Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?


While the human society is bitterly divided into different “religions”, ironically, the word “religion” means just the opposite situation. 

Originally, the word “religion” means “that which unites and bind together”.  Think of the “ligaments” that bind together bones and muscles, and the “ligion” part of the word “re-ligion” is just that: binding together. But nothing is more divisive than “religions”.  The problems of the MiddleEast, where the Abrahamic religions started, manifest disasters in the lives of millions of families, because of religious violence.

Dividing humanity:

Abrahamic religions centre their beliefs on the concept of God.  As history tells us, religions - or beliefs - without the concept of God were harshly supressed and rejected.

In his book “A Baptist Preachers’ Buddhist Teacher”,  Lawrence Carter, Dean of Martin Luther King Jr Chapel, Alabama - mentions that in the US, the time of 11 am on each Sunday is a sad reminder of religions diving people: “Sunday morning at eleven o’clock remains the most segregated hour in America” page 192 - as people are separated in their spiritual practice by ethnicity and religions. 

Carter was surprised when he was invited to a Buddhist gathering on a Sunday, where he saw diverse people of different background binding together in prayers: ”SGI-USA [Buddhism] has managed to transcend this country’s legacy of race, class, and creed divisions to become the first strain of Eastern philosophy and religious practice to take serious hold by attracting a broad cross section of the population.  ‘Tricycle’ magazine - a popular Buddhist journal - credits the Soka Gakkai with being the most racially and ethnically diverse Buddhist community, an achievement no other Buddhist sect or Eastern based religion can claim”. Pages 192-193.

Fusion of “philosophy” and “religious practice” :

Note that Carter used the words ‘religious practice’ and “philosophy’ - to describe Nichiren Buddhism of SGI.  The fusion of the two words of “religion” and “philosophy” - implies that Soka Buddhism combines both concepts of philosophy and religion.

The most important concept in religion is that of “the divine”.  Abrahamic religions attribute the divine to God creator, while Buddhism regards “Life” as the divine, the creator and eternal power that is manifest in the physical universe.

While the concept of “divine” is shared between religions and Buddhism, the philosophical perspective of Humanism in Abrahamic religions fades in comparison with God (being of most importance).   Buddhism, however, regards Humanism as the most important.  So, one can say that Buddhism is a humanistic religion, but not all scholars are impressed by this name, and prefer the words a humanistic philosophy.

How does Buddhism refer to itself? 

Soka literature uses both expressions of “religion” and “philosophy” to describe its practice, but the most prevalent expression is that “Buddhism is a way of life”. 

The reason why the expression of “way of life” is preferred can be concluded from the basic requirement of Nichiren Buddhism from the individual to express the “actual proof” of the practice in daily life. 

The actual proof indicates the effect of one’s beliefs on one’s way of life.

Describing Buddhism as “a way of life” seems most relevant, as it focuses on the life of the individual and how to be a better human being.


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Author: Safwan Darshams


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