he most common comment I get from people who don’t understand Buddhism goes something like this – “Oh, but Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion.” Oddly, this statement often comes immediately following me having told them that I am a Buddhist. You’d think they’d recognize it’s not generally considered polite to negate someone’s religion – at least to their face.
I also find it curious the speed with which the comment rolls of their tongue and the unquestioning certainty people express in the tone of their voices. After all, if they just changed their comment instead to a line of questioning, such as, “Gee I thoughtBuddhism was just a philosophy. Can you tell me more about it?” Then we could have a great conversation. Instead, it’s just: Point made. You suck. End of story.
Having been raised in the United States in the 70′s, listening to Free To Be You And Me, I am more surprised perhaps than I should be to find that most people are in fact quite parochial. My own mother still thinks I’m in a “phase” (I’ve been Buddhist since 1998…) and tries to lure me to church on Easter and Christmas.
The truth is I don’t truly care that much. Whether or not someone else thinks what I practice is religion or not, has no functional significance to me. I have come to a point where the semantics of it don’t really matter on a practical level. And yet I still get irritated. Why?
That’s the only thing I can figure. This is ironic of course, considering that those who insist Buddhism can’t be a religion are seeking ground in fortifying their limited understanding of what religion is. I am certainly seeking ground in thinking to myself that it is, when truly the question of the definition of religion could be its own whole koan.
Katz! Thirty whacks with the zen stick!
The rocky foundation upon which this entire argument lies is the notion that there is in fact one definition of religion, when in fact there is not. Even a cursory search for references to the definition of religion reveals a large variety of interpretations:
Religious Tolerance.org – Ontario consultants on Religious Tolerance
Someone likened the understanding of religion to the old story of 5 blind men touching various parts of an elephant and trying to describe the entire elephant based only on what they experienced. I like that analogy.
Wikipedia states: “Some religions place an emphasis on belief, while others emphasize practice. Some religions focus on the subjective experience of the religious individual, while others consider the activities of the religious community to be most important. Some religions claim to be universal, believing their laws and cosmology to be binding for everyone, while others are intended to be practiced only by a closely defined or localized group.” (Don’t you just love Wikipedia?) And that definition doesn’t even touch on the cultural influences that are introduced to religions over time and across countries where the religions are practiced.
What I’d really love to do is memorize that paragraph and rattle it off as needed, but truthfully I do have better things to do with my time. For now, I’ll have to suffice with a simple “Not to me.” and leave it at that.
Now buy the Book!