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Barbara O'Brien

Buddhism as Religion

By August 29, 2009

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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.)

August 29, 2009 at 2:25 pm
(1) Dick Richards says:

Barbara — discovered your blog just a few weeks ago and am especially enjoying your down-to-earth treatment of what some might term “blue-sky” subjects. e.g. “Look, folks, ism is just a suffix. It won’t bite you.”

Thanks for what you are doing!

August 29, 2009 at 3:11 pm
(2) James Shaheen says:

Nicely put, Barbara. Finding fool-proof definitions of “Buddhism” and “religion” never held much interest for me, but, like you, I tend to call Buddhism a religion.

As you point out, in the West so many of us are not comfortable with the word “religion,”and I think it’s the main reason we have this discussion. I started thinking about this when Huston Smith wrote an article for Tricycle (disclosure: I’m the magazine’s editor) on our discomfort with the word (it’s why people say,for instance, “I’m spiritual but not religious”). As far as Huston Smith is concerned, a we lose something when we lose the word.

August 29, 2009 at 8:34 pm
(3) Jack Daw says:

Well written! I, along with many others, am comfortable with Buddhism as a religion. I think the main reason for the difficulty in the labeling of Buddhism is due to the fact that many western converts head over to Buddhism or more specifically, Buddhist practice, after distancing themselves, for whatever reason, from their own original religion.

For many it is easier to label their practice as part of a philosphy or “non-religion” than to admit themselves into a new religious culture. Along the same vein, many recent converts are also surprised that many of the trappings that they wish to leave (hierarchy, dogma, rituals and transcendence) are important parts of the Buddhist faith.

While this may be a stumbling block for some. Many, myself, included get around it through deeper delvings into the Dharma and into the many facets of the Buddhist faith that exist.

Bravo also for segmenting secularization of Buddhist practice from the concept Buddhist practice as religion.


August 29, 2009 at 10:53 pm
(4) JonJ says:

I think this whole matter of “Buddhism” and “religion” is a little more complicated than most people think.

First of all, “religion” as we use the English word today is a relatively new concept that is at home in European culture, relating primarily to the Abrahamic religions. It doesn’t even mean the same thing that the Latin word “religio” meant to the ancient Romans. Also, it doesn’t find itself very much at home in Asian cultures. For example, the Japanese word “shuukyou,” which dictionaries will tell you “means” “religion,” was actually a word invented in the 19th century (or maybe a little earlier) to translate words such as “religion” in Western languages like English. It was not a traditional Japanese word at all.

When some Western Buddhists insist that “Buddhism *is* a religion,” with strong emphasis on the word “is,” I think they are usually meaning to suggest that there is more to the Dharma than materialism can encompass, and they are quite right; the Buddha himself, if the suttas are correct, emphasizes that the materialist worldview is incorrect. But it is also true that it is incorrect to think of the Dharma as something “spiritualistic,” as Western people usually understand that idea. The point is that that whole way of carving up reality into “matter” and “spirit” is mistaken from the beginning, just as trying to make a sharp distinction between mind and body is a great error.

So, equally, when other Western Buddhists insist that “Buddhism is *not* a religion,” with equally strong emphasis on the word “not,” I think they are emphasizing that Buddhism does not, as far as they can see, have the sorts of ideas they associate with Abrahamic religions, and which they are revolting from. And they are right about that, too.

In any case, within the vast corpus of Buddhist writings and traditions, there are many “Dharma gates,” and no one person or group of people can encompass all of them. I think it’s about time to stop quarreling over what Buddhism *really* is or is not.

August 30, 2009 at 10:34 am
(5) Keerthi says:

Any religion has a set of “beliefs”. Any philosophy is an “idea” forwarded by “thinking”.

What The Buddha taught was called Dharma. The only objective of Dharma was to attain Nirvana.

When one say Buddhism it really means Buddha Dharma.

Buddha Dharma is not a religion because it does not have a “set of beliefs”.
Buddha Dharma is not a philosophy because it is not a set of “ideas” put forward by The Buddha by “thinking”.

Buddha Dhamma is the “practical path” to attain enlightenment.

Even when one attain enlightenment he/she has to realise it as enlightenment without a doubgt.
Therefore, Buddha means Realisation and Dharma means Detachment! In other words Buddha Dhamma is realisation of detachment.

All lay beings are in “belief” and “suspision”. Saints (Arya)are in “truth” and “reality”.

In no religion can the follower attain similar levels to the teacher.Therefore the follower is in belief and suspision.

whereas The Buddha says follower can (and must) attain similar levels to him. For this he has discovered the greatest discovery of all humanity called The Noble Eightfold Path. When one travels in that path he sees everything the teacher has seen.

