Buddhism And Religion


today I’m writing about a topic I already wrote about multiple times. Some of you may know I’m a Buddhist – even if sometimes I don’t like to call myself Buddhist. This has many reasons, one of them being that I don’t really like to explain or to be judged about it. When thinking of Buddhism, many people seem to think of this strange and mythical eastern religion about rebirth and suffering. And the worst part about that is the part where they call it “religion”. Personally, I am not a religious person at all but I’m still a Buddhist and I can sense a lot of misunderstanding comes from calling Buddhism a religion.

Of course, you can call Buddhism a religion, unfortunately even many Buddhist monks do so, but in the same way you could call me a lemur. In fact, you could call anything any way you want. But if you want to be understood, you need to use words the way they are defined – or at least the way they are used in everyday language. For the word “religion” however, there is no common definition. In the past, I came along many definitions of religion and also tried my own extrapolation many times. I like how Erich Fromm used the term “religion” to describe a common praise towards a specific object (e.g. a god) shared by a group of people who expresses their praise in a common way of thinking and acting in his book “To Have or to Be?”. This clearly includes major religions like Judaism or Hinduism while it also includes more abstract ideas like capitalism. Here, the object of praise is the capital and the associated morality is to use other people to bring yourself into a superior position.

But what’s the object of praise in Buddhism? Here is where things get confusing for some people; it is not Buddha. Many people in a Jewish-based society – including Christianity and Islam – think of a religion as of believing in and praying to a god. Therefore, they think Buddha is the god of Buddhism. In reality, Buddhism has no such thing as a god. To be a Buddha means that the mind has reached it’s completion. There is no single Buddha; “Buddha” is a mere concept comparable to Nietzsche’s Übermensch. It isn’t some sort of superior human (as the Nazis abused the term) but a person whose mind is fully awakened. Later, we’ll see that Buddha and Übermensch are essentially the same. But if not Buddha is the object of praise, what is? One could argue that it is the Buddha nature itself, meaning the idea that every living thing can become a Buddha. The morality would be everything necessary to become a Buddha. This is very counterintuitive. In most traditions becoming a Buddha requires learning and training. You could compare it easily to a school where you learn to become educated. Here, the idea that you can become educated is your object of praise but would you going to school call a religion? The definition Fromm used is clearly not useful in everyday life. In fact, Fromm says there can’t be a society without religion and uses his definition to categorize desire. What he’s talking about is actually not religion but a specific kind of culture. “Culture” is a set of ideas, a way of thinking and acting shared by multiple people. The only difference to Fromm’s definition of religion is the missing object of praise. That means that he talks about culture that wraps about some time of goal or purpose.

Let’s extrapolate to get a better definition of the word religion. When most people think about religion, they think about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Scientology and so on. Some might even think about things like Greek or Norse mythology. I won’t include them since they aren’t around anymore, so we don’t know enough about them. Now, what’s the thing all religions you usually think about have in common? There is one thing in particular that all religions share: dogmata. A dogma is an idea that is said to be always true and is usually laid down be someone superior in a hierarchy. The most popular dogma of monotheistic religions is that there is one god and it is the true one. This idea is taken for granted and to someone religious there doesn’t have to be any proof. There had been brutal wars over which god is the one and only. In Hinduism the caste system is a dogma. Based on your actions in your former life you’re born in a specific caste and have to live your life as your parents did. But you might realize that you can think a dogma is truth without being religious. In fact, it happens all the time. On a Tuesday someone might tell you it’s always sunny on Tuesdays, so you get your stuff and step outside, just to realize that it is in fact raining. Now you know it’s not sunny. What happened? You believed what someone told you and that’s what dogmata are all about. So a belief is to think a dogma is true without proving anything – because you think it doesn’t need any proof. Inspired by Fromm’s definition we can now say: a religion is a set of beliefs shared by multiple people that comes with a derived morality.

How does Buddhism fit in there? It doesn’t. Buddhism is anti-dogmatic. The basic concept of Buddhism is something like: think for your-fucking-self and don’t fucking rely on others. (Quote me on it!) Buddhism is not a religion, it is a family of philosophical schools and traditions. As I mentioned earlier, a Buddhist’s goal might be to become a Buddha. To achieve that, there is The Noble Eightfold Path. The idea of Buddhism is that all suffering comes from desire and can only be eliminated be eliminating the root of it. The Noble Eightfold Path is a way to end all suffering. While this may sound like a dogma, it really isn’t. First of all, no common Buddhist will tell you this is the one way to live. It is simply a Buddhist’s choice to acquire knowledge this way. Historically Buddhism was a response to the dogmatic caste system of Hinduism. People didn’t want to be dictated what to believe anymore. That’s why Buddhism is so open-minded. Second of all, The Noble Eightfold Path doesn’t really give you that many answers on its own. That’s why many Buddhist traditions developed that mainly differ in their methods of gaining knowledge.

