May 29, 2014

Buddhism: Philosophy or Religion?

In Asian religious traditions, religion—with its myths, magic, and miracles—goes hand in hand with philosophy.Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr.

This article is the fifth in the Tricycle blog series 10 Misconceptions about Buddhism with scholars Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. 

The Buddhist philosophical literature produced over the last 2,600 years is so astounding in both breadth and depth that it is little wonder Westerners have often claimed that Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion. Scores of different philosophical schools have developed within Buddhism, from the Abhidharma schools of Burma, with their careful analysis of the constituents of reality (dharma); to the Huayan school of China, with its elaborate outline of a universal causality in which all things are creating, and being created, by all other things (shishi wu’ai fajie); to the Gelug school of Tibet, with its precise delineations of the relationship between emptiness (sunyata) and dependent origination (pratityasamutpada). The sophistication and rigor of Buddhist philosophical analysis rival that of any philosophical school that developed in Europe. Indeed, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism is replete with entries on the ideas and terminology of these many philosophical systems.

Despite this wealth of philosophy, Buddhism is also a religion by any definition of that indefinable term—unless one narrowly defines religion as belief in a creator god. Magic and miracles, which we often associate with religion, fill Buddhist texts. As we wrote the dictionary, we were continually surprised at how central magic and miracles were to the biographies and legends of the Buddha, his disciples, and their eminent successors throughout history. Of eight major pilgrimage sites in Indian Buddhism, which commemorate important events in the Buddha’s career, four are concerned with miracles he performed. Among these sites is Sravasti, where the Buddha performed the “dual miracles” (yamakapratiharya) to vanquish a rival group of yogins by flying into the air and releasing fire from his head and water from his feet, and vice versa.

Such miracles were not only performed by the Buddha. Mastery of the fourth stage of meditative absorption (dhyana) is said to enable the meditator to deploy a set of psychic powers (rddhi) that includes the ability to pass through mountains, walk on water, fly through the air in full-lotus position, and “touch the sun and the moon with one’s hand.” Mahamaudgalyayana, one of the Buddha’s two main disciples, was the acknowledged master of such psychic powers. He once flew off to the Himalayas to find a medicinal plant to cure his sick friend Shariputra, and was renowned for his ability to travel anywhere in the universe as easily as flexing his arm. During a severe famine, Mahamaudgalyayana offered to turn over the earth’s crust to expose the ambrosia beneath it, but the Buddha wisely dissuaded him, saying that this would confound the earth’s creatures.

The very same monks who are the most renowned philosophers of Buddhism are commonly associated with such religious miracles. Nagarjuna, the traditional founder of the Madhyamaka school of Indian philosophy, retrieved the Prajnaparamita (“Perfection of Wisdom”) Sutras, the textual basis of that school, by traveling underwater to the Dragon King’s palace at the bottom of the sea. Kumarajiva, the Kuchean monk whose translation of Buddhist texts into Chinese laid the foundation for Madhyamaka philosophy in China, was a renowned thaumaturge who could ingest needles without injuring himself (a talent he used to justify why he could have sex when other monks could not). His tongue did not burn during his cremation—proof, his biographer claimed, of the accuracy and eloquence of his translations. (We leave to the reader’s imagination why the Chinese Chan monk Fori Qisong’s penis did not burn during cremation.)

Heaven and hell, and how to get to one and avoid the other, is another common feature of religions. And throughout history, the vast majority of Buddhist practices for both monks and laypeople has been focused on gaining a better rebirth in the next lifetime, whether for oneself, one’s family, or for all beings in the universe, and avoiding the baleful destiny of one of the infernal realms.

Indeed, separating philosophy from religion does not work well in the case of Buddhism. Trying to tease apart these two strands of the dispensation would have seemed a futile endeavor to most Buddhists over the long history of the tradition. We in the West need to get over this false dichotomy, which has no significance in speaking about Buddhism or other Asian religions.

