Buddhism: Religion, Philosophy, or…?

img_1931Some people say Buddhism is not really a religion, though I know some monks who would beg to differ. Here’s what my dictionary says about religion:

1. the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. 2. a particular system of faith and worship. 3. a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion.

Well, the first definition certainly does not fit Buddhism, since there is no all-powerful superman waiting to part the waters, and the second only fits if we define what Buddhists do as worship—so maybe. The third one is frivolous, in the sense that ‘consumerism is the new religion’, but maybe somewhat accurate, especially in the case of ever-trendy Amerika, where Buddhism is currently a hot topic, but where much, if not most, of the information disseminated about it, is limited, or misapplied, or downright inaccurate…

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Wikipedia Commons

Others say Buddhism is a philosophy. So what means philosophy? Here’s the skinny on that:

1. the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline. 2. a theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behavior.

The first definition is accurate, of course, from an academic standpoint, whether you’re talking Western philosophy or Eastern, as long as you want to discuss the Buddhist concepts of non-self, impermanence, emptiness, mind-only, and non-existence in the same way that you’d discuss the Western concepts of idealism, materialism, empiricism, rationalism or non-existence, hmmm…

The problem is that most people don’t want to get bogged down in arcane metaphysics. They want some feel-good motivational talk and the appropriate obeisances in response, no debate nor delirium, just devotion. The second definition is getting somewhere, though, and a good starting point for many beginning Buddhists, attracted to the principles of non-ego, non-possession and non-aggression…

There’s more to it than that, though, much more, more like:

A belief system is a set of mutually supportive beliefs. The beliefs of any such system can be classified as religious, philosophical, political, ideological, or a combination of these.

Bingo: belief system, that’s the phrase we’re looking for, something that covers the totality of a system of thought and action that ranges from temple worship to philosophical speculation to late-night psychological recriminations to early-morning meditations. And that meditation is ‘bed-rock’, for me at least, not the vestigial historical baggage of rebirth, past lives, karma, or even nirvana…

Nirvana for me is like the invisible vanishing point behind the board that you want to crack with your bare first in one striking karate chop, which by aiming for, you crush every thing in its path, i.e. the board, but not the actual point aimed for. And so it is for Nirvana, IMHO, largely unattainable, but supremely aim-able, in the process of which you have accomplished much in this life besides the obligatory suffering…

More important, for me at least, is the relationship between science and religion, especially this religion-philosophy-psychology-technique of Buddhism, that has been burdened with the baggage of twin brother Hinduism from the get-go, like Ishmael the other brother with big ideas and a soft spot for soft spots, so Buddhism forced to carry water for the Brahmins, rebirth and past lives, not-so-noble births with somebody else’s wives, everything but the caste system, just its back-story, just in case, ‘cuz you never know…

But rebirth and past lives are totally at odds with science, and totally unnecessary also, for Buddhism, just there for no good reason but to satisfy the superstitious need for predetermination and the pernicious requirements of latent racism. But that’s another story. I love science and I think the Buddha did, too, or would have, if there had been any. But there was math, and India was at the head of it, they with their zero–shunya–centuries before anyone else…

And there was philosophical narrative, so I think that by now the Buddha would be ready to ditch rebirth in favor of DNA. If we need an article of faith to qualify as faith, then I’m fine with this-life karma: simply do good, and you will receive goodness. That’s easy because there is a scientific basis in the statistical principles of innoculation and vaccination. Only 90% of the people need the shot for everyone to be vaccinated, and that can be drawn on a graph…

So does Science pick up where Religion leaves off or vice-versa: does religion pick up where science leaves off; i.e. which comes first? That’s probably not a fair question, as they both have their proper fields of concern. Suffice it to say that there is probably a shifting border of spheres of influence, subject to the accomplishments and failures of each, science or religion, in explaining what is most important to the majority of the faithful: why are we here? Where did we come from? What do we do now? I persevere…