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Is Buddhism a religion or a way of life

November 9, 2008

From Helium
Written by Paul Schingle

To give a buddhist or zen type of answer to this question, I would say the answer is yes. Buddhism can be a religion. Buddhism can be a way of life. In short, Buddhism is whatever you make it or whatever you want it to be. Now, before anyone goes on to say that this is a cop-out answer, I’d like to go a little further. I submit that the same can be said for any religion or philosophy. It’s all a matter of interpretation, and how one chooses to practice the discipline.

I once took a comparative religions course in college. My professor was a practicing methodist minister. However, he was very well-versed in many of the religions of the world. He once told us that a true Christian could never be a Buddhist, but that a true Buddhist could subscribe to the teachings of Christianity. At the time, I didn’t really understand what he meant, but I think I do now. In his mind, a true Christian was someone who believes that Jesus Christ was the embodiment of God on earth. If you have that faith, then any other religion would be nothing more than heresy.

There is one basic tenet to Buddhism. That core belief is that this material world that we now live in is, essentially, meaningless. The goal in Buddhism is Nirvana. Now, Nirvana, as opposed to the Christian (and others) belief in the physical paradise called “Heaven,” is enlightenment. It is the understanding of all things in the universe. It is essentially becoming one with the universe. It is a state of being in which all things are understood. In order to achieve this goal, one has to “let go” of the material world.

Now, if a Buddhist wants to let go of the material world, he can do this any number of ways-and that would include following the teachings of Jesus. Whether or not Jesus was God on earth would be irrelevant. The point is, listening to Jesus’ teachings and following them may well assist one with attaining Nirvana. Here is one example.

Now, I’ve never heard of Jesus saying explicitly that man must let go of the material world. But, Jesus did once say, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than it is for a rich man to find Heaven.” In short, the more a man pursues material gain, the further he removes himself from the important things, such as understanding God. While not choosing Siddhartha’s (Buddha’s) exact words, essentially the philosophy is the same. At some point, one must come to the realization that the things of this material world are, in the grand scheme of things, worthless. In the end, one must find God (or understanding or Nirvana or whatever you want to call it). This is one example of a Buddhist following the teachings of Jesus and still maintaining a Buddhist outlook.

So, is Buddhism a religion or a way of life? Good question. Whether useful or not, the only good answer I can come up with is “yes.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 11, 2008 5:57 pm

    “There is one basic tenet to Buddhism. That core belief is that this material world that we now live in is, essentially, meaningless. The goal in Buddhism is Nirvana.”

    This is not what I have heard from the teachers in my Zen tradition. Perhaps it is accurate for another tradition, but I have some doubts about that.

    The world is not meaningless, because the world is where we are. What is meaningless is our passionate attachment to the things of this world, our grasping and our striving for objects and goals that we tell ourselves will make us happy — once we get them. But you know how it goes — once you get it, whatever it is, you’re still not happy.

    But our relationships with other people (and other beings) have great meaning — and they are of this world. The thing in front of you right now — your computer, or your cat, or your cup of coffee — has meaning too. You could be right here, now, with that thing. You could be fully and completely HERE. But are you? Are you really?

    In the Mahayana tradition, we do not seek Nirvana. We seek to save all sentient beings from suffering. And where do they suffer? Right here, right now, in this material world.

  2. November 10, 2008 1:23 pm

    In the Buddha’s time, his teachings were known as “shiksha,” a Sanskrit term meaning “system of training.” (I don’t imagine that the notion of “way of life” would have occurred to folks at that time.)

    The Buddhist system of training – meditation, chanting, bowing, study – cultivates compassion, wisdom, generosity, curiosity, kindness, equanimity, creativity and other qualities that are much needed in this suffering world.

    So for a Zen student, questions like “religion or way of life?” go wide of the mark. The answer must cut off the question at the root.

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