ANSWER: Not long ago, two Jehovah’s Witnesses ladies came to my door, so I invited them in for a discussion, during which, they asked me which religion I followed. I replied: "My religion is Life. Have you heard of that one?" "Yes, I think so", one of them answered hesitantly, and then asked: "How many people are there in your organization?" "Oh, everyone’s in it", I said, "It’s worldwide!"
Shortly after the Gulf War, I heard on the radio that the Pope had severely criticized Saudi Arabia as one of the few countries to prohibit Christians from practicing their religion there. "Interesting", I thought; "I wonder what he means by ‘practicing their religion’?—the mere external observances, like going to church on Sundays in one’s best clothes, lighting candles, kneeling down to pray, putting money in the donation box, etc., or the actual application of religious principles in one’s daily life?" The first necessitates special buildings, priests, ritual, liturgy, and so on, while the second needs no props or theatrical backdrops, as any person has, within himself, all that is required for practical religious living.
So, maybe Saudi Arabia—being the Holy Land of Islam—doesn’t allow the ostentatious aspects of Christianity, like churches, holy days, ceremonies, etc., but does it ban the actual practice of the teachings of Jesus, as exemplified in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke10:29-37)? When someone asked Jesus: "Who is my neighbor?", he responded by telling a story about a man who was attacked and robbed by thieves while he was on a journey, and left lying bleeding and semi-conscious at the roadside. A few minutes later, a priest from the temple came down the road and saw him lying there, but ignored him, and continued on his way. Shortly after, another man came along—a scholar of the scriptures—and seeing the man lying there, went over for a closer look; then, his curiosity satisfied, he also went on his way. The third person to pass that way was a foreigner in that land, and of a different religion than the people therein, but when he saw the wounded man lying there, he felt compassion, and went over to render him assistance. Tearing strips from his clothes, he bandaged his wounds and gently helped him to mount his horse; taking him to a wayside inn, he gave the innkeeper a sum of money, and instructions to take care of the injured man, saying that if it were insufficient, he would pay him more when he next came that way. Jesus asked his questioner: "Which of the three men who passed by was the neighbor to the one who had been robbed and wounded?" The man replied, of course: "The one who took pity on him".
If Christians will help only other Christians, or Buddhists only other Buddhists, what kind of Christians or Buddhists are they? It dismayed me to see hordes of missionaries flocking to the Refugee Camps of South-East Asia, with loads of ‘gifts’ and aid for the refugees—with the obvious if unstated aim of using their gifts and aid to ‘catch fish’. Sad to say, many refugees succumbed to their wiles, but would Jesus, I wonder, have approved of their methods? This kind of activity only makes religion meaningless, and instead of taking a stand against the corruption and immorality of society, religion thereby promotes it! Missionaries of the countless sects are more concerned with getting more followers—by any means they can devise—than in the quality of them.
Many Buddhists say: "It’s not necessary to go to the temple; I can practice at home", by which they usually mean offering incense to their Buddha image twice a day—and that is the extent of their practice. The Dharma, to such people, has about as much meaning as a diamond to a dog!
On the surface, there is little difference between religions; all have sets of formalities, which most people observe mechanically, not understanding. Few followers of any religion bother to investigate and find what—if anything—the formalities mean. Is Buddhism simply a matter of offering incense to an image? We have reduced things to mere formalism; the form has become more important than the meaning, confirming the words of St. Paul in the Bible (2 Corinthians, 3:6): "The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life".
If we really understood what the Buddha taught, it would be true to say that it is not necessary to go to the temple, and that one can practice at home. Until that time, however, the temple is important as a place where people might learn something of the Buddha’s Way (I say might here, because it’s not sure, as many temples are now merely places of ceremony and provide no instruction for anyone). The same could be said, I think, of Christians and churches: if Christians understood what Jesus taught, there would be no need to go to church, for they are the church themselves.
Of course, the Pope promotes the formalities of religion, for he is the very epitome of them, and his position and power depend upon them. This is why Martin Luther, who was himself a Catholic monk, launched the Protestant Reformation movement and broke with Rome—a break that remains until now. Not surprisingly, Protestantism also became institutionalized; it happens to all movements which claim the monopoly of Truth.
To return to my Jehovah’s Witnesses visitors: I said to them: "In one way, I admire you for going from house-to-house, as I imagine you get plenty of rebuffs and insults, and many people would hate you for it". "Yes, that’s true", they said, "just as the Bible said it would be". "In another way, though", I went on, "I think you’ve got a nerve, intruding on people’s privacy. If people want to know about your way, it’s not difficult to find you. How would you like it if people of other religions went to your homes to talk to you about their beliefs? What if I went to your house to talk about religion?" "Alright; welcome", one of them said. "So, would you give me your name and address?", I said, reaching for paper and pen. Looking for a way out of my trap, she then said: "But only if you come alone, and don’t bring anyone with you". "Ah, so you place conditions on it, do you? You notice that I made no conditions when you came here to visit me with your friend, did I?" End of dialogue.