It is often debated in the religious community whether or not Buddhism is categorized as a religion or as a philosophical teaching. The answer is, it is both. There are three major types of Buddhism practiced in the world, some of them having smaller branches with slight variations in their beliefs and teachings. These Buddhist styles are: Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Vajrayana Buddhism. Some of these forms have deities that are worshipped, and some do not. Some have scriptures, others don’t believe in any physical form of the Buddhist teachings. Analyzing and comparing these three major types of Buddhism, it is hard to argue that it is in fact a religion and a philosophy.
Theravada (pronounced, tera-vaugh-dah) Buddhism is typically found in southeast asian countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. As with all forms of Buddhism, the ultimate goal is to attain enlightenment and reach nirvana. For Theravada Buddhist this means, ending the non-stop cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth by becoming an “arhat.” Arhat is the title given to a Buddhist who has reached nirvana (buddhist-temples.com). Nirvana is the mind being freed of all wants and desires and existing in perfect peace. There is no afterlife once reaching nirvana, there is only the freedom of human suffering. In the Theravada practice, nirvana is reached by completing four stages. The first stage requires an individual to convert to Theravada and “overcoming false beliefs.” (religionfacts.com). The second stage is reached when the individual eliminates “lust, hatred, and illusion,” (religionfacts.com) resulting in a person’s rebirth. The third stage is also titled the “never-returner,” (religionfacts.com) as the person has been “reborn in heaven, where he or she will become an arahant.” (religionfacts.com). The fourth and final stage is Arhat or “worthy one.” (religionfacts.com). The fourth stage represents “one who has attained perfect enlightenment and will never be reborn.” (religionfacts.com). In Theravada Buddhism however, not just anyone may become an arhat and reach nirvana. Only monks and priest are capable of reaching these four stages and end the cycle of rebirth. It is also believed by Theravada monks, that enlightenment is impossible to attain in a single lifetime. All forms of Buddhism focus on the words of the Buddha, who in this case is viewed a great sage philosopher. In this form there is no belief in divine beings, which makes it’s teachings seem more like a philosophy than a religion.
Mahayana Buddhism is found in that more major parts of asia like China, Korea, and Japan. Similar to Theravada Buddhism, the goal in the Mahayana teaching is also attaining enlightenment similar to an arhat, as a bodhisattva. This is where most similarities between the two religions end. The Mahayana form accepts all that wish to attain enlightenment and end the cycle of rebirth. In order to attain enlightenment in this form of Buddhism, one must help end the suffering of others. Many people recognize this as “karma,” which is the belief that if you help someone in their suffering or troubles, you will be rewarded with relief from your own personal sufferings. Mahayana teaches that we are all connected in the same world and the same life. American born, Zen Buddhist monk, Kusala Bhikshu explains this belief as, “If one person is sick, hungry, homeless, or dying in the world… There is a part of him that is sick, hungry, homeless, or dying” (urbandharma.org). As a bodhisattva, one is still subject to suffering and positive and negative karma. Once a bodhisattva has completed his or her enlightenment however, they will become a Buddha. These Buddhas and bodhisattvas act as deity-like figures for practicing buddhists. These figures are what all buddhists aspire to become, and many draw inspiration from them. Some Buddhas and bodhisattvas are portrayed as deities, while others are living enlightened beings who have consciously decided to delay passage to nirvana to help others attain their enlightenment. The original Buddha, is the greatest of these deities but is not worshipped. Instead he inspires all those who practice to do as he had once done. Since buddhists do not believe in a god that created the universe and the world, there seems to no fear in angering this higher being. Instead the focus is to be the most useful member of society as a whole, while seeking enlightenment. Those who choose the wrong path must attempt to reaccomplish these tasks in the next life along with what ever other punishment karma has dealt onto them. These characteristics clearly show the religious nature of Buddhism.
The third major practice is Vajrayana Buddhism, better known as Tibetan Buddhism is probably the most well known form of Buddhism. As with Mahayana Buddhism, the goal with Vajrayana is to attain enlightenment and “Buddhahood” in a single lifetime (religionfacts). This is achieved through meditation and placing the compassion for all living things over all else, just as in Mahayana. Similar to Theravada, enlightenment is only achieved through strict dedication and practice, usually taking place in a monastery. Just as with Mahayana Buddhism, Tibetan buddhist believe in the same deities. The difference between the two being that to Tibetan buddhists these deities help buddhists along their path to enlightenment. Each deity teaches a particular lesson to help them extinguish material desires, or aid in the healing of sicknesses. These beliefs make up Vajrayana Buddhism’s unique and beautiful rituals and ceremonies, as well as the painting and symbols that are frequented in it’s temples. In this practice there is also a spiritual leader appointed to the practice. It is believed that these chosen leaders are reincarnations of former Buddhas who have come back to show their people the way to enlightenment. This leader is called the “Dalai Lama,” who is seen as a “God-King” (buddhism.about.com) to those who follow it’s teachings. Tibetan Buddhists also do not believe in a god of creation or an afterlife. With such strong influences by god-like entities, Tibetan Buddhism can clearly be classified as both a religion and a philosophy teaching.
By Catholics, Christians, and Muslims, Buddhism may not meet up to what they consider a “religion.” However, all the elements that make up these other religions are also found in Buddhism. There are text and scriptures that date back as far as or further than that of Jesus and Mohammed, and there are instructions on how to live one’s life and practice. The biggest difference would have to be the absence of a God that created the world and universe. We also hear the word “faith” a lot when it comes to other religions. According to dictionary.com, faith is a “belief that is not based on proof,” “belief in god or in the doctrines or teachings of religion,” and “belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards of merit, etc.” Buddhism contains all of these and even teaches many of the lessons better. As a religion, it allows it’s followers to attain something greater than themselves through important life lessons and structured practices in some cases. Bhikshu explains, “It’s really a choice all Buddhist practitioners make… To change themselves in a way that is of benefit to all living beings, and not just their ‘Self.’” As a philosophy, it provides these same lessons to non-followers to improve their everyday lives. In the first chapter of his book Buddhism for Beginners, Thubten Chodron answers the frequently asked question, “Must we be a Buddhist to practice what the Buddha taught?” He replied with, “No. The Buddha gave a wide variety of instructions, and if some of the help us live to better, to solve our problems and become kinder, then we are free to practice them. There is no need to call ourselves Buddhists. The purpose of the Buddha’s teachings is to benefit us, and if putting some of them into practice helps us live more peacefully with ourselves and others, that is what’s important.” (17) Buddhism is without question both a philosophy and a religion, and should be respected as such.