The story behind the pilgrimage place of Samkasya illustrates this point nicely. After the Buddha magically flies to the heaven on the summit of Mount Sumeru to meet his mother Mahamaya, who has been reborn there as a deva, the gods build a bejeweled staircase so that he may descend back down to earth at Samkasya—a famous scene called “the descent from the realm of the divinities” (devavatara). The reason for this supernal visit? To teach his mother the Abhidharma, the highest form of Buddhist philosophy.

Robert E. Buswell Jr. holds the Irving and Jean Stone Endowed Chair in Humanities at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is also Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies and founding director of the Center for Buddhist Studies. Donald S. Lopez Jr., a Tricycle contributing editor, is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. They are coauthors of the recently released Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism.

Further reading: Losing Our Religion

More at Tricycle:


All Buddhists are pacifists? Definitely not. In the fourth installment of our blog series “10 Misconceptions about Buddhism,” we delve into the little-known history of when Buddhists have taken up arms.


This is your last week to catch May’s Film Club selection! Buddhist nun Shoshana Cathy Korson captures the quiet beauty of Myanmar’s village and temple life. Watch the documentary and leave a comment—Shoshana will be answering questions all week on the Tricycle site.

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Cher's picture

To answer the question, Is Buddhism a Religion or a Philosophy? requires a comparison of two definitions. The answer may be of academic interest to some. But whichever answer is preferred, it ultimately is the outcome of an exercise in futility.

The question asks the responder to discriminate. This is the very thing a true Buddhist does not do. The process of discrimination is initiated by the "Self", the artificial construct through which we give ourselves the illusion of independence and control.

If by "religion", you mean a system that worships a deity, then a true Buddhist has no religion. A true Buddhist does not discriminate between man and God (or gods). The Diamond Sutra explains how people use the "sword of discrimination" to divide reality into arbitrary chunks in their minds. This gives rise to dualism - me and you, them and us, black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. Dualism is the source of the suffering mankind brings upon itself. Dualism breeds envy, hatred and war.

A true Buddhist does not discriminate. He or she does not view life through the prism of an artificial self. She or he knows that appearances are just that, a flow of data that can be perceived via the 5 senses, which are only capable of perceiving a very limited range of data from the spectrum comprising reality. A true Buddhist recognises that a person's relationship with reality is like a drop of water splashed from a pond by the leaping of a fish. The drop appears to have a separate existence from the pond, but it will fall back again and merge into the pond from which it was temporarily separated.

Another way of saying this is that a person's life is a blossom which appears and flowers and ultimately falls to rejoin the earth. The blossom becomes part of the endless recycling of matter into vast arrays of life forms that create the truly wondrous beauty and variety of the world.

How would a person who understood all this answer the question of whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy? Personally, I don't think he or she would find it necessary to form a view on the matter.

Ruggero's picture

While indeed this is an important question as to what is essential in the Buddha's teaching - I say Buddha's teachings refer to a well established doctrine used for over two thousand years- the authors drop the ball. While saying that religion is difficult if not impossible to define- a well know fact- they use only three uncommon factors to define Buddhism as a religion- magic, miracles, and heaven/hell. They say throughout the Buddhist writings there are ample examples of the Buddha and others demonstrating magic/miracles (can they be the same thing?) and the description of heaven/hell. Well, even if one accepts that very narrow defination of religion, as a psychologist I can also very easily- similar to what the emphasis of the Buddha was throughout his teachings- say that most of the evidence of those phenomena is that they are psychologically inspired and inconsequential, and in fact are called hindrances, in the following the Buddha's teachings of liberation through Awakening.For example, do the authors of this essay really take at face value the 'miracle' of the tree voluntarily bending to allow the Buddha's mother give birth to him easily or that the infant Buddha walked easily and where he placed his foot, a lotus flower bloomed or immediately after the birth of Siddhartha he stood up, took seven steps north, and uttered:
'I am chief of the world,
Eldest am I in the world,
Foremost am I in the world.
This is the last birth.
There is now no more coming to be.'
To understand the profundity of the Buddha's teachings is through a psychological point of view not mythology.
The Buddha even reportedly responded to a request for miracles by saying, "...I dislike, reject and despise them," let's follow his lead and instead focus on the teaching- "To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to purify one's mind—this is the teaching of the Buddhas" (Dhammapada 183).

