Is Buddhism A Religion? A Philosophy?

Via Benjamin Riggs
on Jul 8, 2011
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“Truth is a Pathless Land.” ~Jiddu Krishnamurti

‎”Buddhism appears to be a religion, as a concession to human mentality. But Buddhism is not a religion. Buddhism is the dismantling of all religions. Buddhism is not a philosophy; it’s the dismantling of all philosophies. It’s not a psychology, it’s not a system of ethics, it’s not a way to relax. It’s the dismantling of all human agendas and ambitions and attitudes. And when we dismantle everything, when we remove the husk, then we find something inside that is incredibly living, bursting with life, and burgeoning with love, and blooming with beauty. And that’s us, it’s our life.” ~by Reggie Ray of the Dharma Ocean Foundation.

“Is Zen a religion? It is not a religion in the sense that the term is popularly understood; for Zen has no God to worship, no ceremonial rites to observe, no future abode to which the dead are destined, and, last of all, Zen has no soul whose welfare is to be looked after by somebody else and whose immortality is a matter of intense concern with some people. Zen is free from all these dogmatic and “religious” encumbrances. …

As to all those images of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and Devas and other beings that one comes across in Zen temples, they are like so many pieces of wood or stone or metal; they are like camellias, azaleas, or stone lanterns in my garden. Make obeisance to the camellia now in full bloom, and worship it if you like, Zen would say. There is as much religion in so doing as in bowing to the various Buddhist gods, or as sprinkling holy water, or as participating in the Lord’s Supper. All those pious deeds considered to be meritorious or sanctifying by most so-called religiously minded people are artificialities in the eyes of Zen. It boldly declares that “the immaculate Yogins do not enter Nirvana and the precept-violating monks do not go to hell”. This, to ordinary minds, is a contradiction of the common law of moral life, but herein lies the truth and the life of Zen. Zen is the spirit of a man…” ~from Introduction to Zen by D.T. Suzuki

“If you are interested in “meeting the Buddha” and following his example, then you should realize that the path the Buddha taught is primarily a study of your own mind and a system for training your mind. This path is spiritual, not religious. Its goal is self-knowledge, not salvation; freedom, not heaven. And it is deeply personal. Without your curiosity and questions and your open mind, there is no spiritual path, no journey to be taken, even if you adopt all the forms of the tradition.” ~from Is Buddhism A Religion by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Huffington Post

So often we see religion and/or spirituality as nothing more than an “evacuation plan.” We feel so deflated that we want something or someone to deliver us from our ordinary life. So, we set out in search of “something else.” This only adds to our frustration, because that “something else” never comes. There isn’t anything else—”something else” is an hallucination.

The Buddhist path consists of embracing the fullness of our life; not just the peaceful or serene moments, but also the pain and dissatisfaction. What we call suffering, the Buddha called the path!

The observation of neurotic energy is the Buddhist path and it starts right now. It doesn’t matter if right now is filled with a pristine awareness of life’s grandeur or neurotically preoccupied with trying to manipulate someone into fulfilling some selfish end. Right now is all you have. You will never have anything more. So, whatever arises—regardless of how neurotic it might be—it is the path. It is all you have to work with. There is nothing else. So, listen to it. Find the intelligence which underlies your habitual commentary, because that intelligence is not only the path, it is the goal!

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About Benjamin Riggs

Ben Riggs is the author of Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West. He is also the director of the Refuge Meditation Group in Shreveport, LA and a teacher at Explore Yoga. Ben writes extensively about Buddhist and Christian spirituality on Elephant Journal, and his blog. Click here to listen to the Finding God in the Body Podcast. To keep up with all of his work follow him on Facebook or Twitter.


10 Responses to “Is Buddhism A Religion? A Philosophy?”

  1. leo coulson says:

  2. Roger Wolsey says:

    As a reasonably informed outsider, I think I'd answer "Yes" to the questions in the headline.

    I came across the following interesting comment that someone made on a facebook page about this article. I thought I'd re-post it here for others to ponder. It was written by a person named Greg Stone:
    Greg Stone Perhaps the important question is whether or not there is any Buddhism in Zen. Very little in my opinion.

    Of course Buddhism is a religion, but, in the West, there are those who hijack Buddhism and alter the practice to be compatible with the philosophical materialism. They have to gut the religious / spiritual side of the practice in order to maintain materialistic views.

    A better question is whether or not the views of philosophical materialism are compatible with Buddhism. Can one deny the spiritual and supernatural origins of life and the universe and still be a Buddhist?

    The Buddha answered that question in the negative. Materialists cannot enter the door of the sangha. They sit outside nurturing wrong views.
    3 minutes ago · Like · 1 person

  3. justthisbreath says:

    I remember trying to explain Buddhism to a friend of mine, a psychologist. After listening, he said, "Well then, Buddhism isn't really a religion…it's like a way to live your life better, more happily." After thinking about it for a minute, he said, "Maybe all religions started that way."

  4. healthhomesandharleys says:

    Of course it's not a religion…Organized religions want you to pay to pray, and enjoy keeping people in fear of the unknown with their closed mindedness ;^)"

  5. Roger Wolsey says:

    that seems to be an unfair remark. There is no "pay to pray" policy with the United Methodist Church I'm active with. Nor do we seek to put people in fear nor have them be closed-minded. There's a mirror to gaze in here I think.

  6. Roger Wolsey says:

    The simple fact is that there are a LOT of forms of Buddhism — some are theist, some not, some seem "churchy" (venerating stuff), some not, some highly philosophical, some syncretized with several other traditions. So, again, "yes."

  7. BenRiggs says:

    I think that most of the time when Buddhist say, "Buddhism ain't no religion" it is just a snooty, pseudo-intellectual attitude masking the resentment or disappointment that they feel towards their indigenous system of belief, i.e. the system that had the opportunity to fail their cosmic expectations. in the west, it is Christianity. In the east, it is Buddhism.

    The quotes above by Krishnamurti, D.T. Suzuki, and Reginald Ray look at it from an absolute point of view, which could be said to be true of Christianity as well. Take all the bells and whistles off and deal with only the essence of the teachings and there isn't anything particularly religious going on. That is not to say, as Greg has pointed out, that there is not something magical or supernatural going on; something alive in everything. Buddhism does recognize the majesty of life.

    However, as D.T. Suzuki reminds us, even the "snooty Buddhists" need to be practical. He says it is not a religion in the "ordinary sense." I think Dzogchen Ponlop was even more implicit on this point. There are teachings, practices, and discipline. We can only arrive at such an absolute point of view, as described above, by participating in the discipline. Reggie Ray spends the entire first half of his quote describing this discipline, which can encapsulated in the following pithy statement: "It’s the dismantling of all human agendas and ambitions and attitudes."

    We are constantly peeling the layers away to discover the deeper truth about this human life. I suspect that once we have peeled all the layers away we find, as the quotes above suggest, that the essence of religion is our true nature. This was the point of the last two paragraphs I added to the article.

  8. BenRiggs says:

    see comment below.

  9. melanie says:

    I said, "or something like that" – i wish you had read my line completely. I thought your comment was a bit confusing and that is why i figured you had a background if that ilk. Not trying to be contentious.

  10. Melanie says:

    Thank you Ben. Well put.