What is Buddhism?
By Pablo Antuna
What is Buddhism? Many consider Buddhism a religion, though some deny that name, because Buddhism doesn’t teach worship of gods. They say that Buddhism is a philosophy or simply a way of life. This distinction between religion and philosophy is one that originated among Western commentators, as a distinction between the two isn’t clear in Asia, where it originated. The truth is that it has around 500 million followers according to some sources, making it the third (or 4th) largest religion (if we could call it like that) in the world.
The name Buddhism comes from the title given to Siddharta Gautama by his followers. They called him the Buddha, that means “the awakened one” or “the enlightened one”. Siddharta Gautama lived in Northern India around the year 500 BC. The exact date of his birth is not known. He was a prince of the Shakya tribe. He is known commonly throughout the Buddhist world as Shakyamuni, “the sage of the Shakya”. These are the only historical facts we have about the Buddha. To learn about his teachings and his life, we must now look at him through Buddhist eyes.
According to tradition, he lived as a prince in the palace until he reached the age of 29. His father overprotected him. He didn’t saw any kind of pain or suffering during his life in the palace. However, at that point in this life, he witnessed for the first time the misery of the human condition. He saw a sick person, an old man and a dead body. He asked his servant about that, and he said that we are all destined to suffer that.
I talk about all this because we need to understand which questions Buddhism tries to answer. The Buddha found the origin and the solution to human suffering. He said that all in life causes suffering in one way or another. Then he said that this suffering originates because we attach to things. This attachment originates because our ignorance and delusion.
Then he talked about the solution to this suffering. He said that Nirvana is the solution. Nirvana means to blow out. It’s simply the extinction of all our desires which causes our life to continue in a painful cycle. It is hard to think of Nirvana as a positive goal from a Western World point of view, but for Buddhists it is something very desirable.
So, the Buddha tried to end human suffering. He didn’t answer questions about the ultimate origin of reality or our connection with the gods, he just tried to solve a real problem he found in life. Viewing Buddhism from that perspective, it is hard to talk about it as a religion. It is more like a philosophy, or even it shares some aspects with modern psychology.
However, if we look at the way Buddhism is practiced around the world, we won’t have a doubt that we are seeing religious people making their rituals. Mahayana Buddhists changed completely the beliefs and practices of what could be considered traditional Buddhism. Some variants of the Mahayana worship celestial bodhisattvas and Buddhas. These are beings who achieved enlightenment or are advanced practitioners of the path. They have the ability to intervene in this world and save people as if they were gods.
So, Buddhism is a very complex tradition. It could be considered a religion or something else depending on the way we look at it.