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Buddhism

Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?

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Lack of standard definition of "religion:"

Whether Buddhism is, or is not, a religion depends upon how the word "religion" is defined. Lots of people have their favorite definition; some think that theirs is the only valid meaning for the term.

bulletSome definitions required a religion to include belief in the existence of one or more deities; this would classify most expressions of Buddhism as a non-religious since it is essentially a non-theistic religion.
 
bulletOther definitions do not require religion to include belief in a deity; these would probably include Buddhism as a religion.

For example:

bulletWebster's New World Dictionary (Third College Edition): defines religion as: "any specific system of belief and worship, often involving a code of ethics and a philosophy."

Buddhism would not be considered a religion under this definition, because it is basically non-theistic: it does not generally involve worship of a supernatural entity.
 
bulletWikipedia once defined religion as: "... a system of social coherence based on a common group of beliefs or attitudes concerning an object, person, unseen being, or system of thought considered to be supernatural, sacred, divine or highest truth, and the moral codes, practices, values, institutions, traditions, and rituals associated with such belief or system of thought." 1

Buddhism could be considered a religion because its various forms share a system of thought that is considered to be the highest truth. It involves moral codes, practices, values, traditions and rituals.

More recently, Wikipedia have adopted the definition of the late Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist from Princeton: Religion is: "an organized approach to human spirituality which usually encompasses a set of narratives, symbols, beliefs and practices, often with a supernatural or transcendent quality, that give meaning to the practitioner's experiences of life through reference to a higher power, God or gods, or ultimate truth. 2,3

Here again, Buddhism would be considered a religion.
bulletAnthony F.C. Wallace, a North American anthropologist who specializes in Native American cultures, suggested a definition as: "a set of rituals, rationalized by myth, which mobilizes supernatural powers for the purpose of achieving or preventing transformations of state in man or nature."4

Buddhism would not be considered a religion because it does not usually involve belief in supernatural powers.
bulletRobert Bellah, professor at the University of California, Berkley, in a legal declaration concerning the nature of transcendental meditation (TM), defined religion as: "a set of symbolic forms and acts that relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence." 5

If the word "forms" is defined broadly, this would seem to imply that Buddhism is a religion, along with TM.

bulletH.L. Menken, 20th century editor, person of ideas, satirist, and Agnostic defined religion's "...single function is to give man access to the powers which seem to control his destiny, and its single purpose is to induce those powers to be friendly to him." 6

This would imply that Buddhism is not a religion, because it does not presuppose the existence of supernatural powers with whom humans can react.

Comments by some Buddhists:

bulletThe Drepung Loseling Institute, a center for Tibetan Buddhist studies, practice and culture, fully accepts Buddhism as a religion. They state:

"Like all major religions, Buddhism contains an explanation of the origin of existence, a morality, and a specific set of rituals and behaviors. ... Buddhism presents a transformational goal, a desire to improve one's situation, and a distinct moral code. 7

bulletThe Late Ven Dr.K.Sri Dhammananda Nayaka Maha Thera JSM wrote:

"The Buddha's message as a religious way of life: 'Keeping away from ail evil deeds, cultivation or life by doing good deeds and punfication of mind from mental impurities'."

"For our purposes, religion may be defined in a very broad sense as a body of moral and philosophical teachings and the acceptance with confidence of such teachings In this sense. Buddhism is a religion." 8

bulletVenerable Master Chin Kung of the Buddhist Educational College in Singapore, describes four different types of Buddhism, of which one is:

"... religious Buddhism. Originally, Buddhism was not a religion, but now it has become one. We can no longer deny that there is a 'Buddhist religion' because everywhere we look, Buddhism is displayed as a religion. Unlike the monasteries in the past which held eight-hour classes per day and provided another eight hours for self-cultivation, today's Buddhist 'temples' no longer uphold such a perseverance of the Buddha's Teachings. Today we mainly see people offering to the Buddha statues and praying for blessings and fortune. In this way, Buddhism has been wrongly changed into a religion." 9

bulletA number of countries recognize Buddhism as their official religion:
bulletBhutan
bulletCambodia
bulletKalmykia, a republic within the Russian Federation
bulletThailand
bulletTibet Government in Exile

Also:

bulletSri Lanka recognizes Theravada Buddhism as occupying "the foremost place" among its religions. 10

Practices in North America:

Many groups recognize Buddhism as a religion:

bulletCensus offices and public opinion pollsters generally include Buddhism as one of the world's major religion.
 
bulletBooks that describe the religions of the world generally list Buddhism as a religion along with Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc.
 
bulletEven the Boy Scouts of America, who systematically root out and expel Atheists, Agnostics and homosexuals, accept Buddhists as members.
 
bulletThe Government of Canada denies registration of religious charities unless they teach the belief in one or more Gods or Goddesses. However, they allow Buddhist faith groups to register. They also register Unitarian groups even though they do not teach the existence of a deity.
 
bulletFor what it is worth, "Hey Monkeybrain" conducted a poll of its visitors on whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy or both. Results were:
bulletBoth: 63%
bulletPhilosophy 29%
bulletReligion 8% 11

Buddhism as a "bottom-up" religion:

Buddhism is not what we call a "top-down religion" -- one in which a deity reveals religious and spiritual truths to humanity. It is a "bottom-up religion" created by humans as an attempt to express spiritual concepts.

Kerry Trembath, former Secretary of the Buddhist Council of New South Wales, in Australia writes :

"Buddhism does not deny the existence of gods or of other worlds, and indeed the devotional practices of many Buddhist traditions involve the veneration and invocation of special beings such as Avalokitesvara (known as Kwan Yin to many Chinese, or Kannon to the Japanese). However, at its core Buddhism is a non-theistic religion and, unlike other world religions, Buddhism is not a doctrine of revelation. The Buddha did not claim to be the bearer of a message from on high. He made it clear that what he taught he had discovered for himself through his own efforts."

"The Buddha himself is revered not as a deity or supernatural being but as a very special kind of human being. He was a human who achieved the ultimate in development of his human potential. The Buddha taught that this achievement is within the reach of every human being, and he spent his life teaching a practical methodology which, if followed with purity of mind and great diligence, would enable others to reach the same objective. In other words, he taught a method rather than a doctrine. When questioned about the validity of his teachings, the Buddha did not refer to the higher authority of a deity. He explained that his teachings were based on his own direct personal experience, and he invited all who were interested to test for themselves whether the method he taught was effective." 12

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Unfortunately, Wikipedia is in a constant state of flux brought about by continual updating. Thus, the above quote no longer is on their site at
  2. Clifford Geertz, "Religion as a Cultural System," (1973).
  3. "Religion," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion
  4. David Carpenter of Saint Joseph's University includes this definition in his list at: http://www.sju.edu/
  5. Robert Bellah, "Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World," Harper and Row, Page 21. See: http://www.trancenet.net/
  6. H.L. Mencken, "Treatise on the Gods," Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, (1930, revised 1946).
  7. "Is Buddhism a religion?" Drepung Loseling Institute, at: http://www.drepung.org/
  8. V.K.S. Dhammananda Nayaka Maha Thera JSM, "Buddhism as a religion," Buddha Vihara Society, at: http://home.pacific.net.sg/ 
  9. Venerable Master Chin Kung, "Buddhism as an Education The path to Enlightenment," at: http://www.geocities.com/
  10. "State Religion," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  11. "Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?" Hey Monkeybrain, 2009-AUG-28, at: http://www.squidoo.com/
  12. Kerry Trembath, "Buddhism and homosexuality," at: http://www.enabling.org/

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Copyright © 1996 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-AUG-29
Author: B.A. Robinson

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