I’ve argued in the past that Buddhism is not a religion in the traditional sense.
It’s often compared to religion and that is understandable. Sometimes Buddhist teachers are referred to by words like monk, nun, priest, etc. I’ve even heard terms like bishop and archbishop used.
That implies a connection, a similarity between Buddhism and traditional Western religion that I think doesn’t exist. But, that doesn’t mean that the Buddha talked about spiritual truths that were simply unheard of in the West.
Buddhism is a mystical path that involves engaging the spiritual journey in order to find ultimate truths and connections for oneself. It’s about spiritual seeking, fundamental insights into the nature of reality.
And there are Western mystical paths too.
In fact, mysticism has existed throughout all of human history. Even in ancient times—long before civilization—shamans set themselves apart from the rest of society.
Similarities between Buddhism and Western mystical paths are numerous.
To name a few:
1) Joining through initiation rituals
2) Meditation practices
3) Levels of attainment and titles
5) Wisdom and practice are emphasized as opposed to belief
6) Dedication to personal transformation
7) Emphasis on symbolism
It’s important to note that in the East, mystical paths have historically been celebrated (or at least tolerated) but in the West they’ve often been persecuted. As a result of this, many Western mystical teachings were sometimes obscured through metaphors. If they weren’t shrouded in this way, many of us who ended up being drawn to Buddhism might have taken other paths instead.
Many of these paths existed in secret, but in the 1800s and 1900s there was a kind of golden age. If we use words like occult, we don’t think of mystical paths today. We don’t think of practicing to achieve oneness or anything of the like. But the word occult means secret, and what we are talking about are secret spiritual paths, ones that went against traditional society.
Let’s explore a little about a few different forms of Western mysticism.
Alchemists were really seeking self transformation. Metaphors were used to talk about transforming lead into gold, but the truth is that the lead represents the small self that’s motivated by ego and the goal represents the true self that has transcended delusion. [Note: some scholars disagree with this interpretation, so don’t take my opinion at face value. Do research if you’re interested.]
Gnostics largely wanted a personal relationship with God, rather than through an intermediary like the church or even an intermediary like a sacred text. If we really think about it, that concept isn’t all that different than the idea of dwelling in emptiness or seeing our Buddha nature.
Organizations like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn performed different rituals, but their practice was really about building community and self transformation. Their members advanced through different stages. It’s been argued that modern Pagan religions have drawn a lot of influence from the Golden Dawn. Buddhism is the same way. We don’t talk about the levels of attainment much, but they are in the sutras.
Theosophists tried to build a bridge between the Western mystical tradition and Buddhism and some of their writings are very interesting. Some of the first westerners to take Buddhist vows were Theosophists.
I’ve only scratched the surface here, so I would urge you to do some research if this interests you. There is a lot of material available on the subject.
I’ll leave with a question.
Why do we use titles like Priest, Minister, Monk and Nun in Western Buddhism? Are we to assume that Buddhist teachers are the same as clergy?
Some people use the actual titles in their original languages: Roshi, Bhikkhu, Acharya, Lama, Chanshi and others. But there has been a big move to attempt to translate. If Buddhism is a mystical path, perhaps it would be more appropriate to use titles from the Western mystical tradition, titles like: Initiate, Adept and Magister?
Although at times, I think we should get rid of titles altogether.