No Religion

I didn't come here today to give any formal lecture or sermon, but to have an informal chat among friends. I hope that you all agree to this so that we can speak and listen to each other without formality or rituals, even if our talk here becomes somewhat different or unusual. Further, I intend to speak only about the most essential matters, important topics which people consider to be profound. Therefore, if you don't listen carefully, you may find it difficult to follow and might misunderstand, especially those of you who haven't heard the previous talks in this series. (as a matter of fact, it's also difficult for me, for with each new talk, I must maintain a connection with the previous ones.)

The last talk was called "What to do to be void." This time I intend to talk about "No Religion." If you find the subject strange or incomprehensible, or if you don't agree, please take the time to think it over. But remember, it isn't necessary to believe or subscribe to what I say right away.

When we meet together like this, I feel there is something which prevents us from understanding each other and this thing is simply the problem of language itself. You see, there are two kinds of language. One is the conventional language that ordinary people speak, what I call "people language."

People language is used by the ordinary people who don't understand Dhamma very well and by those worldly people who are so dense that they are blind to everything but material things. Then, there is the language which is spoken by those who understand reality (Dhamma), especially those who know and understand reality in the ultimate sense. This is another kind of language. Sometimes, when only a few words or even just a few syllables are uttered, the ordinary listener finds Dhamma language paradoxical, completely opposite to the language he speaks. We can call it "Dhamma language." You always must take care to recognize which language is being spoken.

People who are blind to the true reality (Dhamma) can speak only people language, the conventional language of ordinary people. On the other hand, people who have genuinely realized the ultimate truth (Dhamma) can speak either language. They can handle people language quite well and are also comfortable using Dhamma language, especially when speaking among those who know reality, who have already realized the truth (Dhamma). Amongst those with profound understanding, Dhamma language is used almost exclusively; unfortunately, ordinary people can't understand a word. Dhamma language is understood only by those in the know. What is more, in Dhamma language it isn't even necessary to make a sound. For example, a finger is pointed or an eyebrow raised and the ultimate meaning of reality is understood. So, please take interest in these two kinds of language - people language and Dhamma language.

To illustrate the importance of language, let's consider the following example. Ordinary, ignorant, worldly people are under the impression that there is this religion and that religion, and that these religions are different, so different that they're opposed to each other. Such people speak of "Christianity," "Islam," "Buddhism," "Hinduism," "Sikhism," and so on, and consider there religions to be different, separate, and incompatible. These people think and speak according to their personal feelings and thus turn the religions into enemies. Because of this mentality, there come to exist different religions which are hostilely opposed to each other.

Those who have penetrated to the essential nature of religion will regard all religions as being the same. Although they may say there is Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, Islam, or whatever, they will also say that all religions are inwardly the same. However, those who have penetrated to the highest understanding of Dhamma will feel that the thing called "religion" doesn't exist after all. There is no Buddhism; there is no Christianity; there is no Islam. How can they be the same or in conflict when they don't even exist? It just isn't possible. Thus the phrase "No religion!" is actually Dhamma language of the highest level. Whether it will be understood or not is something else, depending upon the listener, and has nothing to do with the truth or with religion.

I'd like to give a simple example of people language, the language of materialism. "Water" will suffice. People who don't know much about even the simplest things think that there are many kinds of water. They view these various kinds of water as if they have nothing in common. They distinguish rain-water, well-water, underground-water, canal-water, ditch-water, gutter-water, sewer-water, toilet-water, urine, diarrhea, and many other kinds of water from each other. Average people will insist that these waters are completely different, because people take external appearances as their criteria.

A person with some knowledge, however, knows that pure water can be found in every kind of water. If we take rain-water and distill it, we will get pure water. If we take river-water and distill it, we will get pure water. If we take canal-water, sewer-water, or toilet-water and distill it, we will still get pure water. A person with this understanding knows that all those different kinds of water are the same as far as the water component is concerned. As for those elements which make it impure and make it look different, they aren't the water itself. They may combine with water, and alter water, but they are never water itself. If we look thought the polluting elements, we can see the water that is always the same, for in every case the essential of water is the same. However many kinds of water there may seem to be, they are all the same as far as the essential nature of water is concerned. When we look at things from this viewpoint, we can see that all religions are the same. If they appear different, it's because we are making judgements on the basis of external forms.

On an even more intelligent level, we can take that pure water and examine it further. Then, we must conclude that there is no water, only two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. Theres no water left. The substance we have been calling "water" has disappeared, it's void. The same is true everywhere, no matter where we find the two parts of hydrogen and one part oxygen. In the sky, in the ground or wherever these parts happen to be found, the state of water has disappeared and the term "water" is no longer used. For one who has penetrated to this level of truth, there is no such thing as "water".

In the same way, one who has attained to the ultimate truth sees that there's no such thing as "religion." There is only a certain nature, which can be called whatever we like. We can call it "Dhamma," we can call it "Truth," we can call it "God," "Tao," or whatever, but we shouldn't particularize that Dhamma or that Truth as Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Judaism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, or Islam, for we can neither capture nor confine it with labels and concepts. Still, such divisions occur because people haven't yet realized this nameless truth for themselves. They have only reached the external levels, just as with canal water, muddy water, and the rest.

The Buddha intended for us to understand and be able to see that there is no "person," that there is no separate individual, that there are only dhammas or natural phenomena. Therefore, we shouldn't cling to the belief that there is this religion and that religion. We added the labels "Buddhism," "Islam," and "Christianity" ourselves, long after the founders lived. None of the great religious teachers ever gave a personal name to their teachings, like we do today. They just went about teaching us how to live unselfishly.

Please try to understand this correctly. When the final level is reached, when the ultimate is known, not even man exists. There is only nature, only Dhamma. This reality can't be considered to be any particular thing; it can't be Thai, Chinese, Indian, Arab or European. It can't be black, brown, yellow, red, or white. It can't be eastern or western, southern or northern. Nor can it be Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, or anything else. So please try to reach this Dhamma, for then you will have reached the heart of all religions and of all things, and finally come to the complete cessation of suffering.

Although we call ourselves "Buddhists" and profess Buddhism, we haven't yet realized the truth of Buddhism, for we are acquainted with only a tiny aspect of our own Buddhism. Although we be monks, nuns, novices, lay devotees, or whatever, we aware of only the bark, the outer covering which makes us think or religion is different from the other religions. Because we have failed to understand and haven't yet realized our own truth, we look down upon other religions and praise only our own. We think of ourselves as a special group and of others as outsiders or foreigners. We believe that they are wrong and we are right, that we are special and have a special calling, and that only we have the truth and the way to salvation. We have many of these blind beliefs. Such beliefs show that we are still ignorant, very foolish indeed, just like little babies who know only their own bellies. Tell a small to take a bath and to wash with soap to get all the dirt off; the little child will scrub only her belly. She does't know to wash all over. She will never think of washing behind her ears or between her toes or anywhere like that. She merely scrubs and polishes her tummy vigorously.

Buddhadasa Bhikku
translated from the Thai by Bhikku Punno
Talk given on January 27, 1964 at Suan Usom Foundation, Bangkok


Published by

Buddhadharma Meditation Center
8910 South Kingery Highway,
Hinsdale, Illinois. 60521
(708) 789 8866

For permission to quote, write to:

Dhammadana Foundation
c/o Suan Mokkh
Ampoe Chaiya
Surat Thani 84110

The Dhammadana Foundation 1993