Questioner: I thought that Buddhism wasn’t really a religion because it doesn’t have a belief in God.
Ngakma Nor’dzin: This is a commonly held idea, due to the fact that religion is defined, in Britain at least, as centering around a Creator God. That is why Sang-ngak-chö-dzong8 is not a religious charity in Britain – it has to be classed as an educational charity. It was also fashionable in the earlier part of the twentieth century to think of Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a religion. Another factor is that Buddhism is based in method rather than emphasising belief in received truth.
Q: What do you mean by method exactly?
NN: Method means that the way of practice can be followed without the whole structure of the religion being understood from the outset. I can engage with the form of practice, and experience its benefit, simply through the open-hearted wish to try – perhaps because I have been inspired by a teacher or another practitioner. It’s a bit like a Weight Watchers diet [laughter]. I once lost 39 pounds with this organisation. I simply followed the method they offered and I lost weight. They had worked out all the details of balancing the diet and the calorie content of various foods – I just had to stick to the rules of so many points a day. I didn’t need to know the science of the diet for it to work. I just had to have confidence that it would work, and trust in the group leader.
Q: Okay, but this is still sounding more like a philosophy rather than a religion.
NN: If we approach Dharma from the point of view of it not being a religion, we are likely to experience a conflict of interest at some point. Dharma is structured and methodical, and the view of each approach is specific. Dharma manifests as particular symbolic activities and methods which hold to particular principles – each has a particular function. The structure and approach may not always be comfortable or convenient, and this may be the point at which we realise Dharma is a religion. When I start to think ‘I like that bit, but I don’t like this bit. Why do I have to do this bit?’ then I either adopt a philosophical approach and decide to only do the part I like, or I allow myself to enter the structure of the religion, and get on with the aspects I don’t like as well. Either I take control and lose the proven structure that has existed for generations, or I decide to engage wholeheartedly with the path and allow myself to be smaller than the religious structure. Certainly if we take any vows, we shall experience times when we have to actively engage with holding to those vows, sometimes in the face of conflicting ‘ordinary’ life view. To return to the Weight Watchers example – I stick to the diet and lose weight … or I don’t …
Q: So becoming involved with Dharma means that you have to work with the whole structure of it?
NN: Yes. Individuals tend to prefer to take what they like and leave what they don’t like, but still call themselves Buddhists. This is philosophy, however, because they remain in control. In the end Dharma will not function through self-directed picking and choosing.
8. Sang-ngak-chö-dzong was the name given by HH Düd’jom Rinpoche to the first organisation of ngak’phang practitioners that Ngak’chang Rinpoche began in the UK in the 1970s. This is therefore the name of the UK charity of the Aro tradition, although the tradition’s charities in other countries all include the name ‘Aro’.