What is the aim of religion?6 min read

WHAT IS the aim of religion, and what is its raison d’ĂȘtre? People with a modern education clearly seem to be in doubt as to the answers. The trend of religion most obvious in society (particularly that of the so-called Revivalist sects) is chiefly towards healing, fortune-telling, and rituals.

These are made out to be the very essence of religion. Such things are, it is true, phenomena associated with religion, but they are not its essence. Mere alleviation of sickness and misfortune, absurd dreams of wealth and success–if to realize these is true religion, then it is indeed opium.

The real religious quest is never on the plane of fulfilling such empirical desires. It is to penetrate deeply into daily life, into the world before us, and to seek practical experience of the life of Reality. This we call the heart of religion.

When we think over everyday life, we see that it is founded on a great contradiction, and that our self-existence does not rest on any sure and firm foundation. As we realize the vanity of the world and understand the deep sinfulness of our ordinary conduct, for the first time arises the desire for the world of truth, of liberation, of unsullied purity. This is the manifesting of the religious spirit, and now the world of religion opens to us.

But even when we do see the impermanence in our daily life, and the uncertainty of our self-existence, are we really awake to the contradiction in it? Of course intellectually we may be aware of it, but not deeply. We may feel the contradiction in a way, but there is after all quite a bit of self-deception in the ordinary man’s life. (Which is why from the religious standpoint the world and the life of the world are called “lies.”)

He who truly wakes to the impermanence and contradiction of the world is for the first time really awake. But the one who cannot in daily life see the self which is his true nature, whose interests are vulgar crazes and the things of the world, whose thought never leaves the circle of gossip and public opinion, whose desires are just for empirical happiness, material things, fame and gain–where is his true nature? In the viciousness called the world he has buried it; he has entombed the self.

Not understanding that everything is passing, thinking that old age, sickness, and death, which are the lot of all, are things that happen to other people, and deluding himself that somehow he will live for ever, passing his time in pursuit of name and profit and forgetting the real spirit of man, he has no serenity or philosophy. In this world governed by delusion and passion, religion does not exist, and in such a daily life the soul is broken.

But from that very breaking, for the first time spiritual thoughts arise. He begins to reflect truly, and to seek a world where his self can live. About this, Zen master Dogen says: “What is called learning the way is learning the self,” and again: “What is called learning the self is forgetting the self.” Self-forgetfulness means to liberate the true self from the imprisoning ego. The word gedatsu (liberation) is composed of two Chinese characters, to be loosed” and “to escape,” and so it means literally to come out of bondage and to have freedom. The bondage may be either physical or spiritual.

There are people who are in bondage to duties or to their feelings; there are those who weep under the burden of things which do not matter at all, those who, binding the mind by the mind, cannot rise from the depths. Everyone has heard about neurosis and hysteria and so on. Modern medicine tells us that in a great percentage of the cases the cause of illness is psychological, the binding of the self by the self. The point is that to be caught, whether by facts, fancies, dreams, or illusions, is equally imprisonment. The bondage appears in innumerable forms, but the chief of them, the bond which is their source, is the problem of life and death.

The other minor problems just appear in the interval between birth and death. To this great fundamental problem the teaching of the Buddha offers a solution, ensuring us supreme peace.

That state of great peace is called Nirvana, and it is a state in which there is identification with the Reality which is neither life nor death.

Then is realized the world of divine compassion and peace. That Nirvana transcending life and death is universal Life, and the Life of our own immortality. In that Life appears and vanishes the bondage of birth-and-death, our individual life ofless than a hundred years, all taken up with trivial worries. For the average man it is pain and sorrow.

Who then is the villain of the piece? Who brings upon us the agony of imprisonment by the things of life and death? It is egoity; it is selfishness. Egoity always finds the excuses for us, never looks beyond external actions, always tries to fulfil the desire for the welfare of this little body alone. The body, which from the universal point of view exists for but an instant, wants against all reason to cling to life for ever. The universal Life pervades time and space without limit, but egoity sticks only to the life of one single body, and sets itself up against the great Life which is infinite.

Suppose, as an illustration, that a shade is put over the great lamp in the main hall of the temple. Now the range of its beams is restricted to a narrow area. This is like our human life–a tiny thing when compared with the great Life. But since it is fundamentally just a manifestation of that Life, by nature it seeks ultimately to become one with the great Life of Nirvana. If that Life is restricted by the shade of egoity, it becomes quite a small thing, and is bound, dissatisfied, tormented, and in agony.

It is imprisoned in all kinds of limitations. The imprisonment is felt as if imposed from outside, but the truth is that there are no chains, and it is imposed by the self; the self suffers, imprisoned by itself. And as when the shade is removed, the rays of light suddenly illumine the whole hall, so the self of this present little life becomes, without changing, one with the great Life of Nirvana, and is able to experience the eternal reality. This is called the life of non-egoity (muga), or the life of Buddha.

Zazen has the power to bring us directly into the eternal life of non-egoity. When that power is matured, the distinctions between object and subject are transcended. That and I, I and that, become the Absolute, and now the hidden springs of action are released. The truth beyond everyday experience, purity beyond all passion, is revealed. This is the world of truth; it is reality beyond all the distinctions created by human individuality.

Here the opposition of right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, pleasant and hateful, enemy and friend, is annihilated, and there is a state of perfect Absoluteness.

Thence is born the power to create a perfect and refined culture; in learning, art, economics, and everything else there will be developments embodying truth and reality. It will bring real prosperity to men.

It is the religious glory of Buddhism and the essence of Zen, which is the core of Buddhism, to discover that power.