Are these monks praying, and does it matter?
When filling in a census form, under the section 'Religion', I write 'Buddhism.' This may not, to the general reader, be much of a surprise, considering the fact that I am a Buddhist, and yet, many Buddhists would themselves feel uncomfortable with classifying Buddhism as a religion. Why? Well, if we take a typical dictionary definition of religion, we usually come up with something like the following (taken from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, in this case): 'the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods/a particular system of faith and worship.' If we examine this description of what religion is, and then compare it to our own understanding of Buddhism, do we find that the former sums up the latter or not?
First of all, is Buddhism 'the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power?' If we define the law of karma as such, then the 'superhuman controlling power' bit works, albeit loosely. However, look at those two words 'faith' and 'worship' - is Buddhism primarily a form of faith and worship? I've certainly never read of Buddhists having faith in or worshiping karma! However, for many Buddhists around the world, of whatever sect, faith in the Buddha, his disciples, the Teachings, gurus and teachers is an important aspect of Buddhism, expressed in acts of worship. And yet, others - in my opinion a small minority - would balk at the suggestion that they either have faith in the Buddha or worship him, let alone any of the other aforementioned objects of devotion.
This minority does appear to be predominant amongst Western Buddhists, not surprisingly given their rejection of faith-based religions such as Christianity and Judaism, along with the anti-superstitious feeling that the sciences promote in the Occident. In the Orient, where Buddhism has been practiced for the past two-and-a-half thousand years, such rejection of faith and worship is much rarer, although it is widely documented, due to the high-profile academic positions held by many of its proponents. In Japan, for example, the famous writer on Zen Buddhism D. T. Suzuki presented Buddhism as a fusion of spirituality and psychology, whilst his compatriots in the 'Kyoto School' of philosophy, including Nishida Kitaro and Nishitani Keiji, also described Buddhism in rationalistic and scientific ways.
But what of the second part of that Dictionary entry on religion above? It defined 'superhuman controlling power' not as the Buddhist notion of karma, but as 'especially a personal God or gods.' Even if we allow for faith and worship to be considered 'genuine' Buddhist practice, surely neither a god nor gods would be the object of such devotion? Well, again, the way that Amitabha Buddha is viewed and worshiped seems little different to a god, and even in the Pali Canon we find the Buddha acknowledging the existence, and sometimes the contemplation, of gods (although not the adoration of them). Again, modern-minded Buddhists might interpret the various non-historical buddhas, bodhisattvas, gods, and spirits described in traditional Buddhist circles in mythological or psychological ways, but for most Buddhists such beings are believed in literally, making their experience of Buddhism very much a religion, not a philosophy or 'way of life.'
In the last part of the dictionary definition of religion cited above, we find 'a particular system of faith and worship.' We've already examined the use of the words 'faith' and 'worship' in relation to Buddhism, but what of the idea of it being a system? Well, this would appear to fit in with the philosophy and practice of the Noble Eightfold Path, with a fair definition of it as 'a system of spiritual/psychological liberation.' This would appear to offend few modern-minded Buddhists, but doesn't really begin to acknowledge the other more religious beliefs and practices found within Buddhist communities. We seem split between very different interpretations of what Buddhism is, all rooted in long-established scriptures and traditions, but diverging dramatically when present practices are examined.
So, is Buddhism a religion? Or, is it a 'system of liberation from suffering', or a complex set of philosophies, or a set of cultural practices? Maybe it's all of the above, and more. Perhaps this is the beauty of Buddhism, that we can experience it in the way that suits us best, depending on cultural, individual, and temporal conditions. The Buddha is seen to teach different 'levels' of Buddhism to different people in both the Theravada and Mahayana scriptures, and within the living traditions of both major branches of Buddhism we find multiple forms of belief and practice. It is the conclusion of this writer - for the time being at least, for all things are impermanent - that Buddhism can be described as a religion, with some reservations regarding theistic terminology, as well as a branch of philosophy, and, most crucially, a way of life intended to end suffering. What do you think, dear reader?