the practical buddhist : essentials

why I practice buddhism, don’t attend church, and don’t hold any beliefs

I’ve worked on this post for a while now. Each time I write about this topic, and it’s a topic that I’ve written about before, I pause to consider whether or not I’m doing so in a manner that’s respectful.

As time passes (and I get older and hopefully wiser) I develop more understanding and cultivate a greater degree of compassion. My desire, especially when discussing topics of religion and politics, is to maintain an awareness of how much compassion I am engaging in. As always, my goal is to present my thoughts in a way that anyone can read and process, regardless of their religious convictions.

With this in mind, I’ve written this post about why I practice Buddhism, no longer attend church, and hold no beliefs.

Why I Practice Buddhism

I was raised as a Christian, graduated from a Christian university, and attended a protestant seminary for a brief time. I used to believe everything that most Christians believe today. I understand the pressure that thinking Christians experience when they raise questions about creationism, miracles, the virgin birth, the raining down of frogs, and the great flood.

My experiences in the church give me a solid understanding of the precepts, principles, and stories that most Christians take on face value as divinely inspired by God and recorded by men.

There is simply no room for questioning within most Christian sects. If you question the veracity of the Bible you are shunned. If you raise questions that make people uncomfortable, you are ridiculed and excluded from future club activities.

I was once one of these well-meaning, God-fearing people. I thought it was the absolute truth and lived accordingly to the best of my ability, which, as it turns out, I wasn’t very good at doing.

Then, I experienced a spiritual awakening

This awakening occurred after 1) I saw the underbelly of the professional ministry and the depths that some in that field will go to in order to control the behavior of others, 2) I realized that I could no longer reconcile my scientific education and awareness with the claims of the Bible, especially when it came to the age of the earth, and 3) It became clear that no Christian authority could be honest enough to say, “I don’t know.”

There is a Buddhist saying, ‘Always don’t know.’ This is an exhortation to always have an open, questioning mind.

My spiritual awakening wasn’t a mystical experience whereby I felt waves emotional need based on my level of depravity. It was an opening of my eyes via the reasoned use of logic over a period of years.

My Christian experience

You might be surprised to know that in my time inside the church, I was a prayer warrior, a lay preacher, a counselor at the Billy Graham Crusade, a Sunday School teacher, a musical evangelism team member and….still I was plagued with doubts.

I had doubts about everything contained in the Bible from the contradictory accounts in the first two chapters of Genesis to the wildly fluctuating life expectancies of some Old Testament populations (Moses was 900+ years old when he died) that apparently appeared without population precursors and disappeared from the gene pool instantly.

I had serious doubts about the morality of a God that drowned the unborn, the mentally ill, the deaf, the mute, the blind, and millions of innocent children by flooding the earth. I thought it odd that Noah could house, feed, and process waste for every kind of animal and bird in his ark with one window. Talk about a carbon footprint issue.

I thought I was the only one to have these doubts. But I now know that it’s a ubiquitous issue common to most, if not all, believers. I am only one of hundreds of millions Christians who experienced doubt.

But the culture to remain quiet was and still remains quite strong. My first marriage eventually ended because of my doubts around the faith. Unfortunately, most Christians are too afraid to confront their fears for fear of family rejection and the loss of friendships and never explore the world outside their own Christian community.

My awakening set me free

I was freed of the false claims, doubt, and guilt that pervaded my life, not because of original sin or my own wrongdoing, but the false notion that I could never measure up to the role model as demonstrated by the God I described above.

I realized that the Christian and religious culture within which I was raised was one founded not on demonstrable proof backed by logic and reason, but a culture that absolutely required me to relinquish my logic and reason forever and believe whatever I was told.

In Buddhism I found freedom

I practice Buddhism, specifically Practical Buddhism, because (in no particular order):

I find that mediation helps me become more compassionate and mindful in everyday life. That alone makes me a better, more loving and complete human being. I don’t need any ancient texts, creeds, or principles to help me live a moral, meaningful life.

