BAD NEWS: Buddhism is Not a Religion, Here’s Why

BadNewsLast week a whole bunch of my Buddhist friends shared an article they were very excited about called It Needs Saying: Buddhism is Not a Philosophy, Science, Psychotherapy or Culture. It is a Religion by David Brazier. It turns out one of the major reasons David Brazier feels this needs saying is because he just put out a book called Buddhism is a Religion: You Can Believe It. Which is fine. I do promotional stuff like this when I put out a new book too.

Within Western Buddhism you find people who say Buddhism is a religion and people who say it is not. I’m one of the ones who say it is not a religion.

Which is not to say I disagree with everything in Brazier’s article. In fact, I really only take issue with his conclusion that it is necessary to categorize Buddhism as a religion. He says that, “we should acknowledge that it is more than merely an expression of modernity using elements of Asian terminology,” which I agree with. But then follows up by saying, “The most forceful way of doing this is to acknowledge that it is more than a way of life, more than a philosophy, more important and profound than a mere cultural artifact–that it is a religion.” I’m not so sure. Although I do kind of see his point.

In Europe in the Middle Ages it became necessary to divide certain areas of human experience, endeavor, and inquiry into specific categories. Before that time we mixed all forms of knowledge together. We didn’t have philosophy, mathematics, ethics, science, politics, religion… it was all just knowledge.

The problems came when the Catholic Church began to dominate European society just as science was starting to make important discoveries about the world. These scientific discoveries were often at odds with what the Bible taught. Lots of scientists suffered because the Church declared their findings to be heresy. But more importantly, society as a whole suffered because the Church could not allow these heretical discoveries to be put into service to make life better. Even the Church leaders could see that, although to openly admit it would also be heresy.

The solution was to categorize what the Church taught as “religion” and what scientists discovered as “science.” That way the Church could maintain its dominance in the sphere of religion while allowing scientists to work in a separate area. Nobody would have to be burned at the stake anymore and everybody – including the Church – got flush toilets and electricity. Hooray!

But there was never any Buddhist Church who sought to dominate social and political life throughout Asia, so there was no need to create a special category for Buddhism to restrict itself to. It was only when Western people encountered Buddhism that they saw a need to fit it into one of their categories. Thus the ongoing debate about whether Buddhism is a religion, or a philosophy, or a science, or a parlor game or what have you.

I agree with Mr. Brazier that Buddhism is not philosophy, science, psychotherapy, or culture. I just don’t see why it must therefore be a religion.

His point appears to me to be that unless we see Buddhism as a religion we will have to reduce it to one of these other categories and therefore miss out on important aspects of what it has to offer. Like me, he is concerned with movements that try to slice one aspect of Buddhism away from the rest and deal with that aspect on the basis of one of our other established categories. For example, taking the aspects of Buddhism that resemble psychology, treating them in terms established for the Western designation “psychology” and then ignoring the rest as irrelevant.

In my view that’s the major mistake of the Mindfulnessâ„¢ movement. They treat Buddhist meditation techniques as if they were forms of psychological therapy. But since they’re dealing with a science, they cannot include all the other stuff that goes along with traditional Buddhist meditation practice, especially when that stuff starts to look religious.

We have a long and well-established tradition in Western society of maintaining a very strict and rigid separation between matters of science and matters of religion. Mixing these two areas is scary because in our society that tends to lead to bad things. Even in the 21st century we still have to be very wary of this because it still makes us kind of crazy. See, for example, things like Creation Science. Stuff like that seems weird and backwards because it harks back to a bygone era before we had established this strict separation.

The difficulty I see is that the European-created category of religion is very problematic when applied to Buddhism. All of our Western religions require a belief system that views the so-called “spiritual” aspects of life as more fundamental and important than the so-called “material” aspects of life. In India, during Buddha’s lifetime, this same division also existed. What we now call “Hinduism” (another European designation) tended to view human beings as consisting of a spiritual substance called atman that was eternally separate from our material bodies and the material world.

When he first started his quest, the Buddha pursued a few different practices based on this premise. He was able to access very high levels of spiritual attainment. But he was not convinced that this was the way to go. Neglecting the needs of the body in order to strengthen the spirit left him weak and unhealthy. He saw very clearly that body and mind were not two different things, but instead were two manifestations of one undivided reality that was neither spirit nor matter but included – yet transcended – both.

If we insist on categorizing Buddhism as a religion I’m concerned we may want to slot it into a category that overrides even the category called “religion” – that category we call “spirituality.”

When I say this, though, I think I just end up confusing a lot of people. I think it’s very hard for us to go beyond the categories we have established. If Buddhism is not spirituality, they say, then what is it? It’s got to fit into one of the established categories!

But what if it doesn’t? Can we be open to the possibility that Buddhism may not fit into any of our established categories? Is it possible it might not fit into philosophy, science, psychotherapy, culture, or religion, or spirituality – or indeed any of the categories we’ve created?

