25 – Is Buddhism a Religion?

One of the most common questions I hear when I’m teaching is “Is Buddhism a Religion?” People are typically expecting a simple “yes” or “no” but I’ve found that the answer is a bit more complex than that. In this episode, I will share my view of why I see Buddhism as an applied psychology or a philosophical way of life more than a religion.

Subscribe to the podcast on:
iTunes – https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/secular-buddhism/id1071578260
SoundCloud – https://soundcloud.com/secularbuddhism
TuneIn – http://tunein.com/radio/Secular-Buddhism-p823114/
Stitcher – http://www.stitcher.com/s?fid=80132&refid=stpr

Transcript of the podcast episode

Hello, you are listening to The Secular Buddhism Podcast and this is episode number 25. I am your host, Noah Rasheta and today I’m answering the question, “Is Buddhism a religion?”
Welcome back the The Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is a weekly podcast the focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular-minded audience. The Dalai Lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a whatever you already are.” Please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode. If you enjoy the podcast, please share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. If you’re in a position to be able to help, I would encourage you to make a one-time donation or become a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com.

Welcome back to the The Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is a weekly podcast the focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular minded audience. The Dalai Lama has said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a whatever you already are.” Please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode. If you enjoy the podcast, please share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. If you’re in a position to be able to help, I would encourage you to make a one-time donation or become a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com.

Now let’s jump into this week’s topic. As many of you may know, I go around and I teach workshops on how to develop more mindfulness or an introduction to Buddhism, or anything along those lines. A question that I get quite regularly about Buddhism is, is Buddhism a religion? Because I’m asked this question so often, I thought I would dedicate a podcast episode to answering this question, at least from my perspective. This can be a tricky question because in western mindset, we typically ask questions and we expect either a true or false question or a yes or no answer or a specific answer that answers the question for everyone. With most things in life, especially pertaining to a spiritual path, or I guess religion in general, I think that’s part of our mistake is that we’re expecting things to be very clear. Black or white, yes or no, right or wrong. We do that even in the question of Buddhism. Is Buddhism a religion? We’re expecting the answer to be either yes or no and then a reason behind that.

Now let’s jump into this week’s topic. As many of you may know, I go around and I teach workshops on how to develop more mindfulness or an introduction to Buddhism, or anything along those lines. A question that I get quite regularly about Buddhism is, is Buddhism a religion? Because I’m asked this question so often, I thought I would dedicate a podcast episode to answering this question, at least from my perspective. This can be a tricky question because in western mindset, we typically ask questions and we expect either a true or false question or a yes or no answer or a specific answer that answers the question for everyone. With most things in life, especially pertaining to a spiritual path, or I guess religion in general, I think that’s part of our mistake is that we’re expecting things to be very clear. Black or white, yes or no, right or wrong. We do that even in the question of Buddhism. Is Buddhism a religion? We’re expecting the answer to be either yes or no and then a reason behind that.

I think it’s very fitting for the answer to this specific question to be the answer is yes and now. It’s yes and it’s no and it’s yes and no and it’s neither yes or no. How’s that for a Buddhist answer to the question, is Buddhism a religion. Here’s my thinking behind this answer for me specifically. Of course it’s a religion. It’s a religion that’s practiced by over 300 million people in the world who consider themselves to be Buddhist and they practice Buddhism as a religion. There are also, I don’t know the numbers, but there are also a lot of people who would say Buddhism is not a religion. I think this is more prevalent in the west, for western mindset. We tend to see it more like a psychology. The definition of psychology is a study of the mind and its functions, particularly those affecting behavior given in a specific context. Buddhism fits in very well, very nicely with the definition of psychology.

Now, the definition of religion, it depends on who’s defining it. There are so many definitions. Every dictionary I’ve checked has a slightly different definition for what religion is. Let’s just look at a couple of these and see how Buddhism would apply. One definition is the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal god or gods. This one could be problematic in Buddhism because Buddhism is a non theistic tradition. There isn’t a deity that’s kind of at the head of everything, controlling it like we would typically think in the west or in the Judeo-Christian mindset. There’s a monotheistic god who is the creator and has power to control everything, an all powerful, all knowing deity.

