What Is Buddhism?

Dharma Wheel (Image source - www.freewebs.com)Buddhism is a religion of self-help. The teachings traditionally ascribed to Siddhattha Gotama, the “historical Buddha”, are concerned primarily with ending existential angst and attaining liberation from the endless and painful cycle of death and rebirth. The Buddha claimed to have attained liberation by his own efforts and was able therefore to point the way for others to do the same…



Buddhism is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s great religions [1] and is founded upon cosmological and soteriological doctrines that were first written around 100 BCE. These teachings are attributed to an earlier itinerant holy man, Siddhatta Gotama, who is said to have wandered Northern India 2500 years ago preaching liberation from an endless suffering cycle of birth, death and rebirth (samsara). Today “Master Gotama” is still widely revered by followers as Lord Buddha: the self-awakened teacher of gods and humans.

Phra Buddha Dhammacakra (01-04-13)

Phra Buddha Dhammacakra

Yet many Buddhists nowadays are denying their religious heritage. They see the Buddha as “just a man” who awakened to existence. They claim neither to have blind faith in the Buddha’s teachings nor to worship him as the followers of other religions worship their Gods. They insist that Buddhism isn’t a religion but a “way of life”, and they reject the abundance of myths and legends in the ancient scriptures as populist “corruptions” of the Buddha’s natural philosophy. This rationalisation of the Buddha and his teachings is a relatively recent trend in Buddhism’s long history and is reflected in many of the Buddhist commentaries and guides that one is likely to find in bookshops and on the internet.

Of course, one only has to look at the history of religions and media news reports to understand why Buddhists who are committed to free rational enquiry, non-violence, and peace of mind might want to distance themselves from anything religious. This new wave of “Secular Buddhism” can be traced back to 19th and 20th century modernist and anti-colonial sentiments of political and religious elites within countries like Sri Lanka and Burma, who were keen to forge new national identities founded upon democratic and scientific ideals.  In Britain, Europe, and America, there has been an increasing demand for a spirituality that is compatible with humanist values and Buddhist teachers around the globe have obliged with non-religious interpretations of ancient doctrines. But anyone who claims to follow the Buddha must eventually acknowledge what the ancient scriptures really say about him and refrain from making excuses.

The whole point of Buddhist practice is “knowledge and vision of things as they really are”, for the sake of liberation from delusion, aversion and craving. The fact is the earliest known Buddhist scriptures are full of religiosity. [2] Within the realm of religious studies at least, it’s understood that a doctrinal belief in some or other deity doesn’t by itself constitute a religion. The word “religion” is conventionally applied to a communal system having a distinctly recognisable infrastructure of scriptures, shrines, rituals, ethics, and organisations dedicated to the supernatural or transcendental. It’s in this wider sense of the word that Buddhism qualifies as a religion alongside Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, for example.

Buddhism is a religion of self-help. The teachings traditionally ascribed to Gotama Buddha are concerned primarily with ending existential angst and attaining liberation from the endless and painful cycle of death and rebirth. This “suffering”, he said, is endured by all who have yet to realise what he alone had discovered. The Buddha claimed to have attained liberation through true knowledge by his own efforts, and was able therefore to point the way for others to do the same. [3]

Moreover, the Buddha famously insisted that his teachings (dhamma or dharma) were not to be believed but verified through practice and observation. His liberating path is one that people must choose to walk themselves. Salvation cannot be granted by another. Obviously this does require the aspirant to have some initial faith or confidence that the effort of practicing the Buddha’s advice will be worth it in the long run, but this is entirely different from the sort of faith that is demanded by the theistic religions (i.e. belief in a supreme creator God and strict observance of that divinity’s sacred rules or commandments). And while the Buddha clearly acknowledged the existence of other mortal beings similar to angels (devas) and demons (asuras) and ghosts (pretas), all inhabiting their own heavenly and hellish realms and visible only to those with “higher knowledge” (abhinna) [4], it’s interesting to note that he wouldn’t be drawn on the question of how and when the universe was created or by whom, arguing that such questions are unanswerable, irrelevant to The Goal, and lead only to more suffering. [5], [6]

It’s impossible to prove or refute Buddhadhamma just by hearing or reading or debating it. The myths and legends of the Buddha don’t fit comfortably with modern scientific thinking. And you’ll always find real world examples of Buddhists behaving badly. But if you contemplate ancient Buddhist texts that have been translated by linguistic scholars instead of relying solely on commentaries and news media reports by people who have never read these scriptures in their original Indian languages, you’ll find much wisdom that still resonates in these modern times.

Buddhism is a religion and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Does Buddhism have a positive and beneficial impact when we internalise the message and strive to live up to it? That’s the real issue as far as I’m concerned.


[1] See also Religion in Wikipedia.

[2] See for example, ‘Mythology, Cosmology & Rituals In Early Buddhism’ by Paul Lockey, Trusting In Buddha, 3 November 2017.

[3] See also Dhamma for an explanation of the Buddha’s main teachings.

[4] Abhhijna in Wikipedia.

[5] “Vacchagotta Sutta: With Vacchagotta” (SN 44.8), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 1 July 2010.

[6]”Introduction to the Avyakata Samyutta: (Undeclared-connected)” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 2 June 2010,

[7] This post was first made on 02 February 2013 and substantially revised on 04 May 2018.