I don’t like calling Buddhism a religion because I think that’s far too limiting. But whenever I say this, I also remember a scene from a British TV comedy film called Bad News Tour. Bad News Tour is a lot like This is Spinal Tap in that they’re both fictional fake documentaries – what they now call “mockumentaries” – about touring heavy metal bands (they were made almost simultaneously, but Bad News Tour got released later making it look as if it was an imitation of This is Spinal Tap).

BadNews2The band Bad News is so metal it’s painful. Yet their leader insists that they are not just a heavy metal band. The rest of the band vehemently disagrees. This disagreement climaxes with the leader trying to placate their lead guitarist by shouting, “OK! We’re heavy metal! Heavy metal!! HEAVY METAL!!”

So maybe one of these days I’ll be forced to break down and shout, “OK! It’s a religion! A religion! A RELIGION!!” just to keep everyone happy that it fits into the category they prefer. Even though, like the leader of Bad News, I think it’s “more subtle than that.”

I feel like the problem is precisely the same as Bad News’ problem. People sometimes feel lost unless they can categorize things. Maybe, among our available categories, “religion” is the one that fits Buddhism least badly. I was never comfortable with the old “it’s not a religion, it’s a philosophy” argument because I felt like it fit even worse into the category  of philosophy than it did into the category of religion. And it’s certainly not a kind of psychology or therapy. So, OK, maybe if we really have to shove it into one of those categories, religion is the one we are forced to go for as being the least bad of our available choices.

But, really, it’s more subtle than that.


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76 Responses

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  1. drocloc
    drocloc June 15, 2015 at 12:22 pm |


    Buddhism is a healing art . . . or Buddhism is not a healing art.^^

  2. Yoshiyahu
    Yoshiyahu June 15, 2015 at 12:34 pm |

    This reminds of of Maimodines and his insistence that God can only be thought of in terms of negatives. God, being God, is beyond our abilities of comprehension and abilities to explanation. So we can’t ever talk about God in the positive. We can only talk about what God is NOT. We rule things out without ever making the mistake of limiting God by claimin to know what God IS. So God does not have a body, God does not have space, God isn’t born and doesn’t die, etc.

  3. Kobutsu
    Kobutsu June 15, 2015 at 1:54 pm |

    It is very dangerous to attempt to redefine Buddhism as “not a religion”…. During the years I was teaching Zen in American prisons, I had to vigorously and tirelessly advocate for the recognition of Buddhism AS a religion in order to enable prisoners to take part in congregate zazen practice while incarcerated. Religious practice is protected under the First Amendment of The United States Constitution…. non-religious practice isn’t….. be very careful what you wish for.

    1. DarrinRice
      DarrinRice June 15, 2015 at 4:09 pm |

      This is a very valid point from the standpoint of the way non-profits work in the USA. Without this designation it would be more difficult for Sangha’s to have tax free status which would cut down on donations.

    2. sri_barence
      sri_barence June 15, 2015 at 4:16 pm |

      @Kobutsu: Actually, “non-religious practice” is protected as free speech under the First Amendment. But prisoners don’t enjoy the same Constitutional protections as the rest of us. How did you make your argument to the authorities at the prison?

  4. ichabod801
    ichabod801 June 15, 2015 at 2:26 pm |

    When I took a Theories of Religion class in college, we had a group project to find and defend a definition of religion. We chose something like “a social institution with rituals centered around a super-human being.” There was a Mahayana Buddhist in the class who got really upset with our definition, because it meant he didn’t have a religion. I thought this was odd, because what we had set was that he was not a part of a social institution with rituals centered around a super-human being, which he agreed with. The point is you have to be clear about what your definition is. We were using one and he was using another and offense ensued. These days I think of religion as “a social institution with rituals centered around beliefs that cannot be objectively proven.” As with the previous definition, some Buddhism fits the definition, and some doesn’t.

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot June 16, 2015 at 12:24 pm |

      “Institution” is questionable. What about tribal religion, which may not have a priesthood, but “everybody knows” how to practice it?

      I’ve been wrestling with trying to formulate a good definition. Part of the problem is that religion is more a dimension of human consciousness that is concerned with individual and social relations with basic, ultimate realities, and so is hard to formulate as a cultural entity, because its roots transcend culture.

  5. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon June 15, 2015 at 2:32 pm |

    My first question about this article was “Who the fuck is David Brazier?”
    A quick Google search revealed that he sometimes goes by the alias of “Dharmavidya” and appears to be the leader of some Pureland sect that he seems to have invented with a couple of friends (accomplices? devotees?) back in 1998.

    So I can see why he says that he fervently believes that Buddhism is a religion. Even the legitimate sects of Pureland Buddhism meet all of the criteria for just about any definition of religion.

