Buddhism was started by a prince who renounced his throne and set out to find the path to the end of suffering. He did this over 2500 years ago, but his teachings are still intact today, even growing in popularity in certain Western spheres. His followers, Buddhists, believe that suffering is unavoidable and ever-present in one’s life. They think that the source of suffering is attachment and the best way to limit that is to purify the mind, something that can be achieved through meditation and mindfulness practices. Buddhism’s core lies in the Indian subcontinent but has made its way east to China, Japan, Mongolia, and the Korean peninsula, as well as Southeast Asia over time.
Today, it is being rediscovered in the West. There is a growing trend of mindfulness and meditation that is taking over in North America and Europe, backed by modern science and pop culture. However, with this new wave of Buddhism emerging, the question of its true form has also become apparent. Is Buddhism, revered as the fourth largest religion in the world in atlases and factbooks alike, actually even a religion at all?
What constitutes a religion? According to Google’s Oxford Languages, a religion is “The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Sikhism, the five largest faiths aside from Buddhism, all fall easily into this definition. However, Buddhism is a different story.
Many scholars have pointed to Buddhism as being a philosophy. Defined by Google’s Oxford Languages, a philosophy is, “The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.” By this definition, contenders for Buddhism being a philosophy have a point, but much like with considering it a religion, there are flaws in this theory. Buddhism is not a study and is not considered an academic discipline, however, its doctrine concentrates heavily on aspects such as knowledge, reality, and existence. So then, what is Buddhism? Is it a religion as characterized by atlases and factbooks? Or is it a philosophy, as contended by scholars and academics who challenge this widely recognized belief?
With respect to it being a religion, Buddhism has many valid assertions, the most prominent of which is worship. Buddhist temples are sites of holiness and worship present all around the world where Buddhists go to offer flowers, food, incense, and candlelight to both monks and statues of the revered Lord Buddha. In temples, Buddhists also recite and chant the Buddha’s teachings with the intention of gaining merit for them and those close to them. Some even make pilgrimages to the Buddha’s hometown of Lumbini in Nepal and attempt to visit sacred sites when they get the chance. In addition, a number of holy days are celebrated, such as full moon days, Kathina, and the day the Buddha was born, died, and achieved enlightenment, known as Vesak. The Buddha is held in awe as a figure of excellence and glory and is paid homage to by Buddhists all over the world.
While the Buddha is worshipped similarly to how other deities are in other major religions, the Buddha is not a god. He is regarded as a human being in all aspects and is not known to have had any inhumane qualities. Buddhists believe he lived his last life as the Buddha and, because he was enlightened, ended his endless cycle of rebirth when he died, never to be born again. In this way, worshipping him is simply a means of respect and does not imply supreme intervention in the worshipper’s life. This is a major variation from other faiths in which deities are revered and worshipped.
Buddhist doctrine, otherwise known as dharma, is directly translated to mean ‘the ultimate truth’. This is due to the nature of Buddhist doctrine which focuses on the reality of life and the significance of wisdom and morality. It explores the nature of the world, stating that all of life contains suffering and all of suffering is rooted in attachment, explaining that it is important for one to let go of their attachments. Thus, Buddhist doctrine emphasizes the purification of one’s mind to achieve such goals. It calls on its followers to carry this knowledge about the world in order to stop the endless cycle of suffering humans endure. In this sense, Buddhism is representative of a philosophy in its core principles and strays away from traditional aspects normally found in major religions.
The fault in thinking of Buddhism as a philosophy, however, lies in the fact that Buddhism is held in much higher esteem than any academician ever has. The Buddha outlined the ‘ultimate truth’ a millennia ago, and there is not much room for interpretation. Buddhism is the belief that the Buddha’s teachings are final, and there is no use building upon them. Buddhists believe that one holds ultimate wisdom when they fully realize and interact with the Buddha’s message and revere the Buddha in a way that even the most committed philosophy major would never do for Aristotle, Plato, or Kant. People do not fall to the ground to worship a philosopher in the way that they do for the Buddha, discrediting the claim that Buddhism is purely just a philosophy.
Returning to the initial question of the true form of Buddhism, one must consider that it is not characterizable in singular terms. It includes aspects that can be classified as religious as well as aspects that are more philosophical. The growing appeal of Buddhism in the West has had led to an effort to recategorize and reconsider much of this sizeable belief system. But is that even a possibility?
Is Buddhism a religion? A philosophy? Or does it stand in its own class: an anomaly that encapsulates over 530 million people? To understand Buddhism, one must not fit it into traditional boxes, but instead, seek to comprehend its unique features.
Edited by Helia Mokhber.
Photo credits: “Gold Buddha Statue in front of Gold Buddha Statue Photo” by Julie Richard, published on July 5, 2020, licensed under unsplash.com. No changes were made.
Santhindu Wijesooriya is a first-year student at McGill University. He plans to double major in International Development Studies and Political Science while minoring in Finance. Santhindu is currently a Staff Writer for Catalyst and looks to grow his knowledge and experience in International Development through this.