Is Buddhism a Religion: Two Kinds of Buddhist Yoga?

Buddhism, as an example of yoga being religious (1) or non-religious (2)

As an example of what is wrong with religionism, one may take a look at Buddhism. If Buddhism were merely a method of waking up (Buddha means the awakened one), then any method which is designed to wake someone up could be called Buddhism. Just so if Buddhism is defined as a method of waking up that used methods that Shakyamuni Buddha had taught 2500 years ago. This definition of Buddhism leaves open space for a dynamic Buddhism whose methods and techniques change with conditions and time Spatially and temporally), while the ultimate goal and principles remain the same. In fact the ability to change relative to changing conditions is what has made Buddhism relevant to human beings throughout the ages since the time that Buddha Shakyamuni walked the earth.

On the other hand, there always have existed purists, fundamentalists, and conservatives who believe that anything new is a perversion or corruption. For example, if Buddhism is defined as the teachings of a historical character; i.e., Shakyamuni Buddha who lived circa 500 BC, then Buddhist teachings have to conform to Buddha's original teachings. Such would qualify Buddhism as a belief system or religion which we will designate as an example of "A1" Buddhism.

Shravakayana Buddhism

Hence if one takes the sutras as the teachings of Buddha, then nothing which contradicts those teachings could be called Buddhist. Purists would also add vinaya (code of ethics and abhidharma (buddhist psychology) as basic to buddhism even though these were not taught directly by the Buddha or in the case if vinaya to be enshrined in all kinds of situations (places and times). This original buddhism taught by Shakyamuni, the ascetic yogi of circa 500 BCE, has come down to us extant as Theravadin Buddhism, and found in their Pali Canon. Theravadin is only one branch of original Buddhism which is called the path of the hearers (those who heard the words of the Buddha) or Shravakayana (literally the path of the hearers.

Buddha was a homeless wandering yogi (sadhu) at a time in India where such was possible. He awoke through the practice of yogic meditation. On the eve of his enlightenment experience, Buddha renounced renunciation and accepted a meal. Afterward he taught the middle-way, free from the extremes of asceticism and sensual gratification. This middle way, later became further refined and elaborated by the Mahayana as freedom from the extremes of nihilism (asceticism) and eternalism (worldly existence), as either were misleading.

In fact, Buddha's middle way is what demarcates Buddhist practices even today (along with freedom from the caste system, the worship of gods and idols, sacred scriptures, and the dependence on human priests). Some may point out out that some of the latter have crept into Buddhism with the advent of the latter Mahayana and the Vajrayana Buddhist schools, but such topics of discussion would distract us from the current discussion. Rather what the present discussion will focus upon are the two types of Buddhism; i.e., religious and philosophical on one hand, or not religious or philosophical. We will label the former as subset 1 and the latter as subset 2. Here the main identification mark will be whether or not the teachings are based on human or written teachings, or based on direct experience; i.e., are the teachings based on giving the practitioner a direct experience through praxis, or is it based on written texts, ideology, human agencies, or hearsay.

"A1": Shravakayana Buddhism as religion

The Buddha after his awakening, then taught the middle-way free from extremes, starting at Sarnath (Deer-Park), India. As indicated his main teaching could be summed up as the renunciation of worldly pursuits as an end in itself, and even renunciation of renunciation itself, in order to focus on the main practice, awakening (mainly through meditation). At that time Buddha taught meditation such as vipassana, anapanasati, and samatha. He also taught meditation of the jhanas. Later many sects developed, each with a distinctive flavor.