    1. The Grand Canyon
      The Grand Canyon June 15, 2015 at 2:44 pm |

      Coincidentally, yesterday I found this entertaining video.
      Hare Krishna Brainwashing Debate with Ted Patrick (the “father of deprogramming”) versus Hridayananda Das Goswami

      Is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness a religion or a cult?
      You be the judge.

  6. Rehn
    Rehn June 15, 2015 at 2:55 pm |

    As was discussed above, it all depends on the definition that you give religion. If that definition is based purely on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, of course it won’t fit. But then again, Native American religions won’t fit either. But broadening the definition will allow for more inclusivity. People are simply afraid of the religion moniker, and I’m not exactly sure why. But because of it, the term “spirituality” was coined for some forms of religion. I’m spiritual not religious. I have no idea what that means. Again, what is the definition. It comes down to–things that I don’t like are religious and things that I do like are spiritual. Let’s get over our fear of religion and broaden the definition. And move on. Buddhism is not so special that it needs its own category. It is simply another way of making meaning in the world. One that I practice .

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot June 16, 2015 at 12:29 pm |

      Mostly agree. In fact, I might not have written what I wrote above had I read this first.

      But I would mildly take issue with Buddhism being just another way of making meaning. A good deal of it is concerned with deconstructing meaning.

  7. Mumbles
    Mumbles June 15, 2015 at 3:14 pm |

    Some think the word’s origin is the Latin religo, “to bind,” which recalls yoga, or “yoke.”

    When you identify with something, like a particular label, you are “bound” to it.

  8. JP
    JP June 15, 2015 at 3:18 pm |

    The problems came when the Catholic Church began to dominate European society just as science was starting to make important discoveries about the world. These scientific discoveries were often at odds with what the Bible taught. Lots of scientists suffered because the Church declared their findings to be heresy. But more importantly, society as a whole suffered because the Church could not allow these heretical discoveries to be put into service to make life better.

    Um, the Catholic Church was dominating Europe for a long time before science “started” to make important discoveries about the world, at least if you’re referring to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In fact, one could argue that it was the lessening of the RCC’s hold over Western and Central Europe (thanks to the Reformation) that allowed the scientific revolution to really take off during the Enlightenment period.

    Maybe you’re referring to the Counter-reformation or something, but the above-quoted statement otherwise doesn’t really bear much resemblance to historical reality.

  9. Conrad
    Conrad June 15, 2015 at 3:29 pm |

    I don’t really get the idea that Buddhism isn’t a religion. Especially when a guy who was ordained as a Zen monk says it’s not. I mean, seriously. If you have religious orders and ordination and priests and rituals that can be traced back through lineages thousands of years old, you are part of a religion. Not wanting to call it that doesn’t make it any less so. Just because you really like punk music doesn’t mean you’re not part of an established religion.

    Now, I’d kind of wish Buddhism weren’t a religion, but wishful thinking doesn’t make it so. I’m pretty much done with religion myself, and I like the idea of just attending to “spiritual” matters. But that doesn’t change the historical nature of Buddhism. And so I’m not really sure I could call myself a Buddhist, because I just have no interest in the religious side of these things. I think they even make a lot of sense for all kinds of reasons, but they don’t make sense to me.

    1. Yoshiyahu
      Yoshiyahu June 17, 2015 at 11:52 am |

      Well, if you are into Spiritual shit, then don’t waste your time with Buddhism, because you’d have to believe that there’s a separation of Spirit and Matter, and Buddhism denies this. For me, it makes more sense to think of Buddhism as a religion, but calling it a spiritual practice is just silly.

      1. Inge
        Inge June 19, 2015 at 8:14 pm |

        I thought Buddhism doesn’t care if you practice another religion? It doesn’t interfere with them. There is no right or wrong. I practice both spirituality and Buddhism. In Buddhism there are mystics, astrology, etc.

        We love to argue over trivial bullshit. It sounds like a lot of egos to me. Although we love to put things in a tidy box and label. Calling Buddhism a religion certainly helps tax exemption status and getting it into institutions, like prisons. But in the end who cares? Do what resonates with you and forget what the other guy thinks about it.

  10. sri_barence
    sri_barence June 15, 2015 at 3:59 pm |

    Something is wrong with the comments on this blog! Everyone is making serious, reasonable arguments for their point of view. Where is the name-calling and ego bashing? I want my Zen to have some Hardcore, dammit!

    Anyway, I’m not sure Zen is a religion, and I’m not sure it isn’t. As a so-called ‘Zen Student,’ I believe in the practice of zazen, despite the fact that I can’t prove it has any actual worth. The highly respected Kodo Sawaki famously said zazen isn’t good for anything, and I’m OK with that. And I’m not OK with that!

    In the Kwan Um school, we do lots of bowing and chanting, so we’ve got your basic ritual stuff, not to mention some goofy ceremonies for this or that. And people believe that sort of stuff is good to do. So it is a religion.

