The question of whether Buddhism is a philosophy or religion can be answered depending on how people define religion and the technicalities. There has been a common debate among people especially those from the West saying that Buddhism is a way of life. Different people view Buddhism differently. There are those who believe it is s religion and others who firmly believe it is a philosophy. Some of these views are casual while others are very meticulous about them. There are people who have done research to find out what it really is by looking at the technicalities and details and even written books on the same. They look at how things are run by Buddhists specifically to tell if it is a religion or a philosophy.
Buddhism as a philosophy
Philosophy is commonly defined as a rational investigation of principles and beliefs of knowledge and conduct (Deleuze & Guattari, 1994). In this regard, Buddhism can be considered as a philosophy because it has a system of the afterlife. The teachings of Buddha are called Dhamma. Dhamma refers to the truth and these teachings encourage the followers to live by them (Williams Tribe & Wyne, 2012). They also emphasize the importance of adhering to moral principles and personal practice. The purpose of the teaching is to gain understanding which puts one on a path of enlightenment. Moreover, the best way to end ignorance is understanding which makes it more a philosophy than a religion. It is used as a guide for a good life now and in the afterlife.
The five precepts by Buddha are more like a set of guidelines people should follow for good lives on this and the next life. The teachings provide benefits like freedom from animosity, suspicion, and danger among others (Williams Tribe & Wyne, 2012). However, the karmic consequences he promises if a person chooses to disobey the rules makes it less of philosophy and more of religion.
The Buddha taught about life in a way that could be associated with religion however, his mantra was Buddhism is how one practices and not what one knows.
Buddhism as a religion
Most people across the world consider Buddhism as a religion. The dictionary meaning of religion is as having belief in truth beyond that which can be explained. Buddhism has religious aspects in its doctrines and that is why most people consider it so.
Buddha did have metaphysical teachings of reality which were associated with religion. He discussed several aspects of the afterlife as well as different realms of existence (Williams 2008). However, he did stress that practice is more important than listening to his teachings. The thirty-one realms that Buddha taught about maintain that one can be reborn after dying. This is heard from many of his sermons and reference to supernatural powers. It is also indicated in his famous discourse called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. People who consider Buddhism a philosophy overlook these teachings since they are considered not to be useful. However, they are more associated with religion which makes Buddhism a religion as opposed to a way of life.
Some of the questions addressed by Buddha in regard to society are similar to religious teachings. A good example is the law of Karma which he used to explain the unfairness of life. The question of why there are differences between people and the unfairness of the world was asked in the Cula-kammavibhanga Sutta where Buddha explains the famous doctrine on why life is so unfair (Williams 2008). Buddha also talks about fetters that prevent one from achieving enlightenment and he mostly talks about clinging to rituals and rules (Williams 2008). The fetters are namely; attachment to rites and rituals, belief in a self, sensory desire, doubt and uncertainty, desire for physical existence, ill-will, desire for physical rebirth, lust for rebirth in a formless realm, desire for existence in a formless realm, ignorance, conceit, and restlessness.
Religion statisticians prefer to classify Buddhism as a religion as opposed to a philosophy. This is because it is easier to explain it as a religion as opposed to as a philosophy. Plus, it serves an almost similar use to other religions in the world making it easier to be called so. Most argue that Buddhism can be classified as a religion when emphasis is put on a sequence of everyday rituals that are practiced the same way. However, there are no articles of faith and what is interpreted religiously are the deities found in the higher realms of existence according to Buddhist cosmology.
The debate is legitimate with both sides having their own reasonable argument to support their claim. The Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta, however, pointed out that Buddhism should push people to focus more on practicing the doctrines personally as opposed to trying to find out whether it is above any kind of supernatural concept or knowledge. I would say that since Buddhism is involved in the enlightenment and understanding the nature of life and existence, it can be called a philosophy or a way of life.
Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1994). What is philosophy?. Columbia University Press.
Williams, P. (2008). Mahayana Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations. Routledge.
Williams, P., Tribe, A., & Wynne, A. (2012). Buddhist thought: A complete introduction to the Indian tradition. Routledge.
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