opposed to each other. It is this erroneous perception that lies at the root of the seemingly ceaseless conflict between votaries of different religions.
On the other hand, people who may be from different religious backgrounds but have advanced on the spiritual path gradually free themselves from this delusive thinking. If they penetrate into the ‘essential nature’ or dhamma of religion, they realise, the Venerable Bhikkhu says, that at this level all the religions are the same. And if they go further in their understanding and arrive at the Absolute Truth, the Highest Dhamma, they discover that there is no such thing as religion, as conventionally understood. All isms fall away and all that remains is the Truth or Dhamma. Since at this level no such thing as religion is seen to exist, the whole problem of mutually-conflicting religions is itself dissolved. And so, when one reaches this level one realizes that the phrase ‘No Religion!’ is, as the Venerable Bhikkhu describes it, ‘actually Dhamma at its highest level.’
The Venerable Bhikkhu uses an interesting analogy to pursue this argument. Ordinary people—those who think and speak in ‘people’s language’—consider different forms of water, such as rain-water, canal-water, toilet water, and so on, to be completely different things or entities that have nothing in common with each other. This is because such people base their judgment on ‘external criteria’, focusing on the extraneous elements in these different forms of water that make them falsely appear to them to be completely different things. In contrast, a truly knowledgeable person knows that no matter what type of water it may be, pure water may be distilled from it and that the different types of water are the same as far as their basic essence is concerned. Those elements that make water impure and lead different forms of water to look different are themselves not water, though they might combine with water and alter its appearance. If these elements are removed, the different ‘waters’ appear the same in their essential elements.
In the same way, the Venerable Bhikkhu points out, ordinary believers in religions perceive the different religions to be different and mutually-opposed because they focus on their external differences—their dogmas and rituals and so on. ‘People who think that there are many religions, and that the other religions are different and incompatible to their own, thereby causing hostility, persecution and mutual destruction,’ the Venerable Bhikkhu writes, are ‘the most stupid and ignorant people.’ Such people inevitably promote hatred in the name of religion, driven by the false belief in the superiority of their own religion and the equally mistaken belief that others follow false religions. Their quarrels are only about the ‘outer shell’ or ‘external form’ of religion, completely missing out the common ‘inner essence’ of all religions. They label different religions as separate and mutually-opposed because they have yet to realize the ultimate truth that lies behind and beyond the external forms of what are seen as diverse religions. In turn, this is because they confuse religion as such with just its outer forms (dogmas, rituals and so on).
In contrast, spiritually- advanced people keep aside or transcend the external differences and trappings of the different religions. They realise that all religions are essentially the same in terms of their inner spirit and objectives, though they outwardly appear different because of their different dogmas and rituals. This is akin to the realization that different forms of water are essentially the same, being composed of the same elements, even though their forms may be different due to the presence of various extraneous elements.
Once the traveler on the spiritual path realizes that the externals of religion are not the real thing, he transcends them. No longer does he obsess about them or consider them as absolutely indispensable. As they fall away, the notion of the different religions—Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and so on—as being different from, and opposed to, each other also disappears. Then, no longer does one see the various religions as different and opposed to each other.
When people arrive at this realization, no longer is there any question of one religion being superior to another. Indeed, there is now no question of there even being various different religions in the first place. One now sees the universal unity informing everything, and at this stage the notion of belonging to a particular religious community and of others belonging to other, rival, communities is seen to be completely fallacious.
But the process of realization does not stop here, the Venerable Bhikkhu relates. When pure water is examined, it will be found that there is actually no thing as ‘water’ as such but that it is only an amalgamation of two parts of hydrogen and one part of oxygen. The thing we have been calling ‘water’ has disappeared even as one gets further convinced of all the diverse forms of water being one and the same in their essence—as being the same combination of hydrogen and oxygen. When all elements of everything are broken down in this way one realizes ultimately the Voidness (not in the sense of there being nothing at all but of everything that exists, which is perceived without any form of attachment, void of the perception of 'mine' and 'I'), which is another way to express the Absolute Truth.
The same holds true in the case of religion. When the spiritual adept realizes that the inner essence of all religions is the same, he does not stop there but moves further and understands that what we conventionally call religion is an illusory concept and that beyond it lies the Ultimate Reality. And it is on this realization that one can announce ‘No Religion!’ As the Venerable Bhikkhu puts it, “[O]ne who has attained to the ultimate truth sees that there is no such thing as religion! There is only a kind of nature which you can call whatever you like—you can call it dhamma, you can call it ‘truth’ as Buddhism, Christianity or Islam, for whatever it is, you cannot confine it by labeling.” This dhamma is not a religion of its own. Rather, it is simply ‘the heart of all religions and of all things’—the Ultimate Reality or what is called Voidness.
As the spiritual adept moves along in his long journey to realizing Oneness or ‘Voidness’ he gives up attachments to everything, including even to what he earlier thought of his own religion. As the very notion of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ are transcended, so is the illusory attachment to what was formerly seen as one’s own religion. All grasping, even to religion, falls aside now, and even the very notion of religion, including Buddhism or any other, is transcended, says the Venerable Bhikkhu. At this stage, one understands, using the ‘Dhamma Language’ or ‘Inner Language’, that there is no Buddhism or any other religion as such. All that exists is Nature or Dhamma, the Absolute Truth.
This gradual falling away from clinging to everything, including even the notion of religion as an entity, is, the Venerable Bhikkhu tells us, not something taught by Buddhism alone. Rather, it is the basis of all religions, if understood properly, that is to say through the perspective of those who speak the ‘Inner Language’. Non-attachment is ‘the highest dhamma’, the ‘essence of dhamma’, says the Venerable Bhikkhu. It is ‘the heart of every religion’. ‘If’, he adds, ‘there is God, He is to be found here.’ And here the traveler on the path finally overcomes all notions of division, of this religion being opposed to that, of one religion being opposed to the other, and even of a stable, definable entity as such which conventional people label and cling on to as ‘religion’.