Is Buddhism a Religion or a Philosophy of Life? by Peter Morrell
Is Buddhism a Religion or a Philosophy of Life?
by Peter Morrell
I think the answer to this is BOTH, but it depends what you mean by a 'religion' and what you mean by 'philosophy of life'. I will therefore give my 'opinion' based partly upon the question and partly upon my knowledge of Buddhism.
It is a religion because it involves the elements of belief, faith and self- transformation, which do belong to some philosophies as such but which I believe are more characteristic features of religions. In all religions I would argue that faith and belief are paramount and also the self-transforming aspect. People turn to religion very largely because they want to improve their life, their self or their moral conduct or to take greater comfort in life. This is why religion is termed the 'opium of the masses' --it is a 'bolster' which protects us from the bad times. At the very least, it offers that to us in the form of 'understanding which gives comfort'. In this sense a religion is a set of beliefs which we take comfort from but which cannot be conclusively proved objectively as true or false.
Philosophy of life is your belief system (=set of ideas) which may or may not be applied in your life. I would term a religion an 'applied philosophy' by which you lead your life and through which you hope to improve it. There is an overlap between a philosophy of life and a religion and they are clearly quite blurred in how we define them, but the main difference to me is that your 'set of ideas' (= your philosophy of life) may not be something you apply to your behaviour and thoughts and conduct in the world, BUT a religion IS or should be very much exactly that.
So in an armchair sort-of way we can hold any set of ideas we like, but we may not live by them or apply them in our lives. For example, we might believe in stopping cruelty to animals and yet wear leather shoes and eat some meat. That would be seen as a set of ideas which does NOT translate into action and conduct based upon it: or hypocrisy, as it is often termed. You could say the same about certain 'religious people' who just go to church and say their prayers, but who in their private lives they are just nasty to people, unloving, uncaring and generally hostile to others. Such people may have a set of beliefs but they do not act upon them or apply them. Are they religious? It is difficult to say. Probably they are not. They have failed to apply their religion in their lives and live it daily in their conduct to others.
In the case of Buddhism, like any other religion, there are those who practise and those who just read about it and do not practice. Practice is the essence of Buddhism, because without practice it is a dead set of ideas which have no lasting value. The reason for this is that Buddhism is better described as an 'applied religious philosophy'. It is a set of ideas about man and the world, but it also has the life-transforming quality of a religion when, and only when, it is applied.
Now you could argue, and many do, that it is life-transforming anyway, even if we don't practise a lot. It is life-transforming just to believe in a set of ideas and to periodically contemplate them. In that sense any set of ideas has life- transforming qualities. It is probably life-transfroming just to believe in the immortality of the soul, in karma and in rebirth --if we contemplate these ideas regularly and fully absorb their meaning. It gives a vision of hope for the future, the future of ourselves. Likewise compassion. If you believe in the immense healing power of compassion in the world then when you apply it you treasure its power that is creating an improvement in folks' lives.
Thus Buddhism is both a set of ideas and a set of ideas in action in the world and in our lives. That would be my answer. A good book to read along these lines would be any work by the Dalai Lama on social and political transformation through compassion. I will try and find some specific titles.
Buddhism aims to change a person on three basic levels: first their ethical conduct or behaviour; second their beliefs and attitudes; and third through meditation the attainment of wisdom and merit. All three are essential for this complete improvement of a person to be brought about. The methods or techniques vary slightly according to the particular tradition you look at. In Theravada it is mainly through the use of breath-watching meditation and moral restraint; in Zen it is chiefly through zazen or sitting meditation and strict lifestyle; in Tibetan tradition it is througn compassionate activity, purificatory practices and devotional rituals.
For the specific answers to your question in relation to Buddhism you might consider the idea that Buddhism stresses very strongly indeed the restraint of anger, hatred and desire as a path to personal peace and contentment. Without this restraint of these negative qualities there is no spiritual progress because one is continuing to generate bad karma ie. harming self and others. And also the practice of meditation and mindfulness are required as means of attaining greater spiritual insight or wisdom. This is neatly summed up in the phrase 'do good, avoid evil and purify the mind'.
More specifically in the Tibetan tradition this means purifying the mind using mandala offering and recitation of certain purifying mantras, relentless cultivation of compassion in everything one does, striving to produce the maximum benefit from every action and the cultivation of the 'four immeasurables' of love, compassion, joy and equanimity. These are not practised for a time then given up, they becomes part of your way of life. There is never any end to these practices as there is virually no end to the negativity which needs purifying.
A good analogy given by Sogyal Rinpoche (a Lama based in London, but also seen in Bertolucci's film 'The Little Buddha') is that of a mountain of scrap and a mountain of gold. Buddhist practice acts like a furnace which burns up some of the huge mountain of karmic scrap and gradually produces or manufactures a small mountain of gold --of pure deeds and Merit. Not just for oneself but for all beings as limitless as space. This mountain of Merit you take with you to future lives. It is the 'credit side' of your spiritual bank account.
