The purpose of this paper is to explore “What is Buddhism? Is it religion, philosophy, or contemplative science?” I do this by taking an in depth look at these three different aspects by discussing high quality research and information which incorporates the fundamental principles of Buddhist thought and practice.
Buddhism is a pathway of spiritual development and practice which in time, allows people to gain a perceptiveness into reality’s true meaning. Practices such as meditation help people positively transform their lives so they can attain wisdom, kindness and awareness. This perfect state of mind which has been generated over thousands of years within the tradition of Buddhism, has produced an unrivaled resource for anyone who is interested in ultimately achieving enlightenment (The Buddhist Centre, n.d.).
While religious beliefs do have a degree of importance within Buddhism, its core philosophies are not needfully those of other religions. The most profound Buddhist belief is on suffering and how to get away from it. There are various sects which have different beliefs, and these can include: the afterlife, ancestors and gods. Buddha showed that: “the way to eliminate suffering begins with understanding the true nature of the world”(Religion Facts, 2015). His philosophy was that only practical knowledge was essential, and he persuaded those who followed him to concentrate on: “the Four Noble Truths by which they can free themselves from suffering”(Religion Facts, 2015). He cast aside any questions about subjects such as God. A major Buddhist doctrine is that followers do not think earth ruled and created by a god. Yet, not believing in a god creator does not imply that Buddhism is atheistical (Religion Facts, 2015).
Buddha taught his followers many things. One of these was that we suffer on earth as we ceaselessly think about wanting things which do not give us permanent happiness. He also taught that we do not have a soul as they have in Christianity or Hinduism, for example. In the practice of Buddhism, various celestial deities and buddhas are used to adorn people’s homes and workplaces in order to help and instigate followers. These include the White and Green Taras and the Laughing Buddha. This indicates that people are not worshiping God, or following God’s teachings as in standard religions, but rather following a systematic process which reaches deep within the person to focus on improving their life, and removing stresses (Religion Facts, 2015).
In 1862, the revered monk Migettuwatte Gunanand, and his associates made the argument: “that Buddhism, with its history of rigorous philosophical thought and its lack of an omnipotent, judgment-dispensing creator-god, had far more in common with science” They also put forward their perspective that, in the Western sense of the word, Buddhism was hardly a religion in any sense of the word, and that it was more of a philosophy which was founded on science (Butler, 2008).
Over the previous fifty years, a new discipline has appeared: science and religion. And while may people see Buddhism as solely a religion, a certain amount of research has been conducted into the relationship between science and meditative Eastern traditions. One such researcher is Alan Wallace, the author of: Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge. Wallace went to India where he learned about Buddhism for in excess of ten years, and often had personal meetings with the Dali Lama. Prior to this, he studied physics, ecology, and religion in the Western hemisphere. Wallace is renowned for heading scientific research projects to determine the health benefits of meditation. Wallace has stated that: “meditative traditions can enrich the sciences and even catalyze a paradigmatic shift in the way science is approached” (Butler, 2008). Wallace addresses people’s psychological imbalances and looks at: “volitional imbalances, attention imbalances, cognitive imbalances, and affective imbalances” (Butler, 2008), and strives to a form of spirituality and state of meditative quiescent which is called “samatha.” This technique shows that Buddhism is far more than simply a religion. It is practiced by the Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen school, and is aimed at unifying religion, philosophy and science. Samatha meditation sends exponents into a “ground state of consciousness, which according to ancient Tibetan Buddhism, is a state of mind from which all conscious streams of thought emerge” (Butler, 2008). Wallace talks of: “a current explanatory gap in science’s understanding of the mind/brain”(Butler, 2008). The gap is the inability of scientific research to give an explanation of “mental events in terms of neural events” (Butler, 2008). From the perspective of Wallace, this gap is surpassed by a reflective science based on quiescent meditative samatha states (Butler, 2008).
In an article entitled: “Between Buddhism and Science, Between Mind and Body,” Geoffrey Samuel notes that at least since the beginning of the 20th Century, Buddhism has been regarded as especially congenial to the science of the Western world. This can easily be explained to a non-Buddhist in light of the recent surge and popularity in Mindfulness, which has attracted some interest from American and other research scientists (Samuel, 2014). This incorporates both mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction.
In summary, the research shown in this paper indicates that Buddhism is not a religion in the classic sense of the word, but rather, a philosophy and way of life. It also shows that meditation and mindfulness, two major practices within Buddhism, could mean that Buddhism might be referred to as a contemplative science.
- Butler, Rev (2008). A review of “Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge.” Journal of Law and Religion Vol. XX111. Retrieved from http://law.hamline.edu/files/Butler.Rev_.pdf
- Religion Facts (2015). “Buddhist beliefs.” Retrieved from: http://www.religionfacts.com/buddhism/beliefs
- Samuel, Geoffrey. Religions 2014, 5, 560–579. “Between Buddhism and Science, Between Mind and Body.” Retrieved from www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/5/3/560/pdf
- The Buddhist Centre (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://thebuddhistcentre.com/buddhism