Is Buddhism really a religion?

What follows is an at times academic and at times personal essay on Buddhism as a religion versus philosophy. I had thought to be able to touch on all the points I wanted to in about 1000 words, but now find it’s run triple the length and still not quite plumbed all the key points fully. So it may not be of wide interest.

LOL. Because so much that I put up here has a wide, general interest. Enjoy:

The blog over at Tricycle has been featuring a series of posts by Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. on “10 Misconceptions about Buddhism” that offer to dispel popularly held misconceptions of Buddhism through closer looks at the religion’s history and practice. I strongly recommend it. Previous posts in the ongoing series have looked at, for example, whether Buddhists are necessarily vegetarian or inherently pacifist, and I think the posts are going a long way to getting people to think beyond idealized and monumentalized notions of what Buddhism can and should be. And, after all, what could be more Buddhist than an effort to disenchant a beguiling illusion.

The most recent post addresses the idea that Buddhism is not a religion but a system of philosophy. There’s little doubt that this is a common misconception – I had several students this past semester write papers in no small part premised on the idea that the core of Buddhism is a system of claims about reality easily divorced from practice and tradition. They’re acting out of a deep ingrained point of view. Anyone who’s spent some time looking at scholarship on “Eastern” religions, for example, is aware of the tendency of Western scholars to attempt to salvage a pure and true philosophy from what gets seen as the flotsam of ritual, magical thinking, and superstition.  And it’s not just an academic trait but a larger cultural mode of thinking about religion in general.

Buswell and Lopez’s assert that Buddhism is indeed a religion by any definition, except if one were to narrowly define religion as focused about a belief in a creator god. Buddhism’s relative lack of interest in creation myths certainly distinguishes from other religions, and its founding principles deny the existence of any single omnipresent entity.  But what definition of religion do we then use to apply to Buddhism to see whether it fits? Buswell and Lopez in their post look simply for evidence of belief in miracles and magic, and descriptions of magical events in the legends and scriptural accounts of Buddhas and advanced spiritual adepts are quite evident. My favorite in the post is the reference to the eight sites of pilgrimage in Indian Buddhism, which includes Sravasti, “where the Buddha performed the ‘dual miracles’ (yamakapratiharya) to vanquish a rival group of yogins by flying into the air and releasing fire from his head and water from his feet, and vice versa.” Showing the prevalence of myth and superstition is easy enough, but Buswell and Lopez don’t explain why they have chosen this definition of religion and not any other.

Religion is hard enough to define. To fix a definition a comprehensive fashion in order to apply it to Buddhism would be far beyond the scope of the blog post, which has a quite straightforward purpose in showing that Buddhism is not merely or essentially a philosophical system. And definitions are only as good as the purpose to which they are put.

My go-to definition of religion is a system of practices, attitudes, and beliefs oriented toward an unseen world – a basic and even foundational definition with an obvious nod to E. B. Taylor’s writings on animism. Its fit with Buddhism might seem a bit problematic, though, initially. If we were going to connect Buddhism to specific philosophers, let’s say, instead of making it out as a philosophy, Buddhism would come out much like Ludwig Wittgenstein. Like Wittgenstein, Buddhism attempts to disenchant the illusion of depth we concoct and attribute to various phenomena. There aren’t essences, only appearances. Except in Buddhism what does and does not sustain those phenomena, especially in the Mahayana philosophies, gets a bit contradictory and at times complex in the explanation, as what lies behind, beneath, between, etc. the phenomena doesn’t exist, but neither does it not exist, and furthermore it does not both exist and not exist, nor does it not do either. (Here’s another recent and excellent essay on Buddhism that looks at the subtle logics of the four negations.) And much of what goes on in Buddhism is most definitely oriented toward that mystery of what sustains the phenomenal world and our consciousness of it, so even without the notions of a hidden soul, godhead, or spiritual world, Taylor-esque definitions still can be made to apply.

Mystery also has considerable weight and history as a way to define religion. Religion is often seen from a philosophical vantage as that which sustains the experience of deep contradictions in human existence without resolving those contradictions or diminishing the experience. And from an anthropological perspective, particularly in the study of mythology, there are advantages in looking at religion as the venue in which self and other, desire and rationality, and other incommensurables get managed. And, of course, I haven’t yet mentioned the centrality to both the issue of mysteries and unseen worlds of faith, which also is often discussed as the defining characteristic of religion – faith that one can confidently know and behave appropriately to the unseen, and faith that the inherent contradictions these mysteries represent are resolved at some higher spiritual level rather than merely be conflicting conceptual systems.


