Buddhism as a Religion
History, Community, and Practice
Modified: February 2, 2023
Table of Contents
- What is Buddhism as a Religion?
- The Course
- Further Reading
- Advanced Courses
What is Buddhism as a Religion?
Whether Buddhism even is a “religion” at all is, of course, a matter of some controversy. Is it a philosophy? A movement? A practice? An aesthetic? Who even counts as “a Buddhist”?
In defining the bounds of “who is Buddhist”, some “middle way” may be desirable, between:
- The conservative, “prescriptive” definition (The Buddha once said that only enlightened beings count as his followers!)
- And the completely liberal, “historical” definition (The Buddha’s life has materially impacted everything from ancient trade routes, to Islamic art, Christian conflicts, IKEA designs, software engineering practices… nearly every human life today.)
In searching for such a middle way, I take on Bhante Yuttadhammo’s definition of Religion here, and say that “Religion is whatever you take seriously.”
The religious forms of Buddhism, then, are the various ways that people have looked back to the Buddha for guidance and inspiration, and the many ways they have found to reshape their lives in response to what they’ve seen.
This course assumes familiarity with the fundamentals of Buddhism, but no worries if you’re rusty: you’ll get a refresher below.
This course proceeds in three parts: history, community, and practice.
The history portion of the course is the longest and describes the entire history of Buddhism. The second section analyzes this history to highlight the role of the monastic community, and the third section zooms all the way in to the individual practices.
On forms and the formless.
- Here we get Bhante Yuttadhammo’s definition of religion which I referenced earlier, and his introductory thoughts on the cultural forms of Buddhism.
- Bhante Yuttadhammo then gives us his thoughts on the essence of Buddhism.
Throughout this course, we’ll be using a Common Buddhist Text as our primary source:
- An anthology from the canons of the Three Vehicles, giving us a taste of the canonical literature from the various traditions.
Selections will be referenced like this:
- [CBT] L.59
- For example, this refers to the passage in Common Buddhist Text about Ven Vaṅgīsa which contains a poem in praise of the Buddha.
- To look up the passage, search the PDF or skim the Table of Contents for the reference number (“L.59”).
This passage, for example, is on page 84 of the above pdf (note: page numbers differ in the printed editions).
Part 1: The Sociology and History of Buddhism
There are two textbooks for this first part of the course:
- The main textbook for this part, Robinson will give us an accessible and enjoyable survey of Buddhism’s long history across Asia and beyond.
- A more theoretical text, Gnanarama will provide an introduction to how Buddhists themselves thought about the sociology of religion.
- Feel free to skip the readings from this book if you’re not as interested in theory.
Let us start off by reading Chapter 1 (“Towards a Definition”) of Aspects of Early Buddhist Sociological Thought to round off our discussion of how Buddhism can be defined as a “religion” and how it may relate to other concepts you’ve heard of.
- For a refresher on the basics of Buddhism, I recommend skimming this Q&A with Thubten Chodron before we dive into the more detailed history below.
- There’s no need to read it thoroughly: just read the answers to whatever questions interest you.
Supplementary Material to Robinson
As you read through Robinson et al’s Historical Introduction one chapter at a time, please also consider:
Parallel to Robinson Ch 1: Awakening
- The Buddha was a real, historical figure, but many of the stories about his life are myths still expanding today.
- Here we get the Buddha’s spiritual journey in his own words.
- Notice the repetitive nature of the early, oral texts.
Aspects (of Early Buddhist Sociological Thought) Chapter 2: Dhamma, Medicine and Sociology
- This chapter introduces us to the central metaphor of Buddhism as a medical science, and the social implications of that framing.
Parallel to Robinson Ch 2: Teacher
- An Introduction to Buddhist History
- “Stupas” are mentioned as sites of worship even in the earliest texts and archeology as the burial sites of great leaders. This paper shows what those looked like, from ancient India to modern Burma.
- They’re beautiful, aren’t they? But what do they mean?
- While the Christians have the cross and the Jews the star, the Buddhists have the wheel as the symbol of their religion. But where did this wheel come from and what does it mean?
