Is Buddhism a Religion?

REL 101- Introduction to Buddhism: Is Buddhism a Religion?

Instructor: Rose Deighton

Class: Mondays and Wednesdays 1-2:30

Office Hours: Mondays 3-4, Wednesdays 3-5.

Office Phone – 404-727-5555

Course Description:

This course will explore the central teachings of Buddhism, the historical context of its emergence through the figure of the Buddha, and several of its permutations throughout history. Students will develop a foundational knowledge of Buddhism in diverse contexts and a sense of how its lay and monastic traditions operate and interact in society.

While the development of Buddhism and Buddhist doctrine will be emphasized in the first section of the class, its various branches and global varieties will be the focus of the second section. The third and final section of this class will look at some permutations of modern Buddhism, such as Tibetan Buddhism in the era of the 14th Dalai Lama, as well as questions of Buddhist approaches to science and gender.

This course is designed as an exploration of Buddhism in light of a single and central question: is Buddhism a religion? Materials focussed on modernity, orientalism, and the academic study of religion will help to problematize the category of “Buddhism” and question its relationship to religion. Students will build a foundation in the definitions and theories of religion and the world religions paradigm early in the course. They will also acquire an understanding of orientalism and its influence on the study of Buddhism and representations of Buddhism in the West. With these frameworks in place, students will explore multiple topics including Buddhist philosophy, meditation, and science, to determine how they reflect the religious or non-religious nature of Buddhism. The course materials, lectures, discussions, and assignments have been constructed to facilitate the students’ development of their own individual answer to the question, “is Buddhism a religion?” 

Course Objectives: This course will examine one central question: “is Buddhism a religion?”

           As an introductory course in the study of religion, this class aims to expose the student to foundational theoretical questions such as, “what is a religion?” “who defines religion?” and “is religion a universal phenomenon?”  The role of colonialism and orientalist scholarship in bringing about the academic study of Buddhism will be explored and linked to broader questions about the nature of Buddhism and our ways of encountering it.  Students will consider how the history of the academic study of Buddhism has affected our ways of defining it as a religious or non-religious phenomenon. They will also question how the encounter between colonial forces, Western academics and Buddhism continues to operate in the way we study Buddhism today. For instance, the popular characterization of Buddhism as a “philosophy” or “way of life” rather than a religion will be considered. We will ask if it must be one or the other – a philosophy or a religion? We will examine how Buddhism can mean different things to different people. Students will explore how Buddhism’s representations in the West reflect its value of rational, scientific, knowledge and juxtapose these images with those from its traditional cosmology, mythology, and ritual dimensions. Students will be exposed to Buddhists who claim their tradition to be a religion, and those who feel it is not religious at all. We will tie this to the question of modernity and consider how modernization and globalization have affected the consumption and representation of Buddhism in the West both in popular media and scholarly writing.  Students will be expected to master six main competencies:

  1. Buddhist Studies Content: Foundational knowledge of the key terms, histories, texts, and concepts in Buddhism.
  2. Religious Studies Content: Knowledge of several theoretical strains in the study of religion, most importantly “orientalism,” “the religious studies paradigm” and the “invention of world religions.”
  3. Application: The capacity to ask theoretical questions about Buddhism and develop arguments about the nature of Buddhism which bring together knowledge and methods from religious studies and content from the Buddhist tradition.
  4. Creativity: The ability to synthesize and connect disparate strands of knowledge introduced in the course in order to develop a creative and informed answer to the question “Is Buddhism a Religion?”.  
  5. Skills: The two paper assignments should help the students learn how to write both descriptive and argumentative essays in the discipline of religious studies.
  6. Exposure to Variety: Students should come away from this course with a personal experience in a Buddhist context (fieldtrip) and an understanding that Buddhism is a variegated and diverse tradition that takes on different meanings, appearances, and forms in the various contexts where it exists. Readings and projects are aimed to foster a sense of the vastness of Buddhist culture and inspire students to look beyond course materials when imagining what “Buddhism” means.

Required Texts:

Textbook: Peter Harvey: An Introduction to Buddhism:  Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Scanned Readings on Canvas: Weekly readings including articles, book chapters, and occasional films will be provided on the Canvas website. Students should check the syllabus regularly and be sure to read all class materials.

