Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Is Buddhism a Religion?

One from the crypt...

Unsurprisingly perhaps, my answer to this question is both 'no' and 'yes'.

From the Compact Oxford English Dictionary:

religion • noun 1 the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. 2 a particular system of faith and worship. 3 a pursuit or interest followed with devotion.

The enlightenment of Gautama Buddha was not a religious revelation. The order of monks that he established was not established to worship gods or even to achieve mystical union with them. The teachings of course included references to accepted religious and philosophical ideas - gods, rebirth and karma. But Buddha encouraged self-reliance over worship of the gods; he argued that all beings were subject to causal laws; he insisted that his path was for those who had such beliefs and for those who didn't. Buddhism is not a belief in a supernatural power. Buddhism is not about having beliefs - rather it is supposed to be a freedom from all views and a middle path between extreme views. The core of Buddhism is an acceptance of the Four Noble Truths, rather than any particular view on the afterlife or existence of divine beings.

However, Buddhism is of course classified as one of the major world religions and witnessing a Buddhist ceremony you would be likely to find many parallels and similarities with Christianity or Judaism. Millions of Buddhists around the world leave offerings for gods and spirits and dead saints. They have a belief in an afterlife which is supported by ancient dogma and many Buddhists, including Western converts argue for a need for faith and conformity to the Buddha Dharma. So, to some it might seem difficult to argue that Buddhism is not a religion like all the others.

It seems that the tendency to form religious belief systems is inherent in human nature. And to a fair extent this is what seems to have happened to Buddhism. Beliefs in spirits, gods,karma and rebirth/reincarnation were the cultural context that Buddhism arose in, and belief in these often constitutes what passes for Buddhism. Buddhism originated in a culture in which reincarnation, karma and the existence of gods were the standard explanations of the world we see. Even though Buddha often spoke in terms of such metaphysical explanations, Buddha's core insights (Dependent Origination, Anatta, Four Noble Truths) were not dependent on them.

Faith is important in Buddhism, but only in the sense that it is necessary to have confidence in the teachings, confidence built on personal experience and insight, like a climber's faith in his ropes and in the force of gravity. It's not the same as the blind faith in supernatural forces that characterises much Abrahamic religion and which they turn into a virtue. There are faith-based disciples and truth-based disciples of the Buddha and there are teachings appropriate for 'Eternalists' (those who believe in an eternal self) and for 'Annihilationists' (those who believe that the self is annihilated at death).

The reverence of Boddhisatvas seems to be a characteristic of Mahayana Buddhism which was not in the original Theravada practice.

What we know mainly by the name of 'Zen' in the West was far more minimalistic than previous forms of Buddhism, being much more focussed on the practice of meditation. Perhaps its development was a response to a Buddhism which consisted largely of giving offerings and prayers to gods and Boddhisatvas for good karma, chanting, memorisation of sutras.

There is a famous story of when Bodhidharma arrived in China after having sat in meditation in a cave for nine years.

Upon arrival in China, the Emperor Wu Di, a devout Buddhist himself, requested an audience with Bodhidharma (in 520 A.D.). During their initial meeting, Wu Di asked Bodhidharma what merit he had achieved for all of his good deeds for building numerous temples and endowing monasteries throughout his empowered territory. Bodhidharma replied, "None at all." Perplexed, the Emperor then asked, "Well, what is the fundamental teaching of Buddhism?" "Vast emptiness," was the bewildering reply. "Listen," said the Emperor, now losing all patience, "just who do you think you are?" "I have no idea," Bodhidharma replied. With this, Bodhidharma was banished from the Court.

An idea that Richard Dawkins proposes in his books is that of memes as a basis for cultural evolution in analogy with genes and this idea is further developed by thinkers such as Susan Blackmore and others. I think its a compelling argument, but exactly what the physical basis is of a meme is, is more ambiguous than the parallel case of genetic evolution. Dawkins proposes that many cultural entities can be seen as widespread simply because they are 'memeplexes'/meme-complexes, which are good at reproducing. He describes religions in this way, describing them as a 'virus of the mind'. They are not necessarily 'true' and not necessarily serving the best interests of the 'host', just prevalent because they are good at spreading. I recommend reading Dawkins' books to fully understand the argument, but this article is a good introduction.

