This question, although discussed many times, tends to cause more misunderstandings about the Buddha Dharma than it helps to clarify anything. Part of the reason for such confusion is that the very term “religion” has such a clear and definite meaning in Western civilization. When we try to understand Buddhism through a primarily Western, i.e. Judeo-Christian lens, we loose many essential aspects of Dharma.. Yoshifumi Ueda, in his publication, Mahayana Buddhism, an Approach to its Essence, writes,
When Buddhism is approached in that way, the secondary and peripheral aspects are emphasized at the expense of what is primary and fundamental. The proper understanding of the Buddha Dharma is thus hindered. (p. 2)
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A major difference is the concept of Buddha which is radically different from the concept of God.
In the West, religion is considered to be based on the relationship between man and God. Man is finite, helpless and weak, whereas God is a supernatural being, omniscient and omnipotent. Because man’s life is fulfilled through the grace of God, this dependence is crucial. It rules out any possibility of man attaining the status of God. In contrast, Buddhism teaches that it is a human person who becomes a Buddha. One of the consequences of this position is that there are countless Buddhas in the cosmos. (p. 2)
This particular aspect of difference between Western Judeo-Christian religions and Buddhism is extremely important to understanding the next issue: Faith.
In Western religions faith usually describes a relationship between a “relative being and an absolute being,” according to Ueda. As such the two cannot ever be considered anything other than polar opposites. Remember, man cannot become God, in Western religions.
In Buddhism, man and Buddha are not two separate things. They are two extremes of One Spiritual Reality: the unenlightened and the enlightened. Man is not so much dependent on the Buddha but more accurately in the “process” of becoming Buddha. This Interdependent existence of both man and Buddha is behind much of the paradoxical descriptions that seem to infer that we are embraced within the Supreme Enlightenment of the Buddha, yet burdened by our own karmic ignorance. Another way of describing this situation is from the two truth perspectives of Mahayana Buddhism. In other words, from the viewpoint of sentient beings we are very far away from the perfect enlightenment of the Buddha, yet, from the viewpoint of the Buddha, which is all encompassing, we are never separated or excluded.
The process of becoming Buddha is filled with discovery. As ignorant sentient beings, our discoveries are all the more full of wonder. And for that reality, we express our gratitude in Namo Amida Butsu.