[CBT] Th.13, L.25, Th.205, L.23, L.30, L.34, L.39, L.42, L.53, L.57, Th.28, Th.59, Th.73–75, Th.98, Th.116, Th.171
- Here we get a few stories about the Buddha’s life as a teacher from the early texts.
Aspects (of Early Buddhist Sociological Thought) Chapter 3: Significance of Buddhist Chanting
- Even in the Buddha’s time, monks would recite the teachings verbatim to acclimate to them and keep them in mind. Over time, this chanting became seen as apotropaic and was therefore ritualized quite early on. Today, chanting features prominently across Buddhist traditions and practices.
Parallel to Robinson chapter 3: “Development”
- Buddhism is not an especially evangelical religion. This paper explores the unique (compared to other religions) way that Buddhism spread.
- The early Buddhists of ancient India did not represent the Buddha with anthropomorphic statues as is ubiquitous now. This essay explores the symbols and objects that were venerated in the early period after the Buddha’s death.
- One such object which became notably ubiquitous across Buddhist cultures is the lotus flower. This article explores the ancient origins and meaning of this potent symbol.
- And this essay commends the virtues of offering flowers: a lovely practice still common across Buddhist Asia
[CBT] M.5, Th.94
- Buddhists lament the passing of their teacher and build monuments in his memory.
- This verse was especially popular to carve on early monuments to the Buddha.
- An account of the first council of the Buddha’s disciples after his death, at which the teachings were first codified.
- In praise of the Sutras, preserved after the Buddha’s death.
- How were these texts preserved? How reliable are they, and how should we think about the study of Buddhist history?
[CBT] M.36, M.38
- On the practice of giving to the Sangha in order to transfer merit to one’s deceased relatives: a practice that became common in the years after the Buddha.
- On the practice of releasing animals for merit, a tradition now found across the Buddhist world.
Aspects Chapter 5 (we’ll come back to 4 later): Buddhist Art Symbols For Religious Edification
- Art, offerings and other public devotions provided early (and current) Buddhists with an effective, yet soft, way to spread the religion.
Chapter 4: “The Rise of Mahayana”
- Nagarjuna criticized the excessive developments of Buddhism in the centuries after the Buddha and reestablished emptiness as the central tenant of Buddhism, laying the philosophical groundwork for the Mahayana.
- In this essay, Bhikkhu Bodhi explores the Bodhisattva ideal from the perspective of the Theravada and Mahayana.
- The description of reality as perceived by an awakened being in the early texts became the basis for much speculation about the nature of reality after the Buddha’s passing
[CBT] M.143, M.16, M.111–112 (note: M.112 is mislabeled “M.114”)
- Nirvana came to be identified as being the same as ultimate reality, and as the essential nature of the mind.
[CBT] M.44, M.61, M.103, M.137
- “Emptiness”—also present in early Buddhism—was deployed to counter this essentializing tendency.
[CBT] M.62, M.142
- This eventually led to a “Middle Way” synthesis of these philosophical extremes.
Aspects Chapter 4 (as promised): Aesthetics
- Aesthetics was actually a major point of departure for the Early Mahayana, who rejected the cold austerity of the Abhidhamma in favor of more beautiful expressions of enlightened wisdom.
Chapter 5: “The Pantheon”
- In the centuries after the Buddha, many of the subtleties of karma were simplified for didactic expedience. This led to a formulaic, “if you do this, this will happen to you” understanding of karma (which the Buddha himself rejected as fatalistic) that came to be repeated ad-infinitum in texts (such as the Karma-Vibanga) and in Buddhist art (such as, here, at Borobudur) for millennia, perpetuating a (mis)understanding of Karma which has persisted to today.
- But, as Buddhism became more popular and spread around and out of India, it also picked up an artistic and mythological richness that textured and enlivened the tradition. Indeed, Buddhism’s ability to embrace and contextualize local mythology has long been a key to its ability to spread peacefully.
- The story behind this ancient, Buddhist statue.
