Is Buddhism a Religion?

I always find this question interesting and like to ponder it.  Generally, in the West, Buddhism is classified as a religion, with an added explanation that although it is classified as a religion it is a non-theistic religion i.e. Buddhists don’t believe in a creator, a God.  The definitions classify that in order to be classified as a religion there is a belief in a superhuman power or powers and since Buddhism does not have either, there is a great deal of confusion in the minds of people over where Buddhism sits with all of this.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines religion as: “Belief in or acknowledgement of some superhuman power or powers (esp. a god or gods) which is typically manifested in obedience, reverence, and worship; such a belief as part of a system defining a code of living, esp. as a means of achieving spiritual or material improvement.”

Having then covered themselves by saying that a religion is also part of a system defining a code of living as a means of achieving spiritual or material improvement, the Oxford English Dictionary then goes on to define Buddhism as “an Asian religion based on the teaching of Siddhartha Gautama (or Buddha)”.

The debate about what Buddhism actually is and what category it falls into has been raging for centuries and many eminent philosophers and writers have all given their views.  But none has come up with a definitive answer to the question.

It would seem prudent then if instead of trying to define what Buddhism is or isn’t, that an actual Buddhist could give their interpretation.  So step in the Dalai Lama who knows something about this subject.  He says:  “Buddhism is more than a religion. It is a science of the mind”

So even the Dalia Lama appears to not be saying that Buddhism is not a religion, he says it is more than a religion, implying that it is in part a religion but it is perhaps greater or more in some way than our concepts of what a religion is.  This raises further questions but seems to be in accord with the Oxford English Dictionary definition above which includes some of the things that Buddhism is but not others.  So the debate continues.

Debating a topic as a westerner can be controversial in the everyday dualistic relative world that we live in.  Our beliefs and concepts get tested and we get angry and even want to push our point of view forwards to the point of aggressively doing so to prove that we are right and the other person is wrong.  We start to justify our actions by our beliefs and concepts as if there is only one definitive answer.  But some questions simply do not have a definitive answer or truth.  For example, when does grey turn to black or white?  We all have our own ideas, and so will tend to come to this debate from a subjective point of view.  In order to find the truth and win the debate can seem almost impossible sometimes and not as straightforward as we would like it to be.  Certainly, this discussion about whether or not Buddhism is a religion seems to be one of those very difficult things to find a definitive answer to.  So should we just let it all go and accept that this is the case or do we want to hang on to our ideas and beliefs regardless?

Part of the training for Tibetan monks is debate.  It still goes on today and is a bit of a tourist attraction.  The debates take place in courtyards outside the monasteries and behind a wire fence.  People bring their cameras and delight in taking photos of these debates as the monks seem to dance around and make certain hand gestures and clap at certain points.  Buddhist debate is seen to be a way of defeating misconceptions and developing a deeper understanding of Buddhist teachings.  It involves two people, one who asks questions – the challenger who is standing – and a defender who is sitting.  The object of the debate is very different to a western debate.  Debate in Tibet is about extinguishing ignorance and cultivating wisdom.  Interestingly, it is not about winning but rather about developing compassion by paving the way for your opponent to come to the same conclusion as you.  That can only occur if the defender has themselves contemplated the question to the extent that they have found the ultimate answer that is the ultimate truth.

It is a very different way of debating from the western view and it involves a huge amount of skill, compassion and intelligence.  I suspect it is a way of pointing out how things really are and removing confusion and to do that requires the defender to be able to skillfully and indisputably guide and encourage the challenger to let go of beliefs and concepts that hold them back from realising the truth.  And to do that the right questions have to be asked and the right and truthful answers given.  If the answers were not the ultimate truth then the challenger would be in a position to challenge the defender.

Many of us don’t want to bother to take the time to really consider what our opinion, beliefs and conceptual understanding of things are.  We often just follow blindly whatever course takes our fancy, and whatever ‘he’ or ‘she’ says and feel a sense of safety being in that position.  But we need to learn to use our minds, ask the questions, contemplate the possible answers and above all, if we do find a definitive answer, try to be compassionate towards those who don’t have the same level of realisation as we do.  Then who knows, perhaps a few wars might be averted!

Author Christine Jeffcutt

Soon to go live:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *