Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?

If you were to follow the flow of psychology and neuroscience books published over the past two decades, you would think Buddhism is a complex philosophical system devised by a man with an insight for the emergence of psychoanalysis and philosophy somehow. 2,400 years later. road.

Indeed, Buddhism lends itself to emerging sciences in a way that no other faith has. In fact, many modern thinkers, including Sam Harris and Stephen Batchelor, wonder if faith is even necessary to understand Buddhism. The question of faith is generally avoided by Siddhartha Gotama. As Batchelor writes:

Gotama’s dharma opened the door to an emerging civilization rather than the establishment of a “religion”.

In one of the earliest examples of tribalism’s transcendence, Buddha opened up his teachings to the whole world; it was not a gender or race dependent practice. Monks and nuns were in a co-dependent relationship with the public: the clergy provided spiritual sustenance while the commoners provided them with food and money. Anyone could participate in the Three Jewels, either for a lifetime or, in some countries (like Japan), for a season: dharma, the teachings of Buddha; sangha, the community; and the Buddha. Faith in these three aspects offers a full entry into Buddhist life.

Yet if faith is required, how is it not a religion? There is a noticeable difference in the way Buddha treated religion and the way his followers translated his teachings. Buddha was skeptical of the Indian religions that surrounded him. Buddhism was born thanks to Siddhartha’s relentless questioning of traditions and spiritual authorities. He abandoned his two yoga teachers upon realizing that they wanted him to believe what they were teaching without experiencing it for himself. In Buddhism, faith depends on experience and reasoning, not on inexperienced hopes or wishful thinking.

However, in practice, Buddhism is indeed a religion. In 2010, there were 488 million Buddhists, representing seven percent of the planet’s population. The bulk resides in Asia, around 481 million, with North America coming in second with just under four million. Half of all Buddhists live in China, with Thailand, Japan and Myanmar completing the top four countries.

In the teachings there are many examples of metaphysical ideology, which connects Buddhism with other religions. One of the most relevant genres of Buddhist literature is Abhidharmakosa, or “metaphysics”. The lessons within these texts are said to have been said by Buddha directly to the gods, with his late mother being the main listener.

Despite a growing pile of clinical literature regarding the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation, Buddhist rituals and beliefs do not always correspond to modern science. In the Agganna Sutta, a myth of Buddhist origin, the gods live on the slopes of Mount Meru and at the top of its summit; part of the mountain is made of lapis lazuli, which is why the ocean is blue. For these deities, one year is equivalent to one hundred human years; they have a thousand divine years until death.

There is also the most controversial philosophy of Buddhism, the rebirth. Of the 14 questions that Buddha refused to answer, whether the universe has a beginning or an end, there are two. During the cycles of existence (samsara), “You” can be born (and be reborn) a god, demigod, human, animal, ghost or inhabitant of hell. Showing charity in your lifetime means that you will likely be reborn a god, some of whom have no physical form but exist only at the level of consciousness – a direct contradiction to our current understanding of embodied consciousness.

There are also a lot of taboos and prayers in Buddhism. There is even a New York Chinatown-based scam ring (which has spread outward) in which “ghost marriages” drain money from sensitive parents and grandparents. Buddhist ghosts live 500 leagues below the planet’s surface, emerging at random to play with human affairs. Only monks with supernormal powers can spot them.

Despite the Buddha’s refusal to recognize a beginning or an end to the universe, Buddhist cosmology is complex and intense. Eight hot hells and eight cold hells await those who break their vows, and these aren’t even the only hells. The penalties are anything but lenient: being thrown into a scorching hell is costing you millions of years. You will receive such punishment if you kill your mother, your father or a arhat (an awakened being who will attain nirvana upon his death). You will also reach this flaming cauldron if you injure the Buddha or cause a ruckus among the monks and nuns.

Since the Buddha taught for 45 years after awakening, there is no “book” that represents all of his teachings. Buddhism is even called a “religion of books”. Just as the Bible has been written by many people over the centuries, Buddhist texts better represent the state of mind of each particular author than any comprehensive overview of what Buddhism entails.

Is Buddhism a religion? A lot, certainly. Like other world religions, it offers a set of ethical codes to follow, best practices used to instill empathy, calm and compassion in your day. It also has its system of metaphysics. What follows life – the heavens and the underworld – is specific to Buddhism, yet each religious system has designed its own mystical taxonomy. In this sense, Buddhism is not alone.

Yet Buddhism is also uniquely positioned to impact the growing secularism that is manifesting across the planet. And for this, there is much to be learned from Buddhist ideology. As writer Pankaj Mishra notes about one of Buddhism’s main exports:

As with any type of mental training, the discipline of meditation gradually equips the individual with a new sensitivity. It shows him how the envy of things that are fleeting, essenceless, and imperfect leads to suffering.

Instead of craving an afterlife, Buddhism’s intensive focus on the present moment, as well as developing an awareness that your actions (karma) produce consequences, prepare the initiate to face all the troubles that life presents to him. In this way, Buddhism is not tribal, even though it has evolved into internal and external groups fighting wars. The sangha is more of a collection of individuals sharing the perspective that desire is the root of suffering and that your accumulated actions affect the world we all inhabit. Personal responsibility and social decorum interact.

These are lessons as applicable in our world today as they were when Siddhartha spent more than half of his life teaching them. For religious, there is much to contemplate in this tradition. Regardless of spiritual affiliation, the knowledge that we are suffering and that techniques exist to overcome this suffering is of immense value, no metaphysical belief is required. Faith is in the proof.

Keep in touch with Derek on Facebook and Twitter.