In general conversations we often come across the question whether “Buddhism” is a religion or a philosophy or even a way of life. Before fully understanding what did Buddha discover thousands of years ago, and what he taught as a result, it is worth spending a little time trying to understand the general perceptions related to religions, philosophies and belief systems. Since words and the meanings are of paramount importance in communicating thoughts, let us look at what these words mean a little further.

What is a religion?

Religion may be defined as a way of life or a discipline based on a faith or belief in an external force with certain characteristics and powers.  Religion is a belief system. It may be belief in something physical, tangible or a conceived notion, or metaphysical phenomena meaning ‘reality’ beyond what is perceptible to senses or even supernatural.

Most religions have the framework to ensure harmonious and purposeful interaction between those who subscribe to and adhere to the core values and beliefs of the religion. Consequently, this framework also provides and defines the moral values required to exist within that community. Without this morality, a code of conduct and a level of discipline, coexistence within a community becomes next to impossible. Most religions also include a level of tolerance and moral values that allow people from one religious framework to live harmoniously with those of other religious sects with no intersecting points. This is not always the case leading to religious intolerance and disharmony within multi religious communities.  In secular societies this set of moral values and the discipline comes about from the laws enacted for this purpose.

Belief System

Belief system refers to a person’s relationship with what he or she accepts as of ultimate importance or ’truth’, the presuppositions and theory related to this, and the commitments and practice of working it out in living. It could include religions as well as alternatives to religions, without any discrimination between them.

What is a philosophy?

According to the Wikipedia, Philosophy is:

  • Study of general problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, truth, beauty, justice, validity, mind, and language.
  • Distinguished from other ways of addressing these questions (such as mysticism or mythology) by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on reasoned argument.
  • From ancient Greek origin: ‘philosophía’ meaning “love of knowledge” or “love of wisdom

Webster Dictionary says

  • search for a general understating of values and reality by chiefly speculative rather than observational means” or an analysis of the grounds and of concepts expressing fundamental beliefs.
  • Philosophy of life is defined as an overall vision or an attitude towards life and the purpose of life

What is a way of life?

Those who are spiritually strong with a commitment to a belief system, have a way of life based on their respective belief systems. Spirituality is that which affects one’s spirit or the deep convictions. Deeply spiritual Christians have a way of life and so do Muslims believing in Islamic values. Even agnostics who believe that any ultimate reality is unknowable and probably unknown may have a way of life and a set of spiritual set of values based on that belief or the notion.

The code of conduct and the discipline imposed by or resulting from religious framework results in a way of life.

One of the key points related to all religions and belief systems is that the beliefs or the opinions or the notions, are based on either on prophecies such as in the Koran, the statements in books such as the Bible, the Vedas, hearsay such as veracious concepts of after life, or outer body experiences, or some mythical or mythological concepts. Very few people have crafted a way of life based on their own, gradually maturing life experiences and observations.

Unfortunately, one cannot choose a way of life based on life experiences and observations, a priory by definition. Crafting a way of life requires significant open mindedness, much discipline and a very keen and critical sense of judgment. That also requires the ability to continuously learn from life experiences and observations and then change or modify the way of life according to this learning.

So what does that make “Buddhism”?

As you will see from the on going discussion, Buddha’s teaching related to how to live does not fall into any of these categories, but also may fall into all of these categories at the same time.

Is it a religion?

No it is not a religion because what the Buddha taught is not based on beliefs. It is based on experiential development of mind. But it is a religion to many people in the world. Many believe in Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha ; they live very useful and purposeful lives just based on this belief. To them and many in the world, this aspect is called “Buddhism”; it is a label, and ‘ism’ to describe a way of life and a religion. But was this what the Buddha wanted from those who followed in his foot steps?

Is it a belief system?

It is a belief system to many who wants to practice a useful way of life. Many relates to the presuppositions and the theory of Buddha’s teaching, and the commitments and practice of working it out in living. But they may not have the goal of reaching eternal inner peace in the immediate time frame. While Buddha did not recommend a way of life of using his teachings as a basis of a belief system or religion, he did not ridicule it either. In one occasion he did say that paying homage to the religious aspects to be of less usefulness than paying homage and living according to the more lofty and the practical aspects of his teachings.

Is it a philosophy?

Yes. For those who wish to do the following it is indeed a philosophy.

  • Study of general problem concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, truth, beauty, justice, validity, mind, and language
  • Love of knowledge or love of wisdom
  • Search for a general understating of values and reality by speculative rather than observational means or an analysis of the grounds and of concepts expressing fundamental beliefs.
  • Overall vision or an attitude towards life and the purpose of life

But the Buddha would not have been very happy with those who wished to stop at this point. In various discourses he had made this point very clear. He did not want to argue with those wishing to argue nor did he want to get into discussions related to the beginning or the end of Life. These arguments or discussions he found to derail the prime purpose of searching and finding that inner peace.

Today there are many who are fond of searching or validating Buddha’s teaching using discoveries in science.  They are well motivated. They feel that relating the teachings of the Buddha, which dates 2500 years, to modern science, increases its applicability to the modern way of living since we depend so much on science and technology.

 There is a fundamental problem. Scientific discovery is based on external observations of phenomena. Unfortunately as Einstein found, using internal probes such as light to look at sub atomic particle change their behavior to the extent any subsequent observations become meaningless. Hence, he searched for mathematical, non-invasive tools to ensure proper observation of sub atomic phenomena.

Whereas, the Buddha internalized observations in order to make his discoveries. As we shall see later it is very important that these internal observations also do not modify or change those internal phenomena that we wish to observe unchanged.

Suffice it to say that for those who wish to improve wisdom through these discussions “Buddhism” is a philosophy and a very fertile ground. However, validation through science does not make Buddha’s teachings any more useful than it already is.

What did the Gautama Buddha do?

Those who are aware of the story of the Gautama Buddha may remember that he became an ascetic. From his early life experience, however it may have happened; he noticed that those who have taken up an ascetic life style or a way of life appeared to have outer calmness and possibly some level of inner clarity. Having experienced that, all the material wealth at his disposal as well as the ability to please all his senses at the highest possible level, could not satisfy his desire for more of the same, he found that he did not have inner peace. Being a very intelligent person based on the observation that the ascetic appeared to have transcended the ordinary limits, Prince Siddhartha decided to adopt the ascetic way of life as the first step towards finding that inner peace.

Having cultivated a disciplined approach to life, he then went in search to several teachers to learn to discipline the mind. From his experience and observations during this period taught him that somehow the mind was central to achieving inner peace.  It should be born in mind that the aim of all these teachers was to reach the realm of the Maha-Brahma through the cultivation of the mind. These teachers were able to discipline the mind and through cultivation and channeling, reaching various planes of mind existence through absorptions where inner peace could be found. The explanation was that in these planes one became an integrated self with the Maha-Brahma. This was a concept and a notion that existed then as well as today in the Hindu Vedic doctrine.

Prince Siddhartha experienced these planes of existence; but observed that while one remained in these planes one had the notion of inner peace yet, this inner peace tended to reduce no sooner one reached the plane of the human reality. So as per the current wisdom even being with one with Maha-Brahma could not help one from escaping the reality of the human plane of existence thus achieving total inner peace as a human being. From experience and observation he deduced that the ultimate inner peace as a human being he was searching for could not be reached using this approach of mind cultivation. Based on the prevailing wisdom at the time, he experimented with physical hardship as an approach to reach the inner peace. There again he failed.

It is then he realized that again from experience and observation of life events, that he needed a totally different approach if he was to find this eternal inner peace. He remembered on one occasion how he contemplated the cycles of life during his childhood and hypothesized a systematic approach to investigate human reality and how that played out. Since he already had experienced ways to discipline the mind his mind had clarity and with systematic investigation discovered the cycle of birth and rebirth fuelled by craving and various fetters thus discovering the noble truth and cause and effect relationship.  Again from pure experience he reached the goal of eternal inner peace which is nibbana.

The approach of Prince Siddhartha

The approach of Prince Siddhartha is very similar to that of a scientist. A scientist would formulate a hypothesis and test it through experimentation; modify the hypothesis based on test results and continue with experimentation until the goal is reached. Prince Siddhartha did exactly that in order to discover how the mind worked. In reaching Buddha hood he discovered how the mind needs to be disciplined and cultivated in order to reach that point.

Having discovered the Buddha then taught what needs to be done to achieve total inner peace, i.e. Arahat hood.

So what did the Buddha teach?

Buddha found during his quest that in order to understand the human reality, one must first be grounded in the human reality. Although spending time in different planes of existence in the mind provides temporary help and relief from the unsatisfactoriness; this does not help achieving the total inner peace as a human being. His recipe was very simple. He said that in order to reach inner peace as a human being, it is very important to first understand what disrupts that inner peace in the human existential reality. In order to comprehend one must observe and experience each moment of life as it happens as a normal human being.  Only by doing so would one begin to experience those aspects of the mind and its workings that stop us achieving this inner peace.

Buddha taught us to adopt a way of life that allows us to build upon our life experiences and observations. This has many aspects. He did also mention that all that he says should not be accepted on face value. He stressed that only after experiencing, thorough examination and analysis must one accept the teaching as correct and appropriate.

Although this is a very lofty goal, as normal human beings we still require some level of comfort and confidence that we are going along the right path. This is true of our teachers, doctors or lawyers in whom we trust to find the knowledge, the correct medicine or the legal advice to make sure that we do not fall into a difficult situation. Similarly, we need confidence and trust in the Buddha’s teachings that it will us towards the correct direction. Until we make reasonable head way we would not be certain that we are going in the correct direction.


Fundamentally we are all human beings. We are all governed and subject to the same vagaries of life. This does not respect how we are brought up, where we live, our respective wealth or health, the religious convictions or beliefs we may have, we all fall sick, we age, we are fearful of the unknowns; we feel anger when things do not go according to our wishes. This is a fact and is true for the hunter gatherer man many ages ago to the man who has the ability to gather knowledge and has the good fortune to enjoy and depend on modern technologies that knowledge has created.

As human beings, we need to belong to a something; at the bottom are the family and then the community. Then later on in life we belong to political parties to interest groups. All of this is done to strengthen our confidence and to increase the chances of our living as we would like and hope that the belonging to a larger group would somehow reduce the uncertainty and therefore the fear of the unknown future and give us confidence.

Many of us never develop the level of confidence that is necessary to be fully independent, both in terms of thinking and developing a way of life. For many of us the notion of an external Omni potent force to take us through this mine field called “Life” is therefore a very welcome relief. We can relinquish the responsibility of facing the life’s realities as well as the fears of the unknowns, with the notion that Omni potent someone has our interests at heart and do the needful to get over the life’s realities.

Is this initial faith in community living and the confidence it gives us always force us not to be independent thinkers and adopt independent living? That is not so. The initial faith in life is necessary to start building confidence in ourselves. That with ongoing character development, it is that developing confidence that gives us the leadership qualities and the strength to take positions with very little support form that initial community, the family or anyone else.

Confidence in the Buddha, his teachings, and those who have gone forth

Any patient gravely ill, taking a medicine based on the prescription of a doctor must first have confidence in the doctor’s ability to diagnose the illness well and then must have faith in the medication that the doctor has prescribed. Without the two elements the likelihood of getting well is diminished and retarded.

Similarly, the Buddha made a diagnosis as to what causes us to be always dissatisfied with anything and everything no matter how much we have. He then gave a prescription in the form of teachings. Those who have the faith and the confidence to follow this prescription have the chance to achieve the goals described by the Buddha.

As we need initial faith and confidence to take us through life, anyone wishing to follow course prescribed by the Buddha must also start with certain level of faith but more confidence in the prescription in order to be successful.

Since Buddha is no longer with us, the only things that we have to guide us through this maze are his teachings and the experience of those who have taken a very rigorous path to follow his doctrine and perhaps reached the end goals.  The latter aspect of a person a layman would never know. Hence, we must have confidence in those who are making a valiant effort to follow the prescription to the letter and ask them for guidance. Those are the monks who have given up the worldly life to be ascetics in order to develop the level of discipline required to follow a way of life that would ultimately lead towards that internal peace. This way of life ensures that they are lot closer to reality than otherwise

Being Grounded in Reality

So we discussed that Buddha discovered that in order to reach the goal of eternal inner happiness one must first be grounded in reality. We discussed that unless we are grounded in reality we would miss that which keeps us from reaching the goal and that which pulls us back into the cycle that keeps us eternally in a non-satisfactory situation. By missing these elements we would not be able to eliminate that which gives us all of these problems, including fear, anger, jealousy, happiness, desire etc. If you stop to analyze you will find all of these are temporary in nature. We are never angry all the time; and we are also never happy all the time. That is what caused Prince Siddhartha to flee the fine palace and the luxuries of life; in spite of it all he was not happy.

What stops

As prescribed, what do we need to be grounded in reality?

Life is not a forgiving space. It is full of things unknown. Therefore just like reaching towards our respective families or communities for assurance, we need assurance that being grounded in reality will not cost us dearly. We must have confidence. But Confidence in what may I ask? It is the confidence in  self, the Buddha, his teachings, and those who have gone forth. That will help us to be grounded in time of trouble and difficulty.

