Religious historian Karen Armstrong was interviewed by Steve Paulson for Salon in 2006. This is an interview I recommend highly, particularly to people who want to argue that Buddhism is not a religion. In "Going Beyond God," Armstrong argues that many Westerners define "religion" much too narrowly because they use the Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- and belief in the God of monotheism as the "standard" of what defines religion.
[Paulson:] Now, there is the question of whether all of these were actually religions. I mean, the philosophies of the ancient Greeks -- Socrates and Plato -- were not religious at all. Buddhism is essentially a philosophy of mind. And I suppose you could see Confucianism as essentially a system of ethics.
[Armstrong:] That's a very chauvinistic Western view, if I may say so. You're saying this is what we regard as religion, and anything that doesn't measure up to that isn't. I think a Buddhist or a Confucian would be very offended to hear that he or she was not practicing a religion.
[Paulson:] Well, explain that. What is religion?
[Armstrong:] Religion is a search for transcendence. But transcendence isn't necessarily sited in an external god, which can be a very unspiritual, unreligious concept. The sages were all extremely concerned with transcendence, with going beyond the self and discovering a realm, a reality, that could not be defined in words. Buddhists talk about nirvana in very much the same terms as monotheists describe God.
Why is this important? As Buddhism slowly becomes more visible in the West, and Westerners puzzle over where to place Buddhism in their mental filing cabinets, does it matter whether we define it as "religion" or not?
I'd say the answer is no and no and yes. But it's a big yes.
The first no acknowledges that to individual practitioners it may not matter where others choose to place Buddhism on the spirituality taxonomic tree.
The first no ties into the second no, which acknowledges that (in Mahayana, at least) nothing has intrinsic identity. Tables have no intrinsic existence as tables, cats have no intrinsic existence as cats, you have no intrinsic existence as you. From this perspective, whenever you open your mouth and declare "this is that," you are getting yourself in trouble.
And just as Buddhism has no intrinsic existence as a religion, neither does Christianity or Judaism. All phenomena identified as "religions" are social constructs that have no intrinsic existence. From this perspective, if you want to argue that Buddhism is not a religion that's fine, but from the same perspective Christianity and Judaism aren't religions, either.
But now let's flip over to the yes. As a socio-cultural phenomenon, it is important to acknowledge and classify Buddhism as religion. Why is that? First are the pragmatic reasons. We in the U.S. want our dharma centers to continue to receive the non-profit tax status granted to religions. Some of us also would like our own priests to marry us and bury us and officiate over other ceremonies marking significant life events.
But the third reason for yes is, to me, the most important. The great wisdom of Buddhism is more than just a personal self-improvement program. Practiced sincerely, it offers healing for communities, societies and our entire species. This healing benefits everyone, including those who choose not to follow the Buddhist path.
However, in Western culture Buddhism is not taken seriously as either religion or wisdom. This is partly because of Western cultural parochialism, which lingers even among Westerners who consider themselves progressive. This parochialism touches on anything Asian; Socrates was a great philosopher, but Confucius was a character in a Charlie Chan movie. And BOOOODAH is the fat guy guarding the entrance of the neighborhood Chinese restaurant.
But this lack of respect also is being underscored by some people who consider themselves Buddhists, or at least admirers of Buddhism. I'm speaking of those who militantly insist that Buddhism is not a religion because religions are, you know, bad. Buddhism is, instead, a philosophy or a mind science or a way to think about life (argh!). Meditation is not a means for liberation from samsara, but good mental-health hygiene. It's, like, the new version of EST. (Remember EST? That was supposed to have been Zen without Buddhism. It was really big in the 1970s.)
But in its own way, this approach to Buddhism, if it can be called an "approach" at all, is just as dismissively parochial as those who don't take non-Western religion and philosophy seriously. And as long as one defines Buddhism by personal standards instead of accepting it as-it-is, it's not dharma. And no dharma, no Buddhism.
As Master Seng-ts'an, said,
If you wish to see the truth
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
is the disease of the mind.
When the deep meaning of things is not understood
the mind's essential peace is disturbed to no avail.
Back to Karen Armstrong:
I think religions hold us in an attitude of awe and wonder. People such as the Buddha thought miracles were rather vulgar -- you know, displays of power and ego. If you look at the healing miracles attributed to Jesus, they generally had some kind of symbolic aspect about healing the soul rather than showing off a supernatural power. Western people think the supernatural is the essence of religion, but that's rather like the idea of an external god. That's a minority view worldwide. I really get so distressed on behalf of Buddhists and Confucians and Hindus to have a few Western philosophers loftily dismissing their religion as not religious because it doesn't conform to Western norms. It seems the height of parochialism.
One of Armstrong's recurring themes (read the whole interview, and then go read some of her books) is that in the past three or so centuries Western religion itself has gone through a major shift in how God and scripture are understood. The Western monotheistic religions have adopted a narrower and more infantile understanding of God, she says. In reaction, a kind of secular fundamentalism (all religion is bad) has cropped up as an equally infantile reaction to infantile monotheism.
And then there are Western religious progressives. I am in contact with a great many well-educated progressive religious activists, mostly Christians and Jews. These include ministers, rabbis, and educators with Ph.D.s in religious studies. And many of these people are busily writing important books and serving in important capacities in influential organizations. And while they are indulgently polite about Buddhism, they don't know much about it (this includes, alas, people who majored in "Buddhist studies"), and on the whole they are remarkably incurious about it.
So in many of the great issues of our time, such as the environment, reproductive rights, and sectarian violence, Buddhist voices are not being heard. We are not being invited to the conferences and panel discussions. We have a great deal to contribute, but we're not listened to, because we're not taken seriously.
So, I argue, let's not allow Buddhism itself to be turned into just another expression of pop culture. People can borrow what they like. And anyone can choose to disagree with it. I'm not out to convert anybody. I'm just saying, respect it. And yes, it's religion.