Buddhism is Not a Religion — It’s Something Much Better.

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I get plenty of comments when I say that I’m not a religious person, but I am a practicing Buddhist. Here’s why Buddhism is not a religion.

“The dharma that I preach can be understood only by those who know how to think.” ~ The Buddha

Although Buddhism is known worldwide as a religion, for me it is not. Frankly, I used to perceive it as one, before knowing anything about it and delving into its culture.

To start off, the word religion means “a system of faith and worship” and “the belief in a superhuman, or god with power.” After visiting India and Nepal, and observing the Buddhist complex, I came to notice that Buddhism is neither a system of faith, nor a god-based institution.

Buddhists do not consider the Buddha as a supreme god. For them, he is a man like any other man who’s walked on the earth. Nevertheless, Buddha untangled the reasons of suffering and offered us a concrete way of getting out of them.

And although he did offer the world teachings about how to get unstuck from samsara, he insisted that he wanted no worship or praying. All he asked for is that we must examine his teachings first, and if they do resonate with us, then we practice them. If not, however, we have the utter freedom to leave them.

Although I have watched rituals and ceremonies being held at monasteries, I’ve been told that they’re not in any way worship-based. The so-called “worship” that we might see is one that is offered as a way of showing respect and thankfulness to the man who exhibited the truth. Even the prayers that we hear are ones that read compassion, kindness and love to all sentient beings, without any exception.

If we look more closely at Buddhism, we can even ascertain that there is no leader in the culture. Dzongsar Khyentse constantly talks about how the Dalai Lama is a secular leader for the Tibetan community in exile and a spiritual master to many people all over the world—and not merely for Buddhists. He insists that there is no authority in Buddhism with the power to decide who is a true Buddhist and who is not, or who is punishable and who is not.

If Buddhism isn’t a religion, what is it then?

The way I see it, Buddhism is a way of life—it’s a philosophy and a truth that simply represents how things are in life.

I must admit (and I’m not ashamed to claim it) that Buddhism has helped me understand the religion I was brought up with, as well as all the other religions in the world. Before being introduced to Buddhism, “holy books” were on par with the Chinese language to me. I couldn’t understand why I was supposed to pray, to attend religious ceremonies or to follow a spiritual leader, without true conviction or belief for what they’re saying. Before Buddhism, I was co-dependent on “God.” I constantly searched outside of myself, and I believe this is why I never found myself.

Buddhism helped me look inward. It taught me independence and self-awareness. Through it, I began to understand how the world ticks. It helped me look at myself and take responsibility for my actions, thoughts and emotions, rather than taking refuge in a supreme god.

With Buddhism, I came to finally understand that God isn’t a judgmental man who lives in the clouds. I stopped this duality between God and myself, and I figured out that God is in everyone (and everything and everywhere). It is not something that is outside of us or something we cannot reach—it is in us.

So you might ponder the question—why is it worth looking into Buddhism or practicing it?

I utterly believe to each their own—however, I also believe that it is never wrong to live with an open heart and an open mind which expands our knowledge and raises questions in our heads.

Unlike other religions, Buddhism doesn’t tell its followers to stick only to its teachings. Buddhists don’t care where you’re from, what you believe in or who you worship. All they care about is that you know the truth—and the truth is: “All compounded things are impermanent.”

It’s worth understanding Buddhism, because the final outcome of its purpose is not something that is beneficial to itself—the benefits are for our own sake. The benefit is that we will actually understand the truth of life, our existence and ourselves.

Again, like Dzognsar Khyentse said, “Buddhism is not a survival kit for living that dictates how many husbands a wife should have or where to pay taxes or how to punish thieves. Buddhism doesn’t even have a ritual for wedding ceremonies.”

The Buddha didn’t tell people what they wanted to hear—he simply opened their eyes to the truth of life.

Are you ready to hear it?


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Author: Elyane Youssef

Editor: Yoli Ramazzina

Photo: Flickr/G V

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Elyane Youssef

Elyane S. Youssef is an extraterrestrial who was given birth by Earthlings. While living on planet Earth, she fell in love with art, books, nature, writing, photography, traveling, and…pizza. Elyane finds her joy in backpacking and bonding with locals. To see the faces she interacts with on her travels, you can follow Face of the World on Instagram. Besides getting on and off planes, she is in a serious relationship with words and hopes to inspire as many people as possible through them. Once her mission is accomplished on Earth, she will return to her planet to rejoin her extraterrestrial brothers and sisters. In case you’re wondering, yes, she is still willingly obsessed with Frida Kahlo. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. You can also check out her macrame art on Instagram.

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Andrew Peers Feb 15, 2018 1:09pm

Nice one Elyane. This needed to be written and I hadn't gotten round to it yet. Thank you and.... sharing!

