Criticism of Buddhism

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Criticism of Buddhism, much like the criticism of religion in general, can be found from those who disagree with or question the assertions, beliefs or other factors of various schools of Buddhism. Some Buddhist denominations, many predominantly Buddhist nations, and individual Buddhist leaders have been criticized in one way or another. Sources of criticism can come from, for example, agnostics, skeptics, "anti-religion" philosophers, rationalists, proponents of other religions, or by Buddhists espousing reform or simply expressing their dislike.

There are two criteria of criticism of any system of thoughts; one is based on rational evaluation of its doctrines, texts, teachings and practice, and the other criterion pertains to the consistency or inconsistency of the practitioners in applying the teachings.

Historical criticism[edit]

Kumārila Bhaṭṭa called Buddha the one who "transgressed dharma laid down for ksatriyas and he took himself to the profession of a religious teacher, one who 'deceives himself' and acts contrary to the Vedas."[1]

Criticism of Buddhist doctrines[edit]

Various teachings - and also their later commentaries – differ widely between various Buddhist schools, depending on which sutra is in concern.[2] For this reason, criticism of a certain Buddhist doctrine may apply only to a certain interpretation of that particular doctrine, or that particular school of Buddhism. Nevertheless, there are common teachings to all branches of Buddhism, which are the subject of debate and investigation in academic circles.[citation needed]

Nihilism and focus on sufferings[edit]

See also: Nihilism and Sukha

Buddhism has been compared with Existentialism, and the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths has been criticized for its focus on sufferings. Friedrich Nietzsche interpreted Buddhism as a life-negating philosophy that seeks to escape an existence dominated by suffering. According to Omar Moad, Nietzsche misunderstood the meaning of Buddhist doctrine.[3] The term Dukkha has different meanings and is neither pessimistic nor optimistic.[4][5] Dukkha may mean disappointment, desires, cravings, bereavement, unfulfillment, or dissatisfaction.[6]

Lama Surya Das emphasizes the matter-of-fact nature of dukkha:[7]

Buddha Dharma does not teach that everything is suffering. What Buddhism does say is that life, by its nature, is difficult, flawed, and imperfect. [...] That's the nature of life, and that's the First Noble Truth. From the Buddhist point of view, this is not a judgement of life's joys and sorrows; this is a simple, down-to-earth, matter-of-fact description.

There are also other Buddhist teachings that acknowledge the element of joy in life, for example: the text of the Lotus Sutra contains sceneries of people’s enlightenment, with a mind "dancing with joy".[8] The teaching of Nichiren Buddhism also acknowledges both sufferings and joy: “Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy, regard both sufferings and joy as facts of life”.[9]

Women in Buddhism[edit]

Main article: Women in Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism has been criticized because it treats women, particularly women monks, as inferior to men.[10] Most schools of Buddhism have more rules for bhikkunis (nuns) than bhikkus (monk) lineages. Theravada Buddhists explain that in the time of the Buddha, nuns had such problems like safety if they were to be ordained the same way as monks who traveled around in the forest and between cities. Thus, more rules have to be created for nuns, for instance: nuns are forbidden to travel alone.[11]

Alexander Berzin referred to the Dalai Lama's statement at the 2007 Hamburg congress:[12]

Sometimes in religion there has been an emphasis on male importance. In Buddhism, however, the highest vows, namely the bhikshu and bhikshuni ones, are equal and entail the same rights. This is the case despite the fact that in some ritual areas, due to social custom, bhikshus go first. But Buddha gave the basic rights equally to both sangha groups. There is no point in discussing whether or not to revive the bhikshuni ordination; the question is merely how to do so properly within the context of the Vinaya.

The most criticised doctrine is found in Amida Buddhism’s vow 35: "The Buddha established the Vow of transformation [women] into men, Thereby vowing to enable women to attain Buddhahood".[13] Earlier limitations on attainment of Buddhahood by women were abolished in the Lotus Sutra which opened the direct path to enlightenment for women equally to men.[14] According to Nichiren "Only in the Lotus Sutra do we read that a woman who embraces this sutra not only excels all other women but surpasses all men".[15]


Some practitioners[who?] argue that the criticisms levied against the Buddhist religion draw on examples from sub-traditions not in consonance to Buddhist principles.[16][verification needed] These meta-critiques are similar to those from practitioners in other religious traditions. The lack of evidence of any original teachings or global authority on true Buddhism makes it difficult to substantiate these claims outside of practitioner circles.[17]

