Buddhism is a Religion

Please note that i wrote this back in January 2008. My views on Buddhism have changed and thus my words from back then might not necessarily reflect what i am thinking now. However, so much work and time went into the discussion in the comments, i want to leave these pages up, so that others may benefit from them. (August 16, 2011)

Before I embark on an attempt to show why Buddhism is a religion, let me provide my rationale for why this is important. Why does it matter if Buddhism is not categorized as a religion? Because it gives Buddhism false credibility. We are not practicing science when we meditate, for example. We meditate. Introspection is subjective, not objective. It is basically a pseudoscience. I don’t think that Buddhism can add anything to our understanding of the human mind. At best, it can serve to generate hypotheses. However, there is also a darker side to religion, which tends to support the status quo. This is also the case with Buddhism. As an example is the theocracy in the form of the Dalai Lama (though his power is not endowed by god; he is reincarnated into that position). It also perpetuates suffering by claiming that suffering is entirely caused by attachments and thus does not allow for critical analysis of other factors.

Most arguments against the fact that Buddhism is a religion are along two lines: (1) There is no god in Buddhism and (2) Buddhists don’t proselytize.

It is true that there is no all-powerful being in Buddhism. This definition of religion, though, is rather Judeo-Christian-Islamic centric. To presume that a religion has a god or gods that are similar to those historically seen in the large monotheistic religions is to make that the standard. It is not a universal definition. Other definitions focus more on belief and faith, which are certainly present in Buddhism, starting with the foundation that there has been a historical Buddha who has reached enlightenment. What is more important, though, is what practitioners consider Buddhism. Although many Western Buddhists insist, almost to the point of dogma, that Buddhism is not a religion, historical Buddhist leaders very much considered it a religion. Brian Victoria writes in his book Zen at War about the attendance of Buddhists at the World Parliament of Religion in 1893 (p. 14). These Zen Buddhists did not argue that Buddhism is not a religion. They argued that Buddhism is not only a religion but they were there to “recast Japan’s version of Mahayana Buddhism as a true world religion, if not the true world religion” (p. 15). In their opinion, Mahayana Buddhism was exactly what the West needed. A possible counter-argument might be that Mahayana Buddhism is surely a religion – after all the Tibetan form of it is riddled with gods and goddess. The Zen Buddhist delegation back in 1893 faced similar arguments, which they perceived as an “odd form of religious discrimination” (p. 13). To counter this discrimination, Zen Buddhists decided that they had to teach the West about Mahayana Buddhism, the delegation to the World Parliament was only the beginning. This participation was also the beginning of a concerted effort to “actively share their faith with the benighted peoples of the world” (p.15). They began proselytizing, which is entirely consistent with the idea of “turn[ing] the wheel of the Dharma in America” (p. 16). The Buddhist delegates upon their return to Japan consequently “called for increased missionary work” (p. 16). This was wholeheartedly embraced by the Buddhist leadership who also felt that this would give them the opportunity to ensure Buddhism’s entrenchment in the Japanese culture at a time when it was still recovering from open governmental hostility. They also saw this as a way to defeat Christianity in Japan, which was seen as a major threat to the country. Yet they also admired Christian missionary work, especially the way Christians used working for the poor as a missionary tool: Buddhist leaders “were forced to recognize the remarkable effectiveness of Christian philanthropy as a means of recruiting converts” (p. 17).

While these missionaries did not go out with the sword in hand, they still skillfully adapted Buddhism to the culture they were working in. They also were not as peaceful as most Westerners claim. Victoria points out that during the Sino-Japanese war “there was almost no peace movement among Buddhists, there was no lack of Buddhist leaders who justified the war” (p. 20). This echoes what the “Four Horsemen” were discussing regarding differences in religion: “So, it’s a matter of space and time, but no, they’re all, they’re all equally rotten, false, dishonest, corrupt, humourless and dangerous.” (Christopher Hitchens).

Interestingly, one of the Zen Buddhists most revered in the West, D.T. Suzuki, was a staunch supporter of the imperialist Japanese state. He is quoted by Victoria as saying “religion should, first of all, seek to preserve the existence of the state, abiding by its history and the feelings of its people” (p. 23). Moreover, he supports a “just war:” “Therefore, if a lawless country comes and obstructs our commerce, or tramples on our rights, this is something that would truly interrupt the progress of all humanity. In the name of religion out country could not submit to this. Thus, we would have no choice but to take up arms, not for the purpose of slaying the enemy, nor for the purpose of pillaging cities, let alone for the purpose of acquiring wealth. Instead, we would simply punish the people of the country representing injustice in order that justice might prevail. [...] This is what is called religious conduct.” (p. 24-5). Suzuki’s views remained important for the rational of institutional Japanese Buddhist leaders until 1945 (p. 23).

Most disturbing, though, was the idea perpetuated that Buddhist faith helps make better soldiers. One Shin scholar-priest, Ōsuga Shūdō, declared: “Reciting the name of Amida Buddha makes it possible to march onto the battlefield firm in the belief that death will bring rebirth in paradise” (p.31). I don’t see any difference in this argument from something that a Christian or Muslim scholar might espouse.

The argument that Buddhism is not a religion because there are no gods is a Western-centric, arrogant argument that ignores that there is more to religion than the belief in a deity. The argument that Buddhism is not a religion because Buddhists don’t proselytize ignores the history of the spread of Buddhism, which not only included active missionaries to bring Buddhism to the West. Missionaries originally spread Buddhism to other Eastern countries. It seems an entirely modern and Western attempt to redefine Buddhism as a philosophy, compatible with science. That strikes me as a “post-modern maneuver to change people’s perception by changing the language” (Wallace Sampson). It stems from an attempt to increase the credibility of Buddhism and Buddhists in an increasingly secular world. It probably also serves to distance Buddhism from critiques of the monotheistic religions.

Clearly, Buddhism has all the elements of a religion. Buddhism is also not a religion always supporting peace and thus less harmful than other religions. Buddhism contains the same fallacies of other religions and at the right time, it is just as dangerous as other religions. To quote Hitchens again: “I would never give up the claim that all religions are equally false. And for that reason, because they’re forced by preferring faith to reason, latently at least, equally dangerous. [...] Because of the surrender of the mind. The eagerness to discard the only thing that we’ve got that makes us higher primates, the faculty of reason.”