    But the teachers all remind us to “be a lamp unto ourselves.” In other words, we shouldn’t cling to scriptures or even to the well-intentioned words of our local Zen teachers. In interviews (dokusan for you Japanese fans), the teachers often ask, “what color is the floor?” or “what are you doing right now?” This is pointing to basic everyday experience, which is “nothing special.” So it isn’t a religion.

    Confused? Go drink some tea. Then sit down and shut up, for Pete’s sake.

    1. Inge
      Inge June 19, 2015 at 8:17 pm |

      I prefer coffee or a nice green smoothie. But I get what you mean and I agree. Chill out already!

  11. Sanjuro
    Sanjuro June 15, 2015 at 4:03 pm |

    In Japan alone, we have 13 major sects of Buddhism. I wonder if it’s futile to label what is or what is not “Buddhism”?

    It’s kinda like the White House Banner story, no?

    1. Mumbles
      Mumbles June 15, 2015 at 4:27 pm |

      Fifty Shades of Buddhism!

      [Comments need to be 1,000,000 characters or else -no more kyosaku!]

  12. DarrinRice
    DarrinRice June 15, 2015 at 4:22 pm |

    I totally agree with Brad that “classifications” do not work with Buddhism. We are dealing with ultimate reality here which transcends all words/labels. How is it possible that a label like religion would be able to describe that which is indescribable? Why is is easy for Brad to write things like this?

    Brad is not a part of an organization that functions in samsara so he can make these statements and it will not have an effect on an organisation that he is a part of. Others have to be very careful what they say or run the risk of losing their non-profit status. This is not a criticism, I’m just making a point about the financial situation most Buddhist organizations function within, especially in the USA.

    I would say it’s another example of the two truths. Brad is speaking of Ultimate Truth whereas organizations must function in Relative Truth.

    1. mtto
      mtto June 15, 2015 at 6:26 pm |

      Brad is the the Zen Teacher and a member of the board of Dogen Sangha Los Angeles, a 501c3 nonprofit charity.

  13. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 15, 2015 at 5:11 pm |

    Hey, Zafu:

    “Human beings have an innate need to bond, and when we’re happy and healthy, we will bond with each other, we will connect with other human beings. When we can’t do that because we’re isolated, or beaten down, or traumatised, we will bond with something that gives us some sense of relief. That could be gambling, it could be pornography or cocaine. But we will bond with something that gives us a sense of meaning.”

    (from Johann Hari on the War on Drugs, here (don’t forget to right-click and open a new tab, Apple users):

    Or it could be religion that we bond with, because we’re isolated, or beaten down, or traumatised.

    But the teachings of Gautama the Shakyan regarding his way of life, the meditative states, and the happiness associated with the meditative states, these I feel have more to do with science. Reading the things he said on these subjects, or what historians agree is the closest thing we have to what he said on these subjects, I am inspired to believe that he performed an experiment with his life, and felt that his results were reproducible.

    Turns out to require the experience of a certain necessity, I think, to reproduce his results. For some the monastery provides that necessity, for others the monastery is simply an escape from isolation, from being beaten down, from personal trauma; for these latter folks, the monastery is perhaps an addiction.

    The opium of the masses, that sounds familiar.

  14. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 15, 2015 at 5:12 pm |
    1. The Grand Canyon
      The Grand Canyon June 16, 2015 at 6:21 am |
  15. Greg
    Greg June 15, 2015 at 5:27 pm |

    sri_barence: “Anyway, I’m not sure Zen is a religion, and I’m not sure it isn’t.”

    That works for me, and it’s been a helpful thing to keep in mind over the years.

  16. Dharmavidya
    Dharmavidya June 15, 2015 at 10:08 pm |

    Well, I like this discussion and I agree with most of the comments. Buddhism in its pure essence transcends all worldly categories – sure. Most religions do in their ultimate truth version. Then they have institutions and rituals (even zazen is a ritual) and robes and incense and charitable status and a place to maintain in society and for that there has to be a category and in this case it is religion. Also, why abandon the word “religion” to the other guys so that only they count. Much better to reinvest it with Buddhist meaning. Oh, by the way, I wrote but did not post the original article that people got excited about – it is simply a quotation from the first chapter of the book. Tricycle asked to publish it on their blog. The phrase “It needs saying” is also a quote from the book. – David Brazier

    1. The Grand Canyon
      The Grand Canyon June 16, 2015 at 5:11 am |

      Why do you tell people to chant “Namo Amida Bu” instead of “Namo Amida Butsu” or “Namu Amida Butsu” or “Namo Amituofo” or “Nammo Ayida Fut” or “Namo Amitabhaya” or “Namo Amitabha Buddha”?

  17. Michel
    Michel June 16, 2015 at 12:56 am |

    Religion has always existed, and Cicero, who lived long enough before Christianity not to have been influenced by it, mentioned it. He, however, gave it a definition that does not coincide with what Mumbles mentioned, the “religare” thing (binding) but related it to the verb “religere”, which would be more on the side of “re-reading”, and therefore having more to do with rituals than “belonging”.

