Buddhism has often been called or misunderstood asa religion, a philosophy, and, in recent years, a psychology.
‘Religion’ refers to belief in, or recognition of, a higher, unseen power that controls the course of the universe. Moreover, religion has an emotional and moral component and has to do with rituals and worship. Because Buddhism does not recognize the existence of such a power and does not universally emphasize rituals and worship, it is difficult to categorize Buddhism in general –and particularly the Abhidharma (one of the collection in the Buddhist cannon) –as a religion.
In its original sense, ‘philosophy’ means the ‘love of wisdom and knowledge.’ More generally, it means investigation of the nature of the laws or causes of all being. This definition might apply to Buddhism except that itremains somewhat vague, due to the various meanings of the words ‘nature’ and ‘being.’ This has led to two approaches in philosophical thinking, called metaphysics and phenomenology. Metaphysics is the study of absolute or first principles. It is also sometimes called the science of ontology, which means the study of essences or, in simple terms, the study of things in themselves. Phenomenology, in contrast, is the description of things as they are experienced by the individual; it is the science of epistemology, the study of things as they are known, as they appear to us. Insofar as Buddhism is philosophical, it is concerned primarily with phenomenology.
‘Psychology’ is the study of the mind and mental states. Like philosophy, it has two aspects–pure psychology, which is the general study of mental phenomena, and psychotherapy, or applied psychology, which is the application of the study of mental phenomena to the problem of disease and cure, disturbance and adjustment. We might explain the difference between pure and applied psychology by means of an analogy. Imagine that a man climbs to the top of a hill and surveys the countryside without any particular purpose in mind. His survey will take in every detail–the hills, the woods, the rivers and streams –without discrimination. But if he has a purpose in mind–for instance, if he intends to reach another hilltop in the distance –then his survey will focus on the particular features that will help or hinder him in his progress toward that goal. When we speak of applied psychology or psychotherapy, we mean a study of the mind and mental states that focuses on those phenomena that will help or hinder one’s progress toward mental well-being.
Having looked briefly at the definitions of religion, philosophy, and psychology, we can begin to see that the phenomenological aspect of philosophy and the therapeutic aspect of psychology relate best to an understanding of the Buddha’s teaching.