Meditating statue in Jaffna town.
When I was young I was basically an atheist, though my mother took me to temples where I’d try not to fall asleep. We had the Jataka stories and I also read the Bible, but, as an eminently rational young man, I always thought they were rather quaint. Then when I was I think 19 my mother drove me to a Buddhist retreat in West Virginia. At that point I actually lived the Buddhist faith, and then I understood.
Basically, I got high. We were sitting outside meditating in the sun and I started seeing colors which each in and out breath and had a moment of such perfect concentration that it kept me pretty happy for about two years. I asked Bhante Rahula if that was the point and he said, no, you have to move beyond that feeling, but it was still pretty amazing. I still try to meditate every day, but I fail after 15 minutes, and have neglected practice for months. But I understand that faith is lived and practiced, and I no longer try to dissect it intellectually. Indeed, I find my clearest moments are when I can keep any words from sticking inside my head at all.
After my epiphany in West Virginia, I was back in Montreal for school. There wasn’t a significant Buddhist community, not that I really looked. I did start volunteering for the McGill Chaplaincy, working on a multi-faith magazine. I also started going to shul services, which was a Jewish worship. They had excellent free food for one thing, but I could also stand with them bobbing in prayer and I was pretty sure they were on to the same thing I was. People use the term disparagingly, but I think we were fellow travelers.
Anyways, there’s a link in here somewhere. Oh, this Rabbi David Wolpe is speaking at a debate on religion, and his initial comments are very interesting.
When I grew up, my parents used Crest toothpaste. My mother made it clear to us that it was [the only type that] any responsible and decent parent ought ever to use. When I used to go to my friends houses, they would use Colgate, or the really irresponsible ones [would use] Aquafresh. I would think, “What depraved and uniformed parents these kids must have if they don’t know that they should use Crest!” But when you get older and you start to realize [that there are many] people who are as smart, kind, and thoughtful as you, and use Pepsodent, it reduces the sense of authority that you grew up with. You start to think, “Maybe none of this is true. Maybe there is no hierarchy of toothpaste in the world.” Even though the example is trivial, I think something like that happens for everyone unless you live in a community of entirely likeminded people. People see lots of thoughtful, kind, decent people who practice other religions, and they begin to think, “What makes mine superior?”
Slate: How do most people react to that epiphany?
DW: There are three different reactions to that. [The first is when] people become defensive, brittle, and superior, diminishing the work of other religions. The [second] is people think, “Well, obviously none of this is true, it’s all nonsense.” And the third, which is my way of approaching it, is to believe that clearly, all of these people in their own way are searching to eliminate cavities. Which is a good thing. This is all a real search for something transcendent because that transcendence exists in the world. There are lots of ways of trying to approach it, but they’re all trying to approach it because it’s real. (Religion Doesn’t Make People Immoral, Being Human Does)
Personally, I do think that there is something transcendant, but only because I’ve felt it and felt that it improves my life. I think that is a vital insight into any debate on religion. As sociologist Robert Bellah says,
Science operates with scientific method in terms of which different theories can be tested and proved or disproved, though if Karl Popper is right, proof is always problematic and we are safer to stick to disproof. Religion on the other hand is a way of life more than a theory. It is based on beliefs that science can neither prove nor disprove. Its “proof” is the kind of person the religious way of life produces. (Religion In Human Evolution)
I don’t think religion is necessary or sufficient for morality, but I do think it sets standards, standards which are not evident in the ordinary world. I have been tired and been able to sleep in a Hindu kovil. I have been hungry and eaten at a Jewish shul. I have healed myself through Buddhism, and I’ve been in hospital as Christians prayed to support a cancerous friend. Judging religion literally makes little sense, but when I started trying to experience it an interact with the good people it produces, then I began to understood its role as a moral force in the world.
People also do a lot of horrible things in religions name but, again, faith for me now occupies a place beyond words, and proclaiming it doesn’t mean you have it. It’s something I feel and grope towards because I feel that it’s real, and that making it a reality in my own heart, I think, makes me a better person. And I understand everybody struggling to do the same, and even the people failing and lashing out at others. I think the world is better off with religion, because however kooky it gets in the details, its heart is in the right place, and it has set standards (which organized religion breaks) that have slowly moved us towards better people and a better world.