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Barbara O'Brien

Why Buddhism Is a Religion, and Why It Matters

By September 27, 2009

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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.

September 27, 2009 at 12:32 pm
(1) Mujaku says:

Armstrong is spot on when you consider what Schleiermacher said about religion: “All religion expresses itself in such an awareness of something outside and beyond nature.”

September 28, 2009 at 10:06 am
(2) Jaime McLeod says:

Yes, yes, yes, on all counts. You’ve hit every thought I’ve had about this subject, and said it all with utter clarity. Thank you.

October 1, 2009 at 5:48 pm
(3) JoeBuddha says:

You think you got problems; my sect isn’t even taken seriously by Buddhists! (not that I’ve ever lost any sleep over it… ;) )

I believe the solution to the problem to be active engagement. Over the last few years, our members have taken it upon themselves to volunteer for and host multifaith dialogue, as well as having a visible presence in the community at large. Part of being “invited” is being proactive in being noticed, IMHO.

I also work very hard to set the record straight through one-on-one dialogue whenever possible. This lack of respect and understanding can only change when more non-Buddhists know more Buddhists and see for themselves what the reality is. It’s easy to moan about not having any respect, but to practice Buddhism correctly is to take action to change what you believe is wrong.

October 1, 2009 at 7:32 pm
(4) Naumadd says:

One thing any genuine religion most certainly is not is an attempt to define what is “religion” FOR others.

For anything termed “religion” to be authentic, it must of course involve the most intimate and personal connection of the unique self with the non-self. Each of us necessarily has an experience set unique to ourselves. It is only through our own senses, our own minds that we know who and what we are and have been and make an educated guess regarding who and what we will be. It is also only through our own unique tools we explore, sample, know, understand and manipulate to our own liking the “non-self”, i.e., the rest of nature. Your “spirituality” and your “religion” must be defined by you alone, otherwise, neither is authentic. This isn’t to say we don’t or cannot borrow concepts and practices from others, but it is to say our understanding of these concepts and practices, our relationship to them is only and entirely individual and ours alone. Again, it must be so, or it isn’t genuine connection, genuine spirituality, genuine religion. No one can define these things for us.

If whatever you believe to be “buddhism” is, in your mind, a religion, then that is what it is. If it is not, it is not. Others will have their own take on it, but they cannot and must not be allowed to dictate to you your own spirituality and they way you put that spirituality into practice – “religion”. So too, you must refrain from attempts to dictate to others what is “spirituality” and “religion”. Try as you might, you do not and cannot share their experiences. You cannot feel what they feel. You cannot hope the same as they hope. Their fate, will not be your own.

October 1, 2009 at 7:42 pm
(5) Reshwetmuti says:

Karen Armstrong is a great author. I have several of her books and I admire the way she sticks up for several paths and can stay neutral in discussions.

I agree with this blog too. Buddhism IS a religion and ISN’T respected or taken seriously :/

October 1, 2009 at 11:08 pm
(6) Joram Arentved says:

If God exists, according to my own observation This Person is A Pig or A Bitch, I still don’t know, don’t think, if I can rely on, even claim that money’s true ↔ happiness, however, an issue, whereon you’re still welcome, pls., to receive a few more mails of mine, (recommended), so that I can of course tell & e.g. help us all find out &, whoever’s who, our best answers to, what’s our just as good future, to be continued, greetings, arentved@in.com.

October 2, 2009 at 8:44 am
(7) Bill says:

Great article. I have always wondered how Jesus was elevated to a deity, when his message clearly was on how to be closer to God. Seems to me that instead of listening to Jesus, we added a layer between God and us by now worshiping Jesus.
Do we do the same with Buddha, who said to believe that which pertains to us, and if it does not work, do not use it?
I love his one quote “The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon”.
Not being a Buddhist (yet), but extremely interested in the teachings of Buddha. Sorry if I misquoted or offended any with my posting.

October 2, 2009 at 11:13 am
(8) Hein says:

In my home language (Afrikaans) the term for religion can be loosely translated as “god service” or “service to god” (“godsdiens”). Therefore convincing people in my country (South Africa) that Buddhism is a religion (in the conventional sense as a concept) like any other religion is a difficult task. But for my people “no god” translate to “no religion”.

I agree with Barbara that people should be made to understand that we take our religion/practice of Buddhism seriously and expect people to show respect towards it.

The largest Buddhist temple (Nan Hua Temple: see http://www.nanhua.co.za) in Africa is an hours drive from my home. The tradition is Chinese (Zen and Amitabha practice) and if the Chinese do things, they do it on big scale. When they have festivals (like the recent – Sunday – Festival of Lights) all religions and denominations are invited. It is only the fundamentalist Protestant Churches who decline the invitation. In addition the Chinese have formal attire (black gown for lay people, earthy colours for monks etc), act very devoutly and they make sure they are taken seriously.

