Humanism is defined as,

Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism).

Would you say that the teachings (the Dhamma) of the Buddha are 'humanistic' in character, and if so - why?

I have heard many people using "humanist" in connection with the teachings. To me the teachings look more introvert with a guidance in social navigation in human society - a form of adaptive camouflage to avoid conflicts - but certainly not for humanistic purpose. To me it is seems more like the Buddha was teaching at a universal level including all mass.

But I might be mistaken, hence the question.

  • 3
    Do you want to define "humanist" in your question or do want an answer to define it?
    – ChrisW
    Mar 25, 2015 at 9:05
  • That I know of, Fo Guang Shan defines themselves as humanistic buddhism.
    – user382
    Mar 25, 2015 at 14:04
  • Edited your question to point to the wikipedia definition of humanism. If you have a different idea of humanism, include it in the question body. Mar 25, 2015 at 17:49
  • These are (european) "age of enlightenment" ideas. Just like with ancient greek thinkers, every once in a while you come across a rather modern sounding idea (e.g. atomism), but this doesn't mean that these people were crypto-2015 modern thinkers. For my style of Buddhism, it is enough that many parts of Buddhism are compatible with my modern 2015 sensibilities. Mar 28, 2015 at 14:27
  • Buddha favored and wished happiness for all living beings, not just humans. He taught monks to develop a loving heart for all living beings, including human beings. His teachings springs beyond humanism. Apr 4, 2023 at 8:58

3 Answers 3


Whether or not Buddhism is Humanist depends on your interpretation of Buddhism.

First, Buddhism is a program for humans to find happiness, and as such seems humanistic. However, it does this by a thoroughgoing program of deconstructionism, which includes the self itself, and this may seem anti-Humanistic.

Second, while Buddhism is individualistic in a sense, there is the Bodhisattva ideal, which aims at the benefit of all sentient beings, and some of the attempts at transcending ego can involve serving others, so some types of Buddhism can be seen as benefiting people collectively. However, there is a movement for Engaged Buddhism, which would seem to imply that this view of Buddhism is not universal (otherwise, why make an effort to stress this)?

Third, although the Four Noble Truths talks of the futility of trying to find happiness through our typical pursuits (and paints what some say is a grim picture of life), it also teaches that we have the power to transcend our situation. In this sense, it seems to value human agency. On the other hand, we're taught that we're not independent selves and (some interpretations?) even try to transcend the sense of doership as the handmaiden of the self, and as such, human agency may be devalued.

Finally, some Buddhist teachings value critical thinking and/or evidence over faith (Kalama Sutra), but there's also a critique of rationality (see Madhyamaka deconstructionism, especially Nagarjuna's).

In short, YMMV


My personal 2 cents: no, Buddhism isn't humanist, because it doesn't place human agency or fulfillment at the center of its teaching. It describes a universe governed by an inexorable law of dependent origination, which embraces humans, animals, and gods, and renders them equal and interchangeable.

That said, it holds out the promise of a certain kind of fulfillment that humans are especially well-equipped to reach. So it's compatible (at least at first!) with a humanist outlook. But if you approach Buddhism as a humanist, I believe that it will eventually force you to shed either some of your humanism (in a philosophical sense), or some of Buddhism.


Gautama Buddha was asked shortly after his enlightenment: "are you human"? He answered: "no, I'm awake." (Paraphrase from a more extended passage in a sutra from the Pali Canon.) So I consider Buddhas as trans-human, beyond being labeled as any kind of sentient being. That said, the great physician Buddha sure has given us humans some wonderful medicine, exactly tailored to our human condition!

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