Does Buddhism Have A Future?

Buddha and DevasDoes Buddhism have a future? Buddhism will almost certainly continue to diversify as practitioners adapt themselves to the current harsh realities of globalisation. The issues of Rationalism, Consumerism, and Activism, are especially liable to influence future perceptions of the religion. Whether or not Buddhism remains relevant beyond the 21st century, or is viewed increasingly as anachronistic, will depend largely upon the various Buddhist schools all being much clearer on what the foundational teachings actually are…






Living in the world today are an estimated 488 million Buddhists. [1] On that evidence Buddhism appears to be flourishing, although in my opinion much of what passes for Buddhism nowadays wouldn’t be recognised by those who founded the religion. I’m not saying that a departure from Early Buddhist doctrine is always unwholesome and never justifiable. The survival of any religion depends upon its ability to recruit and retain followers; doctrinal revisions were inevitable as Buddhist teachings spread around the globe and practitioners struggled to accommodate new political and social realities. Consequently one now sees a variety of Buddhist traditions and cults all claiming a connection to Gotama Buddha – a legendary character whom historians believe was most probably an itinerant teacher living in Northern India around 500 BCE [2], and whom followers believe found enlightenment under a Bodhi tree. [3]

Does Buddhism have a future? The main points of this essay in response to the question are as follows. Buddhism will almost certainly continue to diversify as practitioners adapt themselves to the current harsh realities of globalisation (‘the integration of economies, industries, markets, cultures and policy-making around the world’).  [4] The issues of Rationalism, Consumerism, and Activism, are especially liable to influence future perceptions of the religion. Whether or not Buddhism remains relevant beyond the 21st century, or is viewed increasingly as anachronistic, will depend largely upon the various Buddhist schools all being much clearer on what the foundational teachings actually are, and much more honest about past and future doctrinal revisions.

Religion or philosophy?

Whether or not Buddhism is to be regarded a religion or a philosophy depends very much on how one defines these terms.  A useful definition of religion, I think, is that provided by Ninian Smart, who is an acknowledged contributor to secular religious studies.  Be it theistic or non-theistic, a religion will according to Smart have seven dimensions that can be scientifically studied. These seven dimensions are: doctrinal, mythological, ethical, ritual, experiential, institutional and material (see table below). [5]

7 Dimensions Of Religion

It’s on the above basis that I regard Buddhism to be a religion. If Buddhism were a philosophy it would be a purely intellectual and rational analysis of the meaning of life. That many Buddhists exhibit a philosophical attitude is undeniable. But even a cursory glance at Buddhist scriptures should convince anyone that Buddhism encompasses beliefs and practices that are much more than mere philosophy. [6]


Merriam Webster defines rationalism as ‘reliance on reason as the basis for establishment of religious truth… a theory that reason is in itself a source of knowledge superior to and independent of sense perceptions… a view that reason and experience rather than the non-rational are the fundamental criteria in the solution of problems.’  [7]

With reference to the work of Eisel Mazard [8], Donald S. Lopez Jr. [9], and Robert H. Sharf [10] in particular, I would describe the rationalisation of Buddhism as follows.

Buddhism started as an ancient oral tradition sometime around 500 BCE, in the area of Northern India we know today as Nepal. During the Buddha’s life and after his death, his teachings were memorised and recited by his disciples. Repetitions of words, phrases, passages, numbered lists, and other preservation methods were employed so that successive generations could receive and transmit the teachings in a reliable form. [11] This oral knowledge was eventually written down in the language of Pali.

Buddhism in India was on the decline from around 600 CE and virtually extinct by the end of the 19th century. [12] Nevertheless, Pali and Sanskrit texts survived elsewhere largely because believers were willing to support monastics who offered them spiritual guidance and religious scripts.

From the 16th century until the mid 20th century, Asian cultures were being challenged by colonial suppression and the ideologies of Christianity, Scientism, Communism, etc., but Buddhism endured nonetheless. Theravada countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, etc. relied largely on western translations of Pali texts and bought into the Victorian notion of a ‘Scientific Buddha’ in order to fend off Christianity and establish a post-colonial Buddhist national identity. The supernatural elements of Buddhism were downplayed in order to win over modernist intellectuals, rulers and other wealthy elites. In places like India, Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan, Buddhism was kept alive by a reliance mainly upon translations of Nagarjuna and the Heart Sutra, for example, and again the supernatural elements of Mahayana were understated in order to appease the modernist sensibilities of wealthy and powerful patrons.

