Buddhism as a Religion

In this piece, I focus my research on defining a religion. Tackling such a momentous issue takes a lot of perspective, which I take from anthropologists like Durkheim, Tyler, and Geertz.

Term Paper for Anthropology of Religion at Loyola University of Chicago



Many anthropologists dedicate their life to define the complex phenomenon of religion. Creating an obsolete set of characteristics, however, places some practices outside the specific defines of religion. Émile Durkheim even states “if one insists that the term religion means belief in a supreme being, a certain number of tribes will be excluded from the world of religion” (Durkheim 1995:27). Focusing in on the ‘tribe’ of Buddhism, the worldview remains outside the confines of many definitions of religion due to its lack of a deity or heavy ritual practice.  Melford Spiro explains that “Buddhist doctrine poses a serious challenge to most of our generalizations about religion, and ultimately to our very notions about human nature itself” (Spiro 1970: 3). Due to the numerous exceptions Buddhism introduces to the debate on defining religion, an in-depth analysis of the worldview must be completed. Discussing the definitions of religion and applying them to Buddhism Doctrine enlightens the idea of Buddhism broadening the defines of religion.  Through this paper’s discourse Buddhism is revealed to be a religion because it provides motivation for individuals to act, thus helping individuals to live.

The specific case of Buddhism as a religion presents a broad argument to the stage of theoretical cultural anthropology. Spiro claims that cultural and religion systems are not a solid mold, but simply initial classification systems for societal practices. Discovering Buddhism as a religion then serves as a catalyst for the discussion of the vitality and validity of classifying cultural phenomenon different from those of an observer. Outside the world of anthropologists, an inherent ethnocentric bias of one’s culture persists. Therefore, witnessing Buddhism as a religion remains imperative—it reveals the many flaws in attempting to define ‘foreign’ culture. A religion exists as “the relationship between the real and ideal, the actual and doctrinal, the existential and normative,” providing complex dimensions of belief systems for the believer (Spiro 1970:5). Discourse on religion then proves appropriate in attempting to eliminate ethnocentric bias. Spiro enforces this quest, claiming that “to hold that religion consists in a set of textual doctrines is to hold a strange notion of ‘religion’ in contrast to theology or philosophy…. It would result in denying that millions of Burmese, Cambodians, Laotians, Sinhalese, and Thai are Buddhists, despite the fact that this religious system is practiced” (Spiro 1970:5). To prevent defining legitimate practices as irreligious, analyzing incomplete but accepted definitions of religion becomes necessary.

As previously stated, numerous anthropologists discuss the purpose and theory behind religion. Because of this, many definitions of religion exist. Discovering the massive spectrum between Tylor’s ethnocentric definition and Geertz’s very specific one demonstrate the polarities in which religion can function.  Analyzation of different definitions of religion must therefore persist to then accurately discover a functioning definition.

Edward Tylor defined religion as essentially belief in spirits. He discusses Animism, or the ‘theory of souls’ being “shown as the principle out of which arose the various systems of spirits and deities in barbaric and ancient religions” (Tylor 1904:290). Today’s religions thus arose from animism. Tylor continues, claiming that barbaric religions existed as early systems of natural philosophy, which evolved into what is central to religion today. The notion of spirits “serves to account for whatever happens” (Tylor 1904:278). For Tylor, the belief in spirits served as an explanation to natural happening while providing a moral mold for individuals to strive. To exemplify this, he states “among the savages…the worship of the dead naturally encourages good morals; for the ancestor who, when leaving, took care that his family should do right by one another, does not cease this kindly rule when he becomes a divine ghost” (Tylor 1904:289). Here, Tylor explains how a spirit serves as a redemptive judge of morality. A religion then is a belief in spirits, serving to weigh morality. Despite the historical insight, however, Tylor lacks a culturally appropriative contribution to the definition of a religion.