Confidence leads towards discipline

With the confidence well established in Buddha, his teachings, and those who have gone forth, it is now possible to get the instructions to develop the discipline required to be grounded in human reality. This is called Sila in pali.

Moral, Physical and Mental discipline, known in pali as ‘Sila’

Developing moral, physical and mental discipline requires the observation of the five, eight or the 10 precepts. Buddha was very specific that as a minimum moral discipline provides the frame work to live in the society in a harmonious manner. But the need for these precepts goes beyond harmonious living in a society. These precepts also allow us to live in harmony with ourselves, and let live in a way that does not harm oneself or anyone else. These precepts also force us to be aware of what we do. We must not just follow the precepts; but must follow them with a deep understanding as to why we do it.

These precepts are not commandments. They are in effect self proclaimed promises if you like and reminders to us to avoid potential pit falls. These precepts are not only danger warnings but also are reminders of positive behaviors that will help and strengthen our position in the society. The positive behavior allows the character to mature and develop as we shall later.

Being aware of the dangers, cultivating the positive behavior, improves on morality and develops character strengths that will allow you to be independent stand by yourself and be disciplined in your own right. That is why they are not commandments but members of a framework that promotes independent well being.  This is paramount to the next stage of mental discipline. Well managed frame work of Physical and moral discipline provides a strong platform and a foundation for the serious cultivation of mental discipline.

It is worth recognizing that while we can fool others in the world some time, we can never fool our own minds. The mind knows exactly what we do. The mind will remind us from time to time the state of things that we have done. Things that we are proud of as well as that we are not so proud of or even regret. It is very difficult to cultivate mental discipline if we have to battle with the mind each time it reminds us of who we are. If our verbal, physical and mental actions are in agreement with the way we want to be (that is Sila) then we would have a much easier time with the mind and the mind is more likely to listen to what ‘we’ have to suggest.

The moral, physical discipline inculcates confidence in yourself, the teachings of the Buddha and those who have strived just like you and succeeded. When you actions are in complete agreement with your mind then not only do you develop confidence in yourself but also begin to a certain calmness and tranquility. You would not be as agitated as you would be otherwise. The confidence gives rise to stability.


Bhavana in pali means mental cultivation or development. This is also translated as ‘meditation’. Meditation however is perceived as conducting one in a tranquil manner, preferably in a seated position, lotus style, very still, while blanking the mind and all thoughts. This could be very beneficial no doubt and peaceful. However this is not meant by Bhavana. Bhavana means being vigilant, total awareness or mindfulness as opposed to emptying the mind, if that can even be done!

Stillness is a great way to relax. So even if you do nothing but remain still, that is beneficial. The aim however, is to bring about a level of discipline to the mind. But what does that mean?

Stillness of the mind is a prerequisite to fully understanding the reality. Deep meditation and application of calmness and tranquility can lead to states of absorption. It has been said that the mind is most receptive to fully comprehension at times leading up to and descending from these states of absorption is termed access concentration.

If you can watch the mind for few moments you will find that it often tends to wander around aimlessly. It will go to the past and relive some interesting moments, or get angry because it remembered some wrong doing someone did to you, or go way into the future and day dream about the day that you will win the lottery. Often the mind would not be focused on what you are currently doing, be it waiting for the bus, walking, eating etc. These places where the mind tends to wander, could they be considered reality? Reality is the current situation. When we day dream, are we grounded in reality?

When you read a book or listen to music or play music, mind tends to be focused and engrossed with the respective subject.  That is because there is some inherent interest in the subject and the mind wants to be attached to that interest. Why cannot we discipline the mind such that it could be focused on activities or non-activities that may have no inherent interest? Walking and waiting area such activities.

Deep Abhidhamma talks about varieties of day to day mental states but also how the configurations of these mental states can be re configured through the application of meditative techniques.

  • Buddha did not dispute the relative reality of the conventional appearing self. But he did insist that we tend to give this relational self an absolute status that it does not possess. The self appears to be real but is in fact only the appearance is real; the self itself is not a lasting entity in its own right
  • Does meditation alter personality or character
  • Buddha states that it is not how much you know about yourself it is how you relate to what you do know that makes a difference
  • It is not what is happening to you but how you relate to these external stimuli
  • Kind of happiness not dependant on controlling the outcome of things