In this post, we’re going to find out if it’s even possible to have Buddhism without religion: radical or practical?
We’re going to look at
- Terminology: Buddhism, Dharma and so on
- Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?
- Separating philosophy from religion
First I have to say that I’m no Buddhist scholar, philosopher, or academic. Currently a trainer and speaker in the DCI Seed System which uses the ancient but universal ideas from Eastern philosophy, I may have some exposure and understanding of the Buddhist ideas, but I’m no expert.
So let’s not forget that right now, I’m taking on the stance of a curious learner who is finding answers to the questions I currently have:
Can we extract, adapt and contextualise the ideas and concepts from Buddhist philosophy to live a happy, fulfilled and successful life?
Can we really make a 2500-year-old tradition relevant to the 21st century, not as a “religion” but as a secular philosophy with broad applications that we can use in our lives?
Terminology: Buddhism, Dharma and so on
1) Let’s start with the key word: Buddhism
So I did a quick search and selected the following definitions.
Buddhism, religion and philosophy that developed from the teachings of the Buddha (Sanskrit: “Awakened One”), a teacher who lived in northern India between the mid-6th and mid-4th centuries BCE (before the Common Era).Britannica
Buddhism is a faith that was founded by Siddhartha Gautama (“the Buddha”) more than 2,500 years ago in India. With about 470 million followers, scholars consider Buddhism one of the major world religions. Its practice has historically been most prominent in East and Southeast Asia, but its influence is growing in the West. Many Buddhist ideas and philosophies overlap with those of other faiths.History
Buddhism is a spiritual tradition that focuses on personal spiritual development and the attainment of a deep insight into the true nature of life. There are 376 million followers worldwide.BBC
Buddhism is the world’s fourth-largest religion with over 520 million followers, or over 7% of the global population, known as Buddhists. Buddhism encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and spiritual practices largely based on original teachings attributed to the Buddha and resulting interpreted philosophies.Wikipedia
While there are definitely more varying definitions of “Buddhism,” I chose the above because it shows us the mixed views that the Western world have about Buddhism.
Given how Asians are most likely to view that Buddhism is a religion—I’m an Asian and was “born into Buddhism,” brought to visit Buddhist temples to pray to the Buddha and so on—just like how I viewed Christianity as a religion when I converted as a teen (it’s complicated), it’s actually refreshing for me to reconsider Buddhism as a philosophy as well as a religion.
In a way, maybe, it becomes a matter of how much do you want to engage?
We’ll explore more in a jiffy, but let’s continue with terms.
2) Who’s Buddha?
Here’s a few short extracts when I looked for the definition of “Buddha,”
“The historical Buddha was an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama who lived some 2,600 years ago in an area that today is part of northern India and Nepal.”Who Was the Buddha?
Buddha, born with the name Siddhartha Gautama, was a teacher, philosopher and spiritual leader who is considered the founder of Buddhism. He lived and taught in the region around the border of modern-day Nepal and India sometime between the 6th to 4th century B.C.
The name Buddha means “one who is awakened” or “the enlightened one.” While scholars agree that Buddha did in fact exist, the specific dates and events of his life are still debated.Biography
The teacher known as the Buddha lived in northern India sometime between the mid-6th and the mid-4th centuries before the Common Era. In ancient India the title buddha referred to an enlightened being who has awakened from the sleep of ignorance and achieved freedom from suffering.Britannica
Most of us are familiar with the Buddha, even if you’re not a Buddhist.
Unlike most religions, Buddha is not the Creator of the universe, or God. Rather, from the definitions available, there’s 3 levels to understand who Buddha is.
1. The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who was born a prince, but through his personal encounters, experiences with suffering; old age, sickness and death, gain personal insights and decided to seek answers out of this self-perpetuating cycle of life and death. He first became a monk, then adopted asceticism, and eventually the “Middle Way,” which avoids 2 extremes. Through deep contemplation and meditation, he had a series of insights into the nature of reality, and he was eventually enlightened while meditating under a Bodhi tree, and became known as the Buddha, “one who is awakened,” or “the enlightened one.” From then until his passing from this world, he taught the path to liberation that he had realized.
2. “The term buddha means “awake” or “awakened,” so it can refer to any number of beings that are believed to be fully enlightened, not just the historical Buddha.”
3. “It can also refer to an archetype or idea of an enlightened being.”Are There Other Buddhas?
So let’s look at the term that is associated with what the Buddha taught: Dharma.
3) What is Dharma?
