In a nutshell, Buddhism developed from the teachings of the Buddha, a teacher who lived in northern India. In ancient India, “Buddha” referred to an enlightened being who has awakened from ignorance and has already achieved freedom from suffering.
His teachings state that in order to eliminate suffering, one must understand the true nature of the world. He urged his followers to focus instead on the Four Noble Truths by which they can free themselves from suffering.
Buddha’s teachings passed into the hands of his followers thousands of years ago. Today, people around the world are baffled about Buddhism being a religion or just a philosophy which describes the way of life or living.
In fact, it’s been dubbed as one of the “religions without God”. The debate whether it is a religion or a philosophy has been going on over this long period of time.
Maybe it is because different people have different perspectives and different opinions. People are divided because it really depends on various technicalities in how one defines religion.
Every person has a favorite definition; some even think that theirs is the only valid meaning for the term. So, let’s take a look at how religion is defined by different sources:
1. Webster’s New World Dictionary (Third College Edition)
This edition defines religion as “any specific system of belief and worship, often involving a code of ethics and a philosophy.”
For this definition, Buddhism would be a philosophy. It is because it is non-theistic and does not generally involve worship of a supernatural entity.
This site defines religion as “a system of social coherence based on a common group of beliefs or attitudes concerning an object, person, unseen being, or system of thought considered to be supernatural, sacred, divine or highest truth, and the moral codes, practices, values, institutions, traditions, and rituals associated with such belief or system of thought.”
For this definition, Buddhism could be considered a religion. Its various forms share a system of thought that is considered to be the highest truth. It also involves moral codes, practices, values, traditions, and rituals.
Geertz was an American anthropologist from Princeton. He was considered the single most influential cultural anthropologist in the United States for three decades.
He defines religion as “an organized approach to human spirituality which usually encompasses a set of narratives, symbols, beliefs, and practices, often with a supernatural or transcendent quality, that gives meaning to the practitioner’s experiences of life through reference to a higher power, God or gods, or ultimate truth.”
With this definition, Buddhism will fall under religion because it seeks the ultimate truth to become enlightened.
Wallace is another anthropologist who specialized in Native American cultures and became famous for the theory of revitalization movements.
He defined religion as “a set of rituals, rationalized by myth, which mobilizes supernatural powers for the purpose of achieving or preventing transformations of state in man or nature.”
Wallace’s definition would make Buddhism a philosophy because it does not usually involve belief in supernatural powers.
The center for Tibetan Buddhist studies, practice and culture, fully accepts Buddhism as a religion. According to them:
“Like all major religions, Buddhism contains an explanation of the origin of existence, morality, and a specific set of rituals and behaviors. … Buddhism presents a transformational goal, a desire to improve one’s situation, and a distinct moral code.”
The Late Ven Dr.K.Sri Dhammananda Nayaka Maha Thera JSM is an incumbent of the Buddhist Maha Vihara, Malaysia for more than forty-two years. He believes Buddhism is a religion.
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He states that: “The Buddha’s message as a religious way of life: ‘Keeping away from all evil deeds, cultivation or life by doing good deeds and purification of mind from mental impurities’.”
“For our purposes, religion may be defined in a very broad sense as a body of moral and philosophical teachings and the acceptance with the confidence of such teachings In this sense. Buddhism is a religion.”
Now that we are presented with the different definitions of religion, here are the arguments for Buddhism being a religion or a philosophy to help us come to a conclusion:
Arguments for Buddhism being a philosophy
Philosophy means the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.
Even if you can find “Buddhism” on every list of world religions, it is still a science of mind. It’s a way of exploring how we think, feel, and act that leads us to profound truths about who we are.
The Buddha was born a prince but he realized that conditioned experiences could not provide lasting happiness or protection from suffering. He left his royal home determined to find answers to life’s most perplexing questions.
He went into deep meditation where he achieved the state of unconditional and lasting happiness. This is called the state of enlightenment or “buddhahood” and it’s free from disturbing emotions. It teaches its followers how to lead a meaningful, joyful, and compassionate life.
From then on, the Buddha taught anyone who asked how to work with the mind: how to look at it, how to free it from misunderstandings, and how to realize the greatness of its potential.
“I teach because you and all beings want to have happiness and want to avoid suffering. I teach the way things are.” – The Buddha
Today, his teachings are considered spiritual but not religious. Buddhists do not view the Buddha as a god but a teacher whose teachings show us how to work with our minds to realize our full capacity for wakefulness, happiness and satisfy our search for the truth.
In Buddhism, the journey starts by bringing an open, inquisitive, and skeptical mind to whatever we hear, read, or see that presents itself as the truth. The truth is further examined with reason put it to the test in meditation. This way, the Buddha’s teachings are a method of investigation or science of mind.
On the other hand, religion already provides the answers to life’s big questions from the start. Religious people think, believe, and do not necessarily question the truth.
People who believe that Buddhism is a philosophy view Siddharta as a truth seeker. In fact, he wasn’t interested in religion — he found the truth and freedom he was seeking after he began to leave religion behind.
Arguments for Buddhism being a religion
Buddhism is considered to be a religion by some people. The reason is that the Buddha discussed the afterlife and the various realms of existence, which is associated with religion.
He mentioned that there are Thirty-One realms of existence that one can be reborn in after death. He also made a reference to supernatural beings throughout many of his sermons.
People who believe that Buddhism is a religion argue that every religion has a philosophy and when practiced it becomes a philosophy, a way of life. And just like other religions, Buddhists take time to understand its art, literature, rituals and mythology and not only philosophy and practices.
What can we conclude?
Now that we can see both sides of the coin, we learn that each side has their own belief to debate. What we know is that Buddhism is not a religion requiring belief in a deity which gives religious and spiritual truths to humanity.
If it is a religion, then it is a religion created by humans as an attempt to express spiritual concepts.
Kerry Trembath, former Secretary of the Buddhist Council of New South Wales, couldn’t have expressed it more accurately when she wrote:
“…at its core Buddhism is a non-theistic religion and, unlike other world religions, Buddhism is not a doctrine of revelation. The Buddha did not claim to be the bearer of a message from on high. He made it clear that what he taught he had discovered for himself through his own efforts.”