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Is Buddhism a Religion?
Dorothy Figen

This is a question which is often asked. It really depends upon how one defines religion. If it is thought of as a belief in a supreme being to whom one prays for redemption, security, favors or relief from suffering, then, no, Buddhism is not a religion.

The Buddha himself never claimed divinity -- only clear-sightedness and purity of apprehension of truth through deepest intuition, leading to equanimity and enlightenment. He was a great and rare individual but not a god. If some simple and mistaken few have elevated him to godship and worship him with requests for favors and special dispensations, this does not alter the situation one bit.

It seems that in these troubled times, as, indeed, since time immemorial, man has felt the need to have a faith in a supreme being, one who could redeem him from "sin" and relieve his suffering. This is a great fallacy. If indeed there were such a being, why should he be asked to give redemption? Isn't it more important for man to redeem himself? This is what the Buddha believed. Man, he said, is born to suffering. Life is suffering. That is the first of the Four Noble Truths he enunciates -- that there is suffering. In the Second Truth he points out that all suffering has its origins which we must learn to understand, because this is the only way we can arrive at the Third Truth, which is that cessation of this suffering can be achieved. His Fourth Truth clarifies the way out from suffering via the Eightfold Path which we will discuss later.

Therefore we ask, if Buddhism is not a religion, what then is it? Our reply is: Buddhism is a way of life, a philosophy, a psychology, a way of thinking, through which we may ourselves take on the responsibility of determining how our life-bearing kamma (karma) will work out for us. Meditation is one of the procedures of mental discipline and purification through which we may begin to learn such responsibility.

Many young people have come to me saying, "How can I embrace Buddhism without destroying my own beliefs and culture?" I tell the Christians among them to think about the precepts of Christ. Are they so totally opposed to, and different from, those of the Buddha? Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal or commit adultery. The ethical injunctions among the Ten Commandments -- are they not almost exactly the same as the precepts of the moral life laid down by the Buddha (the Five Precepts)?

I tell them that the Dhamma, the sacred texts of Buddhism, are much more voluminous and explicit than those of the Old and New Testaments and commentaries. The Buddhist texts are, in fact, elevenfold as extensive and contain an enormous range of wise teachings, none of them derogatory to the faiths of other creeds. He did not deny the existence of deities, but he did reserve scepticism as to the infinity of their duration, their omnipotency, their powers to help mankind in every kind of urgency. Have these gods and messiahs, which we of Western faiths have been prone to believe in, been sublimely successful in the mitigation of human suffering, hunger, sorrow and affliction? The answer is open to doubt.

So to these young Christians I can say, "Believe in Christ if you wish, but remember, Jesus never claimed divinity either." Yes, believe in a unitary God, too, if you wish, but cease your imploring, pleading for personal dispensations, health, wealth, relief from suffering. Study the Eightfold Path. Seek the insights and enlightenment that come through meditative learnings. And find out how to achieve for yourself what prayer and solicitation of forces beyond you are unable to accomplish.

There are many young people who believe that God answers their prayers. Does he? Is prayer-answering the purpose of a supreme being? A young man recently came to us asking for food and shelter. He was young, able-bodied, and, yes, intelligent. We received him, fed him and gave him a room for several days. When it became apparent that this fellow had no intention of ever leaving, we felt he should go off on his own. He was highly indignant! When he left we asked him if he intended to work and earn enough to take care of his own needs. He answered, "No, God will provide. If I follow his light, that is enough. He will take care of me!"

If there is a God, why should he take care of able-bodied young men simply because they have unreserved and total faith in him, when there are so many really unfortunate, desolate people who really need help? Did God provide for the millions of Jews in concentration camps who were slowly gassed to death en-masse, their agonies of asphyxiation often lasting a full half-hour, before they were incinerated in German ovens? Is he there offering respite each day to the millions who are dying of cancer and other agonizing diseases all over the universe? Does he provide for all the masses of people, victims of floods, disasters and earthquakes, who are homeless and starving daily throughout the world?

Yes, believe in a God, if you will, I tell them, but don't ask, ask and ask. Don't beg. Provide, as best you are able, for yourself first. Then fill your heart and mind with love, with metta, and help, to the fullest possible extent, in the relief of suffering among others. This is the answer I give them. But cease your petitioning, your constant solicitation for private preference.

A Jewish girl from Israel came to meditate. She felt happy and calm in meditation, but she was worried. She said, "I do not want to forget my heritage. I was born in Jerusalem and am steeped in Jewish tradition." I answered her: "No problem. When you finish meditating, say the 'Shmah'!" This is the ancient prayer of the Jews to be said each morning of their lives and on their deathbeds. It consists of the words, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." This, to those of the Jewish faith, may be a solacing thought, one that may yield them comfort, I told her. There is nothing in Buddhism, as a matter of fact, denying the right to believe in God if you so wish. Yet it must be pointed out that Buddhism places deityship on quite a different plane than monotheistic and polytheistic religions do. Still, with all your beliefs intact, you can benefit from much that Buddhism teaches, for instance from Buddhist meditation. We are all inter-related in common suffering. Even the word religion, derived from Latin, means joined or linked. Just as the word yoga also means the same, united. Whether this is expressed through a belief in a deity or not is of less importance than the fact that we recognize and accept the wonder of our common interrelationship. Certainly, I told her, there is nothing in the practice of Judaism that denies man's common relationship. The young lady was satisfied. As far as I know she sill meditates daily and recites the "Shmah."

Sometimes it is said that the Buddhists worship idols. Why all the incense, oil lamps, flowers set before Buddha-images? You must understand, I tell these young people, that the Buddhists are merely expressing their reverence for a great man of overwhelming vision and insight, one of the wisest teachers that ever lived, a man who laid out a whole way of life an a means of alleviating sorrow, strife and suffering. When they bow to him with hands clasped before them they do so in reverence and worship. But the meaning they attach to "worship" is not that of Western religionists. They ask nothing for their separate selves, no intercession of gods, no personal favors. Why is that? Because the Buddhist, neither in his life practice nor his philosophy, believes himself to be a separate being, a singular self, apart from others. Therefore, lacking separate personhood, there is no one for whom preference is sought. For the Buddhist "worship," then mean praise, reverence, a desire to imitate and be like the Buddha, to follow his ways and show appreciation for his teachings. He offers them no dispensations or favors, only a body of wisdom contained in the Dhamma which, if they but apply it to themselves, amounts to self-dispensation. In essence this means dispensing with all vanity, clinging, attachments, greed and ignorance, which may yet hamper them from being like the Buddha and aspiring to the perfection of being, which he in his life attained when reaching Nibbana here and now!

The great American statesman Thomas Paine said, "My mind is my church." In this statement he reiterates the belief of the Buddha. Buddhists do not believe it is necessary to have a middleman intercede between them and the perfection of the Master they chose to emulate and be like. In Buddhism there is no need for priests, ministers and preachers to pray for them in churches or temples. The Buddhist monk teaches, not preaches. He teaches man to find his way. He teaches purity of mind, and compassion, and love for all beings. He does not perform marriage service, but devotes his life only to teaching and scholarship and study, and to continuing self-purification through meditation, so that he can be an example to others.

Who may become a Buddha? And how does one become one? These are questions frequently asked me. The answers are that one has to enroll or join nothing, sign no document, be initiated by no baptism, nor disavow any other belief. All he has to do is to begin to live as Buddhists live, to find inspiration in the Buddha, to like and reverence his teachings, to begin to try to follow his Eightfold Path and, through meditation, to seek to gain merit and purity. To aspire, in fact, to become a Buddha himself! For Buddhahood is not a limited society. It is open to all. Many have attained it. Even the Buddha himself, in previous lives (so goes one of the legends built around him) chose to deny himself release through Nibbana and chose rebirth so that he might stay on and teach others.