    Indeed, the ancient religion of Romans and Greeks (for our cultural world) war more akin to what the Hindu and the Shinto Japanese have. Apart from some specific occasions, you don’t need to go to the temple on a regular basis, but when you feel like it or “need” to. There are a variety of rituals, but they are more of a private thing, with the exception, again, of specific holidays.

    But the monotheistic religions being by their nature totalitarian have kind of changed our perspective on the word. When you read accurately Paul’s Epistles, you realise that he revels in telling you that when he converts someone, that person brings their science books on the public place for burning them. Which makes me suspect that Christianity is responsible for the destruction of most litterature, and especially scientific litterature, at the end of the Pagan era. This suspicion being comforted by what they did in Mexico: they started by burning all the libraries and books which they found there.

    All this to say that yes, if we think of “religion” from the monostheistic influenced point of view, Buddhism isn’t one. And if you think from the Ciceronian point of view (this one comforted by modern philology), it may be one.

  18. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon June 16, 2015 at 4:49 am |

    “I started studying Buddhism when I was in my early twenties in Cambridge. I studied Theravada meditation with a Burmese teacher and Tibetan Buddhism with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Then I met a Zen master. This was Jiyu Kennett Roshi, an English woman who had learnt her Zen in Sojiji Monastery in Japan and was now returning to the West with a mission. I became her disciple for many years… I got many things from my years of study with her, including ordination as a Zen priest, an appreciation of the writings of Eihei Dogen, a profoundly experiential understanding of Soto Zen, and exposure to her implacable conviction that Buddhism is religion… Subsequently I studied with other teachers, Tibetan, Theravada and finally Thich Nhat Hanh. I became a member of his Tiep Hien Order and was greatly inspired by the ideas of socially engaged Buddhism that he promoted. Ideas are one thing and action is another. It proved extremely difficult to get British followers of Tiep Hien to take any serious action of a socially engaged nature. The small number of us who did try formed a distinct group and this later became the core of the Amida Trust… I started attending Pure Land gatherings and connecting with Pure Land priests and teachers. I made visits to Japan… In the meantime, our group in the UK had established a charitable trust to act as a vehicle for our work. This was called Amida Trust. The name was not originally chosen with the intention of designating the organization as Pure Land.”

  19. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon June 16, 2015 at 4:59 am |

    “Amida-shu is inspired by Pure Land teachings and principles, but it is administratively independent. The Order formed under the umbrella of the Amida Trust. However, as Amida-shu and the order grew beyond the UK, they outgrew their parent body. The Order and Shu remain a purely religious fraternity and do not have a bank account. Organisations do, however, get set up as necessary to achieve particular purposes. Thus there is now an Amida (USA) based in Hawaii, an Amida Mosaic in Ontario in Canada, and the Instituto Terapia Zen Internacional, seated in Spain but operating internationally. In some parts of Europe, Pure Land is so unfamiliar that it makes more sense to present it as Zen-plus: in other words, Zen plus nembutsu (nien-fo) chanting.”

  20. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon June 16, 2015 at 5:39 am |

    “This book is difficult to review. The author, especially in the early part of the book, shows a potential for mature insight into the psychological and spiritual failings of most of us, but in the end the book is disappointing and disturbing…
    This book has, however, a disturbing sub-text. Its agenda is really an attempt to appropriate the Pure Land teachings to a naïve and self-generated ‘Western’ sectarian project, an act of appropriation as blatant and misguided as the 19th Century ‘discovery’ of Buddhism…
    (Caroline) Brazier and the very small organization of which she is part reference Honen and Shinran and by association hope to claim legitimacy for their own mish-mash of teachings. They have set up their own forms of ordination, robes, ‘vinaya’, liturgy etc outside of any lineage, and therefore it can only be as an act of appropriation that they use Japanese terms such as ‘Amida’, ‘shu’ and ‘kai’ as parts of their designators.
    The act of appropriation that troubled me most is again, as with so much that is passed off in this book as legitimate, written in such a way as to give false confidence. Brazier quotes from the ‘Larger Sutra’ using a ‘translation we have developed in Amida-shu’ (p288). I should like to know who exactly in the ‘Amida-shu’ has the expertise in Classical Chinese or Sanskrit to produce a new translation of the Sutra. Brazier quotes their version of the 18th Vow of Amida Tathagata and it is simply wrong, being in fact the first half of the 18th Vow with the second half of the 19th Vow pasted on. The new ‘translation’ is wrong according to the translations of both Inagaki Sensei and that of Luis O. Gomez. Brazier must know this since she mentions that she has ‘used’ the translation of Inagaki Sensei.
    The Pure Land teachings given to us by Shakyamuni Buddha and compassionately explained to us by generations of Patriarchs and teachers are not the exclusive property of anyone, but it is illegitimate to claim a new and special understanding when all that is presented is an eclectic, half understood caricature of the teachings.”

