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.”