Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?
Lack of standard definition of "religion:"
Whether Buddhism is, or is not, a religion depends upon how the word "religion"
is defined. Lots of people have their favorite definition; some think that
theirs is the only valid meaning for the term.
|Some definitions required a religion to include belief in the existence of one or more
deities; this would classify most expressions of
Buddhism as a non-religious since it is essentially a non-theistic religion. |
|Other definitions do not require religion to include belief in a deity; these would
Buddhism as a religion.|
|Webster's New World Dictionary (Third College Edition):
defines religion as: "any specific system of belief and worship, often
involving a code of ethics and a philosophy." |
Buddhism would not be considered a religion under this definition, because it
is basically non-theistic: it does not generally involve worship of a supernatural entity.
|Wikipedia once defined religion as: "... a system of social
coherence based on a common group of beliefs or attitudes concerning an
object, person, unseen being, or system of thought considered to be
supernatural, sacred, divine or highest truth, and the moral codes, practices,
values, institutions, traditions, and rituals associated with such belief or
system of thought." 1|
Buddhism could be considered a religion because its various forms share a
system of thought that is considered to be the highest truth. It involves moral codes,
practices, values, traditions and rituals.
More recently, Wikipedia have adopted the definition of the late Clifford
Geertz, an anthropologist from Princeton: Religion is: "an organized
approach to human spirituality which usually encompasses a set of narratives,
symbols, beliefs and practices, often with a supernatural or transcendent
quality, that give meaning to the practitioner's experiences of life through
reference to a higher power, God or gods, or ultimate truth.
Here again, Buddhism would be considered a religion.
|Anthony F.C. Wallace, a North American anthropologist who
specializes in Native American cultures, suggested a definition as: "a set of rituals, rationalized by
myth, which mobilizes supernatural powers for the purpose of achieving or
preventing transformations of state in man or nature."4|
Buddhism would not be considered a religion because it does not
usually involve belief in supernatural powers.
|Robert Bellah, professor at the University of California, Berkley,
in a legal declaration concerning the nature of transcendental meditation (TM),
defined religion as: "a set of symbolic forms and acts that relate man to the
ultimate conditions of his existence." 5|
If the word "forms" is defined broadly, this would seem to imply
that Buddhism is a religion, along with TM.
|H.L. Menken, 20th century editor,
person of ideas, satirist, and Agnostic defined
religion's "...single function is to give man access to the powers which seem
to control his destiny, and its single purpose is to induce those powers to be
friendly to him." 6|
This would imply that Buddhism is not a religion, because it does not
presuppose the existence of supernatural powers with whom humans can react.
Comments by some Buddhists:
|The Drepung Loseling Institute, a center for Tibetan Buddhist studies,
practice and culture, fully accepts Buddhism as a religion. They state:|
"Like all major religions, Buddhism contains an explanation of the origin
of existence, a morality, and a specific set of rituals and behaviors. ...
Buddhism presents a transformational goal, a desire to improve one's
situation, and a distinct moral code. 7
|The Late Ven Dr.K.Sri Dhammananda Nayaka Maha Thera JSM
"The Buddha's message as a religious way of life: 'Keeping
away from ail evil deeds, cultivation or life by doing good deeds and
punfication of mind from mental impurities'."
"For our purposes, religion may be defined in a very broad sense as a body of
moral and philosophical teachings and the acceptance with confidence of such
teachings In this sense. Buddhism is a religion." 8
|Venerable Master Chin Kung of the
Buddhist Educational College in Singapore, describes four
different types of Buddhism, of which one is:|
"... religious Buddhism. Originally, Buddhism was not a religion, but now it
has become one. We can no longer deny that there is a 'Buddhist religion'
because everywhere we look, Buddhism is displayed as a religion. Unlike the
monasteries in the past which held eight-hour classes per day and provided
another eight hours for self-cultivation, today's Buddhist 'temples' no longer
uphold such a perseverance of the Buddha's Teachings. Today we mainly see
people offering to the Buddha statues and praying for blessings and fortune.
In this way, Buddhism has been wrongly changed into a religion."
|A number of countries recognize Buddhism as their official religion:|
|Kalmykia, a republic within the Russian
|Tibet Government in Exile|
|Sri Lanka recognizes Theravada Buddhism as occupying "the
foremost place" among its religions. 10|
Practices in North America:
Many groups recognize Buddhism as a religion:
|Census offices and public opinion pollsters generally include
Buddhism as one of the world's major religion.|
|Books that describe the religions of the world generally
list Buddhism as a religion along with Christianity,
Islam, Hinduism, etc. |
the Boy Scouts of America, who systematically root out and expel
Atheists, Agnostics and
homosexuals, accept Buddhists as members.|
|The Government of Canada denies registration of religious charities unless
they teach the belief in one or more Gods or Goddesses. However, they allow
Buddhist faith groups to register. They also register
Unitarian groups even though they do not teach the existence of a deity.|
|For what it is worth, "Hey Monkeybrain" conducted a poll of its
visitors on whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy or both. Results
|Religion 8% 11|
Buddhism as a "bottom-up" religion:
Buddhism is not what we call a "top-down religion"
-- one in which a deity reveals religious and spiritual truths to humanity. It
is a "bottom-up religion" created by humans as an attempt to express spiritual
Kerry Trembath, former Secretary of the Buddhist Council of New South
Wales, in Australia writes :
"Buddhism does not deny the existence of gods or of other worlds, and indeed
the devotional practices of many Buddhist traditions involve the veneration and
invocation of special beings such as Avalokitesvara (known as Kwan Yin to many
Chinese, or Kannon to the Japanese). However, at its core Buddhism is a
non-theistic religion and, unlike other world religions, Buddhism is not a
doctrine of revelation. The Buddha did not claim to be the bearer of a message
from on high. He made it clear that what he taught he had discovered for himself
through his own efforts."
"The Buddha himself is revered not as a deity or supernatural being but as a
very special kind of human being. He was a human who achieved the ultimate in
development of his human potential. The Buddha taught that this achievement is
within the reach of every human being, and he spent his life teaching a
practical methodology which, if followed with purity of mind and great
diligence, would enable others to reach the same objective. In other words, he
taught a method rather than a doctrine. When questioned about the validity of
his teachings, the Buddha did not refer to the higher authority of a deity. He
explained that his teachings were based on his own direct personal experience,
and he invited all who were interested to test for themselves whether the method
he taught was effective." 12
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- Unfortunately, Wikipedia is in a constant state of flux brought about by
continual updating. Thus, the above quote no longer is on their site at
- Clifford Geertz, "Religion as a Cultural System," (1973).
- "Religion," Wikipedia, at:
- David Carpenter of Saint Joseph's University includes this definition in his
- Robert Bellah, "Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional
World," Harper and Row, Page 21. See:
- H.L. Mencken, "Treatise on the Gods," Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY,
(1930, revised 1946).
- "Is Buddhism a religion?" Drepung Loseling Institute, at:
- V.K.S. Dhammananda Nayaka Maha Thera JSM, "Buddhism as a religion," Buddha
Vihara Society, at:
- Venerable Master Chin Kung, "Buddhism as an Education The path to Enlightenment,"
- "State Religion," Wikipedia, at:
- "Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?" Hey Monkeybrain, 2009-AUG-28, at:
- Kerry Trembath, "Buddhism and homosexuality,"
Copyright © 1996 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-AUG-29
Author: B.A. Robinson