Buddha statue quiet lake
What is it to be Spiritual? What is it to be Religious?
Listen to this talk:
What is it to be Spiritual? What is it to be Religious? (34 min.)
Transcript of a talk delivered by Dr. Ruben Habito
June 22, 2014 - Dallas, Texas

I would like to dedicate this offering of my verbal pointers and the whole session, including our chants, for healing, and top of the list is for healing for Brother ChiSing, our beloved director, and it is all of our hope that he continues in giving us this gift of dharma in his whole being and the way he really has skillfully brought us together to have a community of spiritual practitioners. So, aspiration for your healing.

I am spiritual, but not religious. Some of you may have heard that statement. Some of you may even use that to describe yourself. So I would like to address for this afternoon's fare for our nourishment that question. What is it to be spiritual? What is it to be religious? Or both? Or neither? Or some of one or some of the other? So I guess some of those conglomerations that we may have in mind and somehow identify with or not in our own journey through life.

So first of all, what does it mean to be religious? My day job consists in teaching the various religions of the world to Methodist seminarians preparing for their ministry and preparing to serve in their respective churches. There are also of course other denominations, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, some Baptists, some Catholics, and so on. I don't know the difference between Baptists and Catholics or any of those kinds of jokes. I am tempted to, but I have a wide array of different Christian, mostly Christian persons seeking to serve their respective communities.

So my privileged task, and it is a joy for me also, is to share what I've learned about various religions of the world and to hopefully lead them to understand that there are so many good and holy things that we can learn from people beyond the Christian communities that they may have been raised in. And so I am very, very gratified in seeing the results of how they begin to appreciate and work with people of other religious traditions so that they can really become ministers or Christian educators or leaders in their respective communities with that kind of open heart, receiving teachings from and learning from other traditions, so sharing the gifts of the Christian faith with not just their own communities but with the wider world in a multi-faith context. So that is my day job, and it is really a joy to be able to do such a job, and they even pay me for it.

Now, in that context, I have to give them a framework of understanding for what religion is all about, and so I have learned a few things through the years that I'm able to summarize in a way that describes what a religion is like. Well, there are four characteristics parts of what we call a religion. First, there's a view of the human condition as problematic. As we are in our given state, we are in a mess. Houston, there is a problem. And that is the insight that the various religions have. And we all need a fix, an ultimate fix, and so that is the second point to mark a religion. You need to have a view of ultimate reality and a view of ultimate destiny for all human beings, for all beings, that would fix that problematic human condition.

And third, they offer concrete prescriptions on how to arrive at that ultimate reality or arrive at our ultimate destination, the way to the realization of that which will eventually or ultimately fix our human problem. And fourthly, they have ways of getting together in communities that share those beliefs, and those values, and those facts to their ultimate destiny. That form, well, their social nexus, so the problems of the human condition, that there is an ultimate reality, that we'll eventually address and fix and solve that problem, prescriptions on the way to that resolution, things we can do now in this life so that we will be able to realize that destiny, whatever it may be and however it may be described, and fourthly, the community that moves together toward that ultimate destiny.

So with that in mind then, we have some marks that will enable us to say, "Oh. Okay. Is that so? Then I can understand that. I can be religious." Many of us may have been raised in a religious tradition, and so we had all of those without realizing all the components, and upon reflection, those communities that we were raised in have a view of the human condition and the ultimate reality that will fix that and its prescriptions, what to do and what not to do so that you get to whatever that ultimate destiny may be.

And then you have your community, those that gather together on regular appointed days and usually for Christians, it will be Sunday. For Jews, it will be Shabbat, Friday evening and then Saturday. For Muslims, it is Friday, and other days for other persons of other traditions. So a gathering of the community to recognize one another and share in their rituals and to share culture together. Now some of us who may have grown up in such a position or such a community may have grown disaffected with that for various reasons. You may have found it too sure of its teaching in a way that becomes exclusivist, saying, we are the ones that will be saved and those others will not.

And somehow, that makes us cringe. How can other people of good will who just don't happen to get onto our worldview be condemned in that way? And so on. For many reasons, many of us may have strayed from our original religious community, so therefore, we become free agents. Or we may have become disaffected or alienated because we have been strong on the ritual and the community and the belief system, but somehow we may have felt it was not really nourishing us. It was not answering some basic questions that we were already struggling with as we went along through life. Some of the more inquisitive and sensitive ones among us may have felt that what was offered on those days in which the religious community gathered—Friday, Saturday, or Sunday—was not really replenishing the thirst in our hearts, and so we set that aside and look for something else.

