Friday, July 10, 2015

Bowing Before Buddha

Carl Jung said that we should keep our religion, any religion, really.  What to believe is arbitrary.  But to believe is empowering.  It gives one a feeling of direction; it molds one.  It doesn't merely take the sting from death, but carries eons of animal and cultural information.  Even a "new" religion is built from the pieces of other rituals and the deep needs of the deep mind.

Religion and its attendant ritual and belief satisfy that deeper mind.  In Jung's formulation, as I understand it, it is part message from our primitive selves, and a reminder of the "numinous."  (That's Jung's word. I had to look it up.  It means divine, or having a divine quality.  Good word.)  It connects us to our non-reasoning, intuitive, emotional, instinctive selves, which surely move us in measure equal to or greater than our rational selves.  Even the great many people who are already well in touch with the emotional part of their natures do not normally recognize the process that moves them. Religion also reminds us of our connection to culture, to humans as a whole, and to life as a whole.

Religion releases one from the gaze of the Censor -- the internal watcher who think's he's in charge but is actually judging and interpreting. Making up stories that make experience smaller and more limited than it really is. Religion is, famously, an opiate, and one can be utterly lost to it as one can be lost to narcotics. But, like drugs, it serves a healthy purpose as well: transcendence of the mundane. Or, in other words, a counterpoint to the story the pattern-recognizing, habit-locked, survival-focused Censor narrates.

I came to Buddhism as many do -- in flight from Christianity. Buddhism offered a safe haven: a religion without dogma. A religion some people claimed was not a religion, but a philosophy! But I came to realize it was a religion. The sect I am involved with also has all manner of ritual and magical elements, in some respects reminiscent of Catholicism (and also theater). The Censor was displeased. This could not be rationalized. This could not be accepted. On the other hand, I was gaining something from my efforts. I felt better after services. I enjoyed them. I enjoyed the mummery. I said: "Censor, there are greater things than you. There is mystery in this universe you cannot penetrate. I will explore this for what it's worth with open heart and open mind and get all I can from it."

One of the hardest and strangest aspects of Buddhism to a novice like myself is bowing. You bow to the priest, you bow to others, and especially you bow to the Buddha. Or Buddha statues. How can this be? Buddha is not God. Buddhism has no God, at least not as the term is commonly used. But I learned you are not bowing to a Lord. You are bowing to enlightenment. You are bowing to his achievement, which is a reminder of its possibility. You are remembering that you are not the ultimate power, and that there is much power in that acknowledgment. And when you bow to others, you are bowing to the enlightenment that is potential in them. You are recognizing the numinous in what you often perceive as mundane.

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