The debate over whether Buddhism is a religion has been around for a long time. It is increasingly believed that the Buddha’s teaching is a philosophy or a lifestyle. Buddhism has features of a religious system, including the perception of the afterlife, rebirth, and religious questions about social order. Nevertheless, to a greater extent, its beliefs are of a practical nature, which calls people to investigate the world around them and not to blind faith. Although Buddhism is considered as a world religion on a par with Christianity or Islam, it is more of a philosophical doctrine.
The classification of any phenomenon in the modern world depends on the definitions used. Religion can be defined as a system which explores existence and reality “based on faith without reason” (O’Brien). Moreover, religion has a god or several gods, which are the objects of the followers’ faith. From this perspective, Buddhism discusses metaphysical aspects such as the afterlife and the realms of existence. Buddha mentioned the Thirty-One realm of existence, which can be found even in his most famous discourse, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. Buddhism discusses rebirth through numerous prayers, as well as various supernatural beings, which also has more to do with religion. Although the Dalai Lama claims in one of his interviews that Buddhism is a spiritual teaching, he also emphasizes that a person cannot be a Christian and profess it at the same time (“Dalai Lama on Buddhism as a spiritual guidance” 5:50-8:10). The Buddha also gives the Law of Karma as an explanation for the injustice of life, thus addressing a metaphysical explanation for social problems.
Despite the fact that Buddhism has a certain system of beliefs described above, it is more related to philosophy. The definition of philosophy can be “the applied rational pursuit of knowledge regarding reality and existence” (O’Brien). The Buddha’s teaching is called Dharma and is aimed at overcoming suffering and dissatisfaction. It is noteworthy that the doctrine “gives people a way to live life that can lead them towards achieving enlightenment” (“Dhamma in Buddhism”). The Buddha advises following the Noble Eightfold Path and practicing meditation regularly to overcome suffering. One of the six qualities of the Dharma implies that a person can experience what is described in the sacred texts himself through constant practice. Moreover, in Kalama Sutta, the Buddha emphasizes that one cannot trust anything just because it is accepted, or so people say, one needs to investigate everything oneself (Petranker). Thus, the Buddha encourages taking personal practice and experience as the basis of moral principles.
Buddhism also uses the Five Precepts as guidelines and guidelines for achieving happiness, not as laws. Karmic consequences, in this case, are perceived as personal responsibility for neglecting the advice of teaching and not as a divine punishment. Thus, Buddhism emphasizes that individual practice is needed, not knowledge of accepted dogma. In contrast to world religions, which base their beliefs on sacred texts and prescriptions of saints, Buddha proposes to cognize the world and act for life in harmony with it. Buddhism not only describes existence as suffering but also offers practical steps to overcome this state. The Buddha’s teaching fosters personal responsibility before the specific consequences of certain actions, forming the moral character of a person. In contrast to world religions, in which the believer has a fear of God’s illusory punishment, in Buddhism, a person strives for self-improvement. Thus, this belief system is more of a philosophy than a religion, as it offers practical guidelines for life rather than belief in a divine being.
“Dalai Lama on Buddhism as a Spiritual Guidance, not a Religion.” YouTube, uploaded by SRF Kultur, 2016.
O’Brien, Lucy. “Buddhism is Often Described as a Philosophy Rather Than a Religion. As Such, It Provides Ways to Understand, and Give Meaning to, the Challenges of Being Alive.” Waterford Institute of Technology, 2020. Web.
Petranker, Jack. “What You Know to Be True: Learning from the Kalama Sutta.” Tricycle, 2020.