1. FilmsThe Buddha, by David Grubin  (Recommended)

2. The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibets Struggle for Freedom (available at the Library)

3. Zen the life of Zen Master Dogen


  1. Class Participation – 10% Students are expected to attend all lectures having read the course materials before arriving. Attendance will be recorded. Discussion will be a large component of our class environment and students are expected to participate meaningfully and considerately.
  2. Short Essay– 15 %   Choose one of the foundational principles of Buddhism (for example, the four noble truths, the eightfold path, samsara and nirvana, karma, the six realms, etc.), and describe its meaning and function in the Buddhist tradition using materials from the readings. You may do extra research if you feel compelled. You should provide historical information where necessary and use citations to properly document the information you share to support your claims.
  3. Mini Quiz  – 10 % 
  4. Final Exam–  15% (To be scheduled during the university’s formal exam period)
  5. Field Trip and Write Up – 10 % Visit to a Buddhist Temple, Campus Buddhist Club or Meditation Center, or Guest Lecture on Buddhism and write a paragraph describing your experience.
  6. Final Paper (12-15 pages)-  40% To be done in two parts. For this paper, you will write a thesis statement answering the question “Is Buddhism a religion?” If your answer is yes, you will need to construct an argument that includes a definition of religion or the formal characteristics of what might be included in a religion, and explain where your concept of religion comes from. From there, you will proceed to argue why your concept of religion is applicable to Buddhism. Be considerate of the theoretical works we have consulted that problematize the study of world religions generally and the study of Buddhism specifically. If your answer is no, you will need to construct an argument that includes a definition of religion or the formal characteristic of what might be included in a religion, and explain where your concept of religion comes from.  Then, demonstrate why it is NOT applicable to Buddhism.  You must use evidence from the course materials concerning the foundations of Buddhist belief and practice as well as historical development and transformations in geographical/cultural space to prove your argument. Please consult if you have any questions.
    1. Submission 1: The first submissions will be reviewed by the instructor within two weeks, with suggestions to be applied and edited by the student. Each student will meet to discuss their argument and evidence with the instructor and will make the changes required to strengthen the argument, evidence, writing, and style. Students will resubmit their papers. The first submission is not a “rough draft.” The student should submit the essay as though it is their final submission. The second submission is provided so that each student can come away from the class with a fully developed argument in the field of religious studies, a personal stance on important theoretical issues, and a critical engagement with the subject of Buddhism
      1.  Developing your theoretical framework:   Read the theoretical texts from the course and consult the ‘World Religions’ Paradigm’ podcast to determine historical factors in the “study of religion” that inform your definition of a religion. You may use the definitions offered by any of the theorists from these materials, or use their categories for examining religion to develop your own.  You might ask if “world religions” is a Western concept that doesn’t apply to all traditions? You might argue that religion is a universal phenomenon. You might come up with your own theory. You do not need to do external research but it may be helpful, since many of the thinkers mentioned in the podcast offer rich theories of religion that might interest you and bolster your argument.  For instance, is Ninian Smart’s “dimensions of religion” a paradigm for investigation that you agree with? Does Buddhism have them? Does the theory help us understand the nature of Buddhism in an important or unique way?
        Write 5-7 pages outlining your argument in response to the question “is Buddhism a religion?” Include a formal thesis statement and introduction that outlines your paper. Keep in mind that you will use apply this framework to the study of Buddhism.
      1.  Applying your framework to the study of Buddhism: Using evidence from Harvey, course materials including primary sources and/or films, and your own research, to prove the thesis you established in your theoretical framework. Show how your theoretical framework sheds light onto certain aspects of Buddhism that prove it is (or isn’t) a religion.
    1. Submission #2: The Final Paper:  Review comments provided by the instructor, meet and discuss your essay, and then re-write and edit the paper wherever necessary.  Ensure there are no errors in spelling, language, or style. This is a presentation of your original thoughts. Present this paper as though you are a professor of religion submitting research to a professional conference. Follow a citation practice consistently and be sure to offer proper sources for all of your evidence.  Be confident in your assertions, be creative and express your thoughts as clearly as possible.

Course Calendar and Assigned Readings:

Unit 1: Studying Buddhism 

Unit 1: Studying Buddhism 

Week 1, Class 1 What is Buddhism? Harvey (Introduction 1-8)     Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions, (Introduction, 1-14)       Total Reading: 22 pages   Discussion: First Impressions and the Philosophy vs. Religion debate.
Week 1, Class 2 Who is the Buddha? Harvey. (Chapter 1. The Buddha and His Indian Context 8-32)   Total: 24 pages   Discussion: Geography, History, and Context.
Week 2, Class 3 The Religious Studies Paradigm The World Religions Project Podcast: The World Religions Paradigm (approximately 1 hour)     J.Z. Smith. “Religion, Religions, Religious” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, 269-281     Total: 12 pages + podcast  
Discussion: Developing a framework for understanding Buddhism. What is a religion? What is religious? Where do these ideas come from?
Week 2, Class 4 Orientalism and the Study of Buddhism Edward Said. Orientalism. 1-15.   Orientalism and Religion, Chapter 7 “Orientalism and the Discovery of ‘Buddhism’” (141-161).   Total: 35 pages   Discussion: How have colonialism and orientalism shaped how we study Buddhism?
Week 3, Class 5 Shakyamuni Buddha, Lives and Legends John Strong. Buddhisms: An Introduction. (Chapter 2. 39-84)   Total: 45 pages Discussion: The Four Sights, The Jatakas.

