The word religion comes from the Latin religio meaning ‘piety’ and is allied to religens meaning ‘to fear the gods.’
It is often said that Buddhism is not a religion but a ‘way of life.’ It is difficult to comment on this statement without having a definition of both ‘religion’ and ‘way of life.’ The Oxford Dictionary defines religion as ‘the belief in the existence of a god or gods, and the activities that are connected with the worship of them.’ By this definition Buddhism is certainly not a religion, but nor would Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism and certain sects of Hinduism be either.
If Buddhism is ‘a way of life’ then surely so are Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism etc. because they require acting in particular ways, not just belief in certain dogmas. Nonetheless, with its strong emphasis on realism and understanding as opposed to blind faith, Buddhism does stand out from other religions. Perhaps Buddhism might be best described as ‘a religious philosophy’ or ‘a spiritual psychology.’
It has become popular in the West today to consider all religions to be basically the same. This attitude is probably due to an understandable reaction against the intolerance of the past, a decline in religious commitment and the mistaken belief that to make comparisons and choose one thing over another is ‘intolerant.’ A cursory examination of the major world religions, let alone the minor ones, will reveal common features but also irreconcilable differences. Someone once asked the Buddha, ‘Do all teachers and priests teach the same idea, practice the same discipline, cherish the same thing and strive for the same goal?’ The Buddha replied, ‘No they do not.’ ‘And why not?’ asked the questioner. ‘Because’ the Buddha said, ‘the world is made up of many and various elements. This being the case some beings focus on one or another of these various things. What they focus on they become attached to and then proclaim, “This alone is true. All else is false.” And thus they do not teach the same idea, practice the same discipline, cherish the same thing and strive for the same goal’ (D.II,282).
- The Buddhist Attitude to Other Religions, K.N. Jayatilleke, 1975.