Here, we’re interested in the definition of Dharma in Buddhism,
“In Buddhism, dharma is the doctrine, the universal truth common to all individuals at all times, proclaimed by the Buddha. Dharma, the Buddha, and the sangha (community of believers) make up the Triratna, “Three Jewels,” to which Buddhists go for refuge. In Buddhist metaphysics the term in the plural (dharmas) is used to describe the interrelated elements that make up the empirical world.”Britannica
While the definition above seems like it makes sense but it doesn’t quite explain what exactly is dharma, so let’s look at another definition.
“Buddha’s teachings are known as “dharma.””History
There’s also reference to Dharma as the laws of how things work, how our reality or universe functions, as well as the method, the path or understanding to seeing how things work, how our reality and universe functions.
Specifically, Dharma on one level can be referred to the collection of Buddha’s teachings, or “ideas, books, videos, audios—physical dharma” and on a deeper level, what Buddhists would also refer to real dharma, which is understanding emptiness, specifically seeing emptiness directly.
With the Eastern philosophy reaching the West, there’s also the idea of secular dharma,
Secular dharma looks at the teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (Pali: Siddhattha Gotama), and the teachings and practices of the dharma in the context of the global, modern world.
People who practice secular dharma are distinct from those who engage in Buddhist practice but are otherwise secular. While there is overlap, “secular dharma” describes a different movement.
While secular dharma practitioners have been connected with a range of Buddhist lineages, and none, secular dharma is a development out of certain modernizing trends within different schools of Buddhism. A secular space is open-minded and tolerant and does not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, gender, ability, beliefs, or faith. Those who engage with a secular dharma community are not required to adopt metaphysical beliefs or become involved in activities generally associated with religion, Buddhist or otherwise, such as chanting or praying.
Can Someone Be A Secular Buddhist?
Dharma vs. Dharma practice
“The art of dharma practice requires commitment, technical accomplishment, and imagination. As with all arts, we will fail to realize its full potential if any of these three is lacking. The raw material of dharma practice is ourself and our world, which are to be understood and transformed according to the vision and values of the dharma itself. This is not a process of self- or world-transcendence, but one of self- and world-creation.
IN A FAMOUS PARABLE, the Buddha imagines a group of blind men who are invited to identify an elephant. One takes the tail and says it’s a rope; another clasps a leg and says it’s a pillar; another feels the side and says it’s a wall; another holds the trunk and says it’s a tube. Depending on which part of Buddhism you grasp, you might identify it as a system of ethics, a philosophy, a contemplative psychotherapy, a religion. While containing all of these, it can no more be reduced to any one of them than an elephant can be reduced to its tail.”Buddhism Without Beliefs
According to this article, it gets one thinking. Are you sure? If you’re not, you can’t be, then why are you taking what you read as the absolute truth, which is what I call blind faith.
While there is definitely value in religion, and one can definitely have a faith—as do I—my stance is, in the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson, “be a proper skeptic.” We need to investigate the ideas without bias.
And we can find evidence that supports reason over blind faith from the monastic textbook An Explanation of the Art of Reasoning by Purbuchok Jampa Tsultrim Gyatso (1825-1901), the tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, stating the three tests:
1) We have confirmed, with our own direct valid perceptions, those parts of the statement which correspond to “evident” reality;
2) We have confirmed, with our own logical, deductive form of valid perception, those parts of the statement which correspond to “hidden” reality; and
3) We have established that those parts of the statement which correspond to “deeply hidden” reality are free of any internal contradiction or similar faults.]An Explanation of the Art of Reasoning
The three tests from Buddhism above corresponds with Geshe Michael Roach who uses 3 simple terms for us to easily understand what it actually means:
1) Burn or Melt the gold: We should confirm with our own experience that the information works
2) Cut the gold: Does the information pass the test of being logical? Does it in theory make sense?
3) File the gold: Are the original sources that recommend this information believable? Are there testimonials? Case studies?
And the three tests also be found in the Asian Classics Institute Foundational Course 4: Proof of Future Lives, Class Four: Being of Totally Correct Perception.
The three tests for checking if what someone said is accurate, Chepa Sum in Tibetan, in the class notes,
1) The statement cannot be disproved by any direct perception you have or have had.
2) The statement can’t be contradicted by correct, airtight reasoning.
3) Nothing he ever said before contradicts what he said later.
In the answer key,
“What are the three main methods for a normal person to determine that the Buddha is totally correct about the very deep teachings He gave?
a) The teachings cannot be disproved by any valid perception that we have or have had.
b) The teachings cannot be disproved by any airtight reasoning.
c) The teachings themselves are free of any internal inconsistency: nothing that Lord Buddha said at one time contradicts what He said at another time.”
