Man is the only living being in this world who has discovered religion and performs worship and prayer.
Man developed religion in order to satisfy his desire to understand the life within him and the world outside him. The earliest religions had animistic origins, and they arose out of man's fear of the unknown and his desire to placate the forces which he thought inhabited inanimate objects. Over time these religions underwent changes, being shaped by the geographical, historical, socio-economic, political and intellectual environment existing at that time.
Many of these religions have become organized and are flourishing to this day, backed by a strong following of devotees. Many people are drawn to organized religions because of the pomp and ceremony, while there are some who prefer to practice their own personal religion, inwardly venerating their religious teachers and applying moral principles in their daily life. Because of the importance of practice, every religion claims to be a way of life, not merely a faith. In view of their various origins and paths of development which religions undergo, it is hardly surprising that the religions of man should differ in their approach, the understanding and interpretation of their followers, their goal and how it can be achieved, and their concept of reward and punishment for deeds performed.
In terms of approach, religious practices may be based on faith, fear, rationality or harmlessness: Faith forms the basis of many religious practises which were developed to overcome man's fear and to meet his needs. A religion of miraculous or mystical powers exploits that fear which arises from ignorance and makes promises of material gain based on greed. A religion of devotion is based on emotion and the fear of the supernatural which, it is so believed, can be appeased through rites and rituals. A religion of faith is based on the desire for gaining confidence in the face of the uncertainty of human life and destiny.
Some religious practices grew as a result of the development of man's knowledge, experience and wisdom. The rational approach to religion had been adopted in this case, incorporating the principles of human value and natural or universal laws. It is based on humanism and concentrates on the cultivation of humane qualities. A religion of cause and effect or kamma is based on the principle of self-help and assumes that the individual alone is responsible for his own happiness and suffering as well as salvation. A religion of wisdom is based on the application of reason and seeks to understand life and the reality of worldly conditions through analytical knowledge.
Harmlessness and goodwill are common elements found in religion. A religion of peace is based on the principle of causing no harm to oneself as well as others, and its followers are to cultivate a harmonious, liberal and peaceful life. A religion of goodwill or loving-kindness is based on the sacrifice and service for the welfare and happiness of others.
Religions differ according to the understanding capacity of their followers and the interpretation which religious authorities give to the religious doctrines and practices. In some religions, codes, while in others they only provide advice on the need and the way to follow these codes. Every religion will offer reasons to explain the existing human problems and inequalities and the way to remedy the situation. By way of explanation, some religions claim that man has to face these problems because he is on trial in this world. When such an explanation is given, another may ask, 'For what purpose? How can a man be judged on the basis of just one life when human beings generally differ in their experiences of physical, intellectual, social, economic and environmental factors and conditions?'
Every religion has its own concept of what is regarded to be the goal of spiritual life. For some religions, eternal life in heaven or paradise with the Lord is the final goal. For some the ultimate aim in life is the union of universal consciousness, because it is believed that life is a unit of consciousness and it must return to the same original consciousness. Some religions believe that the ending of suffering or repeated birth and death is the final goal. For others, even heavenly bliss or union with Brahma (creator) is secondary to the uncertainty of existence, no matter, whatever form it takes. And there are even some who believe that the present life itself is more than enough to experience the aim of life.
To attain the desired goal, every religion offers a method. Some religions ask their followers to surrender to God or depend on God for everything. Others call for stringent asceticism as the means of purging oneself of all evil through self mortification. Some others recommend the performance of animal sacrifices and many kinds of rites and rituals as well as the recital of mantras for their purification to gain the final goal. There is yet another which upholds diverse methods and devotions, intellectual realization of truth, and concentration of the mind through meditation.
Each religion has a different concept of punishment for evil deeds. According to some religions, man is doomed forever by God for his transgressions in this one life. Some others say that action and reaction(cause and effect)operate due to natural laws and the effect of a deed will only be experienced for a certain period. Some religions maintain that this life is only one of so many, and a person will always have chance to reform himself in stages until he finally evolves to attain the goal of Supreme Bliss.
Given such a wide variety of approaches, interpretations and goals of different religions adopted by mankind, it is useful for people not to hold dogmatic views about their religion but to be open to and tolerant of other religious views.
The Buddha said: 'One must not accept my teachings from reverence, but first try them as gold is tried by fire.'
