I gave thought to this question when, recently, a nephew of mine commented during a discussion that he does not believe in Religion. When I replied ‘I do not believe either’ he was visibly taken aback. He retorted ‘I thought you believed in Buddhism’ when I replied ‘Yes, I do but Buddhism is not a religion and the greatest harm done to Buddhism is categorizing it as a religion’
Why did I say so? If one looks at the definition of ‘Religion’ in the Oxford English Dictionary it should be obvious:
‘Religion; the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods’
In Buddhism, there is no belief in or worship of a superhuman controlling power and, therefore, by definition, is not a religion. Of all major ‘Religions’ in the world, Buddhism is unique in that there is no superhuman above us. Buddha was the great liberator who showed the path for us to take control of our destiny.
However, Buddhism is considered a religion on broader definition. One of the most prolific and erudite writers of Buddhism, Venerable Kirinde Sri Dhammananda Maha Thero, who unfortunately departed this world in 2006, in his wonderful little book ‘Practical Buddhism’ sates thus:
‘Generally, for practical purposes, we can describe Buddhism as a religion. Here, religion is taken to mean a method or way of life which was introduced for man to be righteous and noble, for him to maintain his human dignity and intelligence, and for him to attain final liberation through mental purity.’
Some say Buddhism is a philosophy while others say it is a way of life. It is true that ‘Abhidhamma’ or Buddhist Metaphysics is an advanced philosophical discourse but it goes a step beyond Philosophy. Rather than being empirical it leads to a path for Enlightenment. Buddhism has to be practiced and is certainly a way of life but describing as such diminishes the vast scope of Buddhism.
Perhaps, Buddhism can be defined as a combination of all these but to me it is the beginning of ‘Science’ itself. After all, science is a process of enlightenment! Buddha described continuous change, impermanence, long before dynamic flux was discovered by science. Long before modern scientists described the concept of cause & effect, Buddha described this as ‘Karma’. He has made reference even to the atom but to me the most important is the scientific approach he had in the ‘Four Noble Truths’; realization that there is suffering (dukka), identify the cause of suffering (samudaya), find the way to overcome suffering (nirodha) and take the identified path (marga). This is exactly what I do when a patient presents to me; identify there is a problem, find the cause of the problem, decide on the course of treatment and then carry it out.
How did Buddha achieve all this? By using to the maximum the most powerful but invisible organ we posses, the mind. What scientists achieve by turning the searchlight outwards, Buddha deduced by turning the searchlight inwards. What He discovered has withstood all the scientific experimentation and the test of time. He encouraged questioning before conviction and discarded blind faith. He was indulgent as a prince and following renunciation went to the other extreme of self-denial. Realizing the futility of the two extremes he found the ‘Middle Path’. He showed us the path and is left open for us to follow, if we do decide to do so.
How can one be a Buddhist? It is very easy as there is no registration or baptism; just follow the path. As a layman practice; ‘Dana’(giving), ‘Seela’(morality) & ‘Bhavana’ (mental culture).
Unfortunately, there are misconceptions about ‘Dana’. Sometime ago, in a BBC programme , Buddhism was referred to as a ‘religion of insurance’ implying that Buddhists give to get more in return. This is furthest from the truth as ‘Dana’ is practiced to get rid of attachment, which is the fundamental cause of sorrow.
‘Seela’ is good behavior and Buddha wanted us to control the three portals with which we could commit misdeeds; action, speech and mind. It is only a tiny minority that commit actual murder but a lot more do so with speech by saying ‘wish he were dead’ etc.. Commoner still is committing murder with thoughts.
Of the three portals, mind is the most difficult to control. Bhavana (meditation) helps in training and controlling the mind. There are two types of meditation:
‘Samatha’ which is serenity or tranquility meditation. Several objects can be used for this type of meditation, though the mind is focused on one object at a time, the easiest being breathing. It helps concentration and leads to a calm collected mind. This type of meditation predates Buddhism.
‘Vipassana’is insight meditation which was introduced by the Buddha.It trains the mind to see beyond ordinary vision. Buddha emphasized the fact that the world is an interpretation of ones own mind. To see beyond mere appearances and appreciate impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and egolessness (anatta) in all phenomena is the purpose of this type of meditation, which is the most advanced and difficult type of meditation. It is this type of meditation that leads to the attainment of higher mental states and the ultimate bliss of ‘Nibbana’
Definition of what Buddhism is of less importance than treading the path laid before us by the Buddha whose message can be summarized in the following words;
Not to do evil,
To do good,
To purify the mind.
It looks so simple but not easy to accomplish!