The sutras (teachings) of the Buddha, the Four Noble Truths, and the Eight-Fold Path are all recommendations for Buddhists, but none are to be taken on face value.

The Buddha didn’t claim to be anything other than a man who experienced enlightened and who taught others how to live a better life.

Why I don’t attend church

In my experience, to attend church one usually possesses or experiences some level of spiritually-perceived need for redemption and/or a desire to believe in God. I feel no such need. Since I no longer hold any beliefs, especially in the existence of a supernatural being, attending church isn’t an activity I support.

I have children who attend church with their families and take on leadership roles where they attend. I have a son who graduated from a conservative seminary with a Master’s degree and is employed in a mega-church in South Carolina. My daughter is also a follower of Christ and attends church with her family in Ohio where my son-in-law serves as an officer in the U.S. Air Force.

I have two other sons, both adults, who neither attend church nor hold any specific beliefs about God, an afterlife, or the Bible as a book to live by. Each of my children has formed their own view of the cosmos and lives accordingly.

As long as each of us can respect the choices the others have made, I don’t see there needs to be a problem. I realize that I can only walk my own path and seek not to change the paths of others.

Here’s an excerpt from my book, The Practical Buddhist: Buddhism Without the Robes & Ritual that speaks about my overall experiences within Christianity and Kriya Yoga:

Raised as a fundamentalist Christian, educated in institutions steeped in the traditions of the ultra-conservative Southern Baptist Convention, and later initiated into Kriya Yoga by a direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda, you could say my quest to find a spiritual basis for personal meaning and fulfillment has been significant.

Yet these experiences (graduating from a Christian university, studying for a year in a post-graduate Protestant seminary, and later studying Kriya Yoga) only led me further from reality.

My experiences within the Christian church and later in Kriya Yoga convinced me that I was still required to adopt someone else’s version of truth. I came to realize that just because someone said something is true, doesn’t make it so.

I saw first-hand how most people’s definition and interpretation of religion is superficial at best and crumbles under the mildest scrutiny. And so, as the years have passed, I came to see that religion is not something I can personally endorse. Rather than a path to self-discovery, growth, and happiness, my own direct experiences have proven it to be a hindrance in almost every area of my life.

My quest is to understand this life, this moment, right here and right now. For me, Buddhism, when I free it from the ritual and robes, ceremony and other superficial trappings, provides a path for this understanding to be realized.

*I do attend a Thursday evening mediation group near where I live. It’s composed of others who also practice Buddhist mediation from a a variety of traditions. I recommend that you find a mediation group that feels like a good fit for you. It’s a great way to learn about the Dharma from experienced teachers.

Why I hold no beliefs

Living without beliefs is liberating. It changes everything.

Beliefs, as I define them, are concepts that require us to exercise hope and faith regardless of their truthfulness and verifiability. Using that as my definition of belief, I can say that I hold no beliefs whatsoever. No amount of believing will transform a lie into a truth.

Nonsensical beliefs thrusted on the young

In the western world, we encourage young children to believe all kinds of falsehoods. We take photographs of our children with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. We reward them monetarily for losing teeth using the myth of the Tooth Fairy.

Worldwide, we encourage them to believe that they were created by God, but apparently imperfectly.  Because of the God’s failure to create perfectly, we convince them that they are in need of salvation via Jesus Christ.

With this kind of circular logic, is there any real question as to why we grow up plagued by doubts about God, the church, and the Bible?

Beliefs poison everything

I’m borrowing that phrase, in part, from the late Christopher Hitchens, who made the claim that religion poisons everything. I fully agree. One has only to look at the folly of talking heads such as Pat Robertson, the anti-semitic Billy Graham, and false prophets like Hal Lindsay for evidence. The sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic church was covered up for decades.  This type of abuse isn’t solely confined the Catholic church. Sexual abuse occurs everywhere but it is abhorrently heinous when it occurs inside organizations that preach trust, sanctity, and chastity.

