Criticism of Buddhism

Criticism of Buddhism has taken numerous different forms, including that its practitioners act in ways contrary to Buddhist principles or that those principles systemically marginalize women. There are many sources of criticism both ancient and modern, stemming from other religions, the non-religious, and other Buddhists.

Criticism of Buddhist practices

Women in Buddhism

Main article: Women in Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism has been criticized because it treats women, particularly women monks, as inferior to men.[1] 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.[2]

Alexander Berzin referred to the Dalai Lama's statement at the 2007 Hamburg congress:[3]

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".[4] 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.[5] 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".[6]


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.[7] 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.[8]

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."[9]

Accusations of violence

Main article: Buddhism and violence

Violence in Buddhism refers to acts of violence and aggression committed by Buddhists with religious, political, and socio-cultural motivations. Buddhism is generally seen as among the religious traditions least associated with violence,[10] but in the history of Buddhism there have been acts of violence directed, fomented or inspired by Buddhists.[11]

Criticism of Buddhist doctrine

Accusations of nihilism

See also: Nihilism and Sukha

Friedrich Nietzsche, through Schopenhauer whose pessimism was highly influenced by Buddhist philosophy, 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.[12] The term Dukkha has different meanings and is neither pessimistic nor optimistic.[13][14] Dukkha may mean disappointment, desires, cravings, bereavement, unfulfillment, or dissatisfaction.[15]

Lama Surya Das emphasizes the matter-of-fact nature of dukkha:[16]

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.

Confucian criticism

Buddhism is antithetical to much of Confucian philosophy. Due to the focus on social roles as the source of ethical obligation in Confucianism compared to the inherent nonconformity of Buddhism, there was a sustained ethical critique of Buddhism in early Confucianism. While Buddhism entails the belief there is nothing rightfully considered the self, Confucianism emphasized the self a great deal in their doctrines of self-development and our societal roles. As a consequence Buddhism was considered by many to be nihilistic.[17]

Arguments of secular origin

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, criticizes their beliefs as "naive, petitionary, and superstitious," and claims that such beliefs impede the spread of Buddhist principles.[19] Similar critiques by figures such as Stephen Batchelor have been offered and subsequently criticized by others who point out that many of the supernatural elements of Buddhism come directly from the teachings of the Buddha himself, and that separating some doctrines from the others is no longer presenting a coherent version of Buddhism.[20]

See also


    • 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.
  1. Women in Buddhism (English)
  2. Berzin Summary Report Human Rights and the Status of Women in Buddhism
  3. "Women In Buddhism Part IV by Rev. Patti Nakai". Retrieved 25 April 2015.
  4. "The Enlightenment of Women". Retrieved 25 April 2015.
  5. Writing of Nichiren Daishonin, vol1.p 463
  6. Ananda Abeysekara, "The Saffron Army, Violence, Terror(ism): Buddhism, Identity, and Difference in Sri Lanka". Numen 48.1 (2001).
  7. 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.
  8. Anuradha Sharma Pujari; Vishal Arora (1 May 2014). "Nirvanaless: Asian Buddhism's growing fundamentalist streak". The Washington Post. Retrieved 19 June 2015.
  9. Buddhist Warfare by Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer / Oxford University Press 2010, p.3 ISBN 978-0-19-539484-9
  10. Jerryson, Michael (2010). Buddhist Warfare. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 24. ISBN 978-0-19-539483-2.
  11. "Buddhism and Nietzsche". Retrieved 25 April 2015.
  12. Rupert Gethin (1998), Foundations of Buddhism (PDF), Oxford University Press, p. 62
  13. Walpola Rahula (2014), What the Buddha Taught, Oneworld Publications, pp. 525–541, ISBN 9781780740003
  14. "BBC - Religions - Buddhism: The Four Noble Truths". Retrieved 25 April 2015.
  15. Surya Das (2009), Awakening the Buddha Within, Potter/TenSpeed/Harmony, ISBN 9780385530989
  17. 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
  18. Killing the Buddha by Sam Harris

Further reading

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