Buddhism doesn’t have that. There are some schools of Buddhism that incorporate cosmology with … A cosmology that does entail gods and realms and worlds, but these are not part of the doctrine of Buddhism. Buddhism doesn’t really have a doctrine or a set of esoteric facts that you need to believe in. In fact it’s the opposite. It’s kind of saying, let’s study the way that you see and understand the world because when you take a look at the way that you see things, the way that you see things changes, so it’s by studying the mind. Rather than having something to believe in, it’s saying the things that you believe in affect how you see the world. If you’re comparing the two just off of those two definitions, Buddhism is much more of a psychology than it is a religion.

If you look at the definition of religion as a particular system of faith or worship, then you could start to say, well Buddhism could fit in that. If you take Buddhist rituals like meditation or in some schools of Buddhism where they have changing or reciting the mantra, or lighting incense, practices like that, it starts to look more like a system of faith and worship. It starts to look more like a religion. I think part of the problem is that we typically observe Buddhist practices or rituals from a western mindset. You see someone lighting an incense and you’re thinking he or she must be worshiping the Buddha or something along those lines. We associate the ritual practices with what we understand as religious behavior and that kind of make sit seem more like a religion. Again, I think from the eastern mindset it’s very different and it’s hard for us to know the eastern mindset because we’re not eastern. We don’t have an eastern mindset. We grew up with a western mindset that’s much more conditioned on the Judeo-Christian understanding of religion.

Another definition of Buddhism would be a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and the purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies involving devotional and ritual observances and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. You can start to pick out parts of this definition where you might say, “Well Buddhism kind of works there and there are others where it doesn’t.” The purpose of the universe, I think in western thinking, I’ve mentioned this before, but we tend to think if something exists, there must be a reason for it because if there wasn’t a reason, then it shouldn’t exist. In eastern thinking, it doesn’t work that way. There doesn’t need to be a reason for something. With a Buddhist mindset, it’s not about the reason, it’s about the cause. Buddhism teaches that all natural phenomenon have causes and conditions. That means everything that is has a cause for that thing to be.

From the Buddhist mindset, we’re looking for the causes and conditions of things and this applies to everything, whether that be a tree, the tree is there because the seed came from another tree, or internal things like, I’m experiencing anger, well there are causes and conditions for that. You can look and explore and find the causes and conditions for all things. I think this mimics a little bit more of the scientific approach to life where science is always looking for the causes of things and Buddhism does the same in this sense. It can be another one of those topics where it’s like, well in some ways it’s more like a science than it is like a religion, or more of a psychology than it is religion, so it gets kind of tricky.

That’s why, I think the most appropriate answer to that question is yes and no. It is a religion and it’s not a religion depending on who you’re asking and how they practice it. For me specifically, I practice Buddhism as a philosophical way of life and the advantage of this approach is you can fuse it with religious ideas. I know people who practice Buddhism and practice meditation and mindfulness and they are Christian or they have Christian beliefs. Certain aspects of their life, they find meaning through their religious system and then other aspects, their contemplative practice comes from an eastern tradition like Buddhism. It can be a combination as well. I like to think of Buddhism, like I mentioned before, as a philosophical way of life.

Here’s the main reason why, for me, if you ask me personally, I tend to think Buddhism is much less of a religion than it is a psychological practice or a philosophical practice. If you break down the core teachings of what the Buddha taught, you find that it mimics more of a medical diagnosis than it does any kind of a religious or esoteric set of facts. Typically a religion presents an answer to the question, what is the meaning of all of this? Then you are presented with some kind of a story, whether that be the story of the creation, or the story of what happens after you die. There’s some kind of a story that you can believe in and you can choose based on your own observation, whether that be through reading a set of scriptures of that religion or just taking it and analyzing it and deciding this resonates with me. Then it’s up to you to decide to believe it.
Now, you’re belief in that story, it can evolve over time, but for you to be a Christian, you have to believe the story that, first of all, you need to be saved, so you’d have to believe, oh, I’m not saved, then I need to be saved. Then the parts of the story start to make sense. This is why I need someone to come save me from my sins. Then involved with that whole story is if you do that and you are saved from your sins, then when you die you don’t have to go to hell. You get to go to a place called heaven. All of it starts to fit in, but it’s all contingent on your belief in that set of de esoteric facts, the esoteric stories that are presented as facts, and you have to believe those. It gets problematic if you don’t believe some of those things. It can become problematic because the whole system starts to fall apart.