sanghadass's picture

The Buddha was not a philosopher or a religious zealot. He was a pan-dimensional map maker. Many feel that the Buddha was an explorer and discoverer without equal. The problem is: we have disciplines like philosophy and science! So we try to squeeze the Buddha into our known categories of learning. The awakened one uncovered - made clear - the Dharma that liberates. A discovery like no other!

"The Buddha likens spiritual liberation to a long-forgotten, overgrown city deep in the forest. Just as it’s possible to reclaim and then inhabit this city once the path to it is found, it’s possible to live a liberated life when we discover and follow a path that will take us there." - (Gil Fronsdal)

indonesiatravelling's picture

of course it's just philosophy.
perhaps "sidartha gautama" was a prophet IMHO
because there were approximately 124.000 prophets all total that God sent into this world to make humankind follow the obedience of God.

buddhajazz's picture

I agree with the "philosophy" aspect of Buddhism. Ideas as these originating with a scholar/profit "Sid"-- establish a historical link. Just as religions change over the centuries, so has Buddhism. Today with the Western influence, it is seen as a philosophy, a spiritual path, a mental health plan if you will. And bits and pieces from the buffet table are discussed in higher conceptual terms, developing into sophisticated debates. Each of us can choose what we like about the delicious items on the table and add them to our personal views. Then defending and debating over their truths. It is the Way. We westerners like to defend our interpretations, personal choices and beliefs. Silly us. :)

simon_blemings's picture

...a grey, fuzzy little world of restrained emotions and the constant drone of multiple outbursts of expounding and bickering, orchestrated by finger-wagging; the denizens' bodies consisting solely of a large head wobbling atop one absurdly tiny foot, as they talk forever but are incapable of going anywhere -- welcome to the Loka of the Scholar, the intellectual masturpergatory.

Danny's picture

Oh really, simon blemings? Exactly what are you calling "the Loka of the scholar"? I think it would behoove you to read again the first line of the article.

Danny's picture

It is probably a good idea not to respond directly to anyone who equates thinking with the erotic stimulation of ones own sexual organs resulting in orgasm, so I’ll just say I think the article generates plenty of light, and clears up the common misconception that Buddhism is a philosophy, and not really a religious practice. Indeed, as the article suggests, it is both. I would also suggest that anyone who feels the need to advocate for a more anti-intellectual approach to the practice, at least from what I’ve seen of Buddhism here in the states, will have a very easy row to hoe.
Looking forward to the next article in the series, thanks.

sanghadass's picture

“If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.” - Benjamin Franklin
I guess Simon is 'just thinking'. Thinking - colorfully! Or, his perspective may also be that of a scholar. The 'Loka of the Scholar' sounds like someone who has some knowledge of sanskrit. I dont know to many uneducated folk who know obscure sanskrit definitions. He might be a scholar in hiding! As he is such an articulate fellow. He probably should take up some serious study. He sounds like a scholar to me? Or, perhaps he would advocate rounding them all up and liquidating them. As 'Pol Pot' did? Any way, I give him 10 points for poetic licence. Could 'one footed' folk still hop to get around? xxoo

simon_blemings's picture

Thank you for your feedback sangha dassa.
I'm trying to advocate for a better balance between intellectual knowledge and practice-based knowledge - perhaps starting with a 50-50 Middle Way split would be better than articles like these which are high on claimed 'scholasticism', but low on practice-derived insight; and subsequently offer amateurish statements such as 'Buddhism is a religion by any definition of the term' and demonstrate limited undertanding of so-called 'magic and miracles'.
More heat than light is generated by articles such as these.

sanghadass's picture

Dear Simon, I understand your concerns! I think the problem might be with the way our study and learning develops. We can give the Buddha a fair hearing on his own terms, without criticism or judgement - merely listening. Without coming to conclusions - we do the same with others! This is what meditation is - reaction free attention. In this way, we come to hold knowledge/information lightly. Our own understanding will develop as a result of this open listening. We need to hold our own understanding lightly - as well. This does not mean that we do not stay true to the insights that emerge in Dharma inquiry. Liberating insight is not encoded in the knowledge we imbibe through open listening. It is a consequence of open listening - itself!

We give ourselves a fair hearing. This is all we ever really hear - anyway. We listen with a loving heart to ourselves. We have a tentative commitment to our own perceptions and thoughts. Our inquiry into the theory of practice - and all aspects of the teaching - can be a kind of meditation. If we listen to the teachings with care and gratitude - with joy. When we receive the teachings in this way they come to life! That which we 'call' practice is really a gift.

Our personal commitment - energy and resources - will not wake us up! We still need to make the effort! Right effort really means the courage to be with the unfolding of life without running away. The energy of awakening is an enlightenment factor. Investigation is also an enlightenment factor. But more important than the study of Dharma teachings is the 'direct' investigation of - being present to - clinging, letting go etc.

The Buddha's teachings are a gift just like our next breath - and everything else that nurtures and sustains. A gift that comes out of an open loving heart/mind - which is emptiness itself.

sanghadass's picture

We are all believers! More deeply, we are all nobodies! We should hold our beliefs 'carefully'.

The Buddha taught 'emptiness' (shunyata). Where there is not-self and therefore, not-other. The 'Buddha's teachings' (Buddhism) are not a philosophy or religion. It is the uncommon sense of the Buddha's awakened intelligence!

The Buddha encouraged us to explode our own myths! Any kind of reified 'identity' is one of the myths he exposed. The Buddha referred to his mendicant followers as nobodies. How can I be a 'nobody' (akinchana) if I am overly concerned with that which sets me apart - from others? How am I going to follow the Buddha's advice, and realise that I am a nobody? If, I am concerned with affirming who I am, in contrast, to who I am not?

DarrellGKing's picture

Someone once told me of a sea monster with rows and rows of teeth which eats people voraciously and slides just under the water's surface with one fin sticking out. I saw so many references that I began to wonder if there was something behind them, so I went looking and found a shark. If stories have substance, the evidence is there to find.

All that is listed in religious myth is, indeed, possible in any human mind. And any of the myths can be great teaching tools to spark understanding. I sometimes wonder if wise men have used them for such purposes, confident that listeners would look deeply into the lessons because the myths were so obviously exaggerated and embellished that it would always be obvious they were not literally true.

drleroi's picture

As much as I would like to think that buddhism is a post superstition, compatible with science system, my experience around Tibetans seems to indicate that it is simply not the case. Everyone has their favorite stories, especially about Kalu rinpoche, Karmapa 16, and Trungpa about miracles, rain making, bi-location, Tumo, rainbows, etc. At some point science may come up with explanations for this stuff, but right now it is pretty out there. . Also, the whole Tulku system, which is the foundation of Tibetan buddhism, is certainly not within the realm of science. I am a devoted Karma Kagyu practitioner, but a lot of the stuff we sign on for is definitely not within the realm of science.

Kristina108's picture

When I first started practicing Buddhism (I'm also a Karma Kagyu practitioner), I took great comfort that the highest lamas and Buddha himself said to not to take anything on faith, but rather believe in what aligns with your own experience and/or critical judgement. Buddhism is not a practice of dogma - but one of a universal, constant truth. What we take refuge in (where we can confidently place our trust) - is what we need to practice and develop. We don't take refuge in the stories or even in reincarnation. Different lineages, different baskets of teachings work with a wide variety of methods and views that work with the wide variety of different capacities and tendencies that people hold, in different societies and at different times. Working with the freedom of mind and seeing it in action works for me. Working with a regimented program of conduct and hearing extraordinary stories may work for others. We're probably looking at each other, scratching our heads and saying: "Really? That's what gives you confidence and motivation?" For me, I've come to the point where these other paths don't undermine my confidence in my own experience. Instead they show me that even my own dharma path is working within its own conceptual level, and these other paths express the free play of space and its unlimited nature.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism is knowledge-based and befits the times. What was understood about life 3,000 years ago is quite different than today. As such, Buddhism has also (or should have) progressed to keep up with a changing society.