Buddhism is a Religion — 33 Comments

  1. This is interesting ! I would want to write more on this . I’ll do it later . Just one observation for the moment . I do not find the ” witness ” as a ” fixed ” state . In the beginning , there’s a ” witnessing ” of thoughts and the content of consciousness . Like one standing on the shore and watching the currents of the river . Later , as this ONGOING process moves on , there’s nothing to witness . Only ongoing sensations . In Buddhism there’s no ” permanent self ” which is what contemporary neuroscience is establishing . Gerald Edelman’s ” dynamic core ” theory is revealing .


  2. Dear Delany,

    Not sure if you’re still following these comments but i wanted to share with you that i have come back to meditating! It feels like our dialog had left open a door inside my mind for the possibility that there is something that science can’t always capture: Something can be beneficial to us even if we cannot (yet?) show it via an experiment or other research study. I’ve been reading a lot of feminist philosophy, especially feminist pragmatists. They are very critical of complete reliance on one method to knowledge – the scientific method. While i still think that there is a lot to be said about the scientific method, i am no longer so certain that something is only valid/beneficial if it is “scientifically proven” (actually, not sure if i really ever thought that…).

    In any rate, i really appreciate that through our dialog, my mind remained open to possibility!


  3. Hi Rachel,
    Even Buddhist practitioners share your doubts (among others) initially, and some remain doubtful about any view of reality until they gain clarity through practice. But even physicists doubt big chunks of quantum mechanics given how difficult gravity is being! Still, ‘converting’ you to Buddhism is not really possible, so don’t worry.

    Buddha did ask a simple question which you might find beneficial though – who is it that doubts? I will use the words of a Rinpoche here as I’m no teacher: “First, we have our physical body, and then we have this mind, two aspects of ourself. These two are connected here and now to a person. And who is that person that is connected? One physical, one mind, right? We say, it is “my” body, it is “my” mind. When we say my body, my mind, there is something else that is witnessing our body, and witnessing our mind. The witness is more than your body, and it is more than your mind. So, actually, it is like you are not within your body and you are not within your mind. So then what are you? How is your existence?…” In other words, who is the witness?

    This is simply a question posed from the position of our most basic circumstance. Checking to see if this body and mind that we take for existence, even though they rot, wither, and die, really are all there is to Being, can be very worthwhile. So few beings are even capable of posing this question to themselves and exist solely as the product of their circumstances. Many beings with the capacity to pose it (including some Buddhist practitioners) instead ignore it or place all the responsibility of investigation onto others, onto science, onto preconceived answers (religion), and in the process also become little more than products of their circumstances. You are one of the unique beings with the capacity to pose the question and find an answer, and if your intellectual positions are currently incompatible with the view or methods taught by the Buddha, well, don’t let that cause you to miss out on the precious opportunity to investigate and face your most basic circumstance, and to ask who it is that doubts. You may find great joy in this endeavor~

  4. Greetings Rachel,
    I would like to address some issues I found in reading your article. Buddhism is presented in your article as a singular overarching entity similar to Christianity. The article as it is written ignores the manyfold factions of the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. Amongst and beyond the forms of Buddhism there are nondogmatic, nonreligious, and empirical. I identify as a Methodical Buddhist or a scholar of the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. Practitioners of Buddhist methods exist who reject the question of religion and deity as malformed and delusional. The distinction may seem slight, but it is an important one.

    Siddhartha taught that the teachings of the eightfold path are empirical and should be tested by each practitioner. He taught that the realities presented are subject to examination; it is ignorant of the scholar to accept the reality of one’s existence without evidence.

    In Buddhism, Buddhist are as religious and dogmatic as the practitioners of scientific methodology. I know I observe and practice the dharma taught by Siddhartha and expanded upon by the scholars of his teachings because the dharma works and stands in the face of falsifiable testing like scientific method. The dharma itself is a set of laws or principles similar in mien to scientific laws or principles. The dharma has been tested repeatedly by many people around the world and through out history.

    The teachings that I am speaking of are:
    Dependent Arising, Causality
    The Three Marks of Existence
    The Four Noble Truths
    The Eightfold Path
    The Five Cognitive Aggregates

  5. Rachel, two things. First, the difference between MBCT and CBT is not that MBCT is CBT *plus* mindfulness training. CBT teaches patients to identify the thoughts that are dysfunctional, and attempts, through logical disputation, to refute those thoughts and also to “replace” them with more positive or adaptive thoughts. This is called “cognitive restructuring.” At least one type of study known as a “component analysis” indicates that the process of identifying (i.e., noticing) thoughts is helpful, but the “restructuring” and “disputing” parts are not. This is one reason that MBCT does NOT pretend to engage in “cognitive restructuring.” Instead, MBCT teaches patients to notice ALL thoughts as “just thoughts,” not necessarily truths, and to notice that they are transient and ultimately of little importance.

    Second, I am pretty sure there are as yet no published studies that attempt to compare the effectiveness of MBCT and CBT head-to-head.

  6. Thanks, Delany, for your detailed response! It looks like I have some work to do: (1) Incorporate in my posts the important distinction that you have draw (mindfulness training vs. relaxation training) that seems to have gotten lost in the meta-analyses I looked at. And (2) Read the summary you mentioned and probably take another close look at the MBCT work to see if they’ve done any studies comparing MBCT vs. CBT to determine if adding a mindfulness dimension to cognitive therapy helps more.

    (And maybe I need to add a disclaimer to my blog, too, something like: Past opinions expressed by Rachel on Rachel’s Musings might not necessarily be reflective of current opinions. Learning occurs. And so does forgetfulness to clean up old posts…)

    Thanks again, Delany! And thanks also to Barry for restarting this discussion!

  7. Yes, Rachel, I think you are on the right track. Many people, including researchers, conflate meditation, mindfulness, and relaxation. These should be carefully defined and distinguished. The type of meditation that I teach and practice is usually known as mindfulness meditation, and it is taught in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (and also other similar interventions for eating disorders and treatment of addiction). This type of meditation is NOT a form of deliberately induced relaxation. This does not mean that deliberately induced relaxation is not a good thing… it certainly can be a good thing. But it is a different kind of “good thing” than mindfulness meditation. Certainly there are better ways to induce “relaxation” than to have the person sit upright and very still, engaged in the mental work of focusing and re-focusing attention, noticing and labeling all phenomena that arise in the mind… At the same time, the training engages the mind in practicing a compassionate stance toward all phenomena… so perhaps it would be best described as mental practice in attention and compassion (or acceptance, or non-reactivity, these are all closely related).

