As a public Zen Buddhist practitioner, doing videos on YouTube and of my blog, I have an opportunity to be contact by a lot of people. Prior to this, I lived in Zen Centers and monastic communities where I had many face-to-face discussions with westerner seekers of spirituality.
One thing that I am very aware of is that 99% of westerners have what I call a ‘Personal Religion’, and this is knowledge that they pick up from various religions they have studied from books that they can buy. They fall into Eclecticism, a spiritual view that is all based on Knowledge but of no actual practice.
By practice, in Buddhism we mean Faith and Belief; more of the convictions and steadfastness of. So, in Western Buddhist talk when you hear ‘Practice’ that is code for Faith and Belief. Now, most westerns have no faith and believe in nothing, and to suggest someone to develop faith and belief in a particular path in where they can fully investigate in where they look under ever stone and can experience the deepest mysteries of the holy path, well this becomes to much.
You can ask them, “why did you buy the car you drive now? Do you drive a different car every week?” Of course they will tell you they just bought the car they have because they had faith and belief it was a good car for them, and they drive the same car day after day, year after year.
So you follow up asking, “Why then do you not just say with one religion? Why are you hopping about to ‘this and that’?”
There is a popular term called FOMO, its the Fear Of Missing Out in which the person sees a whole field of many things and fears that one of them may contain what they are looking for, so they run around trying to look at everything! This wise know that this is insanity and the height of foolishness, and the sages know that everything in the field contains what they are looking for, it is just that they have to devote to it, to invest Faith and Belief in it, and only then when it is sufficient for what they are looking for will be relieved.
It is very hard for western minded people to give up a Personal Religion. You see, there is this concept in what they THINK the Universe is, what they THINK God is all about, and what they THINK the path to spiritual awaking is. Yes, I put the word think call caps, because what the thinker has done is to conceptualize religion and spirituality into this materialistic idealization that is all knowledge, but no actual practice.
Many come to the Zen temples or the Buddhist Dharma centers not to learn, but rather to see if the religious metaphysics matches up with what they already think; their Personal Religion. You see, that person is clinging hard to what they think, and not by a long shot are they ready to abandon their Personal Religion.
Only when the person admits:
“I have learned from everyone I could find, and I have done so many different things to reach spiritual completeness, this enlightenment, and yet in all my efforts is for not. For enlightenment is elusive to me. For all of the knowledge and lore I have picked up is utterly useless.”
Often with people who reach the point of spiritual frustration aka ‘Spiritual crisis’, they become skeptical that anyone can become enlightened. Now in Zen Mahayana Buddhism we teach that you are naturally enlightened, but its is your own defilements that delude your knowing this and stand in the way as ‘doubts and hindrances’. In Zen, this is sometimes described as the ‘Illusionary self’ or delusions and that it is the Buddhas Dharma shatters delusions and clears up defilement so that we can fully know our inherit Buddha-nature, becoming enlightened.
This “Cleaning up defilements” is not easy, taking much dedication and focus of mind to achieve. A religion is a path, a ‘way of cleaning up defilement’ and only through steadfast devotion to this path though the development of Faith and Belief, does one achieve true Practice.
Many identify Buddhism as a ‘path of renunciation’ in where those who devote themselves to the path renounce ‘world-ways’. This is a correct assessment of the path, and encourages the practitioner to renounce to the best of their abilities and situation.
For most, the first renunciation starts with the abandonment of all other paths. A dedication to this path, the Path that Buddha set forth. as interpreted by the branches and sets, is what the student will devote themselves too.
Buddha realized that not all can take ‘full renunciation’ as the most expediant means of clearing up defilements, that of becoming the bhikkhu/bhikkhuni. In this one becomes a Buddhist lay-person in where one renounces what they can of worldly-ways, and supports those who have fully renounced. For, those who cannot renounce at the moment may be able to do so later, thus they ‘pay-it-forward’ to make a place for those who can renounce now, in hopes that when they can renounce others will support them.
It does not really matter the branch or sect of Buddhism, be it Zen, Ch’an, Tibetan or South Asian Theravada. As long as the core of Buddhas path is there, being the renunciation and purification of defilements, a true practice can develop and flourish to open the Dharma Gates.