Thursday, February 03, 2005

Is Buddhism a Religion?

Victor Reppert, now a denizen of the blogosphere, writes:

In my class on History of World Religions, we have ended our treatment of Hinduism and are starting Buddhism. The question I have is what makes Buddha a religious teacher, and not an ethical philosopher. Buddha offered a way of dealing with, and overcoming, human suffering and the transitoriness of human existence, and formed a group to pursue that end. But didn't the Stoics and Epicureans do the same thing? What property does Buddha have that makes him a religious teacher, and the Stoics and Epicureans philosophers instead. And not a property like "founded a movement that eventually became one of the world's great religions." I mean a property that you could have picked out when Buddha was alive.

It turns out that I have an unpublished draft, a portion of which is relevant to Victor's question. Here it is:

3. Perceiving the world to be radically defective, and believing that there is a way of salvation, is still not sufficient to make one religious. A third condition must be satisfied: one must hold that there is a trans-human reality by contact with which salvation is to be achieved. It may be that the contact is brought about by our own efforts; it may be that the contact accrues to us by divine grace alone; or it may be – which is surely more likely – that both are required. In an image somewhere to be found in al-Ghazzali, we must work to position ourselves so as to receive the gusts of divine favor. The positioning is our own doing, but "the wind bloweth where it listeth." Be this as it may, without a trans-human reality to serve as the focus and locus of salvation, there would be no way to distinguish religion proper from a mere ‘philosophy of life.’

On one reading of Buddhism, it is a philosophy of life. Suppose we agree that all life is suffering, that the cause of suffering is desire and aversion, and that salvation from suffering is to be achieved by conquering desire and aversion through following the eight-fold path. If all goes well, this should land us in Nibbana, a state characterized by the absence of suffering. But absence of suffering is not a relation between the sufferer and a trans-human reality. Thus one hesitates to classify Buddhism interpreted in this way as a religion. Religion, as the etymology of the word suggests, involves an attempt to bind oneself, to yoke oneself, to something absolutely and finally real the yoking to which being for us the summum bonum. Religion seeks salvation by way of a quest for the ultimately real, and not by the merely negative path of the eradication of suffering. The ultimately real can of course be conceived in many ways (as Brahman, as the One of Plotinus, as the God of Aquinas...); but it cannot be conceived as the mere absence of suffering.

Perhaps we could say this. Early Buddhism, the Buddhism of the Pali canon, is not a religion strictly speaking, but more of a technology for achieving an Eastern equivalent of ataraxia. (Later Buddhism is a different story.) But of course, it all depends on how religion is defined. Any definition proferred will most likely include a substantial stipulative component. I feel a discussion brewing.

Another question is whether soteriology is essential to a religion. Buddhism is a soteriology, and I would say that soteriology is essential to religion; but this too has been denied. See here.