04 July 2020

Is Buddhism a Philosophy or a Religion - Ngakma Nor’dzin & Ngakpa ’ö-Dzin

Ngak’chang Rinpoche & Khandro Déchen

In this video from February 2010, Ngakpa 'ö-Dzin discusses the question of whether Buddhism is a philosophy or religion.


Ngakpa 'ö-Dzin: You can put Buddhism into all sorts of categories and how you’d answer a question as to whether it’s a philosophy or a religion might depend on the purpose behind the question. I think if you are filing books in a library, then you probably want to put them all on the religion shelf. Buddhism has a philosophy, or has several philosophies, and has many methods.

People who define religion in terms of a belief in a god wouldn’t file Buddhism with religion, but in terms of its outward aspects and the fact that many schools of Buddhism are very colourful, very noisy and perhaps does things that are similar to the style of other religious observances, then to be honest you’d say: ‘This is a religion.’ There was a fashion maybe twenty years or so ago of saying: ‘It’s not a religion, it’s a way of life’, but I’m not sure what a way of life is, if it’s not a religion.

It could be seen as a peculiar religion, because there are many things about it that don’t appear to be the same as other religions, but if we had to pick one way of describing it, it would probably be most honest to say that (it is a religion), because when people come into the environment of practice it actually looks a lot like a religion.

It may not have—and it need not have—dogmas or beliefs, because it tends to work more in terms of discovery. So a practice will be indicated and you discover what you discover through that. When you don’t have to believe anything before you start, you just need enough interest usually to get yourself sitting on a cushion and that’s where it begins.

So from that point of view it’s not like a religion in the sense of having to believe a piece of material before you can start. That’s not needed. From there, once we begin to practice, if we find that practice is helpful and useful, we can go further. We can ask questions and we can find out more about it. Then there is an almost infinite wealth of possible things that we could study to find out more about the underpinnings of Buddhism in terms of how it functions. But in practice, we tend to learn about what’s going to be helpful to us or what we are enthused about, rather than learning factual material just for the sake of it.

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