Last Updated 20 Jun 2022

Buddhism: Religion or Philosophy?

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Whether or not Buddhism is a religion revolves around the contestation of whether or not it is a philosophy instead. This presents myriad problems of logic, as even the definitions of religion and philosophy are themselves a point of contestation. There is the school of thought that defines religion as a belief system, a firm ascription to a set of rules and utmost truths that therefore make religion of whatever kind dogmatic. To use this definition is to make Buddhism anything but a religion, as Buddhism essentially discourages any sense of rigidity in any belief system.

It even does not advocate the supremacy of its own doctrines – the 4 noble truths, the 5 Skandhas, the eight-fold path. There are no parameters. The other thought line on religion defines it as a search for transcendence; a quest for an existence, purpose and authority higher than oneself, as advocated by the likes of Karen Armstrong. In this sense, Buddhism is a religion because it seeks to bring those who practice it to a new, profound realization of themselves and the world around them; to ‘see the world as it is’, which is the Buddhist idea of ‘realization’.

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This probably explains why there are quite a number of brands of Buddhism. Still, others wonder why anyone should be distinguishing between religion and philosophy. According to some, this distinction is a fairly new phenomenon, as recent as the 18th century. Throughout history, it is argued, philosophy and religion have been intertwined; take Plato’s Euthyphro for example. In it, the virtue of piety is inextricably argued from a standpoint of what ‘the gods’ believe is right or wrong, even though the whole discourse follows logic.

Similar observations can be made in the Epistles of Apostle Paul in the New Testament. Distinguishing the two, it is said, betrays our own biases rather than clarifies things. Dogmatism v. Reason In following up on the more popular definition of religion being a set of beliefs, and therefore inherently dogmatic, religion has been criticized as being irrational – that one is required to have faith in absolute truths that not only make little sense to him, but provide no means through which they can be proven factual or otherwise.

I this sense, religion is superstitious and irrational, throwing a pner into attempts at objective human reasoning. Religions after all, have been the source of the greatest conflicts in world history, more fierce than quests for imperialism or economic dominance. In contrast to religion by popular definition, Buddhism encourages objective discourse through reason in a quest for truth, i. e. it is philosophy, just like Plato and Aristotle practiced it.

This is however complicated by the fact that while some brands of Buddhism, such as Zen, do not ascribe to a deity, others actually do have absolute truths. But then again this might only fuel the argument that it is not a religion, seeing as there is no unifying commonality as is common in other religions – Christ in Christianity, Mohammad in Islam, etc. Mysticism Allowing someone to find their own truth wherever they will is to tell them that whatever direction will take you to your destination, and most Buddhist practices have inevitably ended up in mysticism.

Hence, when one asks what Buddhism is, in many cases they are told that they have to experience it, as words cannot sufficiently explain it. This trait is inherently religious rather than philosophical. In the latter, one must be unambiguous, while in the former, things like faith, revelation and prophecy are cornerstones. Being mystical, therefore gives Buddhism the appearance of religion rather than philosophy. All in all, I guess Buddhism is what one makes it.

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