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My Response To: The Dhammapada

Updated on April 19, 2014


The Dhammapada, translated by Gil Fronsdal, presents teachings of Theravada Buddhism. While most of the text focuses on fairly secular ideas on how to live life, there are also religious aspects scattered throughout. Because the Dhammapada discusses gods, heaven and hell, and reincarnation, it presents Buddhism definitively as a religion.

Within the first section, “Dichotomies,” there is already a reference to the goddess Mara, who is associated with death. “Whoever lives/Focused on the pleasant/senses unguarded/Immoderate with food/Lazy and sluggish/Will be overpowered by Mara” (2). There are many more references to Mara throughout the text, but, on their own they are not that telling. Mara could simply be Fronsdal’s way of referring to death, and not really imply religion. On the other hand, the intentional use of “Mara,” instead of “death,” could also imply a reference to the larger pantheon of Hindu gods, and this seems to be the case, because eventually other gods are also mentioned within the text. For example, in the section titled “Vigilance,” Indra is referenced in the line “With vigilance, Indra became the greatest of the gods/The gods praise vigilance/Forever rejecting negligence” (8). This clearly shows that Buddhism has some sort of an association with supernatural beings, which is a key element in a religion.

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The Dhammapada shows Buddhism to be a religion again when it references an idea of heaven and hell. There is a section titled “Hell,” which discusses the subject at length. The section focuses on things which cause one to go to hell, and emphasizes that hell is a bad place to be. If the Dhammapada set out to portray Buddhism not as a religion, and instead just as a philosophy, it would not threaten hell as a punishment for not following it. “Those who assert what is not true go to hell/As do those who deny what they’ve done” (79). This line implies that Buddhism is a religion, as it again calls upon the supernatural. In this case, it is calling upon a supernatural form of punishment. Another reference to hell—although not referred to by name—is in the “Dichotomies” section. “One who does evil grieves in this life/Grieves in the next/Grieves in both worlds” (4). Although the word “hell” is not used, the idea of another, supernatural “world” is used, and this is presumably hell in this case. Hell is again invoked in the same section in the line, “One who does evil is tormented in this life/Tormented in the next/Is tormented in both world” (4). Similar to the line just before it, this line goes a step further by threatening not only a world of grieving, but also a world of torment. This concept is highly religious, for if Buddhism were simply a philosophy, there would be few to no references of a hell. The idea of an anti-hell—a heaven—is also invoked. In the case of this text, that place is sometimes referred to as the “next world.” In order to establish the opposites which the section is named after, “Dichotomies” discusses both a positive next world, and a negative next world. “One who makes merit rejoices in this life/Rejoices in the next/Rejoices in both worlds” (4), and, “One who makes merit is delighted in this life/Delighted in the next/Is delighted in both worlds” (5). Again, if Buddhism was not a religion, there would presumably be no reference to a heaven-like afterlife. The references to both heaven and hell further support that the Dhammapada is presenting Buddhism as a religion.

The third aspect of the Dhammapada which implies Buddhism is a religion, is the references to reincarnation. Although this does seem to slightly contradict an idea of hell, the two ideas are compatible within the context of the Dhammapada. Buddhism relies on the same sense of dharma, karma and reincarnation that Hinduism does, as made clear in the “Evil” section. The logic is that “Some are reborn in a womb/Evildoers are reborn in hell/People of good conduct go to heaven” (33). Aside from again invoking the ideas of heaven and hell, this invokes the idea of rebirth, which is a supernatural, and thus religious, position. It is unclear from the text if those who go to either heaven or hell are then reborn at any point, but the text does say that some people are reborn “in a womb,” meaning they are reborn as a person who will again, presumably, have to follow the Buddha’s teaching in order to strive for a rebirth in heaven. Heaven, hell, and reincarnation are all religious ideas, which leaves the only conclusion being that Buddhism is a religion.


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Perhaps the best way to test to see if Buddhism is a religion, is to see if one person can follow it without violating the tenets of other religions. While the teachings of the Dhammapada are generally benign enough to fit in with most customs of most any “Eastern” or “Western” religion, the specific beliefs start to interfere. For example, reading through the Dhammapada, one will find that many of the teachings are things found in aspects of other religions, such as discipline, wisdom, and so on. However, if one is to believe in the supernatural beings Mara or Indra, as the Dhammapada does, then it would go against some religious doctrines. One of the foundations of Abrahamic faiths, for example, is that its followers should only believe in one god, so it is inherently incompatible with Buddhism, implying that Buddhism is a religion since a person cannot perfectly hold it with other religions.

For as many religious aspects are in the Dhammapada, Buddhism has numerous non-religious aspects. Mainly, it is the teachings on how to live life, with messages about what one should do, what one should not do, who one should associate with, and so on. However, Buddhism is intricately linked to Hinduism, which is much more religiously based, and passes those religious aspects onto Buddhism. In other words, it would be possible for one to follow Buddhism without being religious—that is to say, without worshipping gods or otherwise performing any “religious” rituals—but, as presented in the Dhammapada, Buddhism is a religion. Based on the Dhammapada, a Buddhist does not necessarily need to partake in religious actions, but if a Buddhist truly believes the text, then they are believing in a religion with its own unique gods and afterlife.


Radhakrishnan, S. The Dhammapada. London, NY: Oxford UP, 1950. Print.


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