    The point of this type of practice, when applied in clinical areas, is not to relax, but to learn how to non-reactively attend to mental/emotional/behavioral phenomena, reducing unwanted symptoms. And this practice appears to have a significantly beneficial impact in many areas of dysfunction, along with measurable changes in brain structure and function.

    As to efficacy studies, yes they are underway… comparing mindfulness-based interventions with other interventions that may improve health/wellness variables. Many have been completed. For a very recent lit review, see: http://marc.ucla.edu/workfiles/pdfs/MARC_biblio_0708.pdf

    Best wishes,

    Delany Dean, JD, PhD

  8. I have a question for you, Delany… I am not trying to draw you back into the discussion here but reflecting on your comment triggered some puzzling about the research findings and I am hoping you might be able to clarify that. (It also might be what you’ve been trying to tell me all along…)

    One of the studies I mentioned in my post on the benefits of meditation states that

    meditation can help induce relaxation and alleviate mild anxiety, but they concluded that “there is no compelling evidence that meditation is associated with unique state effects compared with other relaxation procedures.”

    Relaxation… Now, as you pointed out, mindfulness meditation is not billed as a relaxation technique but rather it is designed for attention training. So, that would mean then that this lit review was missing the point, right? In other words, they were comparing apples and oranges. If I want to cut something, I can’t complain that a fork doesn’t work well… Based solely on my own experience, one of the key things in changing our thinking and behavior is to stop. Stop before we react (and then review the situation etc). Stop our thought (and then look at it or let it go or whatever). I think that is where mindfulness meditation can play a role. And I hope that this is what the new research is investigating as well.

  9. Thanks for your clarification, Delany! Given this definition, I would still suggest that MBSR adn MBCT or mindfulness training in general need to be compared with other techniques that can be used to learn to put attention elsewhere (like “pure” CBT, for example). I.e., what does mindfulness meditation offer above and beyond those techniques?

  10. Rachel, since I have already been involved in this discussion, by way of several comments, I won’t re-enter it fully, but only wish to make one clarification. You said:

    “The research on MBSR and MBCT has quite a bit of limitations. I think the most important limitation is that little comparisons with other forms of relaxation have been made… ”

    Mindfulness meditation may be “relaxing” for some, and not so much, for others. Unlike “progressive relaxation,” or various forms of self-hypnosis, it is NOT a form of “relaxation” training. Psychologically, it would be much more accurately described as a form of ATTENTIONAL training. Its therapeutic benefits are thought to derive not from the mechanism of teaching the patient how to “relax,” but in systematically teaching the patient to attend to his/her own thoughts and emotional states, and to re-deploy attention, non-judgmentally, in an effective fashion, thus cutting off processes such as “rumination” (or brooding about the past), worrying, elaborating upon possible feared future events, etc., which contribute heavily to psychological distress and disability (mood and anxiety disorders).

    Delany Dean, JD, PhD

  11. Barry:

    First, let me write that I do find this relevant because I am still trying to sort out in my mind if Buddhism is really that different from other religions (or put differently, is there something inherently dangerous about religions, as Hitchens says in the quote at the end of my post way up there on this page). I am also still wondering if there are other ways of knowing – there is a part of me that deeply cringes when I read something like that. But I’ve also been exposed to enough feminist critique to have learned that much of what we think we know is tainted by our cultural influences (though, that is probably more a critique of applied science rather than science per se, which will eventually iron out those cultural influences).

    The research on MBSR and MBCT has quite a bit of limitations. I think the most important limitation is that little comparisons with other forms of relaxation attention training have been made (this is based on a meta-analysis, which I reference in the post on meditation. Oh, and sorry for the argument from authority ;-). Hopefully, newer research will address that. [Thanks to Delany's comment I made a correction: Mindfulness training is not meant to be a relaxation training but rather an attentional training.]

    I don’t believe in the mind/body dichotomy. There is no mind separate from the body, especially no consciousness that survives after I die or floats around somehow in the universe (I am 99.9% certain about that; I reserve the right to change my mind given new evidence…). As I indicated above, I am also troubled by the idea that there are other forms of knowing, especially when those forms are based on introspection. As Meera Nanda points out in her brilliant (imo) article on spirituality meditative states seem to provide valid experience though, in reality, there is no outside validation in meditation. We can essentially make up our own reality and it seems valid to us. This seems similar to considering a pile of case studies, rather than a carefully controlled experiment, as evidence in support of a hypothesis.

    I am also troubled with certain aspects of Buddhism. Here’s a laundry list:

    • I question the validity of the Four Noble Truths, especially the second one.
    • Skepticism is discouraged, which as a skeptic find rather dangerous.
    • The Dalai Lama is a theocrat. Tibet is far from a democracy (well, the Tibet in exile).
    • Monks and nuns are a special class, essentially living off the support from a community that feels obligated to support them.
    • Not to mention the Zen support that Japanese totalitarianism received (see Zen at War).
    • Or the double talk Zen Buddhists presented when they were trying to recruit Westerners to their religion (for example, D. T. Suzuki preached in the West that Zen was a peaceful religion, yet, he is “most responsible for the development of imperial-way Zen” (Zen at War, p. 167).
    • Here in the U.S., Buddhism has turned into a big commercial machine (maybe that’s because everything in the U.S. is turned into a money making venture…).
    • I was appalled when I realized that people more affluent than I am where asking me for donations to support their upper class life-style. They didn’t have to use the threat of karma to get their donations because people here are so excited about Buddhism they don’t seem to question anything.

    So, as those of us who haven’t been culturally grounded in Buddhism take a look at this religion, we are fascinated by certain aspects of it. It is different than the monotheistic religions we know. It seems less dogmatic; more peaceful; more healing and helpful. This makes it more attractive to us. Yet, we do not question whether Buddhism is just another form of maintaining the status quo, asking us to “surrender of the mind.” Maybe rather than using blatant methods – like the sword – Buddhists have used more subtle methods – like karma (as it is understood in Buddhist countries, not the Western redefinition you presented, i.e., influence of behavior in past lives on our current life).

    Sorry this got so long! I guess I had some thinking to do…

  12. Rachel:

    I am just recently beginning to delve into the use of meditation as a therapeutic tool, using both MBSR and MBCT in my practice. The research is trending in the right direction – it is helpful to clients. We are not sure exactly why it is the case, but there may be a couple of reasons. First, there is the client effect of providing a basis for acceptance and thereby developing in the person cognitive coping strategies. Two leading sources in this line of research are Marsha Linehan’s work in Dialectic Behaviour Therapy (DBT) and Segal, Teasdale and Williams’ work with Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for relapse prevention in depression. Both methods of therapy do in fact help clients break out of reactive patterns and learn new ways of being in relationship to their difficulties.

    The second possibility, and one explored in some detail by Germer et al., is that what mindfulness does for the therapist in relationship to the client. Simple put, a therapist who uses a mindful approach in their own lives is more able to “be” with the client during difficult emotions. More attentiveness and acceptance on behalf of the therapist leads to greater gains being made by the client. The estimates are that about 30% of the therapeutic change can be accounted for by the “non-therapeutic” aspects of the therapy session, ie. warmth, empathy and acceptance of the therapist. (That’s compared to 15% of the change being due to what approach is being used).

    Rachel, I have updated my college website and have included the Summer 2008 research updates. You might be interested in some of these studies. There are a variety of really good stuff, and the mediocre.

    One last thing I got today that I found interesting. Lawrence Edwards wrote the following comment on the differing perspectives between western and eastern ways of knowing. (By the way this is covered in eloquent detail by Ricard and Thuan in “The Quantum and the Lotus”).

    Edward writes:

    “It’s important to take into consideration the fact that scientific research is based on a materialist philosophy whereas the Eastern meditative disciplines aren’t. Thus neuroscience sees consciousness as a product of material processes – neurons firing, and Eastern philosophies see the brain as a product of non-material forces – Consciousness, Mind, subtle body, or what ever the particular Eastern discipline calls it. We don’t usually think about the paradigm difference, especially when science and meditation practitioners look so cozy together these days, but when the H.H. the Dalai Lama brings up something like he did in one of the Mind and Life meetings a few years ago, with top researchers, about how there have been Buddhist masters who could leave their body or inhabit another body, then suddenly there’s some polite laughter and the discussion is hurriedly shifted back to a mutually shared topic of interest!

    The paradigm clash is important to remember because science holds that material causes are the only causes that can be considered. Non-materialist philosophies, idealists or monists, aren’t bound by material causes – thus consciousness can exist separately from the brain, out-of-body experiences are completely congruent with meditative perspectives, but not with a materialist science. If one is a believer from a Buddhist, yogic, Shaivite, Hindu, etc. perspective, monistic or idealistic philosophies, then there is no need or expectation that a limited perspective like scientific materialism will be able to validate the reaches of one’s own view. The materialist perspective is too limited. Ken Wilber’s writings are very good on understanding these differences.

    However, given that most westerners, regardless of their professed religion, first worship at the alter of science, then having validation that some components of the practices provide measurable health benefits or performance benefits – both highly valued by the ordinary ego mind and it’s identification with cognitive and bodily processes – is useful. H.H. the Dalai Lama is very practical in this regard. He would like to have scientific research explore which kinds of practices will have these kinds of benefits even when they are done in a context that doesn’t involve all of Buddhist thought, beliefs, and practice.

    When I lecture at professional meetings, hospital grand rounds, corporate stress management programs, etc. it’s necessary to start off with the current scientific evidence showing efficacy of certain practices. Once “science says” this is OK, then people are much more willing to breath and let go!

    I work with EEGs everyday doing EEG biofeedback and other forms of biofeedback with children and adults. The concrete feedback they get on how the cognitive or breathing changes they make, in the moment, shifts their physiology and allows them to feel better makes each one a researcher experimenting on their own body/mind and seeing how efficacious they can be in self-regulation. Now the techniques the individuals practice are thousands of years old and come out of yogic training, mindfulness, etc., though they may never know this or be interested in the history of the practices they’re doing. It’s the same kind of very practical approach of what works and how biofeedback enhances the learning process by offering the clearest feedback on how one is doing.

    So whether one is a researcher, clinician or practitioner one might not have to think about the paradigm differences when doing the actual practices or research protocols, but when we’re stepping back and evaluating the results and their implications, then the differing paradigms will have very disparate views and ways of valuing the results.”

    Hope you find this relevant. If not just tell me to shut up.


  13. Thanks, Barry, for your comment! I am relieved to be able to talk about something other than climate change ;-).

    There are aspects of Christianity that are more philosophical than religious. For example, some people view the New Testament as an ethical guidebook without believing that Jesus is the son of God. He had some good stuff to say, for example in the Sermon on the Mount. This doesn’t mean, though, that Christianity is no longer a religion. The same with Buddhism. I am not quite sure why so many Western Buddhists are afraid to call Buddhism what it is: a religion (incidentally, I am not aware of any Eastern Buddhists who have this fear of the term “religion”). I think this is an attempt to claim that Buddhism is somehow different than the monotheistic religions. And it is, of course, because there is no god in Buddhism (at least in most streams and, if there are gods, it’s a polytheistic consortium). However, there are also some disturbing similarities between Buddhism and the Big Three monotheistic religions: Proselytizing happens and Buddhism has been used for totalitarian state purposes (e.g., Zen in Japan). This is part of Buddhisms history. Denying that by pretending Buddhism is not a religion, is just as dangerous as, say, denying the influence Christianity had on Nazism. We cannot learn from the history we deny.

    Meditation is not Buddhism, yes, that’s true. You can meditate without being a Buddhist. However, this meditation is different from the meditation that is part of the way to liberation within Buddhism because the purpose has changed. Also, the jury is still out on the benefits of meditation. Certainly the question you frame, Barry, can be studied (I am not sure, actually, if that’s the way mindfulness has been studied. I think this would be rather interesting since most behavior modification programs I know of include a stop before anything else can happen. Can meditation/mindfulness help us come to this stop, to break out of our usual reactive pattern?)