The path is to stop bodily and mental activities. When you stop the mind from rolling to five aggregates there is no “thinking”. Therefore, Dharma is not a philosophy.

When one stops the mind and directly use it to percieve instead of five senses there is no “belief” as what the mind see directly is “truth” and Reality”.
Therefore, Dharma is not a religion.

Dharma is the only practical path to see truth and reality!

August 30, 2009 at 10:43 am
(6) Lee says:

When I studied buddhism it was not a religion.
When I began practicing buddhism it became a religion.

August 30, 2009 at 8:00 pm
(7) Rob Myers says:

Barbara, I love it when you toss in a pinch of snarkiness. Isn’t Buddhism without the ism just “Buddh”? If I say “Buddh,” will you start singing an old beer commercial jingle?

August 30, 2009 at 10:21 pm
(8) Barbara O'Brien says:

Rob — If you say “Buddh-wiser,” you’ve said it all. :-)

August 30, 2009 at 9:23 pm
(9) Lim Soon Heng says:

Since religion is based on a “belief” in a “deity”, my view is that Buddha’s teaching (commonly labelled as Buddhism)is cannot be classified as religious. There is nothing to believe. Buddha does not force anyone to believe him, but only to accept his teaching if they makes sense and to reject them if not. Buddha invites all to debate his teachings. Secondly there is no deity in his teachings.No supernatural being issuing decrees and condemnations. Karma, the law of cause and effect is impersonal and applies to princes and paupers equally. You reap what you sow. No Hell nor Heaven.

August 31, 2009 at 9:51 am
(10) Lee says:

I found that when I practice buddhism there is nothing left to believe in and it has manifested into a religion. I bow in deep respect to ALL! I may not chose to call ALL God but I do chose to bow with ALL. I’m not sure of all the definitions I’ve seen as to what constitutes a religion however if the real goal of most religions is to reunite, merge become one with god or the eternal or the universe due to some perceived separation from god, the eternal, All … then how could Buddhism not be a religion. I do not sit to feel good I sit to know reality, unity, harmony as do all religions. I do not have to belive any dictates and have belief in something to practice religion ….

September 1, 2009 at 5:27 am
(11) Anirudh Kumar Satsangi says:

Gravitation Force is the Ultimate Creator, this paper I presented at the 1st Int. Conf. on Revival of Traditional Yoga, held at The Lonavla Yoga Institute (India), Lonavla, Pune in 2006. The Abstract of this paper is given below:

The Universe includes everything that exists. In the Universe there are billions and billions of stars. These stars are distributed in the space in huge clusters. They are held together by gravitation and are known as galaxies. Sun is also a star. Various members of the solar system are bound to it by gravitation force. Gravitation force is the ultimate cause of birth and death of galaxy, star and planets etc. Gravitation can be considered as the cause of various forms of animate and inanimate existence. Human form is superior to all other forms. Withdrawal of gravitational wave from some plane of action is called the death of that form. It can be assumed that gravitation force is ultimate creator. Source of it is ‘God’. Gravitational Field is the supreme soul (consciousness) and its innumerable points of action may be called as individual soul (consciousness). It acts through body and mind. Body is physical entity. Mind can be defined as the function of autonomic nervous system. Electromagnetic waves are its agents through which it works. This can be realized through the practice of meditation and yoga under qualified meditation instruction. This can remove misunderstanding between science and religion and amongst various religions. This is the gist of all religious teachings – past, present and future.


‘In Scientific Terminology Source of Gravitational Wave is God’ I have presented this paper at the 2nd World Congress on Vedic Sciences held at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi on February 9-11, 2007. The Abstract of this paper is given below:

For Centuries, antagonism remained between science and religion. Science and spirituality require to be fused. An integrated philisophy is to be developed. It is written in the scriptures that entire creation is being maintained only through love or force of attraction. In Persian it is known as quvat-i-jaziba. It is on account of this force that the entire creation, which come into existence through the combination of small particles and atoms, is being maintained and sustained. The creation or universe includes everything that exists. In the universe there are billions and billions of stars. They are held together by gravitation and are known as galaxies. Sun is also a star. Various members of the solar system are bound to it by gravitation force. Gravitation force is the ultimate cause of birth and death of a galaxy, star and planet etc. and various forms of animate and inanimate existence. Gravitation force is the ultimate creator, sustainer and destroyer of the universe. These are the three attributes of God. Providence has located within the human body a spiritual faculty. When this faculty is developed like physical and mental faculties we find that Truth-the goal of science and God-the goal of religion are one and the same thing.