Trijang Rinpoche, one of the teachers of the Dalai Lama was once asked why there is so much bad in the world, seemingly in spite of all the religious practice that goes on. He is reported to have said 'Imagine how much worse it would be if there were no religious practice at all.' Likewise the Dalai Lama was asked why he keeps 'coming back and learning the whole thing all over again'. His answer was something like: because you can never purify yourself completely there is always something negative to work on; and also that he does it mainly for the sake of others.
I would also say that regardless of its size Buddhism is a very influential religion as it has exerted a strong influence on the whole of Far Eastern culture, especially in India, China, Tibet and South-east Asia generally, not just in religious terms but also in the art, ideas and behaviour of the people. Generally speaking they are thoughtful, reflective and peaceful peoples.
It has also gretly influenced all other religions. It has greatly influ-enced Hinduism, which was rather delapidated by the time Buddhism emerged, it strongly influenced Confucianism, Taoism, Sikhism and all the other eastern religions. Its influence was mainly to increase interest in meditation, peacefulness, pacifism, respect for all life, calmness and fostering reflection and quiet, especially in training the young and in old age. It also strongly influenced all the primitive pantheistic reli-gions of those continents as it fostered kindness and peaceful ways and this tended to diminish sacrifices and other cruel practices. It has been a kind and liberal tolerant influence on all religions and cultures that it has come into contact with.
It is also supposed to have influenced Christianity and Islam through fostering mysticism and various forms of contemplation. It probably also influenced ancient Greek culture as well, through philosophy. But it has never bragged of these achievements.
It is also often defined as an 'applied religious philosophy'. This means that it is applied ie practical, not dry and abstract, it is concerned with the big philosophical questions like where do we come from, where do we go to, what is the purpose of my life, why am I unhappy, dissatisfied, etc. It is religious because it is concerned with a basically spiritual view of life and the world. And it is deeply optimistic and hopeful, again like most religions. Philosophy is central to all forms of Buddhism, because it claims that the main problems of life stem from the mind and thus understanding of the mind, self-understanding is the main focus of all religious activity.
This is only partly true, because it does also stress moral conduct, restraint of non-virtue and the practise of virtue. But mainly I would say that the core teachings of Buddhism deal with meditation and self-realisation rather than strict moral conduct. They are both important, but I feel that meditation and philosophy come first and moral conduct second. Of course, Theravadins would disagree and say it is a balanced approach to both that is needed. Oh, well!
The next part of your question regards what a religion is. If you say how successful is this religion, you must not only say what you mean by success and how you will measure that, but also what you think a religion is. Clearly your definition of the one greatly affects the other.
So I would probably define a religion as a system of ideas and beliefs which help a person to develop greater self-understanding, greater peace and tranquillity and also greater kindness and sensitivity to the feelings and needs of others. Also it should contain some view of the after-life or wider meaning to life. Buddhism certainly has all of these features, but some people claim it is not a religion at all, especially Zen Buddhism, which many people feel is just like a martial art applied to the mind. Maybe it is!
Theravadins primarily avoid evil and so follow a strict moral code; Zen masters follow meditation mainly for hours and hours, which is designed to purify the mind; while Mahayanists mainly concern themselves with doing good. However, this is perhaps too simplistic as they are all purifying their minds as meditation is central to all forms of Buddhism. They are all avoiding evil and they are all doing good. But I do think the definition and the above claims are broadly true for each school. For it reflects the subtle differences between the various schools in terms of practice and in terms of view. For certain people any one school is well-suited.
The above definition also relates to the Buddhist view of a person. A person being seen as a collection of good and bad impulses with an indestructible mental consciousness (mindstream) capable of greater and greater purification and perfection. So Buddhism aims to enable a person to purify their life of bad, fill it with good and purify their mind until it is the mind of a perfect Buddha. That is the aim in all the schools. Whether it takes many lifetimes or can occur in an instant is another question, but it is the aim of Buddhism, most certainly. Its aim is to free us from suffering and the causes of suffering.
It also takes the view that without a system of religious training the mind will never improve on its own, spontaneously, without effort, as we will continue to engage in the causes of unhappiness without realising it. Thus unless purification of the mind and the innate impulses for good and bad that we contain, is deliberately undertaken, then we shall never be free from suffering or its causes as we are always engaging in the causes and creating it over many lifetimes. Thus the Noble 8-fold path and the 6 perfections, the 4 immeasurables, etc are methods of training the mind, the speech and the behaviour of a person until they become a perfect Buddha-mind, perfect Buddha-speech and perfect Buddha-actions, ie. become thoroughly immersed in goodness and wisdom without end, perfect peace or nirvana.