Buddhism, on the other hand, is not presenting a set of facts. It’s, like I mentioned before, it’s more of a medical process where you’re trying to figure out, what is the problem? The problem is this. It’s a solvable problem, here’s what you have to do about it. Then once it’s done and you’re treated, it’s all over. Just like going to a doctor, the doctor’s going to diagnose a problem. He’s going to identify the underlying causes or conditions. The doctor’s going to determine the prognosis, and then issue a prescription and you’re done. Then you leave and presumably you don’t have to come back because you treated the problem. This, to me, is … I don’t want to be down on any religions because I think religion can be a beautiful thing when practiced the right way, but I think, to me that’s the biggest difference here is that Buddhism will come and say, here’s what you need and once you figure that out you’re done. You don’t need Buddhism anymore in your life.

A religion won’t do that. It tends to say the more you believe this, then the more attached you become to it. In fact, your whole hope of what to expect in the future, particularly in the afterlife, hinges on whether or not you believe the story that you’ve been told. Because Buddhism doesn’t have that component to it, it’s anchored in the present moment. It’s not anchored in the reward or punishment that you’re going to experience after this life. I think it makes it, if it is a religion, it’s very different than the Judeo-Christian type religions, or Islam. I think that’s one of the big differences.

Let’s look at that real quick. The Buddhist approach to the problem, the situation at hand, I talked about, if you’re sick, you’re going to go to the doctor and you want the doctor to treat the condition that you have. On the spiritual note, this is kind of what happens with Buddhism, the problem that’s diagnosed is that in life there is suffering. In life difficulties arise. It’s not personal. It’s a universal thing. Everybody experiences it. This is kind of what … Imagine you’re going to see Dr. Buddha, this is essentially what you’re going to be told. You go to the doctor with this problem saying, “I’m not happy. Something’s wrong in life. Life isn’t the way that I want it to be and I’m suffering because of that.” The very first thing the doctor’s going to say is that, “I need to diagnose the problem and the problem is this, in life there is suffering.” That’s the first noble truth in Buddhism.
Now, the second part of the medical prognosis or diagnosis is this, we need to identify the underlying causes. What the Buddha teaches here is that attachment or clinging is the cause of suffering. It’s wanting life to be other than it is, and because I want it to be other than it is, I’m going to experience suffering. That’s the definition of suffering in Buddhism is wanting life to be other than it is. If you look at this in all honesty, anytime you’re experiencing suffering in your life, you’ll find that it can be rooted in wanting it to be other than it is. This is a powerful thing. This goes from the big things to finding out … Losing a loved one, the reason that’s so painful is because you don’t want to lose a loved one. You want them to still be there. All the way down to what could be smaller, more mundane things like, I’m stuck at the red light. Why is that a problem? It’s only a problem because I don’t want to be stuck at the red light.

I always think about this, if you were driving somewhere, you just lost your job and you have an interview for a new job and you’re trying to get there early and on the way there you get a flat tire. That’s a problem. The only reason it’s a problem is because you don’t want the flat tire. You don’t want to risk being late to your interview. Wanting life to be other than it is is that form of suffering. The problem isn’t the flat tire. That really has nothing to do with it because all you have to do is change the circumstances and the event doesn’t matter.

Imagine that you’ve been accused of something you didn’t do and now you’re going to jail for it because they don’t have the evidence to prove your innocence and you’re resisting. You do not want to go to jail and on your way there, the bus gets a flat tire. Now you’re going to think “I hope it takes them forever to fix this flat tire,” because you don’t want to go to jail. The event is the same. A tire went flat and it has to be fixed. Suffering comes from wanting life to be other than it is. Look at that in your own life anytime you’re experiencing suffering and figure out, what is it that I want to be different than it is and you’ll find that’s the root of your suffering.

