Is Buddhism a Religion or a Philosophy?

To me Buddhism is a religion – do you agree? There is a long tradition in the West to regard Buddhism as a philosophy. This tradition was started by Enlightenment philosophers (those who like rational thinking so much) who saw in Buddhism an ancient religion which fit their ideal of a rational way of life.

I asked my readers on a previous version of this page:

Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?

This were they’re answers:

  • 13% It’s a religion.
  • 39% It’s a philosophy
  • 48% It’s both

776 people voted in this poll.

What IS a religion?

The word religion is tough. This was discussed in various classes when I was studying religion-studies at Leiden University. It turns out scientists of religion have hashed out the definition of religion ever since they started studying religion outside the theology department. For our purposes the Polythetic definition of religion makes most sense: A religion is a social phenomena with at least some of the following attributes:

  1. A central concern with godlike beings and men’s relations to them.
  2. A dichotomisation of elements of the world into sacred and profane, and a central concern with the sacred.
  3. An orientation towards salvation from the ordinary conditions of worldly existence.
  4. Ritual practice
  5. Beliefs which are neither logical nor empirically demonstrable or highly probable, but must be held on the basis of faiths – ‘mystical notions’ but without the requirement that they be false.
  6. An ethical code, supported by such beliefs.
  7. Supernatural sanctions on infringements of that code.
  8. A mythology.
  9. A body of scripture, or similarly exalted oral traditions.
  10. A priesthood, or similar specialist religious elite.
  11. Association with a moral community, a church (in Durkheim’s sense).
  12. Association with an ethnic or similar group. (source)

Buddhism easily has the attributes 3, 4, 6, 8, 9 and 10.

Discussion could be had about attributes 1, 2, 5, 7, 11 and 12. 

Is there a godlike being in Buddhism?

Yes, Buddha has become a pretty godlike being in most traditional versions of Buddhism. In modern Buddhism he is, after protestant example, again reduced to human size. In Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism, Bodhisattvas and Buddhas are certainly godlike, though never in the omnipotent monotheistic sense. 

A concern with the sacred? 

Yes, from the perspective of the study of religion, the Buddhist sangha functions not merely as a priesthood, but is also – in its concern with purity – concerned with the sacred. Buddhist temples and altars also demonstrate a concern with something sacred as differentiated from the ‘profane’ or the worldly.

In a Western context, the insistence that Buddhism be free of commercial concerns, like advertising and ideally being free (as if it’s teachers could live on air) is also evidence that there is something religiously sacred going on. Note that in an Asian context, no Buddhist would dream of going to the sangha for spiritual support, without donating something. So the shape this aspect is getting in Western Buddhism is in some ways more strict (and less realistic) than the traditional forms. 

Are there illogical and empirically undemonstrable beliefs in Buddhism? 

Well, karma may be highly logical, but it is certainly not empirically demonstrable. In fact, it is the most important of the traditional ‘hidden truths’ – that is, only a Buddha can fully see all karmic relations that cause things to be as they are. Although there are reasonings to support karma (as there are to support any aspect of Buddhist philosophy), ultimately karma has to be taken on faith. 

Are there supernatural sanctions on infringement of the moral code of Buddhism?

Again: yes, infringement of the moral code of Buddhism (however universal its strictures) results in bad karma. And since karma can’t be fully proven, it falls into this category. Buddhists will of course insist that negative karma has it’s own natural result: there is nothing supernatural about it. However, since it can’t be proven, it must be called ‘supernatural’ in this context. Do remember that there are all kinds of things that are true, yet not proven. 

Is there a church in Buddhism?

While of course, as in any religion, there is community in traditional Buddhism, it doesn’t function in the way a church does. Buddhism is not a membership religion. In fact, only Christian religions are membership religions. Even a Jew isn’t defined by membership of any specific group, and Judaism is a religion that grew up in the West, alongside Christianity. 

Is Buddhism associated with specific ethnic groups? 

Judaism can be defined by one’s birth. One is born a Jew or not. This could be discussed and given further nuance, but this is not the place. 

Some ethnic variations on Buddhism have become associated (more or less strictly) with a caste-like system in Nepal and Sri Lanka. However, since people of any ethnic background can become Buddhists, the main answer to this question is: 

No, Buddhism is not associated with specific ethnic groups. However, this is one attribute of religion not shared by Islam and Christianity either, so few people will think it is reason to see Buddhism as anything other than a religion. 

Back to my readers

My readers also got the chance to put it into words. First those who agree with me:

Buddhism is a religion. Duh.

