Approximately 350 million people -- or 6 percent of the world's population -- consider themselves Buddhists. While this makes Buddhism the sixth largest religion worldwide, many Buddhists prefer to think of Buddhism more as a practice or a way of life than a religion. Buddhists don't place any importance on belief in a god, however, Buddhism fulfills almost every criterion for a religion.
Definitions of "Religion"
In defining religion, the Merriam-Webster dictionary considers the belief in a god or supernatural power to be of prime importance, but it also equates religion with "a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith." Government agencies, when determining whether an organization constitutes a religion for legal or tax purposes, use a broad set of criteria. These include whether there are ministers or clergy, a history, a code of conduct, regular services, schools or writings. French sociologist Emile Durkheim provides a simple definition of religion as expression of the world of the sacred, in contrast to the profane world of everyday life.
Gautama the Buddha
The founder of Buddhism was the historical person known as Gautama Siddhartha, who became the Buddha after his enlightenment. He came from a Hindu family, and Buddhists consider his teachings to be a clarification of Hindu thought. They do not consider Buddha a god, although some mythologies in Mahayana Buddhist scriptures suggest mystical and even divine qualities. Hindus, for their part, consider Buddha to be an avatar, or incarnation, of Vishnu, god of compassion, love and preservation, but Buddhists don't share this belief. Theravada Buddhists, who derive their practice from a collection of teachings passed down from the disciples who surrounded Buddha, consider him a master teacher, not a god.
Buddhism as a Way of Life
Buddhists emphasize that the teachings of the Buddha are based on his perception of the nature of the world, the cause of suffering and the way to end suffering. The core teachings of Buddhism contained in the Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path, the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts are practical, even scientific, guidelines. According to Buddhists, following them diligently leads to a sacred state of emptiness beyond the cycle of birth and death. For Buddhists, the profane world is the world of suffering -- dukkha -- and the cause of suffering is ignorance. Eradicating ignorance -- awakening -- is the goal of Buddhist practice.
Buddhism as a Religion
The absence of a belief in God distinguishes Buddhism from other major religions, such as Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Political philosopher John Gray, former professor at London School of Economics and Political Science, doesn't consider belief to be an important criterion in determining what constitutes a religion. Beliefs are unverifiable, and in the modern scientific world, he says, ritual, meditation and a way of life are more important. In terms of legal definitions, Buddhism fulfills every criterion the United States Internal Revenue Service uses to define a religion for tax purposes except for one: Contrary to IRS guidelines, Buddhists may associate with other churches.
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