Is Buddhism a Spiritual Religion?

Dhyana Buddha

by Jayaram V

Summary: Buddhism is an unconventional religion. Find out whether it can truly be considered a spiritual religion or a materialistic religion.


Buddhism is unlike any other religion. It is an unconventional faith of paradoxical and irreconcilable notions, which contains the essence of India’s spiritual wisdom, objectified into relatable, pragmatic concepts, but avoids the commotion of speculative philosophies and confounding abstractions.

The contradictions are apparent in its essential philosophy. For example, it does not believe in God or an eternal soul, but shares the beliefs of Samsara (transmigration), karma and rebirth with other traditions such as Hinduism and Jainism.

Still because of its emphasis upon phenomenal experience, it is not a spiritual religion in the strict sense of the word, but a materialistic one. Its focus is upon the materiality and perceptually of transient beings and objects of the phenomenal world, rather than the immortality and transcendence of the spirit or the soul, which it does not acknowledge at all.

At the same time, unlike Hinduism, Buddhism perfectly fits into the western idea of a religion. It has Buddha, a historical personality, as its founder, a well-defined Sangha or monastic brotherhood, and certain cardinal beliefs, truths, principles and practices which constitute its core doctrine or Dharma.

It also qualifies as a monastic or ascetic religion, with unmistakable emphasis upon ethical living, contemplative and purificatory practices, renunciation and detachment as the means to Nirvana.

Yet, because of its denial of the soul (atman) or the spirit, it cannot truly be considered a spiritual or mystic religion The followers of Buddha practice spirituality of the material kind, remaining within the realm of objective reality and the field of mental awareness.

They cannot truly be considered or categorized as mystics or spiritual people, although their practices are similar to those who engage in it. For convenience, they may be considered spiritual. However, their aim is not self-realization or unity with the Self, but deliverance from existential suffering through oneness of the mind. They believe in the other worldly existence of subtle planes and supernatural beings, but prefer to achieve Nirvana here and now, rather than enter those supra fine realms.

In their effort to attain Nirvana, they may go beyond ordinary awareness to experience the subtle states of meditative absorption or enjoy the rapture that ensues from the tranquil and restful states of pure consciousness. They may even touch the boundaries of cognitive experience to witness the elusive, immaterial state (jhana) of unified awareness, where neither perception nor non-perception is possible. Yet, all that happens within the being and to the being, without God playing any role in it.

Buddhism relies upon the known rather than the unknown to ascertain truths. It accepts the materiality of existence as the basis for deliverance and strives to perfect it and purify it, rather than reject it altogether.

Its methods are austere and contemplative and rooted in the ascetic and spiritual traditions of ancient India. They form part of its monastic discipline. Its ethical practices and code of conduct (Vinaya) are similar to those practiced in many spiritual traditions.

However, because of its materialistic approach and denial of God and soul, it cannot truly be considered a spiritual religion. In their quest for liberation, Buddhists do not aim to transcend their minds or senses, nor do they take refuge in the abstract notions of transcendental states.

Their primary focus is upon ethical cleansing of their experiential self or beingness. For them, the mind and body constitute the objective reality or the not-Self. It is where they want to test their beliefs and practices and explore existential truths.

They do not seek to transcend their minds to enter an alternate, immutable, incomprehensible, and independent reality, but to free them from unwholesome thoughts, perceptions, memories, habits and imperfections, so that they can discern things with sameness and unified awareness, and without any hindrances. Their goal is to practice the Dharma as taught by the Buddha and abide in meditative absorption (samadhi) to attain emptiness and thereby Nirvana.

In his quest for a solution to overcome suffering, the Buddha avoided speculation and conjecture. He found it within the realm of human consciousness through his personal effort and experience. Hence, in Buddhism the focus is upon the not-Self or the objective reality or the perceptual reality or experiential reality, which is graspable and verifiable, and which does not require any speculation or the word of God for its validation.

At the most, the Self in Buddhism refers to the living self or the physical self, which is perishable and changeable. For the same reason, Samadhi in Buddhism does not mean absorption in the eternal Self but cessation of modifications and absorption into pure silence, or simply, meditative self-absorption, in which the mind abandons all its tendencies, movements and modifications, and rests in itself.

In Buddhism, the meaning of awakening is also different. For the Buddhists, awakening means the awakening of pure intelligence or awakening into pure intelligence which arises when the mind is freed from all hindrances and impurities, and which can discern things clearly as they are without delusion and confusion.

Its purpose is to transform the seekers of Nirvana into enlightened beings, with awakened and purified Buddhi, so that they know how to live upon earth without bondage, sin and suffering and experience the exalted state of the Buddha mind.

Thus, the Buddhists aim to cultivate pure intelligence and tranquil minds rather than ascend to an eternal heaven to enjoy its infinite blessings. They pursue intelligence and abide in intelligence to cultivate discernment, one pointedness, equanimity and pure mindfulness.

For that, they focus upon purifying their minds and bodies through Right Living to attain the equanimous states of deeper awareness (jhanas), rather than finding the soul or the Self, which is beyond the realm of mundane experience, and which can only be speculated but cannot be discerned.

Because his enlightened wisdom sprang from the right use of Buddhi, Gautama became known to the world as the Buddha, meaning the one who is awakened with Buddhi or pure intelligence, and the knowledge taught by him as Buddhism or Buddha Dhamma, meaning the teaching or the doctrine which arises from and abides in pure intelligence.

We may say that Buddhism is a spiritual religion only in a general sense, but not in a literal sense. It has aspects of spirituality which are meant to explore the physical self rather than the spiritual self. It relies upon the ethical cleansing of the mind and body to attain pure states of consciousness and resolve the problem of karma and suffering.

All other religions, except Buddhism, practice spirituality in the literal sense. They believe in the existence of eternal souls and their permanent deliverance from the mortal world or their irrevocable ascent to the immortal heaven. The Buddhists believe in neither. They practice the right use of intelligence to achieve complete deliverance from suffering.

Hinduism and Jainism also recognize the importance of Buddhi in spiritual practice. They emphasize the virtue of discernment in distinguishing the right from the wrong and the real from the illusory. The same is emphasized in the Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali also.

In the Bhagavadgita (2.40), the doctrine is presented as Buddhi Yoga. Its practice leads to one pointedness, sameness, equanimity and desireless actions, whereas those whose minds are filled with the desire for wealth and enjoyment engage in passions and desired-ridden actions due to lack of discernment and fail to achieve liberation.

The scripture defines (2.50) Yoga as skillfulness in action, which arises from the proper use of discriminatory intelligence (buddhi-yukta). However, in the general order of things, Buddhi Yoga is an adjunct or accessory only, and has to be practiced along with other yogas and transformative techniques to cultivate purity (sattva) and achieve liberation.

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