Is Buddhism a religion?
Short answer: Yes.
This is a question that gets asked all the time. It’s kind of a silly question because when you get down to it the consequences of the answer are meaningless. It’s the kind of thing that people just like to argue about. In the age of the internet arguing about things that don’t matter is common.
Is Buddhism a religion?. People say “it’s not a religion, it’s a philosophy” or “it’s just a way of life” and of course some people do say “it’s a religion”. One of my heroes Steven Batchelor calls it a culture of awakening, not a religion. With all due respect to him I think it is a religion, but also that it doesn’t matter.
First of all I want to address “who asks a question like that?”
There are really 3 kinds of people that do. First is people that love to debate semantics. I’ll have nothing to say about that because I think they aren’t very interesting. The others fall into two camps. There are people that see value in Buddhism but also think religion is bad. And there are people who are practicing another religion, usually Christianity or Judaism, and they think they can’t practice Buddhism as well unless it’s not a religion.
I’m not going to weigh in on whether or not religion is a good thing. We could imagine a scale with the good things about religion on one side and the bad on the other. I’m not going to do that. Instead I’m just going to say religion has probably been with us all this time for a reason. The desire for religion seems to be part of who we are. It’s not going anywhere but we can definitely hope for the good aspects of religion to flourish and the bad ones to fade away.
The philosopher GK Chesterton said “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.”
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that while people are taking stories about God less seriously things like astrology and psychics are being believed in more and more, as though these things are somehow more believable and real. I guess that’s a little off topic. The point is that religion isn’t going anywhere, and even if it goes away…it’ll be replaced by something like religion.
This is the truth: religions like Buddhism and Christianity arose because people thought the religions of their parents were boring and not useful anymore. Things go away they get replaced.
Anyway, here’s the core of my argument and I’ll try to keep it simple.
The great philosopher and scholar William James described religion as:
“the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”
I want to make the claim, as William James does, that that is the correct definition of religion. It’s not belief in God or spirits or magic or anything else. That’s what we think religion is when we’re kids. But it’s so much more than that. People are likely to say, “That’s not MY definition of religion.” And I understand that. In the modern world people seem to think that having an opinion and being an expert are the same thing…I’m not an expert by any means, so I defer to William James.
Religion is simply believing that there’s an unseen order for us to adjust ourselves to. Through certain practices we can align ourselves with the unseen order and experience the supreme good. In some religions the unseen order is something like God’s will. In Buddhism it’s something else.
The unseen order is what the Buddha was talking about when he described the three marks of existence: suffering, impermanence, and no-self. These are the unseen order, not because we can’t see them, but because most of the time we don’t try. Most of the time we aren’t paying attention.
We can harmoniously adjust ourselves to the unseen order by understanding the four noble truths, by walking the eightfold path, by cultivating the six perfections. All Buddhist teachings and practices come down to adjusting ourselves to that unseen order. Life is full of suffering, all things are impermanent, what we see as ourselves is really just a collection of things.
So, can you practice Buddhism alongside other religions? I think you can. People have been doing it always. Zen arose partly because people were practicing Buddhism and Taoism at the same time.
The only question is, does one unseen order conflict with another?
Do the Four Noble Truths conflict with the will of God? I don’t think so. Buddhist practice is about trying to understand the world we live in and trying to flourish in the best way that we can.
It’s all okay together because there’s no conflict.
And that’s why Buddhism is a religion and also why the question isn’t important. But also, let’s stop obsessing about that word so much.
Daniel Scharpenburg is a meditation instructor and dharma teacher in Kansas City. He regularly gives teachings through the Open Heart Project, the largest virtual mindfulness community in the world.
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