Is Buddha Dhamma (Buddhism) a Religion?

October 21, 2015; revised November 8, 2015

It is best to learn (or even investigate) Buddha Dhamma with a mindset pretty much the same as when one is trying to learn about a new concept, say in mathematics or science. There are some key assumptions (axioms) involved, which cannot be proven, but do make sense especially if one takes time to contemplate. This is contrary to conventional religions.

1. Merriam-Webster defines “religion” as:

  • the belief in a god or in a group of gods
  • an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods
  • an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group

The Oxford dictionary has the following definitions:

  • The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods
  • A particular system of faith and worship
  • A pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance

2. The word “religion” invokes the idea of a Creator God in most people’s minds. Even though this is correct for most major religions of the world, it is definitely not correct for Buddha Dhamma.

  • The foundation of Buddha Dhamma is that the world has been in existence “forever” (no First Cause and thus it was not created). Universes come and go, but there have been living beings at all times.
  • It may first appear to be inconsistent with the current “Big Bang theory” that says our universe started some 14 billions years ago in a “Big Bang”. In fact, major religions embraced the idea of a Big Bang when it was first proposed, since it had connotations of creation. However,   when the inflationary theory that describes the Big Bang (proposed in the 1990’s) says there are multiple, parallel universes. Thus, the hope for a unique “event of creation” fizzled out.
  • Of course “Big Bang theory” is just that, a theory. There are some scientists who do not believe everything “popped up” all of a sudden in a Big Bang. They believe that universes are cyclic, i.e., they transform and evolve; see, for example, “”Endless Universe – Beyond the Big Bang”, by P. J. Steinhardt and N. Turok (2007).

3. So, Buddha Dhamma does not count as a religion if one takes the first two definitions from either Merriam-Webster or Oxford dictionary. Yet, it can be  included in the third category.

  • One could say that most major religions are theistic, i.e., based on the belief of a Creator.
  • Buddha Dhamma can be categorized as an atheistic religion, in the sense that there is no assumption of a Creator. It must be noted that in Buddha Dhamma there are beings called “devas” (sometimes translated as “gods”) in other realms;  they cannot affect our lives in a significant way, much less than creating universes.

4. However, I prefer to label Buddha Dhamma as the “ultimate science”. It encompasses all of nature’s laws not only pertaining to matter, but also pertaining to the mind. It is the Grand Unified Theory that the scientists are striving to discover, but they are only focusing on the material side.

  • Scientists are beginning to realize the importance of the mind. In fact, many scientists are attempting to make a connection between quantum theory and the mind. This is NOT going to work, because any “matter-based theory” cannot explain the mind. Mind is the forerunner: “Manōpubbangamā Dhammā..“.
  • As I build the Abhidhamma section, it will become clear why the mind takes precedence over matter. And it will also become clear why the Buddha is the top-most scientist. He was only concerned with sharing what he discovered with the others.
  • The “new found knowledge” about innumerable planetary systems existing in our universe was known to the Buddha and is described in the Tipiṭaka; see, “Dhamma and Science“.
  • The Buddha was not interested in “starting a religion” so that he could be worshipped by the masses. Instead of residing in many luxurious residences like the Jetavanaramaya in his last days, he chose to travel by foot to Kusinara enduring many hardships on the way. He wanted to show that his body was not exempt from suffering.

5.  When I listen to current debates between those who believe in a Creator and those who don’t (atheists), I think the following summarizes the key ideas from each group:

  • Atheists correctly point out that there is no evidence supporting the idea of a Creator God. Our ancestors could not fathom the workings of our complex world, and envisioned a Creator, who was supposed to have created the humans and a suitable habitat for them. But many “mysteries” of our world have been resolved with the advance of science, and in fact, these findings contradict key ideas in major religions.
  • Those on the other side do not have any “winning points” or scientific evidence, but they insist that the idea of a “totally physical world” goes against our experiences and innate feelings that cannot be denied.  That there must be something in addition to a physical body, i.e., there is a “conscious experience” that cannot be attributed to atoms and molecules in our bodies.

6. Buddha Dhamma encompasses both these key points. First, on the side of the atheists, there is no need for a Creator. Natural processes can account for not only what happens on Earth, but an uncountable number of habitable planetary systems in a vast universe.

  • On the other hand, science can account for only how the material world evolves. There is something other than inert matter in this world as the theologians argue, and that is consciousness. Consciousness cannot be derived from inter matter. There are six elemental entity types in this world: patavi, apo, tejo, vayo, akasa (space), and viññāṇa (consciousness). Consciousness thus cannot be derived from other five. The first four have deeper meanings than just earth, water, fire, and wind; we will discuss this in a future post.
  • However, consciousness was not imparted by a Creator. Furthermore, contrary to what most theologians believe, animals are conscious too (even though their consciousness is at a lower level compared to humans).
  • This is why one could say Buddha Dhamma is an “atheistic religion”, within a narrow context.

