Sunday, March 27, 2011

listening in on someone else's discussion

The age-old question, "Is Buddhism a Religion?" is resurrected here.

Most adherents of distinct religious traditions resent having their tradition lumped under the category "religion," because they perceive such categorization as a form of denigration: my tradition becomes just "one religion among others." In my travels, Christians and Buddhists alike have told me that their respective paths shouldn't be thought of as mere religions: they are, instead, ways of life.

I think such an attitude is fine for laity, but it lacks precision in the academic realm, where terms like "religion" or "tradition" or "religious tradition" have certain connotations generally understood by fellow academics in the field. Such terms-- despite their lack of universally accepted definitions-- are meaningful and serve as a way to exchange valuable information about these human phenomena.

One can rightly ask, though, whether academe is (or should be) the final authority on tradition X's status as a religion. What makes the academics, who are often at an intellectual and emotional remove from the traditions in question, the arbiters and interpreters of a tradition's significance? It seems to me that, if an academic is truly to study a given tradition, he or she will want to learn something about the self-understanding of that tradition's adherents: the lay folks' opinions matter. To their credit, many academics do indeed strive to gain such knowledge, and the more phenomenologically-inclined ones will even go so far as to attempt an empathetic understanding of the tradition (scholar Huston Smith comes to mind as a popular example of this sort of approach).

At this point, after years of study, my own answer to the question of whether Buddhism is a religion is Joju's forceful "!"



  1. Following the link for Joju's answer had a koan-like moment to it. There was a brief, enlightenment-like experience.

  2. Yes, this "mu" (無) answer was from the famous "Mu Kongan"-- or, in Japanese, "Mu Koan"), the very first kongan that many Zen practitioners study. (Joju is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese Chao-chou, who is known in Japan, and much of the West, as Joshu.)

    Joju wasn't so much answering "No!" (to the question of whether a dog has Buddha-nature) as he was rejecting the dualistic yes/no nature of the question itself. I'm betting you picked up on that nondualism right away.

    "Buddhism" is a label for a living human phenomenon, and living phenomena, being alive, are squishy and resist labeling. "Religion" is also such a label; in fact, all such names are. There's a sense in which you could say Buddhism is a religion, especially to a certain group of people (e.g., cradle Buddhists from Asia). There's also a sense in which you could strip Buddhism down to a rarefied set of ethical and metaphysical principles, and that this sense of the word would resonate with a certain group of people (e.g., modern Westerners whose approach to Buddhism has been largely through books). Buddhism is water that fills its historico-cultural container; the same could be said about Christianity, Judaism, etc.

  3. Boyer writes about the arbitrary, contrived notion of "religion" which I agree with on many of my posts and particularly on this one. Yet, agreeing with you, pulling ones own 'religion' out of the flock of other religions is also ingenuin.

  4. Either "Mu!" or "Who cares what academics think (or say) about Buddhism?" are appropriate answers..



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