Is Buddhism a Religion?

In the March 2018 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine, there is a very interesting discussion on “Is Buddhism a religion.” I am presenting these arguments because I am a Buddhist and have two religious brothers who are orthodox Jews. I am also curios to hear whether you would consider the Plum Village tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (who is my teacher) a religion or not.

The article presents three points of view from three different teachers. Charles S. Prebish, a professor emeritus of religious studies and author of Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America, and the memoir, An American Buddhist Life, votes yes. His arguments follow. Dzogchen Ponlop Rimpoche, a Tibetan monk and revered teacher, votes no. Finally, Joan Sutherland, Roshi, a Zen Buddhist teacher of high regard, votes, “Yes, No, Kind-of.”

Prebish says,

“…for something to be considered a religion, it must posit a clear and distinct ultimate reality. That ultimate reality can be a God or gods, an impersonal absolute, a force of nature, a ground of being, or some other entity or experience. But without something ultimate-beyond which it is impossible to go-the system at hand is not a religion.

“In addition, in order to be considered a religion, the system must offer some clear and distinct path, or choice of paths, to the experience of that ultimate reality. While it doesn’t matter whether that path is prayer, ritual, yoga, meditation, some other method, or some combination thereof, there must be a straightforward way for the religious aspirant to gain the experience of the ultimate reality.

“Finally, for something to be a religion, there must be a personal transformation that results from the individual’s experience of ultimate reality. This is most usually demonstrated by a positive change in morality and/or ethics, expressions of compassion, kindness, or similar forms of conduct.”

By this criteria, Buddhism is a religion, as nirvana is the ultimate reality, the eight-fold way is the path, and people are definitely transformed by a consistent practice of mindfulness.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rimpoche says that the life and teachings of the Buddha represent someone who was seeking the truth and not to start or continue a religion: “The one who became the Buddha, the Awakened One, didn’t find enlightenment through religion- he found it when he began to leave religion behind.”

Finally, Joan Sutherland argues that Zen, by way of koans, rituals and ceremonies has the markings of a religion, and Buddhism also accommodates “The religious, the agnostic, and the completely irreligious, as well as those inclined psychologically, mystically, shamanically, or sociopolitically…”

So what do you think? Is Buddhism a religion? Is Buddhism as practiced in the Zen tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh a religion?

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