Perhaps taking a page out of their books one can make sure you are taken seriously. Wearing informal and multi-coloured clothes (by itself nothing wrong with that) might not convey a seriousness as for instance black or grey might. What I am trying to convey is; make yourself serious about your practice and people will take you seriously.

October 5, 2009 at 4:23 pm
(9) Shira says:

My favorite definition (or possibly description?) of religion has long been Abraham Joshua Heschel’s: Religion is an answer to ultimate questions. By that definition, Buddhism would definitely qualify as a religion. (By that definition, a number of toxic philosophies also qualify, but I have no problem with the notion of religions being wholesome or toxic, so that isn’t a deal-breaker for me!)

October 6, 2009 at 11:01 pm
(10) Emily Breder says:

Buddhists should really be more proactive about this issue, and the way to do it is to start making our presence known at interfaith organizations. They are not going to go to bat for us if we aren’t going to do it ourselves.

Find an interfaith organization to join in your hometown, do an internet search, and if you don’t find one then go to the library and put up a flyer to start your own. In order to have a voice, we must first stand up to be counted.

October 7, 2009 at 1:03 pm
(11) Jane says:

While I appreciate Ms Armstrong’s comments, I question her statements that “Western religious progressives…[including] educators with Ph.D.s in religious studies” are ignorant and/or incurious about Buddhism. About whom is she referring? How does she substantiate this? I would challenge her to speak with the educators I work with – not only are they informed about Buddhism (a large category, in any case), but they are curious about and respectful toward Buddhism, as well as many other religions. Religious Studies is a huge, exciting field, and all sorts of people, with all sorts of motivations, study and teach in it. While we all could probably improve our knowledge of and respect for others, I don’t think it is helpful for Ms Armstrong to throw blanket criticisms at all “Westerners” (or at any other group of people). This is just as biased and ignorant as any other stereotyping, and unworthy of anyone as compassionate and concerned as Ms Armstrong purports to be.

October 7, 2009 at 2:23 pm
(12) Barbara O'Brien says:

Jane — the part about western religious progressives being ignorant of and/or incurious about Buddhism was not Dr. Armstrong’s opinion, but mine. This has been my overwhelming experience with western religious progressives, including poeple with degrees in religious studies, going back many years. And I’m in touch with a lot of western religious progressives.

October 16, 2009 at 11:48 pm
(13) Rob Myers says:

Wonderful post! I feel encouraged to call what I do a “religious practice” after reading this, even though I don’t believe in the supernatural, reincarnation, or an afterlife. (We will be glorious compost! :-) I believe in the scientific method, and zazen is my personal experiment. Your mileage may vary.

I find that, at least in Zen communities, the Asian trappings and rituals soften with every generation of teachers, and I think that’s a good thing. I believe that Buddhism will be considered more sincerely when we drop some of the trans-cultural stuff. I’m not sure, though, that we want to push that evolutionary process.

There are plenty of Japanese trappings in my teacher’s sangha, but we chant in English. We haven’t managed to convince the teacher to give up her incense (it makes me sneeze), but she sits on the floor with us, and she’s never hit anyone with a stick. I can tell she loves Japanese architecture. She trained in Japan; I’m not going to fault her for a touch of sentimentalism.

I think we need to reach back, but be aware that the past is very foggy and the truth is right in front of us. I think we need to acknowledge our American differences, without sweeping all the joyful, artistic expression from our rituals.

I’d love to get rid of incense and candles (honestly, at home I have a beautiful little 3-D Buddha nightlight that lights up my altar. Wish I had an LED bulb…). But I’d like to preserve the bow. I’d like to bow at a business-meeting, though I think I’d get some funny looks. Hey, shaking hands is such a risky (and archaic) practice (“now with more H1N1 virus in every shake!”). If I were King of the World. ;-)

I guess I’m suggesting that I’m not too worried about the shape of American Buddhism. Sincere practice for the benefit of all beings is a powerful thing. Given enough of that, it will shape American culture, rather than having American culture unilaterally shape Buddhism.

And we have you, Barbara: Straight-shooting, no nonsense, and quite compassionate and patient with the lot of us. A true American Buddhist, methinks!

October 30, 2009 at 2:12 pm
(14) Bruce Williamson says:

Buddhism is not a religion in the same sense that Christianity or Islam or Judaism are religions. That being a Christian, Islamic and Jewish view point. Saying from the Buddhist view that there are no religions removes Buddhism too. Therefore, Barbara, you’ve logically argued that Buddhism is not a religion as no religion intrinsically exists.

You can call a cat a dog all day but that still does not make it a dog. It is still a cat.


June 5, 2010 at 3:51 am
(15) Jason says:

Buddhism is not a religion; full stop!

Buddhist priests on the whole do nothing in Japan and 30,000 plus people kill themselves every year; and when did you last see the Buddhists helping the homeless in Tokyo or anywhere in Japan?

The Buddha did not believe in God and reincarnation and karma is either naive or pure evil.