Cfischer01's picture

I very much agree. Buddhism holds up just fine to science. At least the pieces that are relevant to me. I am tired of hearing people say all the myths must be interpreted literally for Buddhism to have any intrinsic value. That argument simply doesn't hold up.

Dominic Gomez's picture

3.000 years ago people had a better talent and ear for metaphors. The 21st Century has devolved in that respect.

candor's picture

I’ve found it pretty easy to separate the wheat of wisdom in Buddhism from the spooky and kooky chaff of religion.

Dominic Gomez's picture

re: chaff of religion--some of the more insidious being guilt, holier than thou-ness, mutual exclusivity of good and evil, etc.

candor's picture

And the most insidious being unnecessary violence inflicted on the innocent "justified" by religious teachings: jihad, inquisition, religious wars, witch burnings, human slavery, and animal slavery /exploitation.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Those human activities are not religion anymore. They're man's inhumanity to man. What Buddhism defines as the 3 poisons of greed, belligerence and ignorance.

candor's picture

We agree that the root is greed, [aversion], and ignorance [or delusion].

However, all of those activities I mentioned in the comment to which you replied, with the exception of inquisition and witch burnings, are still going on today, and in some cases thriving today, under religious "justification." Yes, religion, overall, has progressed morally over the past couple hundred years, but that is due mostly, if not entirely, to secular criticism of its practices in the environment of free, liberal democracies.

Your choice of words -- "man's inhumanity to man" is revealing. What about man's inhumanity to women? What about "man's" inhumanity to other species (which I did mention)? Sexism (or patriarchy) and speciesism are other forms of prejudice promoted by religion -- including Buddhism -- for millennia. "Man's" inhumanity to women is probably only one of several cases of religiously inspired prejudice and violence I failed to mention.

Religion, by its nature of being generally parochial, culturally biased, defending tradition and belief and dogma instead of challenging it, is uniquely susceptible unnecessary exclusion, violence, and cruelty based on prejudice.

This is why we still have -- today -- jihad, religious wars, human slavery (or exploitation or subjugation in the case of women today worldwide), and animal exploitation. Animal exploitation is a unique case based on extreme anthropocentrism and speciesism (an anthropocentrism strongly encouraged by all religions, even today!). In racism, sexism, heterosexism, and speciesism, those who hold the dogma of superiority of the "other" are usually, if not always, blind to it, if for no other reason that they believe there is nothing wrong with it. They do not see the *irrelevance* of the characteristic(s) they hold to be relevant.

The racist or sexist doesn't acknowledge the fact that intelligence, not race or sex, is the morally *relevant* characteristic for a university education. Just so, the speciesist doesn't acknowledge the fact that sentience, not humanity, is the morally *relevant* characteristic for basic protection against unnecessary violence and harm.

If someone -- regardless of race, sex, sexual orientation, species, or any other accident of birth -- can benefit from kindness and protection, why shouldn't we acknowledge it in our thoughts, speech, and behavior?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Religious justification is a straw man. The real reason is power. Aryanist-fueled Nazism could be considered a religion. A more accurate label would be "the human proclivity to be inhuman". People don't have to be that way, especially in today's global environment. But for many folks in many parts of the world, there just aren't any effective alternatives to becoming inhuman in order to justify and safeguard one's existence. (FYI, that's why I've been practicing Buddhism for 41 years. It's a powerful alternative.)

candor's picture

"Greed, aversion, and ignorance," "power," and "religious justification" are not mutually exclusive. They often happen together. I see the first as primary, the second as a manifestation of the first, and the third as creating a very favorable environment.

