I recently read someone expressing the yearning to be free of all religious groups and labels. Ironically enough, this yearning has been an important thread in the whole fabric of Buddhism since the beginning. Even the first grouping around the Buddha himself was to some extent a rejection of the hierarchy, hereditary privilege and religious stranglehold of the Brahmins.
The thread continues through the great mahasiddhas of India, and pops up in the quirky Zen people who are fond of saying that if you meet the Buddha on the road you should kill him. (It’s okay, I know they don’t mean it literally.)
So it’s a fine thing, and if somebody innately has the insight, moral strength, independence and courage to sit in a lonely spot looking at the true nature of their mind for years on end without support from friends or teachers, then I take my hat off to her. (Or him.)
It does, however, run the risk of being simplistic. (I use the word “simplistic” correctly, by the way.) I myself am a Buddhist, and this is a perfectly reasonable statement, just as it is perfectly reasonable to say that I am male, English, politically socialist, that I like curry, and so on.
The problem, it seems to me, is not with labels such as “Buddhist” or “curry-lover”, but it is with the way we have a tendency to use and understand these labels.
People (I’m thinking of adolescent males in particular) who first come across the teachings on emptiness and are swept away by them, can be tempted to play games, denying that there is a coffee mug on my desk, because there is no mug, no desk and no coffee in “reality”. I once even came across someone who was so impressed by the teachings of “no-self” that he refused to use first-person pronouns and possessives, in the belief that this would train him away from believing in his “me”. It was, of course, ludicrous, unhelpful, and made him look like an idiot.
- outwardly a Buddhist (hopefully with some discipline),
- inwardly a tireless bodhisattva of endless compassion,
- secretly a yogi revelling in the equal taste of samsara and nirvana and
- ultimately knowing the clear light beyond all concepts, systems and labels
– that seems to me a much more profound ideal than the ideal of simply being free of religion. Oddly enough, I suspect that it’s more practical, too.