Again, here is excerpt from my book that hopefully clarifies why I live without beliefs and see them as harmful:

A belief is exclusionary. To adopt a belief is to exclude all other possibilities.

Not only are beliefs, by their nature exclusionary, but they are also not based on experience. You may say you believe in gravity, but I’d counter that you’ve experienced it instead. You may say that you believe in love or hunger but again, I’d say that you experienced them.

Do you believe in something you haven’t experienced?

Personal Experience

For years I felt my life was devoid of meaning. I’d write in my journal about the big questions:

~ Is God real?

~ What do I believe?

~ Do these beliefs serve me?

~ Am I better off without my beliefs?

~ Am I willing to take a stand for what I discover?

~ If I am a child of God, then why do I feel guilty?

~ Why should I feel guilty if I’ve been redeemed by Christ?

~ How would my life change if I no longer was a believer?

~ Why do we raise our children to adopt our beliefs?

~ Are we afraid they will adopt the wrong ones?

~ What are the rights ones?

~ Are there any?

Over the years I came to the following conclusion:

Beliefs distract me from experiencing what’s real.

To fully accept one thing, you need to reject everything else.  Alternatively, to experience something is to know it firsthand.

If you blindly accept 2 + 2 = 4, you don’t truely know it to be true.  Without having two blocks set before you, adding two more, and them counting the resulting number you are accepting someone else’s version of this truth. It is only when first grader’s perform this tactile experiment that they experience how the resulting data is true.

I’ve experienced love, gravity, poverty, hunger, illness, joy, sadness, guilt, etc.  I don’t need to form any beliefs about these topics to make them real.

When I find myself wanting to place faith in something I haven’t experienced, I have to pause and consider what I’m doing and ask myself whether this is an appropriate view.

Without exception, it is not.

My advice to those who still believe in deity or attend church, synagogue, or mosque

If you are still attending church and engaging in exercising faith in things you can’t prove, I encourage you to begin questioning. Begin asking yourself why you believe what you do.

Inquiry isn’t wrong, nor is it a sin against your God. It’s an ability you were born with and unless you’ve relinquished your humanity, it is still accessible.

If you have children, are you aware that children raised in religion traditions have greater difficulty discerning fact from fiction as a young adult? Think of the stranger-than-fact fables they are forced to believe about Jonah living for three days in the belly of a fish, somehow immune to the digestive acids that make up this milieu; think about how they have to ignore the entire record of social progress as well as the global record of civil rights to buy into the belief that women are second class citizens and that God sometimes condones slavery while at other times cautions against it.

I’m not making this up. It’s all in the Bible you carry around with you every day. It’s in the same book you read aloud to your children. Sure, it carries all the platitudes that eventually make their way on to Facebook and accumulate ‘likes’ from fellow-believers, but it also contains the tales of an amoral God that kills and destroys.

Where to begin

Where does one begin to question when your entire culture stands firmly against the process? One way to begin is to start a private journal, like I did, where you can write down your thoughts, your questions, your doubts. You don’t have to know the answers to your questions, but getting them out of your head an on to paper or a computer screen can alleviate the pain of holding in these struggles.

Often, as in my case, the discovery of what’s true for you takes years to uncover. And if you’ve been indoctrinated with religion from an early age, it will be hard. I promise you it will the toughest decision you will ever make but the discovery of your personal truth is worth it.

But a word of warning about uncovering your personal truth and that is…

Dogma isn’t truth

You can’t just read this and say to me or yourself that you’ve arrived at your truth because you believe what you believe. That’s the lazy way out.

It’s the equivalent of stating, “God said it (which you can’t prove by the way) so I believe it.” Belief requires no action, no work, no inquiry, no doubt, and no tenacity. Belief is passive. Uncovering your truth is real work and it’s time consuming.

But in the end, when you awaken to the reality that isn’t viewed through the lens of religion and dogma, you will find lasting peace and the absence of guilt and doubt.