Buddhism: More Than Mere Philosophy

A dear friend of mine–that happens to be a fairly new convert to Theravada Buddhism–emailed me with a question.  Is Buddhism more than just a philosophy?  A colleague of hers, upon hearing of her new-found religion, quickly dismissed her ambition to be a good Buddhist by informing her that it was nothing more than a philosophy.  In his opinion, there was nothing to convert to; it was no different than someone declaring that he or she had the intent to convert to Kantism or Socialism.
While my friend was sure that this was not true, she really had lacked the confidence to debate the fellow and asked me for guidance.  The question I was to answer was simple: Why is Buddhism more than just a philosophy?
The following was my reply…

Buddhism is not just a philosophy, though many people see it that way.  This false view stems from the fact that theists have a difficult time comprehending a religion that does not worship a creator god.  Abrahmaic religions all gather what they believe to be the truth from [what they believe to be] a divine source—Dogma, it is called.  Buddhism is a religion that is actually backed by consistent philosophy that makes a lot of sense—Dhamma, this is called.  Sadly, this is another reason people don’t see it as “religion”.  In this day and age, many have come to see the term “religious ideals” as synonymous with “irrational ideals”.

Some people only accept the philosophy of Buddhism.  They utilize the aspects of philosophical reasoning and ethics to better their lives without accepting the “total package”, per se.  Others only utilize the psychology of Buddhism to improve their attitudes toward their lives.  Buddhism has so many practical teachings that many pick and choose teachings and use it as a self-help program.  Whoever said this to you most likely knew someone or read something by someone that only accepted/practiced/discussed one or more of the pragmatic facets of Buddhism.  However, this does not mean that there is nothing more to it.

This, too, is something people don’t associate with religion; Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all expect complete commitment or no commitment.  Buddhism, on the other hand, welcomes those that refuse to accept the entire doctrine.  We know that a lot of people are simply too attached to the ideas that were socialized into their mind—brainwashed is another word—and there is no point in trying to convince them.  We’d rather spend more time teaching those that actually want to learn.  No overbearing, door-to-door Buddhists here.

To advance the ideas posited in the first paragraph, Buddhism is a religion because, although we do not believe in god, we do assert the functionality of god.  Most people see god as functioning in two ways: the creator of all things and the enforcer of morality.  We say that creation is irrelevant because there is no beginning and end in the ultimate sense; there is only constant change.  Beginnings and endings, births and deaths, are all problems created by the limitations of our conceptual minds.  In the ultimate sense, the universe is more like a circle.  We may believe in the Big Bang, but we believe there were incalculable Big Bangs in the past and every time the world system renews itself, there will be another.  In essence, the story of a Creator is nothing more than “a story to explain away the problem that the previous story created”.  As you can see, our minds are great story tellers!

Creation doesn’t exist, therefore the need for a creator does not exist.

Regarding the “enforcement of morality”, we do not believe there is a courtroom in the sky where a judging god looks through our record and passes a judgement—a judgement based on what we believe, not what we have done, mind you.  We believe ethics are enforced by a natural law that—like every other tendency in the universe—seeks a point of equilibrium.  When you dole out goodness, goodness returns to you.  Not because a bearded man in the sky says you deserve it, but because it is a natural law; a natural law no different than gravity or the second law of thermodynamics.

We also hold a view on the self, or lack thereof, just like any other religion.  We don’t believe in a “soul” because a “soul” is defined as an unchanging self that includes the ego/personality.  The ego is created during abstraction/conceptualization (detailed in the psychology of the Abhidhamma) and is not permanent.  There is a belief that our personality “matures” from birth into its natural state, then falls away at old age.  This belief that “who we are” is our personality during mid-life is ridiculous.  Here’s another point: If our personality is an unchanging essence of “who I am”, how is it that I can take a pill that will completely change my attitudes, behavior, and social values?  Drugs and time to not mask our true nature; there is only who we are in this very moment.  We are not inherently sinful or nor are we innately good; we are who we are right now, in this very moment, and that is all.

