the practical buddhist : essentials

why labels are meaningless

I used to be a lot of things, but no longer

The details below illustrate the larger story and provides the context that many thinking, spiritually-minded people have in common. While I live my life according to Practical Buddhist practices, I’m not really anything that you can label with permanence.

I used to be a lot of things that had labels: doctor, professor,  husband, etc. But these days I’m not anything that you can label. Here’s why in more detail.

Good without a god

The American Humanist Society’s tagline is ‘Good Without a God.’ I like that because it meets head-on the popular assumption/dogma that:

  1. Deity exists
  2. One must believe in this deity, and
  3. We are dependent on the rituals that Big Religion (think Big Pharma with leather-bound books and funny robes and  hats)  continues to hand down generation after generation, such as forgiveness from original sin, baptism, confession to a mortal to obtain divine absolution …(insert your favorite ritual here).

These are assumptions that Big Religion has forced upon largely believers for centuries. In the  Middle Ages millions of illiterate, uneducated, and gullible subjects were governed by the proclamation of such assumptions, often presented as absolutes that could not be questioned under penalty of death.

Today we live in a world filled with educated, literate, thinking individuals that understand that Big Religion’s dominance is over. Most of us opt for logic and reason as guideposts for their behavior and moral codes. We aren’t threatened by the absence of answers to the deepest existential questions; instead we work out our own answers.

When you remove the need for deity, you are left with human beings living day-to-day that aren’t dependent on myths and stories created in order to satisfy the absence of answers to the big existential questions they face.

There’s enough guilt to go around

In my book, The Practical Buddhist: Buddhism Without the Robes and Ritual I write about the absence of deity-induced guilt in Buddhism. Because Buddhism isn’t a religion, but a way of relating to the present moment, it doesn’t depend on the existence of a deity. Nowhere in the Buddhist literature will you find the imperative to believe in something you cannot examine, question, or test.

The absence of investigation within Big Religion leaves a believer no choice but to feel the lack of worth that results from the knowledge they they can never measure up to God’s ideal of living a blameless life. This guilt is shared across the spectrum by Jews, Christians (including Catholics and Mormons), and Muslims. It’s the karmic result of feeling unworthy and it’s used by every religion to bring a potential believer to his/her knees to beg for acceptance, forgiveness, and love.  It is literally their only way out of the cycle of sin, so they are told.

When you remove the need for redemption and acknowledge that all human beings are born equally human, there is no guilt save for each individual’s moral behavior, a direct result of behavior and not a religious imperative. You are set free from needless guilt.

Ritual serves no real purpose

Rituals are repetitive; If they serve no purpose, why do we engage in them?  I’ll be the first to admit that Buddhism, over its 2,600 history, has developed a ton of rituals and ceremonies. Most are associated with festivals that even the Dalai Lama has said mean little to the average Buddhist practitioner. Instead, like most of Big Religion’s ceremonies and rituals,  they are vestiges of an age gone by when the uneducated and illiterate masses were subjugated by those individuals in minority control.

In the Francis Ford Coppola films, The Godfather and The Godfather Part III, The Feast of San Gennaro features prominently in the street life of New York City. It’s an example of the masses taking part in rituals and ceremonies that hold little meaning to most, but are forced to participate by family, societal expectations, and personal ignorance.

However, not all ceremony is needless; Singing Happy Birthday to small children we love fills both the children and us with happiness and contentment. Attending a bar mitzvah, wedding, or graduation can be inspirational and sources of family pride and happiness.

When you remove the need for ritual and religious ceremony from our lives, you largely remove the need for ritualistic behavior and heartless repetition of actions that add little to your daily life.

Discard your labels

You (and I occasionally) might call me a Practical Buddhist, but it’s only a label. I’m just a temporary being wearing a flesh suit. I’m an impermanent, flawed / perfect  failure; an old punk, a successful writer, or a lousy, unsuccessful one, etc.

These might seem contradictory, and you’re right. But again, that’s because they are only labels. Labels are meaningless.

When you discard your need for labels, you discard the notion of a permanent self and you are free from the expectations that accompany permanence.  You are fee to be happy.