Digital Dharma

The Middle Path, One Day At A Time

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Religious Debate? Or Battle?

I wrote this a couple of years ago.  Given the current atmosphere of (in)tolerance that seems to pervade America, I thought it might be appropriate to link back to it.

I believe it is fine to debate religious ideas, within reason, but debate is always with the consent of both sides. It is not accomplished with bludgeons on unwilling participants. We need to understand that when people’s core beliefs are threatened, they become defensive and inflexible regardless of the content of those beliefs….

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Spiritual and Religious Practice

I believe that there are certain differences between spirituality and religion. For example, religion involves belief in salvation: purification in some manner, and then admission to a better life, usually after death. It also includes belief in metaphysical or supernatural reality, prayer or worship, and about man’s relationship with the almighty — dogma — which members are expected to profess as matters of faith. There are rituals: prescribed ways in which that connectedness is to be expressed.

When I speak of spirituality, on the other hand, I mention things like lovingkindness, compassion, a sense of responsibility, tolerance, forgiveness, and feelings of peace, harmony and joy. These things have in common one thing: they bring happiness not only to us, but to others as well. They are about our relationship with this world, not the next.  They are about the human spirit — that which makes us different (at least in degree) from our cousins the apes.

It is true that religious practice can bring us to these virtues, but discussions that I have had make it clear to me that many are unsure how they should practice in order to achieve them. I believe that comes from confusion about the means to an end.

The concepts embodied in religion can be realized by prayer and ritual. Spirituality, on the other hand, involves expanding the human spirit by attending to our relationships with others, and with the planet. While these things could eventually be the outcome of religious practice, it is clear that people can develop such virtues without reference to any religious system, and that some who profess to be highly religious have little to do with them.

The qualities of spirituality demand that we develop and perfect relationships with others and with ourselves. Until we have good relationships with ourselves, we have no chance of perfecting them with anyone else. We cannot practice lovingkindness without understanding what it is to be loved and receive kindness. We cannot be compassionate without another being to feel for, nor without understanding it as applied to ourselves.

We cannot be truly tolerant, forgiving, nor experience harmony until we are able to feel that way inside and, to apprehend these fully, we must learn to apply them to others. Finally, if we consider the highest level of spirituality to be perfection of our sense of responsibility for others and for the Earth, we clearly need to experience it in everyday life and from a position of good self-regard, lest we simply become the world’s doormats.

Spirituality involves, in the words of the Dalai Lama, “…on the one hand, acting out of concern for others’ well-being. On the other, it entails transforming ourselves so that we become more readily disposed to do so. To speak of spiritual practice in any terms other than these is meaningless.”