- Such foreign converts often yearned for a solid connection back to the Buddha. One common expression of this was the creation and authentication of local “souvenirs” which also play a prominent role in popular Buddhism to this day.
- In addition to new relics and stories explaining them, many new teachings were also introduced. Today, as all the remaining traditions have picked up their fair share of shady teachers, deity cults, and doctrinal confusion, Ajahn Geoff reminds us that we have to be discerning about where we place our faith.
Aspects Chapter 6: Socialization for Death
- What effect does Buddhism’s encouragement to reflect on death and impermanence have on how Buddhists perceive the cosmos, life, and the religion itself?
- All these factors—increased deification, a concern over death and the decline of the sasana, etc—fueled the movement towards what we now call “Pure Land” Buddhism: a next-life focused practice still very popular in East Asia today.
[CBT] M.73, V.33, M.56–57, M.49, M.91, M.67, M.99
- Practitioners came to be encouraged to aspire to Buddhahood themselves and to take the Bodhisattva Path rather than to take the “lesser” path of the disciple so as to maximize the benefit that their enlightenment can have for others.
- Role models, guides, and supporters are crucial for this Bodhisattva Path.
- Thankfully, there are advanced Bodhisattvas living now as gods who can be called upon to support you on your journey.
[CBT] M.144, M.6
- Even the Buddha himself came to be immortalized as a quasi-god.
[CBT] M.107, M.154
- If the Buddha isn’t truly gone, then that means all the Buddhas of the past are also still out there, making them nearly indistinguishable from the advanced, heavenly Bodhisattvas.
- We can even aspire to be reborn in one of those “Buddha fields” where a Buddha is currently teaching, which promises a fast track to enlightenment.
- This all eventually came to mirror Hinduism so closely that this sutra directly equates the Buddha with Brahma and the Buddhists with the Brahmins.
After Chapter 6 of Robinson on “Vajrayana”
- Taking an important role during the later development of Buddhist art and esoterica, mudras such as the “Anjali” of respect are now ubiquitous in the Buddhist cultural sphere, and are nearly synonymous with Buddhism itself.
- While largely not Buddhist today, the deserts of Central Asia were key to the medieval spread of Buddhism.
- One story, five countries.
- Shows how each nation where Buddhism spread adapted the Indic mythology to explain their own local conditions, and gives us a fascinating window into the spread of Buddhism across Asia.
Take a second to appreciate the explosive spread of Buddhism across Asia shown in these maps of medieval monasteries.
- The early textual basis for equating enlightenment with a “diamond-like” mind.
[CBT] M.11, M.17, V.3, M.22, M.42, V.23, V.30, V.38, V.43, M.106, M.114, M.147–149
- A few selections from the Vajrayana Canon showing its last developments in India.
Aspects Chapter 7: Social Conflict
- A short essay on the Buddhist understanding of conflict
- See also, [CBT] Th.17–20
Parallel to Robinson’s Regional Chapters
As we transition to more contemporary forms of Buddhism, let us set aside Aspects of Early Buddhist Sociological Thought for now, and consider the contemporary, lived traditions. While not representative of the diversity within each of the following “national” forms, I hope that the texts and clips below capture something of their beauty.
Robinson Chapter 7: Sri Lanka
- First, we have this extraordinary recording of a boy in Sri Lanka spontaneously remembering how he chanted Pāli in a past life.
- The ideal of the “Righteous Monarch” was hugely influential in the Theravada world and continues to justify monarchy in Thailand today.
- The Theravada monks, meanwhile, hold up Sariputta as their ideal: the wise, analytical follower of the Buddha.
[CBT] Th.90–91, Th.146, Th.159
- The Theravadin philosophical tradition loves to break Dharmas into exact parts and definitions.
[CBT] Th.135, Th.152, Th.145
- The Theravada is also famous for its “morbid” meditations on pain and death.
[CBT] Th.52, Th.108
- But Theravada isn’t all bleak, as they also celebrate the beauty of the Dhamma and of good companionship.
- Very conservative in their practice of the monastic rules, Theravada monks still go on alms round and abstain from eating dinner to this day.
