Buddhist Philosophy

Buddhism: Philosophy or Religion?


Philosophy or religion? Which is Buddhism? It is a common question. You can find many people who offer very different opinions. What is Buddhism all about?

In this very short audio clip, a student asks this specific question. Phakchok Rinpoche explains the vastness of what we call “Buddhism.”

Beyond Easy Categories

Buddhism is actually “all and none” as he describes. It is not something we can pin down with a category. Yes, we can say that it is a way of life. Some would say that it is a philosophy.  Moreover, in some ways, we could describe it as a science because it is a science of the mind.

At the same time, Buddhism contains a very strong sense of ethics. Because of that, it could be thought of as a religion. Buddhists believe that we are responsible for our own actions. Simply stated, our actions and our feelings are our own responsibility.

Four Simple Questions 

Rinpoche then continues by explaining the core message of Buddhism that we might not know. He says that there are four simple questions that Buddhists like to answer. And these are basic human questions that we all can consider.

  1.  Why do we suffer? We could also say pose the question, ” why do we feel stressed or anxious, or uncomfortable”?
  2. What is the cause of suffering?
  3. Can I really be free of this suffering?
  4. What is the way to be free?

These questions are helpful for all of us to ask. In Buddhism, the answers to these questions become the “four truths of the noble ones.” We may have heard of them as “The Four Noble Truths.” But if we think about them, that is a fancy name for what comes down to simple, yet fundamental questions. These are important reflections for everyone–regardless of whether they are interested in Buddhism or religion.  These questions are a philosophical inquiry worth making.

Reflection Exercise

Try it for yourself–spend some quality time thinking about these fundamental questions.  Write them down, and puzzle over them for the next days or weeks. 

And really take some time to think about your own answers. Perhaps you’d like to discuss your answers with friends, or with a Dharma teacher.  



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Suggested Reading

Dudjom Rinpoche, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, trans. and ed. by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991), vol. 1, pages 468–474.

Ngawang Zangpo, Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times, Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2002.

Nyoshul Khenpo, A Marvelous Garland of Rare Gems: Biographies of Masters of Awareness in the Dzogchen Lineage, trans. Richard Barron (Junction City: Padma Publishing, 2005), pages 41–48.

Padmasambhava, Legend of the Great Stupa, Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1973

Padmasambhava & Jamgön Kongtrul, The Light of Wisdom, trans. by Erik Pema Kunsang (Boudhanath: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1986-1999), pages 43-47 & Appendix 5.

Taranatha, The Life of Padmasambhava, Shang Shung Edizioni, 2005

Tulku Thondup, Masters of Meditation and Miracles, Shambhala, 1996.

Yeshe Tsogyal, Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, translated by Kenneth Douglas and Gwendolyn Bays (Emeryville: Dharma Publishing, 1978, republished 2008).

Yeshe Tsogyal, Lotus Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2004.

‘The Life of Guru Padmasambhava’ in A Great Treasure of Blessings, The Tertön Sogyal Trust, 2004.