  21. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon June 16, 2015 at 5:47 am |

    “What is ITZI (Instituto Terapia Zen International, International Zen Therapy Institute)?
    The welcome page offers a broad statement about the type of organization that ITZI is. We are interested in promoting the principles of Buddhist psychology, Zen Therapy and Amida-shu (sangha members of the Amida Order), particularly following the ideas and writings of David Brazier. ITZI is a network of spiritual organisations, each with its own individual approach. There are members in ten countries so far with a variety of orientations (Pureland, Zen, Tibetan, Theravada, Mindfulness, Generic Spiritual).”

  22. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon June 16, 2015 at 6:03 am |

    “La Ville au Roi is the ancient French name of the home and retreat of David Brazier, author, spiritual teacher, doctor of philosophy, president of el Instituto Terapia Zen Internacional, head of the Amida Order. The term Eleusis alludes to the ancient mystery religions, especially those of the goddesses Artemis, Demeter, Eirene and Aphrodite, who preside, respectively, over nature, cultivation, peace and love.”

    “It’s good to be the king.” – King Louis XVI in Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I

  23. Greg
    Greg June 16, 2015 at 6:22 am |

    My observation (alluded to in the last few comments) is that people prefer Religion to actual practice, whatever the tradition. Religion is an institution where people go for security and to have their beliefs affirmed by some authority. Institutions are organizations whose intent is to perpetuate themselves, often at some cost to their supporters.

    We once had a talk called “Zen and Buddhism” where the speaker talked about Zen practice as Zen practice, and Buddhism as Buddhism. Here’s our practice, and here’s how Buddhism provides a framework for that practice within modern life, culture & history. It’s quite simple – maybe too simple, as people like things to be complicated and mysterious – but there’s no need to make a religion out of it.

  24. Used-rugs
    Used-rugs June 16, 2015 at 6:38 am |

    When you’re dealing with your experience of the Absolute, which falls outside the realm of science, philosophy, and most psychology, then you are dealing with the religious element of life. This is why Mr. Brazier prefers to use the word “religion” which to me is perfectly reasonable. Since you are dealing with religious experience, then why not just call Buddhism a religion?

    I think Brad is being contrarian just for the sake of being contrarian. Didn’t Brad just write a book about God and how the term means an entirely different thing than what we normally think? And now he’s taking issue with Brazier because he wants to use the word “religion” in a slightly more open way. With as little self insight that Brad seems to show sometimes I can see how he might not think that Buddhism is a religion, but if he took that logic a bit further, he’d also might have to admit that he is not really a Zen teacher, a zen monk, or even somebody qualified to talk about Buddhism. Which is probably okay with him because he is so goddamn undefinable and cool.

    1. The Grand Canyon
      The Grand Canyon June 16, 2015 at 8:57 am |

      “When you’re dealing with your experience of the Absolute, which falls outside the realm of science, philosophy, and most psychology, then you are dealing with the religious element of life.”

      While I do not accept the premise of your statement I would also argue that the “experience of the Absolute” “falls outside the realm of” nearly all, if not all, religions. Some sects of Buddhism get closest to it, but even they are just “a finger pointing at the moon,” to coin a phrase.

  25. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 16, 2015 at 9:39 am |

    Thanks for all that enlightening info regarding the source of our debate here, GC.

    “I think some of you who practice zazen here may believe in some other religion, but I don’t mind whatever you believe in. Our practice has nothing to do with some particular religious belief.”

    Excerpt from Shunryu Suzuki lecture 65-12-23 as found on Edited by DC

    There he goes again, that Shunryu, separating practice from belief.

    1. Fred
      Fred June 16, 2015 at 11:05 am |

      “We are interested in promoting the principles of Buddhist psychology, Zen Therapy and Amida-shu (sangha members of the Amida Order), particularly following the ideas and writings of David Brazier”

      ” but it is illegitimate to claim a new and special understanding when all that is presented is an eclectic, half understood caricature of the teachings.”

      Good stuff Mr. Canyon

      1. Fred
        Fred June 16, 2015 at 11:22 am |

        David Brazier isn’t a Buddhist. He’s a philosopher spinning ideas for a purpose, possibly to generate cash and manipulate minds.

  26. Shinchan Ohara
    Shinchan Ohara June 16, 2015 at 5:18 pm |

    An anthropologist from Mars defines religion:

    “Humans dressing in a deliberately unusual way, performing set activities that have no obvious useful purpose, and then acting surprised and offended when you laugh at them.”

    I think that covers them all – and I can’t think of anything that’s NOT a religion that meets the definition.

    1. Mumbles
      Mumbles June 17, 2015 at 4:48 am |
  27. Zafu
    Zafu June 16, 2015 at 5:36 pm |

    I don’t like calling Buddhism a religion because I think that’s far too limiting.
    ~ Brad Warner

    Identification is necessarily limiting, numbnuts. And that’s you’re only problem with calling Buddhism a religion?

