“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 religions ignore or actively abet.
One thing Buddhism has that most religions don’t is a very specific practice that all believers may participate in and which is, in most schools, critical to achieving the final goal of enlightenment. That practice is meditation, which is very simple and which offers numerous interim benefits as modern scientific research increasingly confirms.
From one perspective, Buddhism is a philosophy, if by “philosophy” one means a more or less fully elaborated set of theories about human life and how to live it. Buddhism can be totalizing in the sense that, once one chooses to enter into the Buddhist worldview, it informs every perception and thought. If you really do become Buddhist, expect your worldview to change, perhaps radically.
Some would argue, however, that Buddhism is not a philosophy because a philosophy necessarily entails some abstraction, as one tries to explain the world using words, which are useful, but always inadequate. The word “tree” can point you to the right object in the yard and may bring to mind a specific image of a tall, wooden thingy with leaves on it, but “tree” is obviously not a tree. It’s a word. (The famous story exists of highly accomplished Tibetan master Chogyam Trungpa had an equally accomplished master visiting. The two of them sat in the yard, not speaking, for some time. Then, Trungpa pointed to a tall, leafy growth nearby and said, “They call that a tree.” Both men laughed heartily.)
As Zen Buddhists like to say, do not confuse the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. In some accounts, the truth in Buddhism is just everything, or a way of realizing one’s connection to everything, and, like “tree,” “everything” is just a word. It is not everything. One cannot describe everything, so all philosophy is incapable of capturing truth. So, Buddhism is not a philosophy from that perspective. Descriptions can be useful teaching tools, but they are always ultimately inadequate. True understanding in Buddhism is non-conceptual, and therefore, not philosophical. One of the constraints of human life is that the best way we have to communicate with each other is language, however imperfect it undoubtedly is, so the Buddha had to reduce his enlightened understanding to language in order to teach despite knowing that human language can never fully capture his message.
From another perspective, Buddhism is a highly elaborate psychology, or explanation of human emotional and cognitive functioning. The primary source of our knowledge of the Buddha’s teaching, the Pali canon (Pali is the language the Buddha spoke), includes the Abhidharma (the other components of the Tripitaka, or three baskets, are the Vinaya, or rules for monastics, and the suttas, or sutras, which are the discourses the tradition attributes to the Buddha himself or his closest followers), a systematic compilation of the Buddha’s teaching, which contains an elaborate account of human consciousness and how the mind works. Buddhism, in offering both a robust psychology and a method of practice, is relentlessly practical. Meditation teachers are usually quick to insist that Buddhist meditation is not therapy, or a substitute for therapy, but that is at least partly because most of them are neither trained nor licensed as therapists, so they have no desire to misrepresent themselves or risk legal liability for practicing without a license. However, if therapy has any purpose, surely it is to help persons identify aspects of their psychological functioning that they are not happy with and that causes them unhappiness and learn to change them. I have identified aspects of my psychological functioning that I was not even aware of and mostly been able to change them. On the one hand, we are dealing usually with habits, which can be hard to break, but on the other hand, as the old joke goes, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” “Don’t do that.” It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that, if you’re hurting yourself, you should stop.
Another reason why thinking of Buddhism as a psychology is inviting is that it focuses intently on mind, however defined. Again, the Buddha noticed that our brains process all incoming information instantaneously before presenting it to conscious awareness and that most, if not all, of this processing is pathological to some degree. The Buddha’s diagnosis of the human condition was that, at the most basic level, we suffer from ignorance of our true condition. According to the Buddha, we all have Buddha nature, we are actually already enlightened, we just don’t realize it. As Sherab Chodzin Kohn in A Life of the Buddha put it, the Buddha “saw that the whole process ending in old age and death begins when basic intelligence slips into unawareness of its own nature. In this way all-pervading intelligence strays into the sense of a self.” (44) We will discuss in more detail later how the Buddha asserted that, to see one’s self as having a coherent, enduring self is a mistake.
One important way in which Buddhism is not a religion, at least as most people understand that term, is that it emphatically does not offer any dogma. The Buddha was very clear: again, do not believe anything just because he said it. Try it out for yourself. If it works for you, great, keep on keeping on. If not, fare thee well, and best of luck in finding something that does work for you.
Thanissaro Bhikku, in an essay entitled, “Faith in Awakening,” pointed out, being Buddhist does require a specific sort of faith. One has to believe in the enlightenment, or awakening, of the Buddha. What would be the point of following some dead Indian guy except that you choose to believe he accomplished something truly extraordinary? Thanissaro (“Bhikku” means “monk”) also distinguishes between two types of faith, blind faith and aspirational faith. Blind faith is the kind in which one believes something just because some authority figure told you so. Again, Buddhists do not do that. Aspirational faith is the kind of faith in which you choose to believe in some future possibility and take steps to bring that possibility to fruition. This is what Buddhists do when they choose to believe in the possibility of achieving enlightenment and take steps to bring it about.
Again, whether this is a valid or possible enterprise is up to you. No entity exists, according to Buddhism, that will inflict pain or punishment on you for not becoming Buddhist. One teacher who offers meditation courses to corporations will not work for any entity that requires employees to attend. One important way in which Buddhism is fully consistent with the thought processes of most modern Americans is in placing considerable emphasis on the individual and her/his responsibility to make her/his own choice about what to believe. Again, Buddhism appeals especially to those of us who are tired/suspicious of what look like authoritarian attempts to tell us what we have to believe on pain of some horrible future consequence.
So, ultimately, whether you see Buddhism as a religion or not is, like the choice to become Buddhist, entirely up to you.