Unit 2: The Foundational Tenets of Buddhism   

Week 3, Class 6 Rebirth and Karma   Harvey. (Chapter 2, Rebirth and Karma, 32-46).   View the interact Map of Samsara and Learn the 6 realms of existence:
languages/tibetan_samsara/   Daniel Pals. Nine Theories of Religion. Chapter 7 “The Reality of the Sacred: Mircea Eliade” 233-237.   Total: 18 pages + view map and read all sections
Discussion: Why do intentions matter in the system of karma? How do the cosmology and mythology of Buddhism affect your perception of the tradition? Is anything “sacred” in Buddhism?
Week 4, Class 7 The Four Noble Truths Harvey. (Chapter 3 The Four Truths for the Spiritually Ennobled 50-87).   “Yes Buddhism is a Religion” By Scott Mitchell. Lions Roar (November 19, 2017) (3)     Total: 40 pages Class Discussion: Read The First Sermon Together.

What is Suffering?
Week 4, Class 8 Classifying Buddhism as a Religion: The Case for Buddhist Origins orPureBuddhism Masuzawa. (Buddhism, a World Religion, 120-146 )   M. Orru. “Durkheim, Religion, and Buddhism.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 31: (1992): 47-61.   Total: 40   Class Discussion: Exploring early claims that Buddhism is a philosophy. Where did this idea come from?
Week 5, Class 9 The Four Noble Truths Continued: Are they religious? Stephen Batchelor. Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening. 3-45   Total: 42 pages Class Discussion: Are the Four Noble Truths Religious or aWay of Life?”

Unit 3: The Development and Spread of Buddhism    

Week 5, Class 10 The Establishment and Character of the Early Buddhist Community Strong. (Chapter 6, 161-198.)           Total: 37 pages Discussion: How are lay and monastic Buddhism different?    
Week 6, Class 11 The Spread of Buddhism Harvey. (Chapter 7, The Later History and Spread of Buddhism 194- 236)     Total: 42 pages **First Paper Due in Class
Week 6, Class 12 Buddhism in Sri Lanka Continued: Modern Contexts and Religious Extremism       BBC: The Darker Side of Buddhism   New York Times: “Why Are We Surprised When Buddhists Are Violent.” By Dan Arnold and Alicia Turner. March 5, 2018.   William Dickson. “Religion as Phantasmagoria: Islam in the End of Faith.”    Total: 22 pages
Discussion: How do instances of societal struggle and extremism pertaining to religion reflect on the nature of Buddhism? How is Buddhist extremism/violence viewed differently from its Islamic counterpart?    

Unit 5:  Varieties of Mahayana Buddhism: Spiritual Beings and Philosophy

Week 7, Class 13 Mahayana, Vajrayana, Pure Land Harvey. (Chapter 6, Mahayana Holy Beings and Tantric Buddhism, 151-193)     Total: 42 pages **Quiz
Week 7, Class 14 Mahayana and The Way of the Bodhisattva Shantideva’s Bodhisattva Prayer (scan).   Melford Spiro. Culture and Human Nature. (Chapter 8 “Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation.” 187-198.) (Definition, Supernatural Beings).   Strong, 219-231.   Total: 25 pages   Discussion: How does the notion of a “bodhisattva,” as a spiritual being invested in the liberation and salvation of all sentient beings, furnish our understanding of Buddhism? How does Spiro’s definition of religion and supernatural beings help us understand the bodhisattva prayer?
Week 8, Class 15 Mahayana and Emptiness  Harvey. (Chapter 5. Mahayana Philosophies: The Varieties of Emptiness, 114-151)     Total: 37 pages   Discussion: Is Buddhist Philosophy Religious? Is All Philosophy Religious? Is all philosophy nonreligious? Can it be both?
Week 8, Class 16 Nagarjuna and Madhyamaka. Mark Siderits. Nagarjuna’s Middle Way: Mulamadhyamakakarika. (Introduction 1-11., Chapter 18. An Analysis of the Self, 193-207.)   Total: 25 pages Discussion: The two truths, anatman, and dependent co-origination – what does it all mean?
Week 9, Class 17 Madhyamaka and No Self Rupert Gethin Podcast: Buddhism and the Self (33 mins)   Jay Garfield, “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call it What it Really Is.”   Lion’s Roar: “Is Buddhism a Religion.” By Charles Prebish, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, and Joan Sutherland. August 19, 2016.  (7 pages)     Total: 15 pages   Discussion: Is the exclusion ofeasternphilosophy from Western academic departments the exclusion ofreligionor the exclusion ofthe east”?  Can Buddhist philosophy be read both as religious and non-religious? Should this dichotomy matter?  

