Are You Spiritual But Not Religious? 10 Reasons Why Buddhism Will Enrich Your Path

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The number one reason is: “No God.” Number ten is: “It Works.” Melvin McLeod on what Buddhism can offer your spiritual path.

It wasn’t so long ago that most Americans took their religion for granted. You were born into a religion, you lived in it, and you died in it.

Except for a few daring freethinkers, that’s the way it was as recently as the 1950s, and that’s still the way it is in most of the world today. It’s the way we’ve related to religion for thousands of years. Until now. Today, a significant and growing number of Americans do not identify themselves as members of any religion.

According to a Pew Research Report, 20 percent of Americans — one-fifth of the adult population — describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated. That’s up from 15 percent just five years ago, and the percentage goes higher the younger you are — up to 72 percent for Generation Y.

There are many different reasons why people become disenchanted with organized religion — the litany is long and depressing — but most continue to yearn for something more than a life of materialism, for something that gives deeper meaning and happiness, for something they describe as “spiritual.”

About a third of the religiously unaffiliated describe themselves as atheists. But the rest — some thirty million Americans — maintain some type of spiritual belief and practice, even though they no longer feel at home in a church, synagogue, or mosque. These are the famous “spiritual but not religious,” philosophically the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S. Generally, they’re educated, liberal, and open-minded, with a deep sense of connection to the Earth and a belief that there’s more to life than what appears on the surface.

Buddhism is about realization and experience, not institutions or divine authority. This makes it especially suited to those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious.

Perhaps this describes you. Perhaps, as a reader of Lion’s Roar, you’re one of the many people who has discovered that Buddhism has a lot to offer your life and spiritual practice, without some of the downsides of institutionalized religion.

To put it another way: Is Buddhism the religion for people who don’t like religion?

Buddhism is unique among the world’s major world religions. (Some people debate whether Buddhism is in fact a religion, but for now let’s assume it is.) Buddhism is the one world religion that has no God. It is the nontheistic religion.

That changes everything. Yes, like other religions Buddhism describes a nonmaterial, spiritual reality (perhaps the realer reality) and addresses what happens after we die. But at the same time, it is down-to-earth and practical: it is about us, our minds, and our suffering. It’s about being fully and deeply human, and it has something to offer everyone: Buddhists of course; but also the spiritual but not religious, members of other religions, and even those who don’t think they’re spiritual at all. Because who doesn’t know the value of being present and aware?

First, a couple of cautions. Like other religions, Buddhism is practiced at different levels of subtlety, and sometimes it can be just as theistic as any other religion. Buddhism is practiced by people, so there’s good and bad. We come to Buddhism as we are, so there’s definitely going to be ego involved. That’s no problem — it’s the working basis of the path. The key is where we go from there.

Also, much of what I’m saying about Buddhism also applies to the contemplative traditions of other religions. In fact, contemplatives of different faiths often have more in common with each other than they do with practitioners of their own religion. It comes down to how much we personify or solidify the absolute —whether it’s a supreme being who passes judgment on us or an open expanse of love and awareness. In their experience of God, Thomas Merton, Rumi, and Martin Buber had more in common with the Buddha (and each other) than with most practitioners of their own faith.

This is not an attempt to convert anyone to Buddhism. There is no need for that. But those who think of themselves as spiritual but not religious can find a lot in Buddhism to help them on their personal path, however they define it.

The difference is that meditation is the very essence of Buddhism, not just the practice of a rarified elite of mystics. It’s fair to say that Buddhism is the most contemplative of the world’s major religions, which is a reflection of its basic nontheism.

Buddhism is about realization and experience, not institutions or divine authority. This makes it especially suited to those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious. Here are ten reasons why:

1. There is no Buddhist God.

Different schools of Buddhism have different views about who the Buddha was. Some say he was an ordinary human being who discovered the path to awakening; others say he was already enlightened but followed the path to show us how it’s done. But one thing is certain: he was not a God, deity, or divine being. His faculties were purely human, any of us can follow his path, and our enlightenment will be exactly the same as his. Ultimately, we are no different from him, and vice versa.

Admittedly, there are lots of Buddhist images that look like gods and deities, all kinds of colorful and exotic beings. The Buddhist cosmos is a vast one, containing infinite beings of different minds, bodies, faculties, and realms. Some are more subtle and awakened, and others are grosser and more confused. Yet these are just the endless variations on the reality we experience right now. It may be infinitely vast and profoundly deep, it may be mysterious beyond concept, it may be far different than we think it is, but whatever reality is, this is it. There is nothing and nobody fundamentally different from or outside of it.

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