Buddhism: Religion, Philosophy, or Spirituality?

When I visited New York a couple of months ago, a student at Columbia University asked me this question: Would you consider Buddhism a religion or philosophy? I don’t remember what I said, but I do recall it being a half-baked answer skirting on the edges of classifying Buddhism as a philosophy. After all, many young people in the West do consider Buddhism as a doctrine about cause and effect, seeing most rituals and chants as moot. I grew up in a Buddhist household, attended temple rituals and ceremonies, yet still found myself doubting that Buddhism should be considered a religion. For me, religion was connected with worshipping god(s), like Christianity or Islam. But in Buddhism, there was no god to praise or worship. I’m sure that many would agree that Buddhism is in fact a way of life.

However, my view has come to change on this during my stay here at a monastic program (Woodenfish) in the Longquan Monastery in Shanxi, China. Let’s begin with the term spirituality.

I think it’s a fairly modern concept, and most people I know would rather be aligned as spiritual rather than a radical religious. Karl-Stéphan Bouthillette, a professor at Woodenfish, opened his lecture about spirituality that spirituality had an attitude of “whatever.” It puts the individual at the center of the universe, makes people selfish and unhappy. It allows people to cherrypick whatever you like, but the dangerous part is that it can lead to dismissing what we don’t yet understand or what challenges us. If we are trying to learn, we need to relinquish our authority. For example, if we are learning how to make a chair, we would go to somebody who already knows how to make a chair. If we want to learn how to meditate, we should go to a monastery where they have established practices to teach meditation. This motivation behind cherrypicking in spirituality also translates over to the fractious nature of religions institutions and political parties. There is a loss of commitment to something greater, especially something that challenges us. And being our own authority can put a lot of stress on ourself to make the perfect decisions among a sea of options.

Philosophy, from Greek φιλοσοφία, philosophia, literally translates to “love of wisdom.” And refers to the study of things like knowledge, existence, what we should or should not do, language, reason, etc. And from my experience of studying philosophy in college, has a categorical/classifying nature that can seem cold.

Religion, from Latin religio, means “that which binds us together.” As opposed to philosophy, religion feels more warm and human, dealing with things like love, death, passion, birth, etc. And religion can ben seen as having 7 dimensions.

7 Dimensions of Religion

1. Practical and Ritual – In Buddhism, rituals are seen not as an end in itself. Sacrifices, baptism, etc.

2. Experiential and Emotional – Meditative jhanas, metta (loving kindness), desire to convert others

3. Narrative and Mythic – Religions have rich, emotional narratives or myths. While myths are generally looked down upon in the present because of their lack of proof, these stories motivate us to strive for things greater than us. They give us hope.

4. Doctrinal and Philosophical – I believe this is where many people would put Buddhism into, but Buddhism is much more than just a philosophy.

5. Ethical and Legal – 5 Precepts, 10 Commandments, etc.

6. Social and Institutional – monasteries, interactions between laymen and monks/nuns, interactions between people and priests.

7. Material – artwork, clothing, bowls.

And having these 7 dimensions implies that there are many different ways we can enter into religion. For me, my entrance into Buddhism came from the experiential and philosophical dimensions.

For me, this added a lot more depth to religion. Religions are in fact deeply rooted in history and culture. There are also many recurring themes among religions, for example, how the mythological monomyth (hero’s journey) is apparent in many religious narratives. Studying Buddhism academically in the Woodenfish program has been very interesting and challenging, making myself ask questions that I would have never asked myself before, which I will answer in future posts.

What if the Buddha never existed? Does it even matter?

What would be the advantage and disadvantage of believing in the narrative?

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