In other words, it seems like Buddha invites us to rigorously check what he said and inspect if it works using logic and our own experience instead of being a mere believer.
“The dharma is not a belief by which you will be miraculously saved. It is a method to be investigated and tried out.”Buddhism Without Beliefs
So what hints to me that we can distinguish Buddhist philosophy from the religion itself, is when we are able to engage in the content without the metaphysical beliefs through activities generally associated as religion, such as chanting, prayer or other rituals.
Instead, we can take the stance of a curious learner, maybe using a scientific, logical approach. Or even a craftsman whereby we test the ideas, experiment with the method for ourselves, to see what really works.
4) What Makes You A Buddhist
The most simplistic definition of “Buddhist” is a follower of the Buddha. Very much like how if you’re a follower of Christ, that makes you a Christian.
Or that by accepting and keeping the Buddhist refuge vows would make one an official Buddhist.
But of course, we can always edge over to the on-going debate about how Buddhism is scientific, because with the vast collection of literature, there are numerous texts—yet translated into the major languages—that as they are gradually translated, reveal an alignment with contemporary mind sciences, such as neuroscience, quantum physics, psychology and so on.
Which means, if we base “what makes you a Buddhist” upon the three tests logical approach above, we might teeter towards the possibility of a new definition of being “Buddhist.” Much like taking a scientific approach to life doesn’t necessarily make you a scientist, so maybe we could already be taking on a Buddhist approach to life without taking on the title of Buddhist.
5) Buddhist philosophy
Back to the question, Buddhism without religion: Radical or practical?
Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?
First let us look at Britannica’s definition:
Philosophy, (from Greek, by way of Latin, philosophia, “love of wisdom”) the rational, abstract, and methodical consideration of reality as a whole or of fundamental dimensions of human existence and experience. Philosophical inquiry is a central element in the intellectual history of many civilizations.Britannica
For discussion of major systems of Eastern philosophy, see Buddhism; Chinese philosophy; Confucianism; Daoism; Hinduism; Indian philosophy; Jainism; Japanese philosophy; Shintō; Sikhism.
While Britannica’s article includes Buddhism as part of Eastern philosophy, when you click on “Buddhism,” the category leads you to “PHILOSOPHY & RELIGION > PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES.” And just below the title “Buddhism,” the label “religion.”
So come on, is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy then?
The article Is Buddhism a Religion? presents the 2 sides of the coin, Buddhism as an intricate philosophical system and as a religion.
“If you were to go by the stream of psychology and neuroscience books published over the last two decades, you’d think Buddhism is an intricate philosophical system designed by a man with a keen insight for the emergence of psychoanalysis and philosophy some 2,400 years down the road.”Is Buddhism a Religion?
While Buddhism requires faith, it is “faith that is dependent on experience and reasoning, not unexperienced hopes or wishful thinking.”
When does Buddhism tip from philosophy over to religion? When metaphysics come into play.
“Is Buddhism a religion? To many, certainly. Like other world religions, it offers a set of ethical codes to be followed, best practices used to instill empathy, calm, and compassion into your day. It also has its system of metaphysics. What follows life—the heavens and hells—is specific to Buddhism, yet every religious system has devised its own mystical taxonomy. In this sense, Buddhism is not alone.”Is Buddhism a Religion?
But if you’re only keen on approaching Buddhism as philosophy?
In the next part we will explore further the separation of philosophy from religion.
Separating philosophy from religion
“When Gautama passed away around 483 B.C., his followers began to organize a religious movement. Buddha’s teachings became the foundation for what would develop into Buddhism.
Over the next few centuries, Buddhism began to spread beyond India. The thoughts and philosophies of Buddhists became diverse, with some followers interpreting ideas differently than others.”History
Could this be how Buddhism became a religion?
But the question right now would be… Can Buddhism be without religion, be secular?
The usual suspects or proponents of secular Buddhism or presenting Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a religion would be American neuroscientist Sam Harris and British author Stephen Batchelor.
Known for his controversial stand against religion, and as an atheist, Sam Harris has written many books and articles that challenges religion.
In his article, Killing The Buddha, the opening paragraph is enough to get your heart rate up.
“Kill the Buddha,” says the old koan. “Kill Buddhism,” says Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, who argues that Buddhism’s philosophy, insight, and practices would benefit more people if they were not presented as a religion.”
