There’s debate on whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy as well as what constitutes a religion. The google definition of religion is: the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods; a particular system of faith and worship. From the first half of this definition I’d say Buddhism is not a religion. There isn’t a belief of a supernatural being in Buddhism; it is a belief system to release one from the cycle of rebirth. In Buddhism, one doesn’t repent and seek out the Buddha in hopes that he will save their souls, he’s more of a guiding force or example of where one can end up. From the second half of the definition, Buddhism is a religion because there is faith that this way of life will lead to freedom from suffering if one follows the set path. On the other hand, the google definition of Philosophy is: the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline. Based on this definition I’d say Buddhism is a philosophy, but there’s more to it. While Buddhism does deal with knowledge, reality, and existence, it isn’t just the study of these things. There’s active engagement that happens in Buddhism with these things in order to move forward on one’s path to nirvana such as meditation and rituals. If I had to give a term to this mixture of religion and philosophy, I’d say that Buddhism is a living philosophy. There’s a difference as some people only focus on the thought aspect of Buddhism such as scholars, while for others (monks, nuns, lay people, etc) it is their way of life and they practice Buddhism. Rather than just thinking about the core beliefs of Buddhism, they dedicate themselves to doing what needs to be done in order to reach nirvana by trying to be the best versions of themselves through the Buddhist path.
Overall, I’d say that Buddhism is both a religion and philosophy as I can see components of both within Buddhism. Buddhism is a philosophy because it does involve a lot of thought about Buddha’s teachings, as well as life in general. It involves being alone in your thoughts and eventually coming to your senses about life in order to be enlightened. Also it requires that one engage in the path in order to end their suffering. There’s a need to understand the core values and the teachings of the Buddha in order to truly be engaged in the practice. But on the other hand, there are religious components for some people that are Buddhists. There are rituals that some people partake in such as going to images of the Buddha to meditate or chant; just as in other religions there is praying or sacrifices made to a deity. There are also monks, nuns, and lay people who have different positions within Buddhism that contribute to the practice just as other religions have nuns, priests, bishops, etc. that serve a purpose within their faith.
I think a good example of Buddhism being a living philosophy would be Buddhist Sunday schools in Sri Lanka. In an article about the Sunday schools it is stated that:
…the Dhamma schools are platforms for the children to develop morality and to gain spiritual guidance. Besides such spiritual guidance, the children are also provided with various other educational features… These practical factors not only help children to be religious or moral, but also to be effective contributors to society… the Sunday Dhamma Schools teach children to be good human beings. (Staff Reporter)
These schools, I would say, start on the philosophy spectrum because the children are being exposed to all the ideas and practices in order to have knowledge and build them up as people. But as they grow older and are truly able to grasp and practice Buddhism on their own as a choice and a way of life, it would then lead into a living philosophy for them. It wouldn’t just be them going through the motions and doing what is asked of them by their parents and teachers, it would be an authentic experience with genuine intention. These schools serve as a good foundation for the children shall they decide to follow the Buddhist path.
“Sunday Dhamma Schools in Sri Lanka: A Guiding Light for Children : South Asia : Buddhist News : Buddhistdoor.” Sunday Dhamma Schools in Sri Lanka: A Guiding Light for Children : South Asia : Buddhist News : Buddhistdoor. Buddhist News, 20 Mar. 2014. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. <http://enews.buddhistdoor.com/en/news/d/44923>.