I agree that there are secular ideologies, such as Nazism, Maoist Communism, and Soviet Communism, that play the same role of creating an environment of dogma and a lack of skepticism and criticism that nurtures atrocities, totalitarianism, and ongoing oppression and violence as religious ideologies often have.

Among many reasons I am heavily influenced by Buddhist philosophy is that I see it -- or at least the parts of it I admittedly cherry pick -- as striking at the root of many problems of prejudice and unnecessary violence. I also like the Buddha's teaching that we "see for ourselves," an attitude, unlike typical religion, that fosters skepticism and criticism. The Buddha was very critical of the Brahmanism and caste system he was born into. The Buddha was also skeptical of his teachers. I consider these all good qualities.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Shakyamuni was a revolutionary on the deepest level, that of human life itself. He rebelled against the greed, belligerence and ignorance that enslave humans from within.

candor's picture

That's for sure.

sanghadass's picture

Well said, candor! It is right to point out how religious practitioners have/do carry out senseless acts of cruelty and indifference - in the past - and on a regular basis. Now, in order to avoid the use of 'empty Panglossian platitudes' [thanks for the sharing of this phrase elsewhere - i love it] we need to 'at least' draw some attention to past and present acts of violence and cruelty, that are perpetrated for entirely non-religious reasons. Stalin famously declared 'religion is poison'. No phoney pretence of religious piety with good old Stalin - oh no! I heard that he liked to be given lists of all the possible 'class enemies' his subservient apparatchik's could identify. He would go down the list and put crosses next to the ones that required liquidation. He put one cross next to the 'womens lawn tennis association'. I think it would lack 'objectivity' if we were to suggest that religion is a source of harm, and neglect to mention that it holds no 'patent' on violence. Religious people can be kind, wise, and intelligent. Science buffs and the devoted followers of scientism can be insensitive, careless, and unreflective. It works both ways. Just think of the horrendous soughts of things that happen - to animals - in science. In the name of research! There is no shortage of religious bigotry and violence in this world. It is important for thoughtful people to 'come out of' unhelpful stereotypes. Especially intelligent people who have so much to offer us all. I think Dominic was trying to say, that it is 'people' who do violent and insensitive things. They may justify those acts through an appeal to so-called 'religious authority'. Or, through some other kind of specious reasoning. Religion can be used as a justification for mass slaughter or, housing the homeless. It depends on a lot of other variables as well - in order to choose violence or, some other course of action. If this were not the case we could declare unequivocally, 'religion is poison'. Good old Stalin would be more than happy to chime in on that one - 'may he rest in peace'. It is really quite unfair to characterize people as mindless believers and beliefless science enthusiasts. Many of us simply do not fit these characterizations. Particularly, in Buddhist circles. It is quite often the case that people listen to the religious 'models' and world views, and don't believe them at all. We simply listen and keep an open mind. Many of us listen with equal degrees of interest to scientific accounts of reality. Many of us do this without feeling any need to disparage or, dismiss anyone as a crank, a fool, as delusional, as mindless sheep who just conform to religious edicts, and surrender their critical intelligence. So when people declare that religious folks believe in myths, and stupid archaic ways of seeing the world. We know that this is not relevant to our own 'inner life'. Many of us, also question the wisdom of dealing with 'people of faith' in a dismissive and divisive way. There are really good reasons not to do this! It can actually comfirm people in there particularity! I never feel inclined to listen 'sympathetically' to anyone who is quick to point out how deluded I am. It is more important to care than it is to be right! I rest my case! xxoo

candor's picture


The first sentence in what you're replying to here is "we agree that the root is greed, aversion and delusion."

If that's the first sentence, then obviously I don't think religion is the root (or primary cause) of those negative things. I've also admitted elsewhere that religion can have good effects. My point was that, at its worst (read the exchange between me and Dominic again), religion encourages those negative things due to its nature of defending tradition, belief, and dogma, especially when they cause harm, instead of being open to challenge old beliefs.

