Is Buddhism a Religion?

The claim the Buddhism is "not a religion", was made by the present writer in the blog "Buddhist Response to Religious Aggression". This claim has been contested by both Buddhists and non-Buddhists, and this post will revisit this question. Clearly the answer will hinge on the interpretation given to the two terms involved what is understood by "Buddhism" and how "religion" is defined. My critics have not clarified explicitly what they mean by these terms but their position can be inferred from the short comments they have made in rebutting my position.

The reply by Wimal Ediriwira to my blog agrees with many of my other points, but contests the claim that Buddhism is not a religion. The relevant part of his reply runs as follows:

       "I fully support Victor Gunasekara's letter, except for a couple of points, which he has brought from the letters of L Jayasooriya. I do not agree with the fashionable view of many that Buddhism is not a religion but a philosophy. A philosophy is something like Confucianism which is applicable to this life only, and does not accept any previous or subsequent lives.
       "But Buddhism not only considers previous births, it also considers subsequent existences which takes it far beyond mere philosophies and is therefore far more important.
       "The error is just in the shortcoming of the English language which, brought up in the womb of a monotheistic religion could not envisage any religion not believing in a god or gods. To clarify further, Christianity, for example, is not called a 'monotheistic philosophy' but a 'monotheistic religion' exactly because it deals with an existence beyond this current earthly life."

The non-Buddhist position is given by this statement by the Muslim Nyas Abbas (who has provided no end of fun in his interpretations of Buddhism) :

       "Victor wrote a lie like this...... 'The teaching of the Buddha is not a religion as is evident to those who understand the Significance of the Kalama Sutta '
       "I have explained very well that Buddha spoke of a divine religion with concepts such as Heavens, Hellfire, Angels, Satan etc. How can you misguide our readers with such lies. Please write sense without lies."


Clearly both Wimal and Nyas agree that Buddhism is a religion, and broadly for the same reason. Both hold that 'Buddhism' as they understand it requires an unshakable belief in post-mortem existence either in this earth or more usually in non-terrestrial realms like "heavens" and "hells". Such post-mortem existence is guaranteed in Abrahamic religion, the Buddhist position is that such existence is not eternal but could be followed by a indefinite sequence of such existences in various destinations.

It will be recalled that in my original blog I had said that my claim that Buddhism is not a religion "applies to the original teaching of Gotama, not what is practiced in so-called Buddhist countries, including the religion of the Boduhelas". Clearly this admits that what the Boduhelas practice is indeed a religion. So in this sense both Wimal and Abbas are correct, but what I did say is that it does not apply to what I said was 'the original teaching of Gotama'.

Before looking a the question of how we can determine 'the original teaching of Gotama' let us see what the implication of the Boduhela religion are. Some temples in Sri Lanka have vivid depictions of the realms into which those who do good and bad are reborn. In the deva worlds the devas are shown as adorned in finery and jewels and surrounded with charming maidens, clad in silk sarees. It is not explictly stated if men and women in these deva worlds have conjugal relations, but since sensual pleasure is said to be the prime reason for being born there (it is not possible to reach enlightenment while being there) one may presume that they indulge in all manner of sensual pleasure. Indeed these realms provide more avenues for sensual pleasure than found on earth. Compare this with the Islamic paradise where every Muslim man is given 72 dark-eyed virgins (houris) and their sole activity is to fornicate continuously and drink the alcohol provided in abundance. I consider such kind of indulgence utterly repulsive but is the version of heaven in the popular Boduhela religion much different to that in Abrahamic religion (other than the question of eternity)? So while Nyas Abbas is enjoying his houris in the Islamic paradise he may well spare a thought for Wimal who (due to his good kamma) may be sporting himself in a deva realm where the average life span is 250,000 earth years!

The depiction of hell (niraya, apāya) in the popular Boduhela religion is not too different from Nyas' version of Hellfire (except again for the question of eternity). There is even a keeper of Hell (Yama) who is the Buddhist counterpart of Nyas' Iblis or the Christian Satan.