Compatibility with modern science is routinely touted as Buddhism’s USP nowadays. Take for example this following quotation from a popular Buddhist website –

It is significant that Albert Einstein, the greatest scientist of the twentieth century said of Buddhism:

“The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both natural and spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual and a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.” [13]

Unfortunately this eloquent observation cannot be attributed reliably to Einstein. [14]  Certainly there is scientific evidence that might lend some support to the ideas of ‘not-self’ and the efficacy of Buddhist meditation practices, and I have discussed this evidence elsewhere. [15] But whenever Buddhism’s scientific credentials are strongly asserted it strikes me as evangelistic hyperbole that is liable to confuse and upset the very people it aims to win over.  In my opinion, early Buddhist soteriology (salvation theory) and cosmology are likely neither to be validated by modern science nor appeal to a secular mindset.  Modern Buddhism has responded pragmatically by reinventing tradition and creating brand new ‘ancient’ philosophy.


Consumerism – ‘the overarching idea in our modern society that in order to be happier, better and more successful people we have to have more stuff’ [16] – is clearly at odds with the norms and values praised by the Buddha, his disciples and lay followers.

Early Buddhists refrained from killing, stealing, sexual abuse, unwholesome speech, and intoxicants; they regarded these five precepts as a minimal standard of moral conduct and they eschewed any kind of livelihood that entailed such wrongs.  However, additional restraints on behaviour were also regarded as necessary for achieving the Buddha’s state of enlightenment. Monks, nuns, and highly-motivated lay people, would undertake therefore to remain celibate (because sexuality is a very powerful intoxicant). They also upheld the precepts of refraining from eating after midday (because it reduces drowsiness caused by gluttony); refraining from popular entertainments such as singing, dancing, theater, etc. (because they are distractions that hinder meditation); refraining from beautifying the body with perfumes, cosmetics, jewellery, fancy clothes, etc. (because they encourage vanity); refraining from using luxurious seats and beds (because they encourage conceit and laziness); refraining from handling money (because money corrupts).

Why did they do this? As David Chapman succinctly explains:

The First Noble Truth is that all experiences contain suffering. This suffering cannot be eliminated by ordinary means. Especially, you cannot eliminate suffering by satisfying cravings, because sensory pleasure just creates more craving.

Renunciation simply reverses this causal chain. You avoid sensory contact, especially with objects that fuel craving. (“Objects” here includes people and experiences.) If your external environment is extremely bland, the raging fire of lust gradually subsides, and suffering decreases.

Memory and habit keep some flames burning, so the second phase of renunciation is internal. Vipassana disassembles all mental structures, until there’s no machinery left in which suffering could occur. This too is a process of disconnection and inhibition. [17]

Early Buddhists considered themselves neither hedonists nor ascetics, but practitioners who walked a middle path between two extreme lifestyles. They believed themselves to be trapped in a continuous cycle of death and rebirth, and by overcoming all attachments to sensuality and self-identity they hoped to win final liberation from samsara and dwell permanently in nirvana.  Monks and nuns in particular lived simply and relied upon their lay followers to provide the requirements of shelter, clothing, food and medicines.

From at least the 18th century to the present day, consumerism has been shaping the culture and institutions of Britain, Western Europe, and the USA. [18].  Consumerism is an increasingly potent force within Asian societies too. As V. Romeschchandra observes: ‘There is a new megatrend in the global economy. It is the rise of the Asian consumer, particularly in China and India, but also elsewhere in the region.’ [19] In my view, the pervasive ideology of consumerism has got a grip on the Buddhist religion and is unlikely ever to let go of it.

How many people nowadays are inclined to go all out for Final Liberation like the Early Buddhists? Evidently, myself and the vast majority of followers who are struggling to make a living in the age of consumerism regard the Buddha’s monastic lifestyle as neither practical nor desirable.

To step outside the proscribed societal role of a consumer is actually very difficult, and few people these days are in a position to trade their consumer lifestyles for the ultimate spiritual lifestyle of the Early Buddhists. Earning the money to buy products and services is a necessary evil and a barrier to following strictly in the Buddha’s footsteps. Myself and the vast majority of Buddhists settle instead for merit-making through generosity, virtue and meditation as and when the opportunity arises. By and large, attaining the Buddha’s supreme goal of freedom from endless suffering is postponed indefinitely.