I find this argument an interesting way to explain some of the features of religion eg. the raising of blind faith over evidence to a virtue, but needless to say I can only see it as part of the truth.

These arguments are further developed by Susan Blackmore in The Meme Machine. Interestingly Blackmore is a long-time practitioner of Zen. And she presents Zen with its detachment from belief and thought, its iconoclasm and 'kill the Buddha!' proclamations is really a memetic 'antiseptic' rather than a meme. I was persuaded that this was not just a matter of personal bias on her part although I'd suggest (and did by email) that Zen could be seen as an antidote to memes which is itself wrapped in a memeplex of its own. The 'raft' of the dharma is the memeplex, but Buddhism (correctly understood) aknowledges the provisional nature of this cultural vehical.

As you can see I tend to regard the religious aspects of contemporary Buddhism as rather dogmatic and unhealthy. While declining slightly in many parts of Asia, Buddhism is on the rise in the West - in some regions eg. Australia, Scotland and South-West England census data suggests that it is the fastest growing religion ('Jedi' doesn't count as an officially recognised religion, sorry :)). The two most popular sects are Tibetan and Zen. I'd suggest that many people drawn to Buddhism are are attracted by its anti-dogmatic traits compared with Christianity which has been on a slow decline in these areas for many years. Buddhism is in a process of adaptation for the west and I'd suggest that this is a good opportunity to cast off some of the dogmatic and religious baggage it has aquired on its travels.

I'm not the first westerner to suggest this of course - here are some links to individuals who are cutting away the cultural trappings in one way or another to reach through to the essenceless essence of Buddhism:

Brad Warner
Stephen Batchelor
Christopher Calder


At May 17, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

I think that there is a core of Buddhism that requires no belief - because it is realisable by direct experience alone. The method of that realisation is not important.

This area where direct realisation [of Buddhist Truths] is not unique to Buddhism but also appears just as clearly in Taoism. It is much less clear outside of these two.

Zen favours one method (Zazen) over others with the belief that this is the superior method. This is a belief.

Beyond the core of direct realisation (which is a subset of Zen) there is a whole bunch of additional beliefs and interpretations of that direct realisation and additional bolt-on beliefs about precepts, deities, merits and all sorts of other colourful things.

Every sect of Buddhism/Chan/Zen has its own unique set of bolt-ons. All of the bolt-ons may change the way that you view life and live your life but they do not change reality - whatever that may be.

By all means everyone is free to believe whatever they want to. But just be aware that direct realisation does not require belief in anything and all beliefs are by their nature voluntary.

I attend a Sangha that follows a tibetan tradition full of various technicolor deities. My attendance does not then cause me to desire to adopt any of these beliefs or to propogate them as 'The One True Buddhism' to others. The core of the Sangha's teaching matches my own understanding. I find many of their meditation practices useful. For me that is enough.

I like the pretty colours, statues and pictures, I respect their traditions but I choose not to believe them or follow them.

I simply continue to do what I do without worrying about whether or not it fits in with any particular sect.

At May 17, 2006, Blogger me said...

Great post! I'm putting the finishing touches on a blog post called 'egocentrism' in which I touch on similar issues and I lifted the Bodhidharma quote for this - thanks. (I had already written in a reference to it but didn't have the full story handy).

I love Brad's writing but I'm not sure he's in synch with Bodhidharma's teachings - Brad wrote "Enlightenment is for sissies. Living ethically and morally is what really matters."

This is an interesting problem. Ethics has always muddied the waters for me. Rules, in general, seems so counter to 'vast emptiness'.

And the encouragement or enforcement of ethical behavior seems to be a big part of what religions are about (in exchange for karmic goodies for an egocentric ME) - it's a trade. Do good now and you will get a big reward later. It's all about protecting the self.

