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Religion – As diverse as peoples of the Earth?

What is religion? With so many different religions out there can we come up with a concise or, for that matter, comprehensive definition? It seems not.

In fact, there are many different definitions of religion in encyclopedias and other educational works. In the simplest sense, some writers focus on the afterlife component, others on the inspirational.

Here’s a brief (and by no means comprehensive) survey:

Religion has been defined as any belief or activity that moves the soul, activates, energizes or inspires. For example, Marxism, sciencescientism and athleticism have each been portrayed as religions. Some scholars argue that the TV show Star Trek is a religion, which adds science fiction to the list.

The Economist published an article suggesting that Google is like a religion.¹ Others maintain that religion must refer to ideas like God, gods, goddesses, spirit beings, transcendence, the miraculous, the numinous and the afterlife.

Follow the Star by Michael Clark via Flickr

follow the star by Michael Clark via Flickr

Meanwhile, some insist that religion refers to a group, not a mere individual. Western jurisprudence outlines that a religious group must exhibit some degree of organization and be legally registered for legitimacy.

Other scholars insist that religion needs scripture, rites, ritual obligations, representatives, leaders, as well as a path to transcendental – no just social – liberation or salvation.

William James, Max Weber, Rudolf Otto and several other classic religion scholars suggest, each in their own way, that religion differs from magic.² This distinction is complicated by the recent move toward being open to whatever one believes in, and seeing these diverse beliefs as “new religions.”³

Just today while driving home from Mass I happened to hear a radio talk show about the new face of religion. A representative from the United Church said:

Some believe in God, that’s great.
Some do not believe in God, that’s great.

For the person on the radio, the essence of religion was respect and kindness towards others. I have to admit, when he said not believing in God was great I quickly changed the station to some pop hits. This was more spiritual for me that listening to someone say that it was “great” to not believe in God.

My bias, admittedly. But hearing him say that felt like being dumped on. I briefly wondered if I was being narrow-minded and should switch back. But I was driving and didn’t want the voice on the radio to bring me down. So I stuck with the pop hits.

Cate Storymoon - Nothing short of everything will really do - via Flickr

Cate Storymoon – Nothing short of everything will really do – via Flickr

¹ Now a dead link, this was active for the previous update of this entry (2009/11/23) » . It seems any new thing, if it gets big enough, is described as a religion or, at least, discussed in the context of religion. Today, for instance, it’s about kids staring into their phones. But instead of being described as a religion, the Vatican actually warned in 2008 that this was bad for the soul! I find this silly. New technologies should be integrated with spirituality, not demonized.

² Some argue that religion and science share a distinction from magic. See:

³ Articles about religion at




Tanka painter by Leon Meerson

Tanka painter by Leon Meerson

Tankha are Tibetan and Nepali Buddhist artworks said to assist in the quest for liberation. The visual themes are almost always religious in some fashion. Wikipedia explains:

Thangka perform several different functions. Images of deities can be used as teaching tools when depicting the life (or lives) of the Buddha, describing historical events concerning important Lamas, or retelling myths associated with other deities. Devotional images act as the centerpiece during a ritual or ceremony and are often used as mediums through which one can offer prayers or make requests. Overall, and perhaps most importantly, religious art is used as a meditation tool to help bring one further down the path to enlightenment. ¹

Here are some examples:

English: Tibetan Buddhist thangka painting of ...

Tibetan Buddhist thangka painting of a mandala (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tibetan Buddhist Namgyal monks preparing the K...

Tibetan Buddhist Namgyal monks preparing the Kalachakra mandala within the pavilion, under thangkas of Padmasambhava, Kalachakra, Lord Buddha, Kalachakra Mandala, and White Tara, prayer area, main shrine, Verizon Center, Washington D.C., USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Tibetan Buddhist thangka painting

English: Tibetan Buddhist thangka painting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Buddha Amitabha in Tibetan Buddhism, tradition...

Buddha Amitabha in Tibetan Buddhism, traditional Thangka painting. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: The Bhavacakra (Sanskrit; Devanagari:...

The Bhavacakra (Sanskrit; Devanagari: भवचक्र; Pali: bhavacakka) or Wheel of Becoming is a symbolic representation of continuous existence proces in the form of a circle, used primarily in Tibetan Buddhism. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Vajravarahi mandala

Vajravarahi mandala (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Description at "I took ...