After emphasizing the importance of maintaining an open mind towards religious doctrines, it is useful to remember that a religion should be practised for the welfare , freedom and happiness of all living beings. That is, religious principles should be used positively to improve the quality of life of all beings. Yet today, humankind is corrupted and has gone astray from basic religious principles. Immoral and evil practices have become common among many people, and religious-minded people experience difficulties trying to maintain certain religious principles in modern life. At the same time, the standard of basic religious principles is also lowered to pander to the demands of polluted and selfish minds. Man should not violate universal moral codes to suit his own greed or indulgence; rather man should try to adjust himself according to these codes taught by religion. Religious precepts have been introduced by enlightened religious teachers who have realized the noble way of life which leads to peace and happiness. Those who violate these precepts transgress the universal laws, which, according to Buddhism will bring bad effects through the working of moral causation.
This does not mean, on the other hand, that a person should slavishly follow what is found in his religion, regardless of its applicability to modern times. Religious laws and precepts should enable people to lead a meaningful life, and are not to be used to bind them to archaic practices and superstitious rituals and beliefs. A person who upholds the basic religious principles should give credit to human intelligence and live respectably with human dignity. There must be some changes in our religious activities to correspond to our education and the nature of our changing society, without at the same time sacrificing the noble universal principles. But it is recognized that making changes to any religious practices is always difficult because many conservative people are opposed to changes, even if they are for the better. Such conservative views are like a stagnant pool of water, while fresh ideas are like the waterfall where the water is constantly being renewed and is, therefore, usable.
Distortion of Religion
Despite the value of religion in moral upliftment, it is also true to say that religion is a fertile soil for the development of superstitions and devotional hypocrisy, wrapped under the cloak of religiosity. Many people use religion to escape from the realities of life and put on the garb of religion and religious symbols. They may even pray very often in places of worship, yet they are not sincerely religious minded and have not understood what religion stands for. When a religion has been debased by ignorance, greed for power and selfishness, people quickly point an accusing finger and say that religion is irrational. But 'Religion'(the ritualistic external practice of any teaching)must be distinguished from the teaching itself. Before one criticizes, one must study the original teachings of the founder and see it there is anything intrinsically wrong with it.
Religion advise people to do good and be good, but they are not interested in acting thus. Instead they prefer to cling to the other practices which have no real religious values. Had they tried to culture their minds by eradicating jealousy, pride, cruelty and selfishness, at least they would have found the correct way to practise a religion. Unfortunately, they develop jealousy, pride, cruelty and selfishness instead of eradicating them. Many people pretend to be religious, but commit the greatest atrocities in the name of religion. They fight, discriminate and create unrest for the sake of religion, losing sight of its lofty purpose. From the increase in the performance of various so-called religious activities, we may get the impression that religion is progressing, but the opposite is really the case since very little mental purity and understanding are actually being practised.
Practising a religion is nothing than the development of one's inner awareness, goodwill and understanding. Problems would have to be faced squarely by relying on one's spiritual strength. Running away from one's problems in the name of spiritualism is not courageous, much less to be regarded as spiritual. Under today's chaotic conditions, men and women are rapidly sliding downhill to their own destruction. They irony is that they imagine they are progressing towards a glorious civilization that is yet to be realized.
In the midst of this confusion, imaginary and plastic religious concepts are propagated to create more temptation and confusion in man's mind. Religion is being misused for personal gain and power. Certain immoral practices, such as free sex, have been encouraged by some irresponsible religious groups to introduce their religion among youths. By arousing lustful feelings, these groups hope to seduce boys and girls into following their religion. Today religion has degenerated into a cheap commodity in the religious market giving scant regard to moral values and what they stand for. Some missionaries claim that the practice of morals, ethics and precepts are not important as long as a person has faith and prays to God, which is believed to be sufficient to grant him salvation. Having witnessed how some religious authorities have misled and blindfolded their followers in Europe, Karl Marx made a caustic remark: 'Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feelings of a heartless world, just as it is the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.'
Man needs a religion not for the reason of giving him a dream for his next life or providing him with some dogmatic ideas to follow, in such a way that he surrenders his human intelligence and becomes a nuisance to his fellow beings. A religion should be a reliable and reasonable method for people to live 'here and now' as cultured, understanding beings, while setting a good example for others to follow. Many religions turn man's thoughts away from himself towards a supreme being, but Buddhism directs man's search for peace inward to the potentialities that lie hidden within himself. 'Dhamma'(meaning, to hold on)is not something a person searches outside himself, because in the final analysis, man is Dhammaand Dhammais man. Therefore, true religion, which is Dhamma,is not something outside us that we acquire, but the cultivation and realization of wisdom, compassion and purity that we develop within ourselves.
by Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda