Buddhism for Non-Believers


This is the first in a series of posts about two different aspects of Buddhism that I am calling religious Buddhism vs. meditation practices. For my purposes, meditation practices are the main teachings of a man called Siddhartha Gautama, aka ‘The Buddha’. On the other hand, religious Buddhism involves many things that Gautama did not popularise during his lifetime, like prostrating before golden statues, praying, burning incense, chanting and receiving blessings from monks.

If you've been to South East Asia and seen temple-goers worshipping then you will know what I mean by Religious Buddhism.
If you’ve been to South East Asia and seen temple-goers worshipping then you will know what I mean by Religious Buddhism.

Though culturally rich, such practices turn many away; they may close a person’s mind to meditation for years, even for life.

If you find yourself interested in meditation but balking at religious ceremonies and beliefs, that may actually be a very good thing.

You may just need the right guidance.

The entire path (Dhamma) is a universal remedy for universal problems and has nothing to do with any organized religion or sectarianism.S.N. Goenka1

Buddhism: technology or religion?

I am not by any means the first from East or West to assert that meditation is a technology and not a religion.

Nowhere in Gautama’s teachings does he claim to be a supernatural being. Nor does he try to bestow blessings on others. Clearly he had some remarkable qualities: he renounced his noble birth, was notoriously impossible to goad into any kind of anger or spite, touched the heart of multitudes and developed a system of meditation that had never been taught before. For most of his life he taught that system to a growing number of practitioners.2

But he was born a human and eighty good years later, he died. Instead of claiming to be any kind of saviour, he teaches that enlightenment is for everyone. He encourages us to work on our own insight and attain the same freedom he did, the exact same way.

These exhortations have not been forgotten. In modern Buddhist temple life as centuries ago, monks spend long hours meditating. Monasteries throughout Asia nominate meditation masters within their order to teach young novices. Lay people of all backgrounds, myself included, receive instruction within their walls in exchange for only donations.

This tradition gives rise to some wise and potent human beings. It has done that over the centuries and continues to today; speak with any accomplished meditation master and you will find those same qualities of generosity, even temper, compassion and rational thinking. Perhaps not to the level of full enlightenment — but sometimes, it may even be just so.

How rituals help

Lay-people visiting a temple in Thailand on Buddha Day make offerings.
Lay-people visiting a temple in Thailand on Buddha Day make offerings.[footnote]Technically, they are “making merit” — performing meritorious acts in the hopes of improving their lives through “karma”, the law of cause and effect.[/footnote]

The main thrust of my argument is that the ritual side of Buddhism can and should be de-prioritised in favour of meditation. But no discussion would be complete without some thoughts about how those very rituals can actually benefit a meditator.

Being in the presence of even a modestly practised meditation teacher can help to guide us in times of difficulty.3 Recalling their words and remembering their qualities when they are not nearby can do the same. The culture of ancient times being mostly illiterate, this had to be done through chanting. Vedic customs were also common in that culture, so gestures like bowing and burning incense arose naturally as a way to help keep the memories fresh.

These are all effective ways to bring qualities like equanimity and compassion into our lives. We can adopt more peaceful conduct by remembering the Buddha’s humility or that of our meditation teacher; by showing respect and generating feelings of connection and community, we can impress upon ourselves the things we admire in others. This can be a powerful adjunct to any technique that develops insight.

From a modern meditator’s perspective, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this.

“Speak to me only of love.”

But writing has long since replaced chanting. And bowing to a Buddhist idol will arouse skeptical thoughts and discomfort for those with a modern scientific background or a non-Buddhist faith. These matters make the acts unlikely to have the intended benefits. They will just cause distraction and resistance.

Even for those who do not flinch at them, these rituals should not be considered a replacement for meditation itself. However in religious Buddhism, that’s exactly what often happens: what was originally a side-dish to meditation ends up becoming the whole meal. Or at least, the main course.

That is a big problem. Here’s why:

The good side-effects of ritual and remembrance don’t last.

At night we make our peace with the day so that we don’t fall asleep worried about what we did or did not achieve. Each morning, we repeat the rituals to remind ourselves of the good qualities we would like to share with others. But then during the course of our day? Memories of the Buddha come and go, feelings of goodwill dissolve in the face of conflict: kids late for school. Bathroom contention. Meetings and traffic jams.4

Easeful magnanimity quickly turns into out of line reactions when our buttons are pushed. We cut out the trivia nights at the local pub because we cannot resist the temptation to drink excessively. Over-zealous yogis and new religious converts may withdraw from their friends and family to avoid cynical remarks.

This is a tragedy. To find peace, we shrink our world. “Speak to me only of love,” goes the song. All because we are missing the key.

Meditation, practised often and well, does not just temporarily remind us of the qualities of peace and happiness; it teaches us to embody them permanently. An accomplished meditator need not avoid the local pub because they will no longer be swayed by habits and addictions.

There is a wonderful Zen story about the Soto Buddhist monk Tanzan that illustrates this beautifully.

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was falling. As they came around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross at an intersection.
“Come on, girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he could no longer restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”
“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”

Meditation is experience practice

Ritual and remembrance practices are unnecessary. In fact, they can be a hindrance even to those who accept them. They are helpful to some people; but insight, not remembrance, is what liberates. We create insight by experiencing our own life clearly, not by trying to make our behaviour reminiscent of another person’s, whether they are enlightened or not.

Meditation is “experience practice”. It is dedicated time where your only goal is to experience life without resistance. That is, to experience your life clearly.

It is not easy, but it really is that simple. That was the Buddha’s great genius and his gift to the world.


If your goal is to live a happier, calmer and more loving life, then rituals like bowing, chanting, burning incense, or a morning run all help to smooth the ride of meditation, providing fresh energy and inspiration when motivation starts to flag.

But if you don’t meditate in the first place you are smoothing a ride that hasn’t even started yet. Many people perform their rituals daily, whatever they are, and yet nothing much changes in their reactions when life gets complicated.

On the other hand, lucid experience is what liberates and therefore meditation alone is enough. Without any of the religious aspects of Buddhism, you can make rapid progress and learn to embody the very qualities of generosity, compassion and calm that will be so beneficial in your own life and that of your loved ones.

Meditation is an unreasonably good way to both start the ride, and once started, to keep on truckin’.

Heard of a practice that has similar goals as meditation? Mention it in the comments!

Let me leave you with a quote from that wonderful, rational, human being, the Dalai Lama.

If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.Our Faith in Science by Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama 5

Afterthoughts: Is there no other way?

I’ve established that insight comes from experiencing life clearly. Given that, shouldn’t it be possible to attain all the insights of meditation simply by being alive and paying attention? After all, that must be how the great saints and sages of the past arrived at enlightenment without access to meditation practice.

It is common for people with an observational nature, with high levels of concentration and a passion for understanding life, to take some steps on the path of insight. But I would say that for most of us the chances of getting enlightened without some kind of formalised practice are very small.

Other forms of “experience practice” exist in other traditions; anything that helps us watch the movement of our own minds is going to lend itself to insight. I’m convinced that there is plenty of overlap with other practices (and have experience with eight-limb or Tantric yoga and t’ai chi). But not being a practitioner of many others I cannot speak to their efficacy or their efficiency (which are not the same thing).

I take a pragmatic approach here: if your goal is enlightenment then no, meditation is not essential; but it helps immensely.

Originally published at Zig Zag Yogi.