Buddhism is one of the five world religions found in every list of major religions. The other four are Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. These five are included in every list of the great religions of the world because of their number of adherents, their international spread, and their influence on historical events. The list of major world religions is sometimes expanded to include Confucianism, Taoism, Sikhism, Baha’i, or broader categories of “indigenous religions” or “new religious movements”.
Besides being one of the five great world religions, Buddhism is also one of the three major universalizing religions. Universalizing religions are denominations that include in their creed or basic belief system the desire to spread throughout the world and to convert other peoples. While many religions hope to gain new converts, universalizing religions consider it a sacred duty to convert others and may deliberately travel to other countries or regions to spread their faith. The three main universalising religions are Buddhism, Islam and Christianity.
While most people understand Buddhism as a religion, some prefer to describe Buddhism as a “philosophy” or a “way of life”. Some Buddhists may have a negative view of the word “religion”. For them, religion implies fanaticism or closed-mindedness, so they would prefer to distance their own beliefs and practices from such a connotation. Others have a positive idea of religion but find it difficult to imagine a religious tradition that does not worship a central deity or a pantheon of deities. In Buddhism, nothing is eternal, therefore there can be no eternal divinity; Buddhism is essentially atheist. There is no place in Buddhism for some kind of true creator that Western religions would recognize. There are gods in Buddhism, but the gods of Buddhism are mortal, if they live long, as well as imperfect.
The absence of true “gods” does not mean that Buddhism is not a religion. Religions are systems of life that answer key questions about the meaning of existence, provide essential guidelines for behavior, and create hopes and beliefs about life and death. The goal of Buddhism is to transform from an ordinary and ignorant person into an enlightened Buddha or Bodhisattva capable of using great compassion and understanding to free other beings from suffering. Like other major religions, Buddhism has a clear code or belief that it follows, and all Buddhist traditions agree on the basic underlying assumptions of the tradition, such as the source of suffering, the purpose of liberation, the cycle of births. death-rebirth and karma. There is a strong Buddhist community spread across the world which has organized itself into different schools and monastic traditions. Buddhism states a clear set of values in the five precepts, gives greater meaning to life in the goals of the bodhisattva path, and sees the world both through the ordinary powers found in the five senses of a human and through the extraordinary powers which, according to Buddhists, can be achieved through study, koans, and diligent meditation.
Buddhists are as diligent in the practice of their faith as any Christian or Muslim. They are also willing to travel to spread their beliefs as missionaries. In addition, Buddhists in China and Tibet suffered and died instead of betraying their beliefs, as Christian martyrs did.
In practice as in theory, Buddhism corresponds to the criteria of a religion.
Learn more about Buddhist divinity ideas here.