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“Is Buddhism a Religion?” by Gary Gach

6 May 2010

Sometimes it’s good to stay with a question, rather than latch onto any one answer. Is Buddhism religion? Well, it is, and it isn’t. No creator deity is mentioned here. So can there be religion without God? Theology, without theos? And since the Buddha clearly opposed the priestly caste, one might even make a case for his path being a religion of no religion.

Yet a religious dimension to the Way of the Buddha is quite real and vital. As the teachings were carried beyond the homelands, it formed the first world religion. Under King Ashoka’s reign in India, all creeds were welcome to practice side-by-side.

There’s nothing to convert to. Being a Jew, Christian, Muslim, pagan, atheist or unaffiliated doesn’t change the Buddha’s essential teaching: the nature of human suffering and liberation from needless suffering.

Union with the divine is best experienced rather than expressed through limited language. Such emphasis on first-hand experience rubs against the grain of abstract theology. So Buddhism can be seen as partaking of that broad deep river known as mysticism, which inherently undercuts any neat attempts at codification. Call it a practical mysticism, if you will. And today more and more people are becoming free-lance mystics.

Indeed, Buddhism can be seen within an open secret of the past two decades, in which its played no small part: namely, more and more people are finding personal connection to the sacred, lifted up out of and beyond the Sunday pews, made real for themselves in daily life. Sometimes this is called “spirituality” as distinct from “religion.” Yet is there a free-floating spirituality without some kind of container? Somehow the matrix of the Buddha’s teachings have remained intact for two and half millennia, to which we can thank the vehicle known as religion.

Well, then, since the religious front is not all cut and dry, might other categories be apt? Is it a philosophy? The Greeks had colonies in India since the time of the Buddha, so we can hear his voice resonating in the words of ancient Skeptic, Stoic, and Epicurean philosophers. In our time, his footprints can be traced in phenomenology (basing wisdom on the direct experience of one’s immediate lived world), with offshoots in existentialism and deconstruction.

The canon of Buddhist texts (Tripitaka) does provide a robust body of ethics, a cornerstone of classical philosophy. As for logic, Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna can run rings around Aristotle’s “either/or” — a Western template for dualism (subject vs object, self vs other). Western philosophy’s love of wisdom (philo + Sophia) thus alas often goes unrequited. The Buddha never ventured into the mind-body split which is central inWestern metaphysics (and theology). His is a physically embodied metaphysics, where body, and speech can function as one. And his concern is with practicalities, rather than free-floating metaphysical sophistries.

The Buddhist canon is also rich in teachings known as Abhidharma, with a deep, systematic psychology. Is Buddhism psychology? The popularization of psychology and Buddhism have often piggybacked upon one another in the West. Many now enjoy the psychological healing of Buddhist teachings as simply mindfulness, and emotional intelligence. But Buddhism is not self-improvement, since it’s the very nature of self which is dismantled here, not reinforced. Buddhism holds psychology to its radical origins: a suffering self won’t be healed by a better self waiting in the wings, but rather by seeing through the fiction of selfhood. (And what is this self we fear we will lose if we leave behind what was illusion?)

Then, is Buddhism science? Certainly, we invest a great deal of respect in what we call science. Yet while the West has become adept at breaking down Nature, subdividing the bits, and putting tags on each, the East has grown very good at seeing relationships. Fortunately, new sciences are now arising with an appreciation of the Buddhist nondualist view of the universe as networks of interpenetration.

And Buddhism isn’t mechanistic: it’s qualitative rather than quantitive. The human instrument— with all our senses, feelings, mind — is itself sufficiently advanced technology. Plus, Buddhism is not only highly empirical, and first-person … but also real-time (Nirvana now, or never) as well as compassionate.

To sum up thus far, we see a religion of no religion … a nondual philosophy … a psychology of selflessness … and a science inviting the practitioner’s own mind as lab.

Consider Buddhism too as education. An historical precedent for this is the Buddhist residential college of Nalanda, India. At its peak, 2,000 teachers offered 100,000 students an array of topics all under the big umbrella of Dharma. Today too we’re discovering the riches of integration of meditation in higher education; a holistic education.

As Buddhadasa Bhikkhu observes, the Pali word for study, sikkha, can be seen as derived from two roots, sa (by, for, in oneself) and ikkha (to see): so, to see oneself by oneself. In this, it’s studying the nature of self by one’s self, through one’s own self. This means leaning what’s important — then training in and by such knowledge. There are no institutions, schedules, or curricula which can contain the genuine student. Being a student is a fundamental duty of all human beings for as long as they breathe. This is ultimate university without walls — the human universe.

Religion? … philosophy? … psychology? … education? The Middle Way is an alternate term for the Eightfold Path. It suggests here we see what’s common throughout all categories, without holding extreme positions in any. When all words collapse into silence, the trick is to resist branding that wonder with yet another name.

Remember, Buddhism is a made-up word — for Westerners with a thirst for packages. (Labels are good for cans, not people.) In the East, BuddhaDharma is the commonplace expression: an awakened way of living with What Is. An art of true happiness. As simple as opening your hand … or heart.

For further reading:
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, The Buddha Wasn’t a Buddhist, “On Faith,” at Tbe Washington Post
Norman Fischer, Buddhism’s New Pioneers, BuddhaDharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly

© 2010 Gary Gach

Gary Gach is author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism, editor of What Book!? : Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop, and translator of three books by the Korean Buddhist poet Ko Un, SSN. He currently hosts Haiku Corner online. Homepage: http://word.to .


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