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Buddhadharma : Spring 2010
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly SpRiNG 2 0 10 34 Lately I have been fascinated with the idea of the evolution of religion. When Nietzsche pronounced God dead in the nineteenth century, he was not alone. Freud quickly followed, as did others. Religion was dying because humans were growing out of it. Religion had been a necessary, if somewhat juvenile, phase of human development. There was a time when we needed comfort and fan- ciful explanations for things we couldn’t understand. But now that we were grown up and scientifically minded, religion would naturally fade away and be rel- egated to nostalgia, history, and myth. It turns out this wasn’t true. Human beings seem to need religion, just as we need language, food, and air, and this is why religion has always existed in human societies, from earliest times to the pres- ent, and why it will probably continue to exist. Some activity, some thought, some feeling that helps us extract meaning and significance from our lives is necessary, because we human beings are creatures uniquely capable of living meaningless lives, and we desperately need to avoid this. Without meaning and significance we literally get sick or go crazy. Religion is our coping mechanism, our natural healing activity. Efforts to transpose reli- gious practice and feeling into politics during the twentieth century (commu- nism) failed spectacularly. Art has been significant as a substitute, but it isn’t enough. Neither is psychology. So reli- gion is almost certainly here to stay. Everything in human society changes over time, and religion does too. Neolithic religion was quite different from the ZoKeTsu norMan FIsCHer is a former abbot of the san Francisco Zen Center and the founder and spiritual director of the everyday Zen Foundation, an organization dedicated to adapting Zen Buddhist teachings to Western culture. so-called Axial religions (Buddhism, Judeo-Christianity, Confucianism, Brahmanism, etc.), and these religions in their formative centuries were quite dif- ferent from their this-worldly manifes- tations (Protestantism, Shin Buddhism, etc.), which allowed modernism to flourish. We are now in the twenty-first cen- tury, but we still have a nineteenth-cen- tury view of religion. We see religion as a set of coherent doctrines, rituals, and hierarchies that take shape within real- estate-based institutions. We might be affiliated with such institutions or not. We may prize their doctrines without being affiliated, or we may be hostile to all of it. But whatever the case, what we affiliate with or prize or reject is a centuries-old view of religion. Intellectual life of the last fifty or more years has been mostly about the break- down of hierarchies, the relativism of doctrines, and the doubtfulness of real- estate-based institutions in an increas- ingly network-based world. Religion needs to absorb these developments. Probably it is in the process of doing so. But our thinking has not yet caught up with it. All of this might provide context for understanding with new appreciation the position of the “unaffiliated Buddhist.” It may also help us to appreciate the dis- tinction people these days so frequently insist on making: “I’m not religious at all! I’m spiritual.” It seems to me that some of the liveliest religion going these days is not in Buddhist centers, churches, synagogues, or other official religious institutions. It’s taking place in the soli- tude of the private home, in living rooms and community centers, in book groups, twelve-step meetings, women’s and men’s groups, private meditation prayer or study gatherings, corporate leadership classes, human potential workshops, yoga and improv classes, stress-reduction clinics, coaching seminars. And, perhaps, in the practice of unaffiliated Buddhists. Everywhere I look, what I would call “religious questions,” questions of ulti- mate meaning and ultimate connection, are spilling out of the official religious institutions and entering the society in various way. Some of these ways, to be sure, are superficial or exploitive, but it’s natural in times of social change that the faulty comes along with the sincere. Religion is evolving under our noses, but we are not noticing it because we are stuck on old forms and old terminolo- gies. It may be that among Buddhists, the “unaffiliated” are our leaders without knowing they are, rather than the poor souls who either by choice or by circum- stances have been left out in the cold. As they fumble to find their way, perhaps they are finding the way for us all. This is not to say that these unaf- filiated individuals and small informal Buddhist pick-up groups are the good guys, while the conventional Buddhists are the bad guys, old-fashioned and mor- ibund. If we have learned anything over the last decades, as technologies and social forms have morphed and multi- plied, it is that nothing disappears; it just changes its function. I think of the great world religions ©ChrIstInealICIno