Last 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).
The 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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