I want to go back to the "new trends in western Buddhism list." The third issue is:
3) Is Buddhism a religion? (Buddhism and religious identity)
Recently there have been a few news articles (for example) dealing with the idea of Buddhism and religious identity. These usually include a Christian person who also practices meditation. They either consider themselves both Christian and Buddhist or think of Buddhist meditation as a way to enhance their Christian faith. There has been some backlash to these ideas of bi-religious identities and the idea that Buddhism is not a religion in the buddhoblogosphere. Why is it that Buddhism has this idea of non-religiosity around it? Could it be because of the fact that meditation has become divorced from the Buddhist worldview?
In some ways, the blogger is conflating two separate issues and mixing them into the second issue, the secularization of meditation. Taking Buddhist meditation practices out of the context of Buddhism is not new at all; as I wrote earlier, Ch'an master Kuei-feng Tsung-mi (780-841) was talking about this back during the Tang Dynasty.
So there is dharma, and there is not-dharma using Buddhist practices for other purposes, and while these things may be indistinguishable in the dharmakaya, we can speak of them as two different things here in Relative World. So let's do that.
As for whether Buddhism is or is not a religion, this is something I've written about quite a bit already. (See "Buddhism: Philosophy or Religion?" and also a little blog post on "westernizing" Buddhism I wrote for the Guardian last month.) Ultimately, "religion," "not-religion" "just-a-philosophy" are projected concepts. As Buddhists, we ought to be aware of that and not get caught up in views about intrinsic identity.
It is especially useless to shoehorn an ancient Asian discipline into 21st-century English language definitions of "religion" or "philosophy," considering that the West didn't separate religion and philosophy into two separate bins until two or three centuries ago, and the East never separated them.
On the other hand, sometimes you have to call it something, and I think "religion" hits the mark more closely than "philosophy." Under current definitions, "philosophy" is something limited to intellect, which Buddhism definitely is not. So there.
As for, "Why is it that Buddhism has this idea of non-religiosity around it?" that's an easy one. There is widespread antagonism toward religion in the West. Religion is equated with superstitious rubbish, and people who follow a religion are thought by many to be hopelessly brainwashed. When people who hold such views recognize there is something of value in this Buddhism thing, they re-label it "philosophy" and file it under P instead of R in their mental filing cabinets.
In other words, we're looking at good ol' cognitive dissonance.
At the same time, if one's definition of "religion" is limited to the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), then of course Buddhism doesn't fit. (Someone actually explained to me once that Buddhism is not a religion because it doesn't believe in the Bible. And what was really mind-blowing about that was that the person explaining this to me considered himself to be Buddhist.) But this is a very narrow minded way to look at religion.
There is some disagreement about where the word "religion" comes from, but my understanding is that it most probably comes from the Latin religare, which means 'to tie or bind together." The word ligament has the same root. I've read that religare also has a connotation of joining together things that were joined together before but which have come apart.
The Sanskrit word yoga also means "to join together." The English word "yolk" evolved from the word yoga. So, etymologically speaking, religion and yoga are both about binding or yolking oneself to something.
In his book Dangerous Words: Talking About God in an Age of Fundamentalism (Shambhala, 2007) Gary Eberle notes the religare-yoga connection. He also points out that religion might also be derived from the Latin religens, which is the opposite of negligens, or negligence. To be "religious" is to not be negligent. Mindfulness, anyone?
Eberle goes on to say that the origins of the word religion suggest it originally meant something like a discipline or way of life rather than a creed or belief system in which one is supposed to place faith. Perhaps the question we should ask is not whether Buddhism is a religion, but whether those "belief system" religions are religions in the full sense of the word. Hmmmm?
And then there's the word dharma, which can be translated as "religion," although it means much more than that. Dharma most often refers to the teachings of the Buddha, and also to the laws (such as karma) or principles that underlie existence. In Mahayana Buddhism it can mean "manifestation of reality." In Theravada Buddhism, dharma is a term for the factors of existence, or the transitory conditions that cause phenomena to come into being. I understand that in Hinduism the word can be used to mean "sacred duty." Fascinating word.
(I tend to use "dharma" and "Buddhism" interchangeably, in part because I get tired of keyboarding "Buddhism." Every now and then someone comes along and says there is no such thing as Buddhism, just dharma. Look, folks, ism is just a suffix. It won't bite you.)