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.