One year after Shakyamuni Buddha left his body, the first Buddhist council met and canonized his teachings from memory. That canonization by the Buddha's disciples was the first step toward perverting what previously was a non-religion and non-philosophically based teaching, although most "Buddhists" call it preservation, not perversion. The canon consisted of the the sutras (the actual words of the Buddha mostly in question and answer form), the vinaya (moral codes of conduct), and abhidharma (Buddhist psycho-mechanics interpreted from the sutras). From there many sects developed each contributing differing interpretations and emphasis. The teachings were memorized and not written until the Theravadin sect decided that for reasons of preservation, it would write it down in Pali (hence the Pali Canon) albeit that the Buddha spoke Prakriti. The basic teachings being impermanence (anicca), selflessness (anatta/anatman) which remediate duhkha (discomfort). Essential to early Buddha's teachings were the law of karma, dependent origination (pratityasamutpada), and the four noble truths. As time went on, these teachings became institutionalized as a philosophy or religious form of Buddhism.

"A2": Sadhus and Meditators

As religious Buddhism was expanding, others took the Buddha's teachings as one of a yogi with Buddha as an example in the Buddha's own yogic tradition of renunciation and meditation. The main practice were the practice of the jhanas, vipassana, anapanasati, and samatha meditation. Some might say that these were the "true" Buddhists as they practiced what Buddha practiced. While Buddha was alive, they may have gone to listen to him teach, but after he died they practiced what he taught. These are the praxis oriented Buddhist yogis, free from religious or institutional trappings.

"B": Mahayana Buddhism

Approximately 500 years later a vast number of Buddhist teachings appeared that were never taught by Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha. These new teachings were justified through various rationalizations, the most popular among Mahayana Buddhists was the mythologization whereby an elitist secret society of select elitists were imputed to have hid the Greater (Mahayana) teachings because most people were not yet ready to receive them during Buddha's time. Western historians however have detected a gradual metamorphoses of Buddhism from the Shravakayana (A1 Buddhism) to the Mahayana (B Buddhism) based on changing sociological conditions and needs. These new Mahayana teachings gradually began to appear around 100 CE and continued for approximately 500 years until the beginning of the Indian tantric era (7th to 13th centuries). In Mahayana, Buddha appears as the mythologized aspect of an eternalist buddha, who reincarnates from time to time, while teaching various methods of awakening according to conditions, karma, and the listeners' abilities and aspirations. Various mythological beings such as the arya sangha, bodhisattvas, nagas (serpents), guardians, and so forth appear prominently in many Mahayana Sutras.

Various myths and interpretations arose in prominent Mahayana interspretors, including the principle statement that "nothing is real", or similarly the mind governs reality, that one's  teacher/guru is more precious than the Buddha, that worship of supernatural beings, ceremony, and ritual are essential to waking up, that future rebirth in heaven is the goal of practice, and so on. Many of these teachings could be easily interpreted as contradicting A1 Buddhism, so there existed considerable debate and argument. The main "new" principle, which the Mahayana Buddhists tote as key to Mahayana, is the idea of the Bodhisattva ideal. The Bodhisattva practitioner practices waking up in order to help all others sentient beings awaken to full enlightenment. However it is clear that this compassionate principle is not at odds with the older or prior forms of Buddhism, nor was it a true point of contention. In the older (A1), one practiced to become fully awakened, not in some far away heavenly realm, but like the Buddha, in this very life. If not this very life, then in a future rebirth. Then as a fully awakened one, one engaged in Buddha activity for the benefit of others.

Although there are many differences between A1 and B1 Buddhism, Buddhists are well known to be extremely tolerant because of their belief in karma, where people suffer or benefit from their thoughts and actions accordingly and are not expected to conform or obey "other" philosophies which they do not understand or accept as true. One observation is that as time went on many refined elaborations upon the original teachings including refined techniques evolved and were articulated, however at the same time we can also recognize many new elements that were foreign to Shakyamuni's original practice and teachings.

"B1": Religious and Philosophical Mahayana Based on the Sutras

In comparison many might find "B1" type Buddhism to appear liberating at first, but later one finds Mahayana Buddhism riddled with ceremony, mantra, vows, ritual, prayers, observations, and superstitious obligations for the lay person and institutionalized study of dialectics, debate, memorization of prayers, ideology, vows, ceremony, and ritual in lieu of actual practice.

