Is Buddhism religious, spiritual, or secular? The short answer to that is all three – depending what questions you’re asking. In this episode I define religious, spiritual, and secular, and then examine how these terms apply to Buddhism – and how they don’t.
Definitions of “Spiritual” and “Religious”
Secular Versus Spiritual? Various Considerations
Spiritual Versus Religious? Various Considerations
Do You Need to Engage Buddhism as Spirituality or Religion?
Is Buddhism religious, spiritual, or secular? The short answer to that is all three – depending what questions you’re asking.
I’ll get into that in a moment, but first I want to acknowledge that it often matters a lot to people whether Buddhism – or a given form of Buddhism – can be thought of as secular versus spiritual versus religious. For example, if I tell you Buddhism is a religion, chances are you have one of three basic reactions. First, you may think that sounds just fine, or maybe you even like the idea. Second, you may hope Buddhism isn’t really a religion because you already identify with different religion and worry they’ll conflict. Third, you may feel some aversion because you associate the term “religion” with less than positive things, such as dogmas you have to blindly accept, obligations to institutions that can be corrupt or unhelpful, harsh judgments about the choices and lifestyles of others, or the requirement to believe in a supernatural deity. If you’re one of those people who feel skeptical about religion – particularly organized religion practiced with others – you may have been attracted to Buddhism because you see it as an independent spiritual practice or a secular philosophy of life rather than as a religion.
Hopefully this episode will help clear things up for you no matter how you initially respond to the idea of Buddhism as spiritual or religious – and if you’re someone who’s skeptical of the “religious” or “spiritual” aspects, maybe I’ll allay a few of your concerns and you’ll be more open to checking those aspects out and seeing if they have any value for you.
Definitions of “Spiritual” and “Religious”
First, let me define terms. Secular means not religious or spiritual, so actually we only need to decide what those two terms mean. Even scholars of religion don’t agree entirely, so the definitions I’ll offer here are a tad arbitrary but I think they’re quite useful. I’ll get more into details about how these terms apply to Buddhism later, but as I go through possible definitions I’ll be looking for ones that could, at least potentially, apply.
The word “spiritual” as it’s often understood has implications that aren’t really compatible with Buddhism. For example, the Oxford online definition for “spiritual” reads, “Relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.” Buddhism suggests you’ll only cause yourself suffering if you cling to such a concept of an inherently-existing essence somehow independent of your physical body, and no Buddhist teaching or practice assumes or depends on the existence of a soul (more on this later). Spiritual can also imply that there’s a pure, higher, incorporeal “spirit world” existing alongside and essentially separate from this messy physical one, and Buddhism is completely agnostic about this matter, claiming instead that there are much more important things to worry about. Neither of these definitions of spiritual are entirely appropriate for use in Buddhism.
However, there’s another definition of spiritual (this one on Dictionary.com) that I believe suits Buddhism’s purposes perfectly: “Of or relating to sacred things or matters.”[i] Which means, of course, we have to define sacred for a Buddhist context. Essentially, something that’s sacred is worthy of veneration – that is, inspired respect or awe. It’s important to note that veneration is an experience of being inspired, not an act of obeisance that’s imposed. People often feel certain things are sacred of their connection with, or relationship to, God, or because the things are associated with their religious faith. However, it’s also possible to feel respect or awe for the natural world, or for a system of practice that has freed you from suffering. In Buddhism, there is a great deal that is sacred; in fact, certain forms of Buddhism encourage you to see everything as sacred. But more on that later.
What about the term “religious?” The Oxford online dictionary’s definition of religion is, “The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” A sub-definition is “A particular system of faith and worship,” but that seems to assume there’s a deity to worship. This is the definition most people think of when they hear the term “religion,” but religions aren’t limited to theism. I like the basic definition offered on the Wikipedia entry for religion (which is connected to two citations I include on the Zen Studies Podcast website). Although the entry admits “there is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion” it says:
“Religion may be defined as a cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, or spiritual elements.”[ii]
In my own words I describe “religion” as the coherent set of traditions, resources and institutions human beings create around a particular approach to spiritual questions. You might say there are the “pure” spiritual teachings and practices that inspire a group of people, and then those people go on to create a religion together. Although there are many ways to approach the topic of religion, this is a practical one that many people seem to use to guide their own relationship to spiritual and religious matters.
Secular Versus Spiritual? Various Considerations
So, on to our more in-depth exploration of Buddhism: Is Buddhism spiritual or secular?
Many people would agree Buddhism is spiritual, given the prevalent belief in our culture that while religion is meant to be spiritual, spirituality isn’t necessarily religious. However, there are also many aspects of Buddhism you can consider downright practical and secular, which is why many aspects of the tradition are now being incorporated into completely non-spiritual therapeutic and medical settings. I’ll deal with the question of “spiritual versus secular” by offering a number of things you’re likely to assume are included in any particular spiritual tradition, and then discussing whether (and in what way) that particular thing manifests in Buddhism.
