Do we really need religion?

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Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

A few days ago, I posted Krishnamurti’s speech during the dissolution of the Order of the Star. Some friends remarked that such move is an extreme. They feel that humans need religion for the establishment of morality and to educate children.

I totally disagree. For millennia, East Asians (Chinese, Japanese and Koreans) have been largely irreligious. You can still see this in recent global surveys of religiosity. During a 2009 Gallup Poll, the percentage of people reporting that “Religion is important in my daily life” was less than 25% for both Japan and Hong Kong. In contrast, the religious percentage for the US was 69%, which was exceptionally high for Western industrialized nations. For India, it was even higher, at 90%, which was comparable to religiosity in Muslim countries.

Generally speaking, East Asia has managed to fare quite well without a big presence of organized religion. I can speak from my own experience, since I grew up in Hong Kong. There is Confucianism, which the students learn in school, but is never taught as a religion. There is also Taoism, which is also taught in school, through a course in Chinese literature. What students learn in such literature course is Philosophical Taoism. Again, it is not a religion. What East Asians have done quite well is to teach spiritual and moral values through popular culture, so children can learn through osmosis — through songs, poetry, popular literature, movies, opera, etc. Thus, even if a young person has never been to a temple, he or she would have learned quite a bit of Confucian and Taoist thinking through such informal channels.

Traditional Chinese education is holistic and humanistic, with a heavy emphasis on character development. It is never technically-oriented, as in modern American education. Confucius said, “To educate somebody, you should start from poems, emphasize ceremonies and finish with music.” I very much like the fact that much of East Asian spirituality is taught through the arts. Classical Chinese education include the Six Arts — rites, music, archery, chariot racing, calligraphy and mathematics. In Chinese culture, the arts are not just some technical skills to master. It is commonly understood that all arts are paths towards the Tao. Thus, the arts serve as physical, emotional and spiritual training. All disciplines interconnect in classical Chinese education. On an advanced level, the student will gain some deep spiritual insights, regardless of whether he is learning calligraphy or archery. Such an understanding extends beyond the Six Arts. If you study any martial art or read kung fu novels, you would have received a fair dose of Taoist and Buddhist teachings and values. The same principle applies to the learning and teaching of mathematics. In the US, many people think of mathematics education as something technical and many students think of the mastery of mathematics as something based on the memorization of formulas and procedures. I am a certified math teacher. I have always told my students that there is a creative and artistic side to mathematics. Before my retirement, I taught what I call Zen Math, which is based on Taoist thinking and Zen aesthetics. It certainly has a dimension of spirituality and creativity.

If I were to summarize the traditional spiritual education in East Asia, I would describe it as subtle, informal, relaxed and often subconscious. Since there is no dominant state religion, there are no creeds or dogmas to adhere to. And there is no religious authority to ensure strict compliance. In addition, East Asians tend to take a syncretic approach to religion. Inside a temple, it is common to see the deities and sages from Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism and folk beliefs all mixed in under one roof. It is a kind of peaceful co-existence. Thus, there is real spiritual democracy and pluralism. I think that this is much healthier than having a dominant and domineering religion such as Christianity in the West. Religious wars and religious persecutions are rare in Chinese history.

It is under such a cultural environment that Zen (or Ch’an) arose in China. In the West, Zen is often considered as a branch of Buddhism. The truth is that Zen was born as a synthesis of Chinese Taoism and Indian Buddhism. In its core, Zen is much closer to Philosophical Taoism than to Indian Buddhism. This has to do with Chinese people’s intrinsic irreligiosity and secularism. There is a famous Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him!” This does not mean that Chinese spirituality encourages violence. But it is a reflection of Zen’s faithfulness to the founding spirit of the Buddha. In the Pali Canon, there is this famous teaching, “Rely on yourself. Rely on the Dharma. Never rely on anything else.” The Buddha always put an emphasis on internal authority rather than on external authority. This was the spirit before Buddhism became institutionalized and turned into an organized religion. For this reason, Zen has a legacy of being irreligious, irreverent, informal and anti-authoritarian. Zen masters even referred to Buddha’s teachings as “dried shit sticks.”

Bodhidharma is the Indian master who brought Zen from India to China. He is thus the first patriarch. Bodhidharma once said, “Those who worship don’t know, and those who know don’t worship.” We can understand his meaning better by considering this anecdote of Bodhidharma meeting the Chinese emperor after his arrival to China:

Why did Bodhidharma say that there no holiness? It is because once we regard something as “holy,”(it could be a holy book, a saint or some revered guru), then we will worship this holy object as an external authority and we will abdicate our own responsibility for enlightenment. Bodhidharma taught, “… deluded people don’t realize that their own mind is the Buddha. They keep searching outside.”

It is precisely because the final authority for a Zen practitioner is internal, not external, that there is also no boiler plate and no set methods. Thich Nhat Hanh, a contemporary Vietnamese Zen master said: “Don’t look for the Buddha elsewhere. It is in the art of living mindfully every moment of your life.”

It is for this reason that authentic Zen can never be an organized religion. The practitioner’s lesson is right in front of him, in his ordinary daily life. There is nothing special. Nothing “sacred.” The “sacred” in Zen, just like the Tao in Taoism, is to be found in the mundane. The Truth is revealed by paying close attention to the task at hand, not by seeking some kind of external authority. To seek without is fantasy. It is a distraction.

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Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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