Buddhism A-Z: “Categorisation”
The conventional answer is that it is a religion.
The academic answer is that it is a philosophy or theory of morality.
The Buddhist answer is it doesn’t matter.
But let me expand.
It is sometimes nice to group Buddhism in with religion because, broadly speaking, religions appear to exist as a moral code and framework for understanding humanity. As, in a sense, does Buddhism. Religions also typically incorporate a form of prayer which, to the ill informed, meditation seems similar to. Finally, Buddhism has monks and nuns which all religions have and nothing that isn’t a religion does, right? So it must be a religion? Right? Right?
If it looks like a duck, and sounds like a duck…
…Actually it’s still just something that looks and sounds like a duck!
The reason that Buddhism isn’t a religion is two-fold:
- Religions have key things that buddhism doesn’t.
- The things Buddhism does have that look and sound like religion, aren’t.
In a nutshell, religions believe in at least one non-human higher power who had a key role in creating the world, life on it, and personally gave/gives advice to his/her/its/their creations which was recorded and is now considered sacred as following it will protect you in further existence after life.
Buddhism believes in human man who refined, through trial and error, certain ideas about life and shared them so that others may also understand and benefit from them, or not, whatevs.
Not a single thing in common.
The reason it looks similar is because we labelled it before understanding it. Why are Buddhist monks called monks like Christian monks? Because we saw men (and women) who surrendered many of life’s luxuries to devote themselves to studying and practicing something. The thing I want to get across here is, so do academics and musicians… Think of high level academic researchers are they not, in many ways, like a monk? Often forgoing relationships to focus on their area of study, not minding too much about physical comfort so long as they have their research, not having any other job, not being hugely concerned with money.. this is a far better comparison for Buddhist ‘monks’ than Christian monks, but the word we gave it misleads us.
If you must think of it under a known framework, think of it like this (example shamelessly stolen from the absolutely wonderful Brad Warner)
“Calling it Buddhism is a bit like calling relativity theory “Einsteinism.” To do so would be a nice way to give due credit to the guy who first expounded the basics of the theory. But it wouldn’t follow that people who practiced “Einsetinism” worshiped Einstein. Nor would it follow that the theories of Einstein would be held up as the final word for what was absolutely true in relativity theory. If it were found later that Einstein was wrong about some things– and I think maybe it already has been — that wouldn’t make the whole of relativity theory wrong. It would just indicate a need for revision.”
And, just as a Scientist doesn’t need to care who came up with the theory of relativity or what you call it to benefit from the application of it in their work, Buddhists don’t much care who or what you call The Dharma.