A more modern attempt reflects that of Edward Conze, who defines religion as “an organization of spiritual aspirations, which reject the sensory world and negate the impulses which bind us to it” (Conze 1951:12).  Religion is then just another world where spirits exist. Murray Leaf expands this idea, stating that religions “provide the ideas and organizations they use for public discussion of many matters of great practical importance and…often provide a sense of community on a personal and manageable scale” (Leaf 1957:168).  This perspective, with Tylor’s, defines religion as a different realm paralleled to ours, where spirits serves as a moral guide. These definitions provide some basis, ready for expansion and elaboration by Clifford Geertz.

Famously, Geertz created a five-part definition of religion. Basically stated, “the importance of religion lies in its capacity to serve, as a source of general, yet distinctive conception of the world” (Geertz 1993:215). Religion then is simply an explanation of the world. Similar to animistic ‘account for whatever happens,’ Geertz provides a function for religion in cultural discourse. Despite the definition, however, Geertz explains that religion is not obsolete. He says that “culture patterns have an intrinsic double aspect: they give meaning to social and psychological reality both by shaping themselves to it and by shaping it to themselves” (Geertz 1993:207). Religion then must exist as a cooperative justification tool, influencing the society equally as the society influences it. The problem then arises that religions are constantly changing because its practicing individuals possess the power to practice and define the religion how they choose.  Geertz’s definition thus lacks a clear, definitive answer. The lack of uniformity from Geertz slows down the quest, but Émile Durkheim persists to provide the clearest definition of religion, able to fit Buddhism within its boundary.

Durkheim’s interpretation seems to present the most functional definition of religion. His interpretation eliminates any possible ethnocentrism while clarifying the incomplete definitions. First, Durkheim acknowledges that all religions do not have a god, saying “not all religious virtues emanate from divine personalities, and there are cult ties other than those that unite man with a deity. Thus, religion is broader than the idea of gods or spirits and so cannot be defined exclusively in those terms (Durkheim 1995: 33). This clarification is vital to understanding religion authentically while not subjecting nontheistic religions to a different definition. Durkheim’s definition serves religions like Buddhism well, because religion does not necessitate specifics. He reminds a reader that “there are great religions in which invocations, propitiations, sacrifices, and prayers are far from dominant, and therefore do not exhibit the distinguishing murky by which religious phenomena are to be recognized” (Durkheim 1995:31). With this, is it apparent that Durkheim presents the most encompassing definition to religion. Unlike Tylor’s classification of animism as savage, Geertz’s ever changing term, or Conze’s and Leaf’s incomplete definition, Durkheim incorporates all aspects of belief into a singular function. He reminds the reader that “the true function of religion is not to make us think, enrich our knowledge, or add representations of a different sort and source to those we owe to science. Its true function is to make us act and to help us live” (Durkheim 1995:45).  Motivation to act and aid to persist in life remains the authentic function of a religion—any cultural practice defined as such has the ability to satisfy the two-fold definition. This simple classification of a worldview thus presents Buddhism as a religion.

Buddhism was founded in 545BCE in India by a noble named Siddhartha Gautama.  The practice spread rapidly through the Buddha’s personality, the spirit of renunciation, self-discipline, and numerous sacrifices by Buddhist disciples (Rajavaramuni 1984:28). Initially, Buddhism drew a large part of its followers from Indians upset with the caste system, because the religion placed worth on human deed over spiritual or ascribed status. Popular in India, Thailand, Cambodia, China, Japan, Malaysia, and many other parts of the world, Buddhists constitute 8% of the world’s population, about 535 million people (ibid).

Due to the lack of a creator-god, Buddhism is unique and thus atheistic, creating conflict in defining the practice as religious. While some spirits exist in small Nat cults in Myanmar, they do not fall into Tylor’s terms of animism because they do not aid in personal salvation. As an essentially ethical religion, Buddhism is often viewed as secular humanism (Morris 2006:52). Morris also states that “Buddhism is an extreme form of individualism, for there is no recourse to a deity or savior, no prayer or sacrament, no religious grace, and not even an enduring soul” (ibid). This reminds a reader that for a Buddhist, all life is suffering. Central to Buddhist doctrine, this nature of suffering means many of the common aspects of a major world religion are not found in Buddhist practice. As Morris states, “Buddhism is both nihilistic and pessimistic, for it repudiates everything that constitutes or attracts the empirical self and regards all sensory experience, all life, as something to be totally rejected” (ibid). The religion, therefore, seems almost incompatible with any definition of religion that encapsulates the major world religions like polytheistic Hinduism or monotheistic Islam or Christianity.

The essential doctrine of Buddhism is embedded in the dharma, or the Four Holy Truths, which exist in their own right, without dependence on any prior reality (ibid). The Four Holy Truths remain defined as:

  1. Suffering exists
  2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires
  3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
  4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path (BDEA 2016).

Similar to Christianity’s 10 Commandments or Islam’s 5 Pillars, the Four Holy, or Noble, Truths constitute the foundation of the religion’s worldview. The thesis of the religion states that human life is suffering, and that only through elimination of desire can suffering halt. Rajavaramuni confirms this, saying that “human life implied suffering…most people cannot live happily without adopting some kind of ostrich attitude to this existential fact” (Rajavaramuni 1984:39). Eliminating suffering thus serves as salvation for a Buddhist.

Salvation remains to be one of the more interesting aspects of Buddhism. For most religions, salvation comes from an all-power deity, typically saving an individual from the despair of this world into the beauty of the next. A Buddhist, however, finds salvation through one’s own effort. Nothing but one’s own action will bring salvation. As Morris states:

“Buddhism is a way of salvation: it is not concerned with god or the world, but with human life and with the elimination of suffering. The attainment of salvation depends neither on ritual sacraments, no faith, nor on divine grace, but only on a deep understanding of the way ‘things really are’” (Morris 2006:44).

Salvation is thus an escape from the constant cycle of rebirth. Just as Islam and Christianity provide an escape through salvation, so too does Buddhism offer its followers a path to redemption.

With this basic understanding of Buddhism, categorizing its elements in Durkheim’s definition of religion become possible. Prior to seeing how Buddhism makes one act and helps them to live, discussion on the Buddhist negation of God is required.  Buddhism fully rejects the existence of a god, which is why so much conflict to defining Buddhism as a religion exists. Some claim that since Buddhism knows no god, it could not be a religion.  These discussions, however, assume that god is an unambiguous term. Durkheim states that “in none of [4 noble truths] is there any question of divinity. The Buddhist is not preoccupied with knowing where this world of becoming in which he lives and suffers came from he accepts it as fact” (Durkheim 1995:28). Durkheim thus contents that a Buddhist only focuses on the reality of life as suffering. A Buddhist would thus adopt an agnostic attitude to that of a personal creator.

While Buddhism remains agnostic, Conze provides an interpretation where Nirvana serves a similar role to a traditionally western deity. A Christian godhead serves as an impersonal, even supra-personal power figure. Within the tenants of Nirvana, a similar role is discovered. Conze says that “Nirvana is permanent, stable, imperishable, immovable, ageless, deathless, unborn, and unbecome, that it is power, bliss and happiness…” (Conze 1951: 39). Clearly, these descriptive terms of Nirvana’s purpose parallel that of a Christian deity. He continues, stating “that it is the real truth and the supreme reality that it is the good, the supreme goal and the one and only consummation of our life” (Conze 1951:40).  Similarly, Buddhism provides a clear moral code. As Tambiah states, “it needs also to be emphasized that merit making is directed to hastening rebirth and securing a better rebirth than the existing one” (Tambiah 1968:50). The motivation of living a good life thus comes from the hope of a better salvation. Both Tambiah and Conze compare the role of a Christian deity and Nirvana, concluding that Nirvana serves a Buddhist in a similar way as a deity serves a Christian. While Buddhism lacks a tradition deity, Nirvana satisfies all the qualifications that a Christian deity provides. Through this, the religion helps on to live by providing hope of redemption at the end of a suffering life. Buddhism also provides motivation to act.