[CBT] Th.117, Th.172, Th.181, Th.196, Th.226
- Lastly, we read Theravada responses to some Mahayana ideas.
Robinson Chapter 8: China
- A monk at a lonely temple, deep in the mountains of Taiwan, says goodbye to the day with drum and bell.
[CBT] Th.41, M.115
- The Confucian social values of ancient China found a natural counterpart in certain early Buddhist teachings, which came to be emphasized.
[CBT] Th.50, M.34
- Here, for example, we compare the earlier (Theravada) perspective on honoring one’s parents with the Chinese perspective.
- Yet there were some real innovations, such as the Chinese Buddhist embrace of vegetarianism.
[CBT] Th.218, M.14
- Notice here how sutras and scholarship themselves came to be objects of worship.
- The Chan/Zen school, however, rejected this new focus on texts, and claimed an authority based on a transmission “outside” the Sutras.
- They advocated a wise, flexible ethics not slavishly devoted to following monastic rules.
- And a “direct, non-conceptual” experience of the truth,opposed to the mere “verbal” Dharma of the sutras.
- Both these traditions (the scholarly and Chan) went through periods of patronage and persecution, which left a lasting lesson on the impermanence of fame immortalized in poetry such as this.
- We end our section on China by reading this very famous story about the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan School.
Robinson Chapter 9: Korea and Vietnam
- What does a Chinese monk’s pilgrimage to Sri Lanka have to do with Korea?
[CBT] M.18, M.26, M.78, M.108, M.118, M.149
- The Vietnamese and Korean traditions have taken on a more “engaged” attitude towards Awakening and the Bodhisattva path.
- A Korean nun demonstrates the Buddhist spirit of generosity.
Robinson Chapter 10: Japan
From the iconic period to the modern day in a few minutes. A very short introduction to Buddhist Art.
- Many Pureland Buddhists have as their primary practice chanting the “nembutsu” of “Namu Amida Butsu” (“homage to Amitabha Buddha”) in the hopes of being reborn in his Pure Land.
- Here we read twenty famous verses by Hōnen that reflect the depths of this practice.
[CBT] M.27, M.102
- Japanese Buddhists are famous for their patient austerity.
- Yet they often have a rather lenient attitude towards e.g. alcohol.
[CBT] M.105, M.159
- A Bodhisattva can make vows to delay their awakening in order to construct an elaborate and appealing “Buddha field” into which their followers may be reborn. Here we read the vows of the Buddha Amitabha, whose worship is especially popular in Japanese Buddhism.
[CBT] M.39, M.74
- And here we read about the vast array of Buddha fields across the ocean-like multiverse and how to attain rebirth in one.
- On the other hand, all such notions (even up to enlightenment itself) are in fact empty, and there is actually nothing to attain.
- In this way, we can understand Pure Land Buddhism at multiple levels: the mythic, the psychological, and the non-dual.
Robinson Chapter 11: Tibet
A Tibetan nun opens this lesson for us by singing a prayer to Guru Rinpoche.
A Tibetan monk shows us his temple’s primary Buddha image, explaining the symbolism behind its gestures.
Now that we’ve covered all the “traditional” forms of Buddhism, we can take a closer look at one particular element of cultural Buddhism that has been surprisingly ubiquitous across Buddhist cultures: misogyny. Allison Goodwin gives a brief outline of the discrimination faced by women in Buddhism, and a thoroughly cited argument for rejecting sexist views, even those that appear in the Buddhist Canon.
A conversation between two scholars about the first women in Tibetan Buddhism.
- How to help others, including the place for supernormal powers.
- The Dharma is not an impermanent thing.
- A passage from the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” on the nature of mind.
- On the three kinds of knowledge. Philosophy in general, and epistemology in particular, is highly valued in Tibetan Buddhism.
- Ultimate knowledge is, however, non-dual.
[CBT] M.168, V.80
- Tibetan Buddhism is (in)famous for its worldly teachers. These passages describe one such role model for the engaged Bodhisattva.
- Exuberant guru and deity worship are also notable features of Tibetan Buddhism.
