If You Meet the Buddha

The assertion that religion is a tool for social order and for organising large-scale cooperation may vex people for whom it represents first and foremost a spiritual path. However, just as the gap between religion and science is smaller than we commonly think, so the gap between religion and spirituality is much bigger. Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey.

Religion gives a complete description of the world, and offers us a well-defined contract with predetermined goals. ‘God exists. He told us to behave in certain ways. If you obey God, you’ll be admitted to heaven. If you disobey Him, you’ll burn in hell.’ The very clarity of this deal allows society to define common norms and values that regulate human behaviour.

Spiritual journeys are nothing like that. They usually take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations. The quest usually begins with some big question, such as who am I? What is the meaning of life? What is good? Whereas many people just accept the ready-made answers provided by the powers that be, spiritual seekers are not so easily satisfied. They are determined to follow the big question wherever it leads, and not just to places you know well or wish to visit. Thus for most people, academic studies are a deal rather than a spiritual journey, because they take us to a predetermined goal approved by our elders, governments and banks. ‘I’ll study for three years, pass the exams, get my BA certificate and secure a well-paid job.’ Academic studies might be transformed into a spiritual journey if the big questions you encounter on the way deflect you towards unexpected destinations, of which you could hardly even conceive at first. For example, a student might begin to study economics in order to secure a job in Wall Street. However, if what she learns somehow causes her to end up in a Hindu ashram or helping HIV patients in Zimbabwe, then we might call that a spiritual journey.

Why label such a voyage ‘spiritual’? This is a legacy from ancient dualist religions that believed in the existence of two gods, one good and one evil. According to dualism, the good god created pure and everlasting souls that lived in a wonderful world of spirit. However, the bad god – sometimes named Satan – created another world, made of matter. Satan didn’t know how to make his creation last, hence in the world of matter everything rots and disintegrates. In order to breathe life into his defective creation, Satan tempted souls from the pure world of spirit, and locked them up inside material bodies. That’s what humans are – a good spiritual soul trapped inside an evil material body. Since the soul’s prison – the body – decays and eventually dies, Satan ceaselessly tempts the soul with bodily delights, and above all with food, sex and power. When the body disintegrates and the soul has a chance to escape back to the spiritual world, its craving for bodily pleasures draws it back inside some new material body. The soul thus transmigrates from body to body, wasting its days in pursuit of food, sex and power.

Dualism instructs people to break these material shackles and undertake a journey back to the spiritual world, which is totally unfamiliar to us, but is our true home. During this quest we must reject all material temptations and deals. Due to this dualist legacy, every journey on which we doubt the conventions and deals of the mundane world and walk towards an unknown destination is called ‘a spiritual journey’.

Such journeys are fundamentally different from religions, because religions seek to cement the worldly order whereas spirituality seeks to escape it. Often enough, the most important demand from spiritual wanderers is to challenge the beliefs and conventions of dominant religions. In Zen Buddhism it is said that ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.’ Which means that if while walking on the spiritual path you encounter the rigid ideas and fixed laws of institutionalised Buddhism, you must free yourself from them too.

For religions, spirituality is a dangerous threat. Religions typically strive to rein in the spiritual quests of their followers, and many religious systems were challenged not by laypeople preoccupied with food, sex and power, but rather by spiritual truth-seekers who wanted more than platitudes. Thus the Protestant revolt against the authority of the Catholic Church was ignited not by hedonistic atheists but rather by a devout and ascetic monk, Martin Luther. Luther wanted answers to the existential questions of life, and refused to settle for the rites, rituals and deals offered by the Church.

In Luther’s day, the Church promised its followers very enticing deals. If you sinned, and feared eternal damnation in the afterlife, all you needed to do was buy an indulgence. In the early sixteenth century the Church employed professional ‘salvation peddlers’ who wandered the towns and villages of Europe and sold indulgences for fixed prices. You want an entry visa to heaven? Pay ten gold coins. You want Grandpa Heinz and Grandma Gertrud to join you there? No problem, but it will cost you thirty coins. The most famous of these peddlers, the Dominican friar Johannes Tetzel, allegedly said that the moment the coin clinks in the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory to heaven.

The more Luther thought about it, the more he doubted this deal, and the Church that offered it. You cannot just buy your way to salvation. The Pope couldn’t possibly have the authority to forgive people their sins, and open the gates of heaven. According to Protestant tradition, on 31 October 1517 Luther walked to the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, carrying a lengthy document, a hammer and some nails. The document listed ninety-five theses against contemporary religious practices, including against the selling of indulgences. Luther nailed it to the church door, sparking the Protestant Reformation, which called upon any human who cared about salvation to rebel against the Pope’s authority and search for alternative routes to heaven.

From a historical perspective, the spiritual journey is always tragic, for it is a lonely path fit for individuals rather than for entire societies. Human cooperation requires firm answers rather than just questions, and those who foam against stultified religious structures end up forging new structures in their place. It happened to the dualists, whose spiritual journeys became religious establishments. It happened to Martin Luther, who after challenging the laws, institutions and rituals of the Catholic Church found himself writing new law books, founding new institutions and inventing new ceremonies. It happened even to Buddha and Jesus. In their uncompromising quest for the truth they subverted the laws, rituals and structures of traditional Hinduism and Judaism. But eventually more laws, more rituals and more structures were created in their name than in the name of any other person in history. – Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari