Is Buddhism a religion? | Dr Jay N. Forrest

The Buddha said:

“The practitioner will find great joy and attain the final state of rest by having confidence in the religion of the Buddha, discovering the happiness of ending mental conditioning” (Dhp 381).

Is Buddhism a religion? It seems like a simple question until you realize that there is little agreement on what Buddhism is or what religion is. Let’s start with the word religion.

What is religion?

The sociologist J. Milton Yinger declares: “Many studies on religion come up against the first obstacle: the problem of definition” (3). This is because “there is no universally accepted definition of religion” (Crawford 3). It seems that there are as many definitions as there are academic disciplines. As John Hick writes:

“Religion is one thing for anthropologists, another for the sociologist, another for the psychologist (and yet another for the next psychologist!), Another for the Marxist, another for the mystic, another for the Buddhist zen and yet another for the Jew or Christian. As a result, there is a wide variety of religious theories about the nature of religion. There is, therefore, no universally accepted definition of religion, and most likely there never will be ”(Crawford 3).

But religion is a useful word. This helps us to distinguish human activity that is different from that of animals. Only humans are religious. As Tim Crane writes: “We should try to understand religion because without such an understanding we lack a proper sense of a fundamental part of human civilization and its history, and therefore we lack an adequate sense of a fundamental part of human civilization and its history. good understanding of ourselves ”(xi).

When approaching the word religion, it is good to remember the words of Jonathan Z. Smith, “Religion is only the creation of the study of the scholar. It is created for the scholar’s analytical purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization ”(xi). Its goal is therefore to help us understand a human phenomenon.

Worship of god

The Oxford Dictionary paperback defines religion as “the belief and worship of one or more gods”. It is the only kind of religion that Westerners have known for centuries. They knew the gods of ancient Greece and Rome, and the pagans. But for them, religion mainly dealt with Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Religion therefore had to do with God and the worship of God. But such a definition is shortsighted.

But as the religions of the East began to be known, they did not fit this mold. Buddhism, Taoism, and Jainism do not have a personal Creator God like Western religions, and therefore their religion has little to do with worshiping God. So if religion is defined by belief and worship of God, Buddhism, Taoism, and Jainism are not religions.

But since when has the world revolved around the West. It is not because a religion is not like our religion that it is not a religion. Religion is not what we say it is, it should be descriptive of activities that deal with the transcendent or the sacred. There is no other word for these human concerns. But our definition of religion should be descriptive, not prescriptive.

A definition of religion

Buddhism, Taoism and Jainism are religions and no definition of religion should exclude them. So we need a definition of religion that is neither too broad, not too narrow, nor biased. Too broad a definition of religion would be an “ultimate concern”. Too narrow a definition of religion would be “the belief and worship of one or more gods”. Too biased would be to define religion as a “virus” or an “illusion”.

Two definitions are really good. The first is by Tim Crane, he defines religion as “a systematic and practical attempt by human beings to find meaning in the world and their place in it, in terms of their relationship to something transcendent” (6) . The second definition is from William E. Paden, he says that “religion is generally used to refer to a system of language and practice which organizes the world according to what is considered sacred” (10).

Others take a more functional approach to religion. As Michael Molloy states, “We can accept as ‘religion’ anything that manifests a reasonable number of the following characteristics:” It then lists the belief system, community, ethics, characteristic emotions (such as devotion, liberation, inner peace and bliss), ritual and sacredness (7).

My definition of religion is that it is a worldview and a way of life related to the Divine or the sacred. This means that there are at least three elements in a religion, a worldview, a way of life, and something sacred. A worldview is the belief system or conceptual framework that we use to see and interpret the world. A way of life deals with the personal, ethical and social ways we act in the world. And both are related to the Divine or the sacred. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all worldviews and ways of life related to God.

The sacred in Buddhism

Buddhism is not a worldview and a way of life linked to God. One could say that early Buddhism was polytheistic since it recognizes many “angels, demons and gods” (AN 4.23). But these gods are of little importance to Buddhism, as they are, just like humans, stuck in the same cycle of rebirth. It’s called samsara, which I translate as the “renaissance prison”.

The main thing is that these Gods are of no help in freeing oneself from the dissatisfaction of conditioned existence. Thus, Buddhism is not related to the Divine, but it is related to the sacred. By sacred I mean that which is honored, respected and even revered.