Unit 5:  Global Buddhisms: Spotlight on Tibetan Buddhism in the era of the 14th Dalai Lama

Week 9, Class 18 Who is the Dalai Lama? Strong, Chapter 13, (363- 388)   Donald Lopez. Prisoners of ShangriLa. (Introduction  1-13. )     Total: 38 pages   In class video: The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibets Struggle for Freedom  
Week 10, Class 19 Narratives of Tibetan Buddhism: The Dalai Lama’s 3 commitments Visit HHDL Website:  and read the sections “Birth to Exile” and “Commitments”. What are the 3 commitments he holds?   How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life 1-25. Total: 25 pages plus website In class video: The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibets Struggle for Freedom    
Week 10, Class 20 Tibetan Buddhism in the West: Science   The Universe in a Single Atom. (Chapter 3. Emptiness, Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics 41-70)   Scientific American: “Is Buddhism the Most Science-Friendly Religion?”   Total: 35 pages    Are the Dalai Lamas 3 commitments secular? Who is the audience of the book? How does this change what is being offered asBuddhism”?   **Final Paper first submission due  
Week 11, Class 21 The Dalai Lama, Buddhism, and Science Lopez. Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed. (Introduction 1-37.)   Total: 40 pages  

UNIT 6: Varieties of Buddhist Meditation

Week 11, Class 22 Meditation and Cultivation  Peter Harvey: An Introduction to Buddhism:  Teachings, History and Practices ( 318-360)   Total: 42 pages    
Week 12, Class 23 Meditation and Modernity McMahon: Meditation and Modernity, 183-214   Lopez. Buddhism and Science. Chapter 5. The Meaning of Meditation. 187-200.   Total: 44 pages Guest Lecture: Tenzin Negi on Buddhism and CBCT
Week 12,
Class 24
Mindfulness McMahon. (Mindfulness, Literature, and the Affirmation of Ordinary Life 215-240) Lopez. Buddhism and Science. Chapter 5. The Meaning of Meditation. 200-11.)   Total: 36 pages **Final Paper revisions handed back
Week 13, Class 25 Tara Brach: Buddhism and Modern Psychology Tara Brach. Radical Acceptance: Heal your Life with the Heart of the Buddha. 9- 22, 42-53.   Total: 24 pages Smile Meditation Video.   Is this Buddhism? Is it religion? Does it matter?   How does BrachsBuddhismdiffer from Chodrons or Willis’?
Week 13, Class 26 So You Think You Can Meditate  Peter Harvey: An Introduction to Buddhism:  Teachings, History and Practices (Zen Meditation 361-376)   Strong “Sudden and Gradual”, “Disagreements over the Nature of the Oath: Debate at Samye”  292-296   Strong “Direct Experience: Chan/Zen” 310- 317   Total: 26 pages Field Trip to Buddhist Meditation Center 

Unit 7: Buddhism and Gender

Week 14, Class 27 Buddhism and Gender Rita M. Gross. Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, Reconstruction. (Chapter 2 “Orientation to Buddhism” 7-17, Chapter 4 “Sakhyadita, Daughters of the Buddha: Roles and Images of Women in Early Buddhism.” 29-54.)   Total: 35 pages In Class Movie: Zen the life of Zen Master Dogen   ***Write up about fieldtrip due
Week 14,
Class 28
Buddhism and Gender Rita M. Gross. (Chapter 11 “Gender and Egolessness: Feminist Comments on Basic Buddhist Teachings. 157-173. Chapter 13 “Gender and Buddha Nature. 185-209.”) Total: 40 pages In Class Movie: Zen the life of Zen Master Dogen  
Week 15, Class 29 American Buddhist Women: Jan Willis and Pema Chodron Jan Willis: Jan Willis, “Buddhism and Race: An African American Baptist Buddhist Perspective,” in Buddhist Women on the Edge, pp. 81-91   “Bikhuni Ordination: Buddhism’s Glass Ceiling.” By Mary Talbot. Tricycle.  Fall 2016.   “Recently Under the Bodhi Tree” by Janet Gyatso  Tricycle. Winter, 2017  Total: 20 pages Discussion: Buddhism and Identity. How do hyphenated identities prove the religious or nonreligious nature of Buddhism?  Does being a woman change an individual’s experience of Buddhism?
Week 15, Class 30 Pema Chodron Pema Chodron –  When Things Fall Apart. 1- 45   Total: 45 pages How does the female voice influence the message of the Buddhist teachings included in this book? Is the book religious? Who is the audience and why does this matter?