Shambhala Sun | November 2013
Is Buddhism a Religion?
Is it a religion, psychology, or way of life? The “religion without God” has baffled Western thinkers for hundreds of years. Our three experts, CHARLES PREBISH ("Yes"), DZOGCHEN PONLOP RINPOCHE ("No"), and JOAN SUTHERLAND ("Kind of"), join the debate.
By CHARLES PREBISH
If you got together a big room of religious studies scholars and asked each of them to offer their own definition of religion, you’d likely get as many different answers as there were people in the room. There would be similarities, but also a lot of differences.
Therein lies the problem. People who say, “Buddhism is a religion” and people who say, “Buddhism is not a religion” may not be using the same standards and criteria.
So the first challenge is finding a reasonable definition of religion. For me, the definition that has always made the most sense is the one offered by the late Buddhologist Frederick Streng. In his classic book Understanding Religious Life, he said, “Religion is a means to ultimate transformation.”
This definition sounds almost too easy, but it really isn’t. It was designed to offer a common set of standards by which to measure potential religions, without making value judgments regarding theological, practical, or ethical concerns. In this definition, theism is not favored over non-theism; prayer is not favored over meditation; one set of ethical standards is not preferred over another.
What Streng meant to say was that for something to be considered a religion, it must posit a clear and distinct ultimate reality. That ultimate reality can be a God or gods, an impersonal absolute, a force of nature, a ground of being, or some other entity or experience. But without something ultimate — beyond which it is impossible to go — the system at hand is not a religion. In addition, in order to be considered a religion, the system must offer some clear and distinct path, or choice of paths, to the experience of that ultimate reality. While it doesn’t matter whether that path is prayer, ritual, yoga, meditation, some other method, or some combination thereof, there must be a straightforward way for the religious aspirant to gain the experience of the ultimate reality.
Finally, for something to be a religion, there must be a personal transformation that results from the individual’s experience of ultimate reality. This is most usually demonstrated by a positive change in morality and/or ethics, expressions of compassion, kindness, or similar forms of conduct. If we apply this definition, it’s clear that Buddhism is a religion. First of all, Buddhism absolutely offers an ultimate reality. Some forms of Buddhism may call this nirvana, others buddhahood, and so forth, but all schools and sects of Buddhism do have a notion of ultimacy.
Second, all schools and sects of Buddhism offer a clear path to the attainment of ultimate reality. Whether it’s the eightfold path that we find in Theravada, the bodhisattva path of Mahayana, or something else altogether, Buddhist practitioners are always provided with a straightforward series of practices that culminate in enlightenment.
Finally, are Buddhists who attain the experience of ultimate reality “transformed” by their experience? Of course they are. Their ethics and behaviors are changed. This may yield more compassionate behavior or finer social engagement. The person is now manifesting their buddhanature.
I found in my forty years of classroom teaching that a lot of my students started off presuming that Buddhism was not a religion but a “way of life.” Once confronted with the above, most changed their opinion. Those students who started from the assumption that Buddhism was indeed a religion now had some logical basis to support their assumption. The same was true with practitioners I met in the various Buddhist communities I visited during my time researching and practicing American Buddhism.
Yet do bear in mind that some researchers, scholars, and practitioners who subscribe to a different definition of religion than the one I cited may come to the opposite conclusion.
Professor emeritus Charles Prebish has written and edited numerous books on Buddhism, including Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America.