1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

Aversion to Religion and Phony Buddhism

By October 18, 2009

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One of the first articles I wrote for this site was "Buddhism: Philosophy or Religion?" I tried to make a case that whether Buddhism is a religion or philosophy is an artificial distinction, either way. Further, "arguing about whether Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion isn't an argument about Buddhism. It's an argument about our biases regarding philosophy and religion. Buddhism is what it is."

Still, one cannot use the words "Buddhism" and "religion" in the same sentence without somebody showing up and declaring, stoutly, that Buddhism is not a religion. To which my response has evolved into "Is too, nyah nyah nyah."

A comment to this blog post on prison Buddhism (the video with the post is interesting, btw) says, "Buddhism was never meant to be a religion. It's a mystic philosophy that fosters a certain path and practices. It's not meant to be organized." Let's take this claim apart and examine it.

First, let's look at the context in which people declare Buddhism is not a religion. Pretty inevitably, what they mean by this is Buddhism is not one of the Abrahamic religions. The Abrahamic religions, so called because they all trace their ancestry through the prophet Abaham, are the Big Three of monotheism: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Christianity is the majority religion in the West, to an overwhelming degree. Judaism also has a strong historical and cultural influence in the West, and Islam certainly is in the news a lot. So it is not surprising that most westerners define "religion" by the yardstick of the Abrahamic religions. The argument that Buddhism is not a religion often rests on the fact that a Buddhist doesn't have to believe in the Creator God of monotheism.

However, when you wander away from the Big Three, you find there are a lot of religions that don't require belief in the Creator God, or in any god at all. Many Asian religions are quite diverse and include at least one non-theistic school amid the polytheisms and pantheisms. Hinduism and Jainism are examples. For that matter, there is a non-theistic school within Christianity (albeit a very small one) as exemplified by the work of theologian Paul Tillich.

In "Why Buddhism Is a Religion, and Why It Matters," I quote scholar Karen Armstrong, who says that denying the religious nature of Buddhism because it doesn't conform to western norms is "the height of parochialism." The Buddhism is not a religion school leans on an extremely narrow, post-modern and western-centric definition of religion.

The historical Buddha, on the other hand, was not using a 21st-century western dictionary. I suspect the arguments over whether Buddhism is a religion or philosophy would have made as much sense to him as arguing whether a glass is half full or half empty. But what he seems to have intended to establish (based on what he actually did establish, during his life) was as much a religion as anything else going on in India at the time.

And to define Buddhism as a "mystic philosophy" but not a "religion" is just plain semantic dishonesty. If we consult the 21st-century western dictionaries, we find "philosophy" defined as "Investigation of the nature, causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods." Intellect, rational thought and logic are essential components of philosophy, as we define philosophy these days.

Mysticism can be defined several ways, but most generally it's a means to directly experience realities (or God), going beyond ordinary perception or intellect. I say "mystic philosophy" is an oxymoron. Yes, you can find many elements of mysticism in ancient western philosophies, but until two or three centuries ago we weren't drawing clear, bright lines between religion and philosophy and declaring them to be utterly separate things.

And finally, let's get to whether Buddhism was "meant" to be organized. I submit that the historical Buddha went to a lot of trouble to organize it. If we assume the Vinaya-pitaka of the Pali Canon contains the rules for the monastic sangha established by the historical Buddha, I'd say he was big on organizing. The Vinaya has rules up the wazoo. I'm also certain that without the establishment of rules, hierarchies, and institutions to maintain the teachings and disciplines, Buddhism would have disappeared millennia ago.

What's really going on when someone says Buddhism is not a religion? Usually, this is all about aversion to religion, especially organized religion. People with superficial knowledge of Buddhism find in it a blank slate (only because they don't know it very well) on which they can write their ideas about some pure, non-authoritarian spirituality that seems friendlier and less threatening than religion.

