Saturday, 1 November 2008

Is Buddhism a religion?

Unsurprisingly perhaps, my answer to this question is both 'no' and 'yes'.

From the Compact Oxford English Dictionary:

religion • noun 1 the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. 2 a particular system of faith and worship. 3 a pursuit or interest followed with devotion.

The enlightenment of Gautama Buddha was not a religious revelation. The order of monks that he established was not established to worship gods or even to achieve mystical union with them. The teachings of course included references to accepted religious and philosophical ideas - gods, rebirth and karma. But Buddha encouraged self-reliance over worship of the gods; he argued that all beings were subject to causal laws; he insisted that his path was for those who had such beliefs and for those who didn't. Buddhism is not a belief in a supernatural power. Buddhism is not about having beliefs - rather it is supposed to be a freedom from all views and a middle path between extreme views. The core of Buddhism is an acceptance of the Four Noble Truths, rather than any particular view on the afterlife or existence of divine beings.

However, Buddhism is of course classified as one of the major world religions and witnessing a Buddhist ceremony you would be likely to find many parallels and similarities with Christianity or Judaism. Millions of Buddhists around the world leave offerings for gods and spirits and dead saints. They have a belief in an afterlife which is supported by ancient dogma and many Buddhists, including Western converts argue for a need for faith and conformity to the Buddha Dharma. So, to some it might seem difficult to argue that Buddhism is not a religion like all the others.

It seems that the tendency to form religious belief systems is inherent in human nature. And to a fair extent this is what seems to have happened to Buddhism. Beliefs in spirits, gods,karma and rebirth/reincarnation were the cultural context that Buddhism arose in, and belief in these often constitutes what passes for Buddhism. Buddhism originated in a culture in which reincarnation, karma and the existence of gods were the standard explanations of the world we see. Even though Buddha often spoke in terms of such metaphysical explanations, Buddha's core insights (Dependent Origination, Anatta, Four Noble Truths) were not dependent on them.

Faith is important in Buddhism, but only in the sense that it is necessary to have confidence in the teachings, confidence built on personal experience and insight, like a climber's faith in his ropes and in the force of gravity. It's not the same as the blind faith in supernatural forces that characterises much Abrahamic religion and which they turn into a virtue. There are faith-based disciples and truth-based disciples of the Buddha and there are teachings appropriate for 'Eternalists' (those who believe in an eternal self) and for 'Annihilationists' (those who believe that the self is annihilated at death).

The reverence of Boddhisatvas seems to be a characteristic of Mahayana Buddhism which was not in the original Theravada practice.

What we know mainly by the name of 'Zen' in the West was far more minimalistic than previous forms of Buddhism, being much more focussed on the practice of meditation. Perhaps its development was a response to a Buddhism which consisted largely of giving offerings and prayers to gods and Boddhisatvas for good karma, chanting, memorisation of sutras.

There is a famous story of when Bodhidharma arrived in China after having sat in meditation in a cave for nine years.

Upon arrival in China, the Emperor Wu Di, a devout Buddhist himself, requested an audience with Bodhidharma (in 520 A.D.). During their initial meeting, Wu Di asked Bodhidharma what merit he had achieved for all of his good deeds for building numerous temples and endowing monasteries throughout his empowered territory. Bodhidharma replied, "None at all." Perplexed, the Emperor then asked, "Well, what is the fundamental teaching of Buddhism?" "Vast emptiness," was the bewildering reply. "Listen," said the Emperor, now losing all patience, "just who do you think you are?" "I have no idea," Bodhidharma replied. With this, Bodhidharma was banished from the Court.

An idea that Richard Dawkins proposes in his books is that of memes as a basis for cultural evolution in analogy with genes and this idea is further developed by thinkers such as Susan Blackmore and others. I think its a compelling argument, but exactly what the physical basis is of a meme is, is more ambiguous than the parallel case of genetic evolution. Dawkins proposes that many cultural entities can be seen as widespread simply because they are 'memeplexes'/meme-complexes, which are good at reproducing. He describes religions in this way, describing them as a 'virus of the mind'. They are not necessarily 'true' and not necessarily serving the best interests of the 'host', just prevalent because they are good at spreading. I recommend reading Dawkins' books to fully understand the argument, but this article is a good introduction.

I find this argument an interesting way to explain some of the features of religion eg. the raising of blind faith over evidence to a virtue, but needless to say I can only see it as part of the truth.

These arguments are further developed by Susan Blackmore in The Meme Machine. Interestingly Blackmore is a long-time practitioner of Zen. And she presents Zen with its detachment from belief and thought, its iconoclasm and 'kill the Buddha!' proclamations is really a memetic 'antiseptic' rather than a meme. I was persuaded that this was not just a matter of personal bias on her part although I'd suggest (and did by email) that Zen could be seen as an antidote to memes which is itself wrapped in a memeplex of its own. The 'raft' of the dharma is the memeplex, but Buddhism (correctly understood) aknowledges the provisional nature of this cultural vehical.

