Is Buddhism a religion?

In this thread, elfje claimed that Buddhism is not a religion, while I claimed the opposite. To prevent a total hi-jack I opened this thread to discuss it.

So, elfje or anyone else who shares his position, why is Buddhism not a religion? Although gods are not worshipped by Buddhism, they are definitely part of the worldview and seen as stuck in the samsara with the rest of us. There’s also the evil being called Mara, devoted to keep everyone within the wheel of reincarnation.

While I’ll cheerfully admit that Buddhism’s practices are different than those of most religions, and that many Buddhists today don’t acknowledge the existence of gods, what maks Buddhism not a religion?

It seems to me that “Buddhism” is like “Christianity”. It covers an awful lot of latitude in beliefs and philosophies. It’s divided into Mahayana and Hinayana branches, with almost infinite divisions within those. Some versions have a whole panoply of gods/figures/metaphors (depending upon who you talk to) and look like other religions. Other branches, like Zen, seem to be pure philosophies devoid of any mention of a spiritual world. Buddhism runs the gamut between. Some versions of “popular” Mahayana Buddhism are undoubtedly what anyone would call a religion. But if you say “Buddhism is a religion”, someone else will pull out some austere and aesthetic brand of Theravada and say, “No, it’s a philosophy”. So the question is “Which brand of Buddhism?”

Buddhism is a dessert topping and a floor wax.

My wife was raised a Buddhist in a predominantly Buddhist country, and she would say that it’s not a religion, in and of itself. That is that what Lord Buddha taught was not a religion but a philosophy. That the philosophy addresses the theistic world that Lord Buddha was a part of definitely caused religious aspects to develop. In most places Buddhism seems to have become entwined with the original religious and superstitious beliefs of some people, and now can not be easily separated back out.

On the other hand, I was raised Catholic. I no longer consider myself Catholic, and have definite doubts about organized religion, but find that much of my guiding philosophy is based on Christian values (ten commandments/golden rules sort of stuff). But just because I use Christianity as a philosophy rather than a religion doesn’t make Christianity as philosophy. It’s still a religion.

IMHO, I think it depends on how one defines religion. SibbOleth provided several definitions, of which #2 and #4 would best describe Buddhism. However, many people equate religion with a belief in and worship of a supreme deity or dieties. So in that sense, then Buddhism would not be considered a religion.

My take - I liken Buddhism to be a “philosophical” religion or a “religious” philosophy. Or even better - a “philo-psychological” religion.

Main Entry: re·li·gion
Pronunciation: ri-'li-j&n
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English religioun, from Latin religion-, religio supernatural constraint, sanction, religious practice, perhaps from religare to restrain, tie back – more at RELY
Date: 13th century
1 a : the state of a religious <a nun in her 20th year of religion> b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2 : a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
3 archaic : scrupulous conformity : CONSCIENTIOUSNESS
4 : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

sometimes yes and sometimes no.
I don’t think that “pure” buddhism, ( what buddha taught), is a religion. However, buddhism has been amalgamated and syncretized with a host of other traditions. Some of which honor buddha in manners indistinguishable from diety worship and even pray to him.
All of these traditions call themselves buddhism.

There are Buddhistic religions as other posters have said.

But at its core Buddhism is more of a practice than a religion. Most of all, Buddha was concerned with the problem of anxiety, and he taught ways to get out of it.

Hence, you can be a Buddhist by following certain practices, and yet believe nothing else. That’s not much of a religion.

I like this phrase which distinguishes many religions from Buddhism: the purpose of Buddhism is to become enlightened, not to create more Buddhists.

I susspect similar questions could be raised for Daoism, Hindu and several other “religions”. Are we just looking at the dycotomy between religions that insist on an existant God or gods, and religions that either do not require god (Budhism and Daoism) and religions where the gods can be rationalized as parts of the Human psychie (Hindu). I would fear that if you called such ideologies “not religions” you may risk giving them a lower status to those ideologies that we call “religions”.
So I would say that anything someone would put down truthfully on a form as their religion is a religion, be it organised, dissorganised, deityist (sp?), or deity-less.
Cheers, Bippy

My guideline is this: when I go to buy books on Buddhism, they’re filed in the section that says “religion.” When they’re filed in “philosophy,” I’ll pick them up there. :slight_smile:

Personally, I’d say it’s not exactly either–it is, as mentioned, a practice or set of practices, with elements of both. The weighing of those elements vary by formulation.

