You’ll often hear it said that Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a philosophy. This type of argument plays well in justifying Buddhism to a society that is sick of traditional religion. In a society parched by the death of God, the search for a higher meaning does not disappear; now, however, it must be “reasonable” and “rational”. And obviously that creates problems.
These demands immediately rule out all of the Judaeo-Christian traditions; we are all too familiar with the unrational dogmas, the pomp and ritual and the common hypocrisy of it all.
And so we turn our eyes to the Orient. We look to the East to such obscurities as Buddhism and Taoism, and, because they are different to what we know, we think that they are not religions.
But there is a mistake in this thinking.
It’s a tropical blindness brought on by the foreignness and exotic nature of the subject matter. It senses in these oriental religions something superior to the West — something that is missing in our Occidental story.
In a society growing more atheistic and reductionist, Buddhism offers people the “scientific” religion. It seems to entail no bullshit and to speak plain truth. And without a doubt there is an argument to be made for this; after all, the historical Buddha refused to speak about God (in the sense of creator; he certainly did speak of gods but more on that later) for the prudent reason that his followers would make an idol out of something they don’t understand.
However despite this caginess and “scientific” aura of its founder, Buddhism is as traditionally religious as anything in the Occident. And yet over the years I’ve had several heated debates with people who are adamant that Buddhism is different — that Buddhism is just a philosophy. And it’s worth asking why? Why would some people be invested in the idea of Buddhism being a philosophy? Why would this be something worth clinging to?
Why People Think Buddhism Isn’t a Religion
The first question to ask is why do people think that Buddhism isn’t a religion? While the notion seems to be quite prevalent in the culture — with books like Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist and Secular Buddhism and manifold articles on the topic online— where better to look than Reddit to find some discussion about this topic.
And Reddit as ever does not disappoint. There are many, many threads discussing this topic on Reddit but for our purposes here I thought I’d isolate a few comments that give a picture of where this is coming from. Here’s the top comment on a thread from a few years back on r/Buddhism:
The word ‘religion’ is defined in Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary as:
1. the service and worship of God or the supernatural
2. commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
3. a personal set or institutionalised system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
4. archaic: scrupulous conformity: conscientiousness
5. a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardour and faith
Within above definitions, Buddhism can be called a religion. Often however, “service and worship of God” is mentioned, and Buddhism does not include belief in a creator-God.
Buddhism can be called a philosophy in a practical sense of the word. However, the Buddha repeatedly emphasised that his teachings were not intended as a doctrine, but should be considered as guidelines along the path of spiritual development, based on his own experience.
One could even call Buddhism a system of psychology as well. The main object of interest in Buddhism is how we can observe, analyse and change our own mind.
And another from another thread:
Its viewed as a religion today, but Siddhartha , who was the first Buddha, would say its a philosophy. Because the point is for every one in Buddhism is to become a Buddha which means enlightened one… Siddhartha saw that [Brahmanism] was too strict and mired in ritual which takes away from the experience of reaching enlightenment and also that only Brahmans and their sons could be a part of monastic life.
And from the same thread :
Religions bind you to a certain set of dogmatic practices and beliefs, and the term classically indicates only Levantine/Abrahamic faiths where outsiders were seen as heretics.
The general conception we are seeing coming together then is of a Buddhism that is unassailably different from the Western Judaeo-Christian religions that our secular culture has such a distaste for.
Buddhism is different we are to believe; it’s like us — atheistic, pragmatic and devoid of bullshit. But of course this is a complete fiction (and not just with reference to Buddhism) and any bit of investigation into Buddhism would quickly disavow the investigator of this delusion.
A Few Reasons Buddhism is a Religion
There are a few elementary points to keep in mind in understanding Buddhism at any level. The basic idea of the Buddha’s teachings is to help individuals become enlightened.
This will not happen in a single lifetime; there was a whole section of fun stories in the Pali Canon — the Buddhist Bible of the Theravadan tradition — that recounted the past lives of the historical Buddha Gautama.
It seems that many secular Westerners are dazzled by the reasonableness of the Buddha’s injunctions and by the practicality of taking action leading to results in this life. However what they seem to miss is that the fruit of these results can ease suffering in this life but the attainment of the legendary goal takes many lives.
And so in speaking of the central idea of Buddhism — nirvana — we have to talk about reincarnation and Samsara — the great wheel of birth and rebirth. And once you take that step, it becomes very difficult to avoid the idea of its being a religion because of the possibilities for rebirth.
When you die, your possibilities for rebirth are not merely the lifeforms you see around you; it’s not rich man, poor man, leopard or peacock. There are many realms in Samsara that are outside of this earthly realm.
In total there are six worlds of rebirth: hells, hungry ghosts, animals, asura (fighting demons), humans and heavens (sometimes asura are counted with the devas in the heavens in which case there are five worlds of rebirth).
And this isn’t just later fluff taped on to Buddhism; nor is it merely metaphorical: in the Pali Canon the Buddha positively affirms the existence of these beings as part of the correct ways of viewing the world.
Superpowers of a Buddha
This metaphysical reality is not the end of the story however. In the Kevatta Sutta (another text from the Pali Canon), a householder called Kevatta asks the Buddha to display some magical powers. The Buddha responds by saying that he doesn’t teach this way and such powers are not the barometer of an advanced practitioner.
Nevertheless he goes on to discuss the manifold powers of the enlightened. The advanced monk:
goes unimpeded through walls, ramparts, and mountains as if through space. He dives in and out of the earth as if it were water. He walks on water without sinking as if it were dry land. Sitting cross-legged he flies through the air like a winged bird. With his hand he touches and strokes even the sun and moon, so mighty and powerful.
He also has powers of telepathy:
There is the case where a monk reads the minds, the mental events, the thoughts, the ponderings of other beings, other individuals, [saying,] ‘Such is your thinking, here is where your thinking is, thus is your mind.’
The contention that Buddhism is a philosophy more than a religion seems to be based on shreds of Buddhism such as Gautama’s refusal to speak about a creator god and the practical injunctions he gives on the path to enlightenment.
These injunctions have been stripped of their metaphysical padding by many in the West to form a scientific sort of philosophy; it is this movement of Secular Buddhism that seems to have left some people dazed and confused about the religious status of Buddhism.
When you encounter Buddhism in the West now it’s quite possible you’ll encounter this strain of Buddhism (especially with the rising popularity of a certain Sam Harris). Such an encounter would lead you to believe that Buddhism is very much like a modern secular mindset — pragmatic and atheistic. But nothing could be further from the truth.
You cannot become enlightened in this lifetime; in this sense Buddhism is like its Western cousins — its promises are meant for the hereafter (in this case the many hereafters of reincarnation). What Secular Buddhism can offer is more realistic benefits: skills for managing stress, reducing negative emotions and increasing focus. Anyone who offers you more than this is trying to have their cake and eat it too; they have ventured beyond the promises of Buddhism into salesmanship.
The religious nature of Buddhism is not a cause for disappointment and disillusion; religions are not merely glorified personal development programs or explanations of the world. The rich exoticism of all religious imagery serves as a grounding for morality and community and provides a rich vein of meaning that orients its adherents towards a certain conception of an ideal life.
The teachings of the Buddha do not lose their sheen of wisdom simply because they fail to conform to our modern secular worldview. Nevertheless there is something valuable in them that is like quenching a deep thirst in the West. It is this Secular Buddhism is seeking to isolate but the quest to do so has obscured the Buddhism behind all the “Buddhism”.