Now let us examine the Buddha's remedy for the ending of suffering. A friend of mine once said, with respect to this, "It is all very simple: practice right thought, right speech and right action! Very good and very important. However, not so fast, my friend! All of the Eightfold Path is necessary, not just the small part of it you mention. It is all beautifully interrelated. There must be right understanding with right speech. There must be right action. There must be right effort. And with the right effort must follow right livelihood. And for all of these steps to work, think of them as steps. You don't get very far just moving up one step and remaining there. You have to combine them, join them, link them, and finally, climax them with still one more step to reach the top. And that step is right mindfulness.

How beautifully all these hang together like pearls on a necklace. But now think for a moment about what is meant by "right": that is to say, the rightness of speech, thought, action. Few pause to think what "right" means within this context. Does it mean right as opposed to wrong? Perhaps it does. And then, again, perhaps it doesn't. How many of us are able to discriminate at every juncture of our lives what is right and what is wrong? Does right, then, mean appropriate? Appropriate action, appropriate speech, etc.? Appropriate means suitable, suitable for the occasion. Is that always so easy to determine? What, then, does the Buddha's use of the word right come down to? Does it not come down to the fact that he is pointing out that there is choice, and that we have choice, that we can go this way or go that way, and that it is up to us and not him, and no god or supreme being, to determine our way? Is he not saying that this choice or volition amounts to our own kamma? And that while a lot of it is predetermined through our past lives or genetically, however you want to think of it, we can still alter, correct, change, refine re-aim this kamma, change its course? We and nobody else! And does not all of this point back to such qualities of action, speech, and thought, as are characterized as greedy, selfish, hateful, hostile, hurtful? As opposed to such qualities as generousness, selflessness, lovingness, kindliness, helpfulness? Do you not see that the Buddha is telling us to look behind words and not to accept them for their face value but for their internal, shall we say nuclear, meanings?

So we return again to the question as to whether Buddhism is a religion. In the sense that it offers us a moral code helping to conjoin us in the living together of a better life, yes, it is a religion. For that is the inner or nuclear meaning of religion -- relinking, rejoining. But if Buddhism is taken to imply belief in a supreme being who rules the universe and can be bribed to alter his decisions by our prayers and solicitations for personal preference, it is not a religion. And this Buddhism does not do. Well, then, the Christian may argue, man without God, without conscience, without a ruler of the universe, will revert to bestiality. Is this not like saying a being can't exist without a taskmaster? Are we then children? So weak that we can't exist without being "told" what we can and cannot do? How can we justify this?

The answers should be obvious. Man can rely on himself. Man can train his mind to right thinking, not because thereby he will be saved by a righteous God, but because right thinking will lead him on to the path of final liberation from suffering, which consists of right moral conduct, right meditation and right wisdom.

Now look at Buddhism. Does it not look up to you rather than down to you, treat you as an adult rather than a child, not demand and command, but patiently teach and instruct what practically amounts to the same thing? The Buddha states that we are heirs to our kamma, that we make it, form it, and that what we do in this existence does affect our lives in the next one. However, in Buddhism, there is no need of beating our breasts and heeding authoritarian demands that we repent. We can rise up out of our sloth and torpor, out of evil and ugliness, by "following the path." If it were true that without a vengeful God man would be less than human, how do we justify the existence for thousands of years of Buddhists living in peace and love with each other?

Christ and Buddha were alike in many ways. It is not my intention to disparage anyone's belief in Christ. Christ said, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." Buddha said, "Show compassion and loving-kindness to all beings." God said to the Jews, "Do not unto others that which you would not do unto yourself." This is what Christ later said in reverse, positively, but with the same meaning. It was Moses who interpreted the words of God to his people, but for that reason they did not clothe him in divinity, nor did he do so himself. Where the Buddhists and Christians part company is the Christ's followers accorded him divinity, whereas Buddha's disciples accord him reverence as a great being.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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