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Is Buddhism A Religion?


Buddhism is a teaching which has spread worldwide absorbing the culture of each country it arrived in, which has resulted in many expressions of Buddhism. Each strand, no matter how varied in nature and practice, holds a common emphasis on the impermanence of human life. The worldwide spread of Buddhism means that it is now practiced by over three hundred million people worldwide, and thus, is generally considered to be a world religion. However, its authenticity as a religion has often come under scrutiny by intellectuals in the Western world. To explore whether Buddhism can in fact be counted as a religion we must acknowledge that the main problems arise when looking for a definition of what a religion is. Either, definitions have proved too narrow excluding many belief systems which people believe are religious, or they become too broad which means that any structure can be counted. When applying varying definitions of religion to Buddhism we come up with some very contradictory answers; some which say that Buddhism is simply a philosophy or teaching, whilst others will prove that it is in fact, a religion in practice.

To determine whether Buddhism is a religion or not, we must also note that we, as Westerners will have different views and concepts of religion to those practicing in the East. We must ask the question, is it even possible for Westerners to understand the religious life of Asia? What we view as Asian religion and religious activity is for most of the people practicing it a natural part of daily life; our ideas and concepts vary so greatly that perhaps someone observing Buddhism from a Western perspective may never truly grasp the religiosity of the group.

For one attempting to provide a definition of religion these practices would need to be described in a manner which did not exclude one religion from the definition. There needs to be one thing that is attributed to all religions, a common factor. For many, the common factor is God. However, if we conclude that God is the focus of all religion then much of the material found in Asia must be excluded because there is no God here, and occasionally not even Gods. From the perspective that religion entails belief in a God, Buddhism is excluded from having the title of religion. Many outsiders to the Buddhist tradition may claim that the Buddha held some divinity and is elevated to a Godly position, but the Buddha himself refused to be regarded as divine. For the Buddha, humanity is here to improve ourselves and achieve liberation rather than worrying about ultimate questions. Buddhists would argue that knowledge of a God or the afterlife does not matter as neither help in the quest for nirvana.If Buddhism is not counted as a religion then what is it? Buddhism can be thought of as a way of life, a philosophy, a psychology, a way of thinking through which we can take responsibility for our present life and lives.

Like all major religions Buddhism contains a morality, rituals and behaviours, certain ethical values and an origin of existence, yet because Buddhists do not believe in an all knowing creator God some claim that Buddhism fails to be a religion. The large variety of definitions of religion shows that we can never give a solid, one answer description of what it is that religion is and does.

We must remember that previously Buddhism has many names such as the Buddha's teaching or message, or the Buddha's way or the path of attainment. Although the religious status of Buddhism has come under constant attack, we could argue that the questioning is in fact, not necessary. If we were able to ask the Buddha if Buddhism was in fact a religion or not he would probably answer with the response that it does not matter. To the Buddhist, their beliefs are essentially a philosophy by which individuals can attain release from the world of karma and rebirth. Knowing whether or not Buddhism is a religion or not cannot lead to salvation, only through practice and understanding can one be led to a happiness which is not transient.

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Helen Wyre writes regular articles for a Daily Updated Buddhism website at http://www.buddhismnews.com

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