In glorious works of art and literature we behold this transformed Buddhism with its elaborately sensuous pantheon interposed between the believer and Nirvana. The question arises: What has all this to do with Buddha? And we answer: In the world of the gods, the innumerable rites and cults, the institutions and sects, and the free monastic communities, a vestige of the philosophical origin remains discernible; something of the spiritual light first embodied in Buddha is reflected even in the most primitive figures of later Buddhism.
Buddhism proposes an ultimate reality. Some forms of Buddhism may call this nirvana, others buddhahood, and so forth, but all schools and sects of Buddhism do have a notion of ultimacy. Religion, conversely, regularly provides us with answers to life’s big questions from the start. We learn what to think and believe, and our job is to live up to that, not to interrogate it. If we relate to the Buddha’s teachings as final answers that don’t need to be examined, then we’re observing Buddhism as a religion.
In all Buddhism there remains a trace of his wonderful self-abandonment, of the life that lets itself be wafted into eternity. There remains the Buddhist love which partakes in the suffering and joy of all living beings and refrains from violence. Despite all the terrible things that have happened in Asia as everywhere else, an aura of gentleness lies over the peoples that have been touched by Buddhism. Buddhism is the one world religion that has known no violence, no persecution of heretics, no inquisitions, no witch trials, no crusades.
For something to be a religion, there must be a personal transformation that results from the individual’s experience of ultimate reality. This is most usually showed by a positive change in morality and/or ethics, expressions of compassion, kindness, or similar forms of conduct. If we apply this description, it’s clear that Buddhism is a religion.
True to its origin, Buddhism has never known a cleavage between philosophy and theology, between free reason and religious authority. The question of such a distinction has not heen raised. Philosophy itself was a religious activity. And this fundamental principle has remained unchanged: knowledge itself is liberation and redemption.