By David Guy
Just Do It
I’ve come to the conclusion that religious dogma is a load of crap.
When I was a young man I spent years—desperate and frustrating years—trying to think my way into religion. I read the Bible and various religious texts, combed through C.S. Lewis, Paul Tillich, even the massive On Being a Christian by Catholic theologian Hans Kuhn. I studied what Christians believed and wanted to believe it, but found I couldn’t. I went to church after church trying to find one that I could accept, or that would accept me, but there seemed to be something wrong. I wasn’t suitable—by who I was and how I lived—for the church.
I thought that if I found a religion I could practice it, but fell short on practice too. Somehow or other the religious milieu in which I’d been raised, the massive Protestant sanctuaries, stone walls, wooden pews with cushions, the steam-heated air, loud organ music, the congregation—old folks with quavering voices—singing hymns, the professions of faith (various items in them that I didn’t understand, much less believe), the endless intercessory prayers, all the praising God, singing to God, talking to God: why was that all about? Did we have something to tell God? Something he hadn’t heard? Was he up there beaming as we praised him? Did he like the singing? How could he? It was terrible.
I had a feeling there was something misguided about the whole enterprise, but had no idea what. I just couldn’t participate (in good faith, as the expression goes).
Years later—I gave up on churches in the early eighties, and I’m fast forwarding to 1991—I stumbled into a meditation class with my wife (though she wasn’t my wife yet, and it was more like she dragged me than that I stumbled). We sat in cross-legged postures. We straightened our spines. We brought our attention to our breathing, wherever we wanted; I chose the belly. We let go of thoughts, as best we could. We did not, in any case, think about religion.
In those early classes, in fact—for the first three months (we took a Beginner’s class, then an Intermediate)—my impression was that our teacher, Larry Rosenberg, didn’t bring up religion at all. He talked about sitting. As we moved into a new year, and I continued with the Intermediate class (the highest available), he moved into religious subjects more and more. He seemed to be going spiritual on us, as if he’d had some kind of conversion. I now think he was saying the same old stuff, but I was hearing the religious aspect. I’d tuned it out before.
At some point, probably that winter, I was practicing a religion. There was no other way to put it. I sat every day; I attended classes; I came in once a week to sit with the evening sitting group, and from time to time, on my own, I wandered in and sat in the meditation hall. I was so happy to have a religious institution that I sat when nothing was scheduled.
I didn’t believe anything. I just practiced. There was no dogma associated with my religion at all.
The Buddha famously said, in the Kalama Sutta, that people shouldn’t rely on belief. He said that when you know by your own experience that something is true, you should believe it. Otherwise you shouldn’t. Even if he himself said it.
One could argue that the Buddha wasn’t a religious teacher at all. He didn’t teach about God, the cosmos, didn’t impart a doctrine. He taught about how we suffered, how we could avoid suffering; he was more like a psychologist, or a physician, than a teacher. He eased human suffering by teaching people how to live.
He knew more than he was saying. Once when he was in the forest with some followers, he picked up a handful of leaves and asked if there were more leaves in the forest or more in his hands. They said there were more in the forest. He said, “The leaves in my hands are what I’ve taught you. The leaves in the forest are what I’ve learned.” There was more to learn through meditation than just a way to decrease suffering.
I’ve found that to be true. Many of the things I studied in Christianity have come back to me as I’ve sat, and I’ve understood them in a new way. I didn’t think about them. I suddenly knew them.
That’s what I would say about religious truth. We don’t find it through thinking. It comes in another way.
I’m still not inspired by Christian religious practice. I sometimes attend Mass with my wife, and don’t find a lot of sustenance. I appreciate the physical gestures of the religion, the kneeling, the standing, even crossing oneself. I’m often inspired by the devotion of the people.
The practice that inspires me is sitting in silence. That’s what feeds me.
But I’m convinced practice should come first, not last. In some forms of Buddhism, and in other religions, people need to have a basic understanding, and a grounding in ethical behavior, before they meditate. But in Zen—the form of Buddhism I now practice—we just have people sit down. Everything you learn comes out of sitting. You might as well get started.