Aspects (of Buddhist Sociological Thought) Chapter 8: Women’s Social Role
- We (finally) return to Aspects’ final chapter for a look at how the Buddha originally taught women.
Robinson Chapter 12: “Buddhism Comes West”
[CBT] Th.23, Th.25, Th.26, Th.47, Th.104, Th.118, Th.129, Th.155, Th.203, Th.207
- Western, “Protestant” Buddhists have selected certain strands from the early Canon to emphasize. Here, we read some of their favorite passages.
- A brief look back at Altruism, and one tiny example of Western Philosophy grappling with Buddhism.
- A Zen priest from California introduces us to his community and way of practice.
- A major trend in Western adoption of Buddhist practices is the scientific study of meditation as a secular, therapeutic tool.
- As the Dhamma comes West, and globalization connects us all, we have a unique opportunity now to bridge the gaps that history and geography created… but only if we choose to do so.
And with that, we’re now finished with Part 1 of our course! History is now yours to make!
Part 2: The Sangha
Zooming in slightly from the historical perspective, we next turn our attention to the dynamics of individual Buddhist communities.
- Bhante Sujato starts by asking why Buddhism died out in India, and what factors will lead to the end of our own (present day) “Buddhist Utopia”
- Joseph Goldstein reads the Buddha’s own take on “the entire spiritual life.”
- A beautiful sermon on the value of monasticism.
- Brahma Sahampati praises those enlightened renunciants from whom blessings flow.
- A video about a community coming together to make ten thousand Buddha statues by hand.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains the relationship between the monastic sangha and the laity in brief.
- The Buddha summarizes this ideal relationship between the monastics and the laity.
- A paper on how the flourishing of the monastic community affects everyone around them.
- What is it like to grow up in a Buddhist community? What does it take to make a Buddhist community?
- Buddhism describes itself as a cure for suffering, and its medical benefits have always been a part of its appeal and spread.
- Should Buddhism in the West try to strip away “Cultural Buddhism” or preserve it?
[CBT] Th.54, Th.85–88, Th.105
- Good friendship is vital on the path to Awakening.
- The Sangha are not priests. Buddhist monks cannot purify you, only you can purify you.
[CBT] M.89, Th.95
- Still, you should receive the precepts from someone keeping them, and monks and nuns across the Buddhist world chant protective blessings for their lay supporters.
- The lay and monastic communities are vital to the support of each other.
The Monastic Sangha is both training ground and dwelling place for the Noble Sangha, much like a university is both a training ground and a dwelling place for scholars.
Given the thousands of years separating us from the Buddha, Bhikkhu Cintita asks the excellent question of how it is that Buddhism has survived so well across time and cultures, and then uses this theory to ponder how modern, Western practitioners should approach this question of “Sasana.” An excellent and rare introduction to the sociology of Buddhism “from the inside,” this book is a must-read.
[CBT] Th.191, Th.204
- The core of the Sangha is the Ariya Sangha: those disciples who have attained awakening themselves. As long as they are present, and the community meets in harmony, the Dharma will thrive.
- Buddhist monasticism faces many challenges as it comes West, especially for nuns.
- There are many benefits and challenges to the Teacher–Student relationship in Buddhism.
- An inspiring talk to a group of monastics, encouraging them to set a good example for their guests, showing how there need not be such a strict tension between personal practice and social engagement.
Part 3: Personal Practice
The last third of our class tackles the more prescriptive, “micro” question of our own, individual practice: What should one do to be a Buddhist?
A straightforward and practical guide, this book gives detailed descriptions and explanations for the most important religious practices for lay Buddhists. Good reading for anthropologists of Buddhism, for those who have recently converted, or those who are thinking about it, this book is absolutely essential and remains my first recommendation for learning how to be a Buddhist.
[CBT] Th.39–40, Th.49, Th.96, Th.112, Th.114
- The Buddha’s description of (/prescription for) “the good life” for a householder.
[CBT] Th.228, M.162
- Citta the Householder shows what is possible for laypeople to achieve.