However, this does not mean that I do not exist.  (Most Westerners think there are only two options: soul or non-existence.)  After all, there is a stream of continuity.  We may not physically be the same person we were 10 years ago—I believe the oldest cell in our bodies is no more than 7 years of age—and we may not be the same person psychologically, but we still consider ourselves to be the same person as the kid in the old family photo.  There is continuity; no one denies that.  What we assert, as Buddhists, is that self is a verb.  Let me explain.

We are not a being, but we are a becoming.  We are constantly “becoming” something other than we are right now.  We are a collection of actions, of things done.  What “we” are is a self-ing rather than a self.  Most religions ponder our awareness of the universe and stop there, thinking it all ends with consciousness; that consciousness exists in and of itself.  They believe this consciousness is the end-game; the final root-of-all-things.  In fact, this how the eternalist view came to be.  However, they [the eternalists] overlooked one important detail: we are always conscious of something.

Consciousness does not exist without an object.  This is the important link between hither and thither, you and the world, and the basis of the dualism our mind creates.  Their fault lies in the over-evaluation of the mind and the confusion of consciousness and mind as being one in the same.  The mind is another sense base; just as the eyes have visual phenomena as objects, the mind has thoughts, concepts, and mental constructs as objects.  Consciousness is the awareness of these mental thoughts and conceptualizations, along with the perception of the physical world through the sense bases.

This is all that really exists in an ultimate sense; the rest is nothing more than an illusionary world of concepts—which are great for interaction with the world, so long as we do not mistake them for reality itself.  The “self” is something added onto the perception/cognition of these events.  Anyone that has lost his or herself in a great song, while performing sports at his or her best, or while admiring nature knows this; it is possible to be cognizant of the world without the creation of a subject.  It is not possible, however, to be conscious without an object.

The Buddhist worldview, which is heavily supported by Quantum Mechanics, asserts that the [materialist] notion of the universe being filled with “things” that “do things” is completely wrong.  A more accurate notion is that the universe is a collection of “events” rather than collection of “things”.  One educated in western society would default to declaring that if there is no “thing” in existence then, it only naturally follows that, the “things done” do not really exist either.  These are all notions built upon the scientific worldview as expounded by Isaac Newton .  This has been proven, absolutely, beyond the shadow of a doubt, to be false.  Why everyone still clings to this perspective is beyond my comprehension.

What is your life?  Most people would say something along the lines of “the collection of experiences up to now”.  Well, the Buddhist worldview is very similar: There are mental and physical events, not things, and there is a knowing of those events.  So, that “collections of experiences/events” is not only your life, but your world, too.  There is no point in trying to objectively figure out the “world out there”.  The only way one knows the world is through the sense bases; to get to the root of your experience is to get to the root of the universe itself.  The important point here is this: although there is no “thing” behind the experience, the experience is real.  Schrödinger’s wave-function exemplifies this: the wave-function of an object is the object; although there is behind it as one would reckon, the wave-function does, in fact, exist.

The universe is this massive, ever-changing, flux of events and “we” are the awareness (or consciousness) of those events—though we later realize that this awareness is dependently originated like all other conditioned phenomena.  In order to deal with the massive amount of information cognized by the mind, our mind wraps everything into separate bundles in order to deal with the information more efficiently.  This perceptual overlay of concepts divides things up into neat little separate objects that seem permanent.  This is a great way dealing with a massive amount of information.  However, it creates a false notion of separate-ness that does not exist in the ultimate sense.

The real problem occurs when we get so deep into this process that we forget what is concept and what is reality.  We have lost ourselves into a daydream of sorts, mistaking the perceptual overlay to be the ultimate reality.  Because of this, we see life and death, beginnings and endings, and everything seems permanent.  The concepts themselves are the only things permanent.  The underlying reality that we have wrapped in this concepts is in constantly flux.

