A student asked, over the weekend, “Could you please speak about how religion figures into the spiritual path, if at all? I understand that you are an atheist, and yet you consider yourself to be a disciple of the Christ and a valid successor to the Apostles. Does this mean that you consider yourself to be apostate? What about your considering yourself to be a disciple of the Buddha, and a Buddhist monk, and yet rejecting the traditional Buddhist monastic rules? Thank you for helping me to understand this.”
Namasté! Thank you for that great question. It’s actually been a while since we’ve had any questions at all!
Rather than using the word atheistic, I choose to use the descriptor non-theistic. The two-fold reason is that I often find atheists can be as dogmatic and passionate about their belief that there is no such thing as gods or goddesses, that their belief system becomes something of a religion itself. And I am spiritual, but non-religious, therefore; I don’t consider myself to be an atheist either.
Secondly, simply because I don’t find it necessary to believe in mythical creator gods, goddesses, demons, and so forth, doesn’t mean that I lack the capacity to appreciate the the value of such archetypes, as one sojourns the spiritual path.
I personally view atheism as a belief system, and I try to guard myself against belief systems in general, because I view religions as contributing little more than suffering, attachment and division to society. The great master, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, “Faith in ideas is risky. Ideas can change, and tomorrow we may not believe the same thing.” We find this same wisdom teaching in the Christian scripture, which admonishes that one not build their house upon sand.
My being non-theistic means simply that I do not concern myself with the idea of gods or demons — not that I disbelieve in them, simply that whether or not such beings exist, is of neither interest nor concern to me. And by the very nature of not concerning myself with such things, I respect not only those who do believe in such things, but respect their gods and goddesses themselves. You see, I do not deny that there are supernatural phenomena. But I believe that all phenomena are, in fact, impermanent.
It is true that I am recognised, by virtue of my having been ordained as a Catholic bishop in direct and documented succession to several of the historic disciples of the great Rav Yeshua (Jesus the Nazarene), as a successor to the apostles. I don’t necessarily buy into the historicity of Christian scriptures’ claim that there were twelve disciples (something that is nothing more than a reference to the signs of the zodiac), nor to the idea that those closest to the Anointed One were all men. And as a theological anthropologist, my personal research has lead me to believe, for example, that the characters of Judas and Thomas, for example, are the same person — and most likely the twin brother of the historic Rav Yeshua. And therefore, because I am in the succession of Mar Thoma (Thomas the Twin, who founded the communities of faith in India, and who authored the gnostic text, the Gospel of Thomas, and whom many do not realise is very likely the same character, referred to as Judas in the canonical texts), I consider it my responsibility to bear that mantle in a way that is consistent with both Judas’ and Thomas’ teaching — that the “sovereign domain of the Sacred is within us…” not outside us.
Perhaps one of the most important and influential passages I remember reading from Thomas’ gospel, as a young boy of seven or eight, was the following:
Keep on asking, and it will be given to you; keep on seeking and you will find it; keep on knocking, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who keeps asking receives, and who keeps seeking finds, and to those who keep knocking, it shall be opened.
And while that passage might seem familiar with the similar passage in the synoptic gospels, it’s the continuation of the passage from Thomas’ Prologue, which reveals an older and more important part of that teaching, which was obscured by the Roman Catholic Church:
Those who seek, should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will finally have authority, and in that authority, they will find rest. (Thomas Prologue: 2)
I don’t believe that religion is good or bad. I don’t believe that it is necessary for spiritual growth either. The purpose of religion, as I understand it, is to help the individual grow, not to help the individual criticise or condemn others. Religion has, for the most part, I think, failed in that regard. Rather than criticising others, we ought to criticise ourselves. Religion is useful if it inspires and challenges us to ask, “How much am I doing about my attachments… my pride… my anger? What am I doing to become more compassionate toward others? To whom am I allowing myself to feel indifference or hatred?” If religion helps us become more aware of these things, it is very useful.
In Spirituality and Nature, the Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, writes: “If we practice religion properly or genuinely, religion is not something outside, but inside our hearts. The essence of religion is a good heart… Complicated philosophy, this and that, sometimes creates more trouble and problems. If these sophisticated philosophies are useful for the development of a good heart, then good: use them fully. If these complicated philosophies or systems become an obstacle to a good heart, then it is better to leave them.”
I cannot think of a better way to explain my attitude toward religion, that in that quotation above. I reached a point in my own spiritual journey in which I no longer found anything useful in religion, and so I left it behind.
Now, let’s look at an example that might be helpful. Let’s say that a person is born to a very abusive and narrow-minded family. At the end of the day, that person is still a member of that family, but they might consciously choose to move forward with their lives, and leave the dysfunctional family behind.
If someone goes to school and specialises in medicine, then works for several years as a successful doctor, only to choose to walk away from his career as a medical doctor, and instead, enter a monastery and write, that person is still a medical doctor. He can’t “unlearn” his medical knowledge, and could, we hope, draw on that wisdom and knowledge to save someone’s life, if necessary.
So it is with me. I have disassociated myself with institutional religion entirely. I am still a validly ordained successor to the disciples James, John, Judas-Thomas, Thaddeus and Bartholomew (and allegedly, Peter, whose succession I hold suspicious, since I doubt the Roman legends of his supposed leadership of an institutional church.) It is part of my past, just as my service to the pagan communities of the Northeast is part of my past. I am grateful for both. Likewise, from the age of seven, I have been a Buddhist. And from my sixteenth year, I have been a Buddhist monk.
