Buddhism has over three million followers world-wide, is the state religion in Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, and maintains a tremendous influence in other countries such as Ceylon, Tibet, China, and Japan. The Oxford Dictionary defines religion as a ‘belief in the existence of a superhuman controlling power, especially of God or gods…’ or, as ‘…a particular system of faith and worship.’ (Hawkins, 2002). The dictionary’s short descriptive passage does not take into account the spiritual well being, security, and comfort, a religion gives to its followers, and therefore may be seen to be inadequate and superficial.
The doctrinal and philosophical dimension of Buddhism emerged at a time of political and economic instability. The Buddha was born in the 6th century Before The Christian Era (Robinson, 2009). Large, powerful tribes began to invade the Ganges Basin, and society became more complex as the populous moved towards the newly instituted metropolitan centres. During this time a strict and rigid caste system was in place, which did not allow for movement within its structure. The Buddha, as a member of the warrior elite, would have had considerable wealth and standing within the tribe, but he became disenchanted with this way of life, and ultimately rejected it to become a wanderer (Robinson, 2009).
The wanderers believed that anybody, regardless of caste, could be wise and good. These qualities could be achieved by rejecting or renouncing life at home, which was ‘dirty and cramped’ and instead, going out into the wider world which was ‘…. completelyperfect and pure’ (Robinson, 2009). Such ‘renounces” believed in the re-incarnation of the spirit, but what or whom you returned as in the next life, depended on how you had conducted yourself in the previous one. By leading a life of purity and devotion one could escape the agony of re-birth and thereby obtain Nirvana or ‘liberation’ (Robinson, 2009). Such a pure and devoted lifestyle could be achieved by accepting the Four Noble Truths. The first truth was that of suffering; ‘birth, ageing, death, sorrow and defilement’ (Buddahnet.net, 2010). The second truth was that the causes of suffering were human traits such as greed, and sexual desire. The third Noble Truth stated that suffering can be eliminated if the ‘way’ of the fourth truth, or Nobel Eight Fold Path, was followed. This would result in salvation by releasing the follower from perpetual re-birth. This last truth was a guideline to redemption which could only be obtained by correct behaviour, such as correct attitude and correct speech. The method of obtaining Nirvana in conjunction with correct behaviour is by meditation; by having the correct mental attitude one can only think good thoughts and therefore the intentions or deeds are pure also. This is known as ‘Karma’ or ‘mental work’ (Hawkins, 2002). Once Nirvana has been achieved, the follower becomes designated as a Buddha or ‘enlightened’ one and these saints reside on a higher plane.
Since the time of Buddha two main proponents of Buddhism have developed, namely Therevada, predominant in South Asia and Mahayana, followed in North Asia. The former believes that the only way to obtain Nirvana is by being a monk or a nun, and may therefore be considered as an elitist form of Buddhism, while the latter shows more liberal qualities and is sympathetic to others (Robinson, 2009).
The narratives of Buddhism, the Pali Scriptures and Jakata tales, are important in the historical sense as they give an insight into the words and meanings of the Buddha, and may be construed as being inspirational to his followers (Buddahnet.net, 2010). The oral nature of these stories could possibly lead to them being misinterpreted and lost in translation and therefore their actual meaning may become muted and distorted. Although some of these tales may be deemed to be of a mythical nature, such as the Buddha being conceived by his mother’s union with a white elephant they, as in parables from other religions, cannot be taken as literal, historical facts, but could quite possibly contain a hidden meaning (Buddahnet.net, 2010). Therefore because Buddhism uses such stories to accentuate its teachings, it is similar to other faiths and does not detract from its perceived status as a religion.
The practical and ritualistic dimension, especially in Mahayana Buddhism, is extremely important. This dimension contains the preaching, prayers and worship element of a religion. By travelling the Ganges Basin in its entirety the Buddha and his followers went to great lengths to make Buddhism accessible to all and encouraged others into believing that salvation was at hand if the proper codes of conduct were adhered to. Buddhists offer prayers to the Buddha as much in the same way that Christians offer prayers to Jesus Christ, they are both a vehicle unto God or Nirvana., which has been thought by ‘some writers to be a Buddhists substitute for God’ (Buddahnet.net, 2010). The Christian word worship, the worship of a God, constitutes the major problem in the definition of Buddhism as a religion. The Buddha stated that he was neither a messenger from God nor his emissary and denounced the notion that there was a God (Buddahnet.net, 2010). This has led to Buddhists being considered as Atheists, but Buddhism is a cosmopolitan religion which embraces other beliefs and cultures and ultimately their gods. Therevada Buddhists acknowledge other gods but they maintain that it is the Buddha who is supreme and it is these other, lesser gods who defer to him (Bullitt, 2005). The Buddha is revered by his devotees and may be seen as the object of worship, as prayers are chanted praising him and asking for salvation, and gifts placed at his shrines and temples (Bullitt, 2005). At the New Year festival, the water festival, Buddha’s name is used to ward away evil spirits
The ethical dimension of a religion is its moral code. The laws and rules that a particular religion abides by are usually, in a mono-religious state those that govern society, as in Islam and Christianity. A religion must be able to teach a moral code and give guidance to a society as to what would be morally abhorrent and that which is deemed as acceptable behaviour. As much in the same way that Christianity has the Ten Commandments, The Buddhists rules or virtues are called Dhammapada, ‘the way of virtue’ (Jung, 2010). These rules give guidance and a set of guidelines on the proper behaviour of a Buddhist, such as compassion and denounce improper thoughts and actions such as ‘greed, vice, hatred and envy’ (Jung, 2010).
The experiential and emotional dimension is the feeling of perhaps exultation or sense of peace that the follower of a particular religion can get from for example, reciting a prayer, liturgy, or chant (Buddahnet.net, 2010). These feelings can also be shown in many other ways such as a Buddhist attaining enlightenment, or by using meditation as a way of clearing the mind from the mundane aspects of life. A Christian may achieve an emotional experience by seeing a sign from God, chanting a prayer of contemplation, or just from a general sense of well being and contentment.
The social and institutional dimension is the self containment of the organisation for its own protection. The Buddhists, like many new groups were persecuted for their beliefs and radical outlook from their foundation (Buddahnet.net, 2010). Buddhism has its own structure, although not hierarchical as in other religions, the monks are seen as the closest to obtaining the goal of Nirvana. It was, and still is the foundation within the lives of its followers, especially those living in remote areas where the rules passed to them from the Buddha and his followers, is followed without deviation.
A religion can be interpreted by its followers in many different ways. It can be seen as providing, a comforting belief in the hereafter, and spiritual well-being, while also supplying a code of behaviour and a sense of belonging. Buddhism certainly follows these pre-requisites and although some commentators view Buddhism as atheistic, its followers worship the Buddha as a god, and Buddhism shows numerous similarities to many other widely accepted religions. Regardless of criticism Buddhism is considered a religion by its millions of followers, which today include the peoples of both Eastern and Western civilisations.