Rich Mackin Dec 18, 2017 5:41pm

According to the Zen Buddhist Teacher I lived with four years and studied under for an additional decade, the term religion is a combination of "re" as commonly known to mean "again". "Repeat", "reunite", "relive" etc. "Ligion" comes from the same root word as ligament. I means connection. So "Religion" means "Connecting again" or, simply put, "reconnection." He thought Buddhism was a religion. I think Buddhism is a religion. One of the seniors at the temple once said, "I am more concerned with practicing Buddhism than defining it, but if you need to give a name to the basket I carry Buddhism around in, religion would work." I see a lot of people who dislike religion because they don't like what they have experienced of the Abrahamic traditions. When a religion comes along that they do like, they seem less interested in admitting that their definitions were narrower than needed, but that the new information should be defined according to what they already know. So, if one dislikes how one's parents forced church doctrine, and dislike hypocritical Republicans and televangelists, one dislikes "religion", but finding Buddhism tolerable, says Buddhism doesn't count as a religion. If you don't consider your own Buddhist practice to be religious, that is fine. If another person thinks the practice is more important to focus on that what words are used to describe the practice, that is also fine. But when you publicly decree what a thing is, and that thing involves millions of people who have not elected you to speak on their behalf, maybe that's not so fine.

Hla Win Aung Sep 22, 2017 9:32am


Ye Min Aung Sep 17, 2017 5:38am

Thanks so much Elyane. Really appreciate it. If you have time, please search more about four noble truth.

Eieichow Manle May 28, 2017 3:16pm

very good

Andrew Sanders Apr 5, 2017 11:28pm

I loved it explains alot of my experiences, i was going to try an explain but....better left unsaid

Wilson Kwan Mar 6, 2017 7:05am

Can anyone explain to me how does being a way of life better than being a religion? Because if you ask any true Muslims or Christians, they will say, our religion is our way of life as well and I can testify as a Christian, it is indeed a way of life. Religion is supposed to transform us into someone better and if that religion is not our way of life, then we are just hypocrites who preach one thing but live another.

Spade Ho Mar 6, 2017 4:22am

Thanks for the article. It has helped me come to terms with my own relationship between God, Buddhism and myself. :)

Amanda Sue Jan 7, 2017 1:06am

Very beautifully said!

Albert Kumar Nov 1, 2016 12:08pm

I appreciate your view on Buddhism.

Chan Choong Yow Oct 30, 2016 3:09am

Yes. I started to know and believe Buddhism 25 yrs ago, but only started to learn it 15 yrs ago. Buddhism is not religion but is theasy learning. Not only humankind but also the Law of Universal.

Kitty Kay TCat Oct 29, 2016 12:37pm

What is a good way to start practicing this, a good book to read more on this subject & how to begin incorporating the teachings into a lifestyle?

Hemantha Galle Oct 27, 2016 9:36am

Praying (AMEN) to get well never worked therefore we have Doctors. Praying for rain never worked therefore we have weather Meteorologist. Gods , the Devil & Kings didn’t worked therefore we have Governments. No one has proven the Super Natural or Gods therefore we have Technology. Sorry Kids no God here. The universe is about 13.76 billion years old and the earth about 4.6 billion years old. Our last surviving relative, Homo Neanderthalensis, died out about 24,000 years ago. The human race is recent being in the scale of the universe. God is a recent human invention in the universe. All religions are man made. Even if you are Christian Muslim Hindu, Mormon a scientologist or any other religion you have to admit you think all religions other than your own are man made. All of these religions must be taken on faith including your own. So what reasons do you have to think yours isn’t man made as well? A creator –GOD, Who rewards and punishes the good deeds and ill deeds of the creatures of his creation, has no place in Buddhist thought. A theist, however, who attributes beings and events to an omnipotent’s creator GOD would emphatically say ‘It is GOD’S will; it is sacrilege to question the Authority. ‘This god-idea stifles the human liberty to investigate, to analyse,to scrutinize, to see what is beyond this naked eye, and retards insight. It is just impossible to conceive of a first beginig.None can trace the ultimate origin of anything, not even of a grain of sand, let alone of human beings. It is useless and meaningless to go in search of a beginning in a beginningless past. Life is not an identity, it is a becoming. It is a flux of physiological and psychological changes. Satan is the scapegoat you use to justify all your evil doings. And this is only because you believe in religion, which allows you to shift blame onto an imaginary entity. Come to humanity and take responsibility for your action, there is no Satan to blame for your wrong doings, just be civilized enough and own up to your mistake! Believe in empathy and compassion. Not God or other delusions! Buddhism is about tolerance and acceptance of all beings. The God says: ‘Believe me, And I will assure that you are in the heaven’ The Buddha says: ‘Do not believe anything just because, It is written in holy books, It is coming down from tradition, It is said by monks or holy men, Come and do experiments, The Truth should be realized by yourself. Without ‘Belief’ there is no religion. Is there anything to do with ‘Belief’ in Buddhism? If there is not ‘Belief’ in Buddhism, what is it called ‘Saddha’? A blind man may have ‘Belief’ that light exists but one who sees the light through his own eyes has nothing to believe the existence of light. Is there anything to do with ‘Belief’ once you are enlightened? Is enlightenment beyond the ‘Belief’? How to go beyond the ‘Belief’? Buddhism addresses itself to all people irrespective of race, nationality, caste, sexuality, or gender. It teaches practical methods which enable people to realise and use its teachings in order to transform their experience, to be fully responsible for their lives. http://www.e-buddhism.com/2016/04/which-is-proper-religion.html Buddha was a human being who became Enlightened, understanding life in the deepest way possible. He says: "By oneself is evil done, by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone, by oneself is one purified. Purity and defilement depend on oneself; no one can purify another" (Dhammapada 165). "You yourselves must strive, the Buddha only points the way. Those who meditate and practice the path are freed from the bonds of death" (Dhammapada 276). There is enough space in the world for everyone.Let us share this Planet Earth in peace, dignity and a sense of humanity. Throughout his ministry the Buddha urged his disciples to "be islands to yourselves, be refuges to yourselves, without looking to any external refuge." Even on his deathbed he gave his followers this last piece of advice: "All conditioned things are subject to decay. Attain the goal by diligence. "http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1oRYja4zyi0