Then, the doctor needs to determine the prognosis. The prognosis is that, hey, this is a treatable condition. We can treat the cause of suffering. Here’s the catch. We cannot eliminate suffering because remember the diagnosis of the problem or the first noble truth is this, in life there is suffering and it’s universal. The fact that you want to get rid of suffering is only going to create more suffering because now you’re suffering, you want life to be other than it is and the way that it is is that in life there is suffering. What part of this is the treatable condition? That we can treat the cause of suffering, the attachment or the clinging. Remember, identifying the underlying causes, what the Buddha taught is that it’s attachment or clinging that’s causing the suffering. That part is the treatable condition, and we treat that with non-attachment.

The prescription is that there needs to be a change in perspective. This sense of non-attachment comes through obtaining wisdom and we do that … In Buddhism, this is the fourth noble truth, this is the eightfold path. There are eight areas in your life that you focus on, that you’re shifting your perspective and gaining wisdom and that’s helping to eliminate the non-attachment. Just discussing non-attachment by itself, it could be its own podcast with hundreds of episodes on non-attachment. I won’t even attempt to explain non-attachment here, but the key is non-attachment. I think that can be tricky for people to get because one of the misconceptions is, well if I’m going to be non-attached, then that means I’m numb and I don’t have any feelings and I have to be okay with whatever is. That’s not what non-attachment is.

The other thing that’s dangerous about non-attachment is when you decide, okay, I’m done playing this game. I do not want to be attached anymore, then you run the risk of becoming attached to non-attachment. Then you’re back in the same spiral. The definition of suffering is wanting life to be other than it is and you look at it and you say, okay, then I don’t want to experience attachment anymore. I don’t want to have any kind of craving. Now you’re wanting life to be other than it is because in life you’re going to crave things. It gets tricky and that’s essentially the entire situation at hand that Buddhism is trying to get at. It’s the idea that the key is non-attachment and it’s not just that easy. It’s not dropping everything. At the same time it is, it’s letting go. If you want to learn all about that whole process, then you study Buddhism.

That’s what Buddhism will teach you is that entire process summed up in these four things. We’re going to diagnose the problem, in life there is suffering. We’re going to identify the underlying causes. The causes of suffering are attachment and clinging, wanting life to be other than it is. We’re going to determine the prognosis, which is that this is a treatable condition. We can treat the causes of suffering, but we cannot eliminate suffering. The key to that is non-attachment. That’s the prescription. A change in perspective, wisdom, non-attachment, having a flexible attitude to adjust with life as it unfolds, and that’s it. That’s where it starts, so it’s very much like the process of going to visit a doctor.

The key, this is where I think it becomes very different from religion, if you take the prescription and you solve the problem, then you’re done. You don’t need Buddhism anymore and the Buddha taught this in his Parable of the Raft, he asks the monks, if somebody’s trying to cross the river and they build a raft, they spend a considerable amount of time and effort to do that, they get on the raft. Eventually they cross. Now that they’re on this side, is it appropriate for this person to continue the journey with the raft or do they leave it behind? The monks deliberate and they decide it’s wise to leave it behind because you don’t need it anymore. He tells them specifically, this is how you are to view the teachings of the Dharma, so the teachings of Buddhism.

This is why my personal approach to Buddhism is to view it as a set of tools to develop mindfulness to solve the problem. The problem is that in life there is suffering and when you get past it, just as the Buddha taught, it’s something that you leave behind, and you need to because you don’t want to become attached to non-attachment. You don’t want to attach to Buddhism. You don’t want to attach to anything. You can become attached to your religion in a way that it becomes unhealthy. I’m sure everybody knows somebody who you would think probably fits that picture. In that sense and with that information, I personally thing that Buddhism is more of a philosophical way of life. It provides me with a set of tools that determine how I live, how I see the world. Because of that, I don’t view it as a religion because I don’t ascribe to a specific set of rituals or practices or anything that would even look like a religion in the way that I teach and practice Buddhism.

