Reflections on Religious Magical Thinking and Social Action
A vulnerable nation is being attacked now, without provocation, and lives are being lost; their nation may fall. Almost all of my Buddhist friends and communities are getting “right on it” and offering prayers and mantras with the intention to help them.
From what I understand when Mao’s Communist regime was invading Tibet, the religious people did a lot of wrathful ceremonies, mantras, pujas, and offered protective prayers and thought that they could mitigate the harm from the invasion by supplicating inter-dimensional spirits, gods or deities. It didn’t work, it never does.
You know, I grew up as an Episcopalian and recall the old adage ”God helps those who help themselves.” The suggestion is that sure, you can have faith, but you must act, faith and prayer are never a one-and-done remedy.
You know in the U.S. we’ve had a huge amount of school massacres over the years and every time, our friends, politicians and organizations will offer “thoughts and prayers.” However well intended, it is insulting to families, ineffective and in bad form when children’s lives have been lost. Thoughts and prayers are often a placating excuse for not having to really act or make any real policy or social change.
In these times of social injustice, disasters, exceeding gun violence and wars, we need to do a whole lot more than just pray all day. If our prayers can create a sense of inner strength and fearlessness such that that it gives us the fortitude to actually work and make social change, then our prayers are actually effective.
Blessing and Curses from Another Realm
If we believe somehow that we are asking for some type of favor, boon or blessing from some unseen inter-dimensional being that will somehow bless and protect us, requiring the ransom of our prayers, we may have a very unsophisticated, remedial understanding of our faith. No compassionate, enlightened god or deity would require a transactional offering of: an archaic burnt sacrifice, mantra, prayer, candles, incense aspirations or “a good word” for their compassion to be activated to emit blessings and protection.
This is exactly what the Buddhist teacher Trungpa Rinpoche referred to as quintessential spiritual materialism. Even if there are unseen gods, spirits, Buddhas or entities that exist in some inter-dimensional state, they certainly do not require for us to offer anything to make them feel special to inspire them to activate healing, fortune and blessings to a special situation.
It occurs to me that it can be very dangerous to believe in the existence of an entire unseen world of gods and spirits and then to believe that there are some really special people that can actually perceive, see and become an avatar that communicates with this spiritual realm. Basically you would adhere to an unquestioning relationship with that “holy person,” and give complete trust to the spokesperson for a world that you would never be capable of understanding. If we ever cease critical thinking, we are in grave trouble, and often that is exactly what religion’s require to endure.
This is the beginning of how religion begins to exploit people and you begin to broker blessings, absolution and the promise of some eternal life or better life for being on the side that which is holy and good. There becomes this whole unseen world of rules and regulations and a “karmic multiplier” matrix and some type of moral calculation system that is judging you. That is a very frightening reality, to be ransomed by unseen forces that will either reward or punish you.
If we start to have an encoded system or religion around something that someone else perceived, some spiritual experience, this can that lead way to a religious group psychosis, social control and exploitation. It’s really important to stay grounded in evidence based reality. There is plenty of clear, compassionate and spiritual work that one can do in a world that we can all consensually perceive with our five senses.
We cannot be so primitive to believe that there is some unseen force that causes disasters because we are not adhering to some higher being’s moral standards and they cause retributive, punitive disasters. To believe in these type of punishments would be par with believing that God caused hurricane Katrina because the hedonism of how many homosexuals live in New Orleans. It’s ad absurdum. The same ridiculous magical thinking occurs by believing that if we pray or do pujas or mantras, that somehow the Gods or Buddhas, will offer blessings to a particular area like Tibet or Ukraine.
I’m not suggesting that there is no compassion, benefiting the world, skill or intelligence like ancestral wisdom that we can connect to. There is also concrete karma- we over-farm the land, minerals are not replenished and we have the dust-bowl and through starvation, people die. We live out of balance and there is very clear cause and effect. It is not because of Gods and Buddha’s punishment or blessings.
Spirituality for me now, is about feeling a sense of warmth and well-being in my life, loving my friends, letting things settle down when I have anxiety, gardening, volunteering, to try to make better social policy, holding my daughter in my arms when she’s scared, listening to a friend, creating something beautiful in this world, things that open us.
That would be for me, the spiritual path, nothing other-worldly or transcendental. It’s been clearly pointed out to many of us that there’s no real self that transmigrates. I’m not going to try to run away from the harsh barbs of life and retreat, cowering somewhere in a cave because I’m wanting to make an investment in some promissory afterlife. That’s called bypassing.
All religion, even ones that purport to be high brow and logical, can indeed become the opiate of the masses. With the belief that prayers are sufficient, great social destruction can occur in our wake. We can rather, cultivate groundedness, sober clarity and action. It’s not about something other worldly, it’s this world, right now, that needs to be saved.
Pray if it opens and calms you and then, please take real world action:
How can I help Ukraine? Try donating to…
The Ukrainian Red Cross, which does loads of humanitarian stuff, from aiding refugees to training doctors. Donate here.
The British Red Cross, which has launched an appeal to raise funds for food, medical supplies, shelter and water. Donate here.
Revived Soldiers Ukraine, which funds medication and medical supplies for army hospitals on the front line. Donate here.
Nova Ukraine, a Ukraine-based non-profit that provides civilians with everything from baby food and hygiene products to clothes and household supplies. Donate here.
Sunflower for Peace, which provides first-aid backpacks to doctors and paramedics on the front line. Donate here.
Voices of Children, a charity that focuses on helping children recover from the psychological trauma of war. More info here.
United Help Ukraine, which distributes food and medical supplies to internally displaced people in Ukraine. Donate here.
Doctors Without Borders, whose base in Ukraine provides treatments for a range of regional diseases and medical problems. More info here.
The Kyiv Independent, a Ukraine-based English-language newspaper. Not to toot our own horn, but journalism can be pretty damn important. Help keep accurate news reports coming by donating to The Kyiv Independent’s Patreon and GoFundMe pages.