Buddha Calling the Earth to Witness, collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

I don’t want to get bogged down in enumerating missed opportunities. What I do want to do is examine Buswell and Lopez’s choice of definition for their specific purpose, because I find it dissatisfying on a couple of levels. First, it doesn’t really do the job I’d want it to if I were taking on the task of dispelling the notion that Buddhism is primarily a philosophy of reality and consciousness and rather than religion. That’s because it doesn’t do much to dispel the idea that it might be possible to delink the philosophy – the assertions about the nature of reality and consciousness – from the magic, myths, and legends of Buddhas past and future. If what a religion is is this accumulation of superstition and mythic exaggeration, then aren’t we just better sloughing it off and embracing what remains? If so, then we’ve gone no further than my students who wanted to insist that Buddhism is a philosophy rather than a religion, because they too were responding to the inconvenience of ritual, myth, and magic by denying it importance. As were nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars of Daoism, for example, who attempted to locate a true, pure Daoism in a classical era represented by the philosophy of Laozi and Zhuangzi rather than in the magical and alchemical practices of fortune-telling and efforts to locate elixirs of long life that constitute the more culturally alien and seemingly superstitious aspects of Daosim as a living practice in Chinese culture.

The effort to deny the importance of practice and myth to identifying and defining religion is not just found in approaches to non-Christian religions. It’s part of a larger Western cultural project of modernity, as the work of Talal Asad and others has shown. The very concept of religion as an object of study emerges out of a process of normalizing specific Protestant Christian practices and attitudes as the heart of true religion and stigmatizing the layers of ritual and tradition built up about religious practices as incidental and harboring damaging superstition. The normalized practices, the ones that seem to us self-evidently the heart of what a religion should be, focus on individualized and internalized attitudes of belief, hence the Western emphasis on defining religion as a system of beliefs.  What defines one’s religion from a Western Christian perspective is in what one professes to believe, for example. Other religions, and here historically the specific intended targets are Catholicism and Judaism but other religions as well, are viewed as backwards, primitive, and deluded due to their emphasis on community, practice, ritual, and tradition over specific internal states of belief.

The question of whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy is a question of modern, secular Western culture that wants to know if we attempt to extricate an intellectual system of beliefs from the rubble of Buddhist culture it will seem intelligible to our internalized sense of what a religion should be. If so, Buddhism cannot be a religion, because then it’s at heart a series of self-evident propositions that supports our sense of what religion truly should be. If not, then it’s just a religion and not an expression of universal truths.

As Buswell and Lopez point out, though, people aren’t wrong to emphasize the centrality and importance of Buddhist philosophy, nor does the Western world yet give that immense body of thought its due credit. But for most practicing Buddhists around the world, philosophical issues, while never fully out of mind, aren’t the most pressing features of the religion. Devotions, sutra and mantra chanting, incense, statues, garlands, prayers, and the like aren’t necessarily accounted for in Buddhist philosophy, but there wouldn’t likely be any Buddhism without them. As an earlier post in Buswell and Lopez’s series reveals, meditation, what we in the West view as the preeminent Buddhist religious practice isn’t that terribly significant for lay Buddhists, and even most monks, and hasn’t been over the history of the religion. I think the advantage, too, in Buswell and Lopez’s approach in the post under discussion is that it doesn’t over-emphasize the notion of belief as a defining category of religion. It’s just that the way the dichotomy between philosophy and religion is set up, belief – philosophy – seems in a sense the clear winner, even if it’s not able to get entirely rid of its somewhat embarrassing religious sibling, off chanting, praying, and bowing with incense held between pressed palms.

And, secondly, the dissatisfaction with the magic and miracle approach turns on something less academic and more personal. As a practicing Buddhist, but as a Western practitioner and not a cultural Buddhist, I want a clearer picture myself of whether what I’m doing is a religion or something else. My bias is to say, yes, I’m a religious Buddhist, even if I don’t believe in reincarnation or various hells and take a skeptical attitude toward karma and enlightenment. Like most Western Buddhists, I came to the religion through the philosophy, which seemed to me a very profound and accurate picture of the world and the human condition within it. Eventually, belatedly, I also came to accept the deeper truth of the philosophy, at least as practiced in the monastic orders, that accepting the philosophy also entails adopting Buddhist meditation and ethical practices. Once we start entering into the realm of practice and attitudes, I think then we can say that we’ve entered a religious realm, but I’m not fully embracing the label out of equal parts caution and timidity. But if I’m certainly not religious in the sense of accepting miracles or believing that if I meditate long enough I’ll be able to levitate or read minds, what manner of a religious Buddhist am I?

