I have often heard it said that Buddhism is not a religion. That it is more of a philosophy or a spiritual method of practice.
Merriam-Webster defines “religion” as:
- “the service and worship of God or the supernatural;
- commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance;
- a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices”
Buddhism is very diverse, so the answer to this may differ between the various branches of Buddhism. In this article, we will look at Tibetan (Vajrayana) as one major branch and examine the question of whether it is a religion. For example, an Western ethnic lay practitioner would perform some or all of the following daily practices:
- You rise early, between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m., to begin your day with meditation.
- You walk around (circumambulate) your house, which holds a sacred shrine containing statues, scrolls, and other ritual objects.
- As you walk, you finger your mala (Buddhist rosary) while chanting a sacred mantra such as Om mani padme hum (the famous mantra of Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion) or the longer mantra of Vajrasattva, the bodhisattva of clarity and purification.
- After cleaning your shrine, you offer 108 prostrations . . . as an expression of your devotion to and refuge in the Three Jewels (Buddha, dharma, and sangha). [Start on your hands and knees, then lie completely flat on your stomach, while lying flat raise your hands upwards as if praying, then push up from the ground and repeat.]
- You engage in a particular practice your teacher has given you, often a visualization of a particular deity accompanied by chanting, prayer, and prostrations.
- As you go about your day, you constantly chant Om mani padme hum, either aloud or silently to yourself, while cultivating the qualities of compassion and loving-kindness for all beings.
- You spend an hour or two in the evening studying certain special teachings recommended by your teacher.
- Before you go to sleep, you make offerings of incense and candles at your altar, meditate, do additional prostrations, and recite long-life prayers for your teacher and for His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Some elements of Buddhism do not fulfill the strict definition of religion as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural.” However, if you examine Tibetan Buddhism, it has a personal and institutionalized system of beliefs and practices involving deities. In particular, the rituals listed above of meditation, circumambulation, chanting, prostrations, prayer, study, and offerings bear out the definition of religion.
The gateway to the Vajrayana is what is know as “empowerment.” As empowerment is generally a very elaborate ceremony wherein a highly respected lama will confer the blessings of a particular Buddhist deity, such as, for example, Chenrezig, the Buddha of compassion. During an empowerment ceremony, the lama plants a “seed” in the student’s mind that will eventually ripen in the student, through practice and devotion, manifesting the enlightened qualities of that deity. An empowerment marks a student’s formal entrance into the tantric path.
Examining some elements of the Tibetan empowerment ceremonies, also called initiations, we find that these initiations involve deities or yidam, of which there are thousands, each with their own empowerment ceremony. The ceremony is conducted by a lama, who bestows the empowerment.
An Empowerment is an authorization to do the various stages of meditation associated with a particular deity. . . .
Unless you first obtain the ripening empowerments, you are not authorized to hear even a single verse of the tantras, statements and instructions. Unauthorized people who engage in expounding on and listening to the tantras will not only fail to receive blessings; they will create immense demerit from divulging the secrecy of these teachings.
The empowerment ceremony is considered the way to directly transmit the truth of Buddhism from the lama to the lay practitioner. Before the ceremony, the lay person prepares by washing and putting on clean clothes. He or she needs to be prepared the prostrate themselves before the lama. Saffron water or liquor is given to seal the commitments made.
The samaya vows . . . are given with some saffron water or alcoholic liquor to seal the commitments, along with a stern warning about what may happen to those who break these commitments. At this point, we have reached the point of no return and have committed ourselves to being tantric practitioners.
Three main elements of the empowerments involve purifying the body, speech and mind, however, during purifying the body, the lay person is authorized to visualize themselves as a deity.
If there are three main empowerments, the first is the body empowerment. This purifies the defilements of body, such as illness, and authorizes the disciple to visualize herself a deity. The speech empowerment purifies defilements of speech and breath and allows the student to recite the deity’s mantra. The empowerment of mind purifies the mind and permits the students to dissolve the visualization and rest their minds in buddha-nature.
During the ceremony, vows are made, however, the sheer number of vows can make them impossible to keep.
There are . . . other Smaya vows that are implicit in the empowerment even though they will probably not be mentioned during the ceremony. Nonetheless, it is your responsibility to find out what they are and to try to keep them as well as you can. There are thousands and thousands of these vows, some clearly more important than others and many nearly impossible to keep. . . . Find out which ones he [the lama] feels are the crucial ones, how to keep them, and what to do if they are broken.
In view of the practices borne out in the empowerment ceremony, the Tibetan (Vajrayana) form of Buddhism fulfills the definition of a religion.
 Jonathan Landaw and Stephan Bodian, Buddhism for Dummies, (Hoboken: Wiley Publishing, 2003), 172.
 Bruce Newman, A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism: notes from a practitioner’s journey, (Boulder: Snow Lion Publications, 2004), 29.
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid, 31.
 Ibid., 31. Quoted from Tsele Rinpoche, Empowerment, (Kathmandu: Rangjung Yeshue Publications, 1994), 15.
 Bruce Newman, A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism: notes from a practitioner’s journey, (Boulder: Snow Lion Publications, 2004), 31.
 Ibid., 32.
 Ibid., 34.
 Ibid., 35.
 Ibid., 37.