Demanding that Buddhism fit within our definitions and conform to our expectations is what the late Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, called spiritual materialism. The very act of insisting that Buddhism is this and not that renders it into something material, an object with which one relates as one sees fit. As long as we are forming judgments about spiritual practice and demanding that it please us, it's phony.

The path of sincerity demands that we surrender to it as-it-is, the Rinpoche said. And as-it-is may not be as we want it to be. We want spirituality to wrap us in a cocoon of blessedness, of feeling good about ourselves, and that's bunk. Real spirituality kicks all our props out from under us. It takes away our crutches and leaves us hanging in a tree by our teeth over a precipice.

One can argue that to fit Buddhism into any definition, of either religion or philosophy, is keeping it in too small a box. That's a valid argument. But insisting it is not a religion also is keeping it in too small a box. Overcoming the pull of both attraction and aversion is an essential part of the path. As long as one's practice of Buddhism is limited by an aversion to religion, it will be imitation Buddhism.

October 19, 2009 at 9:18 am
(1) Mark says:

One thing that always fascinates me about the “buddhism-is-not-an-organized-religion” camp is that the greater balance of popular exposure to the dharma comes through the Dalai Lama. Here you have some who not only heads a particular school of Buddhism (and last time I checked, being the head of anything tends to connote a certain degree of organization), but he also functions as a head of state in a theocracy. Are Buddhism groupies just taking on an active vow of ignorance on this, or do they really just not know the position of authority that the Dalai Lama occupies?

October 19, 2009 at 12:59 pm
(2) BH says:

This argument can get very circular. The definition of “religion” must be agreed upon before you can address anything else. For me, Buddhism both is and is not a religion based on my definition of religion. At their best, organized religions create supportive and nurturing communities. This describes most Buddhist centers. However, organized religions also tend to be very hierarchical and rigid. This has not been my experience with practicing Buddhism. I practice mostly on my own in a way that works best for me.

Of course, it is also important to consider who is asking the question. As far as the IRS is concerned, Buddhism should be considered a religion (might as well take the tax break – one thing that all “religions” can agree on).

October 22, 2009 at 6:01 pm
(3) Jon R.j says:

I’ve gotta say I have an aversion to “religion” as it’s usually seen in the West (and very often in the East, too). But I do think Buddhism is better termed a religion than a philosophy. I could go on for paragraphs; there’s no use to.

It hinders my practice (poor as it already is) to have the sneaky feeling I’m being “religious.” I constantly struggle against this kind of stereotyping that I’m using when that happens. Religion does not need to refer to a God, or even gods. Religion is actually a more or less codified set of practices designed to achiee a certain goal. (And with a basically Zen-based outlook, I hesitate to say “goal,” too. What a lot of hedging I find myself doing!)

Anyway. I recite mantras. I burn incense. I bow before statues of the Buddha (and also sometimes before dogs and cats, as Shunryu Suzuki hinted we might sometimes be well to do). I pray for all sorts of people: friends, the dead, even sometimes fictional characters, who after all lead an existence in many people’s minds, especially their creators’.

So I find myself “religious” without much choice. The problem is not with religion; it’s with the connottions the word brings along with it. It is one of those loaded words that just begs for trouble when you use it — even in thought.

October 22, 2009 at 6:46 pm
(4) JoeBuddha says:

You can be religious without being fanatical. The problem we have with religion is the “my way or the highway” attitude of many (most?) of the “religious leaders” we see on television and such. Religion can be confining and religion can be freeing; it’s not the fact that it’s a religion that makes it odious but what it teaches and how it’s practiced, IMVHO.

October 23, 2009 at 9:24 am
(5) Hein says:

Categorising something (or anything) is a typical Western thing we like to do. Everything needs to “fit” into a specific niche to let “us feel comfortable”. The Buddha’s Way is not about “feeling comfortable”, although it is a Way to let us transcend suffering.

Having grown up as a Christian I have (or think I have) a fair understanding of how our usual Western conceptual mind operate. The Eastern mind (and I have practiced with some time amongs Taiwanese people) view things totally different.