Description at “I took this photo myself in September 1993 and am happy for it to be freely available. John Hill 02:45, 28 January 2007 (UTC) I am sorry – in the original name I gave the date as 1994 by mistake – it was taken during our trip to Tibet in 1993. John Hill (talk) 00:48, 9 January 2008 (UTC) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: 14th century Tibetan thangka painting...

14th century Tibetan thangka painting of the Mandala of Vajravarahi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Art shop in Kathmandu, Nepal

Art shop in Kathmandu, Nepal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Painted Bhutanese Medicine Buddha mandala with...

Painted Bhutanese Medicine Buddha mandala with the goddess Prajnaparamita in center, 19th century, Rubin Museum of Art Bhutanese art is similar to the art of Tibet. Both are based upon Vajrayana Buddhism, with its pantheon of divine beings. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the above we can see the visual diversity of the Tankha. The Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung was particularly interested in their mandala qualities. Jung likened the tankha to circular shaped Christian art that he felt was pointing to the same, or a similar phenomenon—the self.

“I sketched every morning in a notebook a small circular drawing,…which seemed to correspond to my inner situation at the time….Only gradually did I discover what the mandala really is:…the Self, the wholeness of the personality, which if all goes well is harmonious.”

—Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, pp 195 – 196.

The reason I say “similar” is because Jung, at some points in his Collected Works and Letters, argues that Christianity differs from Eastern religions. The upwardly skewed symbol of the cross, he felt, indicated an upward bias. Jung once said that Eastern yogis, lamas and saints were “at bottom” of the spiritual change we see in the West.²


² I included this quote (and its reference) in an essay for my doctoral studies. The essay, however, is not online, and probably buried deep in a cardboard box. I will find it… soon. 🙂

Related Posts » Buddhism, Karma, Mandala, Metempsychosis, Moksha, Reincarnation, Samsara

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World Soul (anima mundi)

Anima Mundi

Anima Mundi (Photo credit: Cornelia Kopp)

Generally speaking, World Soul (anima mundi) is the idea of the “One” through which all living things on this Earth are said to be interconnected.

The Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung mentions Plotinus‘ term “word soul” when speaking of the archetype of the self. And some Jungians use the term as if it represents an absolute truth, rather than an idea to be tested through ongoing experience and analysis.

Many believe the idea of the World Soul can be traced back to Plato, or possibly to even older, Asian systems of belief.¹

Today, New Age believers, Neo-Gnostics and artists have adapted this idea in countless ways.

Related Posts » Plotinus


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Yin (Chinese Thought)

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Yin is the supposed “feminine” in ancient Chinese philosophy. The Chinese characters Yin and Yang originally referred to the dark and bright sides of a sunlit riverbank.

A distinct Yin-Yang school arose around 305-240 BCE, attributed to Tsou Yen. By the time of Confucius, the Tsou Yen school gained scholarly and philosophical recognition. Yin represented the Earth and, according to this schema, the associated elements of darkness, passivity, femininity, negativity and destruction.

By way of contrast, Yang came to be associated with Heaven and all the associated elements of light, activity, masculinity, positive forces and creativity.

Read more here » Yin-Yang

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This statue of a yogini goddess was created in...

This statue of a yogini goddess was created in Kaveripakkam in Tamil Nadu, India, during the 10th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A yogini is a female practitioner of yoga. The term also refers to a female saint and teacher of spiritual knowledge.

Until fairly recently, the term yogini was generally reserved for women. Today, however, the word “yogi” can relate to men and women, especially in Western countries (just as the word “actor” now relates to both sexes, and “actress” is rarely used).

See the full entry for yogi for details.

Related Posts » Hinduism, Shakti

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In Hinduism a yantra (Sanskrit = Mechanism, technology, instrument)  is a diagram for meditation depicting beliefs about the chakras, larger cosmic planes and the dynamic totality of all existence. The idea also creeps into Tantric Buddhism.

Yantras are also used in ritual worship, temple rites, astrology, body art/tats, and to enhance a seeker’s paranormal powers. Yantras are usually drawn, printed (as on note paper), painted or engraved on rock or metals.

Concerning paranormal powers, the yantra is upheld as a good luck charm, repelling evil spirits and avoiding disaster.

In architecture, an entire Hindu temple structure may mirror the form of a yantra, representing and emboding the sacred, otherworldly powers it was built for. Many Hindu temples are, indeed, based on archetechtural manuals advocating a yantra design.