By contrast, the attitude and encouragement of modern (and ancient Greek) philosophy and science is to challenge ideas, old and new. I don't claim this always happens, but the skeptical and critical attitude exists in modern philosophy and science far more than in religion. In religion, the skeptical and critic attitude is, at best, discouraged, and at worst, absolutely prohibited (often, especially historically, by threats of torture and death).

sanghadass's picture

Dear Candor, I think I understand your point about scepticism. I have also been given the impression that there was a large variety - as with the Greeks - of philosophical and religious positions, and forms of inquiry, being espoused and practiced, in what we now call India - in the same time frame. There were versions of what we now call, idealists, realists, atomists, empiricists, phenomenologists, atheists, theists, pantheists, monists, orthodoxies, heterodoxies etc. The Buddha was aware of a lot of these philosophical and religious musings - as you know. We owe a lot to the Buddha's contemporaries for the gift of his teachings. Although Greek culture is so important to the subsequent developments in Europe - and the world. I would be indulging in a kind of prejudicial cultural and historical dialogue, if I were to elevate the thought of Ancient Greece and its further development in Europe - and beyond. And disparage or dismiss the development of thought in the period that the Buddha lived in, and the subsequent developments in that thought in his region of origin, and throughout the world. Including our musings in this thread. I am not a cultural imperialist - or a europhile. I tend to give everyone a fair hearing. I may disagree with their conclusions. But I rarely take a dogmatic position and insist that people see things like me. I 'make my case' and don't suggest to them, if they do not share my perspective, that they are delusional, blind and mindless conformists etc. I may have a sneaking suspicion that it is indeed the case, that the people I am talking to are 'not clear' about a lot of things. However, I do not tell them that their convictions are 'fairy tales', archaic myths, complete nonsense! I do this because I am a practicing Buddhist. And his eightfold path contains elements that tends to discourage this kind of speech and behavior. I also do it because - I believe - it is 'common sense' and it is something I would not appreciate - if done to me. I feel that what I have found to be important is best conveyed in a way that does not step on peoples' toes. That does not leave them feeling that their entitlement to a 'different way of looking' - that results in a different point of view - is not being respected. Even if, it differs radically from my own. I find this facilitates open inquiry of a phiosophical and scientific nature. I would not discourage open inquiry in either. I am not willing to say emphatically to anyone, that I have all the significant answers to life, the universe, and everything. I am willing to keep an open mind. I encourage others to do the same. With regard to Buddhist teachings and science. LUV YA MADLY, sangha dassa.

candor's picture


Are you saying I'm a closed-minded, unfair, dogmatic, insistent, rude, insulting, toe-stomping, calloused, disrespectful, emphatic, know-it-all, cultural imperialist, but that nevertheless, you luv me madly?

Because if I'm not mistaken, when one eliminates the first person (I'm not like dis and I'm not like dat) in a long winded, monoblock paragraph addressed specifically "Dear Candor," it seems like you are saying all that in way too many words.

Goodbye and good luck, Sangha, you won't hear much, if anything from me again. I chimed in with candid thoughts on the beggars can't be choosers and science articles admittedly more than my better judgment counseled and indeed more than I should have. I'm going back to mental hygiene from now on by generally avoiding the comments section. I mostly won't even read comments from here on out, the main exception being the beggars can't be choosers article, on which I may (or may not) deem it appropriate to clear up any future confusion.

sanghadass's picture

May you be well and happy, and live at ease!