And so that seems to be a phenomenon that is very prevalent in this multi-faith society of ours, that many of our contemporaries are getting disaffected with their original community of their upbringing and looking for something deeper. Or not. They may still be nursing their wounds of having been raised in religious community, and therefore they say, "I will have nothing to do with that. I am an atheist or I am not religious." And go on in a way that may be satisfactory for their own lives and they find success in their career and their families and so on, so they can continue to live without any concern for those matters religious as a reaction to what they may have had during their childhood.

And yet, sooner or later, something happens in us that makes us begin to question again. Really, who am I? What is this all about? What is this life all about? Something might come in our lives that might interrupt our little success, the death of a friend or the diagnosis of an impending illness or a betrayal or something that just comes to us making us wonder really, is that all there is? And so we begin to ask and we begin to search and we begin to read books and ask around and go to groups that might help us in that quest. And so it seems that a good number of our contemporaries are in that state where we are looking, and so we would like to live an authentic life. We would like to live a holistic life. We would like to live true to ourselves for whatever it may be and find peace. We have not quite been able to articulate what it is yet, so we can say, "I am spiritual. Bless you. Bless us all also. But I've ceased to be religious for various reasons." And that is a valid state of being also.

Now, what is it to be spiritual? Some of us may think that the spiritual means to live in a way that is separate from the physical. There is a spiritual realm and there is a physical realm, and I have nothing to do with that. Or the least I can I need to do with that, and then take care of my spiritual needs and just the basics of my body physical needs and so on. If you're thinking in that way, then we may be caught in a dualistic mode of thinking that is part of the Western heritage that divides the body and the spirit into different realms. Now that is one view, and certainly it is still very prevalent among many of us.

I was a Jesuit for 25 years, and the founder of the Jesuits wrote a manual of spiritual practice called The Spiritual Exercises, and he begins that little manual by saying, "Just as we have physical exercises like walking, running, calisthenics, and so on, we also need to cultivate spiritual exercises that involve meditation, contemplation, and so on." So he was talking about the spiritual in a way that distinguishes it from the physical body, and so that is a call to me that we need to examine and see whether that is really the way we can use the word spiritual.

Now without going into any details or footnotes, which is a temptation of mine, given my day job, let me just offer a working description of what spiritual can be, taking it from a multi-volume series called World Spirituality. It is a 22- or 23-volume series on different religious traditions and their spiritual gifts. There is a volume on Hindu spirituality, a couple of volumes on Buddhist spirituality, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, New Age, secular, Mesoamerican, Native American, various indigenous spiritualties, and so on, in a way that goes across the board in terms of human search for the infinite.

And the common preface of those 22 or 23 volumes gives us a helpful framework for understanding the term spiritual. That description says the spiritual is the core of our human being, that innermost core within us where we can be open to the transcendent. And I would like to add that innermost spiritual core that is our true home where we can meet the transcendent and also meet one another and our mutual interconnectedness.

So there is a vertical line and a horizontal line, and the spiritual is where those two lines meet, touching the transcendent that opens us to the beyond, the infinite, the boundless, whatever name you may have for it: God, Allah, nirvana, Brahman. Whatever name for the infinite various religions may have or maybe just Mystery without a name, and then the horizontal line that enables us to realize that we are connected with not just human beings, but with each and every being throughout the universe. We can find that connectedness right there in the innermost core of our being.

St. Augustine, a well-known thinker of the Christian tradition, somehow pointed to that when he exclaimed in his Confessions, his own account of his spiritual journey addressing the God of the Christian tradition, that which represents the infinite for Christians, saying, "You are more infinite to me than I am to myself." So with that innermost core of our being, that is the spiritual core, and to live grounded and at home and collected with that core is what we can understand as being spiritual, however we may name or refer to whatever that infinite is, however we may describe our interconnectedness. To live in that innermost core of our being and let our daily lives, daily activities be given power and given light out of that core.

What does that imply? That means we're not living just according to our impulses of the moment. Oh, I want to do this today, so this is what I will do, and then the next day we have a different thing, and so on. So we are not dispersed. We are not living according to some vague ambition of the future, like I want to be rich, and so I'm going to find out by hook or by crook and do everything so that I can be a very, very rich person. Some may find that a worthwhile goal in their lives. Or I want to get my name on the newspaper or I want to be on the cover of Time magazine, and so forth and so on. So they do all sorts of things to become noticed by others.

