Q: You often say that Buddhism is not a religion. What do you mean by that?
A: Don’t misquote me! ‘Buddhism’ [makes finger quotes] is certainly a religion; the problem is, it has little to do with the Buddha’s original teaching. I make a sharp distinction between the original teaching and the various derivative religious teachings. They can’t be compared at all.
The original teaching of the Buddha as documented in the Theravāda Suttas was given mainly to monks, renunciants—people who had completely given up the world in search of a higher state of existence. They were expected to learn either from the Buddha himself or from his advanced students, and then go off to practice independently until they attained realization. We see the following phrase so many times:
“Then, dwelling alone, secluded, heedful, ardent, and resolute, he in no long time reached and remained in the supreme goal of the holy life for which clansmen rightly go forth from home into homelessness, knowing and realizing it for himself in the here and now. He knew: ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for the sake of this world.’ And thus he became another one of the arahants.” — Sankhitta Sutta (AN 8.63)
The teaching of ‘Buddhism’ given today is substantially different. Most of the students are householders, and they are not sufficiently resolute that they are expected to become monks, at least in this lifetime. So the teaching is more on a religious level, encouraging them to accumulate merit until they can accept Right Livelihood or the life of a monk. There is much more emphasis on group activities, even though the Buddha openly discouraged reliance on a group. [See especially Maha-suññata Sutta — Ed.] So the model of the Buddha’s original teaching is that it is being given to a monk, a well-prepared person who is already disinterested in material attainments.
Q: Does that mean that religious Buddhism is false?
A: Not entirely, but they have changed the role of the Buddha from a personal teacher who revealed a deep truth about existence, to a Deity who originated the Dhamma. The Buddha didn’t invent the Dhamma; he discovered it. Instead of heeding his instructions, they worship him from afar with forms of worship practically identical to those used for Hindu deities. And who are they worshiping anyway? The Buddha attained complete Unbinding long ago—he no longer ‘exists’ in any conventional sense of the word.
Religious practices are necessary at a certain stage, but it should be made clear that they are merely preparatory, preliminary to the real practice. And they must not be presented in such a way that the original practice or enlightenment seem unreachable or unattainable. At best, the religious practices and meditation should be taught side-by-side, until people have created enough good kamma to continue meditation independently.
The way I look at it, there are different stages in spiritual development. At first we are like animals, concerned with the senses, with no aspiration for higher life. Then suffering pressures us to form religious concepts, worship something higher than ourselves, but similar enough that we can have a relationship. So we invent gods and goddesses along with some means to satisfy them. Finally when the truth is understood, we can dispense with religion and go about the business of attaining complete freedom from suffering.
When a child is young, he cannot do anything for himself. He is completely dependent on his mother and father for everything. Gradually he learns to dress himself, feed himself and take of himself in a rudimentary way. But he still requires the support of mother and father, until he learns enough about the way the world works that he can assume full responsibility for himself.
Similarly the animalistic human beings are more or less helpless, like babies. They require so many services to help them, or their lives would be chaos. More developed people take shelter of religion, with some concept of a divine father and/or mother to help them. They are more able to take care of themselves because they have some understanding of higher laws. Finally the mature living beings can understand those laws directly and manipulate them for their benefit. They have no need of the concept of a divine father or mother, but take full responsibility for their own spiritual development.
Another useful simile would be an elevator. Everyone is using the same elevator; but the owners of the building know a special code that allows them to ascend to the executive suite. Others who use the elevator are limited in the height they can ascend; but the owner can ride the elevator all the way to the top.
Similarly, all religious people take advantage of certain natural laws that are deeper and more subtle than ordinary science can understand. But only those who have mastered the subtle laws can ascend to the highest realms, even higher than Brahma:
“So then, monks, I fabricated a fabrication of psychic power to the extent that Brahma, the Brahma assembly, and the attendants of the Brahma assembly heard my voice but did not see me. Then in Brahma, the Brahma assembly, and the attendants of the Brahma assembly there arose a sense of amazement and awe: ‘How amazing! How awesome! — The great power, the great might of Gotama the contemplative! Never before have we seen or heard of any other contemplative or Brahman of such great power, such great might as that of this Gotama the contemplative, who went forth from a Sakyan clan! Living in a generation that so delights in becoming, so rejoices in becoming, is so fond of becoming, he has pulled out becoming by the root!’” — Brahma-nimantanika Sutta (MN 49)
By the way, this quote points to the most salient difference between the original teaching of the Buddha and ‘Buddhism’ as a religion. Religious Buddhism is another form of becoming, better than most perhaps. But the original teaching of the Buddha is about letting go of the process of becoming to the extent that one transcends ‘being’ and ‘existence’ altogether. But that is the subject of another talk.