1 a, 1b (2) and 2 are rather circular; they require that we define “religious” first. 3 isn’t really what we’re after. But I’d say 4 applies to Buddhism. It’s not a science (nor does it claim to be), and its worldview has to be taken by faith.

Also, if Buddhism isn’t a religion, shouldn’t there be religious Buddhists? Why don’t we hear about Muslim Buddhists occasionally?

One of the major religions in part of the filler-detail backdrop of Dan Simmons’ <i>Hyperion</i> series was a “Zen Catholicism.” Something akin to that sort of syncretism wouldn’t surprise me as the interconnections in communication in the world continues to ramp up.

Even if Buddhism is taken as a philosophy, the teaching that there is no self, no ego and thus no individual soul doesn’t fly very well with most religions.

That is not to say that there aren’t Buddhists who are also members of other religions, like father Enomiya-Lasalle or rabbi Alan Lew.

At the very least, Buddhism incorporates beliefs in supernatural oddities such as Bodhisattvas (enlightened beings destined to be Buddhas, but intentionally remaining on earth to teach others), asuras (demons; evil spirits) and pretas (hungry ghosts).

Asuras and pretas both are referenced in Hindu mythology (Krishna, specifically, waxes on about asuras in the Bhagavad-Gita), so Buddhism shares some beliefs with Hinduism.

Because of the supernatural elements (and I am referring to the two main branches of Hinayana and Mahayana–including its two main currents: Madhyamaka and Yogachara), and its ties to Hinduism (including karma), I vote that it’s a religion.

Well, you can go to countries like Japan and China and compare the buddhism found there with “buddhist” countries like Tibet and Thailand.

There is a huge difference even if I can’t describe it well. In places like Tibet and Thailand (two different kinds of Buddhism by the way - the Greater and Lesser vehicles. One is Mahayana and i forget the other), Buddhism is a way of life and pervades every day actions. The temples are very lively places. Not the center of worship but an all encompassing center of life in the village/town/neighborhood (with “religious” type services as well).

Places like Japan, Buddhism by and large is museum style religion.

Check out Gary Snyder’s writings if you want some more insights from a guy who was checking this out in the 1950’s…


  • Tamerlane

I am a pseudo-Buddhist, but I’m trying to become a real one, or at least employ it as a philosophy. This is the thesis behind Stephen Batchelor’s book, ‘Buddhism Without Beliefs’. It states that Buddhism, as the Buddha taught it, is not a religion, and that a lot has been added onto the original idea. The original idea, Batchelor claims, is more of a guiding philosophy than a religion. That is what I am trying to incorporate into my life.

We all know that ANYTHING can be a religion, especially here in America. Is needlepoint a relgion? Baseball? Elvis? Science? It’s all in your approach.

Truth of the matter is, there are many many people in the world who would check the box marked “Buddhist” under ‘religion’. Unless you’re positing some sort of extra-humanic council that decides what religions are and aren’t, that qualifies it in my book. But it doesn’t have to be, any more than “Judge not, let ye be judged” and “Love thy neighbor as thyself” has to be.

Hinayana is correct of course, but is considered pejorative by practitioners of that vehicle, they prefer the term Theravada.

I know several pagan buddhists. The judeo-christian branches of religion exclude having multiple religions more than the others.

Other than that, I always considered religion something more as a series of rituals that are taught to help bring meaning to one’s life. The presence or lack of deities doesn’t define it as a religion to me.

I do believe that Hinduism is a religion, one with more than one god. Shiva comes to mind, and Ganesh, the God with the head of an elephant. Thes gods also have supernatural powers.
So I’d calssify that under religions.

Actually there’s only one god, but multiple incarnations.

I should clarify - Batchelor’s idea of Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a religion jettisons supernatural add-ons such as karma and reincarnation as unnecessary. Which is good, because I don’t believe in karma in any but a general way, and don’t accept reincarnation at all.