Is meditation a religion?

Washington DC, USA - With 100,000 people in Washington this week for a major meditative Buddhist ceremony, a question arises: Is meditation a religion?

As On Faith explored last week, millions in the West, including many Kalachakra participants, have adapted Buddhist practices such as mindfulness, meditation or study of the Dalai Lama’s teachings, without taking on the full trappings of orthodox Tibetan Buddhism.

And meditation is booming in this country. The National Institutes of Health’s most recent data shows 9.4 percent of Americans meditated in the last year. That’s up from 7.6 percent five years earlier.

One of the region’s biggest meditation groups, the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, has seen attendance at its biggest weekly event go from 25 people in the late 1990s to 250 today, not to mention hundreds of other people who come to other smaller groups around the area the other six nights of the week. A new minor just launched last year at George Mason in “consciousness and transformation” already has 25 students.

Experts say the major change in how meditation is viewed in this country in the last two decades is that it’s been detached from its religious roots. The streams of new people coming to meditate are doing it as part of their K-12 class in public school or for treatment of chronic pain; no mention of the hereafter or Buddhism to be found. Even people who come to spiritually-minded places like the Insight Meditation Community, which states as a goal to awaken “hearts and minds through the direct experience of the Buddhist path,” are often using purely secular language to pursue purely secular goals. At the classes, people talk about things like quitting smoking or caffeine as much as becoming more compassionate.

So I couldn’t help but wonder how people coming from a more secular perspective might view the Kalachakra, an ancient religious ritual led over 10 days by celibate monks. In nearly six years on the beat I’ve never had anyone look at the Dalai Lama and see another version of their neighborhood Catholic priest.

This could be because the current Dalai Lama is so undogmatic about how Buddhism is understood. Richard Davidson, a University of Wisconsin psychiatry professor who studies meditation’s impact on the brain, calls the Dalai Lama “one of the strongest advocates for secularizing these practices.” That is, Davidson said, because the Dalai Lama believes the practices can “reduce suffering,” a core Buddhist objective.

Hugh Byrne, a senior teacher at the D.C. Insight Meditation Community, said many people come to classes “from challenging or difficult experiences with their own dogmatic background and aren’t looking for another bunch of rituals and doctrines.” He says he also comes to meditation from a more secular perspective. This week he told me about how some meditators in town for the Kalachakra were put off by the Buddhist practice of bowing or prostrating, because they saw it as “superstitious,” or bowing towards something specific, perhaps an idol or a deity. His defense of the practices was to consider that the purpose of such practices was down-to-earth --about letting go of your pride, being humble.

But Byrne’s description of how meditation works sounds like a creed, and a stirring one. He teaches that a lot of what people take for absolute truth are just thoughts based on physical stimuli, or patterns set in place long ago.

“A lot of what we take for reality is our thoughts. One thought can lead to another. What meditation can do and the practice of mindfulness is to say: A thought is a thought. An uncomfortable bodily sensation is an uncomfortable bodily sensation,” he said. Meditating helps people experience uncomfortable things as impermanent. The end game? “For me it’s a complete path to freedom from suffering,” he said. “I believe in the possibility of a complete relief from suffering and not in the supernatural, but in this lifetime.”

Davidson said the growth in meditative practices today is like the physical exercise boom of the 1970s and 1980s. “We’re witnessing the growth of what I think of as mental exercises. Twenty years from now the way we now take for granted physical exercise, people will do mental exercises,” he said. “And it will be done in a completely secular way, people won’t know the origin of these practices was in traditional Buddhism.”