Mahayana buddhism can be said to have three streams. B1 is strongly based on the Mahayana sutras and is often characterized by three or four sub-schools; i.e.,Bodhisattvayana (common to all Mahayana Schools, the Madhyamika, the Tathagatagarbha or Buddha-nature school, and the Cittamatra/Yogachara.

The basis for Madhyamika is the Prajnaparamita Sutras, whose design was to reconcile form and space (sunyata) as a refinement of the middle-way where no "thing" is eternal, yet nothing is negated/denied (left out), beyond acceptance and rejection, beyond addition or subtraction, neither only form nor only space, beyond dualistic cognitions of "I" or "IT". Such teachings were inherent in the first or original turnings of the dharma (Shravakayana) but were restated in a non-dualistic manner. Although the Prajnaparamita sutras were designed to destroy over intellectualization and over objectification (reification) it gave birth to the Madhyamika school of philosophy which attempted to interpret as a philosophy via the intellect. Such is a great perversion as its original purpose was defeated and hence widespread nihilism and intellectualism ensued especially around the concept of sunyata (space) which considered to be an object of intellectual analysis within the Madhyamika school. A secondary problem ensued in some interpret ions of the Madhyamika with the apparently rash conclusion that everything was an illusion (empty or real existence). However as a rebuttal, an illusion must be grounded within a reality;i.e., illusoriness makes sense only within the context of truth and reality.

The Tathagatagarbha (Buddha-nature) school is based on the Mahayana Tathagatagarbha sutras, which in turn lend themselves more to the Yogacara/Cittamatra schools which take off on these. For example the Lankavatara Sutra describes the Tathagatagarbha as originally pure by nature and self luminous, though disguised in the garments of the skandhas, dhatus and ayatanas and soiled with the dirt of attachment, hatred, delusion and false imagining. It is said to be "naturally pure," but it appears impure as it is stained by impure mind (adventitious defilements). Thus the Lankavatara Sutra identifies the luminous mind with the tathagatagarbha and equates it and the alaya-vijnana with nirvana, Some major Tathagatagarbha Sutras are the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Nirvana Sutra, Lankavatara Sutra, Angulimaliya Sutra, Srimala Sutra, Anunatva-Apurnatva-Nirdesa Sutra, Lalitavistara Sutra, Tathagatagarbha Sutra, etc.

The basis for the Bodhisattvayana (path of the Bodhisattva), being common to all Mahayana schools, states that inherently all sentient beings possess buddha potential (Buddha nature). This is more easily explicated in the Tathagatagarbha sutras, than in the Madhyamika/Prajnaparamita Sutras. In Mahayana the goal is to awaken not just for a personal or egoic isolated/separate liberation, but in order to help all suffering sentient beings awaken. How does the compassionate bodhisattva help others awaken? It is through wisdom, hence compassion (karuna) and wisdom (prajna) must combine in order to create skillful means (upaya). The upaya has no other aim than to liberate/awaken. Here the motivation for the bodhisattva is called, bodhicitta, or the mind and intention of all Buddhas. Thus we also identify the bodhicitta (the awakening mind as a quality of the innate transpersonal and non-dual buddhanature.

One of the major difficulties with Mahayana buddhism besides the above mentioned that many of its advocates consider the original teachings to be wrong or inferior, thereby priding themselves as having superior ability, superior good karma, or secret knowledge. Other adherents say that Mahayana Buddhism is merely a restatement, refinement, expansion, and improvement in presentation of Buddha's timeless teachings.

There are many other controversies, especially that surrounding the interpretation of the Prajnaparamita literature, its major interpreter, Nagarjuna, and Madhyamika philosophy in general. The word, Madhyamika, merely translates as middle way or non-dual, but it has come to denote a philosophical school. Along with it comes an elaborate method of refutation, debate, dialectics, and ideology.