Today I can say that what I practice (Chan and Pure Land) is simply what I seriously do and it have a deep meaning to me. If you want to call it a religion; fine. If you wish to call it a philosophy; fine. But do not think that what you do is the “only” way or the “most important” way.

My daily work require that I wear a suite. Should I now start wearing sandals and a saffron gown to show that I am a Buddhist? If you do not consider what I practice as important, then frankly; that is your issues and it would be very kind of you to deal with it.

Strange that one’s Christian family and friends are of the view that “he is just going through a phase”. Get real please; at nearly 50 years of age I think I know what I want and what is important in my life. Accept my prostrations, incence burning, chanting and meditation. Call it what you want, but it is my religion!

October 27, 2009 at 10:27 pm
(6) Ken says:

Fascinating. I am one that subscribed to the “safe” school of thought on the side of philosophy. My western pre-disposition and JUDGEMENT of the term religeon repelled me from what is true and right in favor of what is comfortable for me. The teaching by His Holiness in DC taught me so many things, but the most fascinating is that there IS joy and happiness in right thinking and right speech. Buddhism IS a religeon and my old way of thinking does not have to soil the belief, unless I choose to let it. He said I MUST respect other religeons, and if I choose to change I MUST treat my old one with respect. What a truly refreshing point of view, combining acceptance, non-judgement, awareness, brainpower and love, yet simultaneously rejecting fear, ignorance, division and self-righteousness! Also the courage to not play into some political correct stuff, use the word “must” because it is right and don’t be afraid to show your belief in it, without being abrasive. I also love the “kick the stool out from under us” concept. Take me out of my old unhealthy patterns and teach me something. I know I need it, thanks for having the spine to present it without mushyness. Shows respect. Namaste.

October 30, 2009 at 10:40 am
(7) Mark Allan Smith says:

Dear Barbara,
Regarding your article on Buddhism, being a philosophy or a religion. I don’t think it matters, but for those that think it matters they can be a Buddhist, and a Christian, or any other religion. Buddhism, is only about ‘truth.
I would also like to point out a sentence that you wrote, saying. ”Many Asian religions are quite diverse and include at least one non theistic school. It is just the way you said that it imply,s that Christianity is not an Asian, religion. Christianity, is an Asian, religion as are most religions. We can paint pictures of Christ, with blue eyes, but Bethlehem, is in Israel, / Palestine, and that is ”Asia,
um Mark,

October 31, 2009 at 9:07 am
(8) Mark, from Australia. says:

Dear Barbara,
RE: Right thought and right speech” This is something that I have never been comfortable with. I don’t like being told what to think or what to say. This is very like political totalitarianism, if we all thought the same and said the same things; it may be very convenient to some one like Pol Pot. Now he was a Buddhist, Catholic, Communist. No wonder he went of. I think that if Pol Pot, had just been Buddhist, and a Communist, he may have stayed sweeping up in some temple. Mark,

October 31, 2009 at 11:27 am
(9) Barbara O'Brien says:

Mark, that is a gross misunderstanding of Right Thought and Right Speech. It’s not about being told what to think or say. When your ego stops telling you what to think and say, then Right Thought and Right Speech emerge naturally.

October 31, 2009 at 10:18 pm
(10) Mark, from Australia. says:

Dear Barbara,
Thank you for that reply, at least now I now there is some alive on the other end of this site. Don’t you know when you are being tested, and teased’
Gross ! OK. It is quite funny how Buddhists, get upset when some one says anything about Pol Pot, or Adolf Hitler, and his little swastika.
Your comments on ‘Philosophy, or Religion. surly you can see if you take religion out of Buddhism. There is no need for gilt, just self. That’s OK, for most, but as the Japanese, Hitler, and Pol Pot. have proved Buddhist, philosophy and discipline with out religion can be very dangerous. You can have the last word on this one. Mark,

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