Some of us may be carried by those motivations that we think would be worthwhile goals in life, but to be spiritual really is to be based in that innermost core that enables us to cherish our connectedness with one another and to acknowledge the mystery that we all face in our lives, the mystery of not knowing where we come from and where we're going ultimately. Well, you might say we come from our mother's womb and ultimately we are going to the grave or to ashes after we live. Okay. That is one way of seeing our ultimate destiny.

But then something in us tells us, is that all there is? So, if there's that little pinch of a question in us that makes us ask, is that all there is, then that is the stirring of the spiritual in us making us want to know more, and yet we know that what we want to know can never be fully grasped, and yet wanting to go beyond, go further is what we are being urged by that innermost core that is the spiritual stirring that we find enough. In Buddhist terms, that is the body-mind, that which is awakened to the fact and the possibility of our infinite nature or Buddha nature.

Now, that is a background that I would like to have in offering one central point for the day. That which we are talking about, that which the spiritual beings refers to, that which is beyond the transcendent, as well as points to that, how we are all interconnected, is really a realm that is beyond words. So all the words that we can ever use can only be pointers to each and every one of us seeking that, and the only way to get there is by following the advice of the Buddha, stopping our grasping for it and opening our eyes, the eyes of our heart, so that we may see.

When the Buddha was asked by followers who saw him and realized oh, what a marvelous way of living, such a kind and compassionate person and such a wise, peaceful person. That is how we would like to live, awakened, as this person is. So they asked him, "Sir, we would like to live like you." Bless you again. And he said so many things that were recorded in the annals of Buddhist history, but in his early teachings, there are two words that stand out but he offered to those who asked how they could live like him.

Two words: samatha and Vipassana. Samatha, stop your active mind from grasping and from trying to always go forward and look for something that is not yet there, but just stop. Be still. And Vipassana, see what is here, see things for what they are and not through the delusion of your selfish mind trying to grasp things or trying to define things or trying to separate yourself from things. Just see things as they are, and that way of seeing can only be open to you as quickly as you stop your active mind from grasping and from trying to get hold of something as if you don't have it yet. So stop and see. That is basically what meditation is.

To be spiritual, to live from the core of our being is really to keep reconnecting to that spiritual core and to that inner core that unites us with the beyond and unites us with one another. And so we need to be engaged in a form of practice that will keep connecting us. Otherwise, our minds will always be running away and just disperse us. So we form a spiritual practice. We do something that we can continue to cultivate on a regular basis, and so the fact that you are able to do it in community with Brother ChiSing's guidance and the fact that you're also doing this kind of practice on your own is precisely your way of expressing your spiritual path.

And so there are different ways of doing that, different forms of meditation, but what there is in common is that it connects us with that inner core and if someone is connected with their inner core, they can recognize one another. There is a certain sense of peace and calmness and a certain sense of compassion that such a person generates, and we can recognize it. And in doing so, then we become a spiritual community without formally getting together in a hall to sit together and so on. But that community can recognize one another in just sharing presence with one another.

So now, let me just offer some words that may help us point to that core coming from a Jewish thinker philosopher prophetic figure of the 20th century. You've all heard of him. Abraham Joshua Heschel. He is well known for many things in American society, not just for his religious thought in his own tradition, the Jewish tradition, but also he was a peace activist, a human rights activist, an activist for racial equality. He walked with Martin Luther King and also denounced the Vietnam War and so on, so Abraham Joshua Heschel stands out as a person, a prophet of the 20th century who really stirred the spiritual in all of us.

If you read his works, you will find a natural attraction, whether you subscribe to the words that he uses for that or not. Just listen to what he has to say. And I would like to take a quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel to give us a set of pointers in our own spiritual path, and our own spiritual journey. This is what Abraham Joshua Heschel says in his writings: "Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal. Everything is incredible. Never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed."

That last phrase is what I would like to highlight. To be spiritual is to be amazed. It is to take nothing for granted. We get up in the morning. Oh, another day. We brush our teeth, wash our face, eat breakfast. Oh, another day, a routine thing. And if we take our day-to-day life in that way, then we are asleep, even if we are physically awake. Our hearts are not with it. So Abraham Joshua Heschel invites us never to treat anything casually. The fact that I'm alive, the fact that I can breathe, the fact that I can take a drink of water, the fact that my leg hurts, or the fact that people are with me, and we can talk together, and we can understand one another or sometimes argue with one another, and so on. Each and every fact of our day-to-day life is a gift, whether it is something pleasurable or something painful or something we have to struggle with or something that makes us just sit back and say, "Ah. What a good thing." Whatever it is, take it and be amazed. Let us not lose that amazement. Abraham Joshua Heschel invites us.