    I cannot resist asking: What’s the different between the mind and the brain? Does the mind exist without the brain?

  14. I’m a late-comer to this discussion, but I would like to add a couple of comments that might be helpful. First, there appears to be some confusion of terms. Buddhism covers a lot of ground; within the long tradition there has been a considerable diversity of religious and philosophical thought. To lump all Buddhist thought into one pot is grossly misleading.

    Let’s take the term Karma as an example. To some this can be a terribly dogmatic idea, as least as strange a concept a the Virgin Birth. Seeing someone who is crippled from birth it may be concluded that they got that way because of something they did in a past life. This is religious dogma at its weirdest.

    On the other hand, it can be seen as an ethical principle, without the religious junk. Karma can mean simple cause and effect. If you do something without skill or wisdom it is likely to cause suffering either to one’s self or someone else. Not in the next life, but right now. Likewise, a skillful or wise act will yield more beneficial results.

    Second, don’t confuse meditation (mindfulness) with Buddhism. To meditate is not to be a Buddhist; lot’s of traditions use meditation or mindful practises. In this way of thinking, meditation can be viewed as a means to training the mind. And in this lies a perfectly reasonable scientific question. “Can we use mindfulness practise to shape the nature of our responses to events, and can we re-shape the way our brains do their work?” We have some means to studying this question developed within the science of psychology and more recently neuroscience.

    These questions are being addressed by the Mind-Life Institute, a consortium of scientists and contemplatives attempting to look closely at the mind-brain-behaviour relationships that may arise from mindfulness practise.

    Barry Cull
    Professor of Psychology

  15. Delany: Thank you for pointing out the section in Healing Tools that contradicts my recent learnings about the benefit (or lack thereof) of meditation. The post came from a previous version of my Website and I failed to update it before reposting. I have changed that now (and made a mental note to check all those posts later).

    As I have stated before, I think that meditation can be beneficial for individuals, based on their subjective evaluation. Although, as I pointed out in my last comment, “some of that usefulness might be driven by the placebo effect, as is the case with homeopathy and acupuncture.” However, as it stands now, I have not seen any evidence that indicates that meditation is more beneficial than simple relaxation. As always with science, this does not mean it is not beneficial. It simply means that we have not found evidence; the jury is still out. I think that some of the work on MBSR and MBCT is certainly promising, so I am not going to dismiss meditation (unlike homeopathy). It sounds like your own work falls into that category as well. So does some work on loving-kindness meditation I have seen recently.

    I apologize that you felt that I am misstating your positions. It was entirely unintentional. Unfortunately, I am not sure what positions you felt I mischaracterized, so I cannot clarify my understanding.

  16. Rachel, I think it’s interesting that you state on your “Healing Tools” page on this blog, as follows: “More recently, mindfulness has been combined with Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy to create a powerful approach to healing depression: Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy.”

    A “powerful approach to healing depression,” you say??? On what do you base this statement? You cannot be referring to the meta-analysis that (as we both have pointed out) demonstrates that nearly all the early research on meditation has significant methodological flaws?

    There are, so far, only TWO published peer-reviewed studies that evaluate MBCT… the results are encouraging, but far from conclusive…

    I am, at this point, quite confused about your real opinion as to the efficacy (or not), or the evidence of efficacy (or lack thereof, or hope thereof!) of meditation (or mindfulness-based interventions), for helping SOME people with SOME symptoms, such as active depression, or such as prevention of relapse for people with one, two, three, or seventeen-and-a-half, prior episodes of Major Depressive Disorder…

    And I am sorry to say that you seem to be mis-stating my own (very conservative) positions about these matters, which have been clearly stated in my prior comments.

    Meanwhile, later this week I will be presenting my own research on a mindfulness-based intervention at the Association for Psychological Science (APS) Annual Meeting in Chicago… The people in my intervention group showed improved overall quality of life, lower depression scores, better capacity for attention, etc. Perhaps my little study will be incorporated into the next meta-analysis, in 5 years or so! This study was a bit better, methodologically, than some of the earliest research, in that we did have a wait-list control group (and they showed no changes on any of our measures). But no placebo of any sort… those are difficult to imagine, much less to construct, in this realm of human functioning…

    Delany Dean, PhD

  17. Delany: They are good summaries for the content of the research but not to see if it moves beyond the findings of the meta analysis I mentioned (that requires more information on research design…).

    You mention the recent reporting of less than favorable results on the efficacy of antidepressants. The studies, per see, aren’t the problem, i.e., science showed antidepressants don’t work nearly as well as the marketers want them to. The research ended up in drawers not because of science. They ended up there because of money. Experimenter bias can be circumvented by using double-blind studies, as well as controls and randomization. (Granted, those studies are more difficult to set up with something like MBSR or MBCT. Although cognitive therapy has been tested, so similar approaches would probably work.).

    And even though there are problems with “standard objective research methods,” which I would argue mostly come from the reality of the embedding of research in money-driven entities, this does not mean that this automatically validates meditation as a useful tool. The scientific method is the best method we have to test the broad usefulness of tools like meditation (again, individuals can test for themselves but this can only lead to the finding of “meditation is useful for me.” And some of that usefulness might be driven by the placebo effect, as is the case with homeopathy and acupuncture.).

    However, that does not mean that meditation is not useful for certain people in certain circumstances. I think the goal in, say, depression research is to figure out for whom what tool works best. For example, the early MBCT research showed a decrease in relapse rate compared to standard treatment but only for those people who had 3 or more depressive episodes prior to learning MBCT. There was no difference for those with 2 or less episodes. This suggests to me that there is something fundamentally different between those two groups. That is, I think, where the research needs to focus on: Rather than asking “is meditation useful for everybody,” we need to ask “is meditation useful in certain circumstances.” Of course, this really applies to any treatment tool.

    And, to tie this all back to the original post: If meditation turns out to be vastly useful, this says nothing about Buddhism because meditation is only a small part of Buddhism.

  18. Oh darn, Rachel. I thought they were really, really GOOD summaries!

    This whole question about meditation research, and the therapeutic effects thereof, is a bit far afield from the original point of your post, of course… but I think it’s important. I work in this field, and I happen to be a person who is EXTREMELY interested in avoiding anything that might be a sham or bogus treatment.

