Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

May 3, 2010

May 3, 2010
In the hospital and elsewhere I’m learning to sort out religion from spirituality. Bettina observes that religion addresses beliefs, rituals, forms of worship, those things that divide us, spirituality addresses what connects us. She points out that a problem with Diversity Training is that it focuses on, emphasizes, differences rather than our interconnectedness. This is what I believe, you take a wafer and wine, I light candles before a meal, this is the day you worship and this is what my place of worship looks like. We bring our different foods, show our different clothes. Understanding difference is very important as a starting point (as white women learned in the women’s movement when they thought they could ignore race, class, ability, age because we are “all women together”). It’s at least as important not to be stranded there with our differences, never seeing what connects us—the internal spiritual experience that supports and enriches our lives. By emphasizing difference and leaving it at that, says Bettina, Diversity Training almost makes matters worse.

What we most need is to share the life-enhancing, life-changing experiences of which religion—monotheistic, polytheistic, Buddhist, Christian—is often the container.

A few ways of distinguishing religion and spirituality:

Religion is a cultural vehicle that should pick up and carry practitioners out of our narrow boxes into an expansive spiritual universe. Too often the vehicles become stuck in traffic, honking at each other, judging one vehicle to be superior to another, even engaging in road rage.

Religion closes the circle around those who share our specific beliefs, creates boundaries. Spirituality opens out ever wider and wider beyond all formulated beliefs to embrace more than we might have dreamed.

Religion is like the individual who builds up an identity and holds it closer and closer while she tries to be “good.” Spirituality is like the human being who has let go of her narrow self-definitions and so naturally expands her loving being to others.

Religion is believed thoughts. It’s ok to believe, as long as our beliefs hang very loosely, as long as we do not give them substance. Spirituality does not depend on specific thoughts. It is about experience—experiencing self, experiencing others, experiencing the world.

Religion is like the wise magician with his promise of the oasis that the Buddha spoke of in the Lotus Sutra and that Thich Nhat Hanh analyzes in Finding Our True Home. At its best—when it is not inculcating hate or fear—the magician Religion gives courage to proceed to the people trying to travel through the desert. They find peace and comfort in their belief even though the oasis is not substantial, and that peace and comfort may relieve them enough to travel to the real waters of the spirit.