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Improving Buddhism

Is it Possible?

What is a Religion?

If we are trying to offer improvements to an existing religion, it would be good to know what the limits are. If there is to be a suggestion for removal of some concepts, does that push what is remaining beyond the bounds, leaving what is left as something other than a religion, a set of concepts that doesn’t make the grade? If something is to be added, is it a concept that turns a religion into a non-religion? If some concept is modified, does the new concept qualify as something in a religion.

 

Recall that definitions are the task of the speaker or writer. Words can mean anything one wants them to mean, and common meanings get modified with time, or with some social change, or possibly via other ways. This means we need to choose just what we want to be the definition of religion, and then we can compare the novelty of whatever improvements are suggested against this.

 

One attribute that would seem to be necessary in order to fit into anyone’s definition is persistence. A religion is something that lasts, not day to day, but generation to generation. That means it must include some means of teaching children the religion and securing their membership, or else some means of proselytizing. Both can coincidentally exist in a religion.

 

The children involved in this process can be the descendants of the existing members, or children under guardianship of the members, or they can be ones chosen by a government agency or other organization, such as the judicial system, a ministry, or a corporation with strong control over its laborers. New adult members can likewise be volunteers recruited by the existing membership, or those ordered to be inculcated by some entity, such as a government agency. In the first one of each of these pairs of situations, the religion institution receives no membership support from the government or any other powerful organization, one able to compel people of some category to have their children inculcated or to go through it themselves. In the second one of both of the two pairs, it does receive this type of support. This can be an initial categorization of religions, specifically, what is the source of new members?

 

Other candidates for mandatory features in a religion, in order to earn the label, could be a set of explanations of certain phenomena in the world, and a set of behavioral guidelines. Science is the rigorous body of theories and data regarding explanations of the world in general, so religion’s occupation of this arena would mean that it serves as a source of explanations of areas that have not yet been satisfactorily subjected to scientific research. It might be that the members do not have all of the complete story so far deduced by science, so in this case, the boundary between scientific explanation and religious explanation could be enlarged on the religion side as compared to a full-information situation.

 

For another candidate, law is also a set of behavioral guidelines. For both the religion and for the body of laws, there can be more mandatory behaviors or more prohibited behaviors. Clearly, a government that promulgates law might have the option of doing both, and certainly the designer of a new religion or another functionary with influence over the religious set of behavioral guidelines could also choose to have more prohibitions than requirements if he/she chose. In a situation where there are both a set of laws and also a component of religion which prescribes behavioral guidelines, there might be conflicts, where laws say to do one thing and the guidelines another. Perhaps the laws would have exclusions for those bound or acting in accordance with religious guidelines or the religious guidelines would have an escape clause saying the guidelines must be subordinate to the current set of laws.

 

There might also be, in the society where the religion exists, be other sets of explanations for the world, excluding those of science, and other behavioral guidelines, competing with religious and legal ones, or operating in areas of behavior where neither of them have specifics. This sounds like a recipe for confusion.

 

There must also be mechanisms for these three mandatory items to exist and function. This means a structure, i.e., an organization, and procedures for those in the organization to follow to make sure that there is intergenerational transmission of the whole body of the religion, together with means for preserving the structure, by replacement of people who have roles to play. There must also be procedures for both the explanatory body of information and the behavioral guidelines to be interpreted, by those within the structure or possibly by others within a different type of structure.

 

This set of features represents the external view of the religion, and allows religions to be classified as and how their structure is built. The various procedures might also serve in the classification. By external view, we mean the view that someone not a member might have after examining it. Members would have their own individual views, limited by their experience within the religion.

 

Membership is a very complicated designation. It can be simply a self-appointed label, but the motivation for the labeling can be diverse. For adults who are required to be members, it can be nothing more than conformance to some demands of a government agency. A religion can also define what it means as a member, and this could involve some action or sequence of actions required of members, or it could be the exact opposite, defining members as some group, independent of whatever actions they take or how they appreciate such labeling. These two definitions of membership can coexist. If a government wants a census of religious affiliations, then the self-labeling might be utilized. If a religion’s behavioral guidelines involve the term, then the religion’s definition would be invoked.

 

One aspect of membership involves interaction with the explanatory body of materials. Does the member take actions which indicate concordance with these explanations of reality? This might be a manner of degree. For example, if reincarnation is part of the body of explanatory materials, and the religion gives guidelines for improving the next life of an individual’s essence, seeing if the individual follows these guideline provides a measure of their membership.

 

Interpersonal guidelines might play an even larger role. If a religion’s guidelines involve members ostracizing non-members, this might provide an impetus for becoming a member or maintaining one’s membership. If a religion’s guidelines involves members using nepotism or favoritism, directed toward members only, this might also provide an impetus for becoming a member. If a religion provides some charity or defacto insurance to members, this again might be such an impetus. In short, if being a member provides benefits because of behavioral guidelines of the religion, this could be another means by which the religion preserves itself.

 

For religions which have their own definitions of membership, they can be divided according to the barriers imposed. Is membership connected with actions taken, or only with identity? Can membership be assumed by a non-member, and what might be the procedure? Can membership be renounced, or is it permanent? What are the procedures for renunciation, and what benefits might fall to someone who renounces, as opposed to staying a non-active member?

 

Another aspect of membership is the existence of a caste system, perhaps only within the structure of those taking positions of authority within the religion, but perhaps more widely. Do different castes have different membership requirements? Is there a hierarchical order to them, or is the situation more complex than a linear arrangement? If there is an involved procedure for transitioning from non-member to member, are the various stages labels as different classes of members, and if so, do the behavioral guidelines discriminate between classes?

 

Buddha, in the founding of his religion, was a universalist, meaning anyone could join at the lowest level. At that level, a member could learn the body of explanatory knowledge and could hear how to follow the behavioral guidelines. One might say that a Buddhist monk in this early era was a higher class. Buddha himself devised classes based on some internal mental processes, but there was no way to test what level anyone was in, so it was all self-observed and therefore not very relevant to the membership question. In keeping with his times and the paucity of scientific knowledge then, Buddha utilized reincarnation as part of his explanatory body. Reincarnation gives a member a number of happiness-inducing feelings, and if it is dispensed with in an improved Buddhism, what would take its place as a way of increasing and solidifying membership? Would devising a barrier to entry, and discriminatory guidelines for interactions between members or with non-members?

 

One way to do this would be to preserve the behavioral guidelines but restrict them to members only, and between member interactions. A second set of guidelines would have to be devised for member interactions with non-members. The degree of benefit provided would be an indicator as to how good a replacement for reincarnation membership rights might be.

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