I already mentioned Nietzsche. His concept of becoming an Übermensch is a lot like the idea of Buddhism. Buddhism adopts the concept of Samsara from Hinduism, meaning the cycle of death and rebirth, and enhances it by the idea of nirvana, a way to escape this cycle. Since Buddhism is anti-dogmatic, it should be interpreted of a metaphor of reinventing yourself. Nietzsche has a similar metaphor, a rope dancer. Someone walks on a rope across a deep canyon. They will most likely fall down and another one will try until one individual will make it. This person is said to be the Übermensch. In Buddhism being a Buddha is one way to reach nirvana. Another metaphor Nietzsche uses are the three transformations. It’s Zarathustras very first speech in Also Sprach Zarathustra and describes a way to become an Übermensch. First, the mind of the camel has a lot to carry and takes all the heavy ideas it’s been confronted with. The mind of the camel transforms to the mind of the lion who wants freedom and fights society, pictured as a dragon, that says “You must.” while the lion says “I want.” The dragon represents conservative, old values and ideas. While the camel was conservative itself the lion fights the dragon and looks for new ideas. The third transformation is the child that starts anew and creates its own ideas. This is very much how most Buddhist traditions teach Buddhism. You combine traditions and new ideas and if you reach a dead point you start anew. Spoilers ahead: Also Sprach Zarathustra ends with Zarathustra seeing a lion. This way Nietzsche tells the reader that now, after they read his ideas and carrying them as a camel, they should start looking for new ideas. There are a lot of other parallels between Nietzsche and Buddhism, but I think those are the most important ones. So, do you think Nietzsche was a religious person? He couldn’t stand religion and even criticized Buddhism because he mistook it for a religion. To be fair, he most likely only knew it from Schopenhauer. So to me, Nietzsche is a tragic hero of Buddhism who didn’t even know he taught Buddhist ideas.

Does that mean Buddhism is against religion? No, it doesn’t. Many Buddhists are religious as you can see in India and Japan. There, Buddhism mixed with Hinduism and Shinto. Buddhism goes well with religion because it isn’t a religion in itself, it has no dogmata. Otherwise, they would collide with those of other religions. Especially in India we see that concepts coming from Hinduism are understood as dogmata, for example Samsara being an actual cycle of death and rebirth. There are even Buddhist Christians. On the other hand, I personally can’t take religious Buddhists very seriously. If you believe in dogmata you can’t possibly talk about knowledge. To me it is like lying to yourself, but that might just be me. But what I really don’t like is pop culture Buddhism and scammers who abuse Buddhist traditions to enrich themselves. There also are other religious traditions in Buddhism, but being religious is not what all traditions have in common.

When I said you can call me a lemur, you can definitely do that. But being a hairy primate with a long tail doesn’t make me a lemur by definition, does it? And just like that, a few religious traditions don’t make Buddhism as a whole philosophy a religion.


post scriptum, 23.08.15

“Religion” is still a word that is not well-defined. Usually, I try avoiding such words completely but with words used in everyday language it can be quite hard to do so. Here, I made sense of the word by looking at how it is used and what people associate with it. Using the characteristics I’ve found I created a definition that’s only valid inside the context of this text, but it tries to fit the common usage of the word. This way I explaind why “religion” shouldn’t be used in a context of Buddhism as a whole, it leads to a wrong understanding of Buddhism.

Another idea would be to get rid of the word “religion” altogether, but that’s hardly possible seeing that it’s widely used in a specific context all over the world. “Religion” does have a meaning people understand. This meaning just differs in details of high significance, for example when it comes to Buddhism. But there are words that don’t have a meaning on their own and are still used by themselves, which leads to high ambiguity, misunderstanding and abuse. I already mentioned Fromm, who tried to extrapolate a definition for “to have” and “to be” and dedicates whole books to the results. In a specific context like “I am a fool.” or “I have dinner.” they are well-defined elements of our language. On their own, they are not. “I am.” is a sentence without a meaning on it’s own. “I think, therefore I am.” has a specific context, namely existence; “to be” is used as a synonym for “to exist”. To Fromm, there is more to it. The state of “being” has to do with self-awareness, whereas “having” has to do with external things that are supposed to lead to satisfaction. I won’t go into detail, but I think it’s clear that those words don’t have a meaning on their own outside of a specific context.

The most ambiguous use of undefined words I know of is the use of “good”, “bad” and “evil”. Within a context “good” and “bad” can be used to rank things; for example you could define what a good swimmer is and compare swimmers like that. This way, “good” and “bad” are synonym for all the criteria you’re looking at. I think this approach is very restricting but “good” and “bad” are well-defined. For better style, you could just talk about the criteria those two words are supposed to stand for. This shows what the problem is. In everyday speech you would use “evil” or “bad” as synonyms for “malicious”, “unhelpful”, “sinister”, “not fitting the criteria” or you could be using it as an ill-defined concept of being a “bad person”. You could also project any of those synonyms on a person by saying someone is a “bad student” or a “bad child”. Besides that being a horrible thing to say to someone, you are taking away all that variety of words you could use to explain yourself in a well-defined way by pushing it all into one ambiguous word. All of this is analogous to the word “good” and it creates a duality that doesn’t exist in reality. Yet, this concept of good and bad/evil is so deep in our culture that it affects our way of thinking drastically.

So, try to express yourself in a well-defined way that has far more variety to it. And always remember: horses are bad people.


17.08.2015 18:55:57 UTC

return flattr


08.09.2019 01:57:30 UTC

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