This article is the fifth in the Tricycle blog series 10 Misconceptions about Buddhism with scholars Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. 

The Buddhist philosophical literature produced over the last 2,600 years is so astounding in both breadth and depth that it is little wonder Westerners have often claimed that Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion. Scores of different philosophical schools have developed within Buddhism, from the Abhidharma schools of Burma, with their careful analysis of the constituents of reality (dharma); to the Huayan school of China, with its elaborate outline of a universal causality in which all things are creating, and being created, by all other things (shishi wu’ai fajie); to the Gelug school of Tibet, with its precise delineations of the relationship between emptiness (sunyata) and dependent origination (pratityasamutpada).

The sophistication and rigor of Buddhist philosophical analysis rival that of any philosophical school that developed in Europe. Indeed, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism is replete with entries on the ideas and terminology of these many philosophical systems.

Despite this wealth of philosophy, Buddhism is also a religion by any definition of that indefinable term—unless one narrowly defines religion as belief in a creator god. Magic and miracles, which we often associate with religion, fill Buddhist texts. As we wrote the dictionary, we were continually surprised at how central magic and miracles were to the biographies and legends of the Buddha, his disciples, and their eminent successors throughout history. Of eight major pilgrimage sites in Indian Buddhism, which commemorate important events in the Buddha’s career, four are concerned with miracles he performed. Among these sites is Sravasti, where the Buddha performed the “dual miracles” (yamakapratiharya) to vanquish a rival group of yogins by flying into the air and releasing fire from his head and water from his feet, and vice versa.

Such miracles were not only performed by the Buddha. Mastery of the fourth stage of meditative absorption (dhyana) is said to enable the meditator to deploy a set of psychic powers (rddhi) that includes the ability to pass through mountains, walk on water, fly through the air in full-lotus position, and “touch the sun and the moon with one’s hand.” Mahamaudgalyayana, one of the Buddha’s two main disciples, was the acknowledged master of such psychic powers. He once flew off to the Himalayas to find a medicinal plant to cure his sick friend Shariputra, and was renowned for his ability to travel anywhere in the universe as easily as flexing his arm. During a severe famine, Mahamaudgalyayana offered to turn over the earth’s crust to expose the ambrosia beneath it, but the Buddha wisely dissuaded him, saying that this would confound the earth’s creatures.

The very same monks who are the most renowned philosophers of Buddhism are commonly associated with such religious miracles. Nagarjuna, the traditional founder of the Madhyamaka school of Indian philosophy, retrieved the Prajnaparamita (“Perfection of Wisdom”) Sutras, the textual basis of that school, by traveling underwater to the Dragon King’s palace at the bottom of the sea. Kumarajiva, the Kuchean monk whose translation of Buddhist texts into Chinese laid the foundation for Madhyamaka philosophy in China, was a renowned thaumaturge who could ingest needles without injuring himself (a talent he used to justify why he could have sex when other monks could not). His tongue did not burn during his cremation—proof, his biographer claimed, of the accuracy and eloquence of his translations. (We leave to the reader’s imagination why the Chinese Chan monk Fori Qisong’s penis did not burn during cremation.)

Heaven and hell, and how to get to one and avoid the other, is another common feature of religions. And throughout history, the vast majority of Buddhist practices for both monks and laypeople has been focused on gaining a better rebirth in the next lifetime, whether for oneself, one’s family, or for all beings in the universe, and avoiding the baleful destiny of one of the infernal realms.

Indeed, separating philosophy from religion does not work well in the case of Buddhism. Trying to tease apart these two strands of the dispensation would have seemed a futile endeavor to most Buddhists over the long history of the tradition. We in the West need to get over this false dichotomy, which has no significance in speaking about Buddhism or other Asian religions.

The story behind the pilgrimage place of Samkasya illustrates this point nicely. After the Buddha magically flies to the heaven on the summit of Mount Sumeru to meet his mother Mahamaya, who has been reborn there as a deva, the gods build a bejeweled staircase so that he may descend back down to earth at Samkasya—a famous scene called “the descent from the realm of the divinities” (devavatara). The reason for this supernal visit? To teach his mother the Abhidharma, the highest form of Buddhist philosophy.

Further reading: Losing Our Religion


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