It is both. Most if not all religions would qualify as philosophies too. But I think the people that don’t like to call Buddhism a religion, have a slanted and misguided definition of “religion” based on their limited experience within one or two religions (there are actually many). A religion is simply a recognized & established set of beliefs and customs aimed at the spiritual (life beyond the physical) and the overall well being of mankind, life, the universe, etc…

Buddhism is a religion which explains its beliefs with philosophical arguments. It looks to me like the creators of Buddhism realized people perform better when the motivations of their higher-ups are explained to them. People are more likely to conform to directions when the reasoning behind those directions has been explained.

More a religion than a philosophy. Why ? Because religion aims at pointing to the truth whereas philosophy is based on words. Like Lao tsu would say: more words count less. Hold to the center.

If you ask “IS” Buddhism a religion then of course it is. However, if a person does not know Buddhism, but spends their life attaining enlightenment and followed the lesson of Buddha without ever attaining the knowledge from the source, then one could argue that in essence that person is Buddhist. So I believe you have to ask the right question. Can Buddhism be a spiritual essence that a person can have without the label and dogma that people seem to want to apply to everything? Obviously Buddha was able to because Buddhism did not even exist yet. I ask the question can you be a Buddhist Christian? Buddhist Hindu? Buddhist whatever? Obviously you can subscribe to the philosophy of Buddhism, without being Buddhist. Just by asking the question implies that it at some circumstances is not. You cannot ask is Christianity, Islam, or Judea a religion or philosophy. A person can make anything a religion, and no doubt there are places in the world that practice Buddhism as a religion. So just for sake of answering the question, Yes, it is a religion, but in essence the question is a philosophical one.

I think that “religion” is in the heart of the one who is practicing it. When a person devotes themselves to a belief and commits to living their life in submission to a set of teachings, then that is their religion, regardless of whether it involves belief in the supernatural or not. The devotion to their practice that Buddhists follow in every area of their lives in their pursuit of enlightenment makes it a religion.

It is a religion with some interesting philosophical and psychological aspects. What gives it away is the reliance on revelation for knowledge of the core teachings – the three knowledges that the Buddga attained on the night he was enlightened. Obviously this is not revelation from God but it is still a supernatural source. Then there is the substance of that knowledge, which is entirely supernatural: the law of kamma, insight into the rebirth of beings in other (supernatural) planes of existence, and the Four Noble Truths (although these are arguably the least supernatural). The Pali Cannon makes it clear that the Buddha and early Sangha believed in many dieties, and also in supernatural powers being obtained by those on the path. In terms of practice, the Theravada and maybe Zen schools are the least religious if by that you mean devotional. Although Zen is clearly the odd one out, by the time you get to the Mahayana a lot of sects are as plainly religios as you can get, even involving worship of a Buddha and Boddhisattvas understood to be very god like beings. It is easy to see why this level of religiosity has been criticised as a degeneration of the historical Buddha’s teaching – in the Pali Cannon he is always referred to as just a man who has reached the end of the path, not someone divine.

I have an interest in Buddhism but I am an atheist. I think the challenge for people like me is whether Buddism still makes sense and has something valuable to offer without the law of kamma, rebirth, and dare I say it, Nibbana. What is left is fundamentally an analysis of existence in terms of the three characteristics of dukkha, no-self and impermanence, and a set of practices aimed at dampening down the dukkha, without there being a final, totally dukkha-free state of Nibanna. If those practices don’t reduce suffering in this very life then what value are they?

I say a religion – because to me the definition of religion is anything people embrace to try to grow spiritually. Which will naturally be different in different cultures. Anything that makes us more aware of our spirit is a GOOD thing. When people become more aware of spirit, and less focused on material things, then whatever venue they choose to explore that process in is VALID.

Buddhism is a religion. What else is it? There is a revered figure. There are rituals. There are hierarchies. There are doctrines.

Buddhism is essentially a philosophy.

I would think its more a philosophy. Religion to me rigid, strict and full of to many contradictions, along with man made dogma. Buddhism flows to me, seems more natural, and honest.

It could be taken as either – but to me a religion is just an older less rational form of a philosophy – both with many good messages however.

I say that Buddhism is a more like a Philosophy because Buddha was nothing but a Normal Man who was fully awake & became enlighten. He just want to help everyone to be come enlighten like him with his teachings because Buddha said that everyone can become a Buddha. This prove that Buddhism is more like a Philosophy because this Equality believe doesn’t exist in any religions around the world. In all other religions, No one can be greater or equal to God(s).