When a certain combination of physical and/or mental phenomena manifest together, we wrap in a concept and give it a name.  For instance, a whirlpool occurs.  What is the whirlpool? It is nothing more than a collection of events—in this case, the circular/funnel-like movement of water.  The whirling slowly speeds to a climax and inevitably slows until it is visible no more.  When it is slowed to the point that it is difficult to cognize, we think it has “ended”, but what has ended?  There was water before and water after.  There was movement in the water before and after.  There was movement in the water during the “life” of this concept.  The only thing that was born, lived, and died was a mental construct in our minds.  In essence, all there was, all there is, all there will be is constant change; a constant flux of events.

In essence, all you were, all you are, all you will be is a constant flux of events.

Buddhists are not merely social activists exercising a philosophy.  It is simply that, based upon our worldview, “belief” is a mental construct while “action” is the only thing that truly defines “you”—as “you” are nothing more than a stream of action/reaction and the awareness of those events.  Bodily action, based upon mental volition, and the cognizing of this process is the mind-body we call self.  Anything else—any other “wrapping up” of this ultimate reality with a perceptual overlay—is an illusion, albeit a very useful one.

Wholesome actions lead to positive reactions as per the law of kamma, the Moral Law, from moment to moment and life to life.  Unwholesome actions lead to negative reactions, from moment to moment, life to life.  We believe in heaven and hell (though not as eternal states), gods (referred to as Brahmas), angels (we call them devas) and ghosts (we call them petas)–though most all of these terms refer to something more rational, and less cartoonish, than some other religions.  In short, we have the same components as every other religion in the world, with a few additions that the others religions are lacking—such as a psychology and a consistent, rational philosophy.

So you see, as Buddhists, we have a world-view, a self-view, a book of scripture, a philosophy, a psychology, a code of ethics, an ordination line traceble to our founder, and ritual observances just like any other religion.  They just need to understand that a creator god is not a requirement of a religion—it is simply a common component of the Abrahmaic religions.


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  1. adoptivedad

    Thank you for this. Beautifully put and an elegant refutation with the current craze, at least in the UK, for context-less ‘Buddhism’.

    You say, ‘We believe in heaven and hell (though not as eternal states), gods (referred to as Brahmas), angels (we call them devas) and ghosts (we call them petas)–though most all of these terms refer to something more rational, and less cartoonish, than some other religions.’

    I would be interested to hear more on this.

    • I will do my best to write an elaboration of the Buddhist World-view that makes a rational case for these aspects of the belief system.

      In all honesty, though, it’ll probably be about a month before I have time to write such a post. Personal commitments are taking up a lot of my free time as of late.

      Thank you for your compliments.

  2. I appreciate your article. It is important to understand that the vast majority of Buddhisms (and there are many vastly different types) are certainly religions. And I think it helps both atheists and theists to realize this. As you said, it will stretch their understandings and over simplified classifications.

    Although the theisms usually hope for complete commitment, (fortunately) most believers are cafeteria believers–picking and choosing as they wish, much like most Buddhists.

    Many Buddhist do believe in a courtroom in the sky, they are karmically very superstitious. I’d say the majority of Buddhists are like this. Is it “true” Buddhism? Who is to say. But the important thing is to understand how common, non-meditating folks embrace their cultural Buddhism.

    The Buddhist worldview, which is heavily supported by Quantum Mechanic

    I don’t know if you have read, but most attempt to support Buddhism with Quantum Mechanics shows an incredible bias. I think it reflects desperate rationalizations which are rather transparent. But don’t get me wrong, I am Buddhist. But such reaches are not only inaccurate, but unnecessary.

    PS: I think it is important to acknowledge that there is no such thing as “the Buddhist Worldview” — instead, there are a variety of Worldviews by Buddhists of significantly different beliefs just as there is not ONE Christian worldview — Mormons, Southern Baptists, South American Catholic Charismatics, Quakers and Liberal Progressive Christians are all radically different in their WorldViews. Such variety also exists among Buddhist – to pretend their is only one Buddhism is either romantic or prescriptive — neither of which match Buddhist ideals of clear observation.