Denis Jackson Oct 17, 2016 9:27am

I'm a Catholic and would say the same .

Sai Nyi Sep 19, 2016 11:34am

Very nice article !

Celia Díaz Barragán Sep 7, 2016 10:36pm

Same here!

Geng Sakapan Eamegdool Sep 6, 2016 3:28pm

Please let me share, all or a part.

Brady McBride Jul 12, 2016 4:03am

Ah......okay. try sitting for longer sessions, quiet your mind, lose your greed, tear-up your ego and increase your samadi..

May Oo Jul 11, 2016 2:18am

I love it. Let me share on my facebook. Thanks. May from Burma.

Jeremy Tan Jun 27, 2016 6:54am

this article attempts to approach buddhism from a scientific and philosophical approach... even buddha has to teach his wisdom using different methods to suit each person's level of understanding... some people do not accept the spiritual concepts because those can't be seen by the eyes but only from meditation and inner explorations... regarding the heavens and gods, there are devas and ashuras... each being the direct opposite of each other and are within the rebirth realms... attaining nirvana is effectively removing oneself from these rebirth realms... whether there is heaven or even devas/gods has no importance as these beings can't liberate oneself from samsara until they have perfected their wisdom as a human and attain nirvana...

Moses Lim Jun 23, 2016 12:06pm

No religions in this world, be it Christianity, Buddhism, Islam or whatever can provide a man entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. The only way to Heaven is through Jesus Christ.

Thade Correa Jun 19, 2016 6:28pm

Thanks for this. Does anyone know the citation for the quote, "The dharma that I preach can only be understood by those who know how to think?" I've never heard or read it before. I must say, I find this piece very moving and personal. With all respect to Jessica, I too am a scholar and a Buddhist practitioner (whatever that means) and can say that Elayne's definition of what religion is and isn't is first of all up to her as a practitioner, since it's her inner life she's talking about. Secondly, great sages in the Buddhist tradition from antiquity up to today also speak in humanistic, "non-religious" terms about spiritual experience, so she's definitely and in no way off the mark. Cause the mark doesn't exist.

J.C. Wi Jun 19, 2016 9:34am

As a scholar of religious studies, the definition you use for relgion is flawed. To determine if something is a religion it is not limted to praying to a "god" or higher source. It includes sacred texts, a system of teachings, sacred times, sacred days and sacation actions. That buddhism has in spades, it also changes from region to region with the many different sects of religion. I am glad it has found you peace.

Sriyantha Divelgama Jun 13, 2016 3:50pm

Yes, Yamuna I agree,but dont forget one thing Buddhism is not a religion,

Nilan Iddawela Jun 13, 2016 3:11pm

Great article..however i like to add to this that the concept of god according to biddhism is completely different. There are number of heavens and there are number of gods. Lord buddha had the ability to go to those heavens from what ive heard, through meditation and mind improving. The way its is explained here, theres a slight mix with christianity(i guess). All im saying is its not the same definition. Very different. Anyway Its quite complicated that i cant explain fully on a comment. Other than that everything else is spot on.. nice work..