Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy? This is a frequent question asked by new Buddhists primarily from western countries.
But what exactly is “Buddhism”, and what does that mean for your practice? While this may seem superficial, it has deep meaning for your journey in Buddhism.
Are we losing the Buddhist religion when some call it only a philosophy or way of life?
Let me get to the point of this article: Buddhism is a religion. However, Buddhism is also beyond what we may think of as a “religion” and is not confined by such structured western definitions.
Before you leave this page because you didn’t get the answer you expected, stick around to find out what that means and why. It may not be what you are expecting.
Table of Contents
Is It a “Religion”?
The desire to call Buddhism either a “philosophy” or a “religion” is essentially a Western concept based on our own Judeo-Christian beliefs. This makes us want to label something a “real religion”, or not, based on a narrow set of beliefs.
This need to categorize something as a religion or not can be traced back to the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. All three have the same creator God and come from the same “tree”, so to speak. Because these have become some of the large prominent religions, it has also colored our views of what is a “real” religion.
While Buddhism is a non-monotheistic religion of Indian origin, it is important to note that there was no word for “religion” in the ancient scriptural writings of the time such as Sanskrit, Pali, and even Tibetan.
The Oxford Dictionary has one definition of religion as:
A particular system of faith and worship.
Wikipedia has this general explanation of religion:
Religion is a social-cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, morals, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, or spiritual elements. However, there is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion.
The Buddhist Religion
Based on the above, we can conclude that Buddhism is a complete religion with:
- A central religious figure which is the Buddha
- Salvific teachings / a salvation message that you can transform suffering and end wrong actions, which leads to the end of rebirth
- An explanation of existence and life after death which includes Samsara, Nirvana, Karma, Rebirth, etc.
- Monks and nuns
- Temples and organizations
- Rituals include religious services, funeral services, chanting, meditation, pilgrimage, etc.
- Ceremonies include the Triple Gem (becoming a Buddhist), Five Precepts, etc.
- Structure and methods of practicing the religion
- Faith in the Buddha’s teachings, even when we do not understand it all
- Cultural inclusion, holidays, beliefs, etc. (might also be the national religion or a major religion)
- Holy pilgrimage places with most ancient ones found in India and Nepal
- Heavenly and supernatural beings such as gods, Bodhisattvas, demons, etc.
- Scripture related to future Buddha’s (i.e., prophecies)
- Analysis and philosophy of the scriptures, teachings, and religion.
According to sociologist Emile Durkheim, in his book “The elementary forms of the religious life, a study in religious sociology”, Buddhism is a religion:
In default of gods, Buddhism admits the existence of sacred things, namely, the four noble truths and the practices derived from them
For 2,600 years, Buddhism has continued to develop. It’s scriptures, commentary, analysis, and rules, evolved even during the days of the Buddha and continue to this day. This growth is seen by some Westerners as an influence by cultural norms of the societies Buddhism went to.
But that is exactly what religion is.
Is It a “Philosophy”?
Because of a biased lens of what makes a “true” religion, Buddhism often gets a skeptical view by Westerners since there is no creator God, or other godly supernatural entity (such as Shiva in Hinduism).
Westerners are also searching for a non-religion to affiliate with and are thus attracted to their perception of Buddhism. They then transform it in the process to something that becomes unrecognizable as Buddhism practiced by hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
The desire to make Buddhism only a philosophy can sometimes be due to wanting to “escape” the religion of their childhood. Buddhism fits the bill for them in this case and has brought Buddhism to the awareness of Westerners as a “viable non-religion” they can escape to. The thinking is that after you scrape away all that pesky “religious” and “cultural” stuff, you have found the “real” Buddhism, which isn’t a “Religion” after all – it’s a “Philosophy” or a “Way of Life”.
And that’s the problem.
What Experts Say
To explain why this is the incorrect view, Barbara O’Brien wrote:
In the same way, arguing about whether Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion isn’t an argument about Buddhism. It’s an argument about our biases regarding philosophy and religion. Buddhism is what it is.
Indeed, separating philosophy from religion does not work well in the case of Buddhism. Trying to tease apart these two strands of the dispensation would have seemed a futile endeavor to most Buddhists over the long history of the tradition. We in the West need to get over this false dichotomy, which has no significance in speaking about Buddhism or other Asian religions.
To say that Buddhism is really just a “philosophy” or “way of life” is saying you don’t need to believe in the things that you don’t agree with (or likely, don’t understand), and can make your own Buddhism (à la carte Buddhism, essentially).
A growing movement, especially with Westerners, is with “Secular Buddhism”.
This form of Buddhism is attractive to those looking for the “Philosophy” or “Way of Life” style of Buddhism, rather than a religion.
Wikipedia summarized Secular Buddhism as:
The secular Buddhist framework strips Buddhist doctrine of various traditional beliefs that could be considered superstitious, or that cannot be tested through empirical research, such as: supernatural beings (such as devas, bodhisattvas, nāgas, pretas, Buddhas, etc.), merit and its transference, rebirth, and karma, Buddhist cosmology (including the existence of pure lands and hells), etc.
In this style of “Buddhism”, faith is not required. This is because you are taking in Buddhism through your world view, your own testing of the teachings to prove they are correct, and gets rid of anything that feels superstitious or cultural (as explained above).
This is highly attractive to Westerners. When they hear about the cultural and superstitious parts of Buddhism, they are often skeptical of them as anything other than cultural baggage. Although I have explained some of this in my article here, Secular Buddhism is an easier thing for Westerners to accept.