Arguments of secular origin[edit]

Sam Harris, a prominent proponent of New Atheism[18] and practitioner of Buddhist meditation, claims that many practitioners of Buddhism improperly treat it as a religion, and criticizes their beliefs as "naive, petitionary, and superstitious," and claims that such beliefs impede the adoption of true Buddhist principles.[19] The former Buddhist monk Stephen Batchelor has penned several books in which he claims that Buddhism was originally a mystical but secular system of psycho-spiritual self-improvement.[citation needed]

Leaders and institutions[edit]

Some critics[who?] claim that certain Buddhist adherents and leaders[who?] have been materialistic and corrupt with an improper interest in wealth and power rather than pursuit of Buddhist principles.[20] There have been a number of well-publicised sex scandals involving teachers in emerging Western Buddhist groups,[21] even though the Vinaya expressly forbids any sexual activity among Buddhist monastics.[22]

War and violence[edit]

One of the Five Precepts of Buddhist ethics or śīla states, "I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing."[23] The Buddha is quoted in the Dhammapada as saying, "All are afraid of the stick, all hold their lives dear. Putting oneself in another's place, one should not beat or kill others"[24] and the Sutta Nipata says "'As I am, so are these. As are these, so am I.' Drawing the parallel to yourself, neither kill nor get others to kill."[25] The Buddha reportedly stated, "Victory breeds hatred. The defeated live in pain. Happily the peaceful live giving up victory and defeat." These elements are used to indicate Buddhism is pacifistic and all violence done by Buddhists, even monks, is likely due to economic or political reasons.[26]


In medieval Southeast Asia, there were a number of Buddhist states, including the Pagan Kingdom, the Sukhothai Kingdom, and the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa. In Sri Lanka especially, modern monks frequently involve themselves in nationalist politics.[27] These Buddhist nationalists have been opposed by the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, a self-governance movement led by the Buddhist A. T. Ariyaratne and based in Buddhist ideals, who condemn the use of violence and the denial of Human rights to Tamils and other non-Buddhists.[28]

Maung Zarni, a Burmese democracy advocate, human rights campaigner, and a research fellow at the London School of Economics who has written on the violence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, states that there is no room for fundamentalism in Buddhism. "No Buddhist can be nationalistic," said Zarni, "There is no country for Buddhists. I mean, no such thing as ‘me,’ ‘my’ community, ‘my’ country, ‘my’ race or even ‘my’ faith."[29]

Accusation of violence[edit]

Main article: Buddhism and violence

Buddhist self-criticism[edit]

Main article: Critical Buddhism

Critical Buddhism is a branch of Japanese Buddhist scholarship which aims to reform Buddhism through critical examination of its practices and philosophy. Many individual schools of Buddhism are criticized by other practitioners as spiritually insincere or not attached to the original teachings of the original Buddha, including Sōka Gakkai, the Nichiren Shōshū, the Dhammakaya Movement, and participants in the Dorje Shugden controversy.[citation needed]

Marxist criticism[edit]