    You are quite right, and I believe I have indicated previously, that it has NOT yet been firmly established that any form of meditation is necessarily “helpful,” either for alleviating any particular clinical condition, or for improving the quality of life for any segment of the human population. BUT there is a very large elephant in the room here: the question of how to establish “therapeutic effects” is actually a much more thorny one than might be readily apparent. For example, look at psychotropic medications, and antidepressants in particular. This whole recent hoo-rah about undisclosed (and unflattering) research results is thoroughly, and sadly, demonstrating two of the problems that undercut the naive idea that “objective, empirical,” scientific research will readily or convincingly prove or disprove the efficacy of, for example, a drug treatment for a psychiatric disorder. The “file drawer problem” (nobody publishes negative results; they only publish the positive ones, the ones that confirm their hypotheses), and the well-known effect of experimenter bias on outcome (even assuming we have well-trained and ethical experimenters, with sound designs), are two of the factors that cloud the issue, especially in the area of research on effects of ANYTHING on constructs such as: mood, anxiety, quality of life…

    Within clinical “somatic” medicine itself, of course (as you may know), single case studies are often considered to be convincing demonstrations of the efficacy of new treatment methods…

    Nevertheless, over time, I think that standard objective research methods can begin to provide some directions toward “answers” to questions about the efficacy and/or overall “helpfulness” of methods such as: cognitive therapy, psychotropic drug treatment, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, meditation practice for those who are NOT suffering from any illness, social support, and/or just eating more ice cream…

    So far, to this person’s eye, the results are looking encouraging and consistent enough that I believe that it is entirely ethical to be offering, for example, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to people who are experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

    Delany Dean, PhD

  19. I checked out the links provided by Delany on further research on MBSR. Unfortunately, the summaries are too sketchy to evaluate if this research is going beyond a meta analysis published in 2007, which concluded that “the therapeutic effects of meditation practices cannot be established based on the current literature.”

  20. I will have to check out those research results you summarized! Thanks for pointing them out to me. I thought that MBSR would have been more rigorously tested…

    I like your idea of defining religion using core elements because that allows us to describe systems as religions even if they do not have all the core elements. Throughout our discussion, the question kept going through my mind: why is this so important? One reason why this is so important to me is because of the needs religions try to meet – as you point out – including the need for meaning and belonging. These are tremendously important needs and are not very well met in our modern society. To me that is where the issue is: How can we meet these needs given the overwhelming evidence on the side of science that explains more and more that used to be explained by calls to the supernatural? And I think non-theistic religions, such as Buddhism, might be able to give us some guidance there as we try to come up with ways of meeting those needs grounded in reality rather than the sky.

    And as your side-comment about proselytizing pharmaceutical companies suggests, whether religion or not, we always need to be skeptical about claims (including those supposed scientific ones). Critical thinking is important whether something looks like science or religion.

  21. Several interesting points!

    First, as to whether the proposed benefits of meditation are “objectively” verifiable: the recent meta-analysis that you cite relies on the poorly designed mass of research that existed up to (I think) about 4-5 years ago. The research since then has begun, rapidly, to move forward into much more rigorous designs; truly amazing studies conducted at major universities, are beginning to emerge and get published. As a scientist and (minor league!) researcher, myself, I was truly dazzled by what I heard about at the most recent MBSR Research conference. I summarized 6 of the really good studies in my blog, in a series of four posts:


    I think you might be surprised at what is now being done within the “empirical and objective” paradigm. And, from what I just said, you can see that I totally agree that we should not scorn or abandon what have heretofore been the (nearly) exclusive methods of science; nor do I think that the subjective conclusions by any individual about something that s/he concludes might be or is “helping” her, or him, should be generalized or even taken as very persuasive… we are all highly adept at fooling ourselves, especially in ascribing causation where there is, at best, a possible correlation. And expectancy effects (including placebo) are very powerful.

    I really like what you say here:

    “I don’t think, though, that the mind-matter dualism is helpful. We are evolutionary animals and a lot of what we’re doing can be traced back to adaptation. Mind and matter are so tightly intertwined, it might be better to just think of it as one entity. For example, stress affects our mind by rewiring the matter that’s there. There is no physical “I”, yet we clearly make one up by creating stories about ourselves (including our discussion here!). So, is the “I” matter or mind? Most likely both (or neither).”

    But, as to trying to “define the essential elements” of religion, I am not optimistic. Not all constructs or entities lend themselves to this kind of definition, even though we might strenuously attempt to make them do so. And, even lacking any single required essential element, they do not then disappear! A good example, with which I am all-too-familiar, is the set of entities known as “mental disorders,” and which are “defined” in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-IV-TR). For many, if not most, of these disorders, the diagnostic criteria are polythetic, meaning that there might be, for example, three diagnostic criteria, of which none of them is required for diagnosis. To make the diagnosis, you need any two of the three. So you will have four different manifestations of the “disorder” without any single “essential” characteristic. These are what are called “fuzzy” categories, and there are a lot of them; religion, clearly, is one of them. This is why I prefer to inquire about “core” characteristics without insisting that a proper definition include any one (or more) “essential” characteristics.

    Appealing to a powerful deity; proselytizing; requiring belief in unprove-able dogma(s); all of these might be considered “core” characteristics of a religion… although I question the “proselytizing” one, as it seems pretty non-specific to “religion” (my mind immediately turns to pharamaceutical companies who vigorously proselytize a belief in the “chemical imbalance” theory of mental disorder). A core characteristic I would like to add would be that religions generally tend to meet (more or less!) the human need (or desire, if you prefer) for meaning, for community, for a basis for morality, and (for some people, and in some religions) for a sense that there is something larger than humanity that “cares about” humanity.

    So, Buddhism functions as a “religion” for many people, even if you strip away “powerful deity” and “dogma” and “proselytizing” (and I don’t think there’s much proselytizing in the West, maybe not much in the Asian countries, either).