The Buddha’s teaching is exclusively concerned with showing the way to salvation. As Lévy states, “Buddhism is a universal religion with salvation as its objects…an ascetic moved by the noble’s intentions” (Lévy 1957: 2). Hence, Buddhism encourages an individual to act in ways that will bring about salvation. Phra Rajavaramuni, a Thai monk, uses specific examples from Thai society to demonstrate how Buddhism satisfies Durkheim’s definition of religion making one act. Rajavaramuni discusses the common form of merit-making acts in modern Thailand. Surrounding Buddhism festivals and ceremonies, Thai culture implements an inescapable moral structure. “By attending religious rites, ceremonies and temple festivals, or by benefiting from some activities and spiritual influence of religious institutions,” Buddhism links the society to its moral structure (Rajavaramuni 1984:13). He continues, saying Thais “are linked with the religion by ties of custom; Buddhism is their national heritage, the glory of their country which they feel bound to preserve” (ibid). The Buddhist entrenchment in Thai society provides an ordinary Thai with solid inclusion to Buddhist practice and culture. Similarly, in Burma, Buddhism serves to unite different people. Rajavaramuni states that “the people of Burma belong to many races and speak many languages, but 85% of the people were Buddhists, thus the government found in Buddhism this unifying element…” (Rajavaramuni 1984:73). Buddhism unites different races of people. The religion therefore enforces inclusion into its moral structure.

Buddhism also provides aid to help followers live. As Rajavaramuni states, “the village monastery serves as the center of social life and activities of the village, for village social life follows the Buddhist holy days, temple fairs, and merit-making ceremonies” (Rajavaramuni 1984:15). Similarly, “the wat is the focus of village devotional and recreational activities, which both merge in certain collective rites distributed over the year” (Tambiah 1968:48). These insights help to demonstrate Buddhism’s prevalence in the social community. The implementation of Buddhist temples and holy days remind individuals about the tenants of Buddhism, thus helping the individual to live. Ritual action among monks serves the laity “to achieve certain effects in these relationships between explained and unexplained” (Tambiah 1968:44). The daily practice of monks paired with the ever-present symbols of Buddhism help followers achieve a moral life. This aid, balanced with showing the way, satisfy Buddhism’s agency in Durkheim’s definition to ‘make us act and to help us live.’

From extensive discourse on anthropological definition of religion, the phenomenon encompasses a practice that motivates individuals to act and aids them with their life. Due to the lack of a central deity and normative ritual such as prayer and idol worship, Buddhism is too often defined outside the realm of religion. This is inappropriate, as Spiro states that “to hold that normative religious doctrine is irrelevant for an understanding of beliefs of religious actors is to evade one of the most important problems in the anthropological study of religion” (Spiro 1970:5).  Using case studies to then assess the authentic agency the practice provides for its followers, it is evident that Buddhism persists as a religion.






Works Cited

Conze, Edward. 1951. “Buddhism: Its Essence and Development.” Oxford: Harper & Row.

BDEA—Buddha Dharma Education Association. 2016. “Essentials of Buddhism.” The Four Noble Truths. Tullera, Australia: BuddhaNet.net.

Durkheim, Émile. 1995. “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.” New York: The Free Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1993. “Religion as a Cultural System.” The Interpretation of Cultures. London: Fontana Press.

Leaf, Murray. 2014. “The Anthropology of Eastern Religions.” Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

Lévy, Paul. 1957. “Buddhism: a ‘Mystery Religion’?” New York: Schocken Books.

Morris, Brian. 2006. “Religion and Anthropology: a critical introduction.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Buddhism and Spirit Cults. 44-76.

Rajavaramuni, Phra. 1984. “Thai Buddhism in the Buddhist World.” Bangkok: Amarin Printing Group.

Spiro, Melford. 1970. “Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes.” New York: Harper & Row.

Tambiah, S.J. 1968. “Cambridge Papers in Social Anthropology.” The Ideology of Merit and the Social Correlates of Buddhism in a Thai Village. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 41-121.

Tylor, Edward B. 1904. “Anthropology: An Introduction to the Study of Man and Civilization.” New York: J.A. Hill and Company.


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