concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2009


'Buddhism' is a term that is used in different senses at different points on the website. This is because my use of it has changed since early 2008. At this point, together with resigning my personal commitment to traditional Buddhism, I made the decision to stop using the term 'Buddhist' to describe the Middle Way philosophy. I did this because to do so seemed to create more potential misunderstandings and potential barriers (amongst both Buddhists and non-Buddhists) than it removed. I also increasingly recognised around this time, the extent to which the Middle Way has been obscured by being embraced within the huge ambiguities of the word 'Buddhism'.

There is an understandable tendency amongst Western Buddhists to make 'Buddhism' mean what they wish it to mean: that is, a set of beliefs and practices that tend towards the reduction of delusion. Because Buddhism is named after the Buddha, and the Buddha offered key insights into certain types of delusion and ways we can overcome them, there is a close association, for Buddhists, between spiritual progress and the tradition founded by the Buddha. This association creates an expectation that the Buddhist tradition will generally support spiritual progress, and inhibits thorough critical examination of the Buddha's legacy. Even if only a small proportion of the Buddhist tradition was not helpful to spiritual progress, the use of 'Buddhism' to cover both the Buddhist tradition and the Middle Way would unhelpfully obscure this. Actually, however, I think it is quite a large proportion (see The Trouble with Buddhism), and this makes the use of the word a major issue.

For non-Buddhists, 'Buddhism' often means orange-robed monks, sticks of incense burning in golden temples, karma and rebirth, and the belief that the world is an illusion. These stereotypes are often encouraged by the teaching of Buddhism in schools and colleges, where the Middle Way may be mentioned but gets very little emphasis in the explanation of Buddhist teaching. Overwhelmingly, then, in the public mind, 'Buddhism' means 'The Buddhist Tradition'. It does not mean a universal and flexible principle that can help us address all conditions, equally at home in Western, Muslim, or any other culture.

In work found on this website that was written before early 2008, the words 'Buddhism' and 'Buddhist' are used to mean 'The Middle Way', although there is also an attempt to separate that sense of 'Buddhism' from 'The Buddhist Tradition'. I recognise that this is probably confusing and unhelpful, but the task of changing the use of this central term throughout these writings (including 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' and 'A New Buddhist Ethics') is immense. In the introductory green pages, 'The Trouble with Buddhism' and the pale orange concept pages, which were all written more recently, this use of the word 'Buddhism' is avoided and Buddhism simply means the Buddhist Tradition.

Links to further discussion

The Middle Way and Buddhism

Buddha (concept page)

Buddhism and Christianity (contains definition of Buddhism in pre-2008 sense)

Why philosophers should be Buddhists (contains definition of Buddhism in pre-2008 sense)

The Trouble with Buddhism


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