Buddhism & the supernatural

You might be forgiven for wondering about whether Buddhism is a religion. After all, there are plenty of people who say that “Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion”. When I say plenty, that’s 73,300 on a google for the exact phrase. Personally i think this is just a piece of modernist sloganeering. Buddhism obviously fills most of the same roles in Buddhists’ lives that other religions fulfill, and in every practical sense it is regarded as a religion everywhere. Of course, it’s a different kind of religion than theistic ones, which necessitates rethinking what we mean by a religion.

But if we take this seriously, Buddhism would not fall under the status of a religion for charity purposes in Australia (and many other places). The relevant Australian definition says there is:

… no reason to move away from the decision made by the High Court in the Scientology case, that a religion must have two characteristics: belief in a supernatural Being, Thing or Principle; and that there is an acceptance of canons of conduct that give effect to that belief by some part of the community. No submission suggested a different definition of religion.

This is curious to me on a number of levels. First up, i wonder whether Buddhism should fall under this definition. In fact, I would say that I definitely think Buddhism does not believe in the supernatural as it is normally understood – a statement which, however, needs some clarification.

The other curious thing is, why on earth does believing in a Supernatural being justify getting special consideration? I am sympathetic to the radical atheist view, which could argue that, since belief in the supernatural is manifestly irrational, money given to believers is rewarding irrationality.

Of course, religious people do good things, such as giving to charities. But that is not the issue here. Secular organizations can give to charities just as well, and the government can award them charitable status for their good works, not because of a belief in the ‘Supernatural’.

This problem could have very practical implications. Buddhist who applied for charitable status might not get it; or, conceivably, Buddhism could be attacked by hostile forces on these legal grounds.

What does ‘Supernatural’ mean? One definition says ‘not existing in nature or subject to explanation according to natural laws’, which seems fair enough to me. When people use the word ‘supernatural’, they usually mean things like psychic powers, ghosts, other realms of existence, and so on. It’s obvious that Buddhists believe in these things just as much as any religion.

It’s true that there are a few Buddhists, who we might call ‘naturalist’, who deny the reality of these phenomena. But there are also a minority of Christians or others who would take a similar line.Personally, I don’t think it’s possible to meaningfully interpret the Buddha’s teachings in a way that excludes rebirth; however, I would not want to say that someone who denies rebirth cannot be a Buddhist.

However, from a legal point of view, if one was a Buddhist who denied the reality of, say, rebirth, or other aspects of Buddhism that are not scientifically verifiable, could one be said to be following a ‘religion’ in this sense?

The problem is, it seems to me, deeper than this. The very notion of ‘Supernatural’ is one that, it seems to me, arises from Western philosophical assumptions. the basic idea is that there is ‘this world’, which is rational and subject to explanation according to the laws of physics, and the ‘other world’, which operates according to a quite different set of principles, and where the laws of physics no longer apply.

In Buddhism, however, the essential description of the world is not provided by the laws of physics, or other material phenomena. The most important ‘laws’ are the three characteristics – impermanence, suffering, not-self. And these describe any other state of being just as well as they describe ours. For theistic religions, ‘heaven’ is eternal – that is, not subject to conditions, and independent from Time. But for Buddhists, heaven is just as temporary as anything else.

The Sri Lankan philosopher David Kalupahana has developed this idea in detail. he argues that Buddhism is empirical through and through; that even those aspects of Buddhist belief that seem to invoke the ‘supernatural’ in fact merely involve a refining and extension of ordinary sensory capacities. Thus the ability to see beings in other realms is the ‘Divine Eye’, which results, not from the intervention of a force beyond nature, but from the refinement of the mind through the practice of jhana.

In fact, the translation ‘Divine Eye’ is maybe a bit misleading in this context, as there is no notion of divine intervention. The Pali is dibbacakkhu, where dibba is an adjective related to deva, or deity, hence the rendering. But the root meaning of all these terms, still felt very strongly in the Pali, is to ‘shine’, related to the word ‘day’. So it would perhaps be better to think of this power as ‘clarified vision’ – which is exactly the English ‘clairvoyance’.

So, while many of the things that are called ‘supernatural’ do form a part of regular Buddhist belief, I don’t think the word ‘supernatural’ is an appropriate description of these things from a Buddhist point of view. This is more than a semantic issue, for the very Buddhist critique of the ‘supernatural’ forms an integral part of our soteriology. We may believe in these things, but we don’t regard them as being essential or important for our religious path, precisely because they fall within the realm of birth, ageing, and death; that is, they are natural.

The problem is a historical one: definitions of religion in Western law are not supposed to be philosophically precise, but pragmatically effective. They are supposed to deal with the legacy situation that governments are supposed to offer various kinds of support for religions for the common good, and to deal with upstarts like Scientology, who quite cynically try to leverage this support for their own advantage.

Which brings us to the question: why on earth should governments be interested in giving tax breaks or other support to religions anyway? It seems to me there are two main reasons. From the government’s point of view, the interest is in ‘social cohesion’. Religions help keep the fabric of society together. There is an ancient strain, which, depending on your point of view, might be called either pragmatism or cynicism, which runs back to the Greco-Roman days, where people who don’t really believe in the gods still insist that the cults and the festivals be upheld. This is a perfectly legitimate interest that government has, and if the people in government believe that religion does, on the whole, help keep society harmonious, then it is perfectly rational for even atheists to support religion.

From inside the religion itself, however, while social cohesion would be a valued part of religion’s contribution, it does not capture the critical point. Religions believe that they offer something that has a value that transcends anything found on this mortal coil. The benefits offered by religion are not just charity and social harmony, but an eternity of transcendence. And it is this special value that religionists believe sets them apart from any secular philosophy, not matter how good its social ethics may be.

This assumption of transcendant value is impossible to accommodate within secular discourse. How do you weigh up a saved soul against improved health care? And there is the ticklish problem that most religions understanding of the transcendent excludes followers of other religions… But we should not forget that a majority of the people in government actually believe in some such doctrine as this, whether or not it influence their decisions.

Come back to the root meaning of ‘supernature’: literally, ‘above or beyond what is born’. There is only one thing that might fit this description in Buddhism, and that is Nibbana. Nibbana is quite literally ‘beyond birth’. It is not ‘supernatural’ in the everyday understanding of the word, but it is supernatural according to the root meaning.

This is still not ideal, and is a stretch of Western theistic ideas into a context where they fit uncomfortably. If this ruling were to be reviewed, i would suggest using a word such as ‘Deathless’, or ‘Unconditioned’, which would suit Nibbana just as it would a theistic God.

It is more problematic to describe Nibbana as a ‘Being, Thing or Principle’. Nevertheless, while philosophically we might quibble, these words are obviously meant to be so general as to encompass just about anything, so in this context I think we could let them pass.

So in the end I think Buddhist scrapes by: it is a religion under Australian law. I understand that this is not the case in some other countries; perhaps some of you have some knowledge of this.