Religion or Philosophy?
When we look at Buddhism, we find that it often defies our ability to cleanly categorize it as we do other religious practices. It seems to share qualities of both a religion and of a philosophy. In fact, this is one of my interests in it.
Buddhism as Religion
When we review religions of the world, we see a common element in the supernatural, typically in the practice of worshipping of one or more deities. I'm a devout atheist -- I absolutely do not believe in the existence of god or gods. It's fine if others do, I have no problem with anyone having a spiritual path in their lives that differs from my own. It's only a problem when I'm told I'm "lost" because I don't think like they do.
This really is the fault of the Creationist movement. If they weren't so intent on defaming science, scientists wouldn't be so intent on showing them the problems with their faulty reasoning. Creationists hold evolution to standards of proof that they themselves cannot even begin to attain.
But religion may not be defined merely by the presence of a pantheon. One could also view religion as a practice that incorporates trappings of religion. One would see, for example:
- Physical dedications, like alters
- Formalized chanting of religious texts
- Milestone rituals, like funerals
- Monastic communities
When one defines religion in this way, then yes, Buddhism is absolutely a religion. But I suspect that it has such trappings because 2,500 years ago, we didn't have a fully developed scientific method. This was it!
Buddhism as Philosophy
We can also view Buddhism as a philosophical pursuit. Simply put, there is absolutely no deity worship in Buddhism. Buddha never claimed to be a deity. He was, as far as we can determine, an historical figure whose presence is confirmed by non-Buddhist contemporaries like the Jainists. And there is no adherence to dogma; the canon says, quite plainly, not only to come and see for yourself, accepting no one's word for it (even their own spiritual founder), but to avoid adherence to views -- everything should be carefully tested and verified for oneself.
Buddhism is not, as some have said, unique in its use of meditation as a key component to its practice. It does appear to be unique in how it applies meditation, of the end goals of meditation, and in the denial of the existence of a self.
Perhaps the most confusing for Western audiences is that the first of what are called the Four Noble Truths is that life, is suffering. "Why," we decry, "what a terrible thing to say! What a negative religion!" This comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what is meant by suffering, and how it fits into the Buddhism framework.
The original Pali word is dukkha, and yes, it does indeed mean suffering. It also has the connotation of dissatisfaction, or of imbalance. It is used to convey the meaning that life has as an inevitable component of suffering to it. But what do we mean by that? Surely all of life isn't hurt! I'm having fun right this moment!
Yes, absolutely, this is so! There are things that make us both unhappy and happy, we observe and experience this every day. But if we look closely and honestly, we see that the good things inevitably end. As do the bad, of course! Where the dissatisfaction comes in is that we find no happiness we can rely on, perfectly, without end.
Religions often say that there is such ending to suffering and eternal bliss in the afterlife -- all you have to do is kack first, and it's all yours. My problem with that is I'm very much alive (as of this writing, at least), and frankly, am not about to count on a future life I've not experienced.
Cause and End of Suffering
Buddhist practice is to see, not just intellectually but viscerally, that our dissatisfaction is caused by craving. We either crave for things we don't have, we crave to be rid of things we do have, or we crave to keep forever the things we like. None of these options is realistic.
Meditation can be viewed as the practice of letting go, of disconnecting from this attachment to having things our way. As one's practice deepens, not only is the fact of this more directly observable as you see into the workings and habits of your mind, you begin to loosen those mental formations. And as you let them go, tremendous joy arises.
This is what appeals to me about Buddhism. I am the only person responsible for my well being -- doesn't mean shit doesn't happen, it does. But my response to it, how I feel about it when it hits the fan, that's all me. So I can get peace and happiness right here, right now. No death certificate required.
And no, letting go doesn't mean you don't love your kids or your dog, doesn't mean you don't have fun. You do! We all do! But you don't get so wrapped up in it, and your attachment isn't unhealthy. Making it more fun, actually!
And After You Croak?
Can't say, I've not died yet (as of this writing). It'll happen. And frankly, for me with my history of cancer, sooner probably more than later. That's okay. It's not death that's the problem, it's worrying about it and fearing it.
Buddhist doctrine talks about kamma, or karma as it's more popularly known in the West. That there is rebirth, but not reincarnation. What follows is not you, but not not you; an echo, a ripple, a continuity of process. No soul screeching out of my corpse in search of a baby to possess! But, I don't know, not for sure, not until I experience it.
Do I take it "on faith?" No. I don't know. And that's okay. Again, Buddhism is about experience, not letter of the doctrine. What is certain is that this practice makes a deep and profound sense to me, it's directly observable and can be experienced by my own efforts. And the sign posts pointing the way... seem to be right on track.