What is Buddhism?

William B. Turner
7 min readFeb 4, 2020

“Buddhism is about letting people know they do not need to follow any authority. If you think you need an authority figure, go somewhere else.”

Brad Warner, Hardcore Zen

Some people say Buddhism is a religion, some say it ain’t. Most catalogs of world religions include Buddhism among the list of the major ones. Robert Buswell, in his Encyclopedia of Buddhism describes it as one of the three major world religions, the other two being Christianity and Islam. Most would expand the list to include Judaism and Hinduism at a minimum, but that is not important here.

One thing Buddhism lacks that most religions have is a god. The Buddha was born into a culture in which the main religion was a form of proto-Hinduism, which posits numerous gods, and some stories of the Buddha’s life do describe various gods as facilitating his path to enlightenment. But when his students asked the Buddha about the existence of an omnipotent being that created and ruled the universe, he would respond that there was no point in worrying about that question. Better to go back to meditating and expect to find out the answer for yourself when you achieve complete enlightenment. As the quotation from Brad Warner above indicates, one thing most religions offer that Buddhism does not is an external authority figure who will tell you what to do and what not to do. In Buddhism, it’s up to you. The Buddha made suggestions, but he was very clear that you should try his suggestions out to see if they worked for you and only follow him if they did, in fact, work for you. He expected no one to accept what he said on faith alone.

Buddhism does have some aspects of a religion. It offers an explanation of life and the afterlife that usually offers believers some solace. It also offers a fairly specific set of rules to live by in order to have a good life. But Buddhism appeals, in the United States, where it is but one choice among many, especially to persons who find the faith they grew up with inadequate or stultifying or otherwise unsatisfactory. Some people find the Buddha’s resolute rejection of dogma and insistence that practitioners only accept what they can verify with their own experience preferable to those faiths that demand unquestioning obedience from followers. Also, partly because of the absence of dogma, and partly because of the preferences and proclivities of the first people from the United States to become Buddhists, Buddhism in the United States has been mostly free of the sorts of prejudices that indigenous…