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Buddhism: Is It a Religion or a Philosophy?

August 5, 2023

Buddhism, at least some forms of it, is a method of reflection and investigation that doesn’t rely on faith in a supreme being, a soul, or anything else supernatural. According to the view, it is therefore not a religion.

Harris bemoans the fact that “the Buddha’s wisdom is currently imprisoned within the religion of Buddhism.” “Even worse, the ongoing association of Buddhists with Buddhism provides covert support for the various religions that exist in our world.

Being a self-described “Buddhist” in my opinion constitutes an intolerable level of complicity in the violence and ignorance that still motivate human strife and obstruct true inquiry in the world.

“Killing the Buddha” is a reference to the Zen proverb “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” According to Harris, this serves as a caution against making the Buddha a “religious fetish” and thereby missing the point of his teachings.

Harris, however, has interpreted the phrase in this way. Zen practitioners refer to “killing the Buddha” as the act of putting an end to notions and thoughts about the Buddha in order to realise the True Buddha. Harris is not destroying the Buddha; rather, he is only substituting a non-religious conception of the Buddha for the religious one.

The “religion versus philosophy” debate is artificial in many ways. It wasn’t until about the 18th century that western culture established the clear division between philosophy and religion, and there was never a similar division in eastern civilisation. Buddhism being forced into modern packaging entails demanding that it be one thing and nothing else.

This kind of mental packaging is regarded as a roadblock to enlightenment in Buddhism. Without even realizing it, we organize and interpret everything we learn and experience using preset concepts about ourselves and the world around us. Buddhist practice has the effect of clearing our minds of all mental file cabinets so that we can view the world as it really is.

In a similar vein, debating whether Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion is not a discussion of Buddhism. It is a discussion of our prejudices towards philosophy and religion. Buddhism simply is.

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