Religion is, on the face of it, a social movement whose motivation is to inspire the best in humanity. So why does religion make us do the worst? Why, in so many places on so many issues, are religious forces arrayed on the side of narrow-mindedness, exclusion, and intolerance?
I believe the answer lies somewhere in the past. Not in a specific historical event – though these surely color the ways fundamentalism manifests in the present – but in our present relationship with our own deep formative years.
If we look at the various approaches to understanding human nature, we find they all speak in terms of a narrative that depicts a process of change and growth through time. Those narratives take very different forms. In psychology, the narrative is the story of an infant’s growth through formative years to adulthood. In the Judeo-Christian tradition it is the story of the Hebrew people’s encounters with and troubled relationship with their God. In Buddhism, it is the story of an individuals countless past lives, all emparting some lesson, and in the chief example of the Buddha, culminating in the perfection of Awakening.
Each of these narratives is told and retold in countless variations in their own tradition, until they become a background, a way of seeing. They are not so much a sequence of events as a manner of framing understanding.
It seems to me that what these narratives have in common is a notion of "troubled emergence." There is a struggle, a trauma, deeply embedded in our past. This suffering recedes whenever we look too closely; it’s always on the horizon, in the twilight. In the very emergence into consciousness there is a memory of the darkness that came before.
We are creatures emerging from the dark. Caught forever in a moment of transition. We turn our faces to the sun, but in the back of our minds is the thought of the past, a fear mingled with a vague but powerful longing.
This is why I turned my back on the anti-religious atheism that I embraced at age 15, when I discarded the Roman Catholic beliefs of my upbringing. I am all-too familiar with the rationale of the secularist atheists, having espoused it for a decade myself. I’m still an atheist, of course, in the basic sense of not believing in a creator God. But Buddhist atheism is much more accommodating of diverse views and realities than the modern secularists. (That’s another problematic word – I’m a secularist in the sense that I believe society should be organized on a neutral basis with respect to religions, not in the sense that society is better off getting rid of religion.)
But I gradually came to see something suspicious in the idea that we can somehow wipe clean the slate of the past. Start afresh, and rebuild the world from reason. A seductive idea; except unfortunately, we are not made of reason.
What we are made of is the bizarre, unknowable, endlessly complex and fascinating matrix of conditions that have led us to this point. Stop for a moment and just breathe: you are here, and this presence is where your everything has led you.
Religions and other narratives give us a framework for apprehending this numinous reality, this emergence of a vital, living present from the fading obscurities of the past. Religions are complex, contradictory, and troublesome precisely because they honor this complex, contradictory, and troublesome reality.
Different traditions deal with this in ways that suit their own context. In Buddhism, the language we use is that of karma. Doing our best to leave aside the popular misunderstanding of karma as "destiny," what karma really means is "action." Our past actions have created the reality we inhabit; and our future will be shaped by how we respond to that reality. Our past is infinitely dim. Some, it is believed, have the ability to see something of their past lives. The Buddha is recorded as saying he could remember 91 aeons of past lives. But none of this changes the fundamental fact: no matter how far back we remember we eventually disappear in the twilight. The Buddha, perhaps alone among the world’s great religious teachers, said that it was impossible to know the ultimate beginning of things, the first point of that "dark mass of ignorance."
So religions don’t discard the past, like the atheist secularists. But they run the risk of being trapped in it. The darkness really is dark, and it is no less a part of our deep heritage.
Here’s the thing: all the vital, inspiring religious traditions that we live by were forged in a new relationship with the past. The Buddha was constantly dialoguing with religious figures of his time: arguing, agreeing, adopting, evolving. It is sometimes a dance, sometimes a battle, sometimes a game. But is always real, and it has that edge, that unpredictability of the true inquirer.
There are some fascinating studies of schizophrenia--they tell of the voices that make irrational, sometimes violent demands, of the struggles that people have to resist the commands, and of the disturbing sense of relief that comes with giving in.
The commandments of our religious past have a similar quality. They speak to us, in sometimes arbitrary and often unknowable words, making startling claims and impossible demands. How are we to know when these are the words of a wisdom unfathomable to our deluded thinking, and when they are the growlings of the Beast?
This is the struggle that modern religions undertake. And, clearly, we often get it wrong. The bizarre, cruel, and ignorant rantings that we hear so often in the name of religions are, like it or not, an inescapable part of the modern expression of religion. But we can’t merely dismiss the fundamentalists: we have to listen to them (at least occasionally!)
The reality is, painful as it is to admit it, that they represent a portion of what is found in our religious heritage. Not the whole truth, certainly, and not the useful parts of the truth, but the darkness that they espouse so passionately – the hatred of those of a different sexuality, or the exclusion of those of different gender, or the condemnation of those of a different belief – is a genuine part of all religious traditions. It is that darkness from which we are emerging.
It does no one any good to simply pretend that the darkness is not real – but that is exactly what I find to be the most common reaction: "Oh, but that’s not real Buddhism!" ‘That’s just a cultural accretion." True enough on one level, but not very helpful. All it really says is "I am going to make a conceptual distinction that allows me to maintain my idealized conception of my own religion." It’s a coping mechanism, which is not a bad thing. Coping mechanisms are useful – they help us cope! But they don’t take us much further than that. If we want to go deeper, we have to start by accepting darkness as darkness, not to explain it away, but to understand it, and to truly emerge from it.
Bhante Sujato is a Buddhist monk from Australia. He ordained and practiced in the Thai forest meditation tradition before setting up Santi Forest Monastery near Sydney, Australia. He is a historical scholar of early Buddhism and has published a number of books, which may be found at santipada.org. He is deeply involved in the interfaith and environmental movements in Australia, and is well known as an advocate for women's rights, especially the full ordination of women in Buddhism.