Saturday, February 05, 2005

Buddhism: a religion?

Dr. Vallicella ably handles the question of whether Buddhism is a religion here. His post was prompted by this question from another blogger, Victor Reppert. Reppert writes:

The question I have is what makes Buddha a religious teacher, and not an ethical philosopher.

Just as Jesus was a practicing Jew, so the Buddha was a practicing Hindu. If it's granted that Hinduism is a religion (or perhaps more accurately, a nebulous set of religious traditions and practices), then it follows that the Buddha, who shared many cosmological and metaphysical assumptions with the Hindus, was a religious teacher-- a guru in a recognizably Hindu sense.

I agree with Dr. Vallicella that much depends on one's operational definition of "religion." My point is simply that, if one's definition admits Hinduism as a religion, then the Buddha was a religious teacher.

As far as what religion is...

I'll offer this little morsel for consideration. Huston Smith, in his The World's Religions, begins his chapter on Buddhism by noting six elements found (he contends) in all religions. I'm quoting from an old research paper of mine:

1. Authority, a notion that for Smith includes ideas of specialization (i.e., someone who is an "expert" in mediating/dealing with the divine, or in interpreting scriptures, etc.; a given organized religion's complexity demands a class of experts) and administration.

2. Ritual, which Smith sees as "the cradle of religion," arising out of the human need for celebration and mourning. "[...A]nthropologists tell us that people danced out their religion before they thought it out."

3. Speculation, which covers all that in religion which requires explanation from the trained and untrained alike. Emblematic questions: whence do we come, whither do we go, why are we here?

4. Tradition, the element that "conserves what past generations have learned and bequeath to the present as templates for action."

5. Grace, which Smith (necessarily?) defines rather vaguely as "the belief-- often difficult to sustain in the face of facts-- that Reality is ultimately on our side. ...the universe is friendly; we can feel at home in it."

6. Mystery, which Smith is content to associate with the finite human's inability to fathom the infinite.

Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. Citations from pp. 92-93.

Some will point out that the Buddha wasn't big on metaphysical speculation, which is item #3 above, but it's certain that speculation has been an integral part of the Buddhist tradition ever since.


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