Let me take you to the point. Sam Harris basically challenges and also puts down superstition or in my words, groundless beliefs that are not proven.
“This is not to say that Buddhism has nothing to offer the world. One could surely argue that the Buddhist tradition, taken as a whole, represents the richest source of contemplative wisdom that any civilization has produced.
The wisdom of the Buddha is currently trapped within the religion of Buddhism. Even in the West, where scientists and Buddhist contemplatives now collaborate in studying the effects of meditation on the brain, Buddhism remains an utterly parochial concern. While it may be true enough to say (as many Buddhist practitioners allege) that “Buddhism is not a religion,” most Buddhists worldwide practice it as such, in many of the naive, petitionary, and superstitious ways in which all religions are practiced. Needless to say, all non-Buddhists believe Buddhism to be a religion—and, what is more, they are quite certain that it is the wrong religion.”Killing The Buddha
And he goes on to put down religious dogmatism, especially what he hints at as ridiculous superstitions, until he gives a nod at Buddhism for its similarity to science.
“For the fact is that a person can embrace the Buddha’s teaching, and even become a genuine Buddhist contemplative (and, one must presume, a buddha) without believing anything on insufficient evidence. The same cannot be said of the teachings for faith-based religion. In many respects, Buddhism is very much like science. One starts with the hypothesis that using attention in the prescribed way (meditation), and engaging in or avoiding certain behaviors (ethics), will bear the promised result (wisdom and psychological well-being). This spirit of empiricism animates Buddhism to a unique degree. For this reason, the methodology of Buddhism, if shorn of its religious encumbrances, could be one of our greatest resources as we struggle to develop our scientific understanding of human subjectivity.”Killing The Buddha
While he continues with his radical lecture about the problem of religion, and how problematic religious associations are with “genuine truths,” here’s my proposal in distinguishing the difference between approaching Buddhism as a philosophy and religion, without dissing either:
Study the literature: Texts by the Buddha; scribed by his followers, commentaries by scholars, courses, and articles with the objective of finding out how the information relates to us and how we can use it (to live happy, fulfilled and successful lives — my quest).
Faith in Buddha or Buddhas’s teachings as the driving force in one’s Dharma practice, studying the literature with the objective to
1) To not be reborn in the lower realms of hell, craving spirits and animal
2) Attain nirvana — be freed from sansara: self-perpetuating cycle of suffering
3) Attain enlightenment with a bigger motivation: for the sake of all sentient beings, in order to help all be liberated from sansara as well
Using logic and proof to explore the possibilities of the concept of the supernatural and afterlife
Belief in the metaphysics; supernatural & afterlife
Using a scientific, logical, craftsman’s approach where one test the ideas, experiment with the method for ourselves, to see what really works (for us to live happy, fulfilled and successful lives — my quest).
Blessings, prayers, chantings, rites & rituals
That’s my take.
However, it may be worthwhile to note that it’s not a hard and fast separation. One could practice Buddhism as a religion, but still approach and utilise its philosophical aspects.
Conclusion: So What?
It’s been one hell of a challenging article to write, and this is not the end of exploring Buddhism without religion, whether it’s radical or practical, it’s only the beginning, as part of my quest.
It is radical to some, practical to some, and I think it’s both.
That Buddhism can be both a religion and a philosophy, and it can be radical and practical, depending on who’s looking at it.
Now that we’ve covered
- Terminology: Buddhism, Buddha, Dharma, Dharma practice, Buddhist philosophy
- Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?
- Separating philosophy from religion
A couple of things struck me really hard.
Buddhism as a religion with its own metaphysical system of beliefs; in reincarnation, deities and so on, is based on a rigorous and intricate philosophical approach founded by a prince a long time ago.
Just like science, successors to his field of study continued inquiring the methodology he left behind.
Sure enough, some approach Buddhism entirely in faith, of Buddha as the central figure of worship, but Buddhism offers more than just blind faith and dogma.
Recall the three tests.
The historical Buddha invites us to engage in logical and rational discourse and experimentation of the ideas and methodology he once presented.
According to him, he is awakened. According to the records left behind, they claim he is awakened.
The question is, how would you know if that’s true?
And… so what if it’s true?
You can choose to believe based on scriptural authority and just believe as is, or do your part.
You may not want to be awakened, or become enlightened, so how far would you go with the ideas and methodology presented?
What’s the premise of your experiment?
That’s a question for me, as I continue on my quest, to find out what and how things really work, if and how we can extract, adapt and contextualise the ideas and concepts from Buddhist philosophy to live a happy, fulfilled and successful life.