What is Buddhism? Is it a religion, a worldview, a philosophy, a way of life, a spiritual path? Does it even exist?
One way of answering ‘what is Buddhism?’ would be to say that Buddhism is one of largest and most influential religious traditions in the world, sharing with Christianity and Islam the vision of spreading to the whole of humanity rather than being limited to a particular ethnic or national group. In the nineteenth century it was estimated that Buddhism was a major influence on 40% of the world’s population. Even after the upheavals of the twentieth century, especially the adoption of non-religious Marxist/Maoist ideologies in China and several other countries where Buddhism was previously important, it is claimed by most sources (such as Wikipedia, adherents.com, worldpopulation.com) that there are about 500-535 million adherents, or somewhere between 7-10% of the world’s population. An alternative view is that there could be really more like 1.6 billion or 22%, mainly reliant on counting much larger numbers of Chinese people as Buddhists, and counting people who include some Buddhist practices in their lives (buddhaweekly.com). Perhaps the figure is somewhere between the two, and of course, it depends on who you count as a Buddhist and the methods of collecting the data.
Another way of answering this would be to query whether there is even such a thing as ‘Buddh-ism’, whether it is correct to classify it as a religion or religious tradition, and whether it is possible to separate it out from other traditions. Many contemporary scholars consider that the idea of ‘religions’ as clearly defined separate belief systems is a Western notion dating back to the eighteenth or nineteenth century and thus that the idea of something called ‘Buddh-ism’ is an invention of Western scholars. Given that many Buddhist countries were colonised by Western powers, this means that accounts read by Westerners were first written by or for the foreign rulers. However, as the colonised (especially indigenous elites) were not just passive recipients of labels given by others, but joined in the process of definition with their own agenda, it might be better to say that ‘Buddh-ism’ as most people imagine it, and many textbooks describe it, is a product of the colonial encounter. For example, in the UK, there is a tendency to see Theravada Buddhism as the more mainstream because of British involvement with Sri Lanka, and of Buddhism as rational, playing down the more ritual or mystical elements, because of the efforts of Buddhist modernisers in Sri Lanka. Many Buddhists would prefer to talk about the Dharma/Dhamma or truth about the way things are rather than an ‘ism’. Some Theravada Buddhists would distinguish between Buddhamarga ‘the way of the Buddha’ and Buddhasasana, Buddhism as an institution, the latter subject to the problems of the human condition. A helpful phrase from leading scholar Richard Gombrich (1996:7) is ‘Buddhism is not an inert object, it is a chain of events’ (which fits in well with Buddhist teaching). Having said all this, in this essay, in spite of the issues above, the term ‘Buddhism’ continues to be used but only for convenience. This is quite a Buddhist approach to take.
Whether Buddhism is a religion depends on what you mean by ‘religion’. If ‘religion’ is a Western category as argued above, it is easy to see that the label might not fit an ‘Eastern’ tradition, and if ‘religion’ (as some argue) has negative image, it is easy to see that people might prefer another label. If religion is modelled narrowly on Christianity – centred on belief in God, one sacred text, salvation through faith – then Buddhism doesn’t really fit. Calling Buddhism a philosophy sounds both more rational and more sophisticated, but perhaps ignores much of Buddhism as lived in practice. The historical Buddha himself refused to discuss many ‘philosophical’ questions, stressing the need to get on with practice. In contrast, ‘way of life’ stresses that it is not some theoretical ‘ism’, but a practical, ethical lifestyle (but many – if not all – other traditions can also be found saying that they are ‘not a religion but a way of life’). For some people ‘spirituality’ has a more positive feel than ‘religion’, suggesting a more personal, experiential, meditative awareness than an organised bureaucracy, and there is a common stereotype that ‘Eastern’ traditions are more ‘spiritual’ than ‘Western’ religions, but this is a stereotype, and ignores the institutional, political, and social aspects of the tradition. Some contemporary Buddhists have attempted to strip away the ‘religious trappings’ of Buddhism (such as metaphysical beliefs, myths, deities, rituals, even beliefs in any life after death) and recast it as a practical secular philosophy or way of life that minimises suffering for all (though the division between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ is also a product of ‘Western’ thought). However, if a wider, vaguer and more flexible view of the label ‘religion’ is taken, without the centrality of God, then Buddhism does seem to have similar concerns to other religious worldviews.
What does it mean to call Buddhism a worldview, whether labelled religious or not (or neither or both)? In the most general sense, ‘worldview’ refers to an overall approach to life. But ‘worldview’, like ‘religion,’ is another term that means different things to different people. It can mean the intellectual or cognitive ideas, teachings and beliefs of a tradition, put together in a systematic way by scholars within the tradition. Buddhism does have these, but they are diverse, and do not form a single ‘ism’, and many Buddhists would not see the teachings (Dharma/Dhamma) as ‘beliefs’ or ‘views’ (in the sense of opinions) but the truth (Dharma/Dhamma) or ‘right view’. It can also mean something much wider, including emotions, experience, ethical and ritual practice, sense of identity, and the Buddhist tradition includes these too. It can mean an ‘institutional’ worldview, so would refer to the official versions of teachings, ethical expectations, approved practices, definitions of membership, or views on contemporary issues put forward by accepted authorities within the tradition. Buddhism has these too, but they are many and varied, and in any case, individuals and smaller groups identifying with a particular institution do not always accept or live by the whole ‘package’. ‘Worldview’ then can be communal so that instead of talking about one Buddhist worldview, we should talk about worldviews plural for the many different Buddhist groups. Our worldviews are also personal, so we might talk about the worldview of an individual, in which Buddhist ideas, values, practices and identity might form a major or just a contributory part alongside other influences. ‘Worldview’ also can be used in a narrow sense to mean just views about the ‘world’ or cosmos, rather than other aspects of human experience, or to refer to the taken-for-granted assumptions of any particular society – so that some might talk about gods and spirits (both good and evil, such as the tempter Mara) being part of the ‘worldview’ (it might be called a ‘mythological worldview’) at the time of the Buddha, but not generally accepted in contemporary Western society.
One of the problems with the Western notion of religion (or worldview) is the idea that they are separate and distinct, whereas in the ‘Dharmic’ religions with origins in India, the boundaries between traditions are (or perhaps were, in the light of relatively recent attempts at ‘fundamentalist’ purity) much less defined than in Western thought. This is illustrated by the story of the Nepali who answered ‘yes’ when asked they were Hindu or Buddhist. This is not just because as Buddhism spread it did not insist that people gave up their previous beliefs and customs, so that local deities still feature in practices, but that elements that have later been separated out as ‘Hindu’ are present from the beginning – such as the deities Brahma and Indra who are said to have persuaded the Buddha to teach. There are many aspects of Buddhism that could be said to be part of a ‘shared Indian worldview’ and can also be found in what have become labelled as ‘Hinduism’, ‘Jainism’ or ‘Sikhism’ – traditional cosmologies, the idea of samsara or many lives, ideas of karma (results of actions), the problem of delusion and the aim of liberation. The historical figure who has become known as ‘the Buddha’ lived at a particular time and place, and scholars have pointed out a shared heritage of what later became viewed as separate ‘religions’ in what has been labelled ‘shramana culture’, the ferment of ideas, values and practices of groups and individuals who renounced both everyday life and the institutional religion of the time and sought spiritual liberation, generally through ascetic practices.