Naturally, there are many commercial companies and enterprising individuals willing to enhance our spirituality by selling us smart foods, mindfulness retreats, iconography, shrine room furniture, meditation manuals, and even spiritual romance. To find them one need only search the internet or scan the glossy advertisements in popular Buddhist magazines.


In comparison with Christians, Buddhists appear to have only a little enthusiasm for social engagement. According to one study of religious non-government organisations involved in activities related to development and humanitarian aid: ‘Christian NGOs make up the majority of organizations, while both Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist NGOs are grossly underrepresented compared to the number of adherents to Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism worldwide.’ [20]

Emma Tomalin makes the important observation that within all Budhist countries there are examples of Buddhist social activism, service provision, and humanitarian assistance, and most probably there always has been.  [21] She distinguishes between engaged Buddhism as a movement or tendency and the everyday thoughts and practices of individuals, claiming that ‘most Buddhists are not explicitly involved in movements for social change yet do hold beliefs and participate in practices that have an impact upon social development.’ [22] Moreover, she also points out that critiques of Buddhism have seized upon its soteriology (the doctrine of liberation through non-attachment to impermanent notions of self) in order to argue that the religion is unlikely to inspire a concern with ecological and social issues. [23]

Buddhist teachings on karma are often misinterpreted as a justification for fatalism and finger-pointing at victims, as in the following quote from Christmas Humphreys (founder of the Buddhist Society):

“Evil is man-made and is of his choosing, and he who suffers suffers from his deliberate use of his own free will. Cripples, dwarfs and those born deaf or blind are the products of their own past actions” [24]

The Maha Kammavibhanga Sutta [25] explicitly warns against holding simplistic notions of karma and yet Buddhists are liable to look upon human disabilities and natural disasters as a form of karmic retribution.  A study of religious responses to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, for example, found that some Buddhists ‘explained the Tsunami in the context of karma and/or the displeasure of local deities.’ [26]. Buddhist apologists appear not to realise just how unpalatable and offensive the notion of retributive karma is to rationalist sensibilities.

Western piety and Eastern pragmatism: a cautionary tale

Would it be acceptable within Islam if clerics were unable to teach Arabic, the language of the Quran?  Would Roman Catholic priests get away with not teaching any Latin?  Probably not. But that’s the situation within contemporary Buddhism.  Teachers assume all kinds of things about the Buddha and only a handful of Pali scholars have the ability to put them straight by referring directly to original source materials.  [27]

I still recall the excitement I felt when I embarked upon a pilgrimage to Sri Lanka with hopes of getting closer to ‘proper’ Buddhism. The country had only just ended its twenty year civil war, and it was plainly evident.  I met some lovely people and saw much beauty there. I also found sectarianism and commercialisation of sacred sites.  My jaw almost dropped at the sight of saffron-robed monks chatting away on mobile phones, snapping photographs like tourists, and handling money. I had naively expected them to be more restrained. But of course they were only human, not superhuman as the Buddha and his disciples are traditionally portrayed.

Buddha and Deities

Buddha and Deities

Throughout contemporary Asia there is a kind of tension between the Buddhist laity and clergy.  Generally speaking, lay Buddhists exhibit enthusiasm for worship but are less interested in meditation; they have a strong belief in the supernatural, and for their patronage of monastics they expect to receive spiritual blessings and guidance. Monks tend to have a rather flexible attitude to canonical rules of conduct (Vinaya) and cosmological beliefs. [28], [29]  Westerners who are attracted to eastern Buddhist traditions often experience dismay upon discovering that monks are ‘corrupt’ and lay followers are ‘superstitious’.  [30] If they don’t abandon the religion they try to reinvent it – they apply a mental sieve to scriptures and disregard the mythological elements in order to uncover ‘genuine’ (i.e. rational, non-dogmatic) Buddhist wisdom.

The religion is what it is.  Perhaps I’m fortunate in that I’ve never really felt much need to impose my own western cultural values upon the major Buddhist traditions.  My interest in Buddhism hasn’t been dented by my encounter with Asian cultural values, and for the time being at least I’m happy to remain part of the world-wide Sangha.


