Buddhism is widely accepted as the “world’s fourth-largest religion”. But there are many people who believe that Buddhism is in fact not a religion. Wait, what? #plottwist! So is Buddhism a religion, or is it not? And if it isn’t… what the hell is it? I know you want answers, so let’s try and delve into these unique teachings to find them!
Is Buddhism a Religion? And If It’s Not… What the Hell Is It?
An Outline of Buddhism
I couldn’t possibly go into depth about Buddhism in one blog post, but we can get you started with the basics.
Buddhism is an ancient Indian religion that started sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. It is based around the teachings from Siddhartha Gotama (Buddha) and how he reached enlightenment. The word ‘budhi’ actually translates from Sanskrit as ‘awaken’.
Buddha spent years trying to find the ‘path’ to happiness through spiritual practice and meditation. After experiencing the benefits for himself, he went on to teach his findings to others. This included the Four Noble Truths and the Eight fold Path, which form the basis of Buddhism.
The Four Noble Truths
- Life is suffering: pain and suffering is an inevitable part of life. By accepting this, we can help to overcome it.
- Suffering is caused by craving and aversion: one should not have expectations, as this leads to disappointment. Getting what you want does not guarantee happiness.
- Suffering can be overcome: true happiness is possible if we learn to give up craving and live in the moment.
- The Eight-fold path can end suffering.
The Eight-fold Path
The Eight-fold path is the idea that following these eight practices can lead you on a path to enlightenment.
Right Understanding (Samma ditthi): understanding things as they really are – knowing that the four noble truths are noble and true.
Right Thought (Samma sankappa): thoughts of love and non-violence. Selfless detachment from desire, ill-will, hatred and violence.
Right Speech (Samma vaca): avoiding slander, gossip, lying, and abusive speech. One should not speak carelessly: “noble silence” should be kept if one cannot say anything useful.
Right Conduct/Action (Samma kammanta): adhering to Ahimsa (non-violence) and refraining from stealing and mindless sexual intercourse. One should have peaceful, moral and honourable conduct.
Right Livelihood (Samma ajiva): making a living in a honourable, blameless and innocent way. One should not work at jobs that involve slaughtering animals, handling weapons, or anything that brings harm to others.
Right Attitude/Effort (Samma vayama): avoiding negative thoughts and emotions, such as anger and jealousy. Preventing negative states of mind from arising and promoting positive states to arise.
Right Mindfulness (Samma sati): having a clear sense of one’s mental state, health and feelings. Being aware, mindful and attentive to activities of the body (kaya), the mind (citta), thoughts and ideas (dhamma) and sensations or feelings (vedana).
Right Concentration (Samma samadhi): using meditation to reach the highest level of enlightenment.
This is of course not everything that Buddhism is about – I would recommend reading any of the following books for more in depth descriptions. But essentially we can summarise Buddhism as being moral, living mindfully and with intention, and putting the effort into being the best possible version of yourself.
What is a Religion?
So we know a bit about Buddhism, but how do we determine whether it is a religion or not?
Well, we can start by investigating what a religion actually is. A quick google search will show you that religion is defined as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a person God or gods.”
Religions may also be considered to be shared collections of transcendental beliefs that are passed from believers to converts based on either formally documented doctrine (organised religion) or established cultural practices (folk religion). Religions often include explanations of why we are here on earth, worship of deities, holy/sacred activities and objects, rituals, calendar events, distinctive dress codes, codes of morality that are given a mandate from a supernaturally great being or the Universe and “professionals” who claim to be in touch with transcendental forces and perform certain rituals.
Why Buddhism Might Be Considered a Religion
On the basis of that definition, some people may claim that Buddhism is a religion because it discusses metaphysical or “supernatural” aspects of reality that are typically associated with religion. For instance, the discussion of different levels of consciousness may be considered supernatural because they are beyond the material realm.
Teachings and Places of Worship
Buddhism also contains other factors associated with religion such as teachings and doctrines. Some people may see guidelines such as the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path as no different to the Ten Commandments (we will get onto this more in a bit…) and some people worship the Buddha in the same way that others would worship their God or Deity.
Other aspects of Buddhism that may be likened to religion include places of worship, sacred texts and monks.