Dominic Gomez's picture

Traditional definitions of both philosophy and religion need to be updated to work in today's intellectual and spiritual landscape. Times have changed in 3,000 years. Rather than vanquishing rivals by flying in the air and releasing fire and water, these days we use drones.

hoag's picture

There's no problem with Buddhist philosophy. We just have to be clear that philosophy is the menu and not the meal. In the Zen sect, the practice of zazen—seated, still, silent inquiry—begins where the dirt road of philosophy ends. In fact, the entire enterprise of Zen is one of realizing and actualizing the Buddha's teachings of wisdom and compassion as a living experience: the ineffable Tao beyond words, beyond thoughts and philosophy, and yet right here as close as our hands. Then why say anything at all? Why all the Zen texts? In the Zen tradition, words are tools that inspire, goad, spur, support, move, and encourage. The songs of birds, the sound of traffic, and the laugh of a neighbor all articulate the BuddhaDharma more profoundly than any sutra, sacred text, or philosophy.

Sanki's picture

I wonder if these professor's practice? I would hesitate, if I were writing such an article, to make such an all encompassing claim about buddhism. It is true that most if not all of the traditions within buddhism have such stories as they cite. But different traditions may view them differently--the nuances are lost. Many who think of themselves as belonging to the Zen tradition take a very different approach to the "scriptures" and the stories recounted here. I can't speak for all who follow the zen path for sure, in fact I know I do not, but I also know that my views are well within the "mainstream." The way I look at it, the buddhist scriptures and commentaries have no more claim to universal truth than the christian bible. We become acquainted with what is real, valuable and universal through experience of practice. For me, scriptures are valuable as "teaching stories," skillful means, upaya, and as a link with our tradition (and for their beauty as poetry). This isn't to denigrate the teachings for sure, but it is to realize where their value lies. What matters is what we know based on our own experience, not what we read in the sutras or the commentaries. I have no idea whether buddha vanquished some yogis by flying through the air and gushing water or blazing light--and quite frankly its not a question I'm exactly burning with desire to answer. If reading such an account arouses the bodhicita in the reader, then it serves a purpose I suppose--but realization of who we are always already--our own true nature--is something we must look for within ourselves.

trixie22's picture

"Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” Buddha, from Kalama Sutta
Soooo, with this I confidently do not believe that the Buddha was "flying into the air and releasing fire from his head"
This one quote is what attracted me to Buddhism in the first place: not taking things in blind faith (this to me is the definition of religion)

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture
maryft's picture

Oh thank you to previous responders! My blood pressure goes up in a very unbuddhist way when we get preoccupied with thinking and labeling and being precise and such. Scholarship has its place, of course, but isn't the important thing not the words we use but how we live our lives?

johndsykes1's picture

Perhaps, there is another difference with Buddhism. Did the Buddha not strongly suggest that one develops their faith based on their own experience, rather than by the words of anyone else, including the Buddha? Is this not different than most religions?

For me, while interesting, the mythology distracts from understanding the Dharma and does little to further one's release from suffering. Indeed, it may hinder one if taken as "gospel". For example, the writing of the superhuman powers of jhana allude to amazing feats, although there is no evidence of this actually being the case, other than the old texts and superstition. Indeed, some practitioners may wrongly be attracted to deeper states of concentration for that reason, or conversely, may shy away from jhana training for fear what may lie beyond. Much opportunity for deeper clarity is lost in both cases.

I suppose that at the end of the day, Buddhism is what one makes of it, be it philosophy or religion.

zenqi's picture

Although unusual for me to do so, I read most all of the comments here. Your perspective was the only one that echoed my initial thoughts exactly!

I've only been practicing for a little over three years, but I am very devoted take it completely seriously. Being very turned off to god religions, particularly Christianity, the first time I heard reference to the powers of jhana I was instantly disheartened, as I wondered what was down this road. (The same holds true to the concept of reincarnation) Instead of either turning away from Buddhist practice or believing everything I hear about it, I have kept my focus on each step of my practice and my only concern is following the Buddha's explicit instructions and see what happens. So far, I have found nothing to doubt. If and when I train to the fourth absorption, I'll see for myself if I have mastery over the elements, but I certainly don't want to fall into the trap of unworldly craving for it.

aldrisang's picture

Ah and if the author had only said "this is what the texts say" or "this is what tradition holds" instead of basically saying so-and-so happened, it would be a bit more honest of an exposition.

mweagley's picture

I had the same thought.