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 Dictionary.com.


[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.


7 Responses to “Is Buddhism a religion?”

  1. If you also want a religion that also can be sewn into a non-religion by these criteria, try Judaism. It doesn’t seem to require you to believe in or reject G-d (it really has no set theology, although it definitely proscribes worship of other gods); it is all but silent on any notion of an afterlife, stressing that life itself is enough–and nobody has come back with a report on the afterlife, so…have another bagel. It seems mostly peaceful: shalom. It can been seen as mind-training–it is explosively big on learning–and rituals that revolve around food, which is very pretty humane. Yes, it a set of beliefs that is designed to fill a hole–which most of a have aplenty. It is wonderfully ambiguous except in the absolute dictum that we must be kind to each other. And 50% of Jews are 100% secular except at a number of meals.

    There’s considerable similarity to classic Buddhism and Judaism, evinced in the number of “JooBoos” wandering around. Good book: “The Jew and the Lotus.”

    If anyone is searching for a more classical model of a stern, fervid and fundamental religion, try atheism.

    • Interesting that you name atheism. I suppose you’re referring to a particular sect, because atheism itself just means “without belief”. I’d fall into that category. A very large proportion of the people I know and hang out with fall into that category. Any nowhere do I see evidence of “stern, fervid and fundamental religion”. They’re pretty nice people, don’t seem to have any dogma whatsoever and tend to be pretty quiet about it. I can’t see that it fulfils any of the criteria for being a religion at all.

      I suppose lots of people call it agnosticism to avoid with being harshly labelled. Intellectually agnosticism is correct – even Richard Dawkins acknowledges that you cannot prove that god doesn’t exist – but it does seem rather wishy washy. For my part I suppose I’m officially an agnostic but I hold the possibility of there being a dude or dude-ess in the sky as being homoeopathically small. And if you know what homeopathic dilutions are you know that is pretty bloody small.

      • Ah, but that is because you are one of the lower case “a” atheists, a ruminant species. This is different than upper case Atheists—think Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher—who write Catechisms detailing the labyrinthine intricacies of their disbelief, hagiographies about the adeities of deepest concern and influence, and the plump satisfaction of a William Jennings Bryan inverted and busting his buttons. They’re adorable.

        Of dudes or dude-eeses in the sky, I have none: if pressed, I will allow for a purple spaghetti monster in the sky for an embodiment, as there is (as spelled out quite early, explicitly, and endlessly in the core scroll I’m rather taken by) no embodiment, certainly none that can be graven. Having been doing a fair of reading about quantum physics for no damn good reason and with little damn understanding, I might make a case for g-d hanging out somewhere in the gears and tiny spring inside the boson, but I don’t have the math (it would make for a substantial homeopathic dilution, though, and since homeopathic medicine has kept the queen of England grimacing for 86 years, shall we say god saves the queen?).

        But the best convolution I can make regards my good friend Ariel from Jerusalem, a molecular medical researcher currently toying with the practical applications of DNA origami (yes, exactly that), who is also a orthodox, utterly observant Jew–the full practice of which is fully as complex as molecular biology, and there are probably more books on the subject; it is difficult to be an orthodox Jew. He and I were talking about the subject of over a glass of wine—the only appropriate venue–and he told me the entirety of his theology, and the buttress of the blessings he pronounces every day: “The Big Bang. Not the event. Just the ‘why.'”

        The why, of course, was to produce molecules in adequate form and numbers to form people as extraordinary as Ariel and his family, but that’s just my point of view. The more important thing was that we made a blessing over that glass of wine. And that’s not to make the purple spaghetti monster happy. It just makes the glass of wine a key to the Big Bang theory. And there should be no argument that wine is integral to the Big Bang theory…and if we cannot reach agreement on that, we have no shared beliefs. L’chaim.

        • Hmmm…
          I’ve read some Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and I watched Regigulous. I don’t recall any catechisms or labyrinthine intricacies. I don’t recall any dogma or rituals. And I don’t even know what “adeities of deepest concern and influence” even means. They are called the new atheists, but the only thing difference I can detect between them and the old, small “a”, atheists is that they are noisy about it. I haven’t detected them saying anything particularly different.

          Wikipedia says “New Atheism is the name given to the ideas promoted by a collection of 21st-century atheist writers who have advocated the view that “religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.” I think they’ve decided to be loud as a reaction to the assumption that it is not considered socially acceptable to criticise anyone’s religious belief, but it is considered completely Ok to condemn someone for their atheism.

          Wikipedia also says “Legal and social discrimination against atheists in some places may lead some to deny or conceal their atheism due to fears of persecution. A 2006 study by researchers at the University of Minnesota involving a poll of 2,000 households in the United States found atheists to be the most distrusted of minorities, more so than Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians, and other groups. Many of the respondents associated atheism with immorality, including criminal behaviour, extreme materialism, and elitism.”

          Of course I’m bemused by the idea that you don’t believe in god, but feel the need to spell her name g-d. I’ll need to get my head around all this religion without g-d and god without religion. It’s all pretty mysterious. I notice that when referencing the queen the “o” reappears. Curiouser and curiouser.

          Your description of “The Big Bang. Not the event. Just the ‘why'” sounds like the distinction between theist and deist. A theist believe there’s a dude who reads your (and everyone’s) mind and cares and judges. A deist usually believes something (an intelligence?) started it all going and then got busy with something more important. But if the dude isn’t reading your mail, why the elaborate rituals? If the dude-ess don’t care, or if there is no dude-ess???? You get the idea.

          If it’s all an excuse to meet nice people and quaff a touch of the red, why not. I’ve had my time dancing naked around the fire and have to conclude it’s kinda fun, in an irrational and pointless sort of way.


          • To clear up one misapprehension:I do believe, just not a belief wearing the clothes or scales or the bearded white guy, purple spaghetti monster. I believe the rituals are for my benefit (and it’s curious that very few Jewish prayers ASK for anything, which explains our near universal lack of ponies). But I’m hardly making a case for belief. That would be silly; I’m entirely too irrational.

          • That makes more sense. I figured that you had to believe, I just couldn’t quite work out what it is that you believe. I think I’ve got a little bit clearer idea now, though by no means clear.

            I still don’t understand your reaction to Dawkins and his friends. Is it because they are actively critical of belief?

  2. Budhism – of course one of the (great) religions of the world. I think a lot of us Buddhies don’t like to be called ‘religionist’ because the major one amongst relgions ie. the Catholicism is getting really bad press. As if it is shameful to be in a religion.

    All depends of course on definition – but for me, what is important is what the core messages are in a religion. Buddhism: compassion for oneself and others, having a big heart, be kind, and reduce once suffering and help with the suffering 0f others. Not a comprehensive list, but just those are more than enough for me to handle this life time. If that’s religion, I like it. If there is a debate about it – frankly speaking, I don’t give a shit and I’d say ‘Go to Hell’ – pun intended.


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