1. Belief in and/or worship of a superhuman or supernatural being (or beings), who has some measure of influence over your life and well-being, and/or to whom you owe your existence. If this defines religion or spirituality for you, then Buddhism is undeniably secular. Buddhism doesn’t oppose or deny the existence of God, or gods, or supernatural beings, so if you believe in them you are still welcome to practice Buddhism. However, Buddhism is not dependent on the existence of such beings, and is generally unconcerned about them. This may sound strange – not really caring whether God exists or not – but it reflects the reality of life for many people, who find it very difficult to believe in God, and who do not anticipate being able to verify His/Her/Its existence in this lifetime. Personally, I believe that if there is a God and I meet him in the afterlife, he will forgive my disbelief. I did my best.
2. Belief in a spirit or soul that dwells within and animates your body. In this case Buddhism is wholeheartedly secular, actually teaching you do not have a soul. It even teaches that believing you have an inherent essence is the root of many of your problems. However, the nature of our existence is very complex and subtle, so the Buddhist take is not as bleak (or purely secular) as it might seem. It’s not that we either have a soul, or we are just organic machines with a delusion of importance. Even though Buddhism teaches there is no soul, it emphasizes that when you completely drop your self-concern, there’s no real separation between you and the rest of the universe. You partake of universal being without having to possess your own particular parcel of it. So that’s pretty spiritual.
3. A system of morality. While people expect a religion or spiritual tradition to have a moral code, many people do not feel that you have to be spiritual or religious in order to have a system of morality. So, in this case, Buddhism could be called either secular or religious in that it has a moral code (many people don’t realize this; Buddhism’s moral guidelines are called the precepts). However, from a Buddhist point of view, the moral feeling or intuition that arises in secular people is evidence of the deep universal truths of interdependence and no-self. It is not arbitrary that most people end up with moral feelings and a general desire to do good and not harm. In this sense you might say Buddhism is spiritual in viewing morality as being inspired by something deeper and more universal than personal choice – although Buddhism does not see it as being inspired by God(s). Buddhism is also spiritual in the sense that it emphasizes moral behavior is not optional if you want avoid causing suffering for self and other – but on the other hand you could actually see that as a fairly objective observation, one that would make sense even in a secular setting.
4. A set of practices and/or principles. Buddhism definitely has lots of practices and principles; you could study it full time for a lifetime and never come to the end of them. This fact doesn’t really make Buddhism religious, spiritual, or secular. Religions have sets of practices and principles, but so do professions, and the arts. However, “religious” or “spiritual” principles and practices are often given a special weight by the people who ascribe to them, compared to the principles and practices of other disciplines. This is usually because they are held to be universally applicable to all people, and/or because they are the instructions and teachings of a divine being. In this case, Buddhism falls more on the secular side. You can engage whatever Buddhist practices and principles you want to, but none of them are a moral obligation (except basic morality itself), and nobody’s keeping track of what you do or don’t do. You verify for yourself the truth or utility of what Buddhism offers.
5. Focus on the sacred. Again, the sacred is something worthy of veneration – that is, worthy of inspiring your respect and awe. All worthwhile spiritual traditions make focusing on the sacred central to their missions – helping you remember, understand, access, appreciate, honor and manifest it. This is what Huston Smith calls the “more” in his book Why Religion Matters, where he says, “Built into the human makeup is a longing for a ‘more’ that the world of everyday experience cannot requite.” Smith explains that religion has traditionally addressed this longing.
The fact that the sacred is also important in Buddhism is something many people find surprising. Essentially, if you do Buddhist practice and achieve some of your goals by doing so, that’s great – but if you still miss the sacred, it’s considered quite a shame, so in this sense Buddhism is quite spiritual. The “sacred” doesn’t have to be woo-woo, supernatural, or even make you feel overly emotional. You touch it through direct, unfiltered experience of your own human life – and Buddhist practitioners throughout history have discovered that when you really do that, it’s impossible not to be inspired with respect and awe. Your morning cup of coffee and encountering traffic on the way to work are both sacred – but how often can you experience them that way? Much of Buddhist practice is about helping you do that more often.
Spiritual Versus Religious? Various Considerations
So, in what sense is Buddhism “religious?” Since we have no deities in Buddhism, many people find it difficult to see Buddhism as a religion, but according to the definition I offered earlier (the “cultural system” definition), Buddhism as it’s usually practiced includes quite a few religious elements: scriptures, a special vocabulary, history, mythology, rituals, devotional practices, imagery, art, religious objects, organized practice communities, clergy, and institutions.
Now I’ll explore a few things you probably expect to find in any religion, and discuss how they manifest in Buddhism:
1. An institution created by humans and passed down through time. Religions typically include traditions, organizations, sectarian definitions, buildings, professional religious people or teachers, and a sense of group identity. Although religious groups tend to split and evolve, at any given time a particular religion usually has a relatively stable sense of itself, its history, and its future. Some secular disciplines and organizations are similar (such as the martial arts, or fraternal orders), but the sense of belonging to an institution (large or small) generally reaches its most potent in the case of religion.
