buddhism and religion

Long time readers have heard this from me before, but I’m writing about it again. Buddhism is a religion.

Why, why am I droning on about this? Well, I was inspired by Brad Warner’s latest post over on Suicide Girls (NSF). The piece is actually quite interesting, quite good. I like was he’s saying here, and I appreciate the way he says it. In short, he’s claiming that Buddhism isn’t a religion and, all at once, not a spirituality. According to the piece, most of human history has been caught up in the tension between idealism and materialism. Spirituality, as an idealism, seeks to satisfy our desires that can’t be fulfilled by materialism (i.e., sex and money and power). From this point of view (a) if Buddhism is spirituality, it’s going to fail us just like anything else we conveniently label “spirituality,” and (b) the Buddha, obviously, sought a middle ground between these poles of idealism and materialism. (You could almost say, and I think Brad gets very close to it, that Buddhism is both idealism and materialism. But that’s an entirely different post.)

I think Brad’s right, more or less, about all this. Or, at the very least, I get what he’s trying to do in this piece. It’s a pedagogical piece. It’s polemical. It’s point is to teach us something about the particular version of Zen Buddhism Brad practices, studies, and teaches. And that’s great. So don’t read the following as a critique of Brad’s article per se.

I have three, at the very least, reservations (at the very most out-and-out critiques) of the whole “Buddhism isn’t a religion” or “spirituality is better than religion” trope that we come across these days in these United States. They are, in no particular order:

  1. A pragmatic or even legal concern. “Buddhism” is one of dozens of recognized religions in this country. Having that status affords Buddhist institutions certain rights, privileges and protections not afforded to non-religious institutions. Most people usually think being a religious institution means you get tax-exempt status, which is true and nice and all. But it also means that you’re not regulated by the State. The First Amendment to the Constitution is a two-way street. It means that the religious people can’t use the State to force their beliefs on non-religious people; but it also means that the State can’t force religious people to practice in particular ways (unless they’re violating certain laws, of course). If Buddhism is no longer classified as a religion, it loses this protection.
  2. My second concern is related to my last post wherein I talked about how we value certain emotions over others — we reject “anger” as a bad emotion but embrace “tranquility” as a good emotion — and how this points to the basic problem in Buddhism; that is, we are prevented from attaining full awakening in part due to the fact that we are all caught up in discriminative thinking. My concern here in regards the religious/spiritual debate is that we necessarily decry “religion” as that wacky, irrational, ignorant, ritualized, cultural bull shit that has no value or place in modern society and warmly embrace “spiritual” as somehow above all that and better than religion. This worries me. Not because I think we should flip the switch here and reject spirituality and embrace religion. Rather, I get worried when folks dismiss something out of hand without questioning whether or not there is some value in it. Conversely, I get worried when folks blindly embrace something without approaching it with a healthy amount of critical skepticism.
    What I’m driving at here is that I think when we go to that place of dismissing religious people as “backwards” or “ignorant,” we need to stop for a second and keep in mind that that sort of thinking is discriminative in both the Buddhist sense of the word and the vernacular; that is, this line of thinking necessarily discriminates against religious people. If we did that against people of color, we’d be called racists. And this view point should give the compassionate, open-minded “Buddhists” among us some pause.
  3. My last concern — and it’s really a concern for a much longer piece — has to do with the way spirituality has been commodified in this country. I think that this is where Brad’s really aiming his remarks. That is, if we assume that Buddhism is little more than spirituality, it sort of cheapens it. Spirituality these days is had easily, and cheaply, through a quick visit to a day-spa, a few aromatherapy candles, or a garden Buddha statue. But I think we can all agree that Buddhism should be something more than this, something deeper than just a way to be relaxed under pressure or a means to a better job. Religions are harder to commodify. In part because religious people usually get pretty bent out of shape whenever you try to. So, I think re-contextualizing Buddhism as a religion is double-edged sword. If we keep it firmly in that same category as other “world religions,” it retains that higher meaning. On the other hand, it runs the risk of being guilty by association.

At any rate, some initial thoughts on all of this. Conversation greatly appreciated.


4 thoughts on “buddhism and religion

  1. Hi Scott,

    Just to add my 2cent perspective, I’ve met Christians who also claim that “Christianity is NOT a religion…because it is TRUTH” as opposed to all those other religions (i.e. wrong thinking) out there :0

    But Buddhism defined as religion does work, as you state, pragmatically, in giving certain people in our society protections of their personal beliefs and practices. As Buddhism is recognized as a religion, Buddhist organizations can provide chaplains to work in such places like the armed forces, to provide ceremonies, rituals, and other outreach (not to mention giving me the privilege of a salaried job here, haha). Buddhists also have the protection of being able to congregate for observances (or take time off work to go to them) and have lay leaders appointed, which would be somewhat difficult if Buddhism did not have the status of a recognized religion, and not so long ago this was true (you might as just as well said you belong to the Church of Satan and wanted to attend your weekly Black Mass sacrifices).

  2. First off, I think Brad Warner’s describing the Buddhism that he practices, but not necessarily what you and I practice. It seems to me that he sidesteps the religion question at the beginning with (I paraphrase): I don’t call it a religion, and people are okay with that. He doesn’t say why it’s not a religion. I like your points on why it is a religion, and the legal points are probably enough to write a series of books on why Buddhism is legally a religion. Maybe I’ll post on this over at Dharma Folk because I seem to have more to say than I can reasonably fit here. Great post, Scott.

  3. Great post, especially #2. How I explain it to people who seem to like Buddhism “as a philosophy,” because it is easy is this: anything worth having is worth working for, and redemption is no exception. Buddhism requires discipline of even thought, and that, one can imagine, requires a lot of effort.

  4. Point 3 is something I’ve taken up in a long post on my blog as well. I’d add that many things that pass for Buddhism are quite something else. Brad’s Buddhism to me is a sort of Buddhism-Lite which doesn’t require much by way of commitment, work or consideration. I had enjoyed many of his past posts but he seems to be shedding the very things that make Buddhism Buddhism and inventing his own religion (or spirituality). Do I call it Bradism? It seems to involve an awful lot of self-reference and very little Buddha-reference.

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