Brad Warner just posted his most recent SuicideGirls.com piece: Buddhism is not Spirituality, with a bit of an add-on in his personal blog. As usual, he sums up things in pretty tidy fashion, as is his way. But I'd like to take a moment to expand on this idea a bit.
One of the problems with defining "buddhism" is that we are using words. I know that sounds rather dumb. If we don't use words, how do we "define" anything? Decent point. But as is the case with the old carpentry adage: "A new carpenter will only start out as good as their father ever was, because they are stuck using the tools their father left them". These "tools" are meant to be understood as both literal and metaphorical. And so it is with us and language. We have words that we use to convey concepts and bring understanding to issues both broad and specific--overt and subtle. We didn't invent these words, we inherited them. And in the truest "telephone"-game fashion, they often don't mean now what they once did back in the day. Moreover, they often get misused (not unlike my dad's screwdrivers that I re-purposed into chissels, mauls, awls, ninja sais and throwing darts. Sorry, Pa!) So, many words no longer mean what they used to, or convey what they initially intended to. Case in point: "religion".
When we call-up Webster, we get the following:
re·li·gionSo, the Webster says that the word has something to do with tying, apparently. Kinky. If you look at the word, and use some smartness, you start to understand (as a philosophy professor and mentor once taught me). The prefex "re" means "again" or "do over". "Ligio" means "to attach", and is the same root as the common anatomical term "ligament" (the thing that attaches your muscles to your bones). So, what we really have etymologically is "to re-attach". That of course begs two questions; firstly, "Reattach to what, exactly?" The best I can state this is as my former professor taught me, and is the definition I use, because I believe it encapsulates the entire concept in the most full fashion. "Religion" is a practice that re-attaches you to the ground of your Being; that is, it is a practice that brings you back into connection with the most fundamental, itrinsic and important aspect of your existence.
Etymology: Middle English religioun, from Anglo-French religiun, Latin religion-, religio supernatural constraint, sanction, religious practice, perhaps from religare to restrain, tie back — more at rely.
Date: 13th century
What about that other begged question? Well, it has to do with the "re" portion of "re-attach". RE-attach implies that we are or have been separated (in our case, from the ground of our Being), and in order to be integrated and whole, a re-attachment is needed. Now, in the case of a diestic belief system, that reattachment is to the god-head. You, through ritual and meditation (prayer), reintegrate with the god-head, and re-attach yourself to the ground of your Being, (which is "god"--the basis of all reality). Makes sense.
But what happens when this is viewed through the lens of the Dharma? Well, in my opinion this still stands up. A Buddhist is most certainly trying to reintegrate and re-connect with the ground of their Being. However, in their case, instead of some anthropomorphized deity, the ground of their Being happens to be nibanna--the understanding, comprehension and direct experience of the mind and body as one thing, in the same way as the consciousness and the rest of the Universe are one and the same. So, in that sense, Buddhism is--indeed--a religion.
But at this point in the understanding, many people miss seeing something else that is implied as well, just one step further back.
Having to re-attach due to separation also implies (insists, actually) that at one time in the history of the Universe and all of reality, we were integrated with the Ultimate. We were perfect. We were attached to the ground of our Being. We experienced no suffering, and were completely and utterly at peace, and one with all of reality. What separated us is beyond the scope of what I want to discuss here, but suffice it to say that a true appreciation of the fact that at one point in time, you were in Nibbana is a pretty stunning revelation. I digress, but only into song...
We are stardust; we are golden. We are billion-year-old carbon. And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.
And if I told you "spirituality" actually had to do with your breath...?