So in concluding, I would like to invite you to watch a film—not today, not here, but on your own when you get back and get online. It is a 10-minute clip, and some of you may have already seen it, with a photographer named Louie Schwartzberg, who has a TED lecture entitled "Nature, Beauty, Gratitude." So you may just type those lines. Louie Schwartzberg. "Nature, Beauty, Gratitude." And you'll find a 10-minute TED talk.

What does he say? Well, he describes his work as a photographer who took time lapse snapshots or time lapse shots of natural things like a flower blooming for several months or a strawberry from its state of a little bud until it grows into a nice and red luscious little fruit, and so on. So he shows some examples in this film of his. And so he says, when you really look at what is all around us, the only thing we can really do in response is feel tremendous gratitude, and in doing so, our life then is given an answer to the question, what am I living for?

And so to be amazed, I don't recall whether he actually used that word, but he says in the course of his talk, "When you see something and it surprises you and it amazes you, what does a person usually say? Oh my God!" And he looks at that phrase, oh my God. That oh, oh, he says, when you view this, that is the exclamation of surprise, oh. You are caught off-guard, and you realize there's something new here. There's something refreshing here. Oh. So by all means, don't lose that oh when you see something or hear something, and know that is a gift. And that refers to the innermost core of our being. That refers to me. Oh my. Oh my oh my.

So that means it is a cry from the heart, so the innermost depths appreciating whatever it is before us, and God—some people may use that with a certain definition to squash others on the head with it, but Louie Schwartzberg says use that term of the pointer to that which our hearts are really longing for or that which invites us to a personal joy and journey toward Mystery, whatever definition religious we have for it. Oh my God can be an expression not of what you just put on your text message when you just want to call somebody's attention, OMG, but really an expression of your amazement, and that amazement naturally leads to gratitude.

And that was the basic message of Louie Schwartzberg in this short film, which is also an invitation for all of us to continually return to the core of our being by simply taking a breath and there, we are already connected. And in being connected, and just taking that breath which we do in a very focused and intensive way when we meditate together, it is really a celebration of that innermost core that is in all of us when we are together, and it is really sharing in the source of life together in that silence.

And as we are able to reconnect with that in our day-to-day lives, in our busy schedules, for example, washing dishes, washing dishes with attention, as Brother ChiSing's teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, tells us, washing dishes to wash dishes with full attention. That can be a very, very profound spiritual practice. Or doing gardening or taking a walk or taking a meal, especially with friends or loved ones. We do so many things that can be very, very deep spiritual practices in our lives as long as we do them with attention and that sense of connectedness in the core of our being. So spiritual practices abound all over that are available to us, and each of these enhance our sense of amazement and our sense of gratitude. What more can we want?

Abraham Joshua Heschel says in that quote that I read, "Our goal is to really live in radical amazement." So if you're asking, what is my purpose in life? Some may say to be rich, to be famous, to own this or that, to have this or that. All of those paltry things will fall away. But if we are able to live in radical amazement every day of our lives, no matter at what point that life may be snuffed out through some accident or through illness or in old age—at whatever point that biological life may end, if we have lived each step with that radical amazement and with that radical gratitude, what more can we want? Equanimity right there in our midst.

So let us celebrate and be grateful always, no holds barred, no restrictions, no rules. Breathe, and it is all there, available to us. We can only share this gift with everyone and in our own simple way just be ourselves and without being preachy, without being a crusader for anything, living fully as a peaceful and happy human being having found that center. Then our goal is being fulfilled right then and there, in just being who we are. We can only be grateful.

I would like to invite us to close the session with a chant that comes from the Abrahamic traditions, Shalom Salaam Shalom. Shalom as you know is a word that means peace, but it is peace that does not just mean the absence of conflict, but it is a peace wherein the divine goodness fills all the universe and everyone is really celebrating that. We Shalom where everyone is really connected with one another, celebrating one another's being, and in Hebrew, it is Shalom, and in Arabic, it is Salaam. And in my language, Tagalog, Filipino, when we would like to be grateful for something, we say Salamat, Salamat po. And Salamat comes from Shalom, from Salaam. To be at peace naturally brings forth that heart of gratitude. So this chant goes like this. I will chant it first, and then please follow me a second time together. First, (Sings) Shalom, Salaam, Shalom. Together.

Everyone: (Sings) Shalom, Salaam, Shalom.

Thank you.

Transcribed by Jessica Hitch

▲ Return to Top