There are certainly substantial institutions related to Buddhism that include all of the components listed above. However, there is a certain ambivalence in Buddhism toward its own institutions: they are viewed as being useful in a practical sense, but it’s acknowledged that they can end up demanding so much time, attention, resources and allegiance that you can lose track of the essence of Buddhism: the practice and study itself. In this sense Buddhism is religious in having institutions to which you can belong, but it leans toward the spiritual in seeing institutions as being somewhat of a necessary evil. The persistent classic standard is that of a Buddhist master meditating all alone in a cave until others join him. Theoretically, you don’t need any stuff in order to do Buddhist practice. Buddhism has developed many enormous, ponderous, persistent, wealthy, and bureaucratic institutions in its time, but it’s also always had movements within it trying to stay connected to the essence of the tradition, independent of the inevitable distractions of maintaining institutions.
2. A community of practitioners. Generally speaking, groups of people regularly gather to study and practice the activities and principles associated with a religion, whereas following a philosophy or less formal kind of spirituality is usually done more or less on your own. In this sense Buddhism is very religious. From the time Buddhism began 2500 years ago, a strong emphasis has been placed on the importance of a community of practitioners, or Sangha. As a matter of fact, according to traditional Buddhist teachings, you can’t practice Buddhism without others. Well, technically you can, but you won’t get very far. This is not a judgment about your inadequacy, or a suggestion that the truth can only be obtained from others. According to Buddhism, you already have everything you need. However… human beings are social creatures, and Buddhist practice can be very demanding. To bring your inner potential to its full fruition requires interaction with other people, particularly with others trying to study and practice the same thing you are. Note: community, or Sangha, tends to create institutions and places of practice, but it’s distinct from them. Three people gathering in a living room to meditate together can be a Sangha.
3. Ritual and ceremony. Ritual and ceremony are powerful tools for influencing your behavior and accessing your emotions. Rituals engage the body and move you out of an intellectual, discriminative state into a more contemplative, intuitive, and less defended state. Their use is not limited to religion: think of award ceremonies, secular funerals, and even personal rituals you might have in your life. However, ritual and ceremony are usually at their most highly developed and overt in religious settings, and in this sense, Buddhism can be quite religious. The tradition includes some very elaborate and moving ceremonies, as well as countless simple rituals to be performed by individuals, like putting your shoes straight or picking up items with both hands. Once again, however, ritual and ceremony are viewed in Buddhism as tools – very useful tools, but not inherently sacred. You may end up feeling they are sacred, but this is only because of what they point to or help you access, not because the activities themselves are any more holy or special than feeding your child or brushing your teeth. So there’s a streak of the spiritual-over-religious in the way at least certain Buddhists view ritual and ceremony.
Do You Need to Engage Buddhism as Spirituality or Religion?
Do you need to engage the spiritual or religious aspects of Buddhism in order to benefit from its core teachings and practices? Probably not. However, most self-identified Buddhists will strongly recommend you avail yourself of at least some of the tradition’s spiritual or religious aspects as tools, because those tools have been developed by wise people over the centuries to be supportive of spiritual practice. It also can be difficult to separate out the “purely” spiritual from the “religious” – for example, if you’re instructed to sit still and silent in meditation, is that form part of the essence of Buddhism, or just a religious development? And unless you practice all by yourself, chances are good the group you practice with – even if its dedicated to non-sectarianism or informality – will develop some ways of doing things together that end up looking a little religious or spiritual. How supported would you feel in your meditation practice, for example, if the group you did it with had no fixed start or end time, people could come and go, doing whatever they felt like – yoga, chatting, maybe strumming guitars?
What aspects of the Buddhist tradition you choose to engage is really is up to you. We try to honor that fact in my Dharma lineage by making the spiritual and religious stuff available but generally not requiring you to participate in any of it. At my Zen center, Bright Way Zen, we make liberal use of the religious traditions of Buddhism. I’ll greet at the door in formal priest’s robes. We bow toward altars, chant homages to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, wear small vestments as a sign of our Buddhist vows, and use funny Buddhist names. If you attend you’re very free to question the traditions and develop your own relationship to them. As long as you’re respectful of others, you engage what makes sense to you. You don’t have to like any of it, or believe in any of it – you just need to be able to tolerate the ways of others, which is actually a good practice.
Buddhism is about fully examining your experience, so questioning and noting your reactions to spiritual or religious stuff – positive or negative or somewhere in between – is just more material for practice. Buddhist centers and groups vary widely in how many religious aspects they incorporate, so if you’re looking for a teacher or community, you may be able to find one that feels fairly comfortable to you. However, it’s rare to find a perfect fit, so hopefully you can at least find a place like my Zen center where you’re welcome to participate in your own way.
So, the answer to the question of whether Buddhism is spiritual or religious or secular is a classically Buddhist one: yes and no. You may want to be able to put something into a category and subsequently stop having to think about it so much, but Buddhism wants you to continue to think and question – so no simple answers here.
[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion. Citing: Morreall, John; Sonn, Tamara (2013). “Myth 1: All Societies Have Religions”. 50 Great Myths of Religion. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 12–17. ISBN 9780470673508. And Nongbri, Brent (2013). Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept. Yale University Press. ISBN 030015416X.