September 2, 2009 at 3:32 pm
(12) Keerthi says:

Dear Anirudh,
Gravitational force is physical and worldly. It has no effect on the mind which is super mundane.

Mind has nothing to do with the nervous system. With practice of correct Noble eightfold path mind can be separated from body while having the brain and whole nervous system in tact! This is called Namarupa Parichcheda (separation of mind and matter).

When you attain the second sainthood(Sakurdagami) you can see the mind coming to the tip of the tongue and pulsating(showing the mind is a pulsating entity).

Mind cannot be attracted by gravitational force of any magnitude, it cannot be burnt, damaged etc. etc.

Universe is “seen” because of the mind coming to the eye and rolling to five aggregates. It is heared because of minds “rolling to five” in ear. etc.

When the mind is stopped from rolling to five (Prapancha) the universe dissapearse(But the mind exists). This is erroneously understood
as “Shunytha” in Mahayana.

Of course the reason for existance of universe can be gravitational force(until scientists prove otherwise) the reason for existance of mind(lay mind) is attachment due to Avidya (not knowing the consequences of attachment).

It is better you call Buddhism the science of mind.
Remember psychology is not dealing with mind but knowlage and memory (called Vingana)!

The difference between mind and Vingana along with the correct Noble eightfold path was rediscovered after 2000 odd years and taught to the world by Ven. Lankapura Sariputhra in Sri Lanka.

September 3, 2009 at 10:08 pm
(13) Jessica says:

Hi Barbara

Thanks for another chance to discuss this issue. I never cease confusing my friends with my religion. JonJ seems to be on to something with his discussion of the meaning of “religion” in East and West.

I think the biggest source of confusion is that most people think of religion as “worship” whereas in Buddhism (and modern “philosophical” Taoism) that isn’t really what’s going on. There is also the idea of Deism as a necessary and sufficient condition of religion. So if you don’t believe in God and you aren’t worshipping then it must not be a religion!

My “athiest” friends think I’m a huge smartypants when I say I don’t believe in God (just like them) but I’m very religious. They’re actually OK with Buddhism as long as I’m happy for them to define it as a philosophy. The reason I’m not is that I consider a philosophy to be something you talk about, believe and act on intellectually, whereas Buddhism is something you do, learn, discover and experience spiritually and materially. Philosophy is easy and every opinion counts but Buddhism is hard and concerns itself with dharma/truth.

September 3, 2009 at 10:15 pm
(14) Stephen says:

There are lots of self-serving definitions out there. Whether it concerns terrorism, racism, love, marriage, hope, or religion, people tend to create definitions which support their point of view while demeaning the positions of others.

I tend to view religion as anything which a person believs in or practices which gives them a standard external to themselves with which to judge their own behavior, ideas, conduct, etc. By that definition, the Buddha created a religion, but so too did Karl Marx, Edmund Burke, and Jesus Christ. Politics is a religion to some, so too are economic theories, and of course, spiritual paths to becoming a better person are a form of religion. Religions don’t have to have dieties or gods, but they can.

I also agree with the poster above who said that many oppose “religion” because they are revolting against something in their past.

Just my thoughts.

September 4, 2009 at 11:45 am
(15) Dana Skolfield (Mr.) says:

Why all the fuss? Read Nikkyo Niwano’s “Buddhism for Today, A modern interpretation of The Threefold Lotus Sutra.” Also, go to my http://www.ancestral-well.blogspot.com for, hopefully, clarification of these issues. How does one practice? How does one celebrate life? The Buddha’s original teachings answer these questions.

September 10, 2009 at 5:26 am
(16) fineway says:

Buddhism is the way of life so as christianity. Both are practices that were introduce to us. But because we (human beings) have different intentions in life. We label things to suite our intentions. There is a center in South Africa. When it started they didn’t want to call it a “buddhist” center, because they wanted to attract many people. when they were getting many people that’s when they registered as a buddhist center. I am sure this is one way of avoiding to pay tax. But in their programmes,sometimes they call them “non buddhist retreat”. To come back to the discussion: whether we like it or not (buddhism/christianity) are way of life. Jesus didn’t mention anything about religion. he said “way of life” so as Buddha.

All the same, when we use the word “belief”. we can’t understand certain type of practice / way of life if you don’t believe in it. If we believe with pure understanding without putting a label to what you believe, I think its OKAY.

I am a catholic, but I have been exposed to buddhism for the past nine years. I have found that, there are many similarity than differences.Except when it comes to the rituals. Buddhist teaching have made me to like to read the bible and understand it much better.

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