10 Big Questions About Buddhism, Answered


Is Buddhism a Philosophy or a Religion?

monks symphony
The master Wule directs monks and nuns in a symphony performance at the Tiantai temple on Nov. 22, 2018 in Hongan, Hubei province, China. Wang He/Getty Images

Viewed with Western eyes, Buddhism looks much more like a philosophy than a religion. There is no faith in a higher power, no liturgical prayer and no weekly worship services. Reading its teachings, Buddhism sounds like a spiritually focused, self-help philosophy. But in practice, Buddhism shares many of the same mystical and transcendent traits as all of the world's great religions.

Buddhism is undoubtedly a rich source of philosophical truth. One could read and contemplate the extensive writings from various school of Buddhism and walk away with deep insights on the meaning of life, ethics, psychology, human behavior, the nature of consciousness, politics and similarly "secular" disciplines. And there's a tendency, especially in the West, to limit the Buddha to his most basic teachings and limit Buddhism to a practical philosophy or lifestyle choice.

But in practice, especially the way it's been practiced in Asia for millennia, Buddhism is deeply religious. For starters, one of the goals of Buddhist thought and practice, like other mainstream religions, is "transcendence" or achieving a state of being beyond the self. Even if a Buddhist doesn't achieve nirvana in this lifetime, he or she hopes to experience greater detachment from selfish impulses and therefore less suffering [source: O'Brien].

Buddhism, like other religions, is also "mystical" in the sense that practitioners, through studying and meditation, can experience a direct communion with the divine or absolute. This is what Siddhartha Gautama experienced under the Bodhi Tree. The Buddha didn't "see God" in the Judeo-Christian sense, but he experienced a vision of the absolute truth of existence. And it's the promise of that same mystical revelation that Buddha extends to all who follow the dharma path.

Like other religions, Buddhism has its share of supernatural beliefs. Buddhist religious texts and folklore tell tales of the Buddha overpowering rivals by flying through the air and shooting fire from his head. Other monks and enlightened followers could travel instantly anywhere in the universe and pass freely into the heavenly realms [source: Buswell and Lopez].

But perhaps the most conventionally "religious" aspect of Buddhism in Western eyes is its preoccupation with the afterlife. While Buddhists don't believe in the traditional heaven and hell of Christianity, one of the central concerns of Buddhist practice has always been to ensure a better rebirth in the next life and to avoid the lowest realms [source: Buswell and Lopez]. And despite its reputation for promoting peace and tolerance, Buddhism doesn't balk from the common religious claim that its belief system is the only path to ultimate truth [source: Buswell and Lopez].