Improving Buddhism

Is it Possible?

Learning from the Founders

Is the key to founding a new religion secret? It could be that the founder of the religion is actually, in terms of what choices they made to secure the religion's future, secondary to what the first or second and tenth generation of leadership does. The leader is the one whose biography is memorized, whose everyday preferences are lionized, whose insights are used as the basis for the doctrine and whose rules are the starting point for how followers of different classes are supposed to behave. But suppose these are rather arbitrary choices, certainly within limits and constraints, but arbitrary and the religion could have been quite different and still been wildly popular among some population, for centuries. 


Everyone focusses on what the founder did or said, how he meditated or achieved insights or traveled or taught himself, or many other things, and these are treasured as the jewels of the religion. It is a form of celebrity worship. Magical stories are made up about the founder; his biography is embellished; his mistakes are forgotten forever; his countenance, poses, attitudes, likes and dislikes, and everything else are recorded and taught to followers. Without these there would be no substance to the religion. But suppose it makes little difference as to what these are, as long as the initial generations of the chief followers, monks or whatever name they have, do certain things which lead to popularity and longevity of the religion. Is this possible, that for millennia scholars have not appreciated how little the founder's specifics meant, as long as there were some, and how much the actions of the early generations of leadership dictated the future of the religion?


It may be analogous to how one regards one's parents. The parents have particular habits, preferences, histories, and everything else connected with a human being, and the children know these things, and remember them. The relationship between a parent and child is unique and as strong as human instincts can be. There is likely a particular part of the brain that is utilized by very young children in relating to their parents, and as we know memories are never erased, merely added to, this instinctual behavior is present in us all. It may have been cauterized in some instances of parental neglect or abuse, but for most people, there were countless instances of caring and nurturing that are among the deepest of all memories, hidden by the more rational ones experienced later in life. If the stories about the founder are used to evoke this feeling among the followers, a hugely strong effect can be created, upon which the religion can be built.


If this emotional connection, between the average follower and the real or mythical founder of the religion can be established, by the leadership of the religion, they will have done the majority of the work necessary to ensure its survival and propagation. This is the task of the founder when he lives, and after he is deceased, it is the task of the religion's leadership. It may be the make-or-break task.


What are the essentials of an abstracted parent-child relationship existing with a religion? The founder-figure must have admirable traits, modeling after the way a child limitlessly admires his parents when very young, unaware of the values of the adult world. The founder-figure must provide some benefits, mythical, supernatural, supportive or anything, and the more the better, just as parents provided for their children. The father-figure may make sacrifices of some sort for the followers. The father-figure must give rules for behavior, much like parents set rules for their children. There may be goals set as well. The child, or rather the follower, must know how to be a good child, or rather a good follower, and then the feelings of making the parent, rather the founder, happy will also contribute to the happiness of the follower inside the religious framework. And if the followers are very happy to be in this relationship, cast as a religion but really as an imitation of the parent-child relationship, they will stay in it and seek to bring others into it, as proselytes, to share their happiness.


In the first days of religion, this did not exist. Instead, religions started with many natural phenomena being endowed with gods behind them. Gods needed to be propitiated, and this meant sacrifices, not necessarily behavioral choices. This early religious activity was meant to provide an explanation of how the world worked, so early men, with little capability for thinking, could relate to it and deal with it. It was both the dawn of thinking as well as the dawn of religion; they evolved together. Later, the huge reservoir of parent-child memory might begin to intrude into this, as individuals took some god or demi-god as their principal object of worship, sacrifice, propitiation, and so on, and this began to ooze over into a parent-child model. But the officials in the religion did not promote this, but instead kept their special territory as the intercessors with the gods, which served as a barrier to the personal god idea and its simulation of a parent-child relationship.


In these early days, the gods were like a separate society, living and interacting with each other, and with humans through some special devices or times or places. Learning about their history, or rather the history invented by the religious leadership class, was like hearing stories about the former members of the clan, who also may have been upgraded to something like a demi-god. These early religions might be thought of as having a society of gods who interacted in a limited way with the society of humans.


Around three thousand years ago, there started to be a change in the type of religion. Zoroaster might have been the originator of the first religion based, not on a dual society view of nature, but on an weak abstraction of the parent-child relationship. He preached that there was a single creator, Ahura Mazda, who laid down rules for followers. All rules sets say “Do good”, but good is defined a bit differently in different religions, according to the preference and priorities of the founder. They need to be simple and easy to remember, such as child might learn. Zoroaster's 'Good' involved good words, good thoughts, and good deeds, each of which was elaborated. He stressed charity and doing good without seeking a direct reward. There were still official worship rites and temples, as virtually all religions have, no matter how modern. The adoption of a single entity instead of a society of gods allows a modeling of the parent-child relationship instead of the somewhat chaotic relationship with multiple gods of a diverse pantheon, as existed in early religion. With the single god, there is nothing to prevent a follower from evoking the parent-child memories, and hope for favor from the god for doing what the god commanded, just as a naive child hopes for a parent's favor if they can figure out just what the parent thinks is good. In Zoroastrinianism, there is no more confusion as to what the god wants. Zoroaster expressed everything as a battle between good and evil and told his followers they had free will and could take either side, in a simplistic way such as one would use with a child.


One other thing a religion must do is to provide an explanation of death. Aside from the earliest religions, there have been two choices, one being that there is an essence to an individual, and at some time they will be reconstituted and go and live in some happy place of the religion, or that they will be reincarnated into a newly born body. Early religions stress a place for high-ranking people to go, but Zoroaster gave reconstitution to everyone, albeit at the end of time when the messiah would arive. In India, the Vedic tradition was reincarnation. Both of these serve to eliminate some of the fear of death that human instincts give us.


For the next few centuries, at least in India, there was a ferment in the area of religion, with a large number of individuals breaking loose from the Vedic traditions, which were based on the earliest type of religion with a society of gods, and concocting novel religious belief systems. The more popular ones, called sramanas, those who neither love or hate, formed groups of followers, and in some the parent-child instinctual relationship was evoked, to a lesser or greater degree. Two of the most well-known sramanas were Siddhartha Gotama, founder of Buddhism, and Mahavira, founder of Jainism. They both, as well as many other sramanas, came up with rulesets for followers to obey, a package of theological assumptions about the world and human essences and even the nature of truth, and a strategy for organizing their followers into a leadership and wholly devoted followers, all called monks, and a larger number of lay followers. They both had personalities which could inspire child-like devotion, and they both had leaders among their followers who understood well how to take advantage of the parent-child relationship which may have wholly underlaid the new religions of that time.


Thus, if the hypotheses discussed in this post are valid, seeking to found a new religion or a variation of an existing one leads to an early choice: will it be based on the deeply buried instincts we all have, which allowed us to survive as babies and toddlers, concerning the parent-child relationship, or will it be based on something different? If the choice is made to use it, does this undermine the modern conception of a philosophical religion, based on scientific principles to the extent possible, and instead using what might be called the exploitation of human psychology for a basis.


Go Back


Blog Search


There are currently no blog comments.