There you have it. That is my answer to the question, is Buddhism a religion. I would say yes it is, and no it’s not, and yes and no it is, and it’s neither yes or no. That, my friends, is Buddhism for you. It’s a very paradoxical approach to the situation at hand, which is that in life there is suffering. You can practice it as a religion. You can adopt this as your religious practice and at the same time, you don’t have to and you can take these as tools and study the nature of the mind and how and why we think the way that we think. This concept of not knowing in Buddhism is very prevalent. It’s in Zen Buddhism, and every form of Buddhism that I’ve explored. At its root is this concept of not knowing. Rather than trying to give you answers to the deep questions of life, like most … This is where it differs from religion because religion is trying to answer the questions. The questions of who am I, why am I here, where do I go when I die? The big existential questions are answered by religions.
Buddhism doesn’t answer those questions. Buddhism isn’t concerned with answering the questions. Buddhism is focused on exploring, why do I feel I need to know these answers? That’s what Buddhism’s trying to get at. What is the root of the motivation behind asking these questions in the first place? If you can get at that, then the answers shouldn’t matter. The answers won’t matter. If I understand myself to know why those questions even matter, it doesn’t become about the answers, it becomes about the questions. Because Buddhism is about the questions and not about the answers, I don’t think it really fits the traditional bill of a religion, especially the religions that are just trying to answer the questions.

That’s a lot, having said that. If you have more questions about this or you want to contribute to the conversation, I hope this doesn’t ruffle anyone’s feathers because the people who will say the answer is yes get mad at the people who say the answer is no. The people who say no get mad at the people who say that it’s yes. Just to throw in the other mix, let’s add in the people who say yes and no, and let’s add in the people who say, “No, it’s not even yes or no,” because let’s just all be in there and talk about this together. If you want to add to the conversation, find the post where I put this on secularbuddhism.com, join in on the conversation, but that is the podcast episode I wanted to go over today. Is Buddhism a religion?

I hope that my answer makes enough sense that you can feel that you can choose the answer that makes the most sense to you, because again, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I think. If you ask me, is Buddhism religion, well that’s just my answer. The only answer that will ever answer is your answer. You get to choose. You get to study this and decide, is it a religion for you, is it not? Is it yes and no? You get to choose. Good luck on your journey finding the answer that makes the most sense to you. I know a lot of people who love practicing Buddhism as their preferred religious practice and they practice it as a religion and there’s nothing wrong with that. Find the answer that works for you, but what I shared today, that’s my view and my answer.

Before we stop this podcast episode, I want to remind you about these workshops that I’m doing. I’ve done one in Salt Lake City last weekend. It was very well received. I’m doing one coming up very soon in Seattle, so if you’re in the Seattle area, September third, there’s a workshop there. There’s one in London in the UK on September 18th. That’s a Sunday. You can get all this information on secularbuddhism.com. Then a reminder, next year, January 26th through February 4th, we’re doing a humanitarian trip to Uganda. We’ll be doing humanitarian work along with a mindfulness retreat, so if you’re in a position to be able to do that and that sounds interesting to you, consider coming with me and a small group of people to Uganda to do humanitarian work and learn more about mindfulness. It’ll be a lot of fun. You can learn more about that on mindfulhumanitarian.org.

Thank you for listening. I’ve mentioned this before, but I really believe that if we have the desire to contribute to making society or the world a better place, a more peaceful place, it starts by making our own lives more peaceful. We work on ourselves. We always have these grand desires to change the world and yet the only thing we can ever change is ourselves. It’s by changing ourselves, ironically, that we do change the world. That’s why I’m determined to produce podcast content and workshops and retreats and tools that will help us to be more mindful. Mindful individuals are the key to mindful families and mindful societies. That’s why I do what I do because I enjoy it. There’s nothing to convert to or convert away from. I’m just trying to present another perspective.

If you are in a position to be able to contribute, your generous donations allow me to continue producing weekly content for The Secular Buddhism Podcast, along with the workshops, content for the workshops and retreats and seminars. If you’re interested and you’re in a position to be able to help, please visit secularbuddhism.com to make a one-time donation or to sign up as a monthly supporter of the podcast. Thank you again for listening and thank you for your continued support and I look forward to another podcast episode next week. Have a good week, and until next time.