    But be sure that I felt you wrote a very good post !!

    • PS: I think it is important to acknowledge that there is no such thing as “the Buddhist Worldview”

      Forgive me for answering the last remark first, but I think it is important to do so.

      I did not clearly state that this is the Theravadin Buddhist Worldview because this is a blog about Theravada Buddhism. The world view of early Buddhism–that of the historical man that lived and preached, as opposed to later schools of thought that followed the “spirit” of the original teaching and began to focus on the “transcendental archetype” of the Buddha rather than the actual person that arose in the world ~2600 years ago–is clearly stated in the Tipitaka Suttas, and even more so in the Abhidhamma. The Abhidhamma philosophy clearly states that there is nether monism (Vendanta/Hindu/Mahayana) nor atomism (Nihilism, Scientism, Materialism). The specifics are laid out in the article, and I must admit, they are not my personal views; they are the exposition of the world-view and self-view as preached by Gotama Buddha in the Pali Canon.

      I do not get into Buddhist/non-Buddhist or “Western” Buddhism or any of the sorts. To engage in such an argument at all is to lose, I think…each individual in the West has tossed out what he/she does not like and whatever is left over is the “essence” of it, it seems.

      We could argue all day about what is “true” Buddhism and what is not. What is not debatable, however, is what “true” Buddhism is when defined by the Pali Canon. That definition is expounded in my article.

      I have never practiced Zen, but I was profoundly influenced by one sentence from John Daido Loori: “We all have a responsibility to go deep within out respective religious traditions.”

      If is how I came to know things through to be true by direct experience. Had I allowed my Western notions of what “Cultural B.S.” is define what I would accept and what I would refuse, I would have an eclectic practice that was very acceptable in the West, that did not disturb my own preconceived notions. Unfortunately, I would not be meditator I am today, have the knowledge & certainty I have today, or know what is “true” versus what is “untrue”.

      I don’t know if you have read, but most attempt to support Buddhism with Quantum Mechanics shows an incredible bias…but such reaches are not only inaccurate, but unnecessary.

      I have not read any books on a link between quantum physics and Buddhism. However, I do know a bit about both. My conclusion of the “link” was in regard to Shrodinger’s wavefunction–particularly the way it displays that there is no “thing” behind the event, but that the event does, in fact, exist; such a phenomenon would clearly and directly support my statements. Furthermore, this phenomenon is uncontested.

      I can’t speak for the book written about Buddhism in general…but do you believe that what I have said is in anyway a stretch? It seemed very supportive of my assertion, philosophically. But please feel free to critique my notion.

      In regards to “such reaches” that are “inaccurate”, could you fill me in on what the popular claims are? Though I have read numerous books on Quantum Mechanics and Abhidhamma Philosophy, I have never read anything that attempted to link the two.

      I have carefully made [tried, at least!] assertions that are “plain as day”, so to speak, and are not philosophical assertions that are made solely on the evidence of Quantum Mechanics. But certain aspects of Quantum Mechanics that are clearly relevant are used to support Abhidhamma theory.

      Furthermore, to say they are “not needed” worries me a bit…in and of themselves, possibly not. However, the primary sources of information used to asset a materialist (deterministic) point of view are Newtonian by nature. Quantum Mechanics is often brought up to remind everyone that a “two truth” model exists for every student of science, too: The deterministic model that we “directly observe” but can prove to be false, and the Quantum Jumps (among other quirky-quantum-phenomena) that defy our sense of the world as we know it. We cannot use Quantum Mechanics to drive a car or play baseball, but it is the truth.

      Did you gather your position based on something you read? If so, could you point me to it? (I’d like to see what this person’s reasoning was/is.) If not, could you tell me–specifically as you possibly can–what brings you to this conclusion? Also, if applicable, could you tell me what it is about the Quantum Theory I use (Shrodinger’s Wavefunctions) that is “a reach” or “unneeded”?