A Lack of Questioning
However, although these are reasons that some may consider Buddhism a religion, you will quite often find that a lot of people accept Buddhism as a religion because this is simply what they are told it is. Buddhism is widely recognised as a religion and so unless you explore it further, you may go on with life never questioning it.
But once you start to investigate Buddhism more deeply, it may start to become apparent that Buddhism may not really be a religion at all.
Why Buddhism May Not Be a Religion
No God or Deity
Unlike other religions, Buddhism does not worship a God or Deity. There are actually several distinct differences between the way people look to a God vs a Buddha. For instance, Buddhists may seek refuge in Buddha, but they do not self-surrender through prayer. Unlike a God, Buddha does not grant favours to those who pray to him.
Buddha is actually not seen as a supernatural higher power at all. Instead he was just a human being like you or I. He is therefore not an “Almighty God” to be obeyed and feared – he exercises no control and does not reward or punish. Instead he guides through his own experience and is therefore seen as an idol or figurehead.
Individualistic, Not Collectivist
With the absence of a God-like figure, the focus of Buddhism therefore becomes on the individual. The individual does not act to please another or reach heaven or hell. The aim is to embrace life in the moment and strive for enlightenment or nirvana in this lifetime. To the point of becoming a “Buddha” yourself.
Encouragement, Not Order
And while Buddhists do behave in accordance to certain teachings, these differ vastly from the rules and dogmas of other religions. Buddha described these as practical guidelines rather than divine laws. You only have to look at the names the Eight-fold Path and the Ten Commandments to know that there are key differences here!
The word Commandment literally comes from the word command, which is defined as an “authoritative order”. There is no free-will to be exercised here. You will simply follow the orders of God or be punished by being sent to hell. Yikes! In contrast the Eight-fold path is a set of guidelines that Buddha encourages. Note the difference between encouragement and order here!
In fact, Siddhartha actually encouraged free-will to experience things for yourself. He himself would question traditions and spiritual authorities to find what worked for him. One of the six qualities of the Dhamma/Dharma is “Ephipassiko” which translates roughly as “encouraging investigation” or “inviting to come and see for yourself”. Unlike other religions, Buddhism does not want you to believe things simply because you have been told it by your masters or it is part of tradition! In Buddhism, faith is dependent on experience and reasoning.
So when you put it this way, Buddhism doesn’t sound like a religion at all, does it? But if it’s not… then what is it?
What is Buddhism, If Not a Religion?
Many followers of Buddhism claim that Buddhism is in fact a philosophy rather than a religion. Why is this?
Well, philosophy can be defined as 1. “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence” or 2. “a theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour”.
If we consider the first definition, Buddhism really is an ongoing study of the nature of knowledge, reality and existence. The Dhamma literally translates as “the ultimate truth”. Since the Buddha encourages us to investigate and learn these truths for ourselves, followers of Buddhism can be considered to be on their own journeys “studying” these aspects.
Indeed, the second definition can just as easily fit the nature of Buddhism. If we refer back to the Eight-fold path, this is a theory created by Buddha that acts as a guiding principle for the behaviour of his followers. It makes sense then that many people would consider Buddhism to be a philosophy.
More simply, some followers would just claim that Buddhism is a belief system or way of life. In this way, it could be described as similar to following a particular political party or organisation.
So Is Buddhism a Religion or Not?
Is Buddhism a religion or is it a philosophy? Well… I guess nobody really knows.
Ultimately, I don’t think it is necessary to squeeze it into a particular definition – this doesn’t really serve a purpose. Of course, we can all have our own opinions and I think what Buddhism means to different people will differ greatly.
I see Buddhism as a philosophy or way of life because this is the way I choose to follow it. For example, I use the concepts described in Buddhism as guidelines and I believe in some aspects more than others. However, there will be some people that will follow Buddhism rigidly, who may see Buddhism more as a religion.
I don’t think any of us can truly say what is the “right” or “wrong” way or what Buddha’s intention was. However, Buddha did teach for us to explore his concepts on our own and not to take his word as gospel. This individualist approach is what sets Buddhism apart from other religions in my eyes.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinions on whether you think Buddhism is a religion or not. I’m open to alternative ideas and viewpoints – just drop a comment below!