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Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?
A longtime debate over Buddhism's religiosity has drawn a line between metaphysics and action.
If you were to go by the stream of psychology and neuroscience books published over the last two decades, you'd think Buddhism is an intricate philosophical system designed by a man with a keen insight for the emergence of psychoanalysis and philosophy some 2,400 years down the road.
Indeed, Buddhism lends itself to emergent sciences in ways no other faith has. In fact, many modern thinkers, including Sam Harris and Stephen Batchelor, question if faith is even necessary to understand Buddhism. The question of faith is one Siddhartha Gotama generally avoided. As Batchelor writes:
Gotama's dharma opened the door to an emergent civilization rather than the establishment of a “religion."
In an early instance of transcending tribalism, Buddha opened up his teachings to the entire world; it was not a gender- or race-dependent practice. Monks and nuns were in a co-dependent relationship with the public: the clergy offered spiritual sustenance while commoners provided them with food and money. Anyone could partake in the Three Jewels, either for a lifetime or, in some nations (such as Japan), for a season: dharma, Buddha's teachings; sangha, the community; and the Buddha. Faith in these three aspects offers ground-floor entry into the Buddhist life.
Yet, if faith is required, how is it not a religion? There is a notable difference in the way that Buddha treated religion and the ways in which his followers translated his teachings. Buddha was skeptical of the Indian faiths surrounding him. Buddhism arose thanks to Siddhartha's incessant questioning of traditions and spiritual authorities. He abandoned his two yoga teachers upon realizing they wanted him to believe what they taught without experiencing it for himself. In Buddhism, faith is dependent on experience and reasoning, not unexperienced hopes or wishful thinking.
Yet in practice, Buddhism is very much a religion. As of 2010, there were 488 million Buddhists, representing seven percent of the planet's population. The bulk resides in Asia, some 481 million, with North America coming in second at just under four million. Half of all Buddhists live in China, with Thailand, Japan, and Myanmar rounding out the top four countries.
Within the teachings, there is plenty of examples of metaphysical ideology, which links Buddhism to other religions. One of the most relevant genres of Buddhist literature is Abhidharmakosa, or “metaphysics." The lessons inside of these texts were said to be spoken by Buddha directly to the gods—his deceased mother being the main listener.
Despite a growing pile of clinical literature regarding the efficacy of mindfulness meditation, Buddhist rituals and beliefs do not always jive with modern science. In the Agganna Sutta, a Buddhist origin myth, the gods live on Mount Meru's slopes and atop the summit; one part of the mountain is made of lapis lazuli, which is why the ocean is blue. For these deities, one year is equivalent to one hundred human years; they get a thousand god years until death.
There's also the most contentious philosophy in Buddhism, rebirth. Of the 14 questions Buddha refused to answer, whether the universe has a beginning or end comprise two. During the cycles of existence (samsara), “you" can be born (and reborn) a god, demigod, human, animal, ghost, or denizen of hell. Displaying charity during your life makes it likely you'll be reborn a god, some of which have no physical form but exist only at the level of consciousness—a direct contradiction to our current understanding of embodied consciousness.
There are plenty of taboos and praying going on in Buddhism as well. There's even a scam ring based in New York City's Chinatown (that has spread outward) in which “ghost marriages" drain money from susceptible parents and grandparents. Buddhist ghosts live 500 leagues beneath the surface of the planet, emerging randomly to toy with human affairs. Only monks with supernormal powers can spot them.
Despite the Buddha's refusal to acknowledge a beginning or end to the universe, Buddhist cosmology is intricate and intense. Eight hot and eight cold hells await those who don't follow their vows, and those aren't even the only hells. Sentences are everything but lenient: getting thrown into a hot hell costs you millions of years. You'll receive such a sentence if you kill your mother, father, or an arhat (an enlightened being that will achieve nirvana upon death). You'll also reach this blazing cauldron if you wound the Buddha or cause a ruckus amongst monks and nuns.
Since the Buddha taught for 45 years after his awakening, there is no “book" that represents the totality of his teachings. Buddhism is even called a “religion of the books." Just as the Bible was written by numerous people over the course of centuries, Buddhist texts better represent the mindset of each particular author than any comprehensive overview of what Buddhism entails.
Is Buddhism a religion? To many, certainly. Like other world religions, it offers a set of ethical codes to be followed, best practices used to instill empathy, calm, and compassion into your day. It also has its system of metaphysics. What follows life—the heavens and hells—is specific to Buddhism, yet every religious system has devised its own mystical taxonomy. In this sense, Buddhism is not alone.
Yet Buddhism is also uniquely positioned to impact the growing secularism manifesting across the planet. And for this, there is plenty to learn from Buddhist ideology. As the writer Pankaj Mishra notes regarding one of Buddhism's main exports:
As with any kind of mental training, the discipline of meditation steadily equips the individual with a new sensibility. It shows him how the craving for things that are transient, essence-less and flawed leads to suffering.
Instead of craving an afterlife, Buddhism's intensive focus on the present moment, as well as developing an awareness that your actions (karma) produce consequences, prepares the initiate to face any trouble life presents them with. In this way Buddhism is not tribal, even if it's been turned into in- and out-groups waging wars. The sangha is more a collection of individuals sharing the perspective that desire is the root of suffering and your accumulated actions affect the world we all inhabit. Personal responsibility and social decorum interact.
These are lessons as applicable to our world today as during the days when Siddhartha spent over half of his life teaching them. For the religious, there is plenty to contemplate in this tradition. Regardless of spiritual affiliation, the knowledge that we suffer and that techniques exist for overcoming this suffering is of immense value, no metaphysical beliefs required. The faith is in the proof.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.