As you can see I tend to regard the religious aspects of contemporary Buddhism as rather dogmatic and unhealthy. While declining slightly in many parts of Asia, Buddhism is on the rise in the West - in some regions eg. Australia, Scotland and South-West England census data suggests that it is the fastest growing religion ('Jedi' doesn't count as an officially recognised religion, sorry :)). The two most popular sects are Tibetan and Zen. I'd suggest that many people drawn to Buddhism are are attracted by its anti-dogmatic traits compared with Christianity which has been on a slow decline in these areas for many years. Buddhism is in a process of adaptation for the west and I'd suggest that this is a good opportunity to cast off some of the dogmatic and religious baggage it has aquired on its travels.

I'm not the first westerner to suggest this of course - here are some links to individuals who are cutting away the cultural trappings in one way or another to reach through to the essenceless essence of Buddhism:

Brad Warner
Stephen Batchelor
Christopher Calder

But let's not forget that any desire we may have to adjust Buddhism to our tastes itself arises from our own modern cultural trappings.

This post is an updated version of one I published in my personal blog in 2006.


  1. Holding onto ones personal views as 'right' and the generalizations that follow from this are found in every philosophical, religious, political and scientific endeavor. Therefore, it is not ancient or contemporary Buddhism that is dogmatic, rather it is the mistaken views and concepts held strongly by its followers that are at fault here.

    In terms of Buddhist praxis, people need time and space to work through their personal issues, because it is only enlightened beings that do not reify existence.

    Having said that, to assume we as Westerners understand Buddhism and its paths better than those who came before us is perhaps a mistake. While there are certainly issues with some cultural aspects that have made there way into Buddhist thought. I for one don't believe we should be so quick to want to change everything. For this could potentially change the fundamental tenets that the Buddha himself taught just because it does not lend itself to our current cultural world view.

    What is most important is objectivity and critical thinking!

  2. Great post...

    ...and great comment.

  3. If the answer to the question is that Buddhism is and is not a religion, then that only says that Buddhism is no religion at it's essence. It just looks like one.
    In the Bodhidharma story I think Bodhidharma's answer was "Wu" to every question, so he angered the emperor by using the Emperor's name when he really was not and the Emperor didn't see that because he didn't know who he was himself. That's a mouthful. I hope I didn't mix it up too much. It's late.
    Is the Emperor Wu because he is or because people call him that?

  4. Loden Jinpa,

    Good points.

    And this leads to an important question: who has the authority to say what is 'true dharma' and what are 'cultural trappings'? This is a very difficult and fuzzy line to draw. Progressive types in the west like to imagine Buddha as a rational, empirical, 'modern' man whose teachings were later obscured by superstition and religious tendencies. And there is some truth in this, but it has become a sort of unexamined modern myth. Reading the Pali Canon, it seems almost certain that Buddha taught literal rebirth, a law of karma which rewarded 'good' and punished 'evil', and mentioned the existence of devas. These were not his ideas - they were the prevailing ideas of the time, although he modified rebirth and karma to exclude the need for an enduring self (atman).

    I think that most robust-thinking modern people with the benefits of education and an understanding of many aspects of the universe which were unavailable to the Buddha, would find it difficult to believe these ideas literally without some sort of self-deception (and I don't think the Buddha would have asked them to). They would raise so many further questions and go against such a weight of evidence.

    But what is incredible about the Buddha is that the core of his insights are so relevant and profound to us now. Some of his ideas seem universally meaningful, valuable and profound: Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta; the cause of suffering and it's end; dependent origination; Suñña.

    On the other hand, we don't want, as you say, to throw away valuable teachings in our ignorant desire to modernise. But ignorant conservation and ignorant modernisation are not the only options. Blind conformity and ignorant picking and choosing both have dangers. What is needed is genuine understanding and good leadership.

  5. Hi,

    But, of course, for some, like myself, the path of faith is the most appropriate one.

    Please, in your hurry to be progressive, don't assume that it's the right path for everyone. Or the only path, or necessarily the best path.

    Wishing you peace and happiness,

    Kwan Seum Bosal,


  6. Oh I don't Marcus, I don't. But a path that can be verified by personal experience or at least is consistent with that which I can directly experience is one that suits me.

    Best wishes with your practice,


  7. I think that's exactly Buddha's point in the Truths. There is no right path for everyone. That would have been shown if Justin stood his ground and you guys would have gone back and forth about who was right. Fortunately, Justin is wiser that that. The only path for everyone is no path, otherwise folks are just fighting over which one is right, when really it takes other paths to be wrong (first two truths) for mine to be right (second two truths). I position the other where I was in the first two while I assume the other position in the second two. The wrong and right ways are like eyes that think they are the one and the other is not when they both seem to see from the center, but really there is no center eye. There are only shadows of two noses.
    Hopefully I made sense. It can be quite a twister. If more people read Lacan, I think it would really help.
    So I have to repeat that Buddhism calls attention the mis-recognition of the Self and is technically no religion. It's also universal, so it eliminates a personal view, although not a personal action. Religions to stay alive depend on not seeing what their truths are pointing to. They fill in the gap of not-knowing. That's not bad, it just continually fulfills a desire.
    Oh, and it does take tremendous faith to walk the no-path.