After all, how can any baby be special if they are a mere reproduction of so many past lives?

How can you love your mother or father when you have had thousands of mothers and fathers?

Where did the seed of life come from if reincarnation is true? Surely the dna wouldn’t belong to the same male and female who produced the baby through nature?

For reincarnation would mean that the life was formed from past lives and the new born baby would not be the new individual that it should be.

Karen Armstrong loves all other faiths, she can not be taken seriously about anything.

And why do Buddhist clergy charge vast sums in order that people have a different name after death?

After all, if reincarnation, no point to change your name.

Buddha never hurt anybody but Buddhism is clearly shallow and everytime Islam came into contact with Buddhism then clearly Islam won the day.

Western Buddhism is being revamped but look at karma, if you are poor or sick in this life is it really because of past karma?

Everything is meaningless in Buddhism because it is just one life after another.

June 5, 2010 at 8:09 am
(16) Barbara O'Brien says:

Buddhism is not a religion; full stop!

Western cultural bias. Buddhism doesn’t precisely fit western cultural conceptions of religion, but it fits eastern cultural definitions of religion quite nicely.

Buddhist priests on the whole do nothing in Japan and 30,000 plus people kill themselves every year; and when did you last see the Buddhists helping the homeless in Tokyo or anywhere in Japan?

Buddhism is very weak in Japan, but it’s strong elsewhere in Asia.

The Buddha did not believe in God and reincarnation and karma is either naive or pure evil.

The Buddha did not believe in reincarnation, but then neither do I. And you don’t understand karma. Here are some articles about what the Buddha taught on rebirth and karma:

Buddhist teachings on reincarnation / rebirth
Buddhist teachings on karma
See also What Most People Misunderstand About Buddhism

I’m going to skip the rest of your questions on karma and rebirth, since they are irrelevant to Buddhism, and go to …

Karen Armstrong loves all other faiths, she can not be taken seriously about anything.

Note that I take Karen Armstrong a great deal more seriously than I take you. At least she knows something about religion.

And why do Buddhist clergy charge vast sums in order that people have a different name after death?

I have never heard of Buddhist clergy doing any such thing. It might be a local custom somewhere, but it’s certainly not common.

Buddha never hurt anybody but Buddhism is clearly shallow and everytime Islam came into contact with Buddhism then clearly Islam won the day.

Islam tends to be more assertive.

Everything is meaningless in Buddhism because it is just one life after another.


March 1, 2011 at 5:36 am
(17) ectan says:

This will be shocking to you but I still want to share.

Buddha is the reincarnation of the god himself. He came to this world to re-established religion because the people misinterpreted his teaching passed down long ago. He taught many things to the people but mainly about non-violence and compassion.

The teaching of the Buddha (termed by the west as “Buddhism”) is a religion, is inseparable with the religion before him which was taught by Krishna (known in the west as “Hinduism”). During Buddha’s life, no one say “I’m a Buddhist” or “I’m a Hindu”.

Buddhism is a continuity of Hinduism and one cannot completely understand the whole meaning of the religion if you abandon god, “Hinduism”, “Buddhism” or “Animism”(Buddha told us that Petras live in this world, the six realms, remember?).

The different sects of Hinduism and the different traditions of Buddhism from different regions we find today are the result of constant alteration and assimilation with the local traditions, philosophy and customs over a very long age in isolation.

And so in “Buddhism”, you can find that “Mahayana” that is mainly from East Asia, “Theravada” that is mainly from South East Asia and “Vajrayana” that is mainly from Tibet are slightly different in practice from each other. At this age, a new school “Western Buddhism” or “Neo Buddhism” has formed and it strips most spiritual sense from the religion, and hence, Buddhism become a mere philosophy/teaching in the common western eye…

March 1, 2011 at 8:10 am
(18) Barbara O'Brien says:

Buddha is the reincarnation of the god himself.

This is how Hinduism understands the Buddha, but it is not how Buddhists understand him, and it isn’t how he understood himself. If you understood Buddhism better, you would know this.

This is a Buddhism site, not a Hinduism site. About.com has a lovely Hinduism section, and your opinions would be more appropriate there.

March 1, 2011 at 5:38 am
(19) ectan says:

…All schools originated from the Buddha, but the teaching has been distorted to different degrees and each school is called a different name. Buddha never wrote any scriptures. All teachings were conducted verbally during his time.

The scriptures we read were being written down after his passing away. The oldest one known as Pali Pitaka was recorded down 300 years after his death and others were produced very much later. A huge numbers from the later age were even identified as fake.

When you understand this you will become very humble in your spiritual quest.

Not many born Hindus/Buddhists agree this. Lest a westerner. Everyone is gifted with free will, and majority will not share the same opinion with us. You can argue that about god and karma cannot co-exist, but it would be too lengthy to explain everything at one go here.

No agreement seeks for it is your responsibility to find your own path to the truth.

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