7. Some people tell me that Buddha Dhamma is not that different from other religions because there are certain “assumptions” that need to be believed “on faith”, for example, that there is a rebirth process. In fact, it is true that “not believing in the possibility of a rebirth process” is a wrong view that could make one eligible to be born in the lower four realms or the apāyā where suffering is much more compared to in the human realm; see, “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma“.

  • However, the axiom of a rebirth process is not be taken as a tenet, like in the case of the Ten Commandments; it is up to oneself to examine and accept or reject that concept. Even a Buddha cannot make anyone be “forced to believe” in anything.
  • Thus, there is a difference in what is meant by “faith” in Buddha Dhamma, compared to that in theistic religions. In any theistic religion, one has to accept the idea of a Creator without question; it is THE basis of any major theistic religion.
  • Buddha Dhamma just describes the nature of this world; this The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma has some basic axioms just like geometry or the theory of relativity. These “assumptions” can be verified to be correct if one takes time to examine the evidence.
  • One could start off by not embracing these basic assumptions, but not rejecting them outright either. One could keep an open mind and explore the key ideas in Buddha Dhamma and decide for oneself whether those assumptions start to make sense as one proceeds.
  • In fact, accepting such assumptions on blind faith will not do any good for anyone. One has to comprehend WHY those HAVE TO BE correct in order to make sense of this world that we live in. One has to spend time and critically evaluate the key concepts in Buddha Dhamma.

8. Buddha dhamma based on some key axioms like the rebirth process and the existence of other types of beings in 29 more realms (other than the human and animal realms), has the explanatory power to explain anything in this world, ranging from the existence of innumerable planetary systems (which was only accepted within the past few hundred years by science) to how morality comes about without a Creator; see, “Dhamma and Science” and “Origin of Morality (and Immorality) in Buddhism“.

  • It may take me another year or two to get the more deeper concepts explained, but I think there is enough material at the site to see that the knowledge of the Buddha (who was a human being just like us) cannot be matched by any other human. It took us the workings of many brilliant scientists from Galileo to Newton to Einstein to realize the vastness of this universe, which the Buddha described 2500 years ago.
  • But the even more astounding fact is that the Buddha described in detail how the consciousness arises in a living being, in addition to describing the material world. Science is still under the “wrong view” that consciousness can arise in the brain out of inert matter. I am just beginning to layout the basics of Abhidhamma that have been hidden in the past several hundred years, and have been revealed by a very special Thero in Sri Lanka.
  • Whenever possible, I try make connections to current findings in science, and to show the new confirmations as well the wrong concepts still embraced by science. Time will reveal that Buddha Dhamma, in its pure form, cannot be refuted. I have started to add the date of posting of essays, so that we can keep track of these predictions over the coming years.
  • And there are no “mysteries” in Buddha Dhamma, even though some concepts are still not amenable to science.

9. I just read the recently published book, “Life on the Edge” by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili (2014) which describes how scientists are slowly, but surely, revealing many “mysteries of nature”. These are all consistent with Buddha Dhamma, and I can point out a couple of “possible future breakthroughs”.

  • Scientists will be able to extend the lifespans of humans. There is no set limit to human lifetime in Buddha Dhamma, with lifetimes extending to thousands of years at times.
  • It may even be possible to make conditions in a laboratory (chemical concoctions) that allows a lifeform to arise. This does NOT mean that scientists will be able to CREATE LIFE. Buddha Dhamma describes how animals and humans can exist in the “gandhabba state” until a suitable conditions for it to start building a physical body become available; see, “Gandhabba (Manomaya Kaya)“. When a human baby is conceived, for example, what happens is that a matching “gandhabba” taking possession of the zygote in the womb or even out in the laboratory; see, “What does Buddha Dhamma (Buddhism) say about Birth Control?“.
  • If careful experiments are designed, it will be possible to demonstrate even now that small insects “can be born” out of decaying leaves; what happens is that decaying leaves lead to the formation of the “seed” (right chemical concoction) necessary for a “gandhabba” of that insect species  to start a new physical body.

10. For those who would like to look into arguments on why theistic religions do not make sense, below is a compilation of arguments by Sam Harris, a prominent atheist.

  • By the way, Buddha Dhamma does not agree with some of the positions of Mr. Harris (issues on how consciousness arises, as we discussed in #9 above). For example, at the end of the video (last several minutes) he talks about human embryos not being qualified as “human”, i.e., there is no life there. There Mr. Harris says a zygote is the same as any other trillions of cells in a body. That is not even consistent with modern science.
  • Modern science has not pinpointed when life begins in a zygote; see, “What does Buddha Dhamma (Buddhism) say about Birth Control?“. This is why I am saying that science is incomplete; it does not know about the “gandhabba state” of a human discussed in #9 above. By the way, a “gandhabba” is not a soul; see, “Ghost in the Machine – Synonym for the Manomaya Kaya?“. I have other posts at the site that provide more details, but it may not be for another year or so until all the details are presented.
  • With regard to the mind, science is still at the same stage that it was 500 years ago regarding the material world, i.e., when most people thought stars were embedded in a celestial sphere around the Earth; see, “Dhamma and Science“.
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