Buddhism does believe gods, just not the same way as other religions believe. Buddhism believes that Gods doesn’t have the power to save us, but only ourselves can save us because Gods are still in the “Circle of Reincarnation” just like us. The only way to get out of the “Circle of Reincarnation” is to believe in yourself, the Buddha, and his teachings…

Religion brings tonnes of crap to this world and I think buddhism is the only “religion” that has no fundamentalists who want to cause shit. Buddhists are atheists, they have no god or greater being. They aspire to be the best they can be: enlightenment = what we should all strive to. not to please some “omnipotent” “almighty” being but to better ourselves. fo sho.

There is a widespread confusion that needs to be cleared in order to make sense in any discussion relating to religion and philosophy.

First about religion. The etymology of the word religion originates in the Latin word “religare”, which means “to tie, to bind”. This implies that religion acts as a societal glue. But if religion acts as a societal glue it must necessarily be connected to political power…. Now if we observe religion from the viewpoint of the long history it is abundantly clear that religion arose as a tool of early kingdoms in their quest to preserve their power over their subjects. But why in the world was it so? The answer lays in the early kings’ observation that the physical force of their armies was insufficient to guarantee their continued control over their subjects. Armies were moving on foot and once in a corner of the kingdom to quell an insurgency they were unable to move timely to another corner to quell another. Successful kings were those who observed that they needed to glue the psyche of their subjects into obedience to maintain their power…

About philosophies. The etymology of the word philosophy originates from the Greek word “philosophia” (philo-loving and sophia-skill-wisdom) which translates as “search for a general understanding of reality”.

So how do religion and philosophy relate to each other?

Logic implies that philosophy comes first. Religion is, indeed, the accession of one philosophy to the status of imposed system of belief within a given society. In other words one specific philosophic system, among many others, is being catapulted in a position of “power belief” by the rulers of a given society and with time that particular philosophic system will be internalized in the minds of the subjects of that society as being the unique and absolute truth.

Back to Buddhism we have to observe the different nature of its different strands.

– I can’t speak of Buddhism in India, for, my knowledge of that country is limited.

– Tibetan Buddhism is undoubtedly a religion. Dalai Lama is the title of head of the political institutions while Punchen Lama is the title of spiritual leader.

– Chinese Buddhism is more of a philosophic system that occasionally was adopted by a given dynasty but never gained “power belief” status.

– Zen Buddhism is a transplant of Chinese Buddhism.

The “best religion of the world” idea came about as an extension of the Western dualistic good-bad ideological presentation of the conflict between the political arm of Tibetan Buddhism and China where the Dalai (political head) is wrongly being attributed the mantle of spiritual leader for the sake of the ideological argumentation.

Actually Lord Buddha didn’t tell anyone to make his teaching a religion with the time it came up as a religion. And it has a big knowledge of modern science too. as the conclusion I think we could consider it as a religion as well as a philosophy.

The most interesting part of Buddhism is it’s philosophy. Also: there is no belief in God in Buddhism – even though many Buddhists in Asia do believe in gods.

In conclusion

Any serious class on Buddhism should discuss this: that in the 19th century it was considered a philosophy – which is why Nirvana was translated as ‘enlightenment’ instead of ‘awakening’. It was hailed as the pinnacle of ‘rational philosophy’.

21st century religion studies does not make that mistake, but many western Buddhists still do. We can get out of the dichotomy simply by saying that what makes Buddhism relevant in our times is that it has a live contemplative tradition that doesn’t fit into our Western religious concepts any more easily than it fits into our academic philosophy. What it does do is fill a void in our culture where there is room for the subjective, not merely the objective side of life. When Christianity starts embracing it’s own contemplative history, perhaps the word ‘religion’ won’t be so controversial when applied to Buddhism. 

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Katinka Hesselink

Having studied Buddhism and other religions and spiritual traditions since 1995, Katinka Hesselink became a Buddhist formally in 2011. She has studied world religions at Leiden University where she focused on religious anthropology, philosophy and psychology. She has written online since 1999 and started this blog to share her Buddhist knowledge, insight and opinions. Katinka is best known for her common sense approach to Buddhism.

One thought on “Is Buddhism a Religion or a Philosophy?”

  1. Hi,

    I am a Buddhist and I am a Sri Lankan. I want to tell you that Buddhism is not a religion and Supreme Buddha is not a God. He is the supreme teacher who realize nirvana by his own unlimited wisdom.

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