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Buddhism: Religion or Philosophy?

April 11, 2009


Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy? I could rant about this question for days, but I’ll try to control myself and make my comments brief.

Before considering the question, let me point out that I think it is a stupid question. I think my friend Craig Martin is right when he argues that the question presumes there’s some essence to Buddhism, philosophy, and religion, when there is not. Instead, there are just different uses of those terms. The best response to the question is this: “Which definition of those terms are you using? On one definition of ‘religion’ Buddhism will count and on another definition it won’t. Tell me how you’re using the word ‘religion’ and I’ll tell you whether or not it is one ….”

However, if we set this concern aside and go with the colloquial uses of these three terms, we can offer some sort of answer. Here are two big reasons that Buddhism is a religion if we use the terms “philosophy” and “religion” in the colloquial sense.

First, those people we colloquially call philosophers don’t generally appeal to ineffable experiences to defend their positions, whereas many of those people who self-identify as Buddhists do: “You don’t understand nirvana or emptiness or whatever? Well, it can’t be explained to you; you just have to experience it.” Most of those people we call philosophers would be absolutely ashamed to make a claim like this. Claims to ineffable experiences aren’t generally admissable in philosophy papers and don’t make it past peer review.

Second, I find that those who suggest Buddhism is a philosophy simply don’t know anything about the Buddhist tradition. Maybe they’ve read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and know something about the four noble truths, but that’s probably it.

For instance, I’ve come across many people who’ve claimed that Buddhism is atheist. Really? Sure, there are some Buddhists who are atheists, but most of them aren’t. Most of the people throughout history who self-identify as Buddhist believe that there are supernatural beings called Buddhas or bodhisattvas out there in other realms that you can pray to or propitiate for various things.

If the colloquial use of the term “religion” picks up cultural traditions with magical and supernatural elements, then the general Buddhist tradition definitely counts. Popular lay practice usually involves some sort of bhakti worship of certain buddhas or bodhisattvas, “merit transference” to save these worshipers from bad rebirths, magical healing brought about through touching relics of the Buddha or bodhisattvas, etc. The Buddhist tradition is absolutely full of fabulous stories of miraculous events that happened to the Buddha, bodhisattvas, or Buddhist practitioners.

One of my favorite stories is about one of the Buddha’s previous incarnations, when he was a woman. She comes across a servant woman who is starving to death; she’s so hungry she’s about to eat her own baby. The Buddha (a bodhisattva at the time) takes pity on her and cuts her own breasts off to feed the other woman. Because of this act of compassion her boobs miraculously grow back. However, a goddess fears that this bodhisattva may be trying to usurp her throne. In order to reassure the goddess that she doesn’t want her job, the Buddha turns herself into a man. Apparently, however, her boobs don’t immediately disappear. When his new beard grows out and touches her breasts then they magically recede into his body. Then the people of the land make him king.

If this is philosophy, then I’ll eat my shirt.


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