Why Religion Is Useful

XI) Opus est, inquam, aliquo ad quem mores nostri se ipsi exigant: nisi ad regulam prava non corriges.

“There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.”

trans. by Robin Campbell, letter 11 of Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium “Moral Letters to Lucilius”

I found this quote recently while reading Seneca’s letters to one Lucilius,1 which are compiled in a book called “Moral Letters to Lucilius”. It’s not the most exciting read, but I do enjoy Seneca‘s take on things, even when he had a reputation for not always practicing what he preached.2 😋

I like this quote but it reminds me why religion still has a place even in modern society. I spent much of my younger years pursuing various religious ideas until I eventually settled on Buddhist religion about 15 years ago. That’s a story for another day, but the point was that I keep trying to find my own beliefs, and while it felt nice to pursue spirituality at my own pace, but at the same time it was like eating a bag of chips: it feels great at the time, but leaves you kind of feeling empty later.

What Seneca is saying here is that people need an independent moral standard of some kind (a person, a book of teachings, whatever) as a means of measuring oneself. Otherwise, one’s ego which always looks out for number one, will twist any sense of morality to suit oneself.

In the case of Buddhism, this is why the Dharma is so important. While Buddhists venerate the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, because he discovered the Dharma (e.g. enlightenment), expounded the Dharma, and lived according to the Dharma, the Buddha is not the Dharma.3 One Buddha can be replaced with another, and in Mahayana Buddhism there are many, many Buddhas, but the Dharma they expound is timeless and always exists, even if it’s obscured, forgotten, or corrupted.

I guess what drew me to Buddhism was the idea of a set of teachings and guidelines that are on the one hand very practical and focused on the welfare of others, but on the other hand not dependent on faith toward a particular being (a potentially capricious deity, no less). It’s just an independent yard-stick to measure yourself against, and continually refine against, with the Buddhas conveying that yardstick.

Even so, the reality is that a lot of terrible things have been done at large (and in people’s personal lives) in the name of religion. This is not limited to one religion or another; it’s definitely a “power corrupts” scenario over and over again. Organized religion, I feel, is just the vehicle that such people use to achieve whatever messed up thing they want. If not for religion, they’d likely find another way (politics? money?).

Nevertheless, I keep organized religion a little bit at arms length these days. Buddhism makes this easier since frequent attendance at a temple is not required, but out of an abundance of caution I just don’t like to get too tangled with other people. I have been burned before, and don’t wish to go through that again. People who grow up in (and leave) conservative communities aren’t so lucky though because there’s no alternative perspective. It can be very stifling.

But regardless of who you are, or your background, I think Seneca has a point in that we need an independent yard-stick of some kind, even if we need to find it from another, less stifling source. Finding that yard-stick is half the battle.

Namu Myoho Renge Kyo

P.S. Another perspective on the matter, featuring Ninja Turtles:

1 A note on Latin pronunciation: Lucilius isn’t pronounced like “loo-si-lius”, it’s more like “loo-ki-lius”. Simiarly, Caesar sounds more like “Kai-sar” than “See-zar”. Compared to English pronunciation, where the “O” can be pronounced in many ways with no clues as to which, Latin is very straightforward with a nice 1:1 relationship between a letter and its sound. Much like Japanese hiragana in that respect.

2 To be fair, I believe Seneca meant well, and sincerely pursued Stoic ideals, but he was also human and not afraid to admit that. I like that down-to-earth side of him.

3 Even as far back as the Pali Canon, the lines between the Buddha and the Dharma get blurred though, such as in the Vakkali Sutta (SN 22.87):

“Enough, Vakkali! What is there to see in this vile body? He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dhamma.”

translated from the Pali by Maurice O’Connell Walshe

Later in the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra, it is explicitly stated that the Buddhas are all of one mind, and one purpose (i.e. venerating one Buddha is just as good as venerating another, no need to fight over who’s better). In any case, I tend to interpret this quote from the Vakkali Sutta that the Buddha as a person isn’t important so much as the teachings he represents. Your mileage may vary.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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