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Dharma Ocean on Culture, Religion, and Modern Spirituality

by Louise W. Rice
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This article is adapted from the Dharma Ocean podcast of a talk given by Dr. Reggie Ray at the Blazing Mountain Retreat Center in Crestone, Colorado.

My teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, was thoroughly trained in the Tibetan tradition and spent a lot of time in retreat from a very young age. He realized that spirituality and the spiritual journey are an essential, inborn part of human nature. Even though the institutionalized religions try to possess and control it, spirituality is not owned by any organization or religion.

Institutionalized religions have largely been unable to acknowledge or accept this because once you acknowledge that spirituality and the spiritual journey are the natural inheritance of all people, you lose control. People who are administrators and officials in organized religions are often people who don’t actually practice a contemplative method. Or, if they do, their priority remains “the organization.”

It seems to be true in Buddhism, and it’s probably true in all religions, that the people in positions of power are there because that’s what they want. They want power—generally for altruistic reasons—and they want to be thought of as being important in the social arena and enjoy managing other people. I am not pointing fingers: I feel that this is at least a part of me and others who create spiritual organizations.

Often, we as leaders actually spend much of our time doing other things rather than practicing. We are often not deep practitioners. So we have organized religions run by people who are doing something other than making a spiritual journey in a full sense. In the Buddhist tradition, the way that’s played out in an interesting way, that reconnects such people with the essence of their tradition: people go through a phase of life where they are identified with the organized religion, but then there is the wake-up. At a certain point, they realize that to fully possess and take ownership of the Buddhist teachings in the true and genuine sense, they have to leave positions of hierarchical power.

And they leave their posts and “enter the forest,” meaning they make practice and realization the center of their lives. Traditionally these people went into the forest and to mountain tops; they went to caves and remote places and practiced meditation. And they were, as far as the institution was concerned, dead and gone.  Most organized religions seem not to have retained this as a viable option for their leaders and power holders. And even within Buddhism,  this kind of wake-up may not have been all that common.

The identification of organized religion with “THE TRUTH” of a tradition has been widespread.  And this leads to inherent intolerance and conflict among institutionalized traditions. However, we now live in a new time where the fiction that some religions have the truth and some don’t isn’t working anymore. Because we have rubbed shoulders with each other, Christians and Jews and Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus and Taoists, and the indigenous traditions with all of us, we have friendships with people who belong to different traditions, and we can compare notes on the journey. It becomes clear that the whole idea that there is a single true religion and one way of doing things doesn’t work for most people and, in fact, isn’t true.

One senses that the resurgence of fundamentalism is a phobic reaction to the emerging awareness that no tradition has the ultimate word and that each of them represents an expression of human spirituality. Fundamentalism is seen not only in theistic traditions; Buddhists and Hindus have their fundamentalists. Even indigenous traditions have fundamentalists who believe their way is the only authentic way.

In a profound and ultimate sense, they’re all equal.  This is because all humans, when you get to the full depth of what our species is, are equal. Their spiritual capacities are equal. For some, this is a very liberating insight. But others go crazy because their identity has been built around having “THE TRUTH,” and their reaction is to retrench and affirm in a much more aggressive way that they have the truth and everybody else is deceived. Ironically, the resurgence of fundamentalism may be pointing to a growing awareness that spirituality is something possessed by everyone.

The more we slow down and meditate, the more we actually begin to realize our situation. We are, in a very real sense, on our own. The impact of the 20th century has been that more and more of us feel that we are actually on our own as individuals and that a lot of the spiritual and religious answers that have been accepted without much thought in the past are turning out to be false. They don’t work for people anymore. They brought us a level of truth that is critical—we are truly on our own and the loneliness we feel is real loneliness, and it’s a loneliness that people are trying to fend off. But by resisting that loneliness, we’re resisting our actual situation. The only way to move forward is to face our situation and work with who we are.

Although we could say that none of the religions has the ultimate answer, and many are misdirected, the authentic religions all do have the tools to do this; each, in its own way, is actually able to provide a gateway to our own true self, if we know where to look; if we are willing to let go of all the false promises and false answers, whether religious or materialistic.  But then, realizing that we are truly on our own, we actually have to work on ourselves in a very sustained way in order to reach our own human potential.

Let’s take Tibetan Buddhism as an example. Tibetan Buddhism, for all of its unthinking conventionality,  does offer incredibly sophisticated and profound techniques for fundamental, radical, and permanent transformation. These methods can work with anybody’s state of mind and problems, anybody’s personal, social, or and cultural situation. That part of Tibetan Buddhism needs to be retained.

On the other hand, the cultural trappings, the attitudes that prevailed in Tibetan culture, ways of interacting with other people, and certain belief systems around power and privilege, while these may have been appropriate for traditional Tibetans, they’re not appropriate for Western or modern people, including Tibetans, because they’re too insular and conservative and ego-based—even modern Tibetans have had to break free from their own Tibetan-ness.

The issue with traditional Asian religions and many traditional Asian teachers, and with those modern folks of us who try to carry on their lineages, is that they haven’t separated the transformative essence of what they hold from their cultural attitudes and beliefs. That full separation hasn’t been made. But now we modern people have to make it. It’s not their problem. It’s our problem. If we make that journey, it’s imperative that not only do we not get trapped by cultural attitudes and ways that are not ours, we also don’t get trapped by cultural attitudes and ways that are ours.

Maybe every period of time is unique in some way, but this time period is really unique.  Ironically, to fully fathom the meaning and possibilities of our current situation, those of us who are Buddhists, in our case those who follow the practicing lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, are using techniques that have been passed down for 2600 years. We’re using these ancient methods to shed ultimate light on our lives right now; we are in the process of trying to discover who we are and who we need to be right at this moment.

We need to realize that no outside authority or person can make this discovery for us or even tell us what it is. We have to figure it out for ourselves, starting from ground zero. My sense is that any of us, whatever our culture or religious orientation if we are willing to connect in depth with our own spiritual heritage or tradition, can be doing that too.


About Dharma Ocean

Dharma Ocean is a non-profit global educational foundation that focuses on somatic meditation as the way to help students – of any secular or religious discipline, by teaching them the importance of embodiment in both meditation and their daily lives as taught in the “practicing lineage” of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The foundation was established in 2005 by scholar, author, and teacher Dr. Reggie Ray, and is located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Southern Colorado.

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