Question: I’ve read that Buddhism is not so much a religion as it is a belief system. Since I don’t know a lot about Buddhism, what are your thoughts on that?
I wouldn’t characterize Buddhism as a belief system.
The definition of belief is:
- An acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.
- Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction.
In contrast to belief there is knowledge – to know is defined as
- To be aware of through observation, inquiry, or information.
- Have knowledge or information concerning.
The Buddha’s teaching is grounded in experience. Belief, which by definition is conspicuously free of inquiry, is not. The Buddha insisted that verification is necessary, and instructed us to avoid belief in favor of investigation.
Is Buddhism a Religion?
The etymology of the term religion connects it with the French religare “to bind fast”, a notion to “place an obligation on,” or a “bond between humans and gods.”
You can draw an analogy between the western notion of religion and the Vedic tradition of yoga. The term yoga means union or “to yoke” like an oxen. Notice the similarity to the notion “to bind fast”. The yogic tradition seeks union with the divine.
While Buddhism is fairly silent on the topic of a deity, it behaves like a religion in some ways. The fundamental Buddhist notion of impermanence implies that everything is sacred.
Because the world is transient in nature, each moment is unique and precious. Our experiences, our loved ones, even our difficulties are sacred. They are briefly present and then pass. In Buddhism, achieving union with the divine is touching each moment with mindfulness and gratitude.
The Buddha’s path is yoga. If we allow the analogy between yoga and religion, then Buddhism is a religion.
Is Buddhism a Philosophy?
“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”
What I have heard more often is that Buddhism is described as a philosophy.
Philosophy is defined literally as loving knowledge, from philo- “loving” + sophia “knowledge, wisdom”. This jibes perfectly with the Buddha’s instruction to believe nothing unless it conforms to experience.
Philosophy is about ideas. Ideas are theories about reality. We construct theories about reality so we might live in relationship to it, to find balance. I think the goal of seeking harmony is that it leads to happiness, or at least less suffering.
The Buddha’s foundational sermon, the Four Noble Truths, prescribes a way to live in harmony with the world. The goal is to reduce suffering.
So it is not a stretch to consider Buddhism a philosophy.
I think it’s useful to see Buddhism as both a religion and a philosophy. It is pragmatic and focused on knowledge and results. But if we unpack it a little more, we see that our world is sacred. Suffering is relieved through the wholeness that comes from being fully awake to the sacred.