    Can a person be a “real” Buddhist if s/he does not believe in the “historical Buddha,” or reincarnation (for example)? Depends on whose definition you accept! Can a person be a “real” Catholic if s/he does not believe that “artificial birth control” is sinful… or if s/he does not believe that the Blessed Virgin Mary ascended bodily into “heaven”? Again… even in the Catholic Church, which is MUCH more monolithic and authoritarian than (I think) any branch of Buddhism, you will find a host of variation in the private reality of individual “beliefs” … and I truly doubt that there are very many who would pass an orthodoxy exam, using a polygraph…


  22. I think experiential verification can be valuable for personal evaluation, for example if I want to decide if meditation is helpful to me or not. But I don’t think it is reliable enough to reach conclusions that are applicable beyond my own personal experience. Just because I find meditation useful does not mean that there are clear benefits to it. There are doubts about that. Given how unreliable our minds sometimes work, introspection can easily lead to the wrong conclusions. That is why I prefer some outside validation, which is best established using the tools of science. In my opinion, this doesn’t make “objectivity” right and “subjectivity” wrong. They just simply have different scopes.

    I agree that a lot of what we’re talking about has not moved far beyond questions raised by the ancient Greeks (in some regards, we’ve probably even regressed). Actually, it might be a good idea to look at some of their questions and answers because we can probably learn from them.

    I don’t think, though, that the mind-matter dualism is helpful. We are evolutionary animals and a lot of what we’re doing can be traced back to adaptation. Mind and matter are so tightly intertwined, it might be better to just think of it as one entity. For example, stress affects our mind by rewiring the matter that’s there. There is no physical “I”, yet we clearly make one up by creating stories about ourselves (including our discussion here!). So, is the “I” matter or mind? Most likely both (or neither).

    In order to discuss whether Buddhism is a religion or not, it is important to define its essential elements. I think that is, in part, what I was trying to do with this post. I tried to do that based on what I believe are reliable Websites, such as those from the Insight Meditation Society. If this is what we’re calling the essential elements, then Buddhism is a religion. Plus, it behaves like one (i.e., historically, Buddhism spread through proselytizing). If you cannot extract anything essential out of something – what is left? Nothing. Then meaningful discussion is not possible.

    Our discussion points to something beyond all this: a tolerance for different approaches, maybe even a need for integration of approaches. Although I prefer facts and numbers, I am open to look at other things, at other ways of knowing. I still meditate even though I’ve posted that meditation “objectively” doesn’t do much good. I find it helpful. I think it is important to look at our personal experience. At a minimum, I can use that to come up with hypotheses. I also think that it is important to look at things in science that can lead to dangerous, false, or irrelevant conclusions, like the reductionist approaches. Fortunately, there are scientists who are moving beyond that approach because it often does not work well: We have to step back to see the big picture. We sometimes cannot reduce problems to a neat little package that fit nicely in the domain of one scientific discipline, so we are seeing a lot more cross-disciplinary research. I think those a very positive steps in the right direction.

  23. Pingback: Buddhism: Religion? Dogmatism? « mind.expressions

  24. There are (at least!) a couple of important points here.

    First, about what can, and what cannot, be “empirically tested”? Buddhism claims, and has claimed for a very long time, that it opens itself up to experiential (or phenomenological) verification. But of course that is at least somewhat different from what we like to think of as “hard” empirical data… “hard” being a reference to measuring sticks, and material “stuff” that can be weighed. I am a psychologist, so I occupy a sort of middle realm of measurement, in which we find ways to “measure” such constructs as: depression; attentional capacity; anxiety… that sort of stuff.

    Alan Wallace writes a lot about the “taboo of subjectivity” and the limits of what we like to think of as “objectivity.”

    When I think about my own reluctance to go the route of “materialists” I wonder: why not? Well, for one thing, I believe that we are just a bit naive as to what we think of as “matter,” perhaps not so far advanced as we might like to think, from the pre-Socratic Greek fellows who were debating much the same questions that we are, today. What is the ultimate nature of reality? Is it stuff… or is it mind? And, if it is “stuff,” then… What is “stuff”?

    You are perfectly correct about various Buddhist ideas about, e.g., reincarnation and karma and the “wheel of samsara,” which of course is not a wooden wheel somewhere in a particular place, like maybe a Ferris Wheel in Ohio… but is taken and understood at various levels. Likewise, for some Buddhists, reincarnation is thought of in very literal, “physical… materialistic” terms. For others, not so much so. As is true for some Christians: some think of the “resurrection” as being a very literally occurring reality… others, not so. A lot of the stuff you can find on internet Buddhist sites is pretty primitive, and not necessarily representative of the broader (and more sophisticated) range of Buddhist thought.

    Finally, your point about “what are the ‘essential’ teachings” of anything (Buddhism, psychoanalysis, science, Catholicism) is important… or, maybe not. I hate to get all post-modern, but we do get a bit too anxious to reify our definitions, set them in stone so that they create what we can experience as “real entities.” That makes us feel comfortable. But reality, I think, is wilder than that.

    Have you seen Stephen Batchelor’s book (Buddhism Without Beliefs)? You might enjoy it.

  25. Thank you so much for this conversation, Delany! I am realizing just how difficult religion is to define if we try to move beyond the “traditional” definition, which requires a god and which I think is Judeo-Christian-Islamic-centric. It reminds me of a discussion I had on freedom – another often used idea that is rather difficult to define…

    I think your CBT example brings up an essential distinction in teaching: does the teaching require faith or can it be empirically tested? I am not so sure if the essential Buddhist teachings can be tested… But, let me step back from that because I am not sure I completely understand what the essential Buddhist teachings are. The Four Noble Truths? Even when you look at those, you quickly get into the supernatural because one of the ideas is to get off the wheel of samsara, which often includes birth and rebirth (and that’s meant very physically, not just metaphorically). That is why I have trouble figuring out the “essential” teachings because to me, the teachings are all interrelated, including connections with supernatural ideas, such as nirvana and karma.

    I certainly agree with you that there are some inherent dangers in reductionistic materialism, in part because scientists forget that science really only addresses “how” questions. Yet, the “why” questions are what gives our lives meaning and purpose. And that is what secular humanists have to grapple with next: answering the why questions without having to resort to the supernatural.

    Here is some more information on the hindrances: http://www.dharma.org/ims/mr_glossary.html#hindrance . The last one is “skeptical doubt.” On the Buddhanet, this is defined as “feeling of doubt as to whether the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha are really the Truth.” This does sound to me like doubting the teachings is considered a hindrance, which prevents critical thinking.

  26. Thanks, Rachel. Good points. I agree that this matter of dogmatism, or a required belief in something that cannot be established, is a good definition of religion. And I wonder if it might not be true that, within every worldview, some dogmatism can be found?