The idea that seems to be the basis for zen morality is that once the self is equated with all totality then one starts caring for all totality as much as one cares for the self. But does this work? Did Bodhidharma start caring for others more (or equally) to himself once he realized vast emptiness?

At May 17, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

Great subject. I suppose Buddhism is as much of a religion as you make it out to be. For me, the issue of faith and belief play little or no part in my "Buddhist" perspective.


You made a couple references to belief (or lack thereof) being a choice. This is interesting to me. I had a discussion awhile back with a fundamentalist Christian friend who told me that despite all the evidence he offered, I still chose not to believe.

My response was that belief is not something I choose but, rather, belief is something based on my experience, and I have no choice in the matter. I like the literal idea of reincarnation, but I have no choice in whether or not I believe it. There is nothing in my experience that supports such a belief. I do not chose NOT to believe it, I just do not have the experience that leads me to the belief.


"The idea that seems to be the basis for zen morality is that once the self is equated with all totality then one starts caring for all totality as much as one cares for the self. But does this work? Did Bodhidharma start caring for others more (or equally) to himself once he realized vast emptiness?"

This is also a very interesting and fundamental concept in my understanding of Buddhism. What is compassion? Is it possible to "practice" compassionate action? If action is not carried out with true awareness of oneness, is it possible to be compassionate? Or is action that is intended to be compassionate merely selfish action cloked in the desire to be compassionate?

At May 18, 2006, Blogger DB said...

An excellent post, not least because I agree that Zen Buddhism is not a religion. It requires from me no belief in a higher power, which seems to be one central tenet in nearly every other religion that I know.

At May 18, 2006, Blogger DO said...

This is a very interesting discussion topic, thank you!

You said it anatman!

Experience leads to personal realizations rather than choosing...I think Christians like to judge too much...

I do not have the experience of attending any formal Buddhist ceremonies, but I do have the experience of reading the thoughts written by Dogen's dharma heirs. I tried sitting quietly on a cushion and i believe that works for me.

At May 18, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

"What is compassion? Is it possible to "practice" compassionate action? If action is not carried out with true awareness of oneness, is it possible to be compassionate? Or is action that is intended to be compassionate merely selfish action cloked in the desire to be compassionate? "

This is a tricky one!! I have had discussions on this type of thing before.

My personal view is that compassionate actions tend not to be recognised as compassionate by the person doing them, only by others or the receiver.

I feel that compassionate action that arises out of seeing a need and addressing it in the moment will tend to be a 'truer' act than an act that is surrounded by thoughts of "how can I be compassionate".

After saying all of this though, the Sangha that I attend do teach meditations on compassion and I have found such a meditation to be helpful in opening my heart more to the needs of others.

At May 18, 2006, Blogger me said...

"Everyone feels benevolent if nothing happens to be annoying him at the moment."

C.S. Lewis - The Problem of Pain

At May 18, 2006, Blogger earDRUM said...

Nicely put, Mikedoe.

At May 18, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

I don't know whether Zen or Buddhism generally, make us more compassionate or not. But compassion is not a primary aim of Buddhism anyway.

At May 18, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...


It is a side-effect.

Buddhism brings you face-to-face with yourself and helps you to accept who you really are good and bad. From this acceptance of yourself acceptance of others follows.

Likewise, Buddhism helps you to recognise your own suffering. This recognition leads naturally to the recognition of suffering in others.

Acceptance of others and recognition of the suffering naturally leads to actions that might help to ease the suffering.

A side-effect.

At May 18, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

For Buddhism read Zen/Chan as well. It is the meditation that is the cause, not any beliefs that you may hold.

At May 18, 2006, Blogger Justin said...


I know the theory. I just don't know whether the theory is true.

At May 19, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

I have found it to be true. I did not know that it was a theory.

I was never looking for anything spiritual through meditation...

At May 19, 2006, Blogger DO said...

Zen Buddhism has no aims, attaining nothing, right?

At May 19, 2006, Blogger DB said...

mikedoe said" I have found it to be true. I did not know that it was a theory.

I was never looking for anything spiritual through meditation... "

I find those two statements oddly comforting, maybe because they agree with my own experiences.


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