Several critics have criticized Tibet for maintaining a feudal society that exploited peasants and treated them like serfs.[30] The current Dalai Lama, however, has stated that he is in favor of a Buddhist synthesis with Marxist economics, as he believes that internationalist nature of Marxism shows compassion to the poor, which is in line with Buddhist teachings, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hindu Response to Religious Pluralism, Page 34, by Pi. Es Ḍāniyēl
  2. ^ "A Basic Buddhism Guide: Differences betweenTheravada and Mahayana.". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  3. ^ "Buddhism and Nietzsche". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  4. ^ Rupert Gethin (1998), Foundations of Buddhism (PDF), Oxford University Press, p. 62 
  5. ^ Walpola Rahula (2014), What the Buddha Taught, Oneworld Publications, pp. 525–541, ISBN 9781780740003 
  6. ^ "BBC - Religions - Buddhism: The Four Noble Truths". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  7. ^ Surya Das (2009), Awakening the Buddha Within, Potter/TenSpeed/Harmony, ISBN 9780385530989 
  8. ^ "The Lotus Sutra[3] - Simile and Parable". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  9. ^ "Happiness in This World". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  10. ^
    • Keyes, Charles F. "Mother or Mistress but Never a Monk: Buddhist Notions of Female Gender in Rural Thailand", American Ethnologist, Vol. 11, No. 2 (May, 1984), pp. 223-241.
    • Gutschow, Kim (2004). Being a Buddhist nun: the struggle for enlightenment in the Himalayas. Harvard University Press. p. 207,225,240. 
    • Lucinda Joy Peach (2001), "Buddhism and Human Rights in the Thai Sex Trade", in Religious Fundamentalisms and the Human Rights of Women, Courtney W. Howland (Ed)., Palgrave Macmillan, p. 219.
    • Janell Mills (2000), "Militarisim, civil war and women's status: a Burma case study", in Women in Asia: tradition, modernity, and globalisation, Louise P. Edwards (Ed.), University of Michigan Press, p. 269.
    • Campbell, June (2002). Traveller in Space: Gender, Identity and Tibetan Buddhism. Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 0-8264-5719-3. 
  11. ^ Women in Buddhism (English)
  12. ^ Berzin Summary Report Human Rights and the Status of Women in Buddhism
  13. ^ "Women In Buddhism Part IV by Rev. Patti Nakai". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  14. ^ "The Enlightenment of Women". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  15. ^ Writing of Nichiren Daishonin, vol1.p 463
  16. ^ *Christine J. Nissen, (2008), "Buddhism and Corruption", in People of virtue: reconfiguring religion, power and moral order in Cambodia today, Alexandra Kent (Ed.), NIAS Press, p. 272-292.
  17. ^ *Jerryson, Michael (2010). Buddhist Warfare. Oxford University Press. pp. 4–5. 
  18. ^ Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Daniel Dennett have been described as the "Four Horsemen" of the "New Atheism". See 'THE FOUR HORSEMEN,' Discussions with Richard Dawkins: Episode 1, RDFRS - and » Blog Archive » The Four Horsemen of the New Atheism
  19. ^ Killing the Buddha by Sam Harris
  20. ^
    • Laird, Thomas (2007). The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama. Grove Press. p. 278. 
    • Kieschnick, John (2003). The impact of Buddhism on Chinese material culture. Princeton University Press. pp. 12–13. 
    • Tarling, Nicholas (1992). The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia: From early times to c. 1800. Cambridge University Press. p. 245. 
    • Rinpoche, Samdhong (2006). Samdhong Rinpoche: uncompromising truth for a compromised world : Tibetan Buddhism and today's world. World Wisdom, Inc. pp. 139–140. 
    • Mabbett, Ian W. (1985). Modern China: the mirage of modernity. Taylor & Francis. p. 112. 
  21. ^ Michael Downing. Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center. Counterpoint, 2002.
  22. ^ Bell, Sandra (2002). "Scandals in Emerging Western Buddhism". In Charles S Prebish & Martin Baumann. Westward Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Asia (PDF). University of California Press. pp. 230–242. ISBN 0-520-22625-9. 
  23. ^ "Access to Insight: the Panca Sila (with Pali)". Retrieved 2011-03-14. 
  24. ^ "Dhammapada Verse 130 Chabbaggiya Bhikkhu Vatthu". Tipitaka Network. Retrieved 13 June 2015. 
  25. ^ "Sutta Nipata 705". Georgetown University. Retrieved 13 June 2015. 
  26. ^ "Buddhist Ethics". buddhanet. Retrieved December 6, 2013. 
  27. ^ Ananda Abeysekara, "The Saffron Army, Violence, Terror(ism): Buddhism, Identity, and Difference in Sri Lanka". Numen 48.1 (2001).
  28. ^ Thomas Banchoff; Robert Wuthnow (2011). Religion and the Global Politics of Human Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 178. ISBN 9780199841035. Retrieved 17 June 2015. 
  29. ^ Anuradha Sharma Pujari; Vishal Arora (1 May 2014). "Nirvanaless: Asian Buddhism’s growing fundamentalist streak". The Washington Post. Retrieved 19 June 2015. 
  30. ^
    • Goldstein, Melvyn C. (1991). A history of modern Tibet, 1913-1951: the demise of the Lamaist state. University of California Press. p. 5. 
    • Goldstein, Melvyn C. (2009). A history of modern Tibet: The calm before the storm, 1951-1955. University of California Press. p. 440. 
    • Florida, Robert E. (2005). Human Rights and the World's Major Religions: The Buddhist tradition, Volume 5. Praeger. p. 190. 
    • Luo, Zhufeng (1990). Religion under socialism. M.E. Sharpe. p. 40. 
    • Friendly Feudalism - The Tibet Myth
  31. ^ "Dalai Lama Answers Questions on Various Topics". Retrieved 25 April 2015.