Why Buddhism Isn’t a Religion

| November 27, 2017 | 5 Comments

We’ll look at three ways that Buddhism isn’t a religion, focusing on early Buddhism in particular. Of course, Buddhism has religious aspects. However it also can be seen as something entirely non-religious, more in the vein of a school of philosophy.

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma.

He posts videos at Doug’s Secular Dharma on YouTube.

Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

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  1. Jason Malfatto says:

    Doug: I don’t really have a strong opinion on whether early Buddhism was more of a philosophy or more of a religion, partly because I plead ignorance on the topic, but also partly because – based on what little I do know – the question hinges on how early we’re talking, and that much begs historical-critical questions (like the one you raised in this episode re: early vs. later strata in the Sutta Pitaka).

    That said, I like Massimo Pigliucci’s term for philosophy (or, perhaps more accurately, for what he looks for and most values in philosophy): Discursive Rationality and Argumentation (DRA). With your particular expertise, I trust that you can readily provide examples of DRA in the Pali Canon, as well as examples of non-DRA* in the Western Canon (e.g. in Plato and Aristotle and in their many “footnotes” from antiquity through modernity). But I wonder if it would be safe to say that the balance of DRA to non-DRA is different in the two canons? in other words, that one contains more or less DRA than the other?

    My gut tells me that DRA is so characteristic of Western tradition that I would expect to find less of it in Eastern traditions, like Buddhism, but I’m far from certain of that.

    * I do not mean to equate non-DRA content with religious content. For example, one may characterize the more literary style of modern Continental philosophers as secular non-DRA. And, for that matter, DRA and religious content are not mutually exclusive, if the former is used to shore up faith in the authority of the latter.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi Jason, and thanks for the question. The issue here partly hinges on who defines the terms. That is, “philosophy” per se is a western concept, pretty much defined as Massimo suggests, discursive rationality and argumentation. AFAIK there isn’t really a comparable concept in Indian thought, certainly not in the timeframe at issue. (Although some of the Buddha’s opponents may have been more pure “philosophers” in this sense than he was).

      I would say there are Indian thinkers and texts that are probably as DRA as anything in the West, certainly anything in the ancient West. The Pāli material is quite replete with DRA, but it’s also very much a practice-based teaching, which is to say the Buddha cared a lot about how one should practice rather than why. In the West it tends to be more why one should practice (or do X, Y, Z) rather than how.

      Also, the Buddha did believe that DRA alone was sterile; that it needed empirical data from the senses and, for want of a better phrase, lived reality. Argument and rationality for its own sake could be pernicious for the Buddha, it led to rationalization and logic-chopping. The Stoics held a similar view in fact.

      So it’s complicated, but yes, philosophy is a Western concept and those who defined it tended to practice its most pure form, at least on their own terms. Of course, philosophy understood simply as “love of wisdom” was practiced equally by many non-Western cultures, and I do not think it can be argued so simply that there is “more wisdom” in the West than elsewhere.

      • Jason Malfatto says:

        Doug: I’m glad you raised the Stoic parallel, since Massimo – as a modern Stoic – would likely agree with you that “DRA alone was sterile”, thus the concept of Stoic practice. Still, even in a practice-oriented Western school like Stoicism, there’s a high degree of DRA to be found – much more so (percentage-wise) than I can recall from reading suttas, though (as I alluded earlier) I trust that you could recite examples of DRA from the Sutta Pitaka more readily than I can.

        Mind you, I didn’t mean to make a value judgment about DRA (at least not yet). Mostly, I was sharing my thoughts about the philosophy vs. religion question you raised at the end of this episode, where DRA seems (at least to these Western eyes) a meaningful trait to look for (not only for its presence or lack thereof, but also for its relative frequency). Indeed, it’s possible that even Stoics overestimate DRA as a means to achieving eudaimonia as they define it (e.g. as a life of virtue), never mind its importance on the path to Buddhist nibbana.

  2. irvjacob irvjacob says:

    I have visited many countries in Asia and seen many traditions of Buddhism, and believe that the best part of Buddhism is its religious nature. I believe you are in denial, and wishful thinking based on your admitted bias. Talking about Buddhism, just like talking about philosophy, is a worthwhile endeavor. But Doing Buddhism, just like doing philosophy (i.e. Wittgenstein) is even more powerful and purposeful.
    good luck to you, in any case.

    • Jason Malfatto says:

      Irv: I wonder if you’re willing to elaborate on what you mean by Buddhism’s “religious nature” and why that represents its “best part.”

      Secular Buddhism as a movement still seems so nascent to me that it hardly seems fair to compare it to the Asian traditions that you referred to (e.g. Theravada, Chan/Zen, and Tibetan), which have centuries and large numbers of adherents to back them.

      But if by “doing Buddhism” you mean practicing the Buddha-Dharma (as interpreted here and now), then I think Doug, Ted, and the other SBA members would agree that practice is primary (as suggested by the “pragmatic” part of the tagline above).

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