One popular Madhyamika interpretation demands one to surrender to illusion --  the so called non-existence of everything as being inherently empty, as in nothing exists. Of course some dualistic difficulties arise in imputing that some "thing" truly exists as a thing. An easy way to get around that is to say impute that nothing exists by itself, in a vacuum, separate from the ever changing temporal flux, but unfortunately some Mahayana advocates think that they have found a new way of negating samsara or anything else that they do not like, by defining emptiness (sunyata) as illusion or as void. That is a widespread Madhyamika error called nihilism. The prajnaparamita does not say that the mind defines space and form (phenomena), rather those lost in delusional mindsets define phenomena as being dependent upon their mental states. Rather the Prajnaparamita Sutra really states is that within space there is form, form defines the space, and space defines the form. Within form there is space, and within space there is form. Form reveals the truth of space and space reveals the relative truth of form. In reality they are inseparable, interconnected, and interdependent as at=re all things. That interpretation leads into the Tathagatagarbha Sutras easily.

In both original Buddhism taught by Shakyamuni Buddha and in the latter  Mahayana Buddhism there is the tendency to negate the world, refute things, phenomena, the body, and treat nature as non-existent (empty) and unreal, while the dominance of the mind over matter is advocated in separation/isolation versus its union, despite the form is emptiness doctrine in the Prajnaparamita, the Buddhanature principle in the Tathagatagarbha Sutras, and the All Mind principle in the in the Cittamatra/Yogacara. Hence it was obvious that times were/are very confusing to the Buddhist. In Madhyamika and many schools of Mahayana the teacher/guru is seen as a guide or spiritual friend, not a task master.

"B2": Non-religious and non-philosophical Mahayana

Despite the increasing dependency upon books, philosophy, dialectics, teachers, logic, ceremony, ritual, vows, and observances, some schools took the above as merely provisional teachings and decided that they were merely pointing toward direct experience. So many took to the caves, forests, and mountains to meditate, rather than to the monasteries and universities. Of course most of the intellectual, scholarly, academic, and monastic teachings remain preserved, nevertheless some of the meditative teachings were written down and preserved, for example in the Chinese Chan and Japanese Zen tradition. Here emphasis was on direct experience through meditation. Koans or other specific methods of transconceptual analysis were introduced in order to break up and dislodge logical thought processes and dependence upon belief systems, book knowledge, and ideology. Here the B2 yogi went to direct experience of the Dharma through meditation practices just like the A2 Buddhists, except the context emphasized Mahayana, rather than Shravakayana.

"C" Tantrayana/Vajrayana Buddhism

Tantrayana (vajrayana or mantrayana) developed out of the Mahayana (about 500 years after the first Mahayana Sutras appeared or 1000 years after Buddha), the Mahayana/Madhyamika assumption being based on the assumption that in form there was space, and in space there was form, so that conscious interaction with form/objects could be a powerful practice for liberation, whereas the sutric negation, withdrawal, renunciation, or refutation of form, objects, or phenomena could be said to be based on aversion/antipathy, which is deemed to be an obstacle to awakening. In this way, renunciation of objects of desire within the samsaric realm whose ownership may be deemed capable of bringing about lasting happiness is still maintained. Egoic ownership is still renounced. Objects that are viewed as eternalist (existing separately or intrinsically in themselves) are still renounced. What is renounced is renunciation, aversion, fear, and pleasure as a desirable object, rather what is affirmed is awakening as total liberation from all dualistic fixations as total integration.

Tantra "C1"

Although tantra is liberating in so far that it does not demand isolation from the world, the body, nature, or other people it can be very demanding at first in requiring many obligations (vows), daily rituals. recitation of mantras and prayers, guru devotion, attendance to lengthy ceremonies, visualization, and may other practices and observances. This type of Buddhism is not at all uncomplicated and requires total obedience to a human guru. Also it requires adherence to right views and abandonment of false or wrong views. Tantrayana is based on Mahayana Buddhism and emphasizes abandonment of wrong views and adaptation to right views (beliefs), samayas (obligations), vows, guru worship, and a group pride which believes that the followers share an elitist secret which is above and beyond that of the lower classes. These secrets are not to be disclosed to "outsiders" but kept guarded. Secrets not only appeal to elitists, but are a symptom of confused people who believe that the truth is secret/hidden (which for them is true), hence the attraction. A secret society based on personality cults further can be said to be a dangerous trap where the authority structure becomes self protecting and builds a self serving empire of ideologues, conformists, and loyal obedient adherents and slaves.