It is true that under the institutional rules of traditional Buddhist sects, I would be asked to leave the monastery, particularly for breaking the monastic rule of celibacy, but I am not part of any of those institutional sects. Their rules are not part of my vowed life. The Contemplative Order of Compassion has a very clearly articulated Charter and Rule of Life. And while I am aware that just as there are Catholics and Christians, who believe than my non-theism and denial of the “Son of God” mythos makes me an heretic and apostate, I am equally aware that there are those in the Buddhist community, especially among the Southeast Asian Buddhist sects, who consider me to be apostate and “a disgrace to Buddhism”, because I choose to disregard traditional interpretations of the vinaya, and consider those rules to be culturally irrelevant and at times, even detrimental to an authentically Western Buddhist practice.
And I couldn’t possibly any more disinterested in their whining, petty and unimportant opinions of who and what we are. Nor do I care what their questionable teachers have to say about me.
Seven times, over the past eighteen years, such individuals have stolen my monastic robes, saying that I was unworthy of them. (And then there are tacky, hostile, and bizarre little American boys, who, despite members of our local sangha being able to verify these events, in their own disturbed obsession, find it necessary to claim that no one “really” stole the robes!)
That is why our community chose to wear the monastic robes of many sects… Tibetan, Japanese Zen, American Zen, Buddhist Secular Humanist, Camaldolese (Benedictine) and Franciscan. It is a way of non-violent protest of the sectarianism that I find so repugnant and unfortunate.
Our tradition is known as Rimé (pronounced “Ris-med”) – a Tibetan word, which means “without boundaries, without taking sides“. This is more than non-sectarian, but represents a direction that all of Buddhism will eventually have to embrace, to continue to remain authentic. I doesn’t mean that we are without lineage or structure or a specific school of thought. It means that while we honour our lineage (as Kadampas) as a means of accurate transmission of the Dharma, we also open our hearts and mindstreams to the wisdom and authentic transmission of Dharma truth from other sources, traditions and lineages. Our sadhana draws from a rich heritage, and all paths are respected by every practitioner of our Feral Wisdom tradition.
Respecting the student’s right to privacy, I have not mentioned them by name, but know this particular student to have a sincere heart. I also know the reason this person asked thee questions, and appreciate how difficult it can be to find oneself having to make such similar decisions. I want you to know that I am here for you. Keep in mind that as we sojourn this spiritual path, we can often discover that those to whom we owe the greatest debt of gratitude are those who have made the journey hardest on us.
I do understand and respect those who find complicated and complex theologies and philosophies useful in their spiritual journey, so long as their beliefs don’t marginalise non-believers. I am a bookworm (for those who haven’t noticed). Yet I find nothing personally useful in the practice of memorising scriptures or sutras.
Yet for some, this is a time-honoured and very useful practice. And we must respect that.
There is nothing that can be found in a book or oral tradition that cannot be found by simply sitting zazen. Does that mean that I condemn or reject the traditions of the Buddhist schools that emphasise memorisation of sutras, or ritual? Does that mean I reject the traditions in Benedictine and Franciscan sects, in which communal chant is a vital part of the contemplative life? Of course not! In fact, I find those traditions to be honourable, beautiful and enjoy the opportunities to take part in them, when I visit such sects.
They simply are not aspects of my path. My path is compassion. Period. The monastic and contemplative community to which I belong does have a rule of life, and does have a set of precepts every monk and lay adherent is expected to live by. I have, to the best of my ability, honoured and kept those rules and precepts for a little under thirty years now. But at the end of the day, for me, it comes down to the Four Noble Truths… the Noble Eightfold Path… the Four Immeasurables… and at the heart of it all… Compassion.
Perhaps I am apostate. Perhaps I am a heretic. I don’t know. More accurately, I don’t care. Whether or not I am apostate or heretical doesn’t impact the love I have for others. It doesn’t change my desire to work toward interspiritual dialogue, for the purpose of advancing social justice issues and community service. It doesn’t change my daily practice. So it doesn’t matter to me.
Surely it has made the journey difficult at times. Those who once gave financial support to our monastery have all but disappeared, because they are frightened by the idea that their external saviours, creators and spiritual parents might be part of an ancient or even primitive mythos, or simply metaphors for the much more powerful indwelling Heart of Compassion. So we have previously gone through weeks at a time without electricity in the hermitage… sometimes, getting evicted… often, going hungry for a couple days. Big deal! It hasn’t killed us… and it’s strengthened my resolve and understanding of how much more powerful compassion is than fear.
khenpo gurudas sunyatananda
Drawing on the essential teachings of the great spiritual teachers, philosophers and freethinkers throughout time, Khenpo Gurudas Śunyatananda (retired Archbishop Francis-Maria Salvato, O.C.) has been regarded as a provocative, revolutionary “voice of reason” within the field of religion and spirituality, since 1983. Having the distinction of being one of the few openly non-theistic, openly-gay and post-denominational thinkers ever to serve as Bishop-Exarch and spiritual leader of the autocephalic Eastern Catholic Franciscans in North America, Gurudas is the author of more than 600 articles, eight books and currently serves as the spiritual advisor for a non-theistic, intentional spiritual community, The Spiritus Project.
Copyright ©2012, Khenpo Gurudas Sunyatananda (The Most Reverend Dr. F. Francis-Maria G. Salvato, M.Sc., O.C.). All rights reserved. This material may be reproduced, blogged, quoted or distributed, provided the entire copyright including contact information remain intact. It may NOT be altered in any way, without express written permission.”