Is Buddhism a Religion? Letting Go of Faith

Is Buddhism a religion? Is it a faith? When I think of a religion, I think primarily of the specific metaphysics and theology that it promotes. And so I think of Buddhism as a philosophy, not a theology, because Buddha repeatedly discouraged metaphysical speculation. Buddhism is often popularly but erroneously portrayed as denying the existence of God. On an ultimate level, however, it neither denies nor affirms God, just as it neither denies nor affirms a self, because to do so would elevate a belief or concept to a truth. And the truth, according to Buddhism and mystics of all spiritual traditions, can not be conceptualized.

Buddha often said that his sole purpose in teaching was to help others learn how to recognize and end suffering in all of its varied forms in their everyday lives. Unfortunately, he didn't always comply with his own admonition to avoid metaphysical speculation, nor have many of his followers. To this day, we remain too often mired in and attached to unnecessary, fruitless, and distracting concerns about karma, rebirth, reincarnation, and the nature of reality. In this regard, I recommend reading Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s “Heartwood of the Bodhii Tree.”

One could say, of course, that the notion of selflessness/interdependence/unity/nonduality constitutes a theology or theological doctrine, and that faith in it constitutes a religious belief. The critical difference between Buddhism and other religions, I think, lies in the degree to which they purposefully promote attachment to their ideas, concepts, doctrines, rites, rituals, ceremonies, and practices as the only or primary means to accomplish and achieve their goals. Many Christian and Islamic denominations strongly promote, proselytize, advocate, and reward faith in their particular doctrines and practices. Unfortunately, faith is then defined and measured by the strength of one’s attachment to those specific religious doctrines and practices. We have seen in the past and even today the tragedy that can result when one is willing to kill or die for particular beliefs, whether in the killing of an abortion physician or the bombing of the World Trade Center.

In his first and primary teaching on the Four Noble Truths, Buddha taught that attachment to anything, including all concepts and beliefs, only causes suffering. And becoming nonattached (not indifferent or insensitive), he said, was the way leading to nirvana, to the dissolution of the sense of a separate self, to the end of suffering, and to living a spontaneously loving, compassionate, joyful, and peaceful life in harmony with all beings and all of creation.

I think Zen best characterizes the critical importance of nonattachment and letting go in its emphasis on transcending, getting past, and letting go of conceptual thought in order to realize “Don't Know” mind and surrender to the mystery of the unfolding and the reality that “What is, is!” Don’t misunderstand me regarding the role of faith. Buddha emphasized the importance of both doubt and faith and balancing them in pursuing a spiritual path. And as a friend and I recently agreed, faith develops experientially and spontaneously with the practice of meditation and mindfulness. So, by all means, have faith! Enjoy faith! In whatever religion you adopt. Just don’t get too attached to it. Peace, Charlie