My sangha is perhaps less interested in much of the trappings of religion than others, and in fact the group publicly identifies as not a religious group but one focused on primarily on sustaining traditional Buddhist practice within a Western context. Certainly one of the features of Buddhist sanghas, Western and not, is that professing Christians are welcome and often thrive in meditation-oriented practices. If it is religion, it’s not exclusive. Even so, newcomers can be put off by our opening ceremony to the weekly service that features chanting the Heart Sutra and the Bodhisattva Vows in Sino-Japanese. Or the somewhat complex ritual of bows at different times and places to the altar, sangha, cushions, teacher, etc.

There are a variety of rationalizations for why we and other Western sanghas do these things: the traditions which place us in a continuity of Buddhist communities, lay and monastic, stretching back through millennia and across the Pacific through Japan to ancient China and into India; the practices that work to defeat our constant effort to relate our actions to our individual consciousness and will and instead recognize how all our actions are sustained within a larger web of interactions of which we’re only dimly aware; and efforts to cultivate a habitus of humility, gratitude, and attentiveness to the moment.

Even more so, I think, than these outward, visible (and audible) manifestations of religion are the attitudes cultivated toward the ethical and meditation practices. Religious practices aren’t motivated necessarily toward immediate personal benefit. That they do have some benefits is I think clear, but there are more expedient methods to attain personal satisfaction and productivity, if that’s what’s required. To engage in a religious practice requires a complex of attitudes that include obligation and faith. Obligation in the sense that religion not only requires thinking transpersonally, it requires acknowledging that the world, the community, the Buddha-Mind, what have you, exists prior to the self, and that the self is made possible and sustained by what it finds itself thrown into. Faith in the sense that there has to be some underlying confidence that the practices thus engaged are a fit and appropriate response to the sense of obligation to this ground of being that makes existence possible, however you want to conceive of it. And I think gratitude and openness are critical to what I conceive of as a religious orientation to this ground of being.

These certainly pertain to the practice of Western Buddhism. As part of the vows I recite each week, I vow to save every sentient being, even if I recognize that the universe contains innumerable sentient beings. This is what is supposed to drive me to the cushion every day: not that meditation will make me a better, more effective person, but that my act of meditation is one small act toward the alleviation from suffering and the disenchantment of illusion for the entire universe. It is both a task grander than any possible imagination and a role so infinitesimally small that it beggars even insignificance. But I feel given what I know, believe, and experience that this is, at least for me, a necessary obligation to the world in which I find myself and the best possible expression of the gratitude I feel to that world for my existence. As you can see, certainly the philosophy of Buddhism impels a lot of its practice. Philosophy directs and shapes the practice, and much of the practice is the effort to keep the philosophy in mind to sustain further practice. They’re mutually sustaining, as are related attitudes of devotion, humility, etc. Incidentally, I’m looking forward to Buswell and Lopez’s comments in the next blog post they have planned about the misconception that devotion has no place in Buddhism.

One cannot be a practicing Buddhist, I think, without being to some degree a religious Buddhist. And yet, I recognize that there is an effort to be free from the dogmatism of strict religious codes that underwrites the effort to evade the label of religion for Buddhism or other non-Western spiritual practices. Christianity’s insistence on a narrow dogmatism even as our understanding and appreciation of the many shapes that truth can take has grown is part of the resistance to apply the label of religion to Buddhism from a Western perspective: here, some think, is a spiritual practice that can remain open to new experience and ideas, that won’t categorically reject different approaches as heterodox, so we shouldn’t lump it with spiritual practices that do. Here we start getting into controversies over spirituality versus religion, which aren’t quite the same as determining whether Buddhism is a philosophy or religion, though the questions are related. With both I think we’re still finding ourselves caught up in the same cultural impulse to naturalize Buddhism as an individual and internalized pursuit that serves pragmatic needs, and this runs counter to the actual practice of Buddhism.

In any case, if, as I’ve written, that to admit to the idea that something is or is not a religion is already to become involved in the process of normalizing and privileging certain behaviors or orientations to an unseen world over others, perhaps there is some virtue in refusing to identify Buddhism completely as a religion. It’s useful to have a healthy list of following an “and yet” whenever we attempt to define and classify. And of course any honest appraisal of Buddhist practice in the West must acknowledge that it is a practice only a couple of generations deep, and that when Europeans and North and South Americans embrace Buddhism, it is quite different from, say, the East and Southeast Asian immigrant populations that within a Western framework retain the Buddhism that thousands of years of culture have shaped, though perhaps it’s not as different as many might suspect. But those qualifications and hesitations shouldn’t blind us to the real loss in our understanding and appreciation if we’re unable to identify Buddhism as a religion.



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