Perhaps the essence of the yantra is found in Oscar Wilde’s notion that

Truth in art is the unity of a thing with itself: the outward rendered expressive of the inward; the soul made incarnate; the body instinct with spirit.”¹

#14 Sri Yantra Mandala SHANKAR by shankar gallery, Richard Lazzara, via Flickr

¹ Cited in Peter Fingesten, “Spirituality, Mysticism and Non-Objective Art,” Art Journal, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Autumn, 1961: 2-6), p. 2

Primary Sources and Further Reading:

  • The Encyclopedia of Religion. Eliade, Mircea (ed). New York: 1987, Collier Macmillan, Vol. 15.
  • Fischer-Schreiber, Ingrid. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion : Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Zen. Boston : Shambhala, 1994, c1989.

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Yin-Yang (yin =umbral, yang = bright)

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This is the Chinese idea that all transformations arise from a dynamic interaction of two basic and complementary modes of existence.

The Yin-Yang cosmology harkens back to ancient Chinese philosophers (c. 500-200 BCE) who saw the world as an organic totality, where subject and object, self and other are essentially interrelated.

As John S. Major puts it:

The cosmos was “organic”; everything was related to and affected by everything else, without regard for mathematically or mechanically demonstrable cause and effect. No distinction was drawn between physical and mental phenomena, or between the “human” and “natural” worlds.¹

The Chinese characters Yin and Yang originally referred to the dark and bright sides of a sunlit riverbank.

A definite Yin-Yang school of philosophy arose around 305-240 BCE, attributed to Tsou Yen. By the time of Confucius, the Tsou Yen school had acquired scholarly and philosophical significance. Yin represented the Earth and, according to this schema, the associated elements of darkness, passivity, femininity, negativity and destruction.

Yang came to be associated with Heaven and all the associated elements of light, activity, masculinity, positive forces and creativity.

Image via Tumblr

Kevin at adds:

I think the feminine and passivity were actually Confucian additions. Confucius was pretty much a misogynist.

A core quality of Yin in the bright and shadow / strong and subtle paradigm, was of manifestation.

A very good example of this is procreation – the man fertilises (Inspiration / Yang) but the woman manifests the life in growing the embryo. Seen like this Yin is very powerful and not at all passive. (Though of course it can be passive at times).

Similarly all the running about working and commuting or whatever that many of us do in the modern world is actually manifestation and is Yin energy activity, not Yang as many suppose.

I am not sure equating the quality ‘destruction’ to Yin entirely does the quality justice. Yin manifests and un-manifests by withholding nurture. So a harsh frosty spell cutting back the verdant growth is very Yin.

Destruction is much more a Yang principle. The lightening which the ancient Chinese believed shook into being the new was a ‘positive Yang Force whereas over done it becomes the lightening which strikes down the tree.

Both Yin and Yang therefore have positive and negative valences which are not to be confused with good and bad. That hard frost which clears the ground makes way for new growth too.

Similarly Yin is not the negative of Yang (another bit of spin implied by Confucians) – The two exist in creative harmony.

Studying the Dazhuan (The Great Treatise approx. 3rd Century BCE) clarifies a lot of this as does studying the First two hexagrams of the Yijing which are the two exponents of these principles.

The Yijing predates Ying Yang theory… indeed the Ying Yang principle probably grew out of it and in turn replaced the shadow / light names within it. This is certain when one realises that all of the hexagrams are in pairs (in the King Wen sequence which is the one commonly used). Thus hexagrams 1 and 2 are a pair as is 3 and 4 etc. It only takes cursory study to see that these are in fact Yang / Yin pairs. Pairs of inspiration and manifestation. The King Wen sequence is between 1600 and 1200 BCE depending on which historian you subscribe to.²

Apart from the ongoing scholarly debates, perhaps most important from a contemporary perspective is the idea of dynamic complementarity. The two complementaries of Yin and Yang are said to be in a constant interplay and all phenomena arise through their interaction.

One interesting aspect of this process occurs when one modality eventually flows into its apparent ‘opposite,’ which in the field of psychology C. G. Jung called enantiodromia.

The Yin-Yang idea has become a part of pop culture. Almost everyone knows its basic message. This is, perhaps, because the Yin – Yang cosmology underscores the unity of mankind and nature, as well as the importance of transformation. In fact, for the ancient Chinese the idea of change was key, as we find with the oracle of the I Ching (Book of Change), from which Yin-Yang theory likely developed.

¹ John S. Major in The Encyclopedia of Religion. Eliade, Mircea (ed). New York: 1987, Collier Macmillan, Vol. 15, p. 515.

² See full comment »

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