    Truth is it doesn’t matter if you don’t like limiting Buddhism, because you do it without even thinking about it. Oh wait, I forgot, you’re a ZEN MASTER! Zen Masta no limits!

    1. Shinchan Ohara
      Shinchan Ohara June 16, 2015 at 5:41 pm |

      But not all identification is equally limiting.

      Buddhism is a little bit more than just a religion.

      You’re SO much more than just a troll.

      1. Zafu
        Zafu June 16, 2015 at 6:29 pm |

        Good point, it serves a purpose to classify me as a troll. Do you even have a choice in the matter? A troll is what I am to you, at least without thinking about it, even though I may be more than a troll.

        See how that works?

        1. Shinchan Ohara
          Shinchan Ohara June 16, 2015 at 6:48 pm |


          [to fill up the required 60 characters, I note that when you wrote ‘that’s you’re only problem’, you should have written ‘that’s your only problem’]

          1. Zafu
            Zafu June 16, 2015 at 8:14 pm |

            So do you dislike yourself for limiting me to a troll? I’m thinking no. So why why should Brad dislike himself for limiting Buddhism to a religion. He shouldn’t, he should just accept that that’s how his mind works.

          2. Shinchan Ohara
            Shinchan Ohara June 16, 2015 at 10:37 pm |

            “So do you dislike yourself for limiting me to a troll?”

            Not at all. In fact, I don’t limit you to a troll. You failed my Turing Test way back, so I limit you to a troll-bot. I chat with you, because I believe the nerds who coded you deserve some test data. I’m hoping they’ll do a better job on troll-bot v2.0

        2. Zafu
          Zafu June 17, 2015 at 12:04 am |

          Version 1.0 seems to be working perfectly, for you.


  28. otaku00
    otaku00 June 17, 2015 at 6:45 am |

    Buddhism is a religion because guys like you call yourselves priests.

  29. Michel
    Michel June 17, 2015 at 8:25 am |

    “Priest” comes from Greek “Presbyter”, which only means “Elder” (hence the “elders” of Mormons, and the “Presbyterian” of the Scottish Church).

  30. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon June 17, 2015 at 8:48 am |

    When did Zen Master Brad
    turn into Jeffrey Dahmer?

    1. The Grand Canyon
      The Grand Canyon June 17, 2015 at 8:50 am |

      Jeffrey Dahmer for camparison

  31. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon June 17, 2015 at 8:53 am |

    Damn! I logged out and now I can’t edit those errors. Just like the old days.

  32. Zafu
    Zafu June 17, 2015 at 9:28 am |

    To reiterate Shinchan’s point, anything can be effectively defined by it’s function or purpose. The purpose of a troll is essentially to annoy bloggers for their own amusement. The essential purpose of religion is to offer meaning. The essential purpose of Buddhism is to offer meaning, so it’s a religion.

    Is there a God? Was Muhammad a real person? Does Buddhism actually lead to the cessation of suffering? None of that actually matters. None of that needs to be true. It doesn’t matter because the only essential purpose of religion is to offer meaning. Buddhism is no different and functions just like any other religion.

    The difficulty I see is that the European-created category of religion is very problematic when applied to Buddhism.
    ~ Brad Warner

    It’s not problematic at all, it’s liberating. Look at what you wrote here:

    The solution was to categorize what the Church taught as “religion” and what scientists discovered as “science.” That way the Church could maintain its dominance in the sphere of religion while allowing scientists to work in a separate area. Nobody would have to be burned at the stake anymore and everybody – including the Church – got flush toilets and electricity. Hooray!

    As far as I know Buddhists never burned witches at the stake. However, some still have a tendency to burn themselves to death. So why are “witches” safer now then they were before the dreaded categories came along?

    The ability to separate these spheres of value doesn’t limit, it liberates. How can you not see that?

    1. The Grand Canyon
      The Grand Canyon June 17, 2015 at 10:08 am |

      I’m not sure if I understand what you wrote. Are you trying to say that the essential purpose of religion is to offer meaning?

  33. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon June 17, 2015 at 10:12 am |

    Why does this message sometimes appear after I post a comment? After the times that it appears I do not have the option of editing the comment.

    Warning: rename(/home/content/98/10537698/html/hardcorezen/wp-content/cache/zencache/cache/https/hardcorezen-info-5581a9b14821e548348154-tmp,/home/content/98/10537698/html/hardcorezen/wp-content/cache/zencache/cache/https/hardcorezen-info) [function.rename]: File exists in /home/content/98/10537698/html/hardcorezen/wp-content/plugins/zencache/includes/share.php on line 1858

    1. Zafu
      Zafu June 17, 2015 at 11:04 am |

      It’s like, your karma, dude.


      1. The Grand Canyon
        The Grand Canyon June 17, 2015 at 11:09 am |

        Are you trying to say that the essential purpose of religion is to offer meaning?