Buddhism will most likely continue to mutate and fragment as practitioners adapt themselves to increasing globalisation of the economic, political and cultural institutions of nation states. If the religion is to remain relevant beyond the 21st century all the various Buddhist schools will need to be much clearer on what the foundational teachings actually are, and much more honest about past and future doctrinal revisions.

The world view of the Early Buddhists was very different to that of modern day physicists and cosmologists.  Teachers should stop pretending that the Buddhist religion is founded upon ancient science that presaged the discoveries of Copernicus, Einstein, Bohr, et al. [31]

Early Buddhism wasn’t a form of mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy. A consumerist lifestyle is far removed from the Buddha’s Noble Eigthfold Path of morality, concentration and liberating insight.  Practitioners of Buddhism should beware the seduction of ‘spiritual consumerism’ in the guise of corporate mindfulness programmes (in my opinion, a cynical attempt at pacifying the labour force), dating agencies claiming to hook people up with their Buddhist ‘soul mate’,  tranquil meditation retreats in beautiful (expensive) surroundings, and various other varieties of snake oil.

The Buddha’s doctrine of karma isn’t a justification for pointing the finger of blame at victims and ignoring their suffering – a fact clearly demonstrated by the Buddha’s own actions throughout his long career. Non-engaged Buddhism isn’t a viable option, in my opinion. It really does matter what the rest of the world thinks about the religion, and Buddhists cannot afford to be seen as complacent and sitting idle on their cushions while non-Buddhists are rolling up their sleeves and getting busy with the nitty-gritty of poverty, oppression, disaster management, etc.


[1] ‘Buddhism by country’ Wikipedia, 29 April 2016. Accessed 29 April 2016.

[2] ‘The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts’, Supplement to the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies Volume 5′ by Bhikkhu Sujato & Bhikkhu Brahmali, November 2013, pp. 10-11.

[3] The Life of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli, Buddhist Publication Society, 1992.

[4] ‘Globalisation’: definition, Financial Times. Accessed 9 Apr 2016.

[5] ‘Seven Dimensions Of Religion – Ninian Smart’ The University of Hull. <>

[6] Anyone who reads the suttas on Access to Insight or Sutta Central will soon discover sentences and passages that describe the Buddha conversing with angels (devas) or performing some other supernatural activity such as clairvoyance or teleportation. Why did the supposedly rational ancient Buddhists relate these extraordinary details?  It seems to me there are three possibilities – i) the suttas are a verbatim record of true events and understandings; ii) the suttas are mythological, symbolic representations of human experiences not easily explained using words, very different from everyday discourse and thought habits; iii) the suttas are a mixture of historical reality and mythic symbolism.  Either way, the suttas portray a world view very different from the scientific rationalist outlook of modern industrial societies.

[7] ‘Rationalism’: definition, Merriam Webster.

[8] ‘Brand New Ancient Buddhist Philosophy’ (three videos) by Eisel Mazard, YouTube
Pt 1, 28 August 2014.
Pt 2, 22 March 2014.
Pt 3, 26 March 2014.

[9] Buddhism & Science: A Guide For The Perplexed by Donald S. Lopez Jr., University Of Chicago, 2008.

[10] ‘The Invention Of Tradition’ in ‘Buddhist Modernism And The Rhetoric Of Meditative Experience’ by Robert Sharf, Numen, Vol 42, 1995 , pp 246-59.

[11] ‘The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts’ by Bhikkhu Sujato & Bhikkhu Brahmali, p. 4.

[12] ‘Among the factors cited by historians as having contributed to this decline are: the loss of Ashoka’s lavish patronage, the increasing popularity of Brahmanism within the political and spiritual arena, a philosophical convergence with Hinduism and conquests by Muslim invaders.’
‘Making Sense Of Buddhism’, Trusting In Buddha, 24 March 2015.<>

[13] ‘Is Buddhism Scientific’ by Ven. S. Dhammika, Accessed 17 April 2016.<>

[14] Buddhism & Science by Donald S. Lopez Jr., p. 2.

[15] ‘Mind & Meditation: Observations From Buddhism & Science’, Trusting In Buddha, 26 January 2016.

[16] ‘The Problem With Consumerism’. Life Squared, 2009.

[17] ‘Renunciation Is The Engine For Most Of Buddhism’ By David Chapman, David Chapman@Wordpress, 22 November 2013.

