Is Buddhism a religion?

Jun 17, 2012 | god and not god | 7 comments


In case you weren’t certain, this isn’t God.

Talking to friend last week, she insisted that Buddhism is not a religion.  She’s a Tibetan Buddhist and certainly knows more than I do, but I wasn’t convinced.

I listened to a recording of Letting Go of God by Julia Sweeney a couple of years ago.  Julia Sweeney was brought up Catholic and the monologue (and stage show and book) chronicle her journey from being a believer to being an atheist.  It’s very funny and moving and very worth a listen no matter what you believe or don’t believe.  One part of her story is about her flirtation with Buddhism. She loved the meditation and simplicity and the fact that it didn’t include a god or gods.  She decided to go to Asia to further her involvement and made a big discovery.  What she’d been introduced to in the USA wasn’t the same as what she found in Bhutan.  Buddhism in Bhutan was swimming with gods and spirits and dogma and beliefs that were a far cry from a pure practice of stilling the mind.  In Bhutan she found a Religion when she had thought that Buddhism might be something else, something better.

I talked recently to another friend who is, I think, a Tibetan Buddhist as well.  I told him the above story.  He’s involved with a Buddhist leader named Sogyal Rinpoche.  He said that the Buddhism he practices is very pure (i.e. like it is in Tibet) and involves deities, ghosts and various supernatural entities.  It sounded to me very much like a religion.

I plan to get into the question of what is a Religion in a later post, but for now I’ll settle fore the definition from


[ri-lij-uhn] noun

1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing amoral code governing
the conduct of human affairs.
2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices:
a world council of religions.
4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
5. the practice of religious  beliefs; ritual observance of faith.

As far as I can tell the only part of this definition that might not apply to Buddhism is in number 1, “especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency”. I don’t really know if Buddhism has a creation myth.  I could look it up, but I’m hoping someone reading this might tell me.  My impression is that it looks at the universe as illusion and as such it doesn’t really need a beginning or end, but I’m not really sure about that.  In any case, I think this definition supports Buddhism being a religion.

My real question, and I’m sorry that it’s taken so long to get here, is why is it that my friend, and I suspect many other western Buddhists, are so insistent that Buddhism is NOT a religion.

I suspect that it is very much like Julia Sweeney’s experience.  They want Buddhism to be something else because they no longer believe in what they were raised to believe.  They’d like to think that they are not simply replacing a set of arbitrary beliefs with another set of arbitrary beliefs, but have moved beyond arbitrary beliefs to something higher, purer and free from gods. The word religion implies God.  They have, perhaps, rejected God and want a “spiritual path” that is Not-God.

If you want to take up a religion or non-religion Buddhism seems to have a lot going for it.  It doesn’t seem to require you to believe in or reject God.  It offers a potential heaven-like reward that doesn’t require you to die. It seems mostly peaceful.  It can been seen as mind-training instead of mere ritual.  It sounds pretty good, even to me.

But to me it also sounds like a religion.  It’s a set of beliefs that is designed to fill a hole.  The study of that hole, where is came from and why it’s there is fascinating, but filling it with with any arbitrary set of beliefs and rituals sounds like a religion to me.  When I hear Buddhists talking about their beliefs it often sounds to me like they’re talking around God.  It sounds to me like there’s a God in there somewhere, redefined perhaps, but (s)he is never talked about.  At least not in the west.

I don’t mean to offend anyone who is sure they are practicing a non-religion, but I’d sure be interested in hearing from you.