        1. Zafu
          Zafu June 17, 2015 at 11:24 am |

          Nah, say’n karma.

          [retarded letter count requirement…………………]

  34. Used-rugs
    Used-rugs June 17, 2015 at 10:21 am |

    Because religion is such a dirty word and so uncool when applied to Buddhism, would we be happier with calling Zazen a religion, at least for the zennies out there? I know for marketing purposes you’re going to turn off a lot of people by calling Buddhism a religion (and I believe marketing is what this argument is really about anyway) but calling zazen a religion helps to ground that dirty word in something active and concrete. It also avoids some of the useless abstraction and debate which normally comes with throwing around the “R” word. Just a thought.

    1. The Grand Canyon
      The Grand Canyon June 17, 2015 at 11:16 am |

      Calling Zazen a religion would be like calling yoga or Tai Chi a religion.

      Use drugs…
      I finally got that.

      1. Used-rugs
        Used-rugs June 17, 2015 at 11:41 am |

        That’s right. But calling yoga and Tai Chi religions would help make the word “religion” slightly less gag inducing for our modern tastes, because it undermines what we usually think about the word, and that’s a good thing. Brad did something similar in his “God” book. He took a word that is almost universally reviled by modern Buddhist practitioners and made it palatable. I don’t see why the same can’t be done with the word “religion” in regards to Buddhism.

        1. The Grand Canyon
          The Grand Canyon June 17, 2015 at 1:39 pm |

          Sure. And we could say that pizza is a god and eating pizza is a religion. And instead of saying “hello” to greet each other we could say “heil Hitler.” Because words don’t have any more meaning than the barking of dogs. Meow.

          1. Used-rugs
            Used-rugs June 17, 2015 at 5:22 pm |

            That’s right, words are meaningless. And thus, according to Brad, Buddhism has a God but is not a religion.

          2. The Grand Canyon
            The Grand Canyon June 18, 2015 at 4:16 am |

            Anyone who honestly believes that “words are meaningless” does not understand what words are. If a “word” did not have a meaning it would not be a word. It would just be a string of letters, or a mark on a piece of paper, or a sound made by a mouth. These words that you are reading, RIGHT NOW, have meanings and those meanings are necessary to make it possible for you to understand what I am trying to communicate. Cock-a-doodle-doo!

  35. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 17, 2015 at 11:46 am |

    Used-rugs, last I heard Carl Bielefeldt was contending that zazen is a ritual performance, in its own right, which would make it a religion (I suppose).

    Meanwhile, says here that an MAO-B inhibitor along with probably chocolate should make love potion number 9 look like kool-aid:

    “Several studies have shown that PEA is present in cocoa beans and chocolate. Its level increases during fermentation of cocoa and in roasting cocoa beans, with a concentration in the mg per kg range. This led to a widely-touted suggestion that people could increase their brain levels of PEA by eating chocolate, and that this could be linked with falling in love (even nowadays, especially around February 14th). This may have done wonders for chocolate sales, but the rapid metabolism of phenylethylamine by MAO-B will stop this PEA from reaching the brain.”

    (from here)

    Elsewhere, though, I read that PEA is heat-sensitive, so raw beans might be necessary.

    Tha’s intrestin’, as the captain said.

  36. Mumblin Deaf Ro
    Mumblin Deaf Ro June 18, 2015 at 12:06 am |

    The UK courts gave an interesting ruling on the definition of religion in the context of recognising Scientology marriages, citing that the pre-existing definition which referenced the worship of a deity would exclude Buddhism.

    My own teacher (Chan, silent illumination) describes it as a training or practise.

  37. jason farrow
    jason farrow June 19, 2015 at 9:15 pm |

    What Shakyamuni said on creationism. I think it ties in with the 12 links of dependent origination….may be..kinda…idk…

  38. lukeman
    lukeman June 22, 2015 at 10:05 am |

    Many thanks to Brad for this post.

    When I read the post I thought about the plastic nature of language. It is fascinating how the same word can mean different things to different people. Some words work well for some people. For example, I still can’t use the word “God” without gagging. But if a word functions for somebody else, that’s great. I can explore why certain words are attractive or repugnant to me, but that doesn’t mean I will come to any definitive conclusions.

    Regarding the word “religion”, I’m in favor of labeling Buddhism a religion because I think it points in the right general direction. Also, I accept the fact that people need to categorize the various parts of their lives. So maybe “religion” is a starting place for Buddhism, and eventually I’ll get to the point where I can let go of this label?

  39. joewriter
    joewriter May 9, 2016 at 3:02 am |


    Am I missing something, or is there some irony here? I thought Buddhism was not interested in whether God exists or not, or whether it must be registered as a religion in the USA for tax purposes.

    I thought that the point of Buddhism was to free oneself from one’s conditioning, through meditation, (transcending the lower self, or ego), so that you can see things as they really are.

    Then, you will know if Buddhism is a religion or not!

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