Editorial: Welcome to the Big Tent

Associate Editor Rod Meade Sperry’s editorial introduction of the November 2013 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine. 

Rod Meade Sperry
24 September 2013

Associate Editor Rod Meade Sperry’s editorial introduction of the November 2013 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine.

“Spiritual but not religious”? What does that mean exactly? It sounds so light… so non-committal.

Light? Maybe, depending on the person. Noncommittal? Well, yes. And that’s precisely the point.

People today want spiritual nourishment. But many aren’t wild about how it’s been served to them. They’re not going to commit to a church, a leader, a fixed set of beliefs. Mind you: It’s not that they’re not ready or able to commit. It’s that they’re not moved to. There’s discernment at play: they want to be free to explore, inquire within, and see what works for them.

That openness and spirit of inquiry has real confluence with Buddhist thought. We Buddhists have been told by teachers like the Dalai Lama — and by the Buddha himself — that if we sincerely test and apply teachings but find them to be untrue, we should discard them.

Likewise, we should take any great spiritual lesson to heart, no matter its source. Buddhists strive to see wisdom wherever it manifests — among scientists, atheists, and artists; among practitioners and teachers of the great world religions; among activists, seekers, and ordinary people. As Joan Sutherland puts it in her piece on page 57, “The religious, the agnostic, and the completely irreligious, as well as those inclined psychologically, mystically, shamanically, or socio-politically, can all find a home in the very big tent of Buddhism.”

That’s no accident. The Buddha geared his teachings to his audience, knowing that what works for some people might not work for others, but that all of us can be turned toward awakening with the right skillful means. Likewise, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who founded the Shambhala Sun, put a premium on inclusivity. As he wrote in the opening of his classic book Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, “There is basic human wisdom that can solve the world’s problems. This wisdom does not belong to any one culture or religion, nor does it come only from the West or the East.”

Yet, even among those who call themselves Buddhists, there are some who don’t or won’t recognize this. Think, for example, of those in Burma, Sri Lanka, and Thailand who would like to do away with their Muslim countrymen and who fan the fires of Islamophobia. They may even be ordained and wearing robes, but let’s face it: they’re fanatics who’ve lost the point of the spiritual path. People like that are surely one reason why so many of us these days say Yes to spirituality but No to religion.

It’s not that they don’t deserve our compassion. Indeed, compassion could be the key to turning them back toward civility and inclusivity. But we should let the world know that what they’re doing isn’t representative of what Buddhists value — robes or no.

I have to wonder: If I were coming up today, seeing the charlatans and religious chauvinists in the news, where would I be? When I was young, I had spiritual leanings, but I wasn’t merely “not religious”; I was anti-religion, and anti-social. It was my exposure to Buddhist thought, and the practical and profound practice of meditation, that changed that. I became more tolerant, less at odds with the world, and when my teacher spoke of the wisdom in the world’s religions, I was open and intrigued. I’ve found some real peace there.

I’d hate for anyone to miss out on that.

So is Buddhism a religion? We’ve gathered three panelists to explore this question and they have their own unique answers. That gets right to the heart of the Buddha’s idea of skillful means: the answer that matters, in the end, is the answer that works for you — and you’ll need to figure it out for yourself. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, be skeptical.

So welcome to the Big Tent. Make yourself at home, and come and go as you please.

Rod Meade Sperry. Photo by Megumi Yoshida, 2024

Rod Meade Sperry

Rod Meade Sperry is the editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide (published by Lion’s Roar), and the book A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation: Practical Advice and Inspiration from Contemporary Buddhist Teachers. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with his partner and their tiny pup, Sid.