Most people interpret the Dhamma by looking at what is recorded in the Suttas. The Theravāda Canon, which is used in SL, is one of the versions of Buddhist scriptures current in India about the third century BCE when the "āgamas" of schools like the Sarvastivādins were also in existence. All these were maintained orally and they could have been corrupted by the process of handing down from generation to generation. Later on the Mahāyānists introduced even lengthier Sūtras. All these traditions report the Buddha as affirming the existence of non-terrestrial realms, and the doctrine of post-mortem kamma , i.e. the doctrine which says that the action (kamma) may be done in one lifetime but the fruit (vipāka), may occur in a subsequent one.

But the Buddha has given a key to find out which of the sayings attributed to him (or any other teacher) should be believed. This is found in the Kālāma Sutta. In this he says that people should not believe anything simply because it is stated in a holy textual tradition (piṭakasampadāya). The basis of the Wimal-Abbas view is simply that it is stated in a scripture attributed to the Buddha. The Buddha said that what should be believed should be capable of empirical verification by the person accepting that doctrine (the ehipassiko principle). Clearly the Wimal-Abbas view fails this crucial test proposed by the Buddha. They cannot give any evidence that extra-terrestrial realms exist or that kamma operates in a post-mortem way. It simply an instance of blind faith is something said in a text and attributed to a teacher.

Moreover in the Kālāma Sutta the Buddha specifically addresses the question of rebirth and the doctrine of post-mortem kamma. To do this he identifies at least two levels of confidence or solace (assasā) relating to these questions. I will refer to these as the A and B Options and give a standard translation of this part of the Sutta as follows:

A " 'Suppose there is a hereafter and there is a fruit, result, of deeds done well or ill. Then it is possible that at the dissolution of the body after death, I shall arise in the heavenly world, which is possessed of the state of bliss.' This is the first solace found by him.

B " 'Suppose there is no hereafter and there is no fruit, no result, of deeds done well or ill. Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound, and happy, I keep myself.' This is the second solace found by him.

It will be noticed that Option A allows for the existence of non-terrestrial realms and the doctrine of post-mortem kamma, while Option B does not allow for extra-terrestrial realms and the operation of the doctrine of post-mortem kamma. But Option B allows for the kamma theory, only that the fruit of kamma, its vipāka, takes place in this one life that we are certain of and of which we have empirical proof. (These two Options only refer to a good deeds and the Buddha give two other Options relating to bad deeds.)

It will be seen that the Wimal-Abbas position is based on Option A but of course there is no empirical proof of what is stated there. It would not qualify under the requirements of the Kālāma Sutta. Option B is what is compatible with what is known in the rational age in which we live. This is not ruled out by the Buddha. I am in the process of developing a rational version of the Dhamma which is compatible with what the scientific discoveries of mankind basing myself on the key provided in the Kālāma Sutta. This is a mammoth undertaking having to go through hundreds and even thousands of references in the Pali text which will have to be seen in a new rational light. It cannot be undertaken in blogs like the present, and will be published when it is completed.

It must be mentioned that the belief in a succession of existences (saṃsāra) was affirmed by most of the religious sects in the Buddha's day. The Buddha generally adopted much that was traditional if this was useful to his purpose (for instance, to inculcate an ethical way of life) and was not contradictory to his own unique discovery. He did not want to get into unnecessary controversy on metaphysical propositions incapable of proof and not relevant to his discovery. That is why he did not dispute all traditional beliefs. The various states of existence came from the prevailing cosmology which was also affirmed by Indian sages from pre-Buddhist times. These traditional doctrines were useful especially in dealing with uneducated people who in that pre-scientific age had little idea of the nature of universe they inhabited. The error of the Boduhelas is that they adopt the same position in an age in which we know much more about the real nature of the universe.

I may conclude by looking at the definition of 'religion'. Wimal seems to think that religion is one which believes in previous and subsequent lives. My definition of a religion is simpler. It is a belief system that is based on blind faith in something said by a religious teacher, or written down in a holy book. This may involve belief in one or more gods, the existence of many lives, etc. none of which can be proven by objective scientific means. While versions of Buddhism (like that of the Boduhelas) do believe in this sort of thing and so can be classed as religions, the fundamental unique discovery of Gotama does not require blind belief is some thing written in a text. It must be capable of verification, and the Dhamma can be verified in this very life. It is therefore not a religion.