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Buddhism - Religion or Philosophy?

(21/4/2000)

Is Buddhism a religion?

The way I see it, there are two kinds of religion in the world - belief-based religions, and practice-based religions.

Both kinds involve belief and practice, but the difference is quite fundamental. In a belief-based religion, the core beliefs are taken very seriously indeed, and the religious practice is used as a means to strengthen and develop those beliefs. In a practice-based religion on the other hand, it is the practice that is primary, and although beliefs are present, they are seen as a means to an end - as something to strengthen and develop the practice.

In the West, we are most familiar with belief-based religions - Christianity being the prime example. For Christians, God is seen to have real, objective existence. If anyone ceases to believe this, then they will (probably) cease to think of themselves as Christian.

In Buddhism, belief in deities varies depending on the particular tradition. Zen Buddhism is quite deity-free, whereas Tibetan Buddhism involves belief in several deities.

Even in the Tibetan tradition though, a deity is seen as a means to an end. For example, the practice of devotion is central to the Tibetan tradition. (Why? - Because it is a state in which the heart and mind are totally open and receptive.) The object of your devotion is less important than the devotion itself. Nevertheless, it really helps to have something - or someone - to direct your devotion towards.

Is the Dalai Lama a deity? Well yes, but not in the sense that a Christian would understand the word - and perhaps not in the sense that a Chinese Communist would understand the word. 20th Century state Communism has been very much a belief-based religion. People have killed and died in their millions over points of Communist ideology.

Buddhism is a religion, but a practice-based one.



Copyright 2000 Paul Mackilligin