We have two supplements for Khantipalo:
Listen to this alongside the section of Khantipalo about refuge and the triple gem:
- Bhante Yuttadhammo talks about what it means to be a Buddhist, and how to think about “taking refuge”
[CBT] Th.89, Th.93, M.82
- The path starts with faith.
A few more words are also due on the subject of restraint, beyond the five precepts. Please consider this alongside the section on “practice”
- Explains the three primary duties of a monk: guarding the senses, moderation in eating, and the devotion to wakefulness.
- What monastic behaviors and vows do you know about already? How do the monastic and “eight precept” observances help with these three duties? What do you think is their benefit? Can lay Buddhists practice these? Should they?
[CBT] Th.21, Th.102, Th.122
- On wholesome and unwholesome actions of body, speech, and mind.
[CBT] M.109, M.124
- On how to use meditation as an antidote to greed, hatred, and restlessness.
- Does this admonishment to practice solitude contrast with the emphasis on the spiritual community we read earlier? How do you explain this tension?
- Bhante Yuttadhammo revisits the Gotami Sutta (which you may remember from the Intro to Buddhism Course) and tells us how we can recognize when our own practice of Buddhism goes off track.
[CBT] V.52, V.54
- No matter what happens: never give up.
Conclusion to the Class
- The purpose of learning is to calm the mind.
- Ajahn Brahm, in his light-hearted way, comments on the above verse.
- What form will your practice take?
- It’s common in many Buddhist cultures to end a meritorious event or auspicious occasion with a short dedication. Here is a typical such prayer from the Tibetan Tradition.
Congratulations on finishing the course!
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A period of disorientation or depression is a small price to pay for more accurate knowledge.
Thai Buddhist nuns (mae chis) and bhikkhunīs are excluded from the country’s saṅgha, directly affecting their religious standing and social possibilities
although objects manufactured in factories for profit are not made or handled according to Buddhist tradition, the “aura” can be produced in different ways and at different points of an object’s life
The brahmins would indeed take umbrage at being closely associated with the officiant, because the very fact of his being there as an officiant means that he is doing a paid job and so lowers his status below theirs. [The brahmins, in contrast,] have no duties; they are gracing the occasion.
fundraising is a form of Dharma practice, gathering with peers is a way to raise money, and Buddhism is practiced as a form of group solidarity and support. These tight weaves have enabled temples to thrive in racially and religiously hostile lands
the evidence found in early printed liturgical booklets that promote Buddha-vandanā points to a different kind of modernization. This article reveals how Buddhist activists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made use of the capabilities presented in the colonial context, including print technology, to promote this devotional ritual practice as a principal marker of a newly constructed Buddhist identity.
Textual fundamentalism requires texts.
Are there such things as “evil beings” in Buddhism?
A talk delivered at the Bodhi Tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka on the importance of symbols in Buddhism.
A community of American Chinese Buddhists honors their past master by replicating one of his signature feats.
To understand Buddhism, one must understand the tension between the knowledge of impermanence and the love of the Dharma. This sense of loss has defined Buddhism from the Buddha’s Parinirvana through to the present day.
On the pyre the fire burns bright
Setting alight this searing pain
With only my fate to blame
For the fierce flame that brands me.
The text jumps inside me to help me out.
So, when you’re studying Buddhism, what are you studying?
I know the answer. I’m studying me.
I’m studying me.
Each year, Ma collects more and more superstitions
There’s always something we can do to progress towards Awakening. And it’s something that has benefits all along the way.
Don’t try to be someone else
One thought arising, it is hell;
One thought reversed, it is heaven.
This book is intended to provide an introduction to the teachings of the Buddha which will shed some light on a subject that, to non-Buddhists, can appear both unexpectedly rational and exotically strange.
And how is a mendicant not skilled in characteristics? It’s when a mendicant doesn’t understand that a fool is characterized by their deeds
an overview of how bhikkhunis, or fully ordained nuns, came into being, disappeared and are now reappearing again
When examined closely, the doctrines of the schools cannot be explained away as simplistic errors or alien infiltrations or deliberate corruptions. It would then follow that more sympathetic and gentle perspectives on the schools are likely to be more objective