    As to Buddhism: I don’t think that all branches of Buddhism “require” any kind of belief in the historical existence of the human being called “Buddha” to whom all Buddhist scripture and teachings are ascribed. Certainly, though, a person would not accurately be described as a Buddhist if s/he did not agree that the essential teachings are sound. The same, of course, is true within many disciplines; if a psychotherapist comes to the conclusion that cognitive-behavioral therapy is not beneficial for the alleviation of cognitive/emotional/behavioral problems, then that person could not accurately be described as a “cognitive-behavioral therapist.” But that really doesn’t make cognitive-behavioral therapy a “religion,” does it? Whether or not CBT is helpful is an empirical question, and I think the same is true of the essential teachings of Buddhism (and that is something that makes Buddhism attractive to me). The issue you raise about “doubt” being considered one of the hindrances is an interesting one, though. Harder to square that with a “scientific” approach, certainly! It has the flavor of a paradox. I’ll have to give that one some thought.

    And, as to science: for some scientists, especially among those who describe themselves as atheists, it appears that reductionistic materialism occupies the function of a dogma; and scientists who are not convinced that reductionistic materialism can ever fully describe some phenomena (consciousness, for example) are often told that they are not truly “scientists.”

    It all reminds me of the experience, these days, of being Catholic. The fundamentalist right-wing “traditionalists” enjoy telling the more liberal, Vatican II-type Catholics that they are not REALLY Catholic; and the same sort of thing goes on in many religions, world views, academic disciplines, etc. Certainly it happened within psychoanalysis, with a vengeance. Happily, Buddhists (especially in the West!) are not usually so dogmatic and parochial; I cannot imagine being chastised, in Buddhist circles, for expressing doubt as to any of the Buddhist teachings (including doubt as to whether the “historical Buddha” ever lived as a particular human being who said and did all the stuff that is ascribed to him).

  27. Delany: Thank you for your comments! Let me try to answer your questions, though I admit that I don’t have all the answers…

    What are the elements of religion? I disagree with many that one necessary element is at least one god. I think more important is the requirement of faith in something, whether that something is a god (or lots of them) or a particular teaching is not that important. Faith implies that it is not testable and not verifiable. So, in order to have this faith we need to “surrender the mind” (to quote Hitchens) since there are no facts to rely on.

    In Buddhism, the faith requires a belief in the existence of the Buddha and the truth of his teaching (at the very minimum; most extend this to nirvana and karma). Although Buddhism – at least as it is taught in the West – encourages “testing” the teachings, like the usefulness of meditation, that testing, that questioning, does not allow for stepping completely out of the teachings. Buddhists are asked to believe that suffering is caused by attachments, for example; questioning that is discouraged by making doubt a hindrance. (See also http://www.rabe.org/cause-of-suffering/ for more on the “second noble truth”).

    The main fallacy that follows from this is summarized in the idea of “blind faith” with its inherent closing of the mind and ceasing of critical thinking. If you want to know more about how Buddhism was used for political manipulation, please check out “Zen at War” and see Allix’ comment below (“Zen at War” talks at length about the the influence of Shinto). There’s also more on my criticism of Buddhism here

    I think it is important for us to develop ways of answering the questions that have traditionally been answered by religions in ways that do not require faith. The religious answers sound increasingly hallow because, well, there’s so much evidence against those answers (certainly the Christian God but I have also argued that Buddhism contains elements that fall flat on further examination).

    There is always the danger of dogmatism, so I appreciate the questions you asked. This blog is an exploration and it is good to be called on the carpet to define things better (and think things through more thoroughly!). The last thing we need is to replace one dogma with another…

  28. oops, in my earlier comment I omitted a phrase, in the third paragraph. I meant to be asking “in what way does Buddhism” (broadly defined) necessarily meet the elements of your definition of religion”?

    I am very sympathetic to most (maybe all!) of the standard arguments against religion, and even as they may apply to “spirituality,” but I get the uncomfortable sense, in many atheist websites and discussions, that atheism itself is lending itself to a sort of dogmatism, in which there is perhaps a bit too much reflexive rejection of anything that is not yet well-defined or measured (e.g., “wisdom” or “meaning”)… but yet might be worth further exploration.

  29. This is an interesting post, and I agree with many of your points. I’d like to hear a lot more, however, about the conclusions you draw:

    “Clearly, Buddhism has all the elements of a religion… Buddhism contains the same fallacies of other religions and at the right time, it is just as dangerous as other religions.”

    I am curious about what you would say are the necessary (and sufficient) “elements” of a “religion,” and in what way Buddhism (broadly speaking; as you note, there are a LOT of subtypes, with different ideas about cosmology, “gods,” bodhisattvas, hell realms, etc.). I am not entirely sure that all “Buddhists” have a set of dogmas (necessary “beliefs”) about “divine” figures or “gods.”

    What are the “same fallacies” that you mention?

    I am also unsure about whether there is anything about being “Buddhist” that necessarily would make a person more amenable to political manipulation (i.e., to recruit people into violent nationalism or partisanism)…

    These are important questions to me… I teach mindfulness meditation, have been a member of a (Zen) Buddhist sangha, and am attracted to Buddhism in part because of the absence of outlandish dogma, and its fundamental appeal to experience.

    Nice blog!

  30. Shinto was Imperial Japan’s state religion which tried to purge any elements of buddhism in the country. Perhaps writing about Shinto’s involvement would bring to light the true nature of Japan’s history?
    Shinto and Bushido (The samurai warrior code) had a lot more to do with Japan’s naked aggression during WW2 , a form of religious nationalism . http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_Shinto
    Needless to say history is certainly worth observing how teachings (or if you want to call Buddhism a religion that is up to you) are practised in real life.

  31. Why should we respect each other’s religions? What does this mean? Does this mean that we cannot ask questions, that we cannot talk about the past of that religion?

    I can respect a person’s choice but that still gives me the right to question that religion, actually I can even respectfully question that person’s choice (I do that all the time with my own choices!). Questioning is not disrespectful in itself. Of course, sometimes those questions are represented disrespectful and I don’t agree with that. But I also don’t agree with the idea that asking questions about a religion is in itself disrespectful.

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