Is Secular Buddhism really “Buddhism”?
No, because it fundamentally rejects the Buddha’s core teachings on certain topics – specifically rebirth (which is not reincarnation, but gets confused with that anyways), and other concepts such as Pure Lands (which effectively eliminate the practice of a massive number of Buddhists).
I can take the body of an expensive sports car and put it onto an economy car (well, maybe that will be a bit difficult, but go with me on this one…). But the car is not that sports car anymore. We stripped away the engine and other performance components while keeping that very appealing shell.
Teachings like “rebirth” are essential in Buddhism because it is the reason hundreds of millions of Buddhists practice the religion – they want to stop it and escape rebirth! The cycle of rebirth is so central because it causes all this suffering (Dukkha) in our lives. Who wants that?! When you kick it to the curb (remove the engine in my sports car example), you are left with something that looks amazing, and probably gets you better gas mileage, but will not do what you really want in the end.
It is great that the teachings (Dharma) can be brought to more people, and more accessible. But we shouldn’t do it at the expense of the core teachings.
While the intention of Secular Buddhism is not meant to be harmful or disrespectful to other Buddhist traditions, it can in-fact strip away centuries of practice, analysis, debate, and revisions that have created the ceremonies, rituals, and beliefs that shape the numerous traditions of today. When we strip those away, we are missing some very deep teachings that can help us with our practice of Buddhism.
Listen to this talk by Bhante Sanathavihari (around 51:16 minutes in until 54:48 minutes. This embedded video should take you to that spot automatically, otherwise scroll to that time index):
Does Buddhism Need a Secular Tradition?
In the above video, Doug mentions secular Buddhism has similarities to classical Greek philosophy. He also mentions that Buddhism is about this human world [realm] first (subtly referring to the cycle of rebirth, and that other Buddhist traditions don’t focus on the human world/realm). In-fact, Humanistic Buddhism indeed does focus on the ‘human life’ we are living in right now. It is a major form of Buddhism (Chinese Buddhism, which incorporates Ch’an [Zen] and Pure Land) practiced by millions around the world.
Things such as Pure Land Buddhism, where one recites the name of Amida Buddha in hopes to be ‘reborn’ in his Western Pure Land to learn and be able to achieve enlightenment easier, also get the skeptical eye by Secular Buddhists. This sounds awfully like a ‘Heaven’ and classical misunderstanding of the Buddha’s teachings and cultural creation. But it is not a type of heaven. In fact, anyone who ‘goes there’ is still in the cycle of rebirth
As the famous Buddhist monk Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh explains, the “Pure Land” is within us and is like meditative concentration. There are different levels of realization and practice that are part of the Pure Land practice, and each one brings us closer to living in the Pure Land – right here, right now.
Faith and Culture
In my early years of Buddhism, I also was skeptical of numerous cultural and other practices. However, I now have a greater appreciation for what these practices mean and do. It is important to understand many ceremonies, holidays, and other events were unique to that culture that adopted Buddhism. The two are interwoven and the practice is found in that event. It is no different than a holiday or tradition a Westerner may practice which would seem odd to someone in another culture or country.
Just like how traveling and living in other cultures can open our eyes and minds, we must also look at “cultural” Buddhism the same way. And for teachings, we may not fully understand, or can’t “prove”, does not mean we can strip away the central teachings of the Buddha.
Faith is hard at times, and there are many Buddhist teachings that can be hard to “see” even in this lifetime. Yet, we have faith in the Buddha and his teachings, even if that means we are still caught in this mundane life for a while longer. This can be a very abrasive thing to some Westerners who want to get out of that cycle of “faith” and just want something to prove with evidence. While Buddhism does indeed advocate that, it also requires faith because if you think you can prove all that right away – you are caught firmly in delusion (which is a major hindrance to progress in Buddhism).
Tapping into the Greater Tradition
Buddhism has continually adapted to the cultures it encountered, which helped it spread across most of Asia and now around the world.
This does not mean the core teachings of Buddhism were ever discarded, or that it became anything less than a religion. Laypersons often need structure, ceremonies, and rituals to practice Buddhism, as they would with any other religion. The same holds true for monastics who also tap into this same need but also have the opportunity to lend support to the lay community.
Grease on the Wheels
Religion in the case of Buddhism can be compared to “grease on the wheels” to help things work better. When we look at the Buddha’s life, it took enormous effort and determination on his part to achieve what he did. If this was easy, then he would have been the millionth person to achieve it that year alone. But he was the only one.
And upon his enlightenment, he had a moment of doubt that others would even begin to comprehend what he achieved, what the truth was, and how to achieve it. It was that daunting and complicated. Yet, he was so filled with compassion as a Buddha he set forth to teach by first explaining to his former disciplines who became his first monks. In this instant, I assert, he made Buddhism a religion.
The Buddha’s Legacy
In the decades that followed, the Buddha was a leader that built a community (in-fact, many communities), taught monks, nuns, and laypersons, established ordinations, rituals, ceremonies, rules, and discipline. This seems deeply religious for a philosophy!
In the centuries since his death, cultures have adopted Buddhism and often made it their own without destroying the teachings of the Buddha. Buddhism has always been a continuously evolving religion even in the time the Buddha was alive. While the core is the same, how we practice it in the religion has seen many variations we call traditions.
In these traditions, we find rich, deep, and impressive practices that can help us not only understand what the Buddha taught but apply it in our world.
As you step back with any biases and views you may have, and lean in with an open mind and heart, the different traditions of Buddhism can fill you with the faith to truly transform your practice.
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