[18] Consumerism In World History: The Global Transformation Of Desire (2nd Edition) by Peter N. Stearns, Routledge, 2001 p. viii.

[19] ‘Size Counts: China and India Flex Their Consumer Muscle’ by V. Romeschchandra, Asian Conversations, May 2011.

[20] ‘International Religious NGOs at The United Nations: A Study of a Group of Religious Organizations’, The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance: Field Experience And Current Research On Humanitarian Action And Policy, 17 November 2010.

[21] ‘Buddhism And Development: A Background Paper’ by Emma Tomalin, Regions Development Working Paper 18, University Of Leeds, 2007, p. 19.

[22] Ibid p. 19.

[23] Ibid p. 20.

[24] Quoted in ‘Retributive Karma And The Problem Of Blaming The Victim’ by Mikel Burley, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, October 2013, Volume 74, Issue 2, pp 149-165.<>

[25] ‘Maha Kammavibhanga Sutta: The Great Exposition of Kamma’ (MN 136), translated from the Pali by Ñanamoli Thera. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.<>

[26] ‘Religious Interpretations For The Causes Of The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami’, Asian Profile, Vol. 41, No 1, February 2013.

[27] Here are some resources freely available on the internet for anyone who’s interested in learning Pali (courtesy of Eisel Mazard) –
‘Resources For Learning Pali’ by Eisel Mazard, Pratekya, Sep 2010.

[28] ‘10 Misconceptions about Buddhism’ by Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr., Tricycle Magazine, November 18, 2013. Website version accessed 12 March 2015. (Misconception 1)

[29] The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia (2nd Edition) by Donald K. Swearer, State University Of New York Press, 1995, p. 141-6

[30] Eisel Mazard openly speaks of his ‘disillusionment’ with Buddhism in ‘Why I Am Not A Buddhist’ (video), YouTube, 17 February 2014.
Other notable Westerners who have spoken of their disillusionment with Buddhism include:
Stephen Batchelor (Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, Spiegel & Grau, 2010.)
Stephen Schettini (The Novice, Greenleaf Book Group Press,2009.)

[31] Previously in ‘Making Sense Of Buddhism’ I noted how the early Buddhists differed from modern scientists –

The early Buddhists were ‘scientific’ in as much as they were empirical – that is to say, they tried to ground knowledge in experience and they had less regard for knowledge derived mainly or solely from a priori reasoning and authority. But whereas modern scientists indulge in theorizing about mechanisms and suggesting hypothetical entities (and are thus able to offer many causal explanations for much of what we experience), the empirical attitude of the Early Buddhists led them to eschew ‘speculative views’ and to concentrate instead on the practicalities of attaining nibbana. The Early Buddhists often cited the conditions necessary for certain effects to arise but they did not – could not – offer many causal explanations.

‘Making Sense Of Buddhism’, Trusting In Buddha, 24 Mar 2015. Accessed 7 April 2016.<>



3 thoughts on “Does Buddhism Have A Future?

  1. Paul….

    I felt a need to say something here since without having discovered the teachings of Nagarjuna, I would probably feel that Buddhism like many other ancient spiritual traditions, were unable to transmit the realizations of their origins. Spiritual seeking really needs to abandon the word “spiritual”, the word implies some sort of “supernatural” meaning to realization that is not helpful…


    Bill W.

  2. Nagarjuna did a lot to keep Buddhism going…
    Many thanks for reading , Bill. Best wishes 🙂

  3. Bill, I’ve been mulling over your comments on the word ‘spiritual’ and whether or not we can appreciate the insights of Gotama Buddha and his contemporaries.

    The earliest form of Buddhism we know of developed within an ancient Vedic culture (similar to modern Hindu culture) and bears all the hallmarks of a polytheistic religion; beliefs in karma, rebirth, and non-material beings (ghosts, gods, demons, etc.) remain a large part of contemporary Buddhist traditions and Secular (humanistic, non-theistic) Buddhism is a relatively small thread in the entire Buddhist tapestry. We are of course free to reject the cosmology and soteriology of the Ancient Buddhists whilst benefiting from the teachings. However, I don’t think it’s valid or helpful to impose modern cultural values (like rationalism) on the historical Buddha or even on later Buddhist philosophers like Nagarjuna. The textual evidence suggests that they did indeed have a spiritual outlook.

    Kind regards 🙂

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