In Buddhism, it is the three jewels that are sacred. These are the Buddha, the Doctrine (Pali, dhamma), and the Community (Pali, sangha). These are honored, respected and revered by all Buddhists. I would say that life itself is also sacred in Buddhism, since refraining from taking life is the first of the five precepts of Buddhism.

Buddhist worldview

The Buddhist worldview sees life through the conceptual framework of the Four Noble Truths. The first truth is that suffering characterizes unawakened life. Suffering, which is better translated as dissatisfaction, refers to the unsatisfying nature of life, which is a prison of endless suffering in a cycle of birth and death. Suffering is all around us. Everything around us changes, breaks, dies and fails to give lasting happiness. You can’t count on anything.

The second truth is that the cause of this suffering is greed, which dates back to ignorance of the true nature of reality. From ignorance comes attachment and aversion, which causes suffering.

The third truth is that we can awaken and end our attachments and aversions, and therefore we can end suffering.

And the fourth truth is that the Buddha taught the Eightfold Noble Path which leads to the end of ignorance, attachment and aversion, and therefore it leads to the end of suffering.

Buddhist way of life

The Dhammapada, the most popular Buddhist script, sums up the Buddhist way of life as follows: “Avoid doing harm, cultivate good behavior and purify your mind: this is the instruction of the Buddhas” (Dhp 183). In this line we have the ethical and spiritual aspirations of Buddhism.

The ethical code for Buddhists, in general, is summarized in the five precepts, there are more for monks and nuns. The five precepts are (1) to abstain from taking life; (2) refrain from taking what is not given; (3) refrain from sexual misconduct; (4) refrain from false speech; and (5) refrain from intoxicants that confuse the mind.

In addition to the ethical way of life, there is also a religious way of life. This includes the development of virtues such as generosity, compassion, kindness, and equanimity. And that includes spiritual disciplines such as chanting and meditation.

Buddhist religion

Buddhism is therefore a religion. In Pali, it is called Buddha-sasana. Bhikkhu Sucitto defines Buddha-sasana as “the Buddhist religion” (Sucitto 52). Here are two translations of the Dhammapada:

“When a bhikkhu applies himself still young to the religion of the Buddha, he illuminates the world, like the moon standing out from a cloud” (Richards Dhp 382).

Here is an older translation.

“The still young monk, who devotes himself to the religion of Buddha, illuminates this world, as the moon is freed from the clouds” (Edmunds Dhp 382).

Buddhism is a religion because it is a worldview and a way of life linked to the sacred. But it is a unique religion. Most religions talk about getting right with God through repentance, faith, and obedience. For them the problem is human sin. But Buddhism goes further.

The problem is not your relationship to God, your problem is your relationship to reality. You are in a prison of your own making, “shackled by ignorance and shackled by greed” (SN 15.1). God did not make the law of karma, it is part of the system. God is subject to karma.

Is murder wrong because God forbids it, or is God forbidding it because it is wrong? Buddhism says that the moral law existed before God. God forbids it because it is the law of conditioned existence. God is obligated to obey the moral law. As Alfred North Whitehead pointed out, “The real world must always mean the community of all real entities, including the primordial real entity called ‘God’ and the real temporal entities” (65).

Mentioned works

  • Crane, Tim. The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.
  • Crawford, Robert G. What is religion? : Introduction to the study of religion New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Edmunds, Albert Joseph, transl. Hymns of Faith (Dhammapada): being an ancient anthology preserved in the short collection of the sacred scriptures of the Buddhists Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing Company (1902).
  • Molloy, Michel. Living the religions of the world: tradition, challenge and change. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1999.
  • Paden, William E. Religious worlds: the comparative study of religion. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
  • Richards, John, trad. The Dhammapada. Pasadena, CA: Theosophical University Press, 1980. PDF file.
  • Smith, Jonathan Z. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.
  • Sucitto, Bhikkhu. Sangha Words: a manual for Forest Sangha publications. Revised Edition Version 1.2. Hemel Hempstead, England: Amaravati Publications, 2016. PDF file.
  • Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and reality: corrected edition. Ed. David Ray Giffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: The Free Press, 1985.
  • Yinger, J. Milton. The scientific study of religion. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co, 1970.

Copyright © 2020 Jay N. Forrest. All rights reversed.

All quotes from Scripture, unless otherwise noted, are by the author, some of which are modifications from the public domain translation by Bhikkhu Sujato for SuttaCentral.

Image by Artem Beliaikin via Unsplash