C2: Non-religious Tantrayana

In the above account of C1 Tantrayana Buddhism, there exist absolute dependence upon a teacher, exactitude as to ceremony and details, various ritual observances to uphold, vows, secrets, etc. In C2, Tantra the main purpose remains the same, but the focus is on the inner and secret teacher, not the outer teacher. This approach is of course much more mature than the former (C1), but the danger of egoic pitfalls and delusion have top be avoided. By secret teacher we do not mean merely the teachings of the inner channels (nadis), prana (evolutionary energy), chakras (circuits), and bindu (essence), but also the awakening of the all pervasive transpersonal non-dual inner teacher/buddha. The Buddha is present at all times -- teaching at all times.

This school is represented in tantric Buddhism by the Mahasiddhas, who were considered to be realized masters (vidyadharas). They did not teach within the confines of monasteries, written books, logic, debate, ceremony, ritual, observances, vows, or dialectics. Their path was considered advanced, while many of their teachers were dakinis, bodhisattvas, or other vidyadharas who had realized their own true Buddha nature.

Original Teachings of the Primordial Buddha

It is only when we get to the teachings of the primordial Buddha do we find a non-religious, non-ideological, liberating, and awakening teachings which is dedicated to waking up the human being and all sentient beings, not making people conform to manmade rigors, gurus, dogma, sectarian polemics, ideology, and other perverted contrivances. .

Such teachings are based on the fact that when Shakyamuni Buddha woke up as a practicing yogi under the Bodhi tree in Bodhigaya India (circa 500 BCE), he realized his true,  timeless, pure, unconditioned nature—his real condition (unconditioned) by sequential time and place).

That teaching as soon as it comes down to us in reference to terms, words, frameworks,  things, phenomena, or any reference which is limited or impermanent carries with it an inaccuracy and hence a corruptive element or error. Hence man's teachings have to point to this timeless pure, unconditioned nature, without dependence upon the one who points, the pointer material, or the finger which points. In fact this state is not only our real condition, it is has always been our real and true condition, and it is available now.

In "other" related teachings one is taught to expand one's consciousness to envelope or extend the mind to ever widening expanses, to the greater whole, to all of the universe, multiverse, Buddha matrix,  all our relations, to the all mind, to the timeless source, to all space, etc., but our true nature has never left us. It is no where else than here and now. What has occurred is simply a covering/limitation, blockage,  and perversion of the bodymind which has obstructed that energetic awareness and connection to occur. Then there is no goal, no object, no separate observer, no small mind and large mind, rather nothing more or less than complete union/integrity. There is no object of our compassion separate from ourselves. In pure love, only love exists... everything is a manifestation of it or its denial/perversion.

In order to awake, gradual sequential teachings have been justified. The problem has been that these methods/teachings have often claimed to be exclusive, necessary, right, and mandatory, where other teachings are wrong, bad, or perverted. Thus the practitioner is led to focus on practices, rather than direct connection with their original true nature/condition. Hence the sacred non-dual context is lost, while duality and ego is reinforced unwittingly. Especially when such ideas as countless reincarnations and original sin/ignorance are introduced, the living manifestation aspect (nirmanakaya Buddha) of the timeless wonder (dharmakaya) can be too easily negated.  In short direct access to the dharmakaya (to the timeless teaching and teacher) is not only an object that has to be constantly kept in focus, but it is not even to be seen as a dualistic  object by a separate observer, rather it is simple our true/real  nature.

Dzogchen or Mahamudra appear to be the most direct teachings within the Indo/Tibetan tradition or the most indirect depending on how one views the teacher/guru. In this tradition (generally called Mahasandhi), the teacher is viewed as an absolute necessity. If, by teacher, it is meant in the absolute sense; i.e., the Ati (primordial/timeless) Buddha, then the teachings are direct. If one means a physical representation of the primordial Buddha as separate from the primordial Buddha, then the teaching is perverted/indirect. If one accepts that the physical emanation of the guru is an infallible emanation of the primordial Buddha, then one is not in error as long as the guru is indeed fully and unerringly awakened AND one does not form a dependency upon the physical or form body of the guru, keeping in mind to what is being pointed.   

“When we speak of the Dzogchen teaching, first of all we need to understand what Dzogchen is: we must understand that Dzogchen is not a teaching but is our real condition. Dzogchen means the totally perfected state, which means that we have three primordial wisdom and three primordial potentialities. Since we already have these, everything is perfected. If we are really in that condition, then we are no different to the Buddha or a Bodhisattva and realized beings. It is not enough only to have an idea of this, even to have just a small experience. Of course it is useful to have this small experience of the Dzogchen state but then there are ways to increase this knowledge…”

Teachings at Sinabelkirchen
Author: Chögyal Namkhai Norbu

In the Chan (Chinese) meditative tradition (Zen in Japanese), the teacher is more like a spiritual friend, some one whose value is earned through experience and whose body is known as impermanent and temporary from the get go.
"When water is pure and sparkling clear
You see straight to the bottom
When your mind holds no concern
No circumstance can turn you
And once your mind doesn’t stray
A kalpa has no changes
From such awareness nothing hides."

~ Han Shan


"No form, no sound.
Here I am;
White clouds fringing the peaks,
River cutting through the valley."

~ Daito

"When subject/object duality
Is cut asunder
There is no longer a separate  'I'ness of the observer or
Phenomena that is observed.
'I' melts into all I's boundless and whole
No separation and no limitation
No ignorance
Pure love revealed in pure unlimited awareness
Natural, alive, vivid, radiant, all pervading -- everywhere.

Thus 'the truth' or 'reality' is not a 'thing'
Neither is it a separate goal or existent somewhere else.
Truth is objectless
Our true nature
Real Condition

Here, Always, never left!
Unconditioned, spontaneous, co-emergent, non-dual,
Beyond conceptual processes of human logic or intellectualization or
Thought - All-Ways."

~Shakti Das 
If we listen deeply enough,
in silence, with an open HeartMind,
we hear the dharma,
being taught by the buddhas (the awakened ones),
here and now.

Such is the non-religious Buddhism; the teachings of the Buddhas and yogis of the three times – of all times – gone beyond all time -- who have realized the formless realms -- the all encompassing space, time, and wisdom.

It is all inclusive thus free from limitation -- independent from temporal dogma, yet all depends upon it. It is free from ideology, belief systems, artificial thought constructions, or compounded elaboration, hence it is interdependent, whole, wholographic, complete, and overfull with co-emergent integrity.

The Buddhas and bodhisattvas who reside here, are its store-houses, yet they possess no thing at all. They are portals not guardians or protectors. They teach myriad teachings free from limitation, relevant the current age, future ages, and the past, the teaching will take on new words, pointing to the same non-dual awakening. Buddhas are awake. They teach awakening, not religion. 

They leave reality alone by their minds and do not fiddle with it. Reality is known through listening. Deep listening is won in quietude. Here nothing whatsoever remains to be done while so immersed. How can there be any religion here where ultimate love and wisdom prevail endlessly?  

The path opens up to the true seeker. The true seeker must become onepointed and wholeheartedly a seeker. As long as distraction remains, how can the path be found. The true bodhicitta is the seed, the essence, the buddhanature. All beings have it. Life is a sea surrounded and immersed in it. Like a seed, one nourishes it and it will grow into 10,000 Buddhas. It will illumine the darkness. Each Buddha will illumine 10,000 more Buddhas and so on, until the Light of the light is disclosed. Thus one nourishes the soil, in order to nourish the seed, in order to nourish the great tree which has many branches, flowers, and fruit. Wise practice is like